Wat Phra Thaen and a cast of thousands

Wat Phra Thaen is a temple surrounded by giant sculptures that tell a wide selection of Buddhist folktales and parables. From the street you can see two giant Buddhas and dozens of human and animal figures, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Wat Phra Thaen
Wat Phra Thaen

Not every sculpture and scene are part of a story. Below I’ll tell you the ones I know, mostly as told to me by my little Tukata.

Note the old man with the young wife in the ox cart in the picture below. They are situated in a fairly prominent spot near the front gates of the temple.

Chu Chuuk and Amitada
Chu Chuuk and Amitada

The old man, Chu Chuuk, seems to have taken advantage of many who were just trying to be good people. His friend owed him money, and had to give him his beautiful and good hearted daughter Amitada. She was so good to him that his peers started to criticize their own wives, so Amitada asked for a slave, so that she wouldn’t be seen to work quite so hard. Chu Chuuk asked the prince, who aspired to be a Buddha. The prince gave Chu Chuuk his own son and daughter. Chu Chuuk took a wrong turn on his way home, and was seen the the king. The king paid Chu Chuuk with money and food for the return of his niece and nephew. Chu Chuuk was so greedy that he ate until he burst. His wealth was offered to Amitada, who declined, and simply went home to her father.

Cobra with eggs
Cobra with eggs

A monkey and an elephant wanted to be good creatures, and to serve the Buddha. The monkey brought the Buddha a gift of wild honey. The elephant, shown here bringing flowers, offered to serve him – it sounds like the elephant offered to become the Buddha’s beast of burden.

Buddha with monkey and elephant
Buddha with monkey and elephant

It isn’t always clear to me what the moral of the story is, and in some cases there may not be one.

New construction of a giant monk-like figure
New construction of a giant monk-like figure

An angel-like being took the form of an old man and went to speak with a king. He explained to the king that he had no wife, and badly needed one. The king aspired to a Buddha-like level of goodness, and offered his own wife to the old man. The queen in the scene below seems to approve of the arrangement. The angel-like creature then revealed itself, and the king got to keep his wife.

The king, the queen, and the old man
The king, the queen, and the old man

The Buddha left his home and life behind to seek enlightenment. When his mother became ill he returned to help her and to be with her when she died.

The Buddha and his dying mother
The Buddha and his dying mother

Below is Wat Phra Thaen’s village of spirit houses.

Spirit houses
Spirit houses

Phra Mae Thorani , the earth mother of southeast Asia, came to the Buddha’s aid when Mara, the Evil One, tried to stop him from reaching enlightenment.

“Mara brought his warriors, wild animals and his daughters, and tried to drive the Bodhisattva from his throne. All the gods were terrified and fled, leaving the Bodhisattva alone to face Mara’s challenge. The Bodhisattva stretched down his right hand and touched the earth, summoning Phra Mae Thorani to be his witness. The earth deity in the form of a beautiful woman rose up from underneath the throne, and affirmed the Bodhisattva’s right to occupy the vajriisana. She twisted her long hair, and torrents of water collected there from the innumerable donative libations of the Buddha over the ages created a flood. The flood washed away Mara and his army, and the Bodhisattva was freed to reach enlightenment.” – A Study of the History and Cult of the Buddhist Earth Deity in Mainland Southeast Asia

Phra Mae Thorani
Phra Mae Thorani

Some monks would isolate themselves in the forest, live in a hollow tree, eat only fruit, and spend their days in meditation.

Monk in a hollow tree
Monk in a hollow tree

The scene below seems to simply show a teacher at work. Several giant birds seem to be enthralled with the lesson.

A teacher at work
A teacher at work

A giant monk-like figure currently under construction is by far the largest effigy at Wat Phra Thaen.

New construction of a giant monk-like figure
New construction of a giant monk-like figure

Below is a whole array of figures and some interesting architecture.

Wat Phra Thaen
Wat Phra Thaen

A closer look at the reclining Buddha.

Reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha

Zoom in for a close look at the figures on the rooftop in the picture below. There are some very cool Phaya Naga, including a couple entwined with some kind of Thai mermen.

Some great rooftop figures
Some great rooftop figures

The golden hour cast a flattering light on the Buddha, monks and temple in the picture below.

