Sunday, October 14, 2012

History in the Temples

A person lights incense at Wat Rai Khring in Nakhon Pathom province Friday

Friday was one of those days that didn't exactly go according to plan. The day started out pretty well when I photographed some workers in a rice field. Nice light and all that. 

I didn't spend much time with the rice workers because I was headed to Wat Bang Phra to photograph the monks tattooing people at the temple. It's something I've photographed before, but I wanted to refresh my selection of tattoo photos. 

We got to the temple and the Abbot said I couldn't photograph. I was pretty surprised because this is normally a very easy place to work, so easy I'd gotten complacent and not made any advance arrangements. And that was the problem. 

I showed the Abbot my press credentials and letter of introduction and he said that was exactly what was needed. And that I should fax those materials to the temple and they would let me know when I could come down and photograph. 

He said so many photographers had come to photograph the tattooing in recent years that they were ruining what is, after all, supposed to be a religious experience. 

I felt a pang of guilt at that last part. Even though I'm pretty discreet when I work - I don't use flash and I use long lenses, there's no hiding my presence or the fact that I'm a farangMy photographing is almost certain to be disruptive.  

In circumstances like this I try to respectful. It's his temple (or more accurately the community's, but he's in charge) and I hadn't made advance arrangements. So I thanked him and left.

Nakhon Pathom is less than 50 miles from Bangkok, but because of traffic and narrow roads it's a solid two hour drive down there. I didn't want to just turn around and head back to Bangkok, so we (a Thai friend who was driving and I) took off looking for another temple rumored to do tattoos. We found the temple and it was a bust. The temple was practically deserted and the Abbot told us his temple didn't do tattoos. He said we should go to Wat Bang Phra, but they weren't allowing photographers in anymore. 

Plan B time. Since we were in Nakhon Pathom to see a temple, and Nakhon Pathom is where Buddhism came to Thailand, we dropped the tattooing part of the program and went looking at historic temples. 

I made these photos at Phra Pathom Chedi, a beautiful temple first built in the 6th Century (renovated since then) and Wat Rai Khring, a fascinating temple built in 1791. 

Take note of those dates. 

Phra Pathom Chedi, one of the largest Chedis in the world, was built in the 6th Century. Europeans were just entering the Dark Ages then. Phra Pathom Chedi, a massive temple, is still in constant daily use 15 centuries after it was built. Wat Rai Khring was built in 1791. Phoenix was a broad spot in the Salt River Valley back then with no European habitation to speak of. Tucson was still a part of Spain's empire in the Americas. 

Walking around Bangkok, especially the part of town I live in (65 years ago this part of town was the far suburbs and there were still rice paddies and fruit orchards around, now it's practically downtown), it's easy to forget that the Thais measure their history in tens of centuries. 

You don't have to get very far out of Bangkok to realize just how much history there is in Thailand.