Ayutthaya, Thailand

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After a few lovely days wandering Bangkok, it was time to explore the countryside of Thailand. We boarded the bus and drove out of town and into the suburban sprawl of modern civilization. Eventually we were out in the jungle and our first stop at an elephant camp where I fed the baby elephant and some of my fellow travelers took a ride through the jungle. Next on the agenda was some shopping at a floating market. Small narrow boats devoid of most safety precautions and with very sputtery engines sped us up the narrow canals to lunch and treasures for sale. I happily parted with my money for silk scarves for friends and a Buddha for my altar. After that we came to the River Kwai, made famous by the novel Bridge On The River Kwai about the labor camps during WWII. The movie of the same name won an Oscar for best picture in 1958. The river runs peacefully under a modern railroad bridge and past a very tall statue of Quan Yin. Some little girls entertained us with renditions of American tunes on their toy guitars, not quite ready for Nashville but charming none-the-less. That night we stayed in individual huts surrounded by the exotic jungle accessible only by narrow boats.

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The next day Hamilton went off with the group to explore more WWII sites while I enjoyed the pool and jungle and watched the river go by. We left the next morning by boat along the river cliffs, the morning fog made our ride very beautiful and it really felt like a land far from home.

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The next major stop was Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand from 1350-1767. It was eventually raided by the Burmese and the Thai government fled to what is now Bangkok. For hundreds of years the temples fell into the hands of time and nature until it became a World Heritage Site. It is this combination of former glories and decay than make it so beautiful to me.

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That perfect day in Thailand we visited 3 temples. The first one, Wat Cahi Watthanaram, has a beautiful central prang or tower surrounded by 4 smaller towers. All along the walls were Buddhas, not the shinning gold ones of Bangkok, but Buddhas that had been ravished by time and vandals. Two beautiful Buddhas are on tall pedestals were whole and serene. I stood and breathed in the history and elegant architecture of this place that has stood for 400 years.

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After lunch the next stop is probably the most famous of the Ayutthaya temples, Wat Mahathat, where there is the Buddha in a banyan tree. As nature took over the abandoned land, one serene image was entwined in nature and became even more beautiful. Even in neglect the peacefulness shines. I wandered around the site listening to chants on my ipod and admiring each Buddha in its own experience of decay. Some of the Buddhas were just feet or maybe even legs and a hand and occasionally a whole Buddha. But no matter what the current condition, each is honored.

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The third temple on our visit was Wat Si Sanphet, considered the most important of the temples. Three restored stupas stand in the center and are the models for the later temples built in Bangkok. I walked around and admired each stupa individually and then as a group. The deep, blue sky was the perfect backdrop to these markers of sacred space. I was hot by the time we finished and I was happy to climb back on the cool bus to the hotel for the night. But each temple, and there were many more we missed, was a special experience, each with a distinct style and purpose but all the temples working in harmony to honor the enlightened path of Buddha.

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Golden Buddhas

Grand Palace

On our trip to Bangkok, Hamilton was in search of his past and I was in search of the Buddha. I live in a part of the country that is dominated by fundamentalist Christianity and there is little of Buddhism. The idea of being in a country where the Buddha is everywhere and in all things was so very thrilling to my heart. I was going to a land that honored the path of enlightenment, something most Americans haven’t even heard of.

There are over 400 temples in Bangkok and I knew better than to want to see them all but I had a list of some of the most important ones that were accessible from the central part of Bangkok. In the last post I talked about Wat Pho with the enormous reclining Buddha. The next stop on our tour was the Grand Palace, home to the Emerald Buddha.

The king of Thailand died last October after 70 year on the throne—history’s longest reigning monarch. Thailand is currently in a yearlong mourning and everywhere you go and on every street corner is a shrine to the king. The streets are lined with gray and black bunting. The Grand Palace is the ceremonial and administration center of Thailand but it is also holds the spiritual icon of the land, the Emerald Buddha. Everyday of this year of mourning up to 20,000 Thais, all dressed in formal black clothes, come to the Palace to pay their respects to the king. Many wear a rhinestone pin of the number 9 in Thai for Rama IX their deceased king.

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The palace grounds are extensive and there are many beautiful buildings and statues, some Thai but also some with the influence of western architecture. In the ubusot, the most holy building, built by Rama I in 1782, the Emerald Buddha sits high on a golden alter. It is 19 inch wide and 26 inches tall and made of jasper. Three times a year the king comes and changes the clothes on this Buddha depending on the season. This Buddha represents the heart and soul of the country. As in all Buddhist temples, I took off my shoes and quietly entered this holy place. Pictures are not allowed and there was a special place in front for the Thais to kneel; visitors had a different spot. It was crowded and the Buddha seemed distant and small on his golden throne. I just stood quietly and was grateful for the opportunity to be at this special place.

The last two days in Thailand were not with a tour group. Instead we had a driver to take us to see the places Hamilton lived and loved as a boy. We saw the hospital where his father worked and the compound where they lived, he was even able to find the old apartments and we were invited in to see one of them—it hadn’t changed in 50 years. We went to the snake farm to see the king cobras be milked for their venom. Needless to say these were angry snakes and it took four men to control them, but it was a place he loved to visit as a boy—definitely a boy thing

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It was my turn to choose our next stops and of course I was in search of golden Buddhas and I wasn’t disappointed for on the edge of Chinatown is Wat Traimit and the ultimate golden Buddha, 5.5 tons of solid gold serenity. We climbed up several flights of steps to the top of the temple where this most valuable sacred object in the world resides. It wasn’t until 1955 that a large plaster Buddha was dropped while moving and a crack revealed the true nature of this Buddha. It had been hidden from thieves for centuries.

