Saturday, October 11, 2014

Wat Pho, The White Temple, the Black House : Short Pilgrimages in Thailand

Thailand beams adventure and for me there is a draw to end my trips in this country if not only so we can fly home on Thai Airways (US should study what real airline service means) but there are three pilgrimages I take that challenge the beauty of the spirits in this world: The gold Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, which is across the street from the villas I stay in, and  the White Temple and the Black House, both in Chiang Rai. All three are unique examples of spirituality with a creative bent. 
Head of Reclining Buddha

Long view of Buddha

Going to Wat Pho is like a “thank you” to my God and all the other helper spirits out there who have gotten me safely thru my adventures.  It’s real name is Wat Phea Chettuphyon Wimon Mang Khlaram Ratchawaramahawihan - anything with that kind of a name is worth a visit. When you see the 160 ft long reclining Buddha, propped up on the right elbow, resting on two Thai box pillows (sort of like the ones  opium smokers used in their long sessions), with seven gold umbrellas for the ceiling, and you walk the length (it’s always crowded, so much so that now they give you a blue bag to carry your shoes in so no one will mis-take your shoes) of the long golden body to greet the feet, everything else fades into a blur. His two feet pressed together are 3 meters high and 4.5 meters long. The bottoms are inlaid with mother of pearl and divided into 108 panels, displaying symbols by which Buddha is identified: flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories. This number 108 has more significance and it is part of my pilgrimage. On the figure’s backside, there are 108 bronze bowls  in stands, so you buy 108 coins in little metal bowls and start with bowl one, hoping to have enough to make it to number 108. If you get diverted and lose count, it can be messy. So I drop one coin into each pot, hearing the clang, hoping that it secures good fortune, as claimed, and it helps the monks maintain the Wat. This Wat has lots of corners, besides the 91 stupas, 4 vibonas and the bot: there are 71 small stupas containing ashes of the royal family and 21 big ones containing ashes of Buddha. (Buddha’s ashes are everywhere Buddha seemed to have stepped.) But more than that, Wat Pho was site of the first public university of
Bottom of Buddha's feet

Dropping 108 coins
Thailand, offering Thai medicine, religion, science, literature all taught through murals and sculptures, and eventually it became THE THAI MASSAGE center. The serious Thai masseuses, like my friend Elizabeth Drapela in Jackson Hole, travel here almost every year for refresher courses with the masters. Here a Thai masseuse will cross the street and give you a massage right as the moon rises. And on the street side walk leading to the entrance, there is every kind of strange medicine and reflexology and hand pressure point gadget and cures than you could imagine. There is just a funky atmosphere at this place  (two of the giant concrete guards wear top hats?) and it is convenient.

Chiang Rai, of course, is a lovely short flight on Thai Airways It’s in the northern part of Thailand where the Golden Triangle still stands: Laos, Mynamar and Thailand come together in the river bed (Mekong), recalling the days when all this land and all business was based on opium. Here also is the magnificent Opium Museum put together by the Princess Mother of the Royal King because she wanted to make sure opium trade and production died, and instead new crops were financed, supported and encouraged so the hill tribes could earn a decent living with education and health services. She did it. It apparently worked. (More on the museum in next blog.)
The White Temple

Hanging Evil Things

On approaching Chiang Ray by car, off to the left, you begin to see weird white things, points, glittery, and then you come upon the famous White Temple or Wat Rong Khun, built by artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, who aimed to build the most beautiful temple in the world and to glorify modern Thai Buddhist arts, of which is a major member. He works with 60 workers to achieve this life-time goal, now in its 17th year of labor of creating something on the standards of Ankor Wat or the Taj Mahal. To me, it is already there, but he projects that to complete his dream  will take 60-90 years after his death, therefore he inspires his co-workers to stick it out. He states that he wants to be the only artist in the world who can create anything with the utmost freedom. Not only is he creating new creatures and temple buildings every day (the framework for large architectural additions are very obvious, but he is constantly having to renovate and repair the existing structures. An earthquake last spring toppled a steeple on one of the temples and it hangs there, today, since he will let nature do what she will. However, visitors cannot go into the major temple, I guess, until some repairs are completed. Ajarn has studied art history, but wants to be totally original - not a Picasso or a Warhol nor a standard Buddhist temple copier. He wants completely originality, and he frequents the scene sort of incognito, walking through a gallery of his canvases and sculptures and asking a viewer if he likes the works. Ironically, he recently has done a few sketches on his travels, mostly to churches in England, but there is a sketch of the Sun Studio, done in September of 2013, which makes me think he was in Memphis. No photos allowed so I couldn’t share it with you.
Hands in Hell

