The Mystic’s Garden
Asom Kaew Koo, Nong Khai, Thailand
Enormous red brick Buddha figures five stories high tower over the entrance. Giant concrete cobras spread their enormous hoods protectively over meditating figures. Severe Vedic deities in martial poses line paths in a fragrant tropical garden, whilst Indian devotional music drifts over all enhancing an already surreal atmosphere. At times bizarre, but always fascinating, Asom Kaew Koo is the work of mystic and sculptor, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat.
Wat Khaek: The Sculpture Garden
Also known as Wat Khaek (Indian Temple), the grounds are set out in formal squares and walks decorated with concrete statues set amidst the tropical flowers and shrubs. The very tallest tower over the tops of the trees like some pre-historic monster. Many are simple classical figures but others are elaborate works showing considerable technical skill. Enormous Nagas and Garudas and other mythological beasts, angels and celestial beings of all ranks alternate with scenes from Buddha’s life and Vedic mythology. However, quite which holy book features gun-toting dogs marching and driving cars I am not sure. There is no labelling so unless you have a guide to the Vedas you can only guess at what you are looking at.
Hindu & Buddhist Mythology
Luang Pu Bunleua is well known throughout northeast Thailand and neighbouring Laos for his sculpture garden. It attracts a constant stream of visitors drawn by his grand and bizarre sculptures and his esoteric fusion of Buddhist legend with Hindu mythology. This blend is not as alien as it may at first seem. You only have to look at any stall selling sculptures and carvings to find a large variety of Vedic gods and mythological creatures amidst the standard Buddha figures.
Hinduism and Buddhism have been intertwined in SE Asia since they first entered the region from India. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, home to Thailand’s holiest Buddha figure, has scenes from the Ramakien (the adventures of Rama) painted in its galleries. Many of the most popular and venerated shrines in Thailand are not dedicated to Buddha at all but to one of the Hindu Gods: the Erawan shrine to Brahma and the neighbouring shrine to Indra in Bangkok, and the macaque-inhabited Pra Karn shrine to Panali in Lop Buri are well-known examples. To cap it all, as Professor Subhadradis Diskul says in his History of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha published by the Bureau of the Royal Household:
The park is a great opportunity for photography if you can get there early enough so the sun is still low. When it all gets too much then head for the lake, one of my favourite spots. There are bamboo shelters where you can muse over what you have seen while throwing bread to the swarming shoals of enormous golden carp.
Luang Pu’s Inspiration
Bunleau said he was inspired in his dreams to make the figures and led a team of untrained workers in the creation of these statues. In the centre of the gardens is an ornate three-floor building containing hundreds of small images, some bronze, others concrete or stone, again all made or inspired by Bunleau. The sheer number is an amazing accomplishment for one person and the quality and finish is high. The halls contain a large number of temple bells, drums and gongs of all sizes and everyone is free to try them out. If you have ever felt the urge to announce an Arthur J. Rank film, here is your chance to practice. A word of caution. Try not to visit on a weekend when there are many children unless you are really into free-form percussion and carillon.
A native of the area, Luang Pu Bunleau did not just create Asom Kaew Koo. This is actually mark two. The original Buddha Park is to be found just across the Mekong in the People’s Republic of Laos. It was built in 1958 but Bunleau found it expedient to abandon it after the 1975 revolution in Laos, when he crossed the river to Thailand and started work on a new park in 1979. The original version in Laos has now been turned into a public park, a pleasant day out for the inhabitants of Vientiane.
The third floor is more personal than the rest. Lining the walls are photographs of Bunleau at various ages, sketches of his bearded master, articles of clothing and other personal possessions. At the far end is a glass wall behind which lies Luang Pu Bunleau himself, his embalmed body clearly visible lying on a bed. He loved his gardens so much that he did not want to leave them even after he died, and so left instructions that he be embalmed and kept there. Presumably, his spirit still roams the gardens, so control those urges to carve your name on the statuary.
Luang Pu Bunleua was reputed to have supernatural capabilities, one being a power over snakes. One of his biggest selling lines was a bronze ring set with a special black stone that he had personally blessed and set. This ring was supposed to bring the wearer protection from being bitten by snakes; and it is a matter of record that during the 8 years or so that I wore one of his rings — until the stone cracked and fell out — I was never once menaced by a snake. It was also said that if you accepted a drink of water from him you would end up giving him all your worldly wealth.
He reputedly studied under an Indian sage who was so holy that no one else ever saw him. The story is that one day Luang Pu Bunleua fell through a hole in the ground whilst mediating, or walking through the mountains, the versions differ, and landed in the lap of this sage who then agreed to become his teacher.
Strictly speaking Luang Pu is only used as a title for ordained monks—it means venerable priest—and Bunleau never became a monk so its use here shows the respect in which he is held by his followers. According to one of the white-robed assistants manning a souvenir stall, Bunleau claimed that if he ever shaved his head, as one has to when entering the monkhood, he would became blind. Preferring to keep his sight, he never became a monk but remained a layman and wore the white robes of a religious layman.
From Nong Khai take highway 212 east towards Nakhon Phanom. Wat Khaek is 4 kilometres outside of town still in the built up area, next to the road on the southern side.