Incongruous. It means out of place.
‘It’s a nice place to visit though.’
Mrs Pobaan is right, it is a nice place, an extraordinary place, a haven for contemplation. Which makes it all the more strange that it should be located in Funtown, an ugly mass of urban sprawl not known for the quality of its architecture or the purity of its buildings’ purpose.
The Sanctuary of Truth, to the Pobaan mind, is a structure of breath-taking ambition. It resembles a temple perhaps, or a cathedral, though this is a building without priests or services. On the many occasions that I have been there it has been largely without a congregation, too, suggesting that the place is among Pattaya’s most secret treasures.
It’s amazing to have something like this, in a tourist town as popular as Pattaya and so often to find it so nearly empty. What proportion of tourists or even residents ever comes here?
‘Oh, lots of tourists,’ says Mrs Pobaan. ‘You often see people there.’
Well, some, granted, but as a proportion of the throngs who pile off the coaches at Bali Hai to follow their guides down Walking Street? A few percent at most, and yet the Sanctuary of Truth is a stunning achievement that could hold its own in any city in the world, and here it is in humble Pattaya.
The building is made of teak or some similar giant hardwood. It is roughly conical in shape, supported by a square of four wings, and soars to a high peak held up by massive timber columns. Throughout, the wood is carved with human and animal figures from tiny dancers to a massive triple-headed elephant, our old friend Erawan. The effect from afar is of a structure that is reaching up, stretching up to pierce the sky. A visitor from Mars might think that the Sanctuary is not so much a building as a vehicle of some kind, poised for take-off.
On my many visits there, I am always struck by the building’s location. After a short walk through trees it suddenly appears, down there on a headland projecting out into the sea off the old fishing village of Naklua. This must surely be the most valuable piece of real estate in contemporary Greater Pattaya, surrounded on three sides by waves, cooled by a constant sea-breeze. Imagine the value of this plot to a hotel group.
Visit the Sanctuary of Truth when the sky is blue or has the merest wisps of cloud. Gaze up at the wooden volcano itself, the white fortress walls that enclose the site and the blue beyond. You can’t help pondering what the ‘truth’ thing in its name is all about.
The whole edifice is surely religious in intent, though not narrowly denominational. If it’s Buddhist, then it borrows most strongly from the Indian tendency. The imagery is predominantly Hindu, revealing the origins of Buddhism in what is now Nepal. Despite the intricate carvings, the Sanctuary is relatively plain, unpainted and, inside, uncluttered. There are none of the dragons, ancestors or vivid paintwork familiar in Chinese Buddhist buildings. Mr Pobaan is not known for his religiosity, but in this case it doesn’t matter. No-one here is selling me any kind of bunkum. The building just stands there, on the coast, without advertisement or statement. Its agenda is whatever you want to make it. The only clue, which is yours to ignore, is the name.
‘What do you mean “out of place” anyway?’
Well, the Sanctuary is conceptual, it’s entirely to do with the mind and the spirit. Its function, as far as it has one, is to inspire us in any way we want, perhaps to consider the higher things of life, like peace and understanding. I take ‘truth’ as short-hand for the importance of these things.
‘Seems like a good place for that.’
People don’t come to Pattaya for peace and understanding; they come for a blowjob.
‘Sssh! Don’t say that word in here.’
I read from the brochure: ‘Materialistic pleasure is a superficial physical and external joy. True happiness is found in intrinsic spiritual pleasure.’
That’s a challenge to the very idea of Pattaya, which was founded, if ‘founded’ is the right word, on the commercialisation of (lowers voice) sex. People come to Pattaya to make or spend money, to dispense or receive materialistic pleasure. I expect to find neon lights in Funtown and loud music and girls running across the street in dressing gowns and ladyboys telling me I’m handsome, but not a building that has no connection with physical gratification and absolutely no profit motive.
‘The tickets aren’t cheap.’
But they’re still building the place. Because it’s officially a building site, everyone has to wear a hard hat. Despite working on the sanctuary since 1981, there is still an army of joiners and wood-carvers in residence. They have to be paid. They have to buy the wood. In places they’re doing new work, marking out and chipping away at the few plain surfaces remaining, but in others they’re already repairing and replacing bits which have weathered or decayed. The place will clearly never be finished.
It’s hard to work this place out. Maybe the clue is in the name. Maybe the Sanctuary is not as out of place in Pattaya as it seems. After all, it’s in places like Pattaya that truth needs a sanctuary.
You mean why a sanctuary?
Do you know what sanctuary means?
‘Of course, dummy. Every Thai knows that much English. Don’t be crazy. Like sanctuary much, kawp khun maak.’
No, teerak, that’s ‘thank you very much’, with a th. I stick my tongue between my teeth and blow: th. A sanctuary is a place of safety, a place where you can go for shelter or protection. I’m thinking that truth probably needs a refuge in Pattaya more than in most places and so building this magnificent edifice here isn’t so incongruous after all.
‘No?’ Mrs Pobaan looks relieved that I have reached a point of resolution. ‘Where do we give the hard hats back?’