I have been living in Chiang Mai for over ten years but this is the first time I have come to this place,” says Rudy, a grey mustachioed Italian in his early fifties. He gravitated to my breakfast table after he overheard a conversation in his mother tongue. It’s not common to hear Italian spoken in northern Thailand, even in worldly Chiang Mai. “Imagine how good it sounds here in Phayao then,” Rudy says, emphasizing with his left hand, while his right stuffs a piece of croissant into his mouth. “This place looks like Chiang Mai did when I came to Thailand for the first time, twenty five years ago.”
I’m too young to be able to relate to the glories of Chiang Mai in the early 1990s, but I can imagine what Rudy is referring to. He’s talking about a Thailand without cookie-cutter restaurants for foreigners on every street corner, poor English signage, no hustle and bustle of too many visiting farangs. In fact, besides us, Rudy and his heavily tattooed nephew Andrea, today there seems to be no other travellers in Phayao town. We have a bend of its shimmering lake all to ourselves. It is part of the reason I came here.
I pointed the wheels of a rented Toyota to this part of the Kingdom with a simple goal: to get off the beaten track and explore at my own pace, soaking up a hopefully more authentic atmosphere away from all the tourist amenities. Phayao seemed like a good place to start my quest. Bordering a corner of Laos, hemmed between the more popular provinces of Chiang Rai and Lampang, and gateway to low-key Phrae and Nan, Phayao is a deeply green piece of upland Thailand. At its centre, Phayao town stretches over the eyelid of an oval shaped lake, as if it were a line of concrete mascara. A collection of low rise sunbathed buildings and seafood restaurants, Phayao town doesn’t look too appealing to the first-timer. But the lakeside, the heart of an otherwise quiet city which calls it a day right after sundown, has some charm.
“No need to worry about your car,” the smiling hotel manager reassured me. “We have a CCTV security camera.” Looking at the empty streets, thieves and burglars are the least of my worries. Thai ghosts, maybe?
Which boils down to the main reason for my visit: I didn’t come to look for rest and relaxation on the lakeside, but to have a peek at something far more bizarre. In fact, Phayao hides a very peculiar slice of Buddhist hell on Earth, one oddly guarded by a petite, angry dinosaur.
Just a few kilometers to the west of the lake, the gardens of Wat Khom Kham offer a collection of larger than life statues depicting heaven and hell, with the emphasis on the latter. The statues on display are among the quirkiest in the whole of Southeast Asia. Scary depictions of the netherworld are common throughout the Buddhist world, but they’re not often found in a quaint garden setting.
At the gates of Khom Kham’s green hell stands the mini replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex next to a spearwielding blue demon with an elephant’s head. As soon as one sets out on the main path, two more fanged guardian demons appear, the precursors to the real attractions: a series of ghastly, extremely realistic oversized stone creatures. Behind a cluster of the screaming damned who slowly burn in a stone cauldron, a monster woman that looks very much like a zombie from Tales from the Crypt digs into her own open stomach. “Beware,” she seems to warn us, “For this is what happens to women who decided to have abortions.” Next to her, a bald and rotting man awaits, his freakishly long tongue rolled all the way down to his lap. He was transformed into a zombielike anteater because he lived a life telling deceitful lies. The show is stolen by a giant figure looming at the back of the park: a tall, slender monster man who stands behind the morbid couple, the third in a trinity of ghastly abnormalities. Next to it, a few naked damned clamber up a thorny tree chased by wild dogs hungry for flesh. In the opposite corner, looking as though these hellish extravaganzas were normal business, a serene Buddha figure sits meditating atop a miniature cliff. A group of men with animal heads pray before him. They have repented to the right path just in time, just before their bodies were turned into something even more grotesque.
It is a relief to be back at the lakeside, where some boats are leaving from a pier for a wat set on an islet in the middle of the lake. Until a few years ago, diving trips to an alleged underwater wat were one of the attractions for travellers to these shores, but today they’re long gone. “It used to be good business, but we can’t bring people there anymore. It’s for safety, they say,” one of the boatmen explains.
A few meters further on, children play on a floating fishing platform. It’s a way to get closer to the water and from here the row of restaurants and cafes lining the shore look less significant, overshadowed by a vast scape of water and sky. A solitary longboat appears on the horizon, gliding over the dark water. The round straw hat of a fisherman moves rhythmically with the strokes of his paddle, until the boat breaks into a mass of floating leaves and bumps to a stop against the walled shore. His meager catch might feed a few tourists but he’s not interested and after hanging up his nets, he walks away with a timid smile.
Returning to the hotel, we find Rudy sitting on the veranda, cigarette in one hand coffee in the other. He announces that he will drive his rental car back to Chiang Mai the next morning. “This place is nice, but there’s nothing much to do here,” he says, “plus, my nephew needs to get back to his Muay Thai training, you know… he’s a city type.” I can’t help thinking back to the monsters of Wat Khom Kham. Rudy seems not to appreciate the heavenly side of Phayao. What would he say if he’d been dragged to hell with me?