Culturally eclectic Chanthaburi in eastern Thailand has long been home to large Chinese, Khmer and Vietnamese communities and was also influenced by the Shan from Burma as well as the French, who ruled the area from 1893 to 1905. This mixed heritage is evident in both the food and architecture that line the city’s narrow streets, but an exploration of its temples, churches and shrines is perhaps the most fascinating way to get a sense for the diversity of Chanthaburi.
Beginning in the mountainous Khao Khitchakhut region some 20 kilometres north of town, Wat Khao Sukim is an elaborate Thai Theravada Buddhist temple perched on a mountaintop. It first sprang up around revered forest monk, Ajahn Somchai, who came to meditate in the area’s cool air beginning in the 1950s. Though it began as a simple forest monastery, Wat Khao Sukim has become a lavish temple complete with trams that allow streams of Thai pilgrims to bypass the long staircases that lead to the top of the mountain.
A cavernous building looms atop the mountain and houses a plethora of antiques such as tw0-metre high Chinese ceramic vases and polished furniture engraved with detailed designs in mother-of-pearl. Life-like wax sculptures of revered Thai monks sit oddly beside real tiger hides with heads still attached and fangs protruding. Though impressive in a museum sort of way, I found Wat Khao Sukim to be an especially gaudy example of how modern Thai Buddhism is often more about materialism than meditation.
On the other side of Chanthaburi towards Namtok Phlio National Park is a temple so different from Wat Khao Sukim that it’s hard to believe they both belong to the same faith. Built only 40 years ago, Wat Mong Gorn Phupharam is a Chinese-style Mahayana Pure Land Buddhist temple that bursts with colour and stunning craftsmanship.
Red lanterns hang from virtually every corner of the temple’s 32 individual shrines spanning several buildings. Ceramic Chinese longevity symbols and depictions of early Chinese Buddhist patriarchs line the ceilings and walls, and perfectly symmetrical lotuses are engraved into the floors. Incense smoke and soft Namo Amituofo music fill the air of shrine rooms housing countless depictions of Mahayana Buddhism’s many buddhas and bodhisattvas. The detail is startling, and I was taken aback to learn how the temple is only a little older than I am.
Back in the city itself, Wat Bot Muang was constructed some 400 years ago during the Ayutthaya period and is believed to be Chanthaburi’s oldest temple. A small but photogenic ubosot features murals of important scenes from the Buddha’s life, and a gold Sri Lankan-style chedi is still clearly visible amid Chanthaburi’s modest skyline.
Yet I was particularly captivated by some of the more out-of-the-way features within the grounds of this Thai Theravada Buddhist temple. A faded Chinese-style statue of the Mahayana buddha of the future, Maitreya, occupies one shrine, and a well preserved 1,000 year old lintel of ancient Khmer design features the Hindu god Indra dancing on his three-headed elephant, Erawan. Even in this ancient Thai temple, evidence of Chinese and Khmer influence drips in.
A far less subtle example of non-Thai influence is found on the other side of the old town in the form of Thailand’s largest church: The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. First built by European missionaries way back in the early 1700s, the cathedral was rebuilt in its current gothic style mainly by Vietnamese migrants in the early 1900s.
Chanthaburi is home to a thriving community of Vietnamese — many of them Roman Catholic — who fled religious persecution and other struggles in Vietnam during both the 19th and 20th centuries. Not only Vietnamese Christians but also Thai and Chinese Buddhists who think it best to appease whatever gods or spirits might be hanging around the area can regularly be seen offering incense and flower garlands to the Virgin Mary image that fronts the cathedral.
Outside the realm of any major religion, two small but important shrines — one a monument to King Taksin constructed in 1920 and the other built by King Taksin as a dedication to the city’s guardian spirit — are found to the north of town. One of Thai history’s most pivotal figures, Taksin led 500 soldiers to Chanthaburi after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, where he spent some five months regrouping before returning with 5,000 strong to successfully drive out the Burmese invaders and re-unify the country.
Locals place offerings before a small statue of King Taksin within the shrine each day, but it’s not only the Thais who come to pay their respects. Taksin was half Chinese, and many believe he chose Chanthaburi as the place to rebuild his army due to its large ethnic Chinese population. There’s little doubt that many — possibly even a majority — of the men who accompanied him to battle were of Chinese descent, exemplifying how instrumental the Chinese were in the establishment of modern Thailand.
Nearby the King Taksin shrine is the City Pillar shrine, which Taksin constructed after ascending the throne to thank the guardian spirit of Chanthaburi for overseeing his successful campaign. Along with a gold pillar signifying the spirit in the actual shrine room, the surrounding grounds feature several Chinese-style monuments and centuries-old cannons.
Another of Chanthaburi’s most important temples, the 200-year-old Wat Kate Na Boonyaram spotlights the city’s cultural mix better than any other. “Wat Kate” presents itself at first-glance as a Chinese-style Mahayana temple, but a closer look reveals it’s a blend of Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese influences, a sort of common ground in the centre of town.
Fronted by Chinese-style gates and protective dragons, the temple’s exterior features a large gold Garuda (Khut) image, which is still the emblem of Thailand used on all government and royal documents. Just below the Garuda is a seal of King Rama V, who sanctioned a renovation of the temple in the early 1900s. Pass through the splendid red and gold doorways with both Thai and Chinese script and things get even more mixed up. Mahayana bodhisattvas that include a rather Thai-looking Guanyin unusually depicted in seated meditation posture line the sides of the temple surrounded by burning candles.
Making my way to the main shrine, I found that the bodhisattvas weren’t accompanied by the usual Amithaba Buddha but rather a Thai-style image that probably depicts Shakyamuni Buddha (aka the actual historical Buddha). The smaller surrounding Buddha images are also Thai style and the disciple statues worshiping the Buddha on each side look to be depictions of the Buddha’s historic disciples, including (perhaps) Ananda, Mogallana and Sariputra, which are typical of Thai Theravada temples but not Chinese Mahayana ones. The mural on the temple’s back wall depicts an ancient Thailand scene, complete with a visit from the Emerald Buddha of Wat Phra Kaew.
Specifics aside, Wat Kate Na Boonyaram is at the same time a Theravada/Mahayana and Thai/Chinese temple that sits fittingly in the centre of town and embodies the melting pot that Chanthaburi is. Outsiders often consider Thailand to have a homogenised “Thai” culture, but a trip to Chanthaburi shows that beneath the surface, the country’s cultural-historical fabric has been woven by a diverse mix of hands.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 9th December, 2014.