30km outside Bangkok: due west down Thanon Borommoratchachonnani at an average 40km/h on a bike you’ll run smack into Phutthamonthon Park. It’s a place I discovered on a ride, an oasis of Buddhist serenity and verdant vegetation where time seems becalmed and images of a Buddhist history gleam laden with demands of natural tranquility and religious memory. For all that it does not seem to make it into a Top 20 of places to visit in Bangkok. Indeed, Isla’s Nanny was disparaging when I said I’d visited the place:
“Boring. No one goes there. Nothing to do.”
Quite. An introvert’s paradise, then. And…I will venture…a hidden cultural gem that many tourists fail to spot.
Built in 1957, it covers an area of 2500 Thai rai (about 400 hectares) and possesses the largest free standing Buddha in the world. It is also the residence of the Supreme Patriarch. The site is considered the ‘Centre of Buddhism of the World’ and is home to the Buddhism Library, Hall, University and National Office. There’s also a museum nestled in the landscaped waterways and gardens.
I sail in on my bicycle…you need to drive here really…which is ideal for getting around the park – walking is hot and long. You’d struggle to see it all as an adult alone and with kids…forget it. That said…it IS worth the effort given its tranquil walkways, abundance of insect and bird-life, children’s park, range of dogs and stunning cultural buildings.
For me the most spectacular is the Temple of Marble Pali Canon, a four-gabled building sitting on a 9 rai island with a nonogal pagoda in the centre that has 1418 marble pali (think stele) inside telling the story of the revisions of Buddhist cannon in 84,000 quotes, the establishment of Buddhism in Thailand and how the pali were inscribed (in gold leaf). It quite simply takes my breath away as I wander as lonely as Wordsworth’s cloud through a human literary achievement that surely must rank as the finest Thailand has to offer. Yes, seriously…it’s that good. The nine aspects of the pagoda each house a holy relic of the Buddha, the remains of Saributra Tera, Maha Mokkalana Tera, Sivali Tera, and the amulets from the Paknam Temple. The pali themselves are the single largest collection in the world. The ceiling looks like it was painted yesterday with stories from the life of Buddha. I’m gabbling, but take it as read…impressed. Take a look:
I am moving (reluctantly) onward towards another building I espy in the distance….
The Temple of Buddhamonthon is a building in the Thai style measuring 14mx29.4mx16.5m. The entire floor, walls, and roof are lined with marble. Inside are eight sculptures of the Buddha and two of Bodhisattva are outside. I risk a peek inside as there is a ceremony underway…no photos out of respect save the one outside.
Back on my cycle, pedaling sanguinely along a yellow brick path like a carefree Dorothy.
The main attraction is the original Buddha sculpture depicting in a walking form with robes. He is mounted on a lotus-shaped pedestal and is given the name ‘Phra Si Sakaya Dasabalayan Prathan Buddhamonthon Sudassana”. There is a careful spatial symmetry here, the Buddha at one end of an artificial lake. I am able to remove my shoes and circumnavigate him. An arc from the West to north west has a series of lifelike monk statues, meditating in the lotus position around him.
Back on my cycle and I pedal north towards the administrative buildings of the site, passing the Umpawan Garden (Mango). Etiologically, the real garden is located between the wall of Rachakrue City and the Khichakud Mountain. Owned by a Dr. Chivakakomalarputch the Lord Buddha would spend time there. I come across the Veruwan Garden (Bamboo) which covers 82 rai, primarily planted for the cultivation and study of bamboo. As I walk carefully down a slope, leaves crunch crisply underfoot and I enter a cathedral of bamboo. Columns thrust into the sky, arch overhead, permitting shafts of sunlight to play like an ever changing labyrinth on the parched floor below. It is as though I am in Anhui Bamboo Forest. One of the many meandering waterways move listlessly behind this solitude. I stop, the shadows of the algae surface mottle on the reptilian skin of a monitor lizard as it splashes away from me, its entry to the water shockingly loud in this silent hall.
Hastening back out, stepping from a world of tense imagination onto the surer footing of the heated road surface, I move round to the Meditation halls. Five octagonal spaces, roofed. The people are meditating in the blistering shadows of the noon sun. Lilies in a small pond sway in a tepid breeze.
Beyond this are the Buddhist Library, the Buddhist Museum – claiming to be open but every door is shut save for a snoring guard and one room with six people wearing face masks, poring over some minerals with tweezers.
So much more to see…another trip back here soon….
Is this what diplomacy is all about?