Last sunday but one, now, (I meant to finish this last week but haven’t had time) was a great sightseeing day. I did some searching on the interwebs and found a sight that looked promising, read some reviews, got directions and basically sketched out a basic plan for the day.
Funny how that can make all the difference.
But before sightseeing, I went to Mass with another Catholic soldier.
I have written before that when I speak of “Home” I rarely mean a physical place. I am generally referring either to family or of a Catholic Church. That is the case whenever I arrive at a Catholic Church, I am instantly at home.
The congregation is small, but wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He has promised to be their in the middle of them. It didn’t even matter that the Mass was in Thai (although the priest was kind enough to recap his homily in English for our benefit). The Sacrament is the same. It is still Jesus.
Fortified by the Sacrament, sightseeing is much more fruitful because it is easier to see things the way Jesus sees them. And there is a lot in Thailand worth seeing. He has made this country marvelously beautiful (as He has this whole world, by the way).
We set out for Ban Mi, which is a little outside Lopburi city but still in Lop Buri province. On the way we stopped at a tea stand, and the owner was so thrilled to see three white guys come in and buy Thai tea (I love Thai tea so much!) that he had to take about half a dozen pictures of us.
Ban Mi is home to a Buddhist temple complex known as Wat Khao Wonkghot. The temple is a beautiful active temple complex, still under construction even though it was founded in the early 20th century. Work on it has been proceeding steadily since the 1930’s and continues to this day, still done by hand, with all the materials carried up the mountain by volunteers from the local village.
Do not go to Wat Khao Wongkhot if you are afraid of hiking or stairs.
The temple sits in a valley formed between three small, steep “mountains” (Thai mountains of a thousand feet or so, not like Himalayas, or even Pacific Northwest mountains).
You’re not getting anywhere without climbing steps.
At the top of the central and smallest hill is a statue of a seated Buddha, still under construction. It is pretty cool to see how a rough silhouette of the body is formed from bricks and then covered with cement, all of which are hauled up all those steps by hand.
The temple is also home to one of the largest bat caves in Thailand.
To get to the bat cave… you guessed it! More steps!
However there is no hurry. (It’s a Buddhist temple. Hurry is kind of against the whole inner logic of the place.)
Stop and rest as often as you like under the trees, or among the tombs and monuments to benefactors that dot the hillside.
When you get close to the cave it’s pretty unmistakable. The smell of guano hits you about two hundred meters down the slope.
It’s a strongly ammonia smell, but according to the literature at the temple, the harvesting and sale of guano is a major source of income for the monks.
From the mouth of the cave you can hear the rustling and squeaking of millions of bats as loud as the wind through the forest leaves. Of course they don’t come out during the day, but they make a mighty noise unto the Lord, even in their sleep.
We wanted to get to the tallest peak but could not find a way up from the main temple area. So we hiked down around the mountain and into town to ask the locals. They directed us down a dark alley (okay, so it wasn’t very dark, but it was definitely an alley) where we found a bunch of dragon tails.
We estimated each one at 80-100 pounds. The bamboo apparatus is a little for carrying them to the top of the mountain on a human being’s shoulders. I am in the best shape among that group and it took me the better part of 30 minutes to make the half mile or so trail to the top, where I found what the dragon tails were being used for.
I also found more monkeys.
A local village was working on the shrines at the top of the mountain and he showed us into the space below the one that he is building.
Apparently during excavations in the area someone discovered a “footprint of the Buddha” and the temple decided to build a shrine over the spot.
It was somewhat Indiana Jones-esque under there.
This depression in the rock is the “footprint.” It somewhat resembles the shape of a human foot, and they claim it was not carved out in anyway. Now, I know what hard-headed American skepticism has to say at this point. I myself do not personally believe there is anything supernatural in the shape of that hollow in the rock. Rather like the lady who spilled shampoo in the shower that happened to land in a vaguely humanoid shape, and immediately claimed a supernatural revelation by the Blessed Virgin, I think that it is merely a naturally occurring shape in the rock that is given significance by the people who look at it.
I do not for a moment think that this makes it valueless.
This man has been hauling stone up the mountain, two or three trips a day, for almost ten years. He has helped to build a beautiful work of art in honor of the greatest and holiest thing that he knows.
The same is true of the old monk who has been meditating at that temple for 35 years, and who showed us the older and larger shrine over another “footprint” sight. For years ago when I visited the two major temples in Bangkok it was the same. I was impressed, not so much with the force of the tenets of Buddhism (that is topic for a much different and longer post) as the dedication of its adherents.
