Saturday, June 16, 2018

Hanoi’s Roving Vendors

                                                                 by Jim Goodman

roving vendor making a sale
       When first-time visitors to Hanoi begin exploring the city center, they soon become aware of one of Hanoi’s special characteristics, one that distinguishes it from every other city in the country—its roving vendors.  This becomes more recognizable when sitting down for refreshment at one of the sidewalk cafes or street corner bia hơi shops.  As you sip your drink, on the congested street in front of you, besides cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians, pass members of the city’s army of mobile merchants.
       A few are men, but most are village women, wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical cap, often carrying their goods in trays or shallow baskets balanced at each end of a shoulder pole, just as they would in their villages.  These may contain flowers, fruits, vegetables, snacks, or even cooked food and dishes in one and stools for customers in the other.  The poles are slightly flexible and as the vendor walks along the trays seem to bounce evenly up and down, but never overturn while on the move.
bringing in the fruit
vendors on the move
       Besides using shoulder poles to transport their goods, the vendors may mount the items on racks tied to a bicycle, such as sunglasses, cell phones, mirrors, brushes and combs, small brooms, feather dusters and clothing, which they take on foot around their routes.  They could load things like ceramic cups, saucers, plates, bowls, ladles and teapots, or several kinds of fruits and vegetables, in a wheeled cart and push it around.  They could place small items in a tray suspended at the waist.  Or they could bundle their goods on top of their heads as they search for a place to stop and lay them out.
flower vendor on her route
flower vendor stopping for a sale
       Most look for a spot along the street where they can at least temporarily set up.  They may have to move on if the place suddenly gets too jammed so that customers can’t even stop to look at what they have, or if business becomes too slow, or if police are approaching.  They might end up at several locations for the day.  Others, like those pushing carts or carrying goods in a tray, may not stop anywhere, just slowly wander over a specific route.  Besides residents and pedestrians in the area, potential customers could be passing by on motorbike and stop to make a purchase.
Hanoi market in the Lê Dynasty
       How ancient the roving vendor tradition may be is difficult to guess.  Commerce was different centuries ago.  The city had streets specializing in specific items and regular market days.  One could assume there were morning markets of some sort, at least for food and perhaps wandering vendors selling essential everyday items.  Except for the bicycle, people transported their goods through the city like they do today, using shoulder poles, pushing them in carts or carrying them on their heads.  Old engravings and drawings and photographs from the colonial period are the evidence.
       After Vietnam’s independence in 1954 the nature of life and commerce in Hanoi changed dramatically.  The new socialist government nationalized land, resources and industry and took over the administration of production and distribution.  However, the ‘subsidized economy’ also included the notion that the state was responsible for the welfare of the people.  The state also subsidized schools, hospitals and other social institutions.
vendors (left) setting up in the French Concession, 1870s
       A decade later the system began feeling the strains with the beginning of the American War.  After victory and unification came conflicts with Cambodia and China, followed by years of international isolation.  Not only was poverty widespread, especially in the countryside, so was hunger.  Faced with such a dire situation, in late 1986 the Party decided on a drastic overhaul of the system.  Called đôi mới (renovation), the policy abolished both subsidies and control over most of the economy, distributed land and long-term leases of it to the farmers and permitted them to sell their surpluses.  It also allowed individual businesses to set up and the private employment of people as well as self-employment.
hawking feather dusters and  brooms
vendor on her route
       The freedom to decide on their own land use and the right to sell surpluses certainly provided the initiative to produce those surpluses.  Agricultural output rose, as did farmers’ incomes, poverty began diminishing and hunger became rare.  As Vietnam’s national development began taking off, the government was able to improve the infrastructure, extending electricity and new roads to the rural areas.  Villagers in the vicinity of Hanoi could now reach the city markets easier.
cooked food vendor and customer
       While the lives of rural folks improved much after the đôi mới reforms, the end of the subsidized economy also meant that the responsibility for the people’s welfare was no longer the state’s but that of the people themselves.  This was all the more reason to take advantage of the new economic liberty.  They had more responsibilities to bear, and risks, but it was better than the basic, minimum, bottom-line government guarantee of the pre-đôi mới days that they had come to believe they would never get past.
       One consequence of the reforms was the prices of goods and commodities were not determined by a socialist bureaucrat anymore, but by the laws of supply and demand.  They were higher than the ration card days, but more and more of everything was available, especially in Hanoi.  The economy started booming.  Opportunities of all kinds popped up constantly.
