WHEN IS A WAT A WAT – OR WHAT?

When I moved into my little bungalow in Chiang Mai I noticed there was a Wat at the end of the block. This is not unusual. I walked past it every day and after a couple of weeks I decided to stop one day and check it out.

It was unlike any Wat I have ever been to – no Buddhas, no monks… There was an older building at the back of the complex, and two new, elaborate buildings that certainly looked like temples. There were also a number of spacious empty open-air buildings. Closer examination made me realize the old building at the back was a crematorium, as were both of the buildings at the front.

One day as I was walking home it was obvious there were going to be a couple of funerals. Both front buildings were decorated with wide ribbon. The empty buildings were full of covered chairs all lined up. Both buildings had countless fresh flower wreaths.

I went home to get my camera in hopes of getting a few photos. There were not a lot of people around and I tried to be as discrete as possible. An older man saw me and told me it was fine for me to come and take photos. He even took me up to see the cremation ovens.

As he was explaining to me some of the traditions, several truck loads of flower wreaths arrived. Several songtaews of monks also arrived. Guests also were arriving. Women all dressed in black, men in black suits with white shirts, and ties.

The man explained to me that even having ashes stored at a Wat now is outrageously expensive. I have seen Wats in Bangkok with hundreds of containers of ashes, with a photo of the deceased. Now ashes of the deceased are thrown in the river, unless you are wealthy and can afford to have yours stored at a Wat.

The coffins both arrived, covered in flowers, in the back of trucks with loudspeaker systems. The man explained the family would consider it an honor that I wanted to take photos. I certainly knew I did not have to leave, but I did not want to invade their privacy at such a sad time.

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