Ready now? Let’s start, then.
“Khun Travels. Where you go?” queried the Nanny, upon my return to our apartment. “I did not see you go.”
“Ah, I went to Wat That Thong, by the Ekkemai BTS.”
“By yourself, Khun Travels?”
“Er…yep. I like to think of myself as a ‘grown up’ now. Do things by myself, you know.”
“Khun Travels! Clever. Clever.” I am being applauded and the Nanny disappears off chuckling away merrily.
Um, am I being the butt of a Burmese joke here?
It was true though. I had gone to Wat That Thong which is right outside Ekkemai BTS station. It’s a civil Wat; originally an area on the banks of the Chao Phraya river at Khlong Toei was requested for use as a shipping port. The land had two Wat on it – Wat That and Wat Thong. To use the land these two were demolished and a new Wat – That Thong – was rebuilt on 21.5 acres on the Sukhumvit road. The Wat is actively working. I mean this in the sense that it is the first Wat I have come across (bar one near the river – see the blog about Logos Hope) that is actively engaged in Buddhist cremations. Buddhist cremations in Thailand follow a ritual whereby relatives and friends pour water over one hand of the departed who is then interred in their coffin. The coffin is surrounded with wreaths and candles, usually with a photograph of the person. I further understand that:
Sometimes the cremation is deferred for a week to allow distant relatives to attend or to show special honour to the dead. In this case a chapter of monks comes to the house one or more times each day to chant from the Abhidharma, sometimes holding the bhusa yong, a broad ribbon, attached to the coffin. Food is offered to the officiating monks as part of the merit-making for the deceased.” http://www.buddhanet.net/bfuneral.htm
I entered the Wat after a sharp downpour, following a monk who was attired in white but shaded by an orange umbrella. The place was empty, bar the usual couple of guards. I removed my shoes and went into the Wat, kneeling in front of the Buddha, then rising and quietly looking around.
Afterwards I went outside, thinking it was similar to all other Wat I have seen until I got round to one side and realised the place was actively engaged in the funeral rites I mentioned above. Running alongside the Wat were many new, many ‘under construction’ and several older buildings designed for people to pay respects to their dead. In fact it is the “newest” Wat I’ve seen to date which, in itself was fascinating. When one visits a place of historical interest you are asked to imagine how the place would have looked in their pomp and splendour; but this was at its peak: clean white lines, brilliant orange tiles, glittering glass mosaic facades, fresh murals. Edges were everywhere, sharp, clinical, not crumbling, broken. The creep of tropical vegetation was missing, paving stones were firm and smooth, the steps level, precise, hard, and fresh.
After moving round the rear of the Wat, my eye drawn to a concrete central infrastructure (see the slideshow gallery), I found myself by a large, very new, long building to the right of Wat (as you look at it from its entrance). As I puzzled out its function I soon realised what it was. A cremation building. I could see the central chamber with a large stainless steel cremation furnace. From the (logical) north/south ends each had an identical covered staircase and walkway leading to a large hall. These were halls for funeral ceremonies. A place for those whom had died to take their leave of living relatives and undergo the start of their journey to the next life. The symbolism of the journey was apparent in the architecture as they left the endless rows of gilt chairs in the hall and were carried in their coffins along the walkway, up the steps and to the central cremation chamber. As I mentioned, the setup was identical on both ends of the main chamber. Surrounding this new building were a few older, square buildings. Each with the same function – to house the deceased and for funeral ceremonies to take place. These did not lead directly to cremation chambers.
What was truly fascinating, was the sheer scale and aroma of the floral wreaths. There were hundreds, covering perhaps about eight to ten funerals. One funeral had wreaths from what looked like most of the major Thai corporations, another was adorned with personal notes from schools, teachers, educational mourners. There was a formality, a uniformity to the wreaths, the differences being in the types of flowers, the colour schemes.
I continued my stroll around the Wat; few people in the whole place despite the bustle of Sukhumvit and the BTS outside. I’ve often commented on the reverence that is heavy in the mists of Wats but this was deeper still with its silent homage to the recently deceased. A single stray dog scratched itself by a tiny memorial, a sole labourer rested, languid, in the hot sunshine. Four or five monks went silently past bearing flowers, carrying out rituals for the dead as they walked around the Wat. To one side a school was in full session; yet its sound was muted, not quite the boisterousness you usually hear from schoolyards in the area.
It was time to leave because my journey was not over. I’d also come to find a very special bookshop..Sauce…a bit further up Ekkemai. With a final glance at those moving on to the next steps of their existence and a much greater understanding and appreciation of Buddhist cremation ceremonies, I headed out of the silver gates and turned left….but that’s a story for another blog. As ever, here are some photos of the place.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?