Buddha is where?
Story & Photography By S. Nathan DePetris
“I think it’s over there.” Our taxi driver said as he took both hands off the wheel and turned his entire torso to the left. “No problem, I will get you there.” He made a quick u-turn across four lanes of traffic on Rama 4 boulevard as we clutched on for dear life.
Luckily for my partner and me, it was late in the evening and one of Bangkok’s busiest roads was unusually empty. The cars that were still on the road honked the horn and flashed their lights to let our driver know that they were barreling down the road in his direction. Within minutes, we exited the cab and were standing in front of our destination, The Buddha Dharma Relics Museum.
I really believe that one of the primary reasons that Thailand remains, a peaceful, serene and inviting country is it’s deep religious beliefs. The Buddha’s teachings of non violence, mindfulness and acceptance of change permeate throughout Thai culture. It comes as no surprise, then, that the nation’s capital has a museum that houses the world’s largest collection of Buddha Relics.
Whether in Eastern or Western religious traditions, relics, the material leftovers of saints and holy persons, are widely venerated. I’ve been lucky enough to see (and hold) the Holy Blood in Brugge, Belgium, view the beard of Mohammed at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and a slew of others all over the world. Relics have become a must-see when I travel, so how could I pass up such a collection?
Little did I know that just finding the museum would be a challenge. I had written down the address so I could ask for directions from the hotel. However, even our Gold Key concierge was shocked to hear that such a museum existed, and quickly turned to Google earth to find the place. When that didn’t work, he asked around to see if other hotel staff knew of it. It took a while, but once a few people were mustered in to help solve the mystery of the missing museum, we were set. My partner and I were escorted outside and a cab was hailed; after five minutes of chatter and a hand drawn map being passed between the concierge and the cabbie, we were on our way, assured that he probably knew where it was.
Bangkok’s road system is plagued with the same problems as all old cities. The original roads were designed for beasts of burden, not cars, and can be small and crowded, twisting their way through the city. The city’s use of Sois, side streets that branch off the main street often only for a few hundred feet, make using directions even harder. This played havoc with our Taxi ‘s route and had us arriving at the museum more out of sheer luck than anything else.
We paid the small entrance fee and were asked to remove our shoes. The self-guided tour started down a path that took us through displays representing thousands of years Buddhist history: from its’ humble beginnings in India, to it spread across all of Asia. The tour culminates in the middle of a grand warehouse of a building, where an open floor plan houses hundreds of gold and silver gilt vessels, each containing the relics from holy Buddhists down through the ages. You could spend hours in this one room alone. The exhibits featured pieces from Arhats, Buddhist saints, some in very special and highly decorated containers with relics of the Buddha himself.
Buddhists are cremated at death, so very few relics are the actual bones, teeth, hair or occasional skull that we are used to seeing in Western tradition reliquaries. Relics in the east are primarily small, colorful globules and jewels that are sifted out of the ashes and verified by temple authorities. Buddhists believe that the material body of a holy person is transformed into gems and minerals at cremation. This removes some of the gross-out factor that usually accompanies relic viewing. You don’t have to worry about saint So-And-So staring at you from the great beyond with his judgmental eye sockets. Instead you feel in awe (maybe a bit like you do at Tiffany’s) as you gaze at thousands of beautiful glittering gems.
About half way through the museum, the lights suddenly went out. I didn’t even get to hit the gift shop, always my favorite part. Worrying about a blackout, we cautiously made our way back to the main entrance in the dark, trying our best not to knock over some priceless artifact and defile a holy relic. When we make it back to the main desk, two Thai boys stare at us with shocked eyes.
“Sorry we’re closed.” they sheepishly said.
“But the sign says you close at 9pm and it’s only 7,” we pleaded.
“Yeah, but it’s Wednesday night, nobody’s here and we have dates tonight.” said the boys, their eyes begging for agreement.
Not wanting to keep these guys from whatever really fun evening they had planned, we grudgingly said our goodbyes.
Looking back, I feel honored that I had the opportunity to see this really unique museum. Even if our visit was cut short by two very horny guys wanting to skedaddle, I hope that someday I get the chance to visit again and finally finish my tour of the Buddha Dharma Relics Museum.
• About the Author:
Nathan DePetris owns Pride Travel, an agency specializing in customized gay vacations. He also represents the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association in the USA as its Ambassador, chairs the southern California Young Professional Society committee and sits on the national YPS committee for the American Society of Travel Agents. Nathan has sailed on over four dozen cruises and traveled to almost 40 countries. He holds several industry certifications, most notably by the Cruise Line Industry Association, the Travel Institute and multiple destination visitors’ bureaus in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe. A collection of his articles can be found at www.gaytravelherald.com