When visiting Buddhist monasteries in Phuket ...

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As said elsewhere in these pages, Buddhist monasteries throughout Thailand are open for outsiders to enter at will during daylight hours, so long as they observe a few simple, common-sense rules: modest dress (especially for women, who should not reveal their bodies too much), not disturbing monks and others who may be meditating, removing shoes before entering buildings and acting respectfully towards all religious objects or monks one might come across within the monastery grounds. 

Here in Phuket, as in all Buddhist monasteries in Thailand, one will find a powerful amalgam of ancient Thai culture and real Buddhist teaching.  Not everything within the grounds of a Thai 'wat' is pure Buddhism, with many elements coming from the pre-Buddhist beliefs of the Thai people.  Even the images of Buddha, some would point out, do not reflect the real essence of Buddhism.  The Buddha himself was a rebel against a form of Hinduism in which many idols were worshipped, and told his followers clearly that they should not worship images.  Thai monks might point out that they merely show respect to the Buddha and his teachings through the images, but do not 'worship' them.

Whatever your interest in Buddhism while in Thailand, be it casual or serious, one can find both answers and questions right here in Phuket – while taking an interesting tour through the core of Thailand's long culture. 

Wat Chalong – Phuket's most famous Buddhist monastery

Wat Chalong is a large, spacious Buddhist monastery in the South of the island that serves double purposes, first working as spiritual centre for its local community while carrying the secondly role of education and PR centre for the thousands of foreign visitors who come here.  A visit to Wat Chalong can be both interesting and educational.

At Wat Chalong many things happen in the course of each day, and the visitor could easily find a ceremony of one sort or other taking place.  And if you come during mid morning or afternoon, expect to find less Buddhist activity and busloads of tourists strolling around.  Even with tourists gawking and pointing cameras, the monks and local Thai community continue through their various rituals. 

Wat Chalong is a good example of a working Buddhist monastery because it has a full range of buildings, and can offer birth-to-death services to its community.  A monastery needs an 'ubosot', a consecrated, central temple to be able to ordain men into the monkhood, one of its central roles.  When this photographer visited at the beginning of the rainy season in May. such an ordination ceremony was taking place, with the family group photographed here currently making their three circumambulations around the ubosot, before entering for the final rites that would turn the old gentleman seen at the centre of the photograph into a monk.

Towards the back of Wat Chalong is a crematorium, something not all monasteries have space for.  Here it is common to see cremation ceremonies in the evenings, for some continue over several days.  Such final ceremonies generally run longer for famous or influential personalities, allowing people from near and far more opportunity to come and pay final respects.  

In the middle of Wat Chalong is an interesting ceremonial building, a combination of traditional bell tower and shrine room for meditation and worship.  Many images of Buddha in the various symbolic poses rest here.  Visitors may climb the stairs to the upper balcony for an overview of the monastery grounds.

and don't forget Phuket's Big Buddha on the mountain....

Any consideration of Buddhism in Phuket, and Buddhist places worth visiting, should not miss what has surely become the Buddhist shrine that locals are most proud of; the Big Buddha on the mountain above Chalong Bay. This, the hugest statue of Buddha in Phuket and the region, casts its all-seeing gaze across the southern end of the island, over Chalong Bay to the open ocean and all the way to Phi Phi and Krabi.

Built with donations, it has been many years in construction, and while the main statue is virtually done, many surrounding pavilions and statues are still on the way. As with Buddhist monasteries and shrines everywhere in Thailand, there is no entry fee. However, visitors are encouraged to buy a single tile, write their name on the back, and have this small token cemented into the structure for 'eternity'.

Visitors must wear 'polite' dress, that deemed appropriate when visiting a holy place of worship. Women should not wear short pants or mini dresses, while men should have shirts with sleeves. Those who turn up dressed in appropriately will be intercepted at the gate and given either a sarong or shirt to cover bare flesh with.

other Buddhist anomalies one might see in Phuket....

The photos here showing a group of people paying respects to a shrine in Phuket's Chalong district might not look so unusual, however there is a whole array of mixed cultural messages and metaphors here.

The people are not Thai, but Taiwanese, and thus come from far to the north of Thailand. The shrine is not Buddhist, even though it is dressed up in the forms and colour associated with Thai Buddhism. This is Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, quite some distance from its original Indian home, and set up inside the walls of a Buddhist monastery. These visitors appeared to know little or nothing about Brahma prior this visit. And they had surely never worshiped him before, for the man in front first gave them a small lecture, explaining and showing them exactly how to do it.

Why would people from one culture worship a little-known god from an entirely different set of beliefs?

Christians and Muslims hold all-exclusive philosophies, and most true believers would reject any action that indicated acceptance of a foreign religious belief. Those Asians brought up under the wider philosophical umbrella of Buddhism, however, are taught not to reject unknown religious ideas, but to query and examine them. And one concept that has wide acceptance in Asia is the idea that all prayer, meditation and religious activity is positive, no matter what creed or title it comes with. Thus, by paying respects to the foreign god Brahma, these people believe no harm is done, while some positive energy is created simply through the act of prayer.

by John Everingham