Chanthaburi, Thailand: An Uncertain Religious Experience
By Jess Kroll
Among the drab colored, dirt covered buildings in Chanthaburi, Thailand, the high, red gate of the Chinese Temple stands out like an oasis in the desert. Topped by two matching green dragons with red spines, facing each other, that jumps out every time I pass it. On some nights, like tonight, the soothing drone of chanting wafts out from behind the gate and echoes between the crowded buildings.
I am having dinner with a group of gem traders at a small restaurant near the temple. One of the traders, a Malaysian named Ben, asks the gathering if anyone else has seen the mummies. As a farang (foreigner), I have no idea what he is talking about. In his broken English Ben attempts to explain that thousand-year-old Chinese mummies are on display at a temple. He went to visit them that day and during the single hour of his trip, his eBay business received two negative feedbacks. He laughs at it off as 'the curse of the Chinese mummies' and his business partner suggests that both of them avoid the site if they want their pristine feedback record to remain untarnished.
The next day I am wandering the area surrounding Chanthaburi with my friend Beer. Thai people more often go by their nicknames than by their real ones. The nicknames can be given for seemingly random reasons and are often colorful. Beer was nicknamed by her father who enjoyed the drink.
At a small noodle shop twenty minutes out of town she asks if I am interested in coming to temple with her. She explains that there is something she has to do, but is stingy with the details. I assume she intends a visit to one of the monasteries to bring food for the monks, so I agree. We drive back into town and leave her car in a packed parking lot across from the temple I pass almost everyday.
A short walkway leads from the street through the gate and into a courtyard before reaching a large, off-white building with a sloping red roof and a pair of dragons similar to the ones on the gate. The courtyard is full of people who move around from table to table set up on all sides of the walled area. Beer leads me quickly to the left of the gate into a different building's long, open room. A desk runs half its length along one side.
She takes a slip of paper from the desk and finds a seat along the opposite wall. She offers me the seat next to her and proceeds to fill out the various blanks on the form. It appears to have all the familiar places for name and address, but since I'm not literate in Thai it's hard to decipher what the rest of the paper means. When she is done, Beer speaks to a man behind the desk. She hands him a single 500 baht note (roughly $12.50 US) and looks back, motioning for me to follow.
Directly behind where we were sitting is the entrance to another part of the building. A long staircase runs up the near wall. Beer leaves her shoes at the foot of the staircase.
As I removed mine I notice that further into this room, beyond the staircase, are numerous three- to four-foot-tall objects resembling gold Christmas trees. They are in various states of completion, some not yet fully formed, some with red tops and others adorned other red designs. I follow Beer up the stairs.
The second level has a large opening in the floor through which we can see the gold and red objects from above. On one end of the room a large window looks out over the courtyard. On the other, along the edge of the opening in the floor, is a table with a box and a couple of loose forms identical to the one Beer carries with her. Past that table are other tables covered with flowers and gold statues of elephants, rabbits and other animals.
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