How I Got to Tour the Reverent, Sober Side of Pattaya
Reverent, sober Pattaya?
I will let you have two minutes to finish the mental snickering.
OK, done? Right, let’s move on.
Pattaya is best known for the tourist strip prosaically called “Walking Street”, which specialises in sex tourism and its adjacent amusements. But, you might be surprised to know it is actually a rather large city that has other city sorts of things. (Did I hit the deadpan note right?)
Yet somehow, when I got around to visiting it, without even particularly trying to avoid the Walking Street, I managed to only see a sober Pattaya!
- 1 How I Discovered the Sober Pattaya
- 2 Pattaya’s Laser Cut Buddha of Khao Chi Chan
- 3 Pattaya’s Sanctuary of Truth
- 4 Truths I See: Khao Chi Chan vs Sanctuary of Truth
- 5 I Tried to See “The Proper Pattaya”
- 6 Carbon offset information to Pattaya, Thailand
- 7 Glossary:
How I Discovered the Sober Pattaya
It was very simple. I asked my host to choose.
My colleague and I happened to find ourselves there as part of a larger work trip to Thailand. As usual, my Thai friend Weerachai played host. It was a last minute trip, so neither of us had the opportunity to think about what we wanted to see while there. Time for just a quick ‘hooray’ and then get to packing.
Of course, both of us foreigners associate Pattaya with dodgy tourism – it’s pretty much the only thing most people know. However, since neither of us belonged to the target demographic, we were not particularly invested in sampling it.
But it felt wrong just to laze about the hotel patio watching graceful orange sunsets over the sea while having juices and cocktails.
So we took the easy way out and put it on our friend. Essentially we said, “Khun* Wee, take us to what you want to show us in Pattaya.”
And he did. He took us to two Buddhist sites.
Pattaya’s Laser Cut Buddha of Khao Chi Chan
There’s a tremendous amount of parking at Khao Chi Chan, which is somewhat baffling when I start to think about it, because there isn’t anything to do here. I can only assume that at certain times, a heck of a lot of people congregate in Khao Chi Chan.
The main attraction, is the Buddha image carved into the entire side of a rocky outcrop with lasers. It commands a wide view, and the approach is via semi-paved meandering walks through a quiet garden. It was commissioned to commemorate the 50th year anniversary of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign.
During our visit, despite being several months after his death and after the official mourning period was supposed to be over, the public was still visibly in mourning. People in Pattaya still dressed in sober and neutral colours. Black and white rosettes can still be found on pillars in front of homes. Big picture boards and banners in ‘grayscale’ were still up in front of businesses and premises, expressing grief over the king’s passing.
Images on these boards would either depict his formal posed royal photos, or more intimate images of the king in one of his many deeds for his people which had endeared him to his public over the decades.
I think they would have loved him even if he was not king.
There is a temple to the side, where the faithful would stop by to pray. Here and there monks in saffron robes wander. Apparently it is a terrible rudeness if we were to touch them, because both of us are women. My friend was assiduous in making sure such a faux pas never accidentally happened.
The coins that are left untouched
We came up to a plaque of sorts at one end of the path. Coins were left on the raised lettering, so I asked W–i what the deal was.
He explained that people left these as a sort of almsgiving, perhaps a version of a wishing well without the well. Basically anyone in need may take them, unlike the donation box nearby, which is for the maintenance of the complex.
Like when I needed a coin for the bathroom just now? I mused aloud. I had desperately needed to get some from my friend earlier. He laughed and simply repeated, anyone.
But there were many coins still there, completely untouched. No greedy hand has taken them.
I marvelled at the situation I found myself in. There I was, touring the infamous Pattaya, yet I looked upon traces of brotherhood and reverence, restraint and decency.
Pattaya’s Sanctuary of Truth
When Weerachai sent us a photo of this place, as one of the places he proposed to take us, I said yes immediately. Cristin had already been, but I got my way.
Why? Because it looks like this, and had such an evocative name. Sanctuary of Truth.
The Sanctuary of Truth is not a temple, but merely a Prasat – a place erected in honour of religion, but not a place for worship and prayer. You can tell, as unlike Khao Chi Chan, there aren’t monks wandering about the gardens. It is private property, and to view the sanctuary there are (not nominal!) admission charges.
The prasat was first commissioned by the patriarch of a wealthy Thai business family, motivated by his religious devotion and love of woodcarving art. He has since passed away; his son continues the effort.
Touring the Sanctuary of Truth
The way to the elaborate building passed through tree-lined grounds, in which carved statuettes and sculptures peep out at random spots. They brought to mind a vision of exquisite Thai nymphs, petrified in wood.
We accepted a guide, despite my misgivings. My experience with formal tours in Asia has led me to expect a boring narration. But we thought maybe it would be nice to have things explained to us.
Interestingly, our guide was Indonesian, who is resident in Thailand after marrying a Thai woman. His Thai is fluent. The tour could have been interesting if delivered from this unusual perspective – a non-Thai describing a very Thai cultural edifice. More interesting perhaps, than the formal tour he delivered.
Unfortunately he has the rather typical Asian ‘lecture’ tour guiding style, finding it difficult to veer off script when he gets asked questions. To be fair to him, it’s not him per se. It’s just that this declamation style is popular in many countries of the region.
