01/15/2014 09:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Thailand Journal: Wat Muen Buddha Mettakhunaram


Wat Muen Buddha Mettakhunaram is on the road to Mae Chan. There travelers making their way to the Golden Triangle, the meeting point between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, the epicenter of what was once the opium trade, will come upon an ebullient golden Buddha. Golden Buddhas dot the mountains of Northern Thailand. But this one stands out due to its expression of total happiness. When you walk through the gate of Wat Muen, you see that the Buddha sits astride a temple reached by an enormous flight of stairs. No you are not reliving the '60's. You're not tripping, though you might ask yourself why Chinese characters rather than Sanskrit abound. The answer is that Wat Muen is a temple and school established by Chinese Buddhists for the orphans of AIDS victims. Curiously, the prayers that are recited over the PA system sound like the hortatory language blasted in front of party headquarters in some Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam--though the statement emerging might be something more like that played in front of another nearby temple Wat Phra That Chom Kitti, reached by climbing 353 steps. "Get your body ready. Get your soul ready. Get your mind ready for meditation. You remember yesterday, but you can't have yesterday." On a recent visit to Wat Muen a visitor was startled by what sounded like a shot. Thai border guards often fire into Myanmar to discourage smugglers, but this was not gunfire, but fireworks attending an on site crematorium. The belief is that the fireworks will smooth the way for the deceased as he or she proceeds on his or her journey. Afterward, a procession of mourners wound their way along the highway. In Bergman's The Seventh Seal, death is an ominous presence, a player in a famed chess game. However this ebullient Buddha presides over departing souls with an expression that could only be described as bliss.

(Photograph of Wat Muen Buddha Mettakhunaram by Hallie Cohen)

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}