“Please be invited to pay homage to the thousand years Buddha, the happy monk and the four faced statue of Brahma. Our officer is being service to you inside.”
“What do you figure is down there?”
“Think we can go in?”
“Let’s go,” I say to my friends as I slip past and slowly descend into the tunnel.
Reassured by the echo of accompanying feet I mentally pull out my “tourist card” just in case. It usually works wonders displaying a confused expression when people find you in places you shouldn’t be. A bit of scolding might be dispersed but that’s easy enough to digest.
My hands skim the wall as each step brings me deeper into the unknown. Suddenly the tunnel branches, with one path evidently leading back up into the sunlight and the other leading further into the earth.
A man seated on a small wicker stool lounges at the crossroads. At first glance his appearance brings to mind an ancient guardian.
Seconds later though, as he heartily ignores us and focuses on a small object in his hands, the dedicated sentinel of my initial impression is gone.
“Ask him if we can go further down,” I tell my Japanese friend—who’s fluent in Thai—as I gently shove him forward.
He politely gives a wai and sets forth the question.
Then we wait.
My friend asks again as we shuffle nervously in the tunnel.
Not a twitch in our direction. The silver-haired head stays down. The man doesn’t seem to be acknowledging our existence.
“Maybe he’s deaf?” I suggest.
My friend leans forward and expresses the question a little louder. A few more seconds pass. Then the man slowly lifts his eyes from his intense fascination. The wrinkles of his face slowly shift as his chin dips and rises into a nod.
And, we are gone from his mind once more.
A quick glance around our small company reveals that we are in agreement. The response counts as a yes.
We continue down.
When the tunneled opens up again we find a Buddha image, a monk and a dragon structure on a wall. Perking up at our appearance the monk motions us close.
First he waves my Japanese friend forward, who kneels before the monk and bows his head as the man in robes gently thrashes a bundle of grass over it. Water droplets spring free and sprinkle my friend’s hair. In the soft light of the inlet they glisten.
The monk then motions for him to look up and points to a wrist. My friend puts his hand forward. Uttering a prayer the monk selects a short, stubby white string from a nearby bowl and ties it around my friend’s wrist. Then he nods and waves for the next person.
I step aside to let my Chinese friend go first.
Fascinated, I watch as the monk goes through the same ceremony with him. I know the strings are the remnants of another ceremony where long strings are used to channel energy from Buddha images to participants. These strings are supposed to disseminate the residual luck and happy energy from the ceremony onto those wearing them.
Suddenly it’s my turn. I’m the last one.
As the white string is pulled tight around my friend’s wrist I take a breath and lower my gaze. Will I be called forward too?
When I look up the monk is smiling and motioning for me to come over. I settle myself before him and bow my head. The grass softly brushes my hair and I feel the water drops fall and cling. Having witnessed what comes next, I hold my wrist out. To my shock the monk pushes it away, then he points to my other, less dominant, wrist. I pull it forward.
Nodding he begins to chant and tugs the knot tight.
Basking in the moment—after all I hadn’t been blessed yet in Thailand—I blink as I realize the monk isn’t finished with my attention
He motions toward a jar littered with baht. Of course…
I drop some baht into the jar and chuckle as I share a wai with him.
As we turn to visit the statues deeper down the monk calls to us. We spin around to find him pointing at the dragon on the wall. Speaking out he is drawn to the only one of us who seems to understand him. My Japanese friend nods and shakes his head as he listens.
When the monk begins to dig into his bag for something my friend steps close and admits that he can’t really understand the monk.
“I think he’s Chinese,” says my Chinese friend.
“Then you speak to him,” my Japanese friend replies.
“But I can’t understand him either.”
“Well it’s certainly not English because we’d all understand that,” I helpfully contribute.
All three of us look over at the monk just in time to see him withdraw a phone from his bag. He holds it up to the wall. Pulling his hand back we gasp as the phone hovers. It’s stuck to the wall.
My guess is magnetism, but I’d think a force like that would fry the phone’s electronics…
We are left to contemplate this mystery as the monk steps aside and allows us to visit the other deities in the depths.
We were visiting the grounds of the Phra Pathom Chedi or “First Stupa” in Nakhon Pathon as part of a school trip. This stupa is the tallest in the world at 127 meters tall from base to tip and in attributed with standing on the site where Buddhism was first established in Thailand about 2,000 years ago.
The story behind the stupa’s construction is quite amusing actually.
A long time ago the king of Nakhon Chaisri (or Ratchaburi), a man named Phya Kong, was told that his future son would become very strong and one day kill him. When the son was born the king ordered him killed, but the queen secretly spared the child and gave him to (or the wooden raft he was set on floated to) an old woman named Yai Hom.
The old woman raised the boy and later the king of a neighboring province, Kanchanaburi, adopted him. Here the roles vary a bit.
In one version the son and Kanchanaburi are the dominating kingdom and the boy’s father Phya Kong fails to pay a tax. The son is sent to wage war with his father—their relationship of course unknown to him—and the boy kills Phya Kong.
In the second version the king of Kanchanaburi is actually a vassal to Phya Kong and the son sets out to free Kanchanaburi.
Then the stories converge again. The son kills his father, finds out who he is and kills the old woman who raised him because she didn’t tell him about his past. After killing the woman he realizes that he’s commit two terrible sins. He decides to kill himself as penance but realizes that he would be committing yet another sin.
So a monk advises him to build a chedi as “high as doves can fly”.
Phra Pathom Chaisri was built.
If I’d known this story when I visited I’m sure I would have been contemplating the pick-and-choose nature of committing sins as I strode around the stupa.
I can picture the scene now. A man with his sword poised over his heart lamenting about killing his guardian and father. The candles flicker and the background noise begins to crescendo as the decisive moment draws near.
Then a monk nonchalantly walks in and stiffens in shock as he beholds the scene. He leaps forward and cries, “stop! You’ll doom yourself!”
“Don’t commit this sin!” he begs at the feet of the prince. Then the prince looks off in the distance, quietly contemplating in the short moment.
He gravely nods and lowers the dagger still nodding.
“I must not commit another sin after all. Why, I’ve already commit two—a third would be pushing it,” he says as he smiles.
Since the time of this story the stupa has gone through many renovations and growth spurts.
So I suppose the prince never did reach the height that doves fly.
Unless of course the height requirement includes the stupa’s underground dwellings.
From visiting Budai underground to alighting the steps circling around the stupa you’ll find many sources of mystery at this structure. Make sure to get the whole experience though and explore even the most tucked away tunnels!