Many images like this are engraved on the floor of Wat Sri Suphan, the curious Silver Temple, in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Phrawin had a pained look on his face. The 22-year-old Buddhist monk was having difficulty with my question about the flying saucers and alien beings on the floor of the Silver Temple.
The temple, formally known as Wat Sri Suphan, is one of the more unusual of some 300 temples in the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai. It’s elaborately adorned and finished almost completely in a silver alloy and silver plating.
Phrawin, from Myanmar, had been a monk here for about 18 months. And now, he was the unfortunate one having cheeky me in a “Monk Chat” with a couple of other foreign visitors.
Monk Chats are opportunities to openly converse with a monk. In my group were Elena, a tour guide from Spain, and Stephen, a computer tech from Scotland, both of whom were keenly interested in Buddhist meditation, wanted to talk about meditation, and were eager to get to the 10 minutes of meditation with Phrawin promised after the discussion.
I skipped the meditation part, however. I just wanted to learn more about the extraterrestrials.
The rear-facing facade of Wat Sri Suphan, the Silver Temple.
I had been to Wat Sri Suphan the first time a few days before and noticed the crude depictions scattered among the otherwise artistic temple renderings on the silver-plated floor.
The few hundred square feet of floor space featured a stylized flat map of the world with dozens of spaceships flying about, some large, some small, some clearly carrying what looked a lot like the aliens people describe who claim they’ve been abducted by aliens.
I was astonished. I don’t pretend to know much about Buddhism but I’ve been to a few temples and never saw anything like this. What on earth was I looking at?
Flying saucers and aliens on the floor of the Silver Temple.
I decided to sign up for a Monk Chat and ask a real Monk.
But first, I did a cursory internet search and found that:
When I asked Phrawin about them, he didn’t even know they were there. He asked if I had photos which, of course, I did. Phrawin studied them for several moments before saying they looked like "boats" to him. Really? I reiterated that these are without question depictions of flying saucers in every conventional sense, real or imagined.
Phrawin, assigned to our "Monk Chat," was gracious and patient, though apparently a bit perplexed by my questions.
After summarizing what I’d seen on the internet, the young Monk wore a blank stare, and asked to see the photos again.
Finally, he offered that the current renovation of the temple was begun about 20 years ago and that some Russians and Americans were involved, suggesting maybe they had something to do with the drawings, but he had no idea what.
And there we sat. So much for the Monk Chat.
As our hour was expiring, I interrupted talk about meditation to ask another question about the Silver Temple that was on my mind. Why were women not permitted inside the Temple, even after paying their 50 baht entrance fee?
I watched poor Phrawin’s eyes glaze over, shoulders slump, and head drop in a “Oh, Dear Lord, why me?” pose.
He quietly explained that the practice of forbidding women in the temple is a tradition of the Lanna culture, established as its own kingdom more than 700 years ago in northern Thailand.
The Kingdom was eventually absorbed by the Siam government of southern Thailand and Lanna traditions and culture were all but forgotten until a resurgence occurred in the 1980s.
Above are a couple of views on the inside of the Silver Temple.
While it's all kind of vague, Phrawin said that centuries ago some women were blamed for vandalism in the temple and all women were banned.
According to an interpretation of the sign forbidding women (written in Thai) outside the temple, women are not allowed to enter "due to the Lanna belief that their presence may deteriorate the holy relics buried within — or otherwise the lady herself.”
So there you have it.
For his part, Phrawin said he does not believe in the old Lanna tradition, but finally he just shrugged and said, “tradition is tradition.”
IF YOU GO …
Wat Sri Suphan, otherwise known as the Silver Temple, is a complex of shrines, silver shops, exhibits, museums, education centers and the main temple itself, which is entirely embellished with a rich silver alloy finish and silver-plated tiles. It’s an unusual but lesser known temple complex, tucked away on an alley south of the old city.
Built originally in the early 16th century, the ornate silver temple has undergone a number of renovations, most recently a project begun in 2004.
Aimed at reviving the traditional silversmithing culture in this section of Chiang Mai, you can see the artisans at work and purchase handmade silver items either in Wat Sri Suphan complex itself or in the many silver shops on Wualai Road and other streets surrounding the temple.
To get there, start at Chiang Mai Gate in the Old City, head down Wualai Road, then turn right onto Wualai Alley 2. You will see an arch over the street marked for the Silver Temple/Wat Sri Suphan. Walk under the arch and straight to the temple gate. On Saturday nights Wualai Road is the scene of a lively, crowded, colorful street market.
The entry fee to the Silver Temple is 50 baht (about USD $1.50) and you get a plastic bottle of water. “Monk Chats” are scheduled on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 7 p.m. However, I inquired early on a Thursday and was told that one begin at 6 p.m. Check at the office across from the entrance to the Silver Temple. Cost to talk to a Monk for foreign visitors is 250 baht (about USD $7.50) for one hour with others in a small group. An optional meditation exercise of about 10 minutes follows the talk.
David Hunter Bishop is a retired journalist from Hawaii who quickly tired of retirement life and hit the road as a solo traveler in August 2016. Since then he's traveled through 16 countries on four continents and is currently enjoying life in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For more about David's journey, see published interviews with Nomadic Matt and Expat Focus, and in A Confluence of Adventure Writers, with Sarawak (Kuching, Malaysia) Tribune writer James Ritchie.
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