In the town of Li is a monument of three sculptures of highly respected monks born in Li district, including Khruba Wong of Wat Phra Phutthabat Huai Tom. (Photo by Karnjana Karnjanatawe)

Buddhist chanting could be heard from afar. It was a sign I was at the right place for exploring Ban Phrabat Huai Tom, the thriving Buddhist community in Lamphun’s Li district.

Every Buddhist holy day, or wan phra, the villagers who are Pakakayo, a Karen ethnic group, normally have a day off from working in the farmlands and go to Wat Phra Phutthabat Huai Tom to make merit and listen to dhamma teaching. The temple is the heart of activities of the village as well as one of the famous temples in the North of the country.

The people practise five Buddhist precepts in their daily lives. They abstain from not only taking the life of any creature, but also from eating meat, said Ban Phrabat Huai Tom Community-based Tourism Club president Wimol Sukdaeng, 38.

The villagers don their traditional dress to visit Wat Phra Phutthabat Huai Tom. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

It is a lifelong commitment the villagers have made since their forebears moved to the village in 1971 to follow the late Khruba Chaiyawongsa Phatthana, better known as Khruba Wong, a highly respected monk and at that time abbot of Wat Phra Phutthabat Huai Tom.

They moved en masse from Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Tak provinces to settle in the village. The abbot, a vegetarian, was pleased to see his followers. He told the newcomers that they could live in the village on one condition: they must not take the life of any animal and be vegetarians.

Today most villagers still hold to that commitment even after the abbot died in 2000. Some of the young people I met in the village abstain from eating meat. Food stalls I visited sold only vegetarian food such as deep fried banana blossoms and noodle soup with tofu and vegetables.

Every morning the villagers go to the temple to offer alms, rather than having monks and novices walk around the village, as is the tradition in most communities. Villagers offer sticky rice, raw vegetables and herbs they harvested from their backyards, fruits, snacks and bottled water. Side dishes or kab khao, and other vegetarian meals, will be offered to the monks later.

They put their offerings in a row of wide, round and open containers. If they want to offer coins, they put them in separate containers while banknotes are placed between two bamboo sticks that are then set in an offering container.

Some villagers also bring water from home, pouring it into a small plastic cup which is placed inside a plastic bowl, which is then placed next to the alms offering containers. At offering time, monks walk in a row according to seniority and sit on a raised wooden platform in front of each container. Novices sit on a mat on the floor behind the row of the monks.

The golden pagoda is Phra Mahathat Chedi Sri Wiangchai. The construction started in 1995 and took about 10 years to complete. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Older male villagers will offer alms to the monks while women offer alms to novices. Then the monks and novices bless the villagers and perform the ritual of kruad nam by pouring water from a small cup into a bowl and by dedicating merits to all beings including the spirits of departed loved ones.

After the alms offering session, the majority of local people remain for prayers and dhamma teaching.

For visitors like me, I was told to go to the prayer hall to pay respect to the uncorrupted body of Khruba Wong. The late abbot’s corpse is kept in a glass coffin in a mirrored room. The coffin is laid in front of a large standing Buddha image atop a dazzling platform decorated with gems and jewels donated by his followers throughout Thailand as a mark of respect.

Every May 15-17, villagers organise a ceremony to commemorate the abbot’s death on May 17, 2000. On the ceremony’s last day, a procession is held where villagers change the saffron robe on Khruba Wong’s body. The ritual is joined by countless followers and visitors.

In addition to Wat Phra Phutthabat Huai Tom, visitors also should visit Phra Mahathat Chedi Sri Wiangchai, about 1.7km north of the temple. The golden pagoda was built by Khruba Wong in 1995 because he believed the pagoda site was a sacred place related to a past life of Buddha and he did not want anyone to build houses in the area.

Located on a 6 rai plot of land, the golden pagoda is 71m tall and 40m wide, ringed by 49 smaller pagodas and topped with tiered parasols made from 25kg of gold. There are 84,000 Buddha images surrounding the main pagoda.