Wat Phra Thaen
Wat Phra Thaen

The temple below has a unique style. I haven’t seen one quite like it. The Phaya Naga flanking the stairs are entwined with Thai mermen like on the roof above, something I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Wat Phra Thaen
Wat Phra Thaen

Please enjoy the full gallery of 26 pictures below.

City Pillar Shrine, Udon Thani & Ban Dung

A City Pillar Shrine is built to house a City Pillar or lak mueang, placed in most Thai cities to be the center, heart and soul of the city and her citizens. The Pillar is a continuation of ancient customs in which a City Pillar was erected first and represented the intent to build a city.

Ban Dung City Pillar
Ban Dung City Pillar

The shrine is also believed to house Chao Pho Lak Mueang, the city spirit deity. In the cities of Udon Thani and Ban Dung, and probably in many other Thai cities as well, there are other guardian and protector spirits and deities to honor, and so the City Pillar Shrine is part of a complex of shrines and effigies to those deities.

City Pillar Shrine, Udon Thani

Udon Thani’s  City Pillar Shrine is a sort of park in Udon Thani’s city center with a number of shrines and temples, and a large statue of the Udon Thani Province‘s protecting god.

Udon Thani's City Shrine
Udon Thani’s City Shrine

The City Pillar is visible inside of the shrine in the picture below. People remove their shoes before entering this shrine as the would a temple, and kneel and pray before the Pillar.

Udon Thani's City Shrine
Udon Thani’s City Shrine

Wetsuwan is one of the Four Heavenly Kings; four Buddhist gods, each of whom watches over one cardinal direction of the world.

Wetsuwan is the chief of the four kings and protector of the north. He is the ruler of rain.  He is often associated with the ancient Indian God of wealth, Lord Ganesh. His name means “he who hears everything”.

The Chinese depict Wetsuwon as a human king, but in Thailand he is depicted as a Yaksa, a usually friendly nature spirit, often appearing in southern Asia as a guardian deity. He is seen as the guardian deity of the Udon Thani Province.

I’m sure whether Chao Pho Lak Mueang is a proper name or just a title applied to any city spirit deity, but I was told that the name of Udon Thani’s guardian deity is “Udon Thani”. It is said to reside in the shrine below.

City Pillar Shrine
City Pillar Shrine

The gold statue in the middle of the shrine, in the picture below, may be an effigy of the guardian deity, or may be seen as the deity itself, I’m not sure which.

The park is surrounded by government buildings, including the Udon Thani Provincial Hall and the Office of Buddhism. Smaller villages in the area still have faded pictures of the departed 9th king, who passed away nearly one year ago at the time of my visit, but the center of Udon Thani displays a new picture of the 10th king.

Udon Thani Provincial Hall
Udon Thani Provincial Hall

Apparently there’s always construction going on in the park. There’s still lots of room for new stuff. The structure below reminds me of the one built in Bangkok for the cremation ceremony of Thailand’s 9th king which took place at the end of October.

A new structure in the works
A new structure in the works

The interior of the building below is lots of pillars, and nothing else.

An empty building
An empty building

The Chinese temple is interesting for many reasons, starting with its very different style.

Chinese temple
Chinese temple

The cute Phaya Naga in front of the temple would seem to be an acknowledgement that this Chinese temple is located in northeastern Thailand.

Phaya Naga
Phaya Naga

A small building nearby offers a good look at some little Chinese dragons.

Chinese dragon
Chinese dragon

It’s a great little structure with a lot of detail.

On the grounds of the Chinese temple
On the grounds of the Chinese temple

Dragons and various other creatures decorate the roof of the temple…

Chinese temple
Chinese temple

…and the rest of the temple as well. This temple was fenced off for some reason, so it wasn’t possible to get a closer look.

Chinese temple
Chinese temple

Placed around the temple are the animals of the Chinese zodiac; below are the rabbit and the ox.

Rabbit and ox
Rabbit and ox

City Pillar Shrine, Ban Dung

In Ban Dung I visited Chao Por Si Sut Tho City Pillar Shrine.

