Over the decades I have visited Thailand multiple times. For travelers to southeast Asia, Thailand is an excellent travel hub for discovering the region. It spans a huge range of geography, offering island roaming opportunities in the south along its coast and peninsula, and fantastic mountains to explore in the north.
During my first trip, I had the opportunity to visit the hill-tribes in the mountains as part of a guided hike. Getting the chance to see how people lived in Thailand outside of the metropolitan areas was fascinating. I admire the government’s efforts to support the perpetuation of these tribes’ unique culture. And I also admire the tribes’ focus on producing crafts of their unique heritage that they trade with the townspeople or sell to visitors to sustain their own economies. (Its refreshing to see a centuries-old small economy persist in loose connection with a modern broad-scale economy without being subsumed or devalued in the interaction.)
Elephants are a significant part of Thai culture. In addition to working alongside the people in the hill tribes, they are revered in Buddhist tradition. The use of elephants in logging is prohibited now. Many of the domesticated elephants in northern Thailand are now employed in the tourist industry. As part of my visit I took a mountain trek on the back of this elegant elephant.
On my second visit, I sought to explore the archeological sites in Sukkothai and Ayutthaya. These were royal towns early in the period of Buddhism’s spread through the region. When you visit you see thousands of stupas. These are conical temples which represent virtues or artifacts. So many thousands of temple pyramids I wandered through.
Many large sculptures are of Gautama Siddhartha in various stages of life pre-enlightenment, are found around the region. Siddhartha is the historical Indian man who meditated on the cycle of life and achieved enlightenment.
Theravada Buddhism, which is the principle form here, focuses on the individual person’s path of enlightenment. So the sculptures representing Buddha are about the moments leading up to enlightenment, rather than the time post-enlightenment. Everyone is on the path of realizing their own Buddha nature, and Siddhartha’s life is just an example of something everyone must pursue. The hand pointing down shows the idea of tenacity. The idea that Siddhartha would endure any distraction and stay present until achieving the penultimate insight.
Aside from pre-enlightenment, you’re likely to see a lot of reclining Buddha sculptures in Thailand. It’s not just that they were too big to make standing. It is a reference to Gautama’s death. He is portrayed wakeful, smiling while in repose. His feet are ornately inscribed with intricate shell inlay in some temples. Where the statues are outdoor, they are often draped in yellow cloth as if the statue were a person being cared for to the present day by attendants.
The temples of Bangkok have another interesting aspect for the region. Pivotal monks in the lineage of academic study are also depicted in statue. There is an endearing ritual that temple visitors follow. They buy small amounts of paper-thin gold leaf and press it to the statues. It gives the stone statues an adornment that grows over time with the adoration of past teachers.
Everywhere you go in Thailand you’ll be reminded of Garuda. This is a bird-like character that remains in Thailand from the Chola Dynasty when Hinduism was introduced to the entire region of SE Asia. In Hinduism, each deity has an attendant servant spirit. In temples across the south continent Nandi the bull attends Shiva. And in some cases you can’t know a temple is a Shiva temple unless a lingam or Nandi is there. Well, Garuda attends Vishnu. Buddha is the main Deity of Thailand now. But Vishnu remains a prominent presence. But as in many religions, one doesn’t refer to deities directly, so you’ll see reference to Vishnu through the presence of Garuda in many places. The rooftops in Thailand show something that looks like a serpent tail. But the whole story is that this is the reminder of Garuda conquering the serpent. (Somewhat like Saint George for Europeans.) While you’ll typically only see the tail, the Thai awareness is that Garuda is in the picture and has the serpent in control.
Different from the idea of the mighty Buddha you might see elsewhere in Mahayana Buddhist countries, the Buddha of Thailand is humble. Sometimes you see Buddhas facing Buddhas. A reminder that Buddha is not something outside oneself. We can all become that divinity within us without questing outside ourselves. In many of the temples you can see the image of the long-eared (wise) Buddha depicted in gold. But there are many tales of these golden Buddha’s being enclosed in stucco, hidden through the years, sometimes to avoid theft, only to be revealed in their glory to a later era.
The Kings of Thailand have created a palace in Bangkok that demonstrates the various architectures of the region.
If you get the chance, it is fascinating to witness the Muay Thai kick boxing tournaments at Lumpini Park. If you’ve studied martial arts, it is inspiring and tense to watch these bouts. There is a live music band that performs percussive real time interpretation of the fights as if they are crafting a cinematic score to heighten the drama of the fights.
Perhaps my favorite town outside the capital is Chiang Mai in the north. The pace of life here is much slower. And the ominous pervasive presence of temples and ruins of the old city give the wanderer lots of fascinating places to explore by foot.
The curries and noodle dishes of Thailand have long been one of my favorites cuisines in my home country. There are large numbers of Thai Americans in the US west coast, so I’d been fascinated by the food since I was a teenager.
On your ventures around the country, keep an eye out for “spirit houses”. They look like tiny elaborate temples the size of a small mailbox outside many residences. These are a nod to the presence of spirits. If you don’t want them to settle in your home, you have to provide a little house outside of your own where they can feel welcomed.
Flickr album of Thailand: https://www.flickr.com/photos/63009420@N00/albums/72157603258418255
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