A Sunday Afternoon Stroll Through Hell
When your Thai landlord offers to take you to lunch on a Sunday afternoon, you don’t expect to end up in Hell. I had envisioned a casual afternoon of eating spicy papaya salad and having comical conversations through broken English and basic Thai with Khunjai. She is an older, rotund woman whose apartment I rented and who could barely utter two words without closing her eyes, grabbing my arm for balance and succumbing to laughter.
After driving around for about an hour in the back of her pickup truck wedged between three of my roommates, I was relieved when we came to an abrupt stop and were told to get out. There were no restaurants or food stands anywhere in sight. But in Thailand, you learn to trust without question.
So we followed behind Khunjai into the unknown and were slightly disappointed to find it devoid of food. Instead, we entered the gates to Wang Saen Suk, which we would later learn is notorious for being the largest hell garden in Thailand.
It seemed like any other ordinary Buddhist temple. And it was, for the first few minutes or so. The concrete path that Khunjai proudly led us down was flanked with scenes of Buddha statues on their paths to enlightenment and eerie warning signs against straying from a righteous life.
Without segue or caveat, the visions of heaven were brusquely replaced by a ghastly introduction to hell. Two horrific, thirty-foot figures with bulging eyes and infinitely drooping tongues obstructed our path, marking our descent into Buddhist naraka — two souls forever searching and forever doomed to an insatiable hunger.
The macabre phantasmagoria that followed was a perfect synthesis of Dante’s Inferno and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. The garden is replete with statues tortured for the mistakes they’d made in life — each gruesome punishment in the underworld befitting of the sin committed on Earth.
No god or devil rules this forsaken place, just fantastic poetic justice.
Below the giant figures, sinners are burned in a cauldron of boiling water and are prodded by spear-bearing demons. The sign next to it reads, “Ones who make merit go to heaven; ones who do bad go to hell, plunging themselves into the hot copper pans and being stabbed by the hell-keeper with the spears everyday.”
Beyond the flagrant incineration at the entrance, sculptures of the sinners fill the garden in a frozen scene. With human bodies, animal heads and looks of misery and distress, the suffering statues leave you with unforgettably dark imagery.
A buxom pig with arms thrown up in surrender is towering over me when I learn, “Ones who make a corruption are punished in hell. They are the spirits of the pigs.”
A snake statue is depicted mid-hiss and stands atop a sign that reads, “Ones who pull the others’ legs are punished in the hell. They are named the spirits of the snakes.”
A cow’s outstretched arms seem to be reaching for you, pleading for you to know, “Ones who sell the habit-performing drugs are punished in the hell. They are named as the spirits of the cows.”
Bulging eyes, protruding ribs, dejected, disfigured faces. Castrated genitals, gushing entrails, impaled figures hopelessly begging for mercy. There is no break for intermission between these gut-wrenching scenes.
In virtually every direction you look while walking through Wang Saen Suk, there is another lost soul being tormented, another shocking reminder that judgment is real and unforgiving. You are constantly bombarded with supernatural scenes conveying one morbid message: Don’t mess up.
I didn’t expect to find myself here, in Hell, on this Sunday afternoon. And once inside, I didn’t expect to become entranced. But there was something so intriguing about this eerie place. Far away from the typical tourist attractions and nestled down a quiet street, it is a local treasure. And for those that can stomach the gore, it is a unique experience.
Khunjai told us that Thais often take their families here for outings on the weekends, and it is in this tradition that she took us here. Or perhaps, she was warning us against producing late rent.
Wang Saen Suk is not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart, but it is for the adventurous. It is also for those seeking an unusually authentic experience and some enlightenment about the dark side of Buddhism.
By Josalin Saffer
How to Get There
The hell garden is located in the village of Saen Suk in Chonburi province, about 90 kilometers southeast of Bangkok. Getting here can be tricky and may require a map, assistance from the locals, and some perseverance, but it is definitely accessible to tourists. The address is Sai 2, Soi 19, Saen Suk, for those brave enough to enter the gates to Hell.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josalin Saffer is a freelance writer, blogger and photographer from Atlanta, GA. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Matador Network, and Shatter the Looking Glass Magazine. She travels and blogs regularly at www.jaiyenjocumentary.wordpress.com.