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Where to experience Buddhist hell in Thailand
A quick guide to Buddhism's torture chambers and where to find some of the most grotesque sites of purgatory
Come to Thailand and go straight to hell.
Hieronymus Bosch's medieval Garden of Earthly Delights and other paintings include sinners in a Christian hell, but if the Dutch artist is ever reincarnated as a Buddhist, he might be intrigued by Thailand's temple murals and larger-than-life statues of horrific karmic punishments.
Want to copulate in an immoral tryst? Murder someone? Or violate some other important Buddhist precept?
You will soon find yourself in the midst of fiendish demons gleefully boiling wide-eyed sinners in hot, bubbling cauldrons. You'll be screaming among men and women who have been stripped naked to maximize the pain when they are shoved onto huge, body-piercing spikes.
Naughty individuals are also eaten alive by gigantic pterodactyl-like birds or gnarly, salivating creatures which savor human flesh.
Indulging in gambling, drugs, and other popular vices can also result in a trip to Buddhism's torture chambers.
To witness all this, simply climb aboard any bus or train to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan, Udon Thani or many other towns and ask the locals for directions to "narak" (hell).
You will be joining an increasing number of artists, writers, photographers, anthropologists, religious scholars and other travelers who are wandering Thailand, clutching maps which lead to some the most grotesque sites of purgatory ever displayed.
A punishment to fit the crime
Buddhism's hell exists to warn people not to degenerate, and punish those who do.
About 2,500 years ago, the Buddha said suffering is caused by lust, discontentment, hunger, desire, sloth, cowardice, doubt, hypocrisy and false fame, according to translations of the ancient Pali-language "Padhana Sutta."
But the Buddha never turned hell into a successful tourist attraction.
Thailand's theme-park versions of hell are unique, disturbing, amusing, inspiring and often quite gross.
They include huge cement-and-plaster statues erected outdoors, and colorful detailed murals on the walls of temples.
Buddhism is free of an imaginary "god." But people can suffer while passing through hell after they die, on their way to reincarnation.
In Pali language, for example, "apaya-bhumi" can be defined as a "state of deprivation, the four lower levels of existence into which one might be reborn as a result of past unskillful actions," or a consequence of a person's behavior while alive, according to an online Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms.
Those four zones include "rebirth" in hell, or elsewhere in the underworld as a "hungry ghost," or "angry demon" or -- if your misdeeds were not so evil -- simply as an animal.
If you do get dropped into hell, the good news is you don't have to stay forever.
The bad news is you may be stuck down there for thousands, millions or billions of years -- or longer. Buddhists believe you go to hell because of the "cause and effect" of your behavior, a personalized concept of inevitable reward or punishment known as "karma."
Thais have a simple phrase to describe this idea -- "Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad" (Tam dee, die dee. Tam chua, die chua) -- which is obviously practical advice.
"There are virtually unlimited number of hells in the Buddhist cosmology as there are infinite number of Buddha worlds," according to the Buddha Dharma Education Association.
Many Buddhists believe that after you die, you will be hauled in to see Phya Yom, the Death King. His stern assistants scrutinize your dossier to see how many good and bad deeds have been recorded.
Then the Death King decides where to send you.
"If you meet the Devil in this life, don't postpone merit-making which will help you to defeat him in the next life." -- Sign at Wang Saen Suk
Imagine what awaits the fallen in such places as Samjiva's "hell of constant repetition," Kalasutra's "hell of black wire," Raurava's "hell of lamentation" as well as the familiar fire and brimstone of Pratapana's "hell of fiercely scorching heat."
Extremely cold hells include Arbuda's "hell of swelling," Nirarbuda's "hell of shrinking," Hahava's "hell of shivering tongue," and Utpala's "hell of blue lotus-colored patches on the skin."
When you finish Buddhism's rehab in hell, you can eventually become a human again, countless times, and work on your karma some more until you achieve enlightenment.
Sound like fun for the whole family? Some of Thailand's best hellish places are where Thai parents bring their young children, to try and shock them into never behaving badly.
These gory displays are scattered throughout the country, but some favorite "outdoor gardens" include the following.
Wat Ban Waeng, also known as Wat Luang Pho Nahk
This Buddhist temple is about 50 kilometers northwest of Udon Thani, and offers a sexy display of pleasurable lures accompanied by lurking painful retribution.
Seemingly happy, plump, nude "damsels" dangle from the branches of a tree, like chubby female mannequins waiting to be plucked and played with.
The White Temple, at Wat Rong Khun
A modern creation, near Chiang Rai, by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.
Dazzling, psychedelic, detailed statuary portrays gargoyle-style creatures, disembodied human hands and other intense imagery.
Wang Saen Suk
About 90 minutes' drive from Bangkok on the way to Pattaya, these statues are typical of hells elsewhere but conveniently located if you are heading to the coast.
Signs beckon: "Welcome to Hell!" and "If you meet the Devil in this life, don't postpone merit-making which will help you to defeat him in the next life."
Wat Pai Rong Rua
Also close to Bangkok, the temple includes a gigantic Buddha more than 50 meters tall which can be seen from the highway.
Wat Mae Kaet
About 14 kilometers from Chiang Mai in Ban Mae Kaet village.
Some of its outdoor statues can be considered cute, but others may become your worst nightmares.
Heaven and Hell Tapan Cave
Phang Nga town offers a unique site of fierce attacks, including orifice abuse, decapitation, whipping, lynching, amputations and other assaults amid tropical greenery.
In Nan, a room-sized "Hell Dome" contains a life-sized diorama of torture.
Other 'hellish' hotspots
Hell is also depicted on some temples as bas relief, which are much less dramatic but a few of the tiny creations decorating Chiang Mai's tranquil Wat Chai Mongkol, near the Ping river, are quite nice.
Each the size of a person's hand, some of the golden figures against a blood-red background show a man being sawed in half, plus other violence.
Nearby, a snow-white background highlights gold-colored people falling into a boiling pot, while the Buddha serenely meditates.
Further north, at Chiang Khan's Wat Si Khun Meuang along the Mekong river, an evocative wall painting portrays the boiling of humans, with an ox-headed man adding to the misery, though most of the temple's paintings avoid pictures of punishment.
In Bangkok and other cities, Buddhist supply shops sell prayer books, posters, and spiritual lectures on DVDs, and also stock cartoon-like illustrations showing how various sins lead to punishment in hell.
Some portray a man in a massage parlor, or snorting drugs next to a squat toilet, or trying to steal, despite the proximity of the dreaded Death King. Printed on cardboard, these colorful, inexpensive drawings are suitable for framing.