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Feed the Buddha

Early morning view of Chiang Mai on the road to the monastery at the base of Doi Suthep mountain. Photo by David Lansing.

Last night after dinner Ketsara told me we would be leaving the hotel this morning around 5am. This did not make me happy. We have been moving around so much that I feel like it’s been a month since I’ve gotten a decent night’s sleep.

“Kuhn Ketsara! Why?” I said.

“We go to Doi Suthep to feed the monks.”

“Can’t we go later?”

She shook her head. “Must be early in the morning.”

I whined a bit more and then she squinted at me, as she does when she’s getting inpatient, and said, “Remember I tell you it is hard for you to gain enlightenment?”

“I remember.”

“This help. This give you merit.”

“Fine,” I said.

So at 5am, having had no breakfast myself, I went to feed Buddha.

We drove to the base of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park, a thickly-forested mountain with an elevation of 5,250-feet about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. It was cold and the sky, which looked like it might rain at any moment, was mud gray. When we got to where the monastery was there were a bunch of stands selling food to give to the monks and flowers—mostly marigolds and lotus flowers—for the shrines and temple. The monks hadn’t appeared yet.

Ketsara encouraged me to buy some food. You could buy individual items like bags of rice or a whole small fried fish or trays that contained an assortment of things: buns, candied fruit, pickled vegetables, fruit juice. The monks aren’t supposed to care what they get (and when they beg for food in more rural areas, it’s usually all mixed up in their alms pot so you might put a pudding on top of a curry and pickled eggplant with a sweet roll since, as Buddha said, it’s only meant for sustenance, not pleasure, and your stomach mixes it all up anyway).

Ketsara could see I was having a hard time with the whole thing. “First goal of enlightenment and most important is to be generous,” she said.

“I know,” I said, “but it just doesn’t feel right. I feel like a fraud.”

Ketsara sighed. “This why it so difficult for you to reach enlightenment.”

She was right, of course. I needed to let go and just do it. Buy some fish-in-a-bag and some sticky buns and feed the Buddha. Gain my merits. Find enlightenment. But I just wasn’t feeling it.

Stalls offer flowers for sale for the shrines and temple. Photo by David Lansing.

Food for the Buddha. Photo by David Lansing.

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A very Thai massage

I’ve moved on to Chiang Mai and am staying at the Rarinjinda Wellness Spa Resort where I’ve arranged to have a two-hour Thai massage this afternoon. This will be my third massage in Thailand. The first one, in Bangkok, was performed by a woman named Apple who, when we began, handed me a pair of disposable thongs and then stood there to make sure I put them on correctly. It was the best massage I’ve ever had in my life.

The second massage came from Moo (which means pig in Thai), a young man of small stature who, nonetheless, pounded me like an NFL linebacker. I was black and blue for two days. It was the worst massage I’ve ever had.

I have no idea what to expect this afternoon. Particularly since I’ve never had a two-hour massage before. What is there to work on for that long? I’m fearful to even imagine.

In a bookstore in Chiang Mai I came across a book titled Very Thai that I’d heard is not only entertaining but very informational. The author, Philip Cornwel-Smith (who is obviously not Thai), writes about pop culture in Thailand. Like “Why so many ladyboys?” and “What made society women’s hair so huge?” He also has an illuminating chapter on Thai massage from which I will just quote.

“Thailand has two massage cultures: clothed and unclothed. Don’t confuse the two. Enter a parlour signed nuad (massage) expecting nuad paen born (literally ‘ancient massage’) and you get, ahem, ‘young’ massage. This might involve ancient techniques, but more likely oil, towels, soap and a happy ending.”

“Though top-end spas uphold stringent etiquette, in less classy parlours the entrepreneurial urge may sometimes cross the professional line. As can happen worldwide, propositions get whispered in either direction, or hands may slip…Two American women complained to a Thai magazine of being felt up by health club masseurs, unaware that the four-star hotel is a discreet haunt of posh Thais seeking a tickle. Even some blind masseurs angling for a bigger tip have been known to press the wrong point accidentally-on-purpose. Though if rebuffed, their credible excuse smothers any offence.”

Having read this, I called down to the spa before my appointment and asked if, during my treatment, I’d be clothed or unclothed.

“No clothes,” said the cheerful girl on the other end. “But not worry. Masseuse is blind.”

Perhaps I’ll just profer the tip at the beginning of the treatment so we don’t have any “accidentally-on-purpose” misunderstandings.