They are wiser than we are, because they understand that the fundamental relationship of the human person is worship, by which I mean surrender and self-sacrifice. They consider it a joy and an honor to subject themselves to the honor of the Buddha (which is not pure Buddhism, by the way. It is highly significant to me that pure Buddhism as the Buddha preached it hardly ever exists anywhere.)
Imagine if a parish priest asked his parishioners in America to build a chapel at the top of a mountain by first building a set of stairs to the top, and then hauling 80 Lbs blocks of stone up there one at a time on their shoulders, and carefully mortaring each one into place with cement which had to be carried up one sack at a time, in a cement mixer that was carried up on a shoulder litter.
That would never happen, because we have forgotten what it is to worship. As the great cathedrals in Europe bear witness, Christendom had that kind of faith once, which allowed a man to dig a foundation for a building he would never see, to honor a God he could not see, but believed in with all his heart.
This shrine was dedicated to the former abbots of the monastery. One of them is interred there in a glass coffin, supposedly having been miraculously non-decomposed since his death in the late 1960’s.
I am slightly familiar with the corresponding Catholic examples of the “incorruptibles” and I couldn’t help but think this must be some different sort of thing. The Catholic saints that do not decompose are usually preserved in a very life-like state, often looking as if they had merely fallen asleep.
This fellow, on the other hand, appeared to me to be more in a state of petrification or mummification.
Mind, I have no way of knowing what really is the case. I will not limit holiness strictly to Catholics, or even Christians. How am I to know that this ancient monk did not have an encounter with the living God in one form or another in the course of his meditations? It would certainly not be the ordinary path to sanctity, but God is not limited to one path (we may be, but He is not.) Only God can say. I only say that from the evidence of my sense, the preservation of the corpse seemed to resemble petrification rather than the sort of life-like preservation of the body that Catholics might be familiar with.
At this point the sky was getting dark and rain was coming on so we decided to head down the mountain. We tried to take a different path that would open up into the main temple complex, but it didn’t.
It simply led us around below the pink dome to another, smaller bat cave, with a small bench in it that the monks sometimes use for meditating. So we had to run back down the way we came through pretty heavy downpour. For whatever reason, going down was a lot faster than coming up had been.
We stopped at a local “restaurant” in town. I put restaurant in quotations because it was not a restaurant in the western sense, but rather just a house where local people were happy to cook food for anyone who stopped by. They did not serve drinks. To get drinks you had to walk out and buy them from the little shop across the street.
They made their own decorations out of old soda bottles.
Yeah, that’s probably not kosher in an American restaurants, and the tatoos made him look like a convict (rather incongruous with the green gingham apron), but the man can cook! Within moments of firing up his propane tank the open air room was filled with the taste of Thai peppers sizzling in vegetable oil.
And this was the result, khao man gai khai (oily rice with chicken and egg). It was delicious and only 20 baht (roughly $0.60 US).
We felt bad about accepting the food that cheaply, but the lady who owned the house refused to take more money. That was what she always charged, basically what the food was worth and maybe a couple of baht more. We tipped her as well as we dared without insulting her. That is something I found out last time I was in Thailand. Tipping outside Western influenced areas can be construed as insulting, as if you were “buying” their hospitality. It doesn’t always hold true, especially in areas that cater to westerners. You kind of have to feel it out. When in doubt, ask a good interpreter.
We headed back to the temple as the sun was setting, running into this fine fellow sitting atop a statue of his ancestor. Monkeys are dirty, rascally creatures, but they are fun to watch.
We hiked up to the promontory above the bat cave, and stood there to wait for the bats.
They started coming out around 6:30 PM but with the dark of the ground below them we couldn’t see them very well, so we hiked back down to the mouth of the bat cave.
Let me just say, totally worth waiting the whole day.
Literally millions of bats.
They came in wave after wave, shrieking and screeching, and flowing like a furry winged river through the air across the valley and over the forest on the opposite side, before dispersing to begin the night’s hunting.
I can’t upload video right now, though I wish I could.
I climbed down into the bat cave to take pictures of them from below as they flew past. Probably not the the wisest move, but it worked well.
The streams of bats continued past sunset, through twilight, and well into the dark.
But there was a gorgeous three-quarter waxing moon to provide perfect back-lighting.
And they continued.
Until finally we had to call it quits and go. We needed to get some food and get the van back in case anyone else wanted to go out.
We were watched out of the temple by a retinue of creepy monkeys.
A magnificent day. God is good. May all people come to know Him.