Benedict Anderson’s recently published book The Fate of Rural Hell describes a temple complex in the countryside in Thailand that depicts in graphic detail the gruesome results in the afterlife of bad deeds on earth. The imaginatively detailed sculptures produced under the local Buddhist monk’s direction have become an increasingly popular tourist attraction for visitors from home and abroad.
My first trip to Thailand has been inspirational and visually astounding, the incidental beauty of Bangkok was quite unexpected as I knew nothing of this, having considered it as a place of crowds and seediness rather than the location of spaces for contemplation in the heart of the chaos and bustle of human business, endless traffic and relentlessly penetrating sunshine. The temples are like those of Kyoto, offering sanctuary from the craziness of 21st century reality. As an Atheist I feel no sense of “spiritual” enlightenment but nevertheless there is an unmistakeable atmosphere of calm in these spaces that exude an essence of timelessness. They are peaceful, slower spaces set in the heart of the city’s mayhem.
The stray dogs and cats on Bangkok’s streets also seek sanctuary in temple complexes as do wild birds, urban pigeons and the Chao Phraya river’s voraciously hungry catfish. The unfortunate, mangy feline and canine beings serve as a reminder of the harshness of life outside modernity’s boundaries in line with the intentions of the protagonist of Anderson’s book. His visits dating back to 1975 record the changes that Thailand and the rest of the world are experiencing through the untrammelled unfolding of the
capitalist vision of utopia with all its free markets, kitsch by-products, inequality of success versus suffering and seemingly inevitable environmental catastrophe. By contrast to Hong Kong Bangkok is a kind of haven where the past still exists in the flesh and the life of the street riotously continues to fill ordinary people’s daily lives with colour, noise, delicious food and opportunity. It seems to be a place where the balance has not yet tipped in favour of corporate power and the blandness resulting from all the money being in a few people’s hands is still kept at bay…