Yeah, we got that

There’s a section of Bangkok’s Chinatown called Talat Noi that is filled with small industrial concerns. You go there for steel construction material, hardware and the like.

It all seems pretty organized until you get to the streets where the used auto parts stores are. Then things get funky.

I have been fascinated by Talat Noi since I first visited it in September. There are scores of stores, one after the other, all selling what look to be the same things. How do all these stores stay in business? How does anyone know what their inventory is? Who buys and sells this junk? Armed with a translator, I decided to find out.

This is T. Rachai. His father came to Bangkok from China to work as a laborer, and then started his auto parts store. Chinese merchants have been active in the area since the early 1900s.

According to one person I interviewed, many of the parts come from Japan, where the government offers disincentives for people to keep older cars. Brokers from Thailand buy containers of used parts in Singapore, where the junkyards ship the parts after they disassemble the cars, and they bring them to Bangkok and sell them to the parts dealers. The dealers apparently make a decent living: they sell parts for 10 percent of the price of new parts, so they have a steady supply of customers; many of the boats that ply the nearby Chao Phraya river actually are retrofitted to use truck and automobile engines, so maritime workers also come in for spare parts; and other brokers down the line (including brokers from countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) might also come in and say “I need 100 transmission pumps for Toyota pickups.” If one shop doesn’t have them – say, they only carry Isuzu parts – another one will. Finally, there’s always the option to sell unused parts for scrap.

Personally, I have a hard time believing that business is good, given how enormous some of these piles of parts are, but I only have my gut to back me up on this. In the meantime, they make for some interesting abstract photographs.

The Sanctuary of Truth

Who am I to argue?

Last stop of the day: the Sanctuary of Truth. The Sanctuary of Truth is a wooden temple that features carvings representative of ancient Hindu and Buddhist teachings. “The concept of truth and value of life has been crystallized and shown to the public through the works of arts and architectural sculpture that reflects the philosophy of living,” says the brochure. The temple contains an enormous number of figures including representations of the four elements; the Hindu godhead of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Bodhisattvas from Mahayana Buddhism, and various celestial beings.

The project’s owners began working in 1981, and construction is scheduled to run until 2050. (In fact, visitors have to wear hard hats on site.) The sanctuary’s website says, “This work indicates that humans are only dust in the universe and will ultimately become one with it. Physical beings deteriorate, ravaged by the time, But truth and goodness are immortal.” Well, if all physical beings are going to deteriorate, they’re certainly putting a lot of effort into this one for nothing, but in the meantime, let’s look around:

On our way out, we walked through the workshop. Once the logs are sawed down, all of these carvings really are done by hand.

Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden

The Thais certainly appear to be a people who like religious figures. After visiting the Buffalo Head Temple, we went to Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden. The path in is lined with scenes from Buddhist mythology. All very pleasant.

Then you see this:

Welcome to Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden, a park dedicated to showing people what will happen to them in Buddhist hell. The two towering figures above are the ghosts of Nai Ngean, a man who violated the Five Precepts of Buddhism during his life, and Nang Thong, a woman who engaged in immoral sexual conduct. They are surrounded by a circle of figures with animal heads, each representing the punishment for a specific kind of sin, and a representation of sinners being boiled in a cauldron.

That is just the beginning. As you go through the park, you see the punishments meted out to people who violated each of the Five Precepts of Buddhism, as well as those who committed other types of sins. First, if you violate the precept of refraining from “killing and the mind without loving-kindness,” this happens to you.

If you violate the second precept by “stealing, cheating or destroying others’ property,” you can expect to be sawed in half, speared, and bashed in the head with an iron club.

Violating the third precept by “infringing the sexual intercourse, being paramour with the others’ wives or husbands” gets you a good stabbing and being torn apart by wild dogs.

While we’re on that topic, let’s look at some other punishments for sexual misconduct:

On to violations of the fourth precept, by telling lies and deceiving others. This is much more of the standard punishment: being stabbed, having your eyes and tongue torn out.

Finally, those who violate the fifth precept by drinking intoxicants and “losing control of their mindfulness” … actually, it looks like they just have to get drunk and stay drunk. Given what’s going on around them, I’m not so sure that’s the worst punishment.

It all makes for a fun afternoon.

Wat Hua Krabue

Welcome to Wat Hua Krabue, the Temple of the Water Buffalo Head! We visited Wat Hua Krabue recently, enticed by the public domain photos we saw on the internet, such as these:

The story of Wat Hua Krabue is that the chief abbot decided to create a memorial to the Asian water buffalo, which has seen a rapid decline in population as farming has become more mechanized and people have increased their consumption of buffalo meat. The abbott began collecting skulls from nearby farms and slaughterhouses, and – according to one website – now has a collection of over 8,000 skulls that he will use to create a museum to the animal. The abbot apparently has a penchant for collecting things: originally, he collected old Mercedes Benz cars. When we showed up, his collection of votive figures was well in evidence.

Some temples include figures that stand outside and offer the “wai” – a bow with the hands pressed together – to visitors while a greeting plays on a loop from a speaker. For some reason, one of them is dressed like the King of Pop. Meanwhile, a disturbingly realistic monk statue holds a bowl for alms.
That same monk again, seated near the real thing. Or you can offer prayers to, well, whoever these four represent. And for some reason, there is a soldier figure hiding behind some animals.

The temple seems to be pretty syncretic; you can leave offerings in front of the deities of your choice.

Some people, however, prefer to worship Mammon.

But let’s get to the buffalo heads. We asked a two people who worked on the temple grounds where we could find them, but they couldn’t tell us; finally, someone pointed us to a pile of old skulls under a tree near a garbage tip.

The next week, I asked a Thai friend to call the temple and ask where they were. According to her report, the temple decided to move the skulls to the back of the temple, and when they did, some of them were damaged and thrown onto the heap. We never found the rest of them, so I’ll have to look the next time I’m out that way.