Note: This post is probably NSFW. I haven't included many photos because they're too disgusting / harrowing / disturbing. Go see it for yourself – directions are at the bottom of this post - but remember that you cannot unsee what your eyes have seen.
I slipped 10 baht into the metal turnstile, stepped past the rusty metal bars and inside the temple garden. I wandered only a few steps before stopping short: black, empty eye sockets of a recently severed head were staring at me.
Let's call the owner of these eye sockets Frank. I knew Frank's decapitation was recent because the blood covering his throat and lower face was fresh, sticky bright red. His tongue was inhumanely long, lolling obscenely out of his screaming, too-wide-open mouth. A mechanical saw attached to a multi-purpose torture device had ripped through his neck. Frank had been a bad, bad man.
Wat Mae Kaet Noi is like any other beautiful Thai temple, but with one glaring exception: the temple gardens depict the Buddhist vision of hell.
Frank is one of many tortured souls enduring the agonizing experience of Buddhist hell shown at Wat Mae Kaet Noi. Hundreds of life-sized and larger-than-life statues of men and women are grotesquely disfigured, and covered in blisters, festering sores and gaping wounds. Red demon-like monsters are stabbing, ripping, severing and operating complicated torture machines. You can pop a ten baht coin into some of these machines if you feel like upping the grisliness – red lights spin and flash, and distorted screams ring out from tiny speakers.
I like horror and gore in movies. But somehow, this felt worse.
The punishments in Buddhist hell are specific to the crimes committed. Alcoholics become conjoined twins, one mouth drinking from broken bottles and the other puking, non-stop. Drug addicts are stabbed with syringes, and tortured in a myriad of creative ways. Liars get their tongues ripped out. In one interesting scene, obedient school children are sat demurely in front of a TV and two teachers. All seems well, but something is lurking behind the good boys and girls: a depiction of what happens when you're bad. Basically: meat hooks, screaming and blood. Lots and lots of blood.
The majority of installations seem to focus on sexual misconduct.
There are grossly large penii and breasts every which way you turn. Demons force themselves inside terrified women and men, using blades, spiked clubs, spears and more. One area shows a man lying on his back surrounded by five beautiful nude women, but his yellow eyes are bulging impossibly, and his parts are a gross, sore, deep red. Naked people are made to climb thorny tree trunks.
There's a whole area dedicated to abortions.
They're illegal in Thailand and culturally abhorrent, an issue that’s explored by having statues of disfigured bloody mothers killing their screaming unwanted babies. Francis Wilmer, author of the blog Roads and Kingdoms, spoke to Clean Teacher Monk - the man who built Chiang Mai's notorious hell garden. Clean Teacher Monk revealed that more women than you’d expect bring their illegally aborted babies to the temple to be buried, as an act of repentance. Can you imagine? The whole place is disturbing, but this part is particularly harrowing.
I asked my Thai friend Cate about hell temples to try and gain a little more insight.
“Oh, yeah. Thai kids get taken to those places when we’re small. There are loads in Thailand, but I think Wat Mae Kaet Noi is one of the biggest and most graphic. It’s to scare us into being good girls and boys. Be good or look what will happen to you.”
Buddhist hell is known as Naraka, a series of layers underneath the realm of the living, each layer worse than the last.
Some layers are cold, with names that translate to ‘shivering hell, ‘lamentation hell’ and ‘chattering teeth hell’. The hot layers sound worse: ‘crushing hell’, ‘screaming hell’ and even ‘great screaming hell’. After death, you get sent to the appropropriate layer of hell if you’ve stolen, murdered, been intoxicated, lied or committed a sexual sin. Unlike Christian hell, naughty men and women don’t suffer eternal damnation in Naraka –people are allowed to leave after completing their punishments, but Wikipedia assures me that punishments can last a very long time.
It's not all bad, though.
One part of the garden seemed to show a vision of Thai heaven. Healthy, beautiful humans frolicked beneath a great tree. It was still weird, though, because the non-tortured heaven-people had tree vines attached to the top of their heads. I have no idea what that's about, but I guess it must be a good thing.
If you’re looking for disturbing, non-touristy places to go in Chiang Mai, go to Wat Mae Kaet Noi Hell Temple.
The Hell Temple is half an hour from Chiang Mai’s Old City, longer if you take the gorgeous back roads past rice paddies, rivers, and villages. You may get lost, but hey, that’s what Google Maps is for.
Make your Hell Temple visit into a Chiang Mai day trip: Graveyard Coffee and Sticky Waterfalls.
There’s a unique cafe nearby, aptly named Graveyard View Coffee Shop. It’s opposite a Buddhist cremation building, but you wouldn’t know that’s what it was if the owner didn’t tell you. It’s a quirky, round, concrete little structure on stilts with industrial-inspired decor, and the coffee menu lists intriguing creations like mashed potato iced coffee and salted caramel mocha.
The now-famous Sticky Waterfalls are nearby too. Known locally as Bua Tong, the rocks are covered in a natural non-slip coating of calcium carbonate, meaning you can climb up and down without falling. It’s a beautiful place, surrounded by trees, ferns and flowers. Take a towel and fresh clothes with you.
Day trip itinerary:
1. Wat Mae Kaet Noi Hell Temple, open from 8am until 6pm.
2. Bua Tong Sticky Waterfalls
3. Graveyard View Coffee Shop
Directions to Chiang Mai’s Hell Temple Wat Mae Kaet Noi:
This trip is easy with your own car or motorbike. You’d have to hire a driver for the day without your own vehicle. Google Maps shows the most direct route, but I reckon that when you take back roads as much as possible you get to see so much more life and beauty. Here's a map to the hell temple:
And here's a map of the whole day trip: Chiang Mai, to the Hell Temple, to the Sticky Waterfalls, to Graveyard View Coffee: