There is one tourist destination that my students have earned a visit to this semester. They were all going to Hell, and I was just the teacher to guide them. I have been to Hell twice before and found it a special place. Backpackers are ripe for Hell. It is off the beaten path. Buses, planes, and trains don't go there. If you want to visit Hell it takes a lot of energy and planning in advance. But, for those with determination, Hell can be found in Angthong. It is located behind an obscure Buddhist temple called Wat Muang.
In Hell you can see human bodies with the heads of chickens, cobras, and toads. You can peek at naked people scurrying up thorny trees while red-clad demons stab them with spears, hungry crows pluck out their eyeballs, and rabid "soi" dogs bite their genitals off. You could have a better day, if you know what I mean. In Hell demons slowly saw a persecuted soul in half and hack at a pig-headed man with an axe. You can be forced to drink flaming lava, or the new beer Cheers, by demons welding spiked clubs and chains. It's worth a visit. And honestly, who isn't slightly charmed by life-sized statues of chained up bong smokers, toking on water pipes, with tongues the size of arms. That's it, step right up, see all this and more at Wat Muang.
Wat Muang is very surrealistic to say the least. You can see giant monkeys in battle against blokes with funny mustaches. There is a large statue of a male-female (katooey?) Chinese deity for compassion and folkloric portrayals of a father cruelly roasting his baby alive in an open spit to create a ghost. There are old bearded men on the backs of rats and a topless goddess riding a rabbit. There is a temple made completely out of mirrors, and an enormous statue with so many arms that it could comprise both sides of a volleyball team. Wat Muang has the world’s largest lotus around its main ordination hall. The temple is also constructing one of the world's largest Buddha statues on site. The latter is nearly complete, but stops just underneath the Buddha's eyes like a giant painting by Salvador Dali. The monument is a meditating being with half a face for the time being. But, people can make a donation to help finish his head. From the looks of things, tourists will perhaps be able to walk inside and touch the heart of the Buddha.
I wasn't leading my students into Hell because I thought it would be a nice place for a cup of tea. My goal was to persuade my students to make sense of it all. What is the meaning behind all these images? I wanted them to articulate this mysterious Thai culture for me. After all, they were training to become future tour guides. Hell was a good place to start because we could always move upward from there. This class is entitled "Introduction to Tour Planning and Organization". These students are tourism majors at Rajabhat University Phranakhon Si Ayutthaya. The function of this field trip was to design a new tour. We came up with a three-stop day excursion from Ayutthaya. First stop: Wat Phu Khao Thong (the Golden Pagoda), which was originally constructed by the Burmese after invading Ayutthaya in 1767, but later finished by the Thai after the Burmese king had died from a guilt complex and bad karma. Second stop: Wat Pa Mok Worawihan, which contains a 22-meter long reclining Buddha that dates back to the Sukhothai period. It once floated on the Chao Phraya River before they transported it to land and covered it with gold. The final stop is a one-hour tour of Wat Muang. My class would use this trip to create a tour schedule, design a business plan, invent an advertising campaign, and actually lead tourists to this destination. I wanted to prove to them that they could do it.
Going to Hell is not as easy as it sounds. I had to coax and prod my students into coming along for the ride. They were reluctant to visit Hell, but acquiesced after I promised them breakfast. Never underestimate food as a motivating factor in Thailand. Soon afterward, the school mini-van was loaded with a dozen young, nubile, and rather pretty Thai women (an event, in itself, that some teachers might classify as a fringe benefit). However, a van full of 20-year-old girls can be more noisy and talkative than one might ever imagine. And this class was never shy to begin with. Luckily, the computer teacher gave me a healthy supply of earplugs as a precaution. I stashed them in my front pocket when students weren't watching. I never used the ear plugs because the students had no intention of allowing me to remain a passive passenger. They talked, gossiped, and sang the entire way. I learned more about Thai pop stars than I ever needed to know.
Most students have never heard of Wat Muang, let alone visited the place. They told me that tourists could experience Hell in Saraburi (Wat Pai Long Hua). Two students also claimed that there was a small Hell awaiting people in the Sena district. I didn't doubt them for a second. Ahhh … so many Hells to visit and so little time. Truthfully, I was feeling a little nostalgic for the Hell that I knew best, at Wat Muang, and I had read that they made recent upgrades. These students had it easy. When I was their age I had to walk seven kilometers to Hell (a typical school in Utah) every morning in a snowstorm. Now my students arrived there in a chilled mini-van. Leading my students into Hell was all fun and games until we came closer to its entrance. Suddenly, students started having second thoughts. They made last minute attempts to shift our itinerary. About ten minutes before arrival students started to worry.