       In the countryside, villagers were better off after the reforms, but they were still poor in comparison with Hanoi people.  Even if they were self-sufficient in food production, the cost of everything they needed that they couldn’t make themselves was always rising.  Besides their own domestic expenses, school fees and health care costs, they had social obligations with kin and neighbors within the village, such as weddings, funerals and other events to attend, requiring monetary gifts.  In a money-based economy they needed a supplemental income.  The village didn’t offer any employment.  The only choice was Hanoi.
vendors on an unoccupied sidewalk
stopping to make a sale
       Because most villagers don’t get beyond a middle-school education, they cannot qualify for any kind of office work in Hanoi.  Their only skills were farming and animal husbandry, both useless in the city.  Men could sometimes get part-time jobs in construction work in the village vicinity, close enough to enable them to return home after work.  But for women, the sole option was self-employment as a roving vendor.  It wouldn’t be full-time, for they would return home at important times in the planting cycle and for all-but-obligatory family or village ceremonies.  Some who came from villages close to Hanoi would travel back and forth every day, but most came from further off and worked and slept in the city most days of the year.
       Debt is a prime factor in making the decision to migrate, whether it’s formal indebtedness to a lending institution or informal debt to villagers or relatives.  Nearly always they have to be paid in cash, so a cash income is necessary.  But other reasons can motivate the move, like the desire to build a new house, to finance their children’s higher education, to prepare for wedding expenses or simply to earn money to buy things to improve their home life and impress their neighbors.
roving with a basket of sweets
broom vendor on the move
       When the decision comes to migrate, it is usually the woman who goes.  If she is still nursing children, the husband will go instead.  When she does go, the husband may also go, provided there are enough relatives around to take care of the household.  But that’s rare.  And the work is not very financially rewarding and after a hard day of tramping the city streets, men are more likely to squander their profits on alcohol and tobacco than their abstemious wives and mothers.  A majority of Hanoi’s roving vendors are women who do not intend to have any more children, though there are some who still do and younger ones who are as yet childless. 
mobile buyer, mobile seller
       Roving vendors have been part of the Hanoi scene for three decades now, so standard procedures are in place for getting involved.  The aspiring roving vendor will depart from her village with a few others at the same time and they will join a group of fellow villagers already established in the city.  They will stay at the same place, either in a boarding house or in rented floor space in Hanoi people’s houses.  They’ll sleep side by side, with no real privacy, and be subject to the landlord’s restrictions on the use of water and electricity.  This will also be their support group while in the city and the veterans of this group will instruct the newcomers in the tricks and tasks of the trade.
       They’re already aware that it’s not going to be an easy life.  They did not come here because they were bored with village life and needed something to do, but only reluctantly, out of economic necessity.  They know they will not get rich, but if they are careful, budget-conscious, diligent and lucky, they can save enough to alleviate past debts or cover future expenses.
       The first decision the woman has to make is what product to sell.  Roving vendors sell a bewildering variety of items.  Some are edible and/or perishable like fruits, vegetables and flowers.  Others are not, such as brushes, feather dusters, sunglasses and clothing.  Her support group will have some recommendations, as well as advice on where and how to purchase the items.  The items with the best turnover are fruits and flowers; fruits because Vietnamese like to have fruit after a meal and flowers for their ritual, gift and decorative use.  A lot of competition exists for selling these, however.
fruit vendor waiting for business
vendor with small packaged goods
       The biggest source for wholesale goods is Long Biên market, next to the iron bridge of the same name.  It opens in the wee hours of the morning and roving vendors often get up at 2 a.m. to beat the crowds and get the best selections.  Newcomers quickly learn that among the tricks of the trade are those the Long Biên merchants play on them—short-weighting and concealing spoiled, unsellable fruits in containers the customers are not permitted to inspect.  Even flowers have to be checked, to ensure they are all fresh and not mixed with some cut a week ago that are already beginning to wilt.
