Thailand boasts many wonderful attractions, I’m sure. The only ones I knew of previously (based on news reports alone, mind you) was the easy access to underage prostitutes, and the chance of getting caught smuggling drugs and possibly executed. Which strangely enough didn’t appeal to me, really. I prefer my partners to be of legal age (and preferably also equipped with the knowledge of who Farrah Fawcett was), and sitting rotting in a jail cell wondering if I’ll die first from the hangman’s noose or dysentery was always low on my Things To Do Abroad list.
Still, if I did go, I might have to visit one of Thailand’s Hell Gardens. Which sounds like an awesome movie title. There is one, the Wang Saen Monastery Garden, about ninety minutes’ drive south of Bangkok if you absolutely, positively have nothing better to do while in Thailand. Secluded down a quiet lane not far from the coastal resort of Bang Saen, Wang Saen’s entrance is dominated by a brightly-coloured sign that proclaims “WELCOME TO HELL”
Funny, it doesn’t look like my in-laws’ house (Bah-Dumph! Thank you, I’ll be here all eternity!)
What we have here is one of several, apparently very popular sites that basically reproduce, in huge, garish, gory detail, the various punishments that await sinners, at least according to Buddhist beliefs. Now, the first thing that came to my mind when I first read about this is: does Richard Gere , Tina Turner, Orlando Bloom, Tiger Woods, Steven Seagal and all the other Hollywood types who claim to embrace Buddhism know about this side of the religion? Probably Seagal knows. He’s probably had a permanent boner waiting for the day when he dies and he gets to dispense some justice on sinners.
Still, the self-indulgent New Age tint that Western celebrities seem to add onto their so-called Buddhist beliefs, all the peace and harmony and contentment crap they like to spout, doesn’t sit well with the notion that you also have to believe in eternal disembowelments, rape by snakes and other things that would make even Jack Chick blanche.
For a mere 20 Thai baht (or 30 British pence, or half an American dollar) you get to tour the Wang Saen Hell Garden. Now, most places like this will have the serene, beautiful Buddhist temples, with the elaborate architecture, babbling fountains, gongs and other peaceful accoutrements. But you know what? I paid my 20 baht, and I want DAMNATION! And here, you get it, because the monks here have created their vision of Hell.
The centrepiece of the garden of Wang Saen is a pair of giant Earthly sinners: a man looking like Christian Bale when he did THE MACHINIST, with a long drooping tongue that would make Gene Simmons envious, and a frightening-looking woman with sagging bosoms and a swollen belly that bring back too many Nightmare Grandma memories. Beneath them is a sign that reads: “If you meet the Devil in this life don’t postpone merit-making which will help you to defeat him in the next life. Donate a little each day and you’ll have a happy life.”
Sounds great. On the other hand, if Hell meant I could have a six-pack like this giant guy’s got…
Around these giant sinners are others, whose heads have been transformed into various animals, all based on their sins while on Earth. Thieves are transformed into monkeys (and presumably becoming more adept thieves), corrupt officials are transformed into pigs (thus becoming even lazier than before- wait, I’m probably not getting the point of all this). There are others that seem… arbitrary. Arsonists, for instance, are turned into snakes, and delinquents into crocodiles. If you damage plants that are useful to humans, you get turned into a goat. I’m beginning to think the original compiler of these punishments was just doing a bit of improv and someone took him too seriously (“What, people who steal cooked rice? Turn them into, um, giant birds! Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket!”).
There are also punishments depicted for those who violate the five Buddhist precepts, their equivalent of the Christian Ten Commandments. Have you ever killed someone? Well then, be prepared to have your guts ripped out and eaten by birds, or to be speared and hacked to death by monstrous creatures. There are similar punishments awaiting those who steal, commit adultery, cheat, or get addicted to gambling, drugs and/or alcohol – or, as everyone else likes to call them, Charlie Sheen and Gary Busey.
The monks’ sculptures, a popular form of local folk art, look crude and laughable to many Western eyes, but the sites prove to be popular weekend destinations for families wishing to instil some morality in their children (you use the Pill or a condom? Be prepared for an eternity of being squeezed in a giant vice). Other sites include the Wat Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden, where you can see newly-arrived souls be judged by the Buddhist ‘death king’, Phya Yom, whose clerk holds a golden ledger of our earthly deeds, both good and ill, and who decides if you go to Heaven, or Hell – which in Buddhism comprises 136 different fiery pits. I’m pretty sure one of them is set up specifically for me, with a plasma screen showing nothing but Rob Schneider porno, and my eyes stapled open forever.
Perhaps I shouldn’t make fun of other people’s religions. But sometimes it’s just too damn easy.
And this is certainly not the ridicule of a self-indulgent Westerner over the precepts of Eastern beliefs. I’m perfectly willing to put a mention in to Hell Houses, the haunted-house style attractions that pop up across America, especially around Halloween, where Christian groups can scare the hell out of patrons (and, presumably, scare the Bejeezus into them) by displaying tableaux of all the eternal horrors that await those who choose to be gay or do drugs or masturbate or read Harry Potter (especially if you do the last two at the same time). The first Hell Houses appeared in the 1970s, popularised by Jerry Falwell (remember him, the one who warned us that Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies was gay?), and have since grown in number and intensity, despite heavy criticism for their hatemongering on gays, AIDS victims and single mothers, and presumably also by the notion that, like so many religions it seems, the money, time and effort would be better spent on, you know, actually helping their fellow human beings.
And maybe cutting down on the asking for donations. Throughout the Hell Gardens (and Hell Houses), donations are always asked. Scare them, and get their money. Fear and Consume, as Marilyn Manson once said. Me, I’ll save the money for the next scary movie (although these places seem like perfect film fodder. Imagine if some of these statues came to life and started attacking the patrons? Anyone want to crowdfund that?
For me, religion is like disco. I can see the appeal, and I won’t deny you whatever personal satisfaction you might derive from it, but don’t expect me to get up and join you, because it will only turn out ugly.
Director: God, presumably
Plot: 1 out of 5 stars
Gore: 1-10 out of 10 skulls, depending on how bad you are.
Zombie Mayhem: 2 out of 5 brains (there’s gotta be some zombies in Hell, or it won’t be worth going)
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien. The D is silent. And has backmasked Satanic messages in it. HAIL SATAN!