Gallery: Heaven and Hell in Nan

Gallery: Heaven and Hell in Nan

The northern Thai town’s Phumin temple offers visitors a chance to choose their own path to eternity

A heaven of earthly delights and a celestial cannibalistic hell display vivid revelations in northern Thailand's deceptively tranquil town of Nan. On the grounds of a fabled Buddhist temple, Wat Phumin, doors provide an entrance to either zone.

Hellish misery lurks inside an isolated, amusing, circular building which squats under a cake-like topping of Naga serpents descending from a dome. Inside the white and gold structure, more than a dozen life-sized, weirdly comical statues are frozen in a horror show of blood-soaked sadistic torture. Two rooster-headed humans, squatting on their haunches, appear as mutant slaves who feed bones into a fire to cook three pleading victims.

Next door to this so-called "Hell Dome" is elegant Wat Phumin, with entrance balustrades adorned by two thick Naga serpents. Built at the end of the 16th century as a royal temple, Wat Phumin was renovated in the late 1800s when most of its murals -- depicting aspects of existence in heaven and on earth -- were painted. Details portray religious stories, including Jataka tales of Buddha's reincarnation, which are interwoven with scenes of secular, everyday life in Nan at that time.

Here, we take you on a photographic journey to heaven and hell.


Wat Phumin was renovated in the late 1800s, when most of its murals were painted. In its heyday, this temple was the center of an autonomous Nan kingdom, which dates back to the 12th century.


Historic images also include French merchants and their pale wives.


Unfortunately, many of the paintings are damaged from water and neglect. The cruciform-shaped temple is also punctured by open doors and windows, enabling humid air to continue punishing the artwork. In the temple's center, a cluster of four large Buddhas sit back-to-back, facing in four directions, amid 12 fat teak pillars which hold up the roof.


Built at the end of the 16th century as a royal temple, Wat Phumin was renovated in the late 1800s when most of its murals -- depicting aspects of existence in heaven and on earth -- were painted.


On the streets of Nan, students paint their own murals on public walls, imitating many of the original paintings that are inside Wat Phumin.


Hellish misery lurks inside an isolated, amusing, circular building which squats under a cake-like topping of Naga serpents descending a dome.


A black-haired man, along with a white pig-headed human and another chicken-headed person are all being cooked alive in a huge wok, perched on three large skulls.


A pig-headed human is cooked alive in a huge wok.


A person pours what appears to be hot oil onto the panicked face of a bleeding man.


A nude woman is speared in the back and impaled on a thorn tree, while a black bird pecks at her head.


The proud master of ceremonies sits atop a pillar decorated with human skulls


If all this is way too grim and gruesome, a bit of cosmic balance appears in the sky near the dome's ceiling. Above the abuse, an impassive-faced, robed Buddhist monk gracefully hovers, symbolizing that escape from all of life's suffering comes through the teachings of Buddha.


One of the best ways to know how people lived here during the 1800s is to examine the gorgeous murals which dominate the temple's walls. Thailand's Health Department cited "a crying woman with goiter" in the murals as "historical evidence" of Iodine Deficiency Disorders among villagers dwelling in the Nan Valley, due to a lack of salt in northern people's food 150 years ago.


Among heavenly and hedonistic themes, lovers coyly coo.


A man puffs a cheroot, while wearing a fanciful earring.


Men enthusiastically make music on string and wind instruments.


In its heyday, this temple was the center of an autonomous Nan kingdom, which dates back to the 12th century. Burma's control of vanquished Nan continued until Thai forces established control in the north in the late 1700s. Nan was a vital mid-way point between Chiang Mai in Thailand, and Luang Prabang in Laos. But the Burmese seized and destroyed Nan in the mid-1500s -- burning, looting, and kidnapping residents for enslavement -- and stole one of Wat Phumin's Buddha statues, according to historians.


Burma's control of vanquished Nan continued until Thai forces established control in the north in the late 1700s. But in the late 1800s, France temporarily gobbled up much of the Nan kingdom's eastern territory. The town never recovered. After Thailand regained some of its northern real estate, Nan languished as a remote outpost on the Nan River.

Today, Nan is considered off the beaten path by most foreign tourists, though its tangle of neat, wide, unhurried streets displays prosperity, a peaceful ambiance, and lots of other fine Buddhist temples.

Nan is about 670 kilometers north of Bangkok. One of the easiest ways to travel from Bangkok to Nan is by overnight bus, which departs from the city's Northern Bus Terminal at Mochit. Ask for the "VIP" version which usually includes a spacious seat and an inflatable neck rest, plus a cool beverage and tasty mid-journey hot meal so you can truly enjoy Thai-style vehicular hedonism.

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

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