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Thailand: The Mysterious Monks of Wat Phra Singh

Are they live, or is it Memorex?

The Arizona Republic — March 6, 2016

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – The elderly Buddhist monk was a tough guy to please.

I observed him meditating inside Wat Phra Singh, a 14th-century temple in the heart of Chiang Mai’s old city.  Two other monks sat alongside him in the traditional lotus position in front of a sacred Buddha statue.  Four monks were meditating on the other side of the altar.  Throughout my one hour inside the temple, local people came inside and knelt on the floor, hands clasped in prayer in front of the monks.

Buddhists praying inside Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  

Out of respect for Buddhist custom, I left my shoes and socks outside the temple and approached the elderly monk in my bare feet.  I wanted to take a good look at him.  From his weathered skin, his tired eyes, the liver spots on his hands, and his calloused feet, I could tell he had lived a hard life.

Plus, the dude was in desperate need of a skin peel and a pedicure.

I put a 20 Thai baht bill (about 56 cents) in the donation box in front of him and looked at him again, hoping for at least a slight glimpse of a smile.  Instead, I got nothing but a blank look of indifference, which I interpreted as disapproval.  I wondered how much would it take to get some sort of positive response.  So, I put another 20 baht bill in the box, strategically waving the cash in his line of site, hoping that would loosen him up.  Again, nothing.

Perhaps he was in a deep meditative trance, of which Buddhist monks are famous?  Maybe he wasn’t even aware of my presence?

A “monk” meditating inside Wat Phra Singh.

Then, another thought occurred to me.  Perhaps he wasn’t really a he, but an it.  Could the grim-faced monk be a statue?  I honestly couldn’t tell.

Remember the 1970s commercial with Ella Fitzgerald: “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”  That slogan kept popping into my head the rest of the afternoon.

So I asked a couple of fellow tourists.  The first, an older French man, gave me a look as if I had just asked the most ridiculous question in the world.  “Of course, they are real,” he said, referring to the group of four monks.

As he walked away, I’m guessing he was muttering to himself: “Américain stupide!”

Wat Phra Singh, in the heart of Chiang Mai’s old city, was built in the 14th-century.

But a heavyset American woman disagreed.  “No, they are statues,” she said, with a look in her face that screamed “duh.”  Both people seemed equally positive of their assessments.

As I thought about it on the 45-minute walk back to my hotel, I still wasn’t sure.  There, I showed Bee, the owner of the hotel, my photos of the monks.  She smiled and in a typically polite and non-judgmental Thai way, confirmed that the monks were indeed statues.

Just to be absolutely certain, I returned to Wat Phra Singh a couple of weeks later.  Yes, the monks were in exactly the same places as before, with the same exact same expressions on their faces and their hands in the exact same positions.

Yes. They are statues.

This Thai monk is a real person — not a statue.

I don’t know how they were made to look so lifelike, but Madame Tussauds and Disneyland could learn a thing or two from Wat Phra Singh.

On my most recent visit to the temple, I once again walked by the donation box in front of the grim-faced monk.  This time, though, I kept my wallet in my pocket.

He could scowl all he wanted, but he wasn’t going to get the better of me twice.

Buddhist monks entering Chiang Mai’s walled old city.

© 2016 Dan Fellner


    Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    For an 87 year old, your insight in these articles and the 2/6/16 AZ REPUBLIC ARE VERY INTERESTING. Yes, I have traveled most of the world but not in the detail you have.

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    Posted February 7, 2016 at 10:46 pm

    Thanks for the nice note, Ken. Safe travels!

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