Chao Por Si Sut Tho City Pillar Shrine
Chao Por Si Sut Tho City Pillar Shrine

The most prominent feature of this park is a large statue of  Por Si Sut Tho, the Phaya Naga who lives in the Kham Chanot Forest. “Por” is an honorific commonly given to Si Sut Tho that is normally applied to monks, which he is not. “Chao”, which is apparently also used at times, is normally applied to kings, which Por Si Sut Tho also is not.

Por Si Sut Tho
Por Si Sut Tho

My little Tukata tells me that Por Si Sut Tho takes the form shown below, with a human upper body (or even a fully human form), when he emerges onto the land, but takes the more commonly seen serpentine form when he’s in the water.

Por Si Sut Tho
Por Si Sut Tho

There are a number of nice buildings in the park, and there may be interesting stories behind the entities to whom they are dedicated. The shrine below has something to do with Por Si Sut Tho and his wife, Ya Bat Tho Ma.

Unidentified shrine
Unidentified shrine

Below is the shrine of Ban Dung’s City Pillar.

Shrine of Ban Dung's City Pillar
Shrine of Ban Dung’s City Pillar

Below is the City Pillar itself.

Ban Dung City Pillar
Ban Dung City Pillar

Please enjoy the Udon Thani City Pillar Shrine gallery of 18 pictures below, and the Chao Por Si Sut Tho City Pillar Shrine gallery of 8 pictures below that.

Forest master Luang Ta Maha Bua’s Wat Pa Ban Tat

Wat Pa Ban Tat is a Theravada Buddhist monastery in the Udon Thani Province of Thailand.

Wat Pa Ban Tat
Wat Pa Ban Tat

Wat Pa Ban Tat was established by the famous Thai meditation bhikkhu Luang Ta Maha Bua.

Shrine to Luang Ta Maha Bua
Shrine to Luang Ta Maha Bua

Bua is one of the best known Thai Buddhist monks of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He was widely regarded as an Arahant — a living Buddhist saint. He was a disciple of the esteemed forest master Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, and was himself considered a master in the Thai Forest Tradition. Following the death of Ajahn Thate in 1994, he was considered to be the Ajahn Yai, or the head of the Thai Forest Tradition lineage until his death in 2011. – Wikipedia

Shrine to Luang Ta Maha Bua
Shrine to Luang Ta Maha Bua

The first building we visited was a sort of shrine to Luang Ta Maha Bua, shown above and below.

Shrine to Luang Ta Maha Bua
Shrine to Luang Ta Maha Bua

This structure reminds me of the way many Thai houses are build on stilts to provide a shady space beneath for people to work and rest in the heat of the day.

Kitchens are often set up beneath houses. The one below is its own roofed but open space. The monks of Wat Pa Ban Tat live nearby.

Monks' kitchen
Monks’ kitchen

The dwelling structures themselves – called kutis – are single units scattered throughout the dense forest. They stand fairly far apart and are separated from each other by strips of forest dense enough so that the inhabitants can’t see one another. The whole area is tranquil and quiet… A monk will stay alone at his kuti without interactions with others. He spends all his time concentrating on his own practice – exerting himself in the practice of sitting and walking meditation in the area of his own kuti as if he were the only person around. He doesn‘t stop to chat with others, but follows in full detail the methods and forest practices taught by the Lord Buddha. – Wikipedia

Blonde Thai squirrel
Blonde Thai squirrel

Walking from Bua’s shrine to his temple we encountered many of Thailand’s blonde squirrels. We saw these in many wooded areas in the north. We saw no other type of squirrel, although I believe there are many.

We also met this cool old tortoise.

Thai tortoise
Thai tortoise

Printed banners that line the fences of the temple complex tell of the donations that Bua collected from around the world to help the people of Thailand. His temple is very nice, but very simple and modest compared to many.

Wat Pa Ban Tat
Wat Pa Ban Tat

There are no Phaya Naga, Phra Mae Thorani, Garuda, or any other figure besides the Buddha, and pictures of Luang Ta Maha Bua.

Wat Pa Ban Tat
Wat Pa Ban Tat

The temple is a large roof over a cool tile floor, open on the sides.

Wat Pa Ban Tat
Wat Pa Ban Tat

Below is a model of a future addition to the temple complex.

Plans for the future
Plans for the future

Early in my visit to Thailand I was given a pendant with a likeness of Luang Ta Maha Bua. I wore it during most of my time there. Every Thai person I spoke with about him was in complete agreement that Bua was a very good monk.

