When Is a Temple Not a Temple?

Written by D.R. Ransdell

When Is a Temple Not a Temple?
Answer: When it’s a mega-temple!

My friend and I decided to visit Thailand’s Wat Pho on the morning we were going to visit The Grand Palace because the two famous sites were close together. The descriptions in our guidebooks made it sound like the temple was famous because it was one of the oldest in Thailand and because it was closely associated with the Buddha. We didn’t think much past that. We took for granted it was on a must-see list.

            When we arrived at the temple, we were shocked to find that it wasn’t merely a temple but a whole temple complex. This was completely new to me. Up to that point I’d spent a lot of time traveling through Europe, which meant touring famous churches such as the Chartres Cathedral or the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Even though those two churches were examples of buildings that deserved a ninety-minute visit, I wasn’t prepared for Wat Pho, which was worth several hours!

            Our first clue was seeing the busloads of children arrive at the same time we did. Our second clue was paying a much higher price than the locals. Our third was seeing a little store selling soft drinks! We had arrived at a temple complex that was all-encompassing. It was a place where people went to pray and meditate, but it was also a place where people went for picnics. They went to hang out. They went to meet their friends.

            This was quite overwhelming for two women who were jet-lagged from their long voyage from Tucson, Arizona. Nevertheless, we did our best, bravely approaching the room with the famous Reclining Buddha and stopping to admire the graceful figure with the huge decorated feet and the long series of offering bowls.

            We got back outside and wandered among the sections of the temple, reveling in the ornate decorations that included brightly colored curly-cues and flowers. We took one picture after another because between the chedis (mounds), shrines, and Chinese giants, we were well aware that we couldn’t take everything in.

            Then the best thing happened: we were accosted by school children. I say accosted because they were supposed to do an English assignment that included having a conversation with somebody who was a native English speaker. “How do you like Thailand?” was the first question.
            I wasn’t sure how to answer. I’d arrived late the previous night.
            “Will you come back to Thailand?” my interlocutor asked before I could decide how to fib my way through the first answer.

            Then I realized that the exercise was meant for English practice, not veracity. I told the student that I liked Thailand very much and that I would certainly come back. When he asked why I would come back, I told him it was because the people were so friendly. From his gracious smile, and the present of a postcard, I could tell that I had at least managed one correct answer.

            As my girlfriend and I took more loops among the beautiful structures, I reflected on what it meant to live in a society where going to the temple meant such a happy conglomeration of happy meetings. I couldn’t help thinking that some of the churches I’d been to back in the States weren’t doing things the right way.

            The only problem, of course, was that when we reached The Great Palace, it was much more than one great palace. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Author's Bio
Where D.R. Ransdell is concerned, no excuse to travel is too small. Whether it's visiting
friends in Natal, Brazil, relatives in Zurich, Switzerland, or hitting new territory, she jumps at every chance. These adventures often turn up in her fiction. In her recent YA-novel, THAI TWIST, Wat Pho is the protagonist's very first stop.

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