It was a long tour, with the guide thoroughly taking us through every room. Eventually though, he let us explore a bit on our own for a short while and so we were able to take some unhurried photos. You know, just admire the handiwork without facts and figures crammed into us.
And here I thought art was supposed to be contemplated or felt.
What is it a sanctuary for?
Perhaps the pedantic among us might begin to wonder, what is the structure a sanctuary of?
It does not – and is not intended to – function as an asylum for people. Rather, it is a sanctuary for Thai woodworking arts expressed through the truths as recognised by Thai religious culture.
The prasat is meant to be entirely covered in carvings. Every piece of timber is – or will be (it is a work in progress) – carved. It is incredibly fine woodwork, and hard work as well, considering that the prasat uses only expensive hardwoods: mahogany, cedar and teak.
The artwork inspiration draws from Buddhism and Hinduism, and parts of the layout design reflect significant meaning in the worldview of one or both religions.
Aside from displays representing key religious truths, the main chambers house other things (I suppose also considered truths) such as astrology and numerology.
I quickly checked my personality description based on the numerology of my birth date. Yep, sounds like me!
…and a hidden truth?
If you’ve read my past article on sustainable travel habits, you might venture to ask some questions regarding what lies behind the things you’re shown. Which is what I did.
It all began because Weerachai told me the work began 36 years ago, and it is still ongoing and under constant maintenance. When I asked how much longer it was going to take (not to mention which is it – under maintenance, or ongoing construction?), he smiled a cryptic smile and encouraged me to ask the guide.
So I asked the guide. It took some deft query skills and suffering defensive dark looks from him, but essentially I learned that the Sanctuary of Truth is:
- meant to be entirely carved, down to every timber (except presumably the floor boards),
- out of very expensive wood of three kinds (teak, mahogany and cedar),
- while being sited next to the sea (which will accelerate the wear of the protective varnish and rot the wood more quickly),
- causing parts of the prasat to have to be re-done continually as new sections are still being carved, which also means,
- even when (if?) it is finished, it will never really be.
I then ventured to ask where all the wood was coming from and continuing to come from – which forest? I thought positively. Perhaps there is a forestry planting program attached to the project. But he guide did not know, and seemed cross by the question.
Pushing against the curtain for more truths
We went to see the working area where the Thai craftsmen were working to preserve their traditional woodworking arts, so that it continues to be a Thai heritage skill.
Except that they’re not Thai, nor are they even men.
Today, overwhelmingly the wood carvers at the Sanctuary of Truth are Myanmarese and Cambodian women, even though traditionally wood carving was typically a male art. This might be considered encouraging, an opening of the art for women to participate in? But then I learned the real reason why.
The reason why Thai carvers no longer carve the artwork for the prasat is because they cost 300 baht per day in wages. Whereas the Myanmarese and Cambodian migrant workers would accept just 80 baht. (Weerachai thinks that maybe room and board might be provided, or some equivalent perks, since those wages are dire to even live on, let alone send home).
And the reason why they are female Myanmarese and Cambodians, is because the men would not take such a poor employment deal.
Truths I See: Khao Chi Chan vs Sanctuary of Truth
I think back to the plain lines of the Khao Chi Chan laser cut Buddha, and the unforced reverent atmosphere in the complex. I recalled feeling impressed at the woodwork facades of the Sanctuary of Truth, then learning the truths veiled behind the beauty of the intricate panels and screens. To be perfectly honest, it seems to me that only one of these places was a sanctuary, and sincerely about some kind of truth.
This is a choice that I find often presents itself to us in life. If it comes down to it, what would you choose – simple authentic meaning? Or a beautiful hollowness?
In a very rare moment of Thai candour, my friend quietly said much later in the car, “I think it is to show the wealth. That is why it is purposely never going to be done.”
He and I are often of the same mind at work. It appears, not just there.
I Tried to See “The Proper Pattaya”
“You might as well also see the Walking Street,” said Weerachai. Driving by the waterfront, he pointed the prostitutes out to us, standing in a row by the embankment along the path to the strip.
Now my friend, he’s a pragmatic, diplomatic guy. When I probed him on how he felt about it, all I got out of him was that the tourism gives a major boost to the local Pattaya economy and GDP.
It’s not just the direct sex tourism either. These days, he says, there are even tour groups organised – not for sex tourists but to look at the sex tourists.
Is that weird? It felt kind of weird to me. Like, wouldn’t it be weird to organise a tiger petting tour, to look at the people unethically petting captive tigers?
“It is what people know Pattaya for,” he added.
I suppose that is true. Continuing in the Orwellian theme of calling things the opposite of what they are – it is, after all, the ‘proper’ Pattaya.
So I agreed for him to take me through the strip later on in the trip. Even though I wasn’t sure if I would gawk more at the sex tourism, or the voyeur tourism. Would the latter include me, if I’m twice removed from ground zero, as it were? What do you call a tourist who gawks at the tourists gawking at the sex tourists?
But in the end, something upsetting came up for me that week which took my attention away.
I did try to make good my intention to see the infamous strip. But after dinner at a rooftop restaurant Weerachai decided – and he was right – that I simply looked too exhausted from everything. So we called it a night.
And that was how I toured Pattaya – and only saw the reverent and sober side.
Carbon offset information to Pattaya, Thailand
Return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Pattaya produces carbon emissions of approximately 904 lbs CO2e. It costs about $5 to offset this.
*Khun – respectful Thai form of address, like ‘Mr.’