       The vendors take their time examining their purchases, comparing prices at different stalls and finally making a selection.  By daybreak they are ready to prepare their loads, determine the prices they will charge and set out for the day.  Veteran vendors will advise the newcomers on how to select a route, based on competition for certain items, space accessibility to lay out their goods, and offer tips like hanging out near restaurants to sell fruits and sweet snacks and how to negotiate through thick moving traffic when crossing busy main streets.
making and selling a meal
       Setting prices is key to whether the day is successful or not.  Potential city customers assume that prices offered by roving vendors have to be lower than prices at shops or permanent market stalls.  The vendor has to add on something, and in the case of fruits purchased by the crate or carton, make up for the spoiled fruits inevitably hidden in the lower layers, but it cannot be as much as retail sellers, who might not mark up the items very much anyway.  Always number-conscious, she will know the cheapest places along her route to have a meal, and will not indulge in any extras.
       She must also be on guard against petty theft, usually by addicts and juvenile delinquents.  Yet even the well-off can play mean tricks on occasion, like taking something in their hands to examine and then driving off on their motorbikes without paying.  This is not a continuous daily hazard, but it does happen.
       The biggest danger comes from the police and their periodic raids on vendors, often involving the confiscation of goods.  City laws forbid roving vendors on a number of downtown streets, yet the vendors often take their chances, for the raids are not a daily occurrence and these streets are the best for their kind of business.
       Hanoi seems to be ambivalent about the roving vendors.  With its plethora of narrow busy streets and exponentially growing congestion, the authorities view roving vendors as impediments to traffic and outdated as a phenomenon in a modern city.  When Hanoi hosts important international events, like the SEA Games some years back, police launch campaigns far in advance to clear all roving vendors out of the city, lest visiting dignitaries view Hanoi as still backward.
vegetable vendor on her route
vendor with conical caps and basketry
       No one has come up with an alternative source of employment for the vendors, however.  Hanoi residents still view their presence as part of the city’s unique culture.  The Women’s Museum has a special exhibit about them.  And no doubt the Tourism Department doesn’t want them to disappear.
       The roving vendors certainly don’t want to give it up.  Hard as that lifestyle is, at the end of their time here they will have earned enough to make it worth it.  Other village women, beset by similar economic problems and inspired by their example, will come to Hanoi to replace them.

roving vendor crossing a busy street

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Monday, June 4, 2018

Keeping Their Identity: the Shan in Chiang Mai

                                        by Jim Goodman

Por Sang Long procession at Wat Ku Tao
       The Kingdom of Lanna ruled over most of northern Thailand from the late 13th century to the middle of the 16th century.  Its ruling family and inhabitants were mainly Tai Yuan.  But during its heyday the capital Chiang Mai was the most important city in the region, enjoying trade connections with neighbors in all directions.  As a result, many foreigners also came to reside permanently or temporarily in the capital and Chiang Mai became known as ‘the city of twelve languages.’
       One of these was Shan, or Tai Yai, a dialect close to that spoken by the Tai Yuan, with a very similar alphabet, by a people largely populating northeast Burma.  Some of the Shan immigrants ran businesses in Chiang Mai.  Others were involved in the caravan trade, transporting goods back to the Shan States or north to China. 
       They were never very numerous but as a community they remained through the period of Burmese occupation, from the conquest of Chiang Mai in 1558 until their expulsion in 1774.  But by then the city was deserted.  Not only were all the Shans gone, so were all the Tai Yuan, who had fled to isolated spots of rural refuge during the long campaign by King Kawila of Lampang and his Siamese allies to drive out the Burmese.   
traditional Shan style--male
traditional Shan style--female
       To repopulate Chiang Mai and other northern cities Kawila next led raids into northeast Burma, particularly Kengtung and Mong Pong, to capture people and take them back to Chiang Mai.  By early 19th century the Burmese presence and threat had been eliminated and life returned to normal.  Lanna was not an independent kingdom like before, but this time a vassal of Siam.  Over the course of the century Lanna gradually lost most of its autonomy as the government in Bangkok, worried about imperialist encroachment on all sides, sought to extend its authority over everything within its boundaries.
       However, Siam did not attempt to insulate itself against the Western colonialists.  It sought to engage with them commercially in hopes that would curb their voracious territorial appetite.  After Great Britain annexed southern Burma, Siam made a deal—the Bowring Treaty of 1852--that allowed the British to sell their products inside Siam and granted them concessions to exploit the teakwood business, as well as to bring in some of their colonial subjects to work in it. 
the main chedi at Wat Pa Pao
Burmese-style roofs over a shrine at Wat Pa Pao
       Burmese and Mon immigrants were already working the border area forests since 1840.  From the 1850s Shans also came, not only to the border provinces of Mae Sarieng and Mae Hong Sin, but to legging depots like Chiang Mai, Phrae and Lampang.  In Chiang Mai they settled in the neighborhoods opposite the moat on the northeast side of the old city. 
