The Hidden Buddhist Temple of Ban Thong Lang
My first visit to Ban Thong Lang took place on the 11th August 2007. To be honest if I had known how far I was going I would probably have said no. In the end though it turned out just fine. Sometimes it is better just to go with the flow and not to ask too many questions.
We were living in Pattaya, Thailand at the time and the previous day my girlfriend asked me if I wanted to go to a Buddhist temple with her. I did not think twice as I had visited a couple of temples with her on previous occasions so I said yes.
At this stage in our relationship I spoke very little Thai (not that I speak much more now) and she spoke very little English so there was very little point having a long disjointed conversation about where and when.
We rose early and took a motorbike taxi to meet up with three bar girl friends, one of whom had got a car and driver from somewhere. Then we set off. I thought we were just going down the road...perhaps an hour away...maybe two.
It turned out to be something of an epic journey and after seven hours and 600 Kilometres later we arrived.
I was not surprised to learn that more than prayers and offerings were on the cards and all the girls had come to have their fortunes told and one of them to be cured of evil spirits. All very interesting for me.
Fortunes told and appetites sated by a huge bowl of very tasty lung soup we set off along dirt tracks past lush fields of Corn, Sugar and Pineapple to the temple.
There were actually two temples here. One situated at the base of a small mountain and another one higher up.
We went to the lower temple first. Here there was a single very serene monk with several cats as company. The girls gave their offerings to him and we all prayed. I cannot say that this temple or its immediate surroundings were beautiful because they were not but they gave a tremendous feeling of calm. Just for that I was pleased to have come.
I was interested to learn from the monk that I was the first 'Falang' (non Thai) ever to have visited the temple.
Prayers over we climbed a number of steps up the mountain to a cave. Here there was another monk and a number of beautiful statues. This was so different from down below. This truly was a beautiful and magic place. The monk here was a really nice guy and in spite of the fact that he spoke no English whatsoever I had an instant friend. Again no 'Falang' had ever been here before. How long had this place been here? No-one knew. Maybe a thousand years. Maybe more.
Outside of the cave on the cliff side sat a huge Golden Buddha, his paint all flaking off. Proudly though he overlooked the lush green valley before.
As we descended back down the mountain I asked one of the bar girls why the Buddha was not shiny gold like so many I have seen. She replied that it was because they did not have the money for paint. I asked how much and she said around 3000 Baht.
I said I would return in some months and paint the Buddha.
Kai and Buddha
Painting the Buddha
We returned to paint the Buddha on the 11th September 2007, a month to the day since my first visit. I had sort of imagined it would be a year later but something had drawn me back.
I don't profess to be a painter and I hate DIY but if I have to I can set my hand to anything. I wanted to paint this Buddha. I wanted him to shine! In my imagination I thought it would take me just a couple of days. How wrong I was.
My girlfriend booked into a nearby resort. It is all very well sleeping part of the time on the temple floor but there is something of a joy in a hot shower and a mattress at the end of the day.
It was late when we arrived so it was just a case of showing our faces to people we had met on our previous visit.
At the temple I was introduced to Kai (Mountain Chicken) who, I was informed was something of an expert at Buddha painting and to be honest I was glad I was going to get some help.
The following day we drove out and bought our first gallons of Gold paint, plus scrapers, thinners, brushes, wire brushes and undercoat. It was only now that I learned that all the old paint would have to be stripped off first. We would then apply undercoat and lastly one, two or three coats of Gold.
Did you know there is actually a special Gold paint for painting Buddhas? We bought all they had in stock. More than enough we thought. How wrong we were.
Scraping off the old paint
The first job was to remove all the paint. It was not an easy task. I really don't know where I got the idea that 'I' would do it. If it were just me I would probably still be there today. No, all sorts of people turned up, farmers, monks, witches, schoolkids, university students and more. Some stopped hours, some all day and all worked very hard. They were poor people but lovely, friendly, kind people.
By the 14th we had all the old paint off and we applied the first coat of white undercoat. We had to give three coats in all. It was not easy because there were periodic bursts of extremely heavy rain which would wash an entire coat off in seconds if it had not had time to dry.
