A giant white buddha guards the entrance to both heaven and hell.
At least, that’s the case in Chonburi’s bizarre Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden — a theme park designed to expose mom, dad, and the kids to the glories of heaven … and the horrors of hell.
It’s late in the afternoon when we arrive, with no breeze at all to stir the slimy, humid air. Recent flooding has turned large portions of the park into marshland. Stagnant pools dot the parking lot. Clouds of determined gnats follow us everywhere we go.
We start our trip in Heaven: an overgrown, unkempt field populated with hundreds of buddha statues:
They sit there, cross-legged and eternally serene. Most of them are simply meditating, but I can’t get past the feeling that some of them — especially the ones staring into the setting sun — are waiting for something:
Maybe they’re waiting for the landscaping staff, who seem to have taken a few years off. Only one or two of the buddhas defy the unspoken “Sit and Wait” rule, including one whose posture indicates he wants to teach us something:
Despite the neglect, Heaven has its charms. We spend half an hour wandering among the silent statues, sticking to the high ground as often as possible to avoid losing our shoes in the saturated earth.
Across a short concrete bridge spanning a swollen pond, Hell awaits. You can’t miss the towering “hungry ghosts” who guard the entrance, pleading for mercy:
Hell is populated with the tortured souls of sinners, of course. Signs in Thai explain how their various sins have led to the graphic tortures they suffer in the afterlife. Bronze-skinned demons are doling out the punishment to the pale, skinny sinners — slicing out hearts, yanking out intestines, and generally ruining a sinner’s day:
Those who try to escape end up sinking in the muck and mire of their own lasciviousness — looking a bit like bargain-basement extras from a Walking Dead episode:
Others try to get away by claiming thorny trees. But even if the sinners somehow avoid the massive spikes growing out of the trunk and limbs, giant birds perched at the top are waiting to peck out each ghost’s juiciest organs:
All this action is, of course, presided over a Demon King. He sits on his golden throne, with a pile of skulls, convenient for snacking on, no doubt, off to his left:
As we leave Hell, just in case our visit has inspired us to be better people, we have opportunities to do perform a few good works. The traditional choice involves purchasing gold leaf to rub on buddha statues:
The more contemporary method of alms-giving, though, involves taking a turn at the “Toss Your Coins in the Sinner-Roasting Cauldron” game:
At some point in the park’s past, the entire cauldron would have been slowly spinning. Today, though, the motor is busted, and no one knows how to fix it — so the game’s much easier.
To Westerners, the concept of a satanic Six Flags (“Lotsa Laffs! Bring the Kids!”) may seem over the top. But, in principle, Wang Saen Suk isn’t much different from the “Hell Houses” some churches sponsor around Halloween. They’re both designed to “scare the devil” out of you … and to teach good, basic moral lessons — like this one:
“If you make a mess, don’t expect others to clean it up.”