Yesterday I received an honor which I am told is a first for a farang (the Thai word for foreigner) and even rare for a Thai citizen. But first, a little background is in order.
Wat Phra That Phanom (all three “h” are silent) is a sacred Buddhist temple complex located about an hour from Anna’s family farm in rural Isan. According to the on site museum, the first Wat was built there 2,500 years ago, a long-gone wooden structure. It has been rebuilt, restored and expanded many times since. The museum contains many relics including the enormous bronze stupa top from a prior structure.
According to legend, at the request of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, his breast bone was buried there. Thousands of pilgrims both Thai, Laotian and international travel every year to Wat Phra That Phenom one kilometer from the banks of the mighty Mekong River with modern day Laos visible on the other side.
I visited Wat PhraThat Phanom twice previously in April 2014 and March 2015. They were special days that as a foreigner gave me deeper insight into the culture and customs of my future wife’s family. My previous experiences with Buddhism and meditation were primarily of the Vajrayana or Tibetan variety. Thailand’s Buddhism is of the Theravada path and, at the risk of vast oversimplification, is much more centered around monks and the teachings of monastic elders.
During my previous two visits I had ample opportunity to admire the beautiful symmetry and architecture of this complex. The centerpiece of the temple is a 57 meter tall That, or Lao style Chedi, decorated with 110 kilograms of gold, 64 kg of which constitute the summit’s umbrella. The Chedi is also known as a popular ‘wish-fulfilling place.’
I meditated, spoke with a couple of monks and observed the diversity of travelers drawn to this place. I had also heard stories of the large number of ancient golden Buddha images within the central chedi. Last year Anna had told me that women were not allowed inside and it was only on rare occasion that any men were admitted. At the time I innocently asked if I might ever be allowed inside and was very sweetly told to forget about it.
Last week Anna and her sister, without solicitation from me, traveled by scooter to Tat Phenom. Somehow, they made a tentative (subject to later approval) appointment for myself, her father (who shares my birthday and has never set foot inside the Chedi although he has been there many times over the decades) and her brother-in law to view this inner sanctum on the following Saturday.
I was told that a white shirt (and I assumed long pants) would be appropriate and respectable attire. Since I do not travel with a white shirt, T or otherwise, I was told that yellow would suffice. On Saturday morning at 9:00 am Anna called the Wat and was informed that our request had been granted for 11:00 am that morning. We hurriedly arranged two cars and the whole family was off for the town of That Phenom. During the hour or so ride, Anna informed me that to the best of her knowledge, I was the only farang in modern times to be granted admittance.
Arriving at the temple complex, I observed that it was very busy as always. There is a large market place and parking areas on the outer grounds; and there are many buildings, teaching rooms and monastic residences within the outer walls.
We checked in and after a few minutes, a uniformed security guard escorted us into the inner central courtyard where dozens of devotees were circling the stupa, lighting incense, placing flowers and other offerings, and otherwise engaged in prayer and contemplation. Then we went through another gate where we were handed off to a second guard. Both security guards had a smiling pleasant disposition, but their sidearms made it clear that bad behavior would not be tolerated. And then we were allowed inside.
And then we were allowed inside.
Nothing could have adequately prepared me for the exquisite beauty and the highly charged energetic field of devotion in which I found myself. My breathing immediately slowed and deepened. I was aware that my heart-rate had significantly increased and I took a moment to consciously slow it down. My eyes were wide and felt slightly bulging. For a brief moment the sight of Sean Connery inside Fort Knox in the film Goldfinger flashed through my mind. The walls are white with exquisite patterns of gold leaf (we’re not talking gold paint here). Various jewels and cut colored crystal glass are artfully inset. A large four-sided “island” towering upward dominates the interior; and there is but a narrow path to circumnavigate. We slowly made the circuit and I was dizzy taking it all in. Then we arrived at a set of gold plated rungs set into the wall and we climbed hand over hand about 20 meters straight up the wall. We stepped onto the top of the center structure and it was covered with images of the Buddha. Most were made of gold. Some were bronze. A couple appeared to be jade. Many were adorned with precious and semi-precious jewels. Most appeared to be very old. My head was reeling and I focused on my breathing to ease the dizziness I was experiencing. We looked at each other and smiled in disbelief and appreciation.
Eventually I found my legs and descended the ladder. Pong and Ot had already existed the structure. I exchanged a knowing look with the security guard by the exit. Part of me did not want to leave, but out into the sunshine and the busy courtyard I went, head and heart reeling.
We signed our names on a large swath of yellow silk that will end up entombed somewhere inside Wat Phra That Phanom for posterity. We reunited with the rest of the family. We spoke few words but the experience was deeply shared nonetheless.