Luang Ta Maha Bua pendant
Luang Ta Maha Bua pendant

Please enjoy the full gallery of 12 pictures below.

Phu Pha Lek National Park & Wat Tham Phuang

Phu Pha Lek National Park extends over more than 100,000 acres, from Sakon Nakhon province to Udon Thani to Kalasin. It contains the Phu Phan mountain range, with its highest peak, Phu Ang So.

Phu Pha Lek National Park
Phu Pha Lek National Park

The park is covered with deciduous and evergreen forests, along with various types of bamboo and herbs. Wild hogs, barking deer, mouse deer, monkeys, and many species of birds call the park home.

Lookout tower
Lookout tower

We had lunch near the lookout tower above, and took in the view below.

Phu Pha Lek National Park
Phu Pha Lek National Park

Phu Pha Lek confirmed my suspicion that everything in Thailandwaterfalls, mountains, and even national parks – must also be a temple.

Wat Tham Phuang is a series of temples in the park, many of which tell a story from the life of the Buddha. We started at the temple dedicated to the end of his life, but I’ll take you first to the last temple that we saw, and give you the story of the Buddha in chronological order, as told to me by the temples of Wat Tham Phuang, and by my little Tukata.

Phaya Naga at the big temple
Phaya Naga at the big temple

I’ve given names to the temples that make up Wat Tham Phuang, but it isn’t likely that anyone else calls them by these names.

The big temple doesn’t actually tell a story. It has a more standard temple theme.

The big temple
The big temple

It provides space for large congregations.

The big temple
The big temple

The rock of the mountain is incorporated into the building.

The big temple
The big temple

Below is one of the main entrances.

The big temple
The big temple

The resident monks seem to live near the big temple.

Monks of Phu Pha Lek
Monks of Phu Pha Lek

Below is a shrine to a venerable monk.

Shrine to a venerable monk
Shrine to a venerable monk

I would guess that this monk founded one of the original temples here in the park.

Shrine to a venerable monk
Shrine to a venerable monk

Near this shrine we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of a monkey, some kind of macaque I think, in the trees.

A shy monkey
A shy monkey

The small temple below is dedicated to the birth of the Buddha.

Temple to the birth of the Buddha
Temple to the birth of the Buddha

It is said that Siddhartha Gautama, who would become a spiritual teacher, and later come to be known as the Buddha, didn’t cry when he was born. He stood, and took seven steps. Then he raised one hand into the air and proclaimed himself the Buddha. Then he slept, and when he woke he behaved as a normal baby, and proceeded to develop as a regular human being.

The Buddha and his mom
The Buddha and his mom

There’s a rest area with a roof and water for drinking and a great view.

Phu Pha Lek National Park
Phu Pha Lek National Park

Among the trees near the rest area is the small temple shown below. We didn’t go in for a closer look, so I don’t know if the figure inside is the Buddha, or whether this temple has a story to tell.

A small forest temple
A small forest temple

The temple below has a real Aztec look to it. I saw other Thai temples that make me think of the Aztecs, but they’re all ruins.

Temple of the Bodhi Tree
Temple of the Bodhi Tree

This temple is focused on the time that the Buddha spent meditating under the Bodhi Tree in order to reach enlightenment.

The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi Tree
The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi Tree

The Bodhi Tree was a large and very old sacred fig tree located in Bodh Gaya. In religious iconography, the Bodhi Tree is recognizable by its heart-shaped leaves, which you can see in the picture above.

Temple of the Bodhi Tree
Temple of the Bodhi Tree

Each of the four towers has a small temple inside of it.

Temple of the Bodhi Tree
Temple of the Bodhi Tree

Nearby is a small temple with stairs flanked by Phaya Naga.

Small temple
Small temple

A small shrine to Phra Mae Thorani sits above a pool next to the temple above. She is Thailand’s earth mother, and one of the supernatural beings that came to defend and protect the Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi Tree, so that his meditations would not be interrupted.

Phra Mae Thorani
Phra Mae Thorani

Below is another small temple that we didn’t enter. Through the window we can see the Buddha with an elephant kneeling before him. He is often depicted teaching an elephant and a monkey.

