The Clone Buddhas

Last time I went to sleepy Sangkhla Buri it proved to be a surprisingly popular destination, the Karen National Liberation Army had arrived the day before, the Burmese Army arrived later that day and the Thai army came the following one, they then all went into the woods together to play a game of hide and seek. Things are quite different nowadays, no lounging in the guesthouse smoking Karen ganja to the chorus of M16’s firing in the distance, no locals ducking down as they pass the windows in their houses and no Karen. There is however a safe road to get there by and the opportunity to pop into Burma and see where the Karen lived before the Burmese killed them all.

For the few tourists in Sangkhla Buri town going to see and being disappointed by the diminutive three Pagodas is almost mandatory, crossing the border into Burma there though is for only the odd adventurer. The Burmese border guards were happy to show me their logs on request and a quick flip through showed only two or three people crossing a day.

To the veteran Thai border hopper the Burmese border town of Payathonsu comes as a bit of a surprise. Unlike crossing at Mae Sai or Ranong there is no thriving Burmese town on the other side, booming from supplying bootleg Japanese porn, fake Vi@gra, cheap whiskey, cigarettes and clandestine liaisons with young girls to waves of Thai visitors. There is no huge market mimicking a Thai equivalent on the other side or row of expensive hotels catering for wealthy Burmese and Thai with dual pricing charging the Burmese anything from 1/10 to half what they charge visitors.

Payathonsu looks much more like Burma proper, that’s rural Issan 30 years ago (or Thailand 30 years in the future, the way things are going) for those who haven’t been there. A small village of dirt roads, antique cars, mostly wooden shacks, some modern buildings, the odd period mansion with grounds and a small market. What makes Payathonsu worth the visit is the small sign on the side road as you enter the village that points you to the hill temple.

Several kilometers walk out of village, veer off the dirt road in the Thailand direction across the fields a mountain temple reveals itself. Calling a temple unspectacular by Burmese standards could still mean it is better than best Buddhist temple in any other Buddhist country, when it comes to Buddhist construction Burma towers over the other Buddhist nations. But this temple is unspectacular by the standards of any Buddhist country. Sure it has a nice mountain view from the top, so do many, the novice monks chant all day just as nicely as any other novice monks, a little more numerously for such a small temple, but in no ways unusually. What makes the temple so special is the cross field path you walk to get to it. A seemingly endless row of hundreds of 8ft tall Buddhas flank you on both sides as you make your way there. Many unpainted, many dilapidated, but most pristine, it seems to have had more than one building stage and is perhaps ongoing. Walking between the Buddhas for a few minutes you get a feeling it’s so surreal it’s almost erie, this is what a world taken over by plastic surgeons would be like. Just when you thought you were all Buddha’d out and seen it all, the Emerald Buddha, the Golden Buddha, the Reclining Buddha, the Lucky Buddha, Ronald MacBuddha you can be still be taken aback by the Clone Buddhas.

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