In between the heavy rain the sun blazed down on our exposed bit of the mountain causing the sweat to flow. Not everyone can stand on the Buddhas shoulders in such conditions...but Kai could!
The Painting team
Rain and sweat both quickly removed my copious applications of DEET and the second the protection had gone did the the mosquitoes move in for the attack. As the only 'Falang' for miles around I was fair game...fresh blood.
It was today I rediscovered the forgotten agony of iodine as my girlfriend applied it to my wounds after a fall. It took me back to childhood for a while.
Myself and Monks
We only managed to apply two coats of undercoat during the day and decided to return early in the morning to apply coat number three. I thought we all agreed but Kai sneaked back and applied coat number three during the night.
When we arrived early morning of the 15th we discovered we could not paint because the Buddha was wet with dew. We would have to wait for the sun to rise and burn it off. We waited. It dried. We started to apply the first coating of Gold. The rain came down!
Twenty minutes later all the Gold had been washed off. Another wait for Buddha to dry. At the end of the day we managed to apply two full coats of Gold.
On the 16th we managed to apply part of coat number three before it started raining again. It did not look like it was going to stop so Kai had a word with Mai. She chanted and the rain stopped immediately. Mai has told my fortune with unerring accuracy as well. Strange but lovely lady.
Dao cooked me lunch. She wandered off into the jungle for a while collecting various wild herbs and vegetables and produced a delicious soup. I didn't ask what the meat was.
Later in the afternoon we manage to complete the third and final coat of Gold. Buddha looked brilliant. He could be seen for miles around only there is no-one to see him here. The farmers in the fields perhaps but no-one else. There are no roads here, no tourist trail.
We were complete. Most were happy. It had cost me a lot more than I had anticipated. It had been an interesting experience but most of all it had been good for my soul.
I never went into Buddha painting for gain but just to give but afterwards many of the painters did give me something. Buddhist rings, sacred amulets and similar. In the year since I have in turn given most of these to others for luck. I live simply and need few possessions as I carry all I own in the world on my back.
I was given a cheap but attractive Buddhist bracelet by one of the monks which I have worn night and day ever since.
Return to Ban Thong Lang
Dao and I returned to the temple at Ban Thong Lang on 22nd November 2008.
This time we were not coming to paint but because Dao was going into retreat in the temple for three days. During that time I was not allowed to touch her and she was only to eat once a day. I would stay in the resort and partially explore the surrounding countryside.
Whilst there we painted another Buddha...this time a wooden one and also explored other caves further up the mountain. Some of these were in use by monks too as a base or for meditation.
In The Cave
This visit was great for me as I had 'free' time and visited zoos and a wildlife park in the area. Meanwhile Dao in between prayers had explored further up the mountain. She knows the use of practically every plant and herb and can spot animals that I never see. We did disturb a cobra underfoot and found the dung of some goatlike herbivore.
In the evening when I returned to the temple she would tell me what she had seen and found so later we explored together but in the company of others. These were chaperones because whilst she was in retreat I was not permitted to touch my own 'wife'.
The mountain was criss crossed with monk trails and very steep in parts. The steep paths usually had a rough bamboo banister to hold and ease the climbs. Mostly under massive bamboos there was very little undergrowth. There were spectacular views over the jungle and fields below.
Up the Mountain
We went into several caves. Some were in use as places of meditation by monks though we never actually saw anyone. I managed to split my head open on the low roof of one cave. Dao, in spite of not being allowed to touch me managed to staunch the blood flow using Aloe juice from a plant she found growing on a cliff side. I never thought of Aloe as a Thai plant. It was almost as if it had been placed there just for my head.
In Other Caves
My first experience of Orbs was on a visit to 'Holy Well' in Cornwall. I was not surprised to find them in a magical place like here. I showed the photo to Mai and Dao. Without prompting they both said they were spirits though they had never seen them in a photograph before.
What do you know about Orbs?
Whilst we were there a young guy came by and carved a Buddha out of a piece of timber. By way of gesture I bought a tin of gold paint and we painted it too. Much easier than doing the big one.
Will I return? I really don't know. None of us knows what is waiting round the next corner. It is a peaceful and friendly place, somewhere to chill.
Am I a Buddhist? Who knows?
As far as I am aware no 'Falang' has visited even now.