It’s hard to miss the grasping Giant of the Sea, Pisua Samut, when one arrives by ferry on the island of Koh Samet at the top of the Gulf of Thailand.
She rises from the sea and towers over the pier, reaching out for her lost love, Prince Aphai Mani.
The story is considered one of the greatest pieces of Thai literature. An epic, heroic tale set in formal poetic style, the story by Sunthon Phu was written in the 1800’s and runs to over 30,000 lines. It is the classic tale of a King of Siam who has two sons whom he asks to prepare themselves to run the Kingdom: one dutifully studies martial arts while the other studies music. Enraged, the King banishes the musically-inclined Prince Aphai Mani, whose name means Jewel of Forgiveness. In his travels he arrives on the Thai island of Ko Kaew Phitsadan (now called Koh Samet) and plays his flute. The fearful Giant of the Sea, Pisua Samut, falls in love with him and holds him captive in her undersea world for 7 years.
At some point beautiful mermaids arrive and release Prince Aphai Mani, and he is again able to sit in the sunshine on Koh Samet and play his beautiful flute.
Phisua Samut too, hears the music, but can no longer reach her lost love.
Prince Aphai Mani eventually (it IS quite the epic!) goes on to love the same Princess of Phaluek as Utsaren, a Prince of Lanka, which leads to a bloody war between the two ancient Kingdoms of Phaluek and Lanka.
Phra Aphai Mani tries to avoid bloodshed by the use of music. To end the long war, the holy hermit from the Crystal Isle is invited to preach to the two warring sides and bring about reconciliation. The hermit preaches the end of anger and revenge and recommends the practice of friendship and compassion. When the war is over, Phra Aphai Mani forgives his enemies, sets them free, gives back their possessions and provides them with transports to return to their respective country. Towards the end of the tale, Phra Aphai Mani gives up his throne and worldly wealth. He becomes a hermit who preaches that all humanbeings must die and leave their possessions behind. It is a hint to all to give up greed, anger and attachment to transient things. Non-violence is recommended in order to attain peace. Source
“The worth of music, it includes all things Of untold value, like a priceless gem. Humans, garudas, heavenly beings, Four-legged beasts that roam the jungle wild, Upon hearing the music from my pipe, All lose their rage and wildness. Calm they become, and sleep unknowingly. An art of such great merit music is.”
(Phra Aphai Mani Part I. 1999, 21)
The poet, Sunthorn Phu (1786-1855), worked at various stages of his life as a poet and scribe within the Royal Household. He fell in and out of favour with several Kings of Siam before turning to drink. Arrested in 1821, Sunthorn Phu began writing his epic poem whilst in prison. The story was originally published in installments which helped the poet to earn some money whilst he was out of favour with the Royal Court. It took him more than two decades to complete the epic tale.
And so we arrived safely in Koh Samet on a glorious, hot, sunny afternoon, immediately contemplating non-violence, mermaids, epic literature, the lure and power of magical music, and the pain of lost love. Amazing Thailand.
Koh Samet is a comfortable 30ish minute ferry ride from the mainland at Ban Phe, just south of Rayong.
The ferry ride on the basic but well-maintained government-run ferry cost 120 THB (about USD $4); lifevests were mandatory. 🙂
My half-Thai daughter, Ploi, aged 15, is a great travelling buddy and doubles as my Thai culture and literature adviser. 🙂 Look forward to sharing more about beautiful Koh Samet with you as we relax and unwind during the last week of the Thai school holidays.