He tells me his father's story. Inspired by a dream, Phra Sumroeng began creating his version of a Buddhist Hell Garden in 1976. He started by renovating a tumbledown monastery, recycled what ever he could find, from bottles to weather-beaten wood and discarded building materials. He planted teak trees to stop the erosion - an enormous undertaking for one man alone. The result is a little gem of wonder and folk art.
Phra Sumroeng died at the early age of 67, but not before he had built his own tomb on the premise of Wat Thawet. He left his life's work to his son - a tremendous responsibility that he takes very serious. He tells me that he didn't inherit his father's vision nor artistic ability and sees himself merely as the one responsible to conserve his father's work of art.
There is always something to repair, to repaint or rebuild at Wat Thawet. He gets help from locals, he tells me with a smile, because for them, work at a monastery is a form of merit making. Sometimes students and tourists come and stay for a while. It's challenging, he says, to get enough paint or building material to keep everything in shape.
Although there is not any mention of a donation and he doesn't charge an entry fee - gifts of money or material are welcome. He says, he is only a simple monk and not an abbot like his father was. Therefore, he's not financially supported by his order and relies on the goodwill of others.
I wander off through Phra's dream inspired creation, innocently called Buddhist Learning Garden. Life sized statues illustrate Buddha's life and the story of Ramayana. I learn that every different posture of a Buddha - standing, laying, sitting - has its own meaning.
All in all there must be over 100 life sized statues of people and animals lovingly painted and carefully placed. The lovely pagodas are intricately embellished with flowers, snakes, and all kind of flimsy decorations in brilliant colours with lots of gold like a somewhat overly decorated birthday cake. It's a lovely sculpture garden to kick back, away from the tourist crowd.
Punishment varies in harshness according to the sins committed. I see firsthand what will happen to selfish people and sinners. Gluttony, hatred, greed and anger are severely scolded, as are liars and thieves as well as the happy-go-lucky sort of people. Burning liquids are force fed to alcoholics and burn their innards that spill out of their bellies. Humans who don't respect the environment are turned into animals.
Unlike Christians though, where "the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever," Buddhist Hell is not a place of permanence and there is a chance - after severe suffering for a long time - to be reincarnated into a better life.
Many medieval European artists were inspired by hellish life and punishment. Just think of the Seven Deadly Sins by Hieronymus Bosch, Dante's The Divine Comedy or Herrad von Landsberg's "Hortus Deliciarum"
Buddhist Hell Gardens are quite popular by native families and are visited like scary theme parks elsewhere. Learning gardens are weekend destinations used as a pedagogical tool to teach children strict morality by showing them what happens if you live a life in sin and accumulate too much bad karma.
Good to Know
How to get there
To Wat Thawet: approximately 8 km from New Sukhothai
View Sukhothai "Dawn of Happiness" and Wat Thawet in a larger map
Where to stay
There are a myriad of guesthouses and hotels in New Sukhothai, and a few in Old Sukhothai - the ancient city and historical park why Sukhothai is mostly visited. Some of the hotels - like Legandha, the Sukhothai Heritage Resort and and Ananada Museum Gallery Hote are far out of New and Old Sukhothai, though they provide drivers. June to February is tourist season (with no Mosquitos in the winter month), so make sure you call ahead to make a reservation wherever you plan to stay.
New Sukhothai, 640000
Picturesque grounds, lush garden - convenient and quite location.Tan, the owner grew up in the house on stilts over a pond for cooling, where I slept on a typical thin Thai mattress. She and her husband Michel, a French countryman, met while working for Air France. They bought Tan's Parents home and transformed it into a guesthouse, building many more Thai stilt houses on the premise. It's kept authentic, like a Thai family house - which means no telephone in the austere and sparsely furnished rooms with simple bathrooms, some shared. The website looks a tad too boutique which it is not. I loved the place, lizards and all (they help with the mosquito's :)and would go back anytime. Tan and Michel were very helpful.
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New Sukhothai, 64000
Telephone: ++66 (055) 620-396
It doesn't get anymore authentic than this. It's a traditional teak Farmhouse where you will get a firsthand taste of Thai life of the olden days. Mattresses on the dark wood floors with mosquito nets, bare rooms. The main house is enchanting and much nicer than the bungalows, though the latter have A/C. Fan and shared bath. Free pickup from the bus station, but call ahead.
Rates: Thai Baht 120 - 400
Old Sukhothai, 64000
This is a charming modern Thai style Hotel close to the World Heritage Site of Sukhothai with all the conveniences you can expect from a contemporary hotel. Swimming pool and a good Restaurant, so you don't have to drive into New Sukhothai which is about 12 km away. 10 minute walk to the site or rent a bike and bicycle around, since the park is quite large.
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More Hotels and Tours to Sukhothai
Sukhothai "Dawn of Happiness"
The World Heritage Park is approximately 12 km away from New Sukhothai, where most of the hotels and guesthouses are located. The park itself is very large and the remains of the ancient city are wide spread. It's advised to rent a bicycle to see everything or take a guided bus tour.
Boon Lotus Elephant Sanctuary
Other Hell Gardens
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