Bangkok: Wat Hua Lamphong

'Through My Lens' - by Surendra On the Go

In part 2 of his explorations, Surendra describes his visit to Wat Hua Lamphong, a Royal Buddhist temple, third class, in the Bang Rak District of Bangkok.

In part 1 – Microcosm of a city –  Surendra focuses on the contrasts in parts of the city that he and Amrapali recently visited. 

Having been in Bangkok for more than a week, I no longer have to restrict my walks to the noisy, circuitous routes of the main roads. I can take my chances with the twists and turns of the narrow back streets. From a holiday apartment in the business district of Bangkok, I traverse the more dilapidated area of Patpong and enter a winding alleyway mostly used by pedestrians. Seeing the inevitable food stalls, I wonder whether anyone in this city ever does any home cooking.


Amrapali, my partner, is voluntarily accompanying me on this photographic shoot. So far, only fellow photographers have been able to enjoy such jaunts. Amrapali has already learned her lessons in boredom, several times over. But, I suppose, with anything, there is always room for further study. This route delivers us to a huge and busy junction right next to an entrance to a Buddhist temple, Wat Hua Lamphong. After five minutes looking around for potential images, I am enthralled. I quickly let Amrapali know that I am going to be at least another hour at this venue. We look at each other knowingly and have a hug. Then Amrapali heads off for a long walk, with the words, “That’s fine, take two hours if you want.” And that is exactly what I do.

Wat Hua Lamphong skyline
Assembly hall
Chedi with new development
Prayer bells
Writhing hands
Shrine dwarfed by skyscraper
Group of buddhas
Buddha trio
Serene buddha
Buddha portrait

Coffins and cows

The king and ninety-five per cent of the population are Buddhist in Thailand. Bangkok has many famous temples, or wats. At the less prestigious Wat Hua Lamphong, not many tourists come to visit and look at the art and architecture. Perhaps because of this, I am warmly welcomed with a friendly, beaming smile by the attendant. Although quiet this morning, I gather this wat is popular with the locals. It is sometimes known as the Coffin Temple. There is a scheme to gain merit by donating to the cost of coffins for those without families to afford them. Another charitable venture within the walls rescues cows from untimely deaths at the slaughter houses.

Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Mohammedanism – these are all cults. These are all exploiting humanity in the name of religion. They are not religions at all. They are superstitions.¹

Much that glitters

Small patches of the thinnest gold leaf are also on sale. Visitors purchasing them can gain their merit by attaching the gold, like sticking plasters, to one of an array of buddha statues. This is a common practice at many temples throughout this country. A phrase in Thai for good deeds (unassuming ones) translates as ‘putting gold on the back of the Buddha’. Some visitors are much more specific about where they put their gold. These worshippers hope for healing by adorning the forms of the buddhas on the same areas that carry afflictions in their own bodies. A much cheaper option is to buy a disc of wax embossed with the emblem from the Chinese horoscope for the appropriate year of birth. These discs are then dissolved in a small vat of molten wax. After that, the purchaser makes a candle from the collective wax and lights it as an offering… or takes it home.

Buddhas everywhere

Together with a few small restaurants and shops, all of the mercenary activity is going on at ground level. The temple buildings with their decorative murals and carvings are in an elevated position. This beautiful upper floor is accessed by a wide staircase. At the top, a spacious courtyard shines like the staircase, with white marble tiles. Dotted around are a number of small shrines housing buddha statues. A few of these buddhas sit alone, others have one, two, or a whole family of companions.

These effigies have stoically endured a lifetime in one position, watching so many people come and go. They remain unperturbed as, year by year, more and more sky-scrapers loom up around them and more visitors add their embellishments. This temple is about two hundred years old and by now, the surfaces of most buddhas glow with motley patchworks of gold. At first, I think the gold is part of the original intentions of the sculptors. But all of the statues finished in the same way? This seems bizarre. It certainly helps to understand Thai traditions.

Gold, or, no gold, some of the buddhas look a tad grumpy. Being stuck up here, who can blame them? But I am touched by the expressions and postures of a couple of them. Something from these particular bronzes radiates beyond their metallic existence.

The shape of the buddha statue is the shape of meditation. It does not represent Buddha, it has nothing to do with Buddha. Never think for a single moment that it is a realistic image, no. Buddha never looked like that! It does not represent his physical body, it simply represents the inner form of energy. When you go into your absolute silence this is the shape of your inner energy, of your inner aura.²

Fellow travellers

Throughout the late morning not many other visitors come. Another Western photographer, with a real camera and a long lens, takes a discerning picture here and there and is gone. A young couple, seemingly on holiday, or even honeymoon, admire the buildings… and each other. They take their own portraits with smartphones – alongside every different, decorated structure they can find. Everyone quickly passes me by as I slowly explore the details of the whole temple site. Anxious for a moment, I am relieved when the elderly cleaner, moving into every corner with a hose, fastidiously avoids splashing a single drop of water on me or my equipment.

Some visitors linger longer and quietly offer devotional prayers to their favourite images. A few bring bouquets of flowers as part of their rituals. Trying to line up one shot of a group of statues, I have to deal with a woman standing in front of them holding a long conversation on her cell-phone. After a while, I wander off to another shrine. When I come back, she is still there. Sitting on the edge of the platform, in the midst of the buddha gathering, she is happily taking selfies.

Buddhist symbolism

There are heavens and hells involved in the layout of Buddhist temples, each varied building has a theme and purpose and the bell-like monuments, known as chedis, have special functions. As I wander around Wat Hua Lamphong, I am ignorant of the underlying symbolism. I am simply enjoying what has been beautifully made: an interplay of attractive shapes and colourful decoration. I know that a long row of bells has something to do with prayers but take it as a purely visual feature. Unless curiosity gets the better of me, I am happy for it to stay that way. Taking photographs, my primary aim is to engage directly with the subject, enjoying the art ‘for art’s sake’.

Writhing hands

The number of disembodied hands garnishing the edges of the main roofs and some of the shrines is, however, utterly puzzling. They are not meditative mudras. Such gestures are reserved for the buddhas. Some of these hands are writhing! One reference suggests they represent the distracting forces and insatiability of worldly desires. Other palms open in protective gestures, mirroring the wings of Garuda, a mythical bird-like creature. A figure in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies, Garuda defends many buildings throughout Bangkok. Visible as often on banks as on temples, at this site, this flying warrior is poised for take-off from a crucial corner between two roofs. Overall, the collection of hands adds interest to my pictures as I strategically try to include them in many of my shots. Sometimes, their juxtapositioning with background skyscrapers brings the playful notion of hands resisting in horror.

Embracing it all

Several of the buddha statues hold enough allure to become single portraits. In most of the other shots I am keen to include references to encroaching development. For many years with a camera, I was at pains to exclude what I perceived as incompatible or intrusive elements. In Bangkok, it is fun to seek them out. At this temple I want to bring in the ominous cranes and high-rises. At other locations, the funky air conditioning units, overhead cables and electric wire spaghetti become important parts of the picture building. What used to be my narrow focus is widening and including more. This brings with it an inner sense of expansion; inviting the unexpected; dancing and playing with the whole… and that feels very good. After all, everything is part of this mad maya.

Quotes by Osho from
¹ From Darkness to Light, Ch 13
² The Wisdom of the Sands, Vol 1, Ch 9

Part 1 of his explorations – Microcosm of a city

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