Student: "But, teacher, I don't want to go to Hell."
Me: "You will go to Hell and like it. So stop complaining".
Student: "But I only want to see heaven."
Me: "Wat Muang isn't really Hell. They just have many wild statues that portray it."
Student: "Why do we have to show tourists Hell?"
Me: "Because it is a place they have never been before, unless you count negotiating fares with taxi syndicates on Ko Samui."
Student: "Can we just take them to heaven instead?" (giggles and cheers echo throughout the van).
Our class visited the mirrored temple together. A group of us had our fortunes read by the multi-limbed deity (by shaking the numbered sticks). It was worth a shot. I figure any being with a dozen arms must know some neat tricks that I can't accomplish with my own two hands. Once in Hell my students scattered in every direction. They spent a total of 15 minutes in Hell than mysteriously vanished. Before I knew it only two people escorted me. These were the ones who would naturally guide tourists and make explanations. Two other students took freelance photographs, and the rest of the class just sort of dashed. Where had they gone?
I left Hell to go looking for them. I looked by the feeding pool with gigantic fish. I meandered past the fields of Hindu Gods and Chinese mythological figures. I entered the hall of giant lotus blossoms. I walked past a parade of monk statues. Then it hit me that my students might be hiding in nearby heaven. Did this tour really scare them that much? It took a while before I cleared my path to heaven, but eventually I made it. Hell was a much easier place to find. Before long, I was climbing the stairway to heaven.
My students weren’t there. They weren’t anywhere in sight. They had bypassed heaven for a different plight. Instead of staying any longer in Buddhist Nirvana, I left to lecture my learners. I made this sacrifice. But, where were my pupils? I was rounding a corner (where a topless, bright red-skinned, Goddess ferociously rode a tiger) when I finally found them. My students were nestled under a shady Bodhi tree. Some of them were desperately applying skin whitening crème as fast as possible. Others struck poses for our ad like fashion models. We could have created calendars rather than tweak a tour. My students had their cell phones cranked on at full blast. I could almost hear their mobiles sizzling from overuse. If Mara wants to attract young Thai women the only bait required would be unlimited SIM cards and air-conditioning. I had to admonish them for their mysterious disappearance. They needed to approach this project with right mind and action.
Me: “C’mon, you didn’t even bother to find Nirvana. All you did was return to the same place that you started.”
Student: “But, Hell was too hot, and heaven wasn’t very interesting.”
Me: "Hell isn't supposed to be pleasant, and heaven isn't supposed to be fun. The aim of this project was to improve your capacity of understanding".
Student: "But why should we suffer hunger any longer. Nothing is permanent."
Me: “Still, I am giving 10 bonus points to the students that actually worked. The rest of you will do extra assignments.”
Student: “But, we also worked. We have been locating the best restaurant to take tourists to for lunch.”
It was a nice try, but I didn’t bite. During lunch I delegated a variety of group tasks: creating advertisements from photos, calculating transport costs, writing data about each destination, and creating a reasonable itinerary. They had one week to figure out how to make this tour work. They had to time the 3-stop tour to be less than four hours long, and to budget all expenses to make a profit. They had to crunch numbers to decide on the proper price (250-300 baht) and figure out the minimum number of tourists needed (4-5 people) to make the tour a success.
After Angthong I led my students to a surprise stop. We visited Kao San Road in Ayutthaya. I had an appointment with a well-known hotel manager. After cordial greetings I sprung the real surprise. Each student in this class would be required to put in 25 hours of community service. They would speak directly with tourists at information booths, work at hotel reception desks, and a few would line up night tours as guides. After confidence has been built they will bring these new tours to life. This wasn't just a fun field trip; they would eventually guide tourists to these locations. They would have to improve language skills and become stronger students.
Me: “This is a live classroom. These are not pretend tours. You are actually going to plan and manage them. You must speak directly with tourists. This is job experience.”
Student: "But, what if we are really bad, so that tourists are scared away?"
Me: "That won't happen because I am going to train you."
Students: "Can we just practice these tours instead?"
Me: "We will practice them together first, then you will learn by doing them. So get ready, this will be an interesting ride."
I could see many eyes widen with surprise. They weren’t expecting this. They thought it would be a quick trip to Hell and back. This isn't a class full of multiple choice quizzes and complicated final exams. They couldn't simply cut and paste essays off the Internet. They had to really work. Hands-on experience is a new concept to them. Panic crept into their facial expressions as reality set in. For some students, they had just stepped into Hell.