The main Temple in the city of Kon Khan was shaped like a cross between a giant spire and a pyramid. It was a place of worship for the living and internment for the dead.
On my visit there I didn’t expect to see anything out of the ordinary.
After all, I had seen many other Buddhist temples in Thailand – as well as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. The temple: a place of rituals, of heavens and hells, of lures and Samsara – and redemption by following the precepts of the Gautama Buddha.
But in this temple there was something different.
It was a place of worship for the living and internment for the dead and it was also a museum; a place where history loomed large. And it was this I found profoundly interesting and led to me spending far time in this particular temple than I would in others.
There were five floors.
The largest floor – the first one – was the place of worship.
On the second and third was where the past was stored: relics from a rural way of life long since vanished. When the village way of life was where most people lived and the cities were a fraction of the size they are today – along with the number of people.
I knew something about that world having travelled in South East Asia during the 1980’s, when Bangkok for example was a large town and nothing like the modern skyline today with high towers and busy highways; when taking the boat down the Mekong was the normal way to reach the post office to pick up one’s mail – letters and postcards. Before the era of the pc, internet, mobile phone and social media.
Still, even then I had no real inkling of what the reality of rural life was until I visited Khon Khan’s temple in August 2022 accompanied by a Thai person who had grown up in a village during that bygone era – and was keen to reminisce.
Without her, those relics would have remained a mystery – none of them were labelled, there were no information boards, nothing. The relics and accompanying paintings were kept there, but no attempt made to systemise any of it. And it was not only foreigners like me – Farang – who did not know what they were looking at but also most Thais, who had either grown up in the city or were too young to know anything about the traditional rural life.
Our Thai friend was nostalgic for the rural way of life which had vanished long ago – of growing up in a village and its rice padddies surrounded on all sides by heavy jungle.
She used the word ‘easy’, but I think she meant ‘simple’.
‘Easy way of life. Easy. Food was everywhere. Rats, frogs – many different kinds – birds, snakes, fish big ones and small ones……easy finding food. All around, everywhere….’
She was well aware of the advantages of progress but she was also aware of the price which had been paid for that progress. Her romantacism of the past was in a way an implied criticism of the present – in a nation ruled by a military junta where critics had a habit of vanishing.
Many of the implements she pointed out to us were used to catch this menagerie of creatures. Other instruments were used to grind grasses and seeds and berries found in the jungle. Some younger Thais joined us and asked her about the various implements on display – and were just as enthralled as we were.
Then came another part of our Temple Museum excursion: on the walls there were paintings of the past rural village life and once again, our Thai friend pointed out the salient details.
Nature could be bountiful with the creatures which could be eaten and it could be threatening too….
The first village kids which were obligated to attend school instead of working in the fields or foraging in the jungles.
In that traditional life, there were no doctors and no medicines. Only the monks offered any kind of solice for the living and also the dying.
Who was responsible for collecting the traditional tools and implements which had not been used in decades?
And who had arranged for someone to paint the rural scenes?
In the case of each of these, there were many more than featured in these photos.
Was their someone in the monastery hierarchy who realised that a way of life unchanged for centuries was on the verge of disappearance?
Perhaps a monk who had orginally come from a village (and most of the lower orders and trainee monks would have certainly come from a rural background).
They were questions which cropped up in my mind after we left Khon Kaen and which I regret not asking about at the time.
Whatever the answer was, this was the first temple I had seen which was also a musuem.