       The Shan are also followers of Theravada Buddhism and easily fit into Chiang Mai society, even at the upper levels.  Shan aristocrats felt an affinity with their counterparts in Lanna’s upper class and one high-ranking Shan lady, Mom Bua Lai, became the consort of Lanna’s King Inthawichayanonda.   In 1883 she sponsored the construction of Wat Pa Pao on Maneenoparat Road to service the Shan community.
Buddha images, Wat Pa Pao
Shan guardian at the viharn entrance
       Instead of following the Lanna style of the dozens of temples in the city, Wat Pa Pao’s designers created a compound in which every element, from buildings to sculptures, reflects the Burmese Shan tradition of religious art.  The original wooden main viharn has been replaced by a more recent structure of brick and plaster, with red, corrugated iron roofs.   Statues of a pair of armed Shan guards flank the staircase.  Portraits of local Shan personalities and historical events hang from the front interior walls.  At the end of the capacious assembly hall sit two Buddha statues, a large one behind a smaller one, both in the Burmese style.
the chedi at Wat Ku Tao
Universal Ruler Buddha, Wat Ku Tao
       Everything else in the compound is from the original construction and very different from those of Thai temples.  It’s more crowded, for one thing, with not too much space between the structures.  The narrow, four-tiered entrance gate is unique to the city, but similar to those in the Shan States.  Even more typically Burmese-Shan are the multi-tiered roofs over the smaller viharn and the little shrine next to it.  Both are heavily embellished with carvings along the edges of the roofs.   Such roof towers are quite common in Myanmar, but in Chiang Mai they only exist in Wat Pa Pao.
       The yard to the right of the viharns is filled with chedis, columns and sculptures.  The tallest chedi, shaped like an inverted bell, the usual type in Thai temples, was modeled on those of Pegu, as replicated in the Shan States.  At the four corners of the base stand the mythical creatures called kilin, with a dragon’s head over a lion’s body. 
Shan woman at Wat Ku Tao
Khao Phansa ritual at Wat Ku Tao
       A couple smaller chedis stand in the yard, in between skinny trees, and a tall white column rises topped by the same multi-tiered type of roof that ascends over the shrine next to the small viharn.  A very different chedi stands between the viharns and the big, bell-shaped chedi.  It rises above a cubic stone shrine with the same multi-tiered roofs, also topped by a golden spire. 
Shan students at the Wat Pa Pao school
       In the late 19th century the concept of nationality began assuming importance.  The Shan migrants, as British subjects, were supposed to be exempt from corvée labor or labor tax imposed on Siamese.  But at the end of the century the Bangkok government promulgated land reform laws that took away most of Lanna nobles’ rights and laid a labor tax, in lieu of corvée labor, on all commoners, Shans included.
       Theoretically, Shans were exempt from the tax if they could provide documentary proof they were from Burma.  Most didn’t have such evidence.  Most were former poor farmers who migrated to Thailand to seek a better life—the usual immigrant motive.  They didn’t anticipate needing documents to stay.  Borders were looser in those days.  People came and went easily.
       Shan resentment boiled over into violence in the 1902 Shan Uprising.  It was not a very righteous campaign, though, not one involving those in the logging trade or urban commerce, and characterized by massacres and wanton destruction.  Shan bandit gangs in Phrae province started the rebellion, backed by Lanna nobles who hoped to retrieve their lost privileges.  The uprising spread to other northern provinces, though not Chiang Mai.
Por Sang Long at Wat Pa Pao
Shan girls at Wat Pa Pao
Bangkok dispatched troops to quell the uprising and from then on accelerated the rate of assimilation and integration of the north with the rest of Siam.  It appointed its own administrators, whittled away at the Lanna king’s authority and required school lessons to be taught in the central Thai dialect with the very different central Thai alphabet.  When the last king of Kawila’s dynasty died in 1937, no one succeeded him.   By then Siam was Thailand and the assimilation process was in high gear.
