How I Got to Tour the Reverent Side of Pattaya
Reverent, sober Pattaya?
I will let you have two minutes to finish the mental snickering.
OK let’s move on.
Better known for the tourist strip prosaically called “Walking Street”, specialising in sex tourism and adjacent amusements, you might be surprised to know it is actually a rather large city that has other city sorts of things. [Did I nail the deadpan tone?]
But somehow when I got around to visiting Pattaya, without even particularly trying to avoid the Walking Street, I managed to only see a sober Pattaya.
How I Discovered Sober Pattaya
It was very simple. I asked my host to choose.
My colleague and I happened to find ourselves there as part of a larger trip to Thailand. Once again my Thai friend W–i played host. It was a rather last minute thing, so neither of us had an opportunity to think about what we actually wanted to see while there. Time for just a quick ‘hooray’ and then get to packing.
Of course both of us foreigners associate Pattaya with dodgy tourism – it’s pretty much the only thing most people know.
However, since neither of us belonged to the target demographic, we were not particularly invested in sampling it. But it felt wrong just to laze about the hotel patio watching graceful orange sunsets over the sea while having juices and cocktails.
So we took the easy way out and put it on our friend. Essentially we said, “Khun* W–, take us to what you want to show us in Pattaya.”
And so he did.
The Laser Cut Buddha of Khao Chi Chan
There’s a tremendous amount of parking at this place, which is actually somewhat baffling when I start to think about it, because there isn’t anything to do here.
The Buddha image at Khao Chi Chan is carved into the entire side of a rocky outcrop with lasers. That is cool. The end.
OK, not really the end.
The Buddha image commands a wide view, and the approach is via semi-paved meandering walks through a quiet garden. It was commissioned to commemorate the 50th year anniversary of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign.
When we were in Thailand at the time, despite it being several months after his death and after the official mourning period was supposed to be over, the public was still visibly in mourning. People still dressed in sober and neutral colours. Black and white rosettes can still be found on pillars in front of homes. Big picture boards and banners in ‘grayscale’ were still up in front of businesses and premises expressing grief over his passing. The images on these boards would either depict his formal posed royal photos, or more intimate images of the king in one of his many deeds for his people that has endeared him to them over the decades.
I think they would have loved him even if he was not king.
There is a temple to the side, where the faithful would stop by to pray. Here and there monks in saffron robes wander. Apparently it is a terrible rudeness if we were to touch them – my friend was assiduous in making sure such a faux pas never accidentally happened.
The coins that are left untouched
He explained that people left these as a sort of almsgiving, or perhaps a version of a wishing well without the well. They are just left there, and basically anyone in need may take them. Unlike the donation box nearby, which is for the maintenance of the complex.
Like when I needed a coin for the bathroom just now? I mused aloud. I had desperately needed to get some from my friend earlier. He laughed and simply repeated, anyone.
But there were many still there, completely untouched. And I marvelled at the situation I found myself in. There I was touring the infamous Pattaya, yet looking upon the traces of brotherhood and reverence, restraint and decency.
The Sanctuary of Truth
When W–i sent us a photo of this place, as one of the places he proposed to take us, I said yes immediately. My friend C–n who was going to be with me had been, but I so begged for us to go that I got my way.
Because it looks like this, and had such an evocative name.
The Sanctuary of Truth is not a temple, but merely a Prasat – a place erected in honour of religion but not a place for worship and prayer. You can tell, as unlike Khao Chi Chan, there aren’t monks wandering about the gardens. Also, it is private property and to view the sanctuary there are (not nominal) admission charges.
The way there passed through tree-lined grounds, in which carved statuettes and sculptures peep out at random spots. They brought to mind some kind of exquisite Thai nymphs petrified in wood.
We accepted a guide, despite my partial misgivings. But we thought maybe it would be nice to have things explained. Interestingly, our guide was Indonesian, who is resident there after marrying a Thai woman. His Thai is fluent. The tour could have been interesting if delivered from this unusual perspective – more interesting perhaps, than the formal tour.
Unfortunately he has the rather typical Asian ‘lecture’ guiding style, finding trouble veering off script when he gets asked questions. It’s not him per se. It’s just the popularity of the declamation style you find in many countries of the region. And I was quite drained that day already, which made me feel it more.
Touring the sanctuary
Anyway, the prasat is meant to be entirely covered in carvings. Every piece of timber is – or will be (it is a work in progress) – carved. They are incredibly fine woodwork – and hard work as well considering that the prasat uses only the expensive hardwoods of mahogany, cedar and teak.