Prayer Tree

Ajarn  has built gold structures as well, looking like flames of fire, these being non-temple, like the gold toilet restrooms have their own exotic building. One wanders around the grounds and finds nooks and crannies that surprise, and all sparkle in the bright sunshine reflecting in mirrors and silver edges on everything. On trees hang gross heads, like satan and Halloween creatures, mouths wide open and streams of grass pouring out like vomit. What is the point? We are to interpret. Evil is probably more interesting an art form than goodness.  The intention, it seems, is at the entrance one sees a sea of 500 hands grasping in the air like the bodies are underwater, a semblance of hell, “the beauty of anguish.” And as one walks the bridges to get to the temple (before the earthquake), he goes through a redemption of a sort to reach heaven/enlightenment.  You could take a thousand photographs and never get it all. 
Prayer for MPD

A Rabbit 

My favorite part is the wishing/prayer trees - where you purchase a thin metal offering (after tossing a coin in the golden well) and write your prayer or dream on it with a sharpie, which is provided. Last time I prayed for the Grizzlies in the playoffs. This time I prayed for our Memphis Police Department. Then hung it on the tree. None of these are ever thrown out, and the roof of a long archway is now packed with these prayers. It’s impressive. 

The second of these environmental art experiences is the Baan Dam (The Black House), further down the road in Chiang Mai. This is not a temple, but the artist, who died a month ago, attempted to re-invent aspects of Buddhist architecture. Everything looks like temples except for four white domes with tiny metal doors to enter into an almost empty space, which implies a silence for meditation, but then there are wooden statues of well-endowed males, penises being symbolic in Thailand and wooden ones sold for fertility in souvenir shops and antique stores. Really. Another sort of out of character structure is a giant metal whale with oval windows for its eyes where nationally known artist Thawan Duchanee, who was in his 80ties and sported a long white beard over a black mahout sort of outfit,  spent the night when he visited the site. 
The Main Black House

Horn Throne

But truly, this place is stunning, very masculine, with horns and alligator hides, and enormous gongs and drums, and guns and bones and skulls of long horned water buffalo and deer, yak tail dusters, animal-skin rugs, giant sea shells, arrows, knives, daggers, spears, swords, shot guns, and two strange guns with ninja knives for handles that are as big as a couch. The colors are black and brown with some beige in the ornate decor around temple doors. There are teak pillars, teak points on roofs, deep carved reliefs on huge timber doors, and around every corner something to shock you out of your comfort - like a small black building with its doors thrown off to show an all white toilet - shades of Duchamp. He was also obsessed with giant stones, like pillars of Stone-henge type and stone labyrinths are situated around the territory and all buildings being black, sometimes there is nothing but a small building with temple roof and steps up to a platform too high for me. Duchanee’s paintings are on exhibit (and for sale) in the reception area.
Typical Interior

3 Domes of Contemplation
They are enormous canvases in red black and white of contorted animals like elephants. it’s too garish and confrontational for me, but he is considered a respected artist in this country. It is worth the trip to see these two unique forms of art, be they religious or egotistical. 


Kathy said...

The pictures are simply incredible! What an amazing trip!!!

Anonymous said...

We agree with Kathy. Your photos are incredible and you have soooo many that could and should be framed. You just need more wall space.
As we told you last year, we spent four days in Bangkok in 1985 and regret that our stay was so short.
We did see the Reclining Buddha and were told it was the largest Buddha in the world. There are so many historical, beautiful sights to see that it is impossible to do it all in a few days. Your's is the only way--return year after year until you've seen everything.
The White Temple, the Black House, the Evil Tree, the Prayer Tree, the Hands of the Dead and the different architectural styles are absolutely amazing.
We've asked a couple of times how you would rate this adventure with the many others you've had?
What you have seen and done is absolutely unbelievable. Most importantly, God has kept you safe. He must have been in the cage when you were massaging "Big Daddy"s" stomach.
When are you coming home? We miss you and love you very, very much,
Geraldean and Judge

Anonymous said...

Oops! Need to make a correction.
Instead of Hands of the Dead it should be Hands In Hell.
That would be a great place to Trick or Treat on Halloween!