Photographer Dan White put 12,000 kilometers under his wheels to document Thailand’s 40 most historic temples for the book Buddhist Temples Of Thailand. Below he recalls moments from a journey that led him from the mountainous north to the white sand beaches of the south.
Along with love of the King and love of the Nation, religion is at the heart of the Thai soul. It takes physical shape in the form of the thousands wats or temples that dot the country and provide a community focus for every town and village. Some of them are vast and magnificent. Others are small and intimate. Some are modern and practical. Others are intricate and ancient. Working as the photographer for the Marshall Cavendish book Buddhist Temples of Thailand: A Visual Journey Through Thailand’s 40 Most Historic Wats, gave me some understanding of the diversity of forms and functions that characterise these Buddhist structures. It also gave me the chance to spend several months doing two of the things I love most in life – riding motorcycles and taking pictures.
This book started for me with a list. Assignments often do. Greg Lowe, the creator of this project, and Joe Cummings the author and well-known Thailand expert, sent over the photographic shoot list for me to follow. This is standard editorial practice. Some of the names I knew – places I had visited before in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Nan. A couple I had shot before for magazines or agency stock. Most of them, I had never heard of.
I looked at the maps and worked out the routes and the roads. This was to become more than a series of photo-shoots. Looking at the obscure, spread out and diverse nature of the locations I realised it was best to approach it as one long motorcycle trip and enjoy some of the most beautiful roads in the world. For those who enjoy motorcycle touring, Thailand is something special. With piles of camera kit strapped on to a smallish, but very reliable locally assembled Kawasaki cruiser, I set off from Bangkok to Mae Hong Son via the stunning border road over the rugged hills from Mae Sot. After that from Chiang Mai to Nan, via Lampang, on faster roads with gentle mountain bends and then on past the lake at Pha Yao (a great place for lunch if you ever pass that way).
Then on again down huge eight-lane highways and up dusty tracks, past southern beaches of pristine tropical sand and then over north-eastern sugar palm and rice-field covered flatlands. In all it took 12,000 kilometres of motorcycling to cover every location on the list. Covering the ground and catching the light became an obsessive geographical and photographic equation. Meanwhile people did things around me; ceremonies and alms giving, music and fortune telling. From the furthest northern points where hill tribe people cultivate rice and tea on steeply stepped mountain paddies, to the deepest south where the fisherman of Songkhla speak harshly and quickly as they mend their nets in small, rough commercial ports on plastic-bag strewn beaches. Then on to Isan, the heart of the country in many ways, via my home in Bangkok – quite possibly the most vibrant and interesting city in the world. The list had become a voyage of historical discovery.
Starting with the wonders of Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai, the second location I was sent to was 60km from the main temple complex. I had never heard of Wat Chao Chan. I have, however, spent a great deal of time in Cambodia over the years photographing the progress of that fractured and troubled nation. I know the temples of Angkor well and saw them when the prospect of meeting spiteful men in baggy green caps kept the tourists at bay and you could wander the Bayon or Tha Phrom alone.
After getting lost several times trying to locate Wat Chao Chan, I eventually found myself driving down a heavily wooded, jungle path miles from the main temple complexes and historical parks. I arrived in a clearing. The bright afternoon sunshine flooded through the trees creating javelins of light silhouetting a structure that was unmistakeably straight from the heart of Angkor – all these hundreds of miles north of Angkor Wat itself or the exquisite satellite temples of Phimai or Phanom Rung. A deserted outpost of a long gone empire seemingly lost in the woods. All that history packed into this tiny, atmospheric, leafy and deserted place. After that I was totally hooked on the list.
Phimai: This magnificent Angkor era Khmer temple was a major landmark in of the empire, marking the road north from Angkor itself to the extended territories. It was built in the 11th Century and predated Angkor by a century. It is also exquisitely preserved.
I never knew what Joe had in store for me next. Nan in the far north of Thailand remains a treasure trove of the most beautiful architecture and fascinating traditional culture. The exquisite gold leaf and delicately human murals of Wat Phumin, the distinct ceremonies in amazing surroundings at Wat Chae Heng. More hidden gems around Chiang Mai and Lampang – places that even many locals have never heard of such as Wat Lai Hin or Wat Ton Kwen. Fading, elegant and exquisite testaments to craftsmen and priests from a distant era, it was often the details that were spellbinding. The tiny delicate relief sculptures of a greedy cat tracking a clueless and possibly doomed bird on a gate to a place that initially seemed crumbling. A faded painting in a far corner of Buddha in his last moments.
Wat Phra Mahathat – Nakhon Si Thammarat: Maybe the most important temple in the South, this wat is famous for its large and blindingly beautiful stupa. 78 meters high and surrounded by 173 smaller chedis, it is built in the Sinhalese style. The Chedi has been recently renovated and what was once grey is now gleaming white. It is also where Jatukam amulets come from.
Vibrant depictions of daily life, cooking, flirting, cheating, eating and punishment in times past. Isan is a place of historical wonder and robustly welcoming hospitality. Thai, Lao, and Khmer all mixed up in a hotch-potch of architecture, rural kindness, and fiery, fiery food. That Phanom, and the Angkorian temples in Khorat and Buriram remain dramatic testaments to the ebb and flow of empire and the skill of ancient architects.
The beauties of Bangkok temples such as Wat Pho, Wat Benchamabophit, and Wat Suthat are well known to the whole world. The list, however, also revealed lesser-known treasures. In small crumbling structures down hidden lanes, locked ordination halls contain ancient murals depicting the fractious arrival of French and Portuguese traders.
Thailand is a country where people flock from all over the world to enjoy famously splendid historical treasures. Who can be surprised when it is undoubtable that those treasures are so impressive. Not everyone realises, however, just what richness is also found in hidden dusty corners all around the country from north to south and east to west.
You can read more about the book on the companion site Buddhist Temples Of Thailand and order the book online from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. You can also read more of Dan’s travel stories at DanWhite.org.
(This article previously appeared in Traversing The Orient magazine)
More on Travelhappy about Temples In Thailand, Cambodia and Burma:
- Angkor, Bagan, Sukhothai – The Legacy
Part 1 – Sukhothai – Part 2: Angkor – Part 3: Bagan
- The Temple Of A Million Beer Bottles – Wat Lan Khaud
- Sukhothai: Thailand’s Own Angkor Wat
- Essential Temples Of Sukhothai
- Essential Temples of Angkor
- Essential Temples of Bagan
- Angkor Wat – A Brief Guide
- Angkro Wat To Bangkok
- Beng Mealea – The Lost Temple Of Angkor
- Buddhist Temples Of Thailand – The Book