It was a long tour, with the guide thoroughly taking us through every room. Eventually though, he let us explore a bit on our own for a short while and so we were able to take some unhurried photos. You know, just admire the handiwork without facts and figures crammed into us.
And here I thought art was supposed to be contemplated or felt.
Perhaps the pedantic among us might begin to wonder, what is the structure a sanctuary of? It does not – and is not intended to – function as an asylum for people. But it is a sanctuary for Thai woodworking arts expressed through the truths as recognised by its religious culture.
The artwork inspiration draws from Buddhism and Hinduism, the layout design itself in certain parts reflects significant meaning in the worldview of one or both religions.
Aside from displays representing key religious concepts, the main chambers house other things such as astrology and numerology.
I quickly checked my personality description based on the numerology of my birth date. Yep, sounds like me.
If you’ve read my past article on the essentials of sustainable travel, taking that advice you would venture to ask some questions regarding what lies behind the things before you. Which is what I did.
It all began because W–i told me the work began 36 years ago, and it is still ongoing and under maintenance. And when I asked how much longer it was going to take (not to mention which is it – under maintenance, or ongoing?), he smiled a cryptic smile and encouraged me to ask the guide.
So I asked. It took some deft query skills and suffering defensive dark looks but essentially the Sanctuary of Truth is
- meant to be entirely carved, down to every timber (except presumably the floor boards)
- out of very expensive wood of three kinds (teak, mahogany and cedar)
- while being sited next to the sea (which will accelerate the wearing of the protective varnish and rot the wood more quickly)
- causing parts of the prasat to have to be re-done as new sections are still being carved, which also means
- even when (if?) it is finished, it will never really be.
I ventured to ask where all this wood was coming from and continuing to come from – which forest? Perhaps there is a forestry planting program attached to the project.
The guide did not know and seemed cross by the question.
Push against the curtain
We went to visit the working area where the Thai craftsmen were working to continue and preserve their traditional woodworking arts.
Except that they’re not Thai, nor are they men.
Today overwhelmingly the wood carvers are Myanmarese and Cambodian women, even though traditionally wood carving was usually a male art. This might be considered encouraging, an opening of the art for women to participate in. But then I learned why.
The reason why Thai carvers no longer carve the art for the prasat is because they would cost 300 baht per day wages. Whereas the Myanmarese and Cambodians would accept 80. (W–i thinks maybe room and board might be provided, or some equivalent perks, since those wages are dire to even live on, let alone send home).
And the reason why they are female Myanmarese and Cambodians, is because the men would not accept such a poor employment deal.
Some sober confessions
I thought back to the plain lines of the Khao Chi Chan laser cut Buddha, and the unforced reverent atmosphere in the complex. I recalled feeling impressed at the woodwork facades of the Sanctuary of Truth. And then learning the truths veiled behind the intricately carved panels and screens.
To be perfectly honest, it seemed to me that only one of these places was a sanctuary, and sincerely about some kind of truth.
This is a choice that I find often presents itself to us in life. If it comes down to it, what would you choose – simple authentic meaning? Or a beautiful hollowness?
In a very rare moment of controversial Thai candour, my friend quietly said much later in the car, “I think it is to show the wealth. That is why it is purposely never going to be done.”
He and I are often of the same mind at work. It appears, not just there.
“The Proper Pattaya”
“You might as well also see the Walking Street,” said my friend. Driving by the waterfront, he pointed out to us the prostitutes standing in a row by the embankment along the path to the strip.
Now my friend, he’s a pragmatic, diplomatic guy. All I got out of him was that the tourism gives a major boost to the local Pattaya economy and GDP.
It’s not just the direct seedy tourism either. These days, he says, there are even tour groups organised – not for sex tourists but to look at the sex tourists. Is that weird? It felt kind of weird to me. Like, wouldn’t it be weird to organise a tiger petting tour, to look at the people petting the tigers?
“It is what people know Pattaya for,” he added. I suppose that is true. Continuing in the Orwellian theme of calling things the opposite of what they are – it is, after all, the ‘proper’ Pattaya.
So I agreed for him to take me through the strip later in the trip. Even though I wasn’t sure if I would gawk more at the sex tourism, or the voyeur tourism. Would the latter include me, if I’m twice removed from ground zero, as it were?
However in the end, something upsetting came up for me that week which I had to spend a lot of time to deal with. I did try to make good my intention to see the infamous strip. But after dinner at a rooftop restaurant W–i decided – and he was right – that I simply looked too exhausted from everything. So we called it a night.
So that was how I toured Pattaya – and saw the reverent and sober side.
*Khun – respectful Thai form of address