Khruba Si Wichai, Northern Thailand’s most venerated monk

wax statue of Khruba Si Wichai

The wax statue of Khruba Si Wichai in Chiang Mai's Wat Si Bun Ruang.

In 1986, a sad metamorphosis of Chiang Mai’s town centre had been completed. A huge and extremely ugly brick wall had arisen along Mun Muang Road, while a small pleasant park had been replaced by a dull tiled square that reminded me of East Berlin. One evening a crowd had gathered at the new Tha Phae Gate in front of a meditating monk. Other monks were selling his portraits and amulets and many visitors were offering candles and incense. This monk, I realized with excitement, was no one less than Khruba Si Wichai. A friend of mine, who was a dealer in amulets, had always praised highly this greatest of all northern monks. He had told me that Khruba Si Wichai possessed all kinds of supernatural powers, like mind-reading and enduring fierce sunshine without showing any signs of perspiration.

Joining the crowd, I noticed the monk’s extraordinary concentration. He was sitting with crossed legs, hands in his lap, and his friendly stare seemed to ignore his admirers completely. I couldn’t even see him breathing. When one of his accompanying monks carefully rearranged the cloth draped over his right shoulder, the abbot did not react in any way. An hour or so later, when I came back to the spot again, Khruba Si Wichai was still sitting in the same position, like a statue of serenity. I was deeply impressed by these spiritual powers.

Later that evening, I consulted my photocopy of a French biography about holy monks in Thailand. To my surprise and disbelief I learned that Khruba Si Wichai was born in 1878 and must have been 108 years old, ten years older even than Luang Pu Waen Suchinno, another holy monk of the North who had just died the previous year at the age of 98. And four pages later, while reading about ‘sa mort en 1938’, my confusion was complete. I returned to the gate around midnight, but Khruba Si Wichai was no more there. Transvestites and glue-sniffing youngsters were now in control of the place. Daeng, who used to hang around there every night, was in a happy mood and told me proudly about her new lover, a European tourist who, rather drunk, had slept with her for three successive nights without raising any doubts about her gender.

‘What about Khruba Si Wichai?’ I started hesitatingly. ‘Where did he go?’

‘Ah, you mean the wax image here today?’

A pause.

‘Of course!’ I replied as confidently as possible.

‘Beautiful, right? Look like real,’ she said. ‘This made by Thai people. Not like Pu Waen. He not nice image. He made by farang. Stupid farang!’ she giggled and crossed the square to approach a new visitor.

Since that evening I have retained a keen interest in this legendary monk. After all, I am one of the few foreigners who has met the living saint.

In 1878, during a tempest with torrential rains, when the earth started to shake, a boy was born in the northern Thai village of Ban Pang. The baby was named Big Shock and would grow up in a rather unremarkable way. However, at the age of seventeen, when he became a novice in the temple, the villagers admired him for his strict discipline, as for instance in eating only one vegetarian meal a day, and they loved him for his kindness. In 1904, a few years after he was ordained a monk, he became the abbot of the temple. Because of his strong personality and supernatural powers his fame spread rapidly all over the North of Thailand. He was referred to as Khruba Si Wichai — Khruba meaning ‘teacher’. Over the next three decades, he succeeded in mobilizing thousands of people in the North to renovate more than one hundred temples.

Furthermore, he revised the Yuan (northern Thai) version of the Traipitaka, one of the most important Buddhist scriptures. Nowadays, he is probably best remembered for the construction of the twelve kilometre long road up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, at an altitude of 1053 metres on the mountain west of Chiang Mai. The gilded chedi of this beautiful and holy temple is said to contain a fragment of the skull of the Buddha. Thanks to the new road, more people could pay their respects to this relic of the Great Teacher. The temple has even become a major tourist attraction, as have Wat Phra Sing and Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, Wat Hariphunchai in Lamphun, and Wat Phra That Doi Tung in Chiang Rai, also renovated under Khruba Si Wichai’s leadership.

When the monk died in 1938, sixty years old, the weather was as torrential as during his birth. According to a rather prosaic, biographical sketch, ‘his death was due to sitting down too long and he died incontinent and probably from stomach ulcers caused by eating too much hot chili.’ After his cremation, eight years later, thousands of followers milled in a frenzy to grab some of his ashes or a piece of bone to make protective amulets.

Still today, amulets with his portrait are as popular as ever, while numerous statues and images of the monk continue to bear witness to his fame in the North. Best known of these monuments is probably the large bronze statue in the shrine near the Huai Kaeo waterfall. Here the road to the famous temple on Doi Suthep begins its course up the mountain. Daily, hundreds of devout visitors respectfully kneel and make a wai in front of the statue.

The wax statue I once thought to be the venerated monk in person is now on display in the wihan of Wat Si Bun Ruang, a temple near the Wiang Kum Kam ruins just south of town. Its realistic craftmanship is still impressive. In the 1980s, an air marshal of the Royal Thai Air Force had ordered its creation. Before it was presented to the temple, the people of Chiang Mai were given the opportunity to pay their respect to it at the Tha Phae Gate.