Por Sang Long procession in Wat Ku Tao courtyard
       Wat Pa Pao continued as the main religious center of Chiang Mai’s Shan community.  Specific aspects of Shan culture fell into desuetude, but the language remained in use domestically.  As the community grew in the last half of the 20th century, they expanded north of their original neighborhood and Wat Ku Tao, a couple blocks beyond Chang Puak bus station, became another focus of Shan religious activities.  Unlike Wat Pa Pao, where the monks wear yellow robes, like the Thais, at Wat Ku Tao they wear red robes, like in Myanmar and the Shan States.
       The unusual chedi at Wat Ku Tao was built in 1613 to enshrine the ashes of Nawrahta Minsaw, the first Burmese-born governor of conquered Lanna, (1579-1608).  It rises in five diminishing spheres, representing five historical and future Buddhas.  The large, two-story viharn next to it is in typical modern Thai style, but the main image inside is of the Buddha as Universal Ruler, a depiction commoner in the Shan States than in Thailand. 
       Dressed in royal costume and lots of jewelry, he rules over a future world when the Buddhist Dharma has triumphed everywhere.  On holidays like Khao Phansa, the beginning of the Buddhist retreat season, a network of strings stretches out from the image.  Devotees grab one of them to receive the blessing a monk has imparted into it. 
novice in the Por Sang Long procession
women in the Por Sang Long procession
       The main activity at this festival, though, is out in the courtyard.  A few commercial stalls go up, hawking food, textiles and other items.  Some people listen to monks’ lectures, others paste gold leaf stickers on a Buddha image and lay offerings at shrines, while a few men may do an impromptu music show with the ‘elephant-leg drum’ and a rack of cymbals.   Some folks come primarily just to meet and talk with each other, for festivals are social occasions as well as religious ones.  And both men and women dress in traditional Shan attire.
       Like Thai women, Shan women wear blouses with ankle-length sarongs, but the stripe patterns and embroidered sections differ somewhat from Lanna designs.  They may also wear headscarves with the flaps tied up over each ear, a particularly Shan custom.   It’s a Shan festival, so they want to look very Shan celebrating it.
through the Wat Ku Tao neighborhood streets
       The Shan in Chiang Mai never really lost their identity, but in the last few decades they have become more inclined to demonstrate it.  The official attitude towards Tai sub-groups and other minorities has also changed over the years.  Rather than continuing to subsume all sub-groups into a pan-Thai identity, Thailand, in this age of tourism, now advertises its diversity, giving more scope to cultural revivalism among the Shan, Tai Lue, Tai Dam and others.
       In 1997 Wat Pa Pao’s abbot set up the Pa Pao Foundation to Support Education, Art and Culture.  The following year the temple opened a school in the compound, first for adults and later for children.  The language of instruction is Thai and the courses are those taught in Thai schools.  In addition, it teaches children the Shan language and alphabet.  Books and magazines in the Shan language are also on sale at the temple.  The students wear traditional Shan clothing rather than Thai school uniforms.
       Wat Pa Pao also sponsored the revival of an old Shan festival called Por Sang Long, held for three days in late March or early April.  It marks the occasion boys temporarily enroll in the monastery as novices, a Theravada Buddhist tradition.  The Thai have the same custom, for every male is supposed to ordain once at some point in life, but with them it is a private affair, carried out any time of year, usually at the start of the retreat season.  With the Shan, it is done collectively, with sometimes dozens of boys all at the same time, making it a community event.
Wat Ku Tao abbot in the procession
novices carried in the Por Sang Long procession
       The Shan also add another aspect to the occasion.  Por San Long mimics an important event in the life of the Buddha, when he gives up his luxurious life in the palace to become an ascetic in search of spiritual salvation.  Shan families dress their boys in something resembling royal garments, jewels and crown and feed them special food, fit for a prince.  Fathers, uncles and older brothers hoist the boys on their shoulders and take them on a procession to and around the temple.  Afterwards, the boys stay in specially decorated cubicles for two or three nights. 
       Though its revival began at Wat Pa Pao, the celebrations there nowadays are rather small; this year, for example, involving about ten novices.  The Por Sang Long focus has shifted to Wat Ku Tao, held twelve days earlier this year, where over sixty boys and a few young men took part.  On the first day families prepared the cubicles in the temple compound and the novices had their heads shaved.  For three successive mornings relatives carried the splendidly costumed boys in a grand procession several times around the temple and on the third morning through the streets of the neighborhood as well.