Lying in front of the standing Buddha image is the body of Khruba Wong. The corpse is coated with gold leaf from head to toe. His saffron is changed yearly during the ritual ceremony to mark his death on May 17. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Another site worth visiting is the village’s research centre for woven cloth and handicrafts. The centre is located only a short walk from the temple. The centre was launched in 2007 to promote locally made hand-woven cloth.

The production house is an open-air structure where a group of women weave cloth. They sit on a mat on the floor, tying one end of the loom to their waist. Their legs stretch out in front of them. They skilfully work on their looms while creating beautiful designs.

Saithong Ngenlertsakul said most Pakakayo women learn how to weave at a young age, a tradition that dates back several generations. They use natural materials, like indigo to dye the cotton yarns. Weaving is a means to preserve their culture as the fabrics can show a range of traditional Karen patterns.

“We weave cloth when we have free time from work in our rice fields. It’s good for us because it helps us earn extra income and also provides us time for associating with friends,” Saithong said.

They sell their fabrics and other finished products including shirts for men, blouses, phasin (traditional wraparound skirts), scarves and bags in the centre’s souvenir shop as well as a One Tambon One Product (Otop) shop located on the main road of the village.

When you have a chance to visit the village in Li district, you should spare another day or two to visit Mae Ping National Park, about a 30-minute drive from the community.

The road leading to the park and the road inside are in good condition. An official at the checkpoint recommended I visit Ko Luang Waterfall. The falls are 23km from the park entrance. It is also easy to reach by walking for about 500m from the parking lot. Although the weather was cool during the time I visited, kids enjoyed swimming in the pond. There were officers in the area to ensure that those who wanted to swim wore life jackets.

Another well-known spot in the national park is Kaeng Ko Lake where visitors can stay overnight in raft houses or camp in tents on the bank of the reservoir in order to see a sea of fog lingering across the mountain range in the morning.

I used to think Lamphun’s Li district was too far, but I can ensure you that once you have a chance to visit Ban Phrabat Huai Tom and Mae Ping National Park, it is worth the effort.

The round structure is called chai ban or sadue muang, meaning the centre of the village. The building was built by Khruba Wong to house a pagoda, representing the city pillar. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Most of the villagers of Ban Phrabat Huai Tom are farmers. They plant rice, cassava and corn. When they have free time Pakakayo women weave cloth while some men are skillful silversmiths. They sell their products at the Otop shop in the village. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Ban Phrabat Huai Tom also has a royal project. It started when the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited the village in 1978. The king wanted to help improve the quality of life of the people as well as to solve the problem of deforestation. Staff of the project told me that it was fortunate for them to have a chance to work for their community and do not have to leave their homes to find jobs in the city. The project also buys farm products from its members. Visitors who stop by the centre can have a chance to buy produce such as cape gooseberry, passion fruit and seedless black grapes. The prices are much cheaper than prices in Bangkok. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

For lunch, members of the village’s weaving centre bring one kab khao or a side dish to eat with steamed rice or sticky rice. They share the dishes, which include stir-fried tofu with vegetables, deep-fried sliced pumpkins, deep fried banana blossom, naem hed (fermented mushroom), deep fried soybean pods, spicy dips and thua nao (fermented soy beans). They invited me to join their lunch. I sampled their tasty vegetarian food and also tried other vegetarian meals at a food stall next to Wat Phra Phutthabat Huai Tom. The place seems to be popular among villagers. It serves vegetarian noodle dishes and khao man gai, but the meat is not chicken, it is made of soy bean. Prices for a dish start from 15-25 baht. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

The water at Ko Luang waterfall is clear and you can see schools of fish swimming. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

Kaeng Ko Lake is about 24km from Mae Ping National Park. It has facilities for camping as well as a pier for visitors to board a longtail boat to tour the lake. The raft restaurant in the national park is also a good spot for you to enjoy the scenic view while having dinner during the sunset. Karnjana Karnjanatawe

News Reporter

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