The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, September 27, 2013


Sacred space or hyperkitsch?     

The remnants of Thailand’s ancient capital Ayutthaya attract millions of foreigners every year, keen to tread the splendid and much restored UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
Before it was plundered and ripped apart by the Burmese in April 1767 following a two-year war and siege, Ayutthaya was one of the world’s largest cities.
Today tourists are bussed from the new capital Bangkok to wander the crumbling red-brick ruins and sagging stupa, until infected by the NATO syndrome: (Not Another Tourist Object).
 This is the curse that comes from visiting worthy cultural sites in oppressive heat, hounded by touts flogging trinkets, and where sunscreen cream is as essential as sensible shoes.
But far from the main site and elephant rides, rarely noted in tour guides is another wat (temple) so curious, so overwhelmingly fascinating that any visit dispels discomfort and revives enthusiasm. 
Though don’t expect speedy enlightenment unless you’re a Buddhist scholar. The philosophies underpinning the Tha Ka Rong Temple are complex with a local twist and a regional twirl.
You won’t find many foreigners at what translates as the Monastery of the Landing of the Crying Crow – we spotted only one among several hundred Thais thronging the compound.  The crows, ravens from the descriptions, are also absent, though plaster caricatures remain.
The lack of a Thai passport doesn’t mean non-Buddhists are unwelcome; they’re just politely accepted, offered smiles but otherwise left alone.  There are no entrance fees and hustlers are absent, though there are plenty of opportunities to lighten over-weight wallets. All are off-the-wall.

The tone is set at the entrance of what used to be two riverside monasteries that merged last century after spending the previous four hundred years apart. The shock starts with a statue of a white Brahman cow, flanked by a row of grinning saffron-clad plastic babes hugging black begging bowls, leading to a gold-colored Buddha.
The locals say that so many glasses have been left behind by careless novice monks that the Abbott put them on the mannequins. This makes quite a spectacle.
Reckon these dummies are just too kitsch for comfort? Then maybe you’ll be more inspired or frightened enough to open your purse at the entrance where you’ll encounter a skeleton offering a wai as you drop money in his box.
This experience is a mite disconcerting as the traditional Thai greeting is normally performed with grace.  It’s true old bony used the latest toothpaste, and dark glasses help to soften the stare, but the mechanics are clunky and his (her?) movements jerky.
Consequently logical Westerners expect the skull to snap off from the vertebrae with each shuddering bow, and the finger bones to flick apart as the palms snap together. That they don’t is a tribute to Thai technology or divine control.
There are several jolly skeletal ones around the complex; some have a voice that presumably says sawasdee. The larynx is obviously absent so the greeting gets garbled.  Or maybe that’s how skulls talk; at least they don’t get tongue tied.

Scary?  Not to the locals who encourage their children to feed the fleshless one with baht and watch him rattle: ‘This is what happens to naughty kids who don’t finish their curried fish cake.’
More macabre are the wax figures of monks past and present, so superbly made that even now I wonder whether they aren’t the real person preserved by secret embalming herbs.
If so the potion should be used at Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital Museum where the mummified bodies of executed murderers stand in baking trays to collect the dripping body fluids, a gruesome warning to visitors not to become serial killers.  The Thais do gruesome tourism well.
There’s no slime or antiseptic odor around Tha Ka Rong which is famous for the cleanliness of its toilets having won an award in 2006. So the exhibits must be just that, though the fans waft the monks’ hair, one certainly shivered and I’m sure the venerable fellow holding a cigar dropped ash.
The unshod crowds wander through a series of carpeted rooms well furnished, though not always wisely.  Apart from the figures the walls are covered with photos of famous visitors, flashing lights and even a section devoted to ASEAN. 
Here nationalistic Indonesians can drop their rupiah in a bowl under the red-and-white. From the Philippines?  No worries this temple’s egalitarian, with a slot for everyone.
If there is an air of reverence it’s well disguised.  The casually-dressed devout pause to pray at the shrines they favor then move on to throw coins in revolving buckets for luck or peer into glass spheres to glimpse the future.  If all this seems too placid there are rows of bells to be rung as prayers.
Even the ubosot, the most holy room is open to visitors of any or no faith who can sit on the high-backed chairs.  The walls and floor are made of ancient teak planks that escaped the Burmese assault, even though the temple was occupied by the army during the 18 th century fighting.
When worldly needs overtake spiritual concerns there’s a long jetty where women cook meals to order on narrow boats, balancing steaming cauldrons as the decks bob and sway.  In the water a flotilla of plump catfish thrash the water competing for multi-colored food pellets.
Their cousins may be sizzling on the floating barbecues at the other side of the boardwalk, but this is a piscine paradise.  These fish are protected in the temple complex that includes a section of the Chao Phraya River.
On weekends thousands make the 90 minute drive from Bangkok for a day out at Tha Ka Rong, many to hear a popular preacher.  Despite the huge numbers the temple and its surrounds are well maintained.
Most religions are serious affairs of the soul, where grim-faced clerics wag fingers. Tha Ka Rong shows that faith can be fun.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 September 2013)


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