Friday, February 02, 2007

What's in a Wat?

Whose on first? Buddha!

This morning I was recovering from a mild sunburn. And so I decided to forego the beach today and head off in search of -- wat? The perfect wat.

A wat is a Buddhist temple and/or monastery, and Ko Samui is well supplied. With the aid of Weela's motorbike taxi, I'd already visited the Big Buddha at Wat Phra Yai on the north coast, and it's neighbor, the newer complex, Wat Plai Laem. And we'd marveled over the mummified corpse of the monk Loung Por Daeng at Wat Khunaram farther south. But I had my heart set on seeing the jewel in the Buddhist crown, Wat Laem Sor, with its golden pagoda on the southern tip of Ko Samui. So after a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and jam, and coffee, we set off on our wat-hopping jaunt, bagging a total of five wats (not to mention a footprint of the Buddha). May all the merits from this pilgrimage be spread evenly among my friends.

Now I've seen a few wats in my time. Molly was involved in an exchange program with students from Chiang Mai almost 15 years ago. She came here and a number of them visited Santa Cruz. Afterwards, they toured the country, ending up in Washington, D.C., where we met up with them. They invited us to the big wat in Silver Springs, MD, where we were treated to a lovely supper and even got to meet the head monk. We edged into the room on our knees while he read the newspaper. He nodded at us, the meeting was ended and we backed out, again on our knees. Three years ago I went to Wat Pah Nanachat, a monastery near Ubon Ratchatani, and I stayed for ten days, dressed in white, my head shaven. I did walking and sitting meditation, got up at 3:30 AM and chanted in the main sala with the real monks, and ate one meal a day, albeit a delicious one. And then I've done the tourist boogie during my two previous trips to Thailand, visiting lots of wats in Bangkok, Ayutayah, Sukhuthai and Chiang Mai.

So I know what's wat. Our first stop was the famous pagoda of Laem Sor, protected by the fierce guardians pictured above. The view from the water's edge was stupendous. But that was the appetizer. Wheela took me up the hill to Khao Prabat, a chedi (or burial stupa) where I could look back and see the pagoda as well as a wat shaped like a boat, all part of the same complex. A monk was washing his clothes, chickens were pecking around the icons, and it felt like I'd reached the top of the Buddha universe. Wheela, Thim and I walked back down the hill and over to the ship I'd seen from above. The monks there must love the sea for there were a number of ship models clustered around the usual icons of Buddhist monks (more monks than Buddhas were on display at most of the wats), covered with little squares of gold. The ship wat was sitting in a pond filled with catfish and we dropped pellets of food to feed them, causing a frenzy that stirred up the water.

The four-hour wat pilgrimage also included Wat Kiri Wongkaram where we found another mummified monk, Luang-Por Rerm-Khun Thummo, who was born in 1879 and died on Ko Samui in 1966, his body refusing to decay. He looked a little tired, but thankfully did not wear sunglasses like the other one. Then we traveled through a coconut planation, where nary a soul was to be seen, to Wat Sumret. Somehwere in this complex monks were chanting, but our attention was on the Secret Hall of the Buddhas that once housed a valuable collection of Buddha images from around Thailand. Unfortunately, thieves carried off some of the best of them and now the building is securely locked. But a very disreputable looking guard encouraged us to peek through a small window where we could see dozens of them inside. I took a few pictures but they do not capture the oddness of a big room full of dozens of Buddhas.

At Wat Praderma, they were getting ready for a big festival tonight. Booths selling clothes and food were being set up. Thim bought us each bubble tea which I have grown to love (ever since first tasting it with Nick at Japan Town in San Francisco). We threw darts at balloons, she hitting five and me three, and we collected little gifts (mine was a fan). We both bought fortunes, and although I can't read mine, she has assured me that it is "very good." That's a relief. And we prayed before the wat's icons.

Then there was the trek up a very steep hill, through a mosquito-infested forest, to see the Buddha's Footprint that was marked on my wrinkled tourist map. Thim stayed back because her sleeveless top did not past muster with the resident monk. And so Weela and I ascended to the footprint, which turned about to be a very large and elaborately designed artistic footprint inside of a large room. It looked not unlike the foot of the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

Our final wat was just south of Lamai Beach, Wat Sila Ngu, which I think translates as new snake. There is a fine stairway to the water with giant carved cobras (Weela thought Anaconda) as bannisters. This wat, according to my guide book, is very popular as a location for festivals and performances "that sometimes even include stars of television and film."

At each wat we looked for the icons, knelt in front of them and lit candles and incense (if the wind was not too strong as it was at Laem Sor). At some, we were also given little square of gold to affix to the icon. Much of the time the gold would not stick and it would fly away, hopefully to gain merit somewhere else. I listened to Thim's Thai prayers and I added my own Christian-flavored ones, hoping for healing of those who are sick and happiness for those who are sad.

And that's the whole wat story.

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