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We also visited Wat Benchamabophit, the marble temple. In the court yard surrounding the ubusot are 52 Buddhas showing different positions and historic styles.

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The next day we went to the Golden Mount, the highest point in Bangkok and neighboring temple, Wat Saket. The Golden Mount was made from the dirt dug from the canals and had winding stairs to the top where a stupa is said to hold some of the ashes of the Buddha. A monk chanted blessings over a loud speaker and there were the usual lotus and incense for sale to use as offerings. I rang a series of temple bells as I made my way to the top. In Wat Saket there is a 30 foot tall golden walking Buddha. Around the edges of the temple were clips holding ribbons of money. I realized that they were for upcoming Chinese New Year so I stapled my 20 Bhat note to the ribbon under the sign of the dragon—my sign—I’m pretty sure this will bring me good luck –-figured it couldn’t hurt.

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On to my final golden temple, Wat Suthat, we were getting to the less touristy temples so were the only westerners wandering the grounds. Two temples with magnificently painted walls were an oasis in the busy city. The high walls and ceilings were covered with stories and scenes of the Buddha’s life; it was like the Sistine Chapel of Thailand. In the second temple the monks were setting up chairs for a ceremony. I was sorry to be leaving the next day but so grateful for my journey to the land of the golden Buddha. For my last temple I made a donation for a lotus. I wanted this to me my last act of this sacred journey. I placed the lotus on the alter outside the temple and thanked the Buddha for his serene and holy presence.

Wat Suthat

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Bangkok, Thailand

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When Hamilton was a little boy, his parents were missionaries in Bangkok, Thailand. His father helped set up a radiology department in a mission hospital. The family lived on a compound behind the hospital. The three or so years they lived in Thailand in the early 1960’s were some of their fondest family memories. Life was easy and simple on the compound with lots of friends and freedom to explore. They came home with many treasures and our house still has the influence of those halcyon days with the many artifacts of an exotic culture far from Tennessee. Hamilton was old enough to remember so much of life in Bangkok and always wanted to go back and see the country that made his family so happy and really informed the rest of their lives. This January, Hamilton and I had the opportunity to make that pilgrimage to remember that life-changing experience. His father has passed away and his mother can no longer remember but that family experience over 50 years ago still remains such an important part of their legacy. I was very happy to go to Thailand, I have never been to Asia and I wanted to relive those memories with Hamilton and make new memories for the two of us and I wanted to visit the great golden temples of this magical land.

first morning in Thailand

Thailand is a Buddhist country and less then 5% of the population practice other religions. Let me tell you the Buddha is everywhere and infuses every aspect of the culture. They practice Theravada Buddhism which is the dominate branch of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Thais are a happy, easy-going people who live their Buddhist ideals: gentleness, compassion and kindness.

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I have studied Buddhism for many years and have incorporated these principles and values in my life but the main Buddhism in the United States is Tibetan or Zen and so I was unfamiliar with Theravada. And as much as I love and venerate the Buddha, I will be the first to admit I don’t know the rituals or the traditional words but I do know my honor and respect for the Buddha is enough for it is in my heart that deep devotion lies.

We started our visit to Thailand with a traditional tour, I wanted to ease into Asia with lots of hand-holding from a guide and a bus. This was an easy and economical way to get started and then the last few days of our trip we had the confidence to be on our own to see extra things of interest to both of us.

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Our first stop was Wat (temple) Pho the oldest temple in Bangkok. This is one of the most visited of the nearly 400 temples in Bangkok and is the home to the 150 foot long and 45 foot high reclining Buddha. The large building is just big enough for this Buddha. The reclining Buddha represents the Buddha just before death and is connected with Tuesday. So if you are born on a Tuesday, this is your Buddha which makes it my Buddha. This first Buddha of the trip took my breath away and remains my favorite. The Buddha is laying on his side with his eyes half closed and is serene and ready for death and entry into Nirvana. I slowly walked along the long body to the feet. On the bottoms of his feet are pearl inlays depicting 108 auspicious symbols of the Buddha. Along his back is a place to buy small coins and along the wall are 108 bronze bowls. I quickly figured out that those coins went into the bowls as a blessing for good fortune and to help maintain the temple. I walked along dropping a coin in each bowl, grateful for this opportunity to come to the land where the Buddha is honored for his enlightenment.

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This large temple complex was an early university, teaching science and medicine and had a massage school. There is still a building with drawings used to teach this healing art that is such a part of Thai culture.

The holiest prayer room at the temple is call the ubosot and at Wat Pho a beautiful gold meditating Buddha sits high on an alter. Several monks came in and were taking selfies with their iphones. It made me feel less like a tourist that even the monks were taking pictures before settling down to meditate.

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It was a beautiful day and I was so happy and grateful for the opportunity to visit this enchanting country. That afternoon I took a long and deep nap, exhausted from our long flights but full of dreams of the land of the golden Buddhas.