Temple with elephant
Temple with elephant

I don’t know the meaning of the scene below either. This, and the elephant and monkey, are things I’ll try to learn more about.

Creatures with dharmachakra (Wheel of the Dharma)
Creatures with dharmachakra (Wheel of the Dharma)

The temple next to the scene above tells of the time that three hundred monks arrived to be taught by the Buddha.

The Buddha teaching the 300 monks
The Buddha teaching the 300 monks

Notice the deer in the scene above.

Monks being taught by the Buddha
Monks being taught by the Buddha
Temple ceiling
Temple ceiling

When all of his work was complete, the Buddha lay down and passed from this life.

Reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha

We didn’t take advantage of the hiking trails or camping, and didn’t see any of the waterfalls, or even much of the forests. That’ll be something to do next time.

Temple of the reclining Buddha
Temple of the reclining Buddha

Please enjoy the full gallery of 36 pictures below.

Fire and brimstone monk deals sternly with monkey bite

After sustaining a monkey bite one must of course seek out a fire and brimstone monk to expel any malign spirits or influences. We left the paved roads for those of red dirt and drove deep into the countryside, passing many rice and sugar cane fields and rubber tree plantations along the way.

Rubber tree forest
Rubber tree forest

I’ve found the rubber tree forests especially interesting, having never seen one before Thailand. Those above have the sap collecting bowls tipped down. When collecting the bowls fill with a white liquid that seems to at least partly solidify before it is collected.

Northeast Thailand countryside
Northeast Thailand countryside

In the middle of all of this uninterrupted agriculture we arrived at a gate, currently under either repair or construction.

Domain of the fire and brimstone monk
Domain of the fire and brimstone monk

One monk lives at this temple. He has one of the most bizarre collections of religious accoutrements I’ve ever seen.

Domain of the fire and brimstone monk
Domain of the fire and brimstone monk

When he appeared he patted my belly and compared it to that of his enormous orange Buddha.

Buddha with centipede
Buddha with centipede

A 19th century Tibetan poet warned his fellow Buddhists that “if you enjoy frightening others, you will be reborn as a centipede.” I don’t really know of any connection with centipedes in Thai Buddhism. I have no idea why this Buddha has a giant centipede on his shoulder.

A cobra is coiled around the Buddha, apparently watching his back. Phaya Naga are sometimes portrayed as more common snakes.

Cobra guarding the Buddha
Cobra guarding the Buddha

This monk also has in his collection a large cobra with 9 heads.

9-headed cobra
9-headed cobra

He also has a Phaya Naga in a form with which I’m more familiar, giving a ride to a red humanoid that I haven’t identified.

Phaya Naga and rider
Phaya Naga and rider

The monkey bite victim and her mother changed into garments resembling baptism robes and sat in chairs at the edge of the temple, still just under the roof. The monk shouted the loudest I’ve heard from a monk and threw water on them. I’m not sure I would describe it as angry, but forceful would be fair. Later I was told that he was not speaking in Thai. It may have been Cambodian.

Outdoor Buddha
Outdoor Buddha

The monkey bite victim has had serious health problems for some time. I’m told that doctors know what it is, and she has been receiving treatment for some time. It seems that her mother has been seeking spiritual remedies to supplement the medicine.

Outdoor reclining Buddha
Outdoor reclining Buddha

Later the fire and brimstone monk produced dolls, similar to Ken and Barbi, and having gotten my attention, proceed to use them to act out the bumping of uglies. Apparently he was offering to bring his spiritual powers to bear on our sex lives. My little Tukata declined his offer.

Domain of the fire and brimstone monk
Domain of the fire and brimstone monk

The open roof behind the orange Buddha may be intended to let rain fall into an odd pool behind him. In this pool sit pink-skinned baby Indras on lotus flowers.

Pink-skinned baby Indras on lotus flowers
Pink-skinned baby Indras on lotus flowers

I’ve seen fish raised in pools like this.

Phaya Naga in outdoor pool
Phaya Naga in outdoor pool

I’ve seen creatures something like those below, but these seem to have the lower bodies of mermaids, so I’m not sure.

Unidentified creatures
Unidentified creatures

I had no idea that Buddhist temples like this existed. I was glad to see it for myself, and also that our visit was brief.

Please enjoy the full gallery of 14 pictures below.