video of the standing Buddha who just looms over you majestically (above)
When you drive down Route 2256 to the Ranrai Jomthong Resort you descend down into a valley. On the left side are some of the strangest shaped mountains I’ve seen and nestled at the foot of them is this very large, standing golden Buddha statue. I had no idea how big it was from afar and generally I’m always driving at this point in our trip, so I only ever see it in the quick glimpses I can steal while operating the car at the same time the few times we passed it – I could see it gleaming, a golden spike against the dark green curtain of the mountain.
Now that we’re staying at the resort we had enough time to go try to see the statue up close. I asked the lady who works the kitchen how to get to the big statue and she just politely told me she had no idea what I was talking about. I called the lady who owns the resort, who speaks English quite well, and asked her how to get to the big Buddha statue but she gave me directions to a famous big Buddha that’s in a national park 60 km away. I reckoned this golden, standing statue is within 5 km. So we just decided we’d try to figure it out by using Google Maps and if we couldn’t find a road we’d turn back around. It looked easy enough from what we found on the satellite map, but you never know.
So we headed up the road and I started seeing blue signs for a “wat” (temple) that pointed in the right direction. We turned off the highway and passed through some cornfields and stopped along the narrow road for my dad to take some photos of an Isaan-style truck. (It’s a small truck with wood on its frame and a tractor engine that’s exposed in the front. Picture a “Beverly Hill-Billies” truck.) We could see that we were getting close to the temple and turned in to the first spot that seemed like a landing port. There was a building that looked more like a conference center than a temple and the giant golden Buddha wasn’t visible (it was hidden behind some trees and higher than we were) but there was this incredible Naga (snake) that coiled around… everything, it seemed. The body was huge and silver, with little mirrors as each scale (that’s normal, but the silver color was unusual). The biggest body wrapped around itself in a circle and inside that was a fountain with the seven-headed Naga inside. Underneath the umbrella of the seven-headed Naga is a huge stone ball that, if water had been running through the fountain, would have been spinning, as if weightless. Around the body of the biggest Naga were smaller, green Naga that were almost like praejat (the armbands that Thai fighters wear) and their heads would have been spitting water into the center of this immense fountain. The biggest, silver Naga wrapped all the way up the staircase and behind the tall trees to the upper level of the temple grounds. He was just huge.
We went up to the second level and parked the car in front of some dorms. There was a young monk walking around, who smiled at us, and an older monk being dropped off out of a car that pulled up behind us – he didn’t smile at us and I felt a bit weird. I don’t think many tourists come to this temple at all. It’s in the middle of nowhere and even though the standing Buddha seems to dominate the valley, the folks at our resort didn’t even seem to know it was there – at least as far as our questions went.
First you see the “end” of the enormous silver Naga, which is seven heads coming out like a wave. Normally the seven-headed Naga is depicted in a kind of canopy of heads, with cobra-like skin spread behind each head to form shelter underneath. (The Naga protected the Buddha from the elements.) But this Naga’s seven heads were like the dragon heads that typically finish off the Naga on staircases up to temples or along their walls. The seven heads almost spilled forward like a wave, or the charging chariots of Greek Mythology. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Around the back of the actual temple center, which was at the center of a moat that ran underneath it as well, was the enormous – I mean enormous – golden Buddha. He’s in standing position with his arms at his sides and palms facing forward. He was almost impossible to photograph as the collapsing and flattening of the image seemed to take away the visceral experience of seeing him in front of you. He seemed to be leaning forward, somehow, with this amazing blue sky and white clouds behind his impossible gold-ness. I don’t mean to sound so tripped out about it, but that’s how if felt.
I did my best to capture the layout at least in photos. There was another giant statue of a seated monk, probably semi-local to the area and this wat in particular. Then in front of him was a Garuda, the bird-like deva that is symbolic of Thailand and is on all official government buildings and documents, but I’ve never seen a big statue of him like this. He was atop a little nest of gold bars, which was interesting. The three of them together was quite breath-taking.
When we got back to our car there was an older monk, maybe in his 50’s, who met my eyes and smiled at me. He was just pointing toward the big Buddha statue, maybe assuming I don’t speak any Thai, so I smiled back and said how incredible it was. He started chatting with me, making sure we’d walked all the way around and seen everything (we’d just seen a really intense Ganesha inside a separate pagoda – probably the coolest Ganesha statue I’ve ever seen) and wanted to know where we were staying and how the hell we’d found this place. I told him we’d seen the Buddha statue from the road and wanted to find it, which he seemed to think was great. Very cool, monks are. “Laid back” is such a lame phrase for it, but it’s pretty accurate to the disposition of a lot of the monks I’ve encountered. We were the only people there other than the few monks we encountered.
We got back to the resort and I still had to go for a run, so I decided to just run back to the temple. The road was so different by foot than it was in the car. I saw so much more of the cornfields, more of the little houses just back from the road, and the endless mountains that curtain the greens and tans of the valley. The sun began to set as I headed back, the camp-fire smell of burning wood on the side of the road in patches and the gold of the statues seeming to emit their own glow in the dimming light. It didn’t seem like the same place on both visits, but the two impressions collapse into one in my mind. What an amazing accident to have seen it.
You can read my first post on the Banrai Jomthong Resort here.