Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 22, 2017

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Made in Thailand

Discover the 20-storey teak temple that’s being carved by hand

As any visitor can tell you, Buddhist temples, or wats, as they’re known locally, lie thick on the ground across Thailand. They’ll tuck one in anywhere: behind a supermarket, looming above a superhighway, half-hidden behind the Happy Shoes Bowling Alley, perched high on a mountaintop. They are beyond lavish — gold leaf run amok, glittering crystals that outshine the sun, azure, pink and chartreuse enameled walls and columns, tiny mirrors flung like confetti over spires, arches and chedis (hemispherical domes, also known as stupa, where sacred relics are stored).

Gargantuan carved Buddhas stand, recline or sit in lotus position at the centre of most wats, their finely sculpted hands semaphoring messages of peace and enlightenment. (I once asked a Thai guide why the Buddha we were standing before drooped down to touch the earth and he said it was because “Buddha’s telling the evil spirits to cool it.”)

But sometimes, after visiting the White Wat, the Mirror Wat, the Silver Wat and the Red Swing Wat (seriously), the mind tires of excess as from a surfeit of sequins. All those serenely smug Buddhas with their heavy-duty expectations: Are you sitting right? Are you breathing right? Have you rid yourself of all desire? It was at a moment like this that my Thai friend Ice suggested I visit the Sanctuary of Truth (206/2 Naklua Road; sanctuaryoftruth.com; adults $17, kids $9) located in the seaside city of Pattaya, a 90-minute drive from Bangkok. “It’s all carved out of teak,” Ice said. “Very old school.”

Teak time

Pattaya itself is a 24/7 carnival by way of Hieronymus Bosch, a flamboyant charivari of LGBT revelers, sun-scalded sex tourists, bewildered families who didn’t realize their all-inclusive holidays would include all this, and hard-eyed Russian expats (store signage in Pattaya is trilingual now: Thai, English and Russian).

But the Sanctuary of Truth is well away from all that, on an isolated promontory overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. Seen from above, where my driver let me off, it was hard to get a sense of the scale of the thing. As Ice promised, it’s gilt-free, an all-teak-all-the-time fantasia featuring a multitude of the high-gabled roofs of traditional Thai architecture sprouting in all directions, but they are the least of it. Every possible surface is encrusted with hard-carved teak sculpture. Pantheons of not immediately recognizable gods riot handsomely, huge-tusked elephants with heads as big as houses trumpet from on high. Not a balustrade is left uncurlicued nor a column unembraced by a Brobdingnagian bare-breasted goddess. Snakes swirl, dragons scowl, tigers snarl and strange bird-like creatures, also bare-breasted, spread their wings.

Because sun and salt have weathered the exterior teak to shades of silver and grey, there’s an oddly gothic air about the place, as if Tim Burton was in on the original design. It looks like it’s been there forever, but soft-voiced Sanctuary guide Mao, handing me a yellow hardhat at the structure’s rococo-in-overdrive entrance, explained that construction began in 1981 and, as the ladders, scaffolding, clouds of sawdust and workmen tapping with their chisels high up in the eaves attest, it’s still very much a work in progress. “It will be finished in 2015,” she added. “Perhaps.”

But dates, statistics, even place names, are relative things for Thais, untrammeled as they are by nagging certainties. The Sanctuary of Truth, aka the Wooden Temple, aka the Wooden Palace, aka Prasat Satchatham, aka Prasat Sut Ja-Tum, stands, according to Mao, 150 metres tall, although other sources claim, variously, 100 metres and 205 metres, while Lonely Planet neatly sidesteps the issue by saying “20 storeys tall.”

From the inside out

The interior is oddly cave-like with serried ranks of huge carved columns that are evocative of stalagites, wafting veils of incense, wide-plank flooring that gives as you walk and sudden knockout views of the corrugated sea. As we strolled along, passing saffron-coloured robed Buddhist monks carrying video cameras and a young man from Goa who spontaneously struck a Lord Shiva pose, Mao attempted to explain the dense iconography of the interior carvings.

The Sanctuary of Truth is utopian and multi-faith, with all the Asian gods and goddesses multi-tasking up and down the steep walls. It’s a mash-up really of all the major and many of the minor Buddhist and Hindu deities, as well as figures from Thai, Khmer, Indian and Chinese legend.

All this is the visionary project of Thai millionaire (some say billionaire) Lek Viriyaphant (1914-2000), who opened the first Mercedes-Benz dealership in Thailand not long after the end of the Second World War. Viriyaphant, who is inevitably described as “eccentric,” was keen to represent the power of Eastern spirituality and philosophy while at the same time preserving Thailand’s culture and history, architecture and traditional crafts. Ironically, most of the men and women who carve exclusively for the Sanctuary are Burmese refugees who have been specially trained for this unending task. Even as they carve new figures for the interior, they are also restoring great swaths of the exterior that have been sanded down by time and weather.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about this chimerical structure — it appears to metamorphose as you circumnavigate it — is that there’s not a metal nail in it. Everything is done by old-fashioned joinery: wooden pegs instead of nails as well as dovetail, tongue-and-groove and mortise-and-tendon joints, the way it was done for centuries in the Kingdom of Siam.

As I was about to leave, Mao led me over to a varnished wooden information panel. Previous ones we looked at featured Buddhist or Hindu moral precepts mixed in with Confucian teachings about filial duties and ancestor worship. But this particular panel counsels against all excess, a long list that runs from alcohol and drugs down to licentious thoughts and lustful activities. Mao kept giving me long fervid looks as she pointed out each misdeed in turn. She suggested it would be a good idea for me to memorize the worst of them. I explained I already have them by heart. For more info, visit the Tourism Authority of Thailand (tourismthailand.org).

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