I was privileged to travel into a remote part of Thailand in February with two co-workers to look at the possibility of new volunteer placement sites. As always in my travels in Thailand, I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the land and the beautiful souls of the people. On this trip, we traveled by car west from Bangkok to Nakhon Pathom, where we met Trinh Hagedorn, one of our CVT volunteers. Over lunch in the courtyard of the Grand Chedi, the largest stupa in the world (see thumbnail below), Trinh shared with us some of what he is doing in his work at one of our smallest schools, Sawang Wittaya. He also shared how he is adapting to life in Thailand. While he faces the challenges of life in a different culture every day, he enjoys spending time with the students and helping them with their English. He is partnering with his home church, St Paul Lutheran Church in Narrowsburg, Pennsylvania, along with the Narrowsburg Library and Thrivent for Lutherans (Hudson Valley Chapter), to build an “English Corner” in the library at Sawang Wittaya School. The first books arrived at the school at the end of March 2013. (See library donors in thumbnail below.)
From Nakhon Pathom, we went on to Kanchanaburi, where we visited the War Cemetery, a final resting place for those who died building the “Death Railway” (see thumbnails below). And, on our way up into the mountains, we stopped at the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and learned more about this tragic time in Thailand’s history when it was occupied by the Japanese and prisoners of war were forced to build the railway to Burma. It was during the rainy season in 1943 that thousands of men were forced to work 24-hours a day to dig this cutting for the “Death Railway.” More than 10,000 POWs and 100,000 conscripted Asian workers died in building this railway – a huge number of them died during the twelve short weeks it took to complete this cutting. Today, the hammers and chisels are gone and the valley is quiet and peaceful now – a beautiful place with acres of wild bamboo growing on rugged hillsides (see thumbnail below). But its bloody past still raises its head and reminds us of how cruel human beings can be.
It was early evening when we finally arrived at Sangklaburi, a small town nestled on the banks of the reservoir of Vajiralongkorn Dam. It is here that you can see the Mon Bridge, the world’s second longest wooden bridge (see thumbnail below). It crosses the reservoir to the village where the Mon Temple stands. At dawn, the reservoir is breathtakingly beautiful, reflecting the distant mountains in its placid waters. It is only upon closer examination that you can see the poor living in houseboats and barges tethered to the banks (see thumbnail below). Most of them earn a living from fishing, but the water levels are low due to drought, so the fish are not as plentiful this year. I wonder whether these people have heard of the love of God and whether anyone is working in this community to share the good news of the gospel.
This little village is called Baan Wangka. It was built almost thirty years ago to replace the original Baan Wangka village which was flooded when the Thai government completed the Vijiralongkorn Dam. The original Wat Saam Prasob Temple was also flooded and a new temple was built in this little village with the assistance of the royal family. (You can still see the former temple under the waters of the reservoir. See thumbnail below.) It is a stunningly beautiful temple with doors carved from teak wood and glittering mosaics of colored glass cut into tiny shapes and formed into wondrous patterns. The shutters of the windows are carved teak figures of men and women (see thumbnail below). The columns of the temple are polished chrome and shine so brightly in the morning sun that it is impossible to look on them. In a separate worship space is a Buddha carved entirely from white jade (see thumbnail below) and even the designs around the electric light on the ceiling are carved from teak. It is all stunningly beautiful.
There are times when I believe that John Calvin had it right, for there is wonderful simplicity in the unadorned worship spaces of his imagination and total focus on the Word in the centrality of the pulpit. But there is something that transcends human understanding when mortal man pushes the edges of creativity and artistry to build a monument in honor of God. When I say this, I think of cathedrals in Europe that took generations to build, as well as such worship spaces as the Hagia Sophia, the Sistine Chapel and the heart-stopping beauty of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame. But it also applies to art created in other religions: Wat Pra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in Bangkok is an example. Here at the Mon Temple, the main door of this temple shows the life of Buddha carved in teak. On either side and above the door are colored glass mosaics and gilt that frame the door and are their own work of ark in such detail that the heart of the artisan shines through. These artists put their hearts into their work to the glory of their god. I would love to see them put the same effort into a work dedicated to Christ.
So, the question of the hour is: Have Christian missionaries made it to this remote part of Thailand and are they sharing the good news of the gospel with the people in this place? The answer is a resounding “Yes”! Not fifteen minutes down the road from here is a village with two Christian churches, a Christian school, a Christian hospital and, yes, a Bible School to train lay leaders for ministry. When I was a child, it took missionaries three days to travel by boat up river to Sangklaburi. Their children attended the same boarding school that I did. When I come to Huey Malai today, I feel the presence of Christ in this place and see the face of Christ in the faces of the missionaries and volunteers that have come to this remote place to share their faith with those who live here.
More photos (Click on each photo to enlarge it):