The Stories of Thailand’s Temples
There’s more to Thailand’s temples than meets the eye. Sandra Phinney escapes evil and finds peace among the monks and Buddhas of Thailand’s most spectacular wats.
Thailand has over 30,000 temples—and I’m not talking small nondescript edifices; rather, most of these are colourful, magnificent, gobsmacking gorgeous temples—also called wats.
Wats are usually sacred compounds made up of living quarters for monks, a temple, a building housing a large likeness of Buddha and a place to teach. The term “wat” can also refer to ancient temple ruins. Some wats span small enclosures while others cover acres and acres. Many of these sites are so complex and wondrous they defy description.
My first introduction to a wat was in the province of Chiang Rai. We stayed at the charming Lanjia Lodge close to the village of Kien Karn. The lodge is a sustainable community-based tourism initiative involving Hmong and Lahu hill tribes. In the course of chatting with Tai, the manager of the lodge, one of the many things I learned was the custom of giving alms to the monks.
Traditionally, monks leave the wat at dawn carrying a large bowl, and head for the streets where people give them food (packets of cooked rice, curries or fried fish, along with milk, bottled water and sweets). The monks then return to the temple and share the food. Monks only eat twice a day, and their last meal is at noon.
However, on the morning of a full moon, monks stay at the temple and people start coming at 5 a.m. to offer alms, hear some teachings, chant and receive blessings. As my visit coincided with the full moon the following day, I asked Tai if he would take me to the closest temple; he graciously agreed.
The next morning, we headed toward the village, stopping to pick up items for almsgiving, then proceeded to the temple where (after removing my shoes) I knelt down and inched my way to the front to leave my offering. Then I sat on the floor with my feet tucked behind me (it’s rude to have your toes pointing forward.)
Every so often, while a monk chanted, villagers poured water from an urn into their small bowls—an act acknowledging the ancestors. After a few minutes, an older gentleman sitting to my right reached over and silently guided my hand so I could pour water from the pitcher he had brought. I was touched beyond measure.
Each temple has its own story. One that especially stands out is Wat Rong Khun, usually referred to as the White Temple, close to Chiang Rai. It has a fairy tale quality about it that transports you to another world—that of its creator, Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, a well-known artist in Thailand. Unlike most wats, this temple is not old. In fact, it’s ultra modern. Although construction only started in 1998, and the site looks as if it’s complete, the artist has ongoing plans for another 50 years.
Kositpipat’s vision is to build the most beautiful temple in the world—on par with the Taj Mahal or Ankor Wat. And the artist is not afraid to invite people to think.
Depicted on some murals in the main temple are scenes including George Bush and Bin Laden riding a rocket-like weapon in space, along with images of Superman and other iconic characters. Although there’s a whimsical (almost humorous) quality to them, taken in context, these paintings are sobering. This first wall as you enter the temple clearly depicts evil, and Kositpipat’s hope is that as people walk through the building, they will rid themselves from evil deeds, to meet the Lord Buddha. Walking through, you can see the murals change from evil to angelic. It’s powerful.
Bonus: It’s possible to watch artisans at work, in separate side buildings, who are constantly creating (or repairing) pieces that are part of the wat. And there’s also a lovely art gallery of Kositpipat’s works on site.