Shan girls at Por Sang Long
novice in the procession
       Groups of two to five boys paraded, preceded by lines of devotees in traditional Shan attire, bearing money trees, banners on tall poles, trays of flowers and other offerings, and men playing ‘elephant leg drums’ and racks of cymbals.  Fully-grown young men sat in rickshaws or other mobile platforms or in a chair hefted by several bearers.  The abbot also rode a chair in the procession.  The atmosphere was both festive and polite.  Nobody pushed their way around or tried to stop any action to get a photo.  After the processions, many participants went to the market beside the eastern gate to shop for Shan textiles or dine at one of the restaurants.
       The crowd was almost entirely Shan.  Despite official publicity about this being a prime tourist attraction, only a handful of foreigners and perhaps a dozen Thai tourists from Bangkok came to observe.   Obviously tourism was not a factor in the festival’s revival.  The prime motive was ethnic pride.  In a fast-changing and homogenizing world, the Shan cling to their separate history and identity and with Por Sang Long celebrate the art of being Shan.

assembling before the procession at Wat Ku Tao
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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Wat Mae Kaet Noi—the Temple of Hell

                                   by Jim Goodman

sinners boiled in oil at Wat Mae Kaet Noi's Hell Garden
       Generally speaking, to visit a Buddhist temple compound in Thailand is to enter a zone of peace and piety.  Serenity reigns, from the expressions on the faces of the statues to the reverential attitude of the devotees.  Fierce warriors and lions stand at the compound gates and fanged, serpent-like nagas and lizard-like moms line the stairways to the temple buildings, but they are there to scare away evil spirits, not the worshipers.  Elsewhere the imagery, whether in sculptures or paintings, is all religious, designed to enhance an atmosphere of contemplation on Buddhist precepts and how to live a good life.
the Hell Garden at Wat Mae It, Chiang Dao
       The statues of Buddha, other deities, and revered monks serve to remind the people of exemplars of the holy life.  Paintings on the wall may depict famous scenes from the life of the Buddha, portraits of Heaven and its denizens, religious activities on Earth, festivals, seasonal work, handicraft production, daily chores and other village vignettes of olden times.  Together they reinforce the concept that the Buddhist religion is closely intertwined with ordinary human affairs.  In such surroundings the good Buddhist will renew vows to follow the Buddhist ethical code, exhibit compassion for all beings and make merit.
       What is usually missing from temple imagery is any representation of the consequences of not following the Buddhist ethical code.  This is the or else! side of  Buddhist teachings.  In this case it is Naraka, an underworld Hell where sinners undergo eons of gruesome punishments.  The Buddha himself gave sermons to his followers describing Naraka in detail.  Occasionally a temple wall mural will contain a scene of such suffering, but in general, the tortures of the damned is not a theme emphasized in the upbringing of children in Thai Buddhist families.
the punishment of liars, Wat Mae It
Phaya Yom, the God of Death
       Some monks think it should, though.  Among them was Phra Kru Vishanjalikon (the name means Clean Teacher Monk), abbot at Wat Mae Kaet Noi, three km east of Mae Jo, a half hour drive from the center of Chiang Mai.  About 28 years ago he had a troubling lucid dream of being in a desolate, scorching hot, pitch-black city.  A big red demon approached him and told him to go back to Earth and create a city like this for the edification of the people.
the classroom hall at Wat Mae Kaet Noi
       For the next twenty years the monk spent much of his time designing the city of his nightmares, raising funds (not very easy), hiring and directing sculptors and conceiving the horrific imagery that fills the area.  It opened as a separate park in the compound about eight years ago.  From then on Wat Mae Kaet Noi had a new nickname—Temple of Hell.
       It is not the only such temple compound in Thailand, for there are about twenty others scattered throughout the country.  It’s not the only one in the area, either, for another is Wat Mae It in Chiang Dao, on the edge of the town beside the road from the central market to the cave.  Instead of a Buddha, the big image in the courtyard, of a monk wearing a floppy hat and dipping his hand into a boil, is a rendition of Upakhu, the Thai name for Upagupta.  He was religious tutor to Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, the ruler who patronized the spread of the Dharma (as Buddhism was called then) through most of the Indian sub-continent.
painting of a World War II bombing raid
       Wat Mae It’s Hell Garden is a long narrow area in front of the Upakhu statue, as if implying that the monk’s sermon is about Naraka.  Four stick figures, towering higher than the temple roofs behind them, stand in a line.  Below them demons work their punishments on the condemned sinners.  Adulterers are forced to climb a tree full of piercing thorns .  Demons skewer others on poles and pull the tongues out of liars.