Maybe the most interesting place to learn about Khruba Si Wichai is Ban Pang, about 100 kilometres south of Chiang Mai along the road to the district town of Li in Lamphun province. Ban Pang’s village temple, of which Khruba Si Wichai was the abbot for many years, is on the top of a hill and surrounded by paddy fields and orchards. Beside the traditional temple buildings, a new marble construction has arisen, its tower decorated with thousands of fragments of mirrors. The entrance to this ‘museum’ is protected by two statues of a tiger, as Khruba Si Wichai was born in the year of the tiger. On the other hand the tiger symbolizes the wild and fearsome powers of nature. Many meditation masters who used to wander deep in the forests are said to have been threatened by wild tigers, but the spiritual power radiating from these monks subdued the animal. Maybe the tiger even is the symbol of the ‘wild’ inside us that has to be subdued on the path to become enlightened.

The wax statue of Khruba Si Wichai on the upper floor of the building is far less impressive than the one kept in Wat Si Bun Ruang. However, a large collection of paraphernalia is exhibited, along with numerous amulets and photographs about Si Wichai’s life. The lower floor gives a better impression of his renavation crusade in the North. There are show-windows with rusty putty-knives, spades used during the construction of the road to Doi Suthep, a gong, writing utensils, the rattan bench for a siesta, the carrier bicycle for catering to the labourers, and a carrying chair — the latter covered with numerous one baht and 50 satang coins left by visitors as offerings. Silver containers for miang (fermented tea leaves) and areca nut (also called betel), the luxuries of those days, are also on display. The show piece is the old classic car that was used to inaugurate the Doi Suthep raod in 1935.

One aspect of this famous monk, however, is less explicitly present than his religious activities. Khruba Si Wichai was also seen as a rebel, the spiritual leader of northern patriotism, a kind of Mahatma Gandhi, who fueled the resistance against colonization by Bangkok.

In the nineteenth century, extensive parts of Siam, as Thailand was called then, consisted of rather autonomous vassal states governed by local rulers. Culturally, regions like the North and Northeast differed strikingly from Central Thailand. They also had their own Buddhist traditions and their own language or dialects. This would all change during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) when the sovereignty of Siam was seriously threatened by the encroachments of colonial powers, Britain and France. To prevent annexation of more territory, the King launched a policy of rapid centralization in the regions outside the Central Plains. As a matter of fact, corrupt local rulers and banditry had given a pretext to the foreigners for their interventions. Therefore central control of these regions became a top priority.

Governors from Bangkok were sent to the North and Northeast, while the powers of local rulers were gradually curbed. And, with the Sangha Act of 1902, the orthodox state Buddhism from Bangkok was to replace the free interpretations of local Buddhist traditions. Khruba Si Wichai and his disciples were classified as some kind of second class monks. He was not allowed to ordain monks and novices any more, but he defied the authorities and continued the practice from 1908 to the 1930s. In her study Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand researcher Kamala Tiyavanich writes: ‘From the sangha officials’ perspective, Siwichai was not a qualified preceptor because he had not studied Bangkok’s religious texts and had not taken Bangkok’s exams. The exams and texts were, of course, in Thai, and Siwichai did not know this language (nor did many of his disciples and lay followers). This illustrates just how much the Bangkok elite acted like a colonial power, imposing its own rules and language over local cuatoms and languages in the name of “modern education”.’

Khruba Si Wichai’s followers, including at least 2,000 monks and novices from ninety temples in the North, refused to be part of the Bangkok sangha hierarchy. Modern state Buddhism was openly protested against, and many people even refused to take up modern education. The anti-Thai language feeling became widespread, while in some government schools furniture was either burned or thrown into the forest. And the spiritual leader of this ‘anti-colonial’ protest was Khruba Si Wichai. The crisis came to a climax when he was summoned to Bangkok in November 1935 and detained at a prestigious temple for over six months. His supporters believed that the administrators were just jealous of his popularity. Khruba Si Wichai was seen as their natural spiritual leader, with the Bangkok-appointed administrators as outsiders. Eventually, the sangha authorities compromised by allowing local temples to continue practicing some northern Thai customs. In turn, Khruba Si Wichai accepted the sangha regulation regarding ordinations. When he returned to Chiang Mai, the monk received a hero’s welcome at the railway station. A crowd of eight thousand was awaiting him.

This famous welcome episode is depicted in the carvings of the heavy teak doors of the museum at Wat Ban Pang. The diesel locomotive represented in it may be an anachronism. In a nearby modern building, there is another wax statue of Khruba Si Wichai. This one is in the reclining position. Besides it is a large family picture of the Wilailaks, the main sponsors of the imposing memorial complex which was finished in 1992. There is also a large library with cabinets full of Buddhist religious works. Interesting as all this may be, a visit to Wat Ban Pang can also be appreciated as one to a lovely, picturesque, and extremely quiet village temple. Travellers don’t need to worry about having to contend with busloads of tourists.

Reforms after the Second World War have further integrated the North into the Thai nation-state, politically as well as culturally. Ardent regionalism is a thing of the past. However, during the turn of the century a remarkable interest in their regional past has been kindling among the peoples of the north. At the entrances of numerous temples, a sign board with the temple’s name in the traditional northern script has been erected besides the sign in standard Thai. And in department stores, paraphernalia of former days have become hot items, as for instance products made from the traditional northern sa paper and photographs of Old Chiang Mai — with among the latter many pictures of Khruba Si Wichai and his activities.

©Sjon Hauser: story and pictures

Practicalities

To get to Wat Ban Pang by public transportation, take a local bus to Lamphun from the east bank of the Ping River near the Nawarat Bridge. In the centre of Lamphun take a blue song thaeo (pick-up truck) heading for Li. Get off at Ban Pang about 70 kms south of Lamphun. Wat Ban Pang and the Khruba Si Wichai museum are on top of a small hill, about 1 km west of the main road.