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The Swiss chalet-style Happy Room at the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Photo by David Lansing.

Standing in front of a magnificent golden structure on the grounds of the White Temple in Chiang Rai, puzzling over its purpose, I saw a Thai tourist guide, a rather comely young woman, nod towards the guilded structure and ask the middle-aged American businessman she was guiding, in a whisper, if he would like to go in the “Happy Room.”

Oh, my.

I’d heard of “happy endings” at Thai massage parlors (although, alas, I’d yet to experience one). Did the White Temple have a particular house of assignation, a place where for a few extra Bhat one gained not only merits towards Enlightment but also a quick and erotic personal Nirvana?

I told Ketsara what I’d overheard (the American had, indeed, decided to take advantage of the Happy Room and was in there with the guide right now doing only Buddha-knows-what!), raising my eyebrows in disapproval.

Ketsara giggled. “You know what is Happy Room?” she said.

I told her I could only imagine.

“Happy Room in Thailand is bathroom. That what we say—‘You want to use happy room?’”

My erotically-charged imaginings dampened, I asked Ketsara why the temple would choose to make their public restrooms so grandiose, pointing out that, to my mind, the structure looked like a gaudy Thai chalet built on the slopes of St. Moritz by a Thai drug lord.

“He say,”—he being the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat—“he say toilets are gold to remind us that beauty in mind of one looking but can be seen in all objects, even toilet.”

Whatever. Personally, I like my interpretation of a Happy Room better.

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Is Chalermchai Kositpipat Thailand’s greatest artist? He thinks so.

A little bit more about the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and the Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed it: the guy is crazy.

This year he did an interview with a Thai publication called BK in which, while calling him “Arguably Thailand’s greatest artist of our time,” he proclaims on the one hand that he has stripped away his entire ego and is left with only mercy, followed by the revelation that “I’m fucking perfect. I’m good at art, management, PR and presentations. There is no defect in me.”

Oh, and he’s very humble.

Other revelations in this interview: “I always hit my targets faster than I plan to. I aimed to win the grand prize when I was in my fifth year of study—I got it in my fourth year. I planned to own my first house within five years—I got it in three. I planned to own a Mercedes in 10 years—I had it in seven. I planned to make B10 million in 15 years—I got it in 11.”

Obviously his true Buddha nature shines through.

Kositpipat claims that the purpose of the White Temple is to shine a light on Thai Buddhism and the greatness of Buddha. But let’s face it, the artist, who also created and produces a whacky Thai reality show called “Ton Silapa,” in which young artists compete in a sort of visual “American Idol” format to become Thailand’s “next great artist,”is just a huckster. But you know what? The Thai people may know Kositpipat is a huckster but they like him (and his White Temple) anyway. And that’s just fine.

What would Buddha think of the White Temple and its creator? Probably not much. Photo by David Lansing.

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The amusement park-like White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Photos by David Lansing.

Yesterday we’re at the Black House (Baan Dam) in Chiang Rai. Today we’re at the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), which is just as bizarre. No, it’s more bizarre.

Here’s the story: In the late 90s, a controversial Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, went to the head monk of a down-on-its-heels temple in his hometown of Chiang Rai and said, “Let me redo the temple. I’ll pay for everything. The only thing is, some people won’t like it. But it will become famous, I promise you, and thousands of people will come here every year.”

So the old monk said, Why not?

True to his word, Kositpipat has turned the White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun, in to one of the most visited temples in Northern Thailand and, in so doing, is now known as The Gaudi of Thailand.

Frankly, I don’t see so much of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia in the White Temple as I do a Salvadore Dali or even William Blake. The White Temple is a sculptural allegory. The stark whiteness stands for the purity of Buddhism, the blinding mirrored glass for Buddha’s enlightenment. A bridge over a river of pain separates hell (with thousands of clay hands trying to drag you down) from heaven (the temple itself).

Inside are murals that, in addition to showing traditional Buddhist images, show the great battle between good and evil as being fought by Superman, Batman, Bin Laden, McDonald’s, and even George Bush.

Did I say the temple was bizarre?

You either like this sort of thing or you don’t. Frankly, I didn’t. To me, it reduces the ancient knowledge of Buddhism into a comic book with Star Wars’ heroes fighting beside Buddha to save your soul. I don’t think it’s irreligious—just silly.

Hands from hell reach out to you as you cross the bridge to the White Temple. Photo by David Lansing.


Demons near the entrance depict the sinful addiction of alcohol to reaching the temple. Photo by David Lansing.

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