       While it’s not very big, Wat Mae It’s Hell Garden is right inside the entrance to the compound.  The one at Wat Mae Kaet Noi is not so obvious, for it is off to the side.  Upon entry, the compound looks rather ordinary.  The viharn is in typical Thai style.  To its right is a long hall that serves as a classroom for children’s religious instruction.  Paintings decorate the walls, with scenes of life in pre-electricity years:  village parties, planting and harvesting, celebrating Loy Kratong, etc.  All the figures in the pictures wear traditional clothing and the settings and houses are all pre-modern.
demon raping a sinning woman
       On the back wall, though, are two paintings dealing with more recent times; namely, World War II.  They depict American B-24 Liberator planes dropping bombs on the northern Thailand countryside.  In 1942 Japanese forces were stationed in various places in northern Thailand, particularly Lampang and Chiang Mai, preparing their invasion of British Burma.  The painting scenes are not very accurate historically, for the bombing raids were closer to the cities, aiming at the railway stations and Japanese military camps in Haiya, south of Chiang Mai’s old city.  They did manage to disable the railway station, but also destroyed the viharn of Wat Srisuphan, which was next to the Japanese camp.    
cleaving a sinner's peis
       A little to the left of the viharn is the compound’s main feature—the Hell Garden.  Visitors insert a ten baht coin at the entry gate and proceed down a pathway.  On the left is the Heaven section and to the right lies the much larger Hell section.  Just inside the latter sits a sculpture of Phaya Yom (a.k.a. Yama), the God of Death and Lord of Naraka.  According to Buddhist belief, souls of the deceased must appear before Phaya Yom to be interrogated.  He already has a book recording the deeds on Earth of the interviewee.  He asks then whether they have broken any of the five main injunctions, if they are guilty of murder, stealing, sexual crimes, intoxication or lying.
intoxication punishment
demonic face in the Hell Garden
       For those who are guilty, Yama assigns the appropriate punishment.  In some cases it fits the crime.  Liars have their tongues ripped out.  Thieves get their hands amputated.  Sexual miscreants suffer mutilation of their genitals.  But there are obviously more sins punished than the five major transgressions Yama inquires about, for the Hell Garden exhibits include a host of victims skewered, crushed, ripped apart, boiled in a cauldron, shot or sawed in half. 
part of the abortion exhibit
       Those tortured don’t die, for souls are immortal.  They just feel continuous excruciating pain.  It won’t be forever, as in the Hell of Western religions, but not a whole lot less.  Depending on the sins, the ordeal can last from hundreds of thousands of years to hundreds of millions of years. 
       Besides the torture scenes, the Hell Garden also has a variety of ghouls and demons, male and female, some extremely tall, all extremely ugly and horrific.  Severed heads with their guts dangling below them hang from trees.  Sinners buried in the earth up to their waists scream through distorted faces and raise their arms in horror.  They often have weird cartoons painted on their chests.  Perhaps they have been cast into the hot Naraka, as opposed to the cold Naraka, and are screaming because of the heat.  Or they could be grotesque figures from Phra Kru Vishanjalikon’s lucid nightmare.
sinner trapped in the ground
the punishment for abortion
       The old Buddhist books describing Naraka reflect the ancient Indian propensity to exhaustive, minute classification of the various sections of both the hot Naraka and the cold Naraka on what punishments are inflicted at each section, for what sins and for what length of time.  Some of this information went into creating the exhibits, but other displays reflect the imagination of the garden’s creator, influenced by modern times.  Hence, we see giant demons in the robo-cop, wire-frame style and demons driving motorbikes with spiked wheels over the bodies of their victims.
students at their lesson
       One large section of the Hell Garden is devoted to abortion, considered a violation of the Buddhist concept of the sanctity of all life.  In addition to scenes of an abortion in progress, there are also sculptures of the distorted bodies of offending mothers and of transgressors skewered on a sharp pole.  Outside this section is a giant boiling cauldron with demons forcing sinners into it.  An enormous female demon with a grotesquely distorted body stands nearby, next to a display of demons sawing victims in half.  Visitors can drop a ten baht coin into one of the machines here and listen to the screaming of the victims or the ranting of the big female demon    
the punishment of wicked students
       Punishment for sexual crimes is a frequent theme.  As at Wat Mae It, adulterers are forced to climb up trees with big thorns that pierce t heir bodies.  Elsewhere, a group of smiling, seductive ladies rips apart a man’s genitals.  A demon thrusts a gigantic phallus into a terrified woman’s vagina.  A horrid, misshapen woman uses a knife to cleave a man’s outsized penis.  And another man agonizes as he drags around his preposterously sized penis and scrotum.
