Ko Samet is a small island in a cluster of islands on the eastern seaboard of Thailand. Its beautiful beaches are a big attraction for foreign tourists as well as residents of nearby Bangkok. One of the beaches, Hat Sai Kaeo, is remarkable for more than just its gorgeous sandy shores. It is the home of the famous Ko Samet statues.
Set on a rock atop the sand, the statues consist of two figures – a flute-playing man dressed in a princely costume of a time long gone and a mermaid. While the people of Thailand are well acquainted with the story behind the Ko Samet statues, tourists to the area often wonder about their meaning.
Yet again, we are privileged to see a great and venerable culture paying tribute to mermaids, as so many have done over the centuries.
The Origin of the Statues
The flute-playing man is Prince Aphai Mani, the hero of an eponymously titled epic poem, Phra Aphai Mani, written by one of Thailand’s most beloved and respected poets, Sunthorn Phu. Phu was a royal poet during the early 19th century who wrote many works that remain popular because they speak about Thailand’s history. This particular poem, Phra Aphai Mani, is today considered a national treasure.
Phu set part of the 30,000-line epic on the shores of Ko Samet. To boil the complicated plot down to its bare essentials, it chronicles the wanderings and romantic adventures and misadventures of Prince Aphai Mani and tells how a mermaid saved him from an ogress by guiding him to the Wonder Island – the present-day Ko Samet.
The Mermaid in the Statues
The phantasmagorical plot follows Prince Aphai Mani as he flees from his father, the King of ancient Siam, who is angry about his dedication to magical flute playing at the expense of managing the kingdom. Unfortunately, the Prince flees right into the arms of an ogress disguised as a beautiful maiden, Nang Phisua Samut, who bears him a son, Sinsamut.
Once Aphai discovers Nang is an ogress, he takes his son and runs away, with Nang in hot, murderous pursuit. Aphai and his son are saved by a mermaid who takes them to Ko Kaew Phitsadan (‘Magic Crystal Island’), which is the former name of Ko Samet.
Inevitably, the Prince falls in love with the mermaid on this paradise island and she gives birth to a son named Sutsakhon. But, as the course of true love never runs smooth, one day a ship passing by the island triggers another series of fantastical events in the life of the Prince, sending him on the next leg of his odyssey across a wondrous terrain: Thailand (as we call it today).
The Meaning of the Ko Samet Statues
There are hundreds of islands in Thailand, so Ko Samet is rightly proud to be singled out by Thailand’s poet laureate. The Ko Samet statues of the Prince and the mermaid who saved him pay tribute to Phu’s great poem and add fame and mystique to the island paradise. They immortalize a folklore story that spotlights a universally recognized motif – the mysterious mermaid as a friend and lover who provides comfort, safety and wisdom.
While Bangkok or Phuket might be the first destinations you think of when visiting Thailand, put the Ko Samet statues of Hat Sai Kaeo Beach at the top of your list. They represent truly one of the most beautiful tributes to mermaid history and culture, placed in an absolutely idyllic setting by white sand and glowing turquoise water.
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