   The sin of intoxication is represented by a statue of a man with two heads.  One head is raised to drink from a bottle of spirits, while a syringe is plunged into his stomach.  The other head is vomiting.   Near it stands a statue of a grossly fat and ugly woman with a horrid, gaping mouth and protruding eyeballs.  Sin of vanity perhaps?   
Children Tree in the Heaven Garden
   Another unusual display is of a group of uniformed students listening to the lectures of a male and female in police uniforms.  Statues of benevolent gods stand in the vicinity.  Behind them, as if to remind the students of what happens if they don’t follow the rules they’re being taught, are several bloodied students hanging from meat hooks.
   Just past this classroom is the section of the Heaven Garden, dominated by statues of the Buddha, enlightened monks, other saints and deities and pious devotees.  After a walk through the much larger Hell Garden, it is almost anti-climactic.  There’s nothing horrific here.  A kneeling skeleton has its hands folded in prayer and the multi-headed figures with fierce faces are obviously guardians on the side of Heaven. 
   The one truly exotic exhibit in this garden is what might be called a Children Tree.  It rises several meters high, with big, serrated leaves resembling those of a banana tree.  Long, green, tendril-like vines hang down from various points on the trunk, with young boys and girls attached to the end, as if they were sprouting from the vines.  And inside one opening leaf is a newborn baby.  At the base of the tree are figures of fully dressed couples in traditional outfits, one pair dancing, one pair seated and exchanging food.
devotees in the Heaven Garden
   Clean Teacher Monk’s objective in constructing this elaborate Hell was to scare people, to instill in them a sense of shame regarding sinful deeds and a fear of their consequences.  It certainly makes an indelible impression on Thai visitors, who are already familiar with some of the dark themes of the place.  It may be just an imaginative version, but according to their religion, the garden is based on a Hell that is very real.
   It has already had one measurable effect.  Inspired by the abortion exhibit, some aborting women have left their dead fetuses beside one of the grosser statues in this section.  Rather than get rid of it on their own, as an act of repentance they deposit the fetus at Wat Mae Kaet Noi for a proper burial. 
preening in the Earth Garden
old-fashioned farmer types
   Although it is not high on the list of the Chiang Mai area’s tourist attractions, Wat Mae Kaet Noi has had a trickle of foreign visitors.  They do not particularly view the Hell Garden as a site for moral and religious instruction.  They are ore likely to see it as an excursion into Oriental creepiness.  But for Thai Buddhists, Hell Garden notwithstanding, Wat Mae Kaet Noi is still a Buddhist temple, and therefore a proper venue for celebrating birthdays, weddings and funerals.
couple smoking cheroots and a lounging, long-haired lady
   As if catering to this aspect of temple use, this year the wat opened a new exhibit on the opposite side of the compound from the Hell Garden.  This area features statues of ordinary rural Thai people, dressed in the same early 19th century attire as in the paintings on the interior walls of the adjacent classroom building.  A few are naked from the waist up—bare-breasted women and heavily tattooed men.  Others are engaged in daily chores.  There are statues of kick-boxers, dancers, a reclining woman with ankle-length hair, couples smoking Burmese cheroots, women preening with mirrors and monks meditating. 
    Surrounded by imagery of an idyllic earthly existence of a not-so-long-ago past, the Earth Garden here is probably a more appropriate spot for happy events like birthdays and weddings.   But perhaps a newlywed couple might take a stroll through the Hell Garden and see the adulterers impaled on the thorn tree and the tortures undergone for sexual crimes, intoxication or lying.  Or maybe parents will take their children on a walk through Hell for their birthday lesson on morality.  For the true believers, in terms of ethical influence, fear also works.

sleeping princess in the Heaven Garden
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