S.P. Publishing Group Co., Ltd.
11/1 Soi 3 Bamrungburi Rd., T. Prasingh,
A. Muang., Chiang Mai 50200
Tel. 053 - 814 455-6 Fax. 053 - 814 457
Chiang Mai Hero: Khruba Si Wichai
Religious father of the north
Khruba with followers on completion of road, 1935.
Text: Sjon Hauser
One evening some years back, a crowd had
gathered at the new Tha Phae Gate in front of a
meditating monk. Other monks were selling his
portraits and amulets and many visitors were offering
candles and incense. This monk, I realized with
excitement, was no-one less than Khruba Si Wichai. A friend
of mine, who was a dealer in amulets, had always praised highly this greatest of all northern
monks. He had told me that Khruba Si Wichai possessed
all kinds of supernatural powers, like mind-reading
and enduring fierce sunshine without showing any
signs of perspiration.
Joining the crowd, I noticed the monk's
extraordinary concentration. He was sitting with crossed legs, hands in
his lap, and his friendly stare seemed to ignore his
admirers completely. I couldn't even see him breathing. When one
of his accompanying monks carefully rearranged the
cloth draped over his right shoulder, the abbot did not react in
any way. An hour or so later, when I came back to the spot
again, Khruba Si Wichai was still sitting in the same position, like
a statue of serenity. I was deeply impressed by these
spiritual powers. The mystery of his immovable serenity wasn't
hard to solve, of course. What I was looking at was not the revered monk himself, but a wax life-sized image!
Since that evening I have retained a keen interest
in this legendary monk. After all, I am one of the few
foreigners who has met the living saint.
He was born in 1878, during a tempest with
torrential rains, when the earth started to shake, in the northern
Thai village of Ban Pang. Named Big Shock, he grew up in
an unremarkable way. However, at the age of seventeen,
when he became a novice in the temple, the villagers admired
him for his strict discipline, as for instance in eating only
one vegetarian meal a day, and they loved him for his kindness.
In 1904, a few years after he was ordained a monk, he became the abbot of the temple. Because of his strong
personality and reputed supernatural powers his fame
spread rapidly all over the North of Thailand. He was referred to
as Khruba Si Wichai - Khruba meaning 'teacher'. Over the
next three decades, he succeeded in mobilizing thousands
of people in the North to renovate more than one
Furthermore, he revised the Yuan (northern Thai)
version of the Traipitaka, one of the most important
Buddhist texts. Nowadays, he is probably best remembered for
the construction of the twelve kilometre long road up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, at an altitude of 1053 metres on
the mountain west of Chiang Mai. The gilded
chedi of this
beautiful and holy temple is said to contain a fragment of
the skull of the Buddha. Thanks to the new road, more
people could pay their respects to this relic of the Great
Teacher. The temple has become a major tourist attraction, as
have Wat Phra Singh and Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai,
Wat Hariphunchai in Lamphun, and Wat Phra That Doi Tung
in Chiang Rai, also renovated under Khruba Si Wichai's
When the monk died in 1938, sixty years old, and
after his cremation, eight years later, thousands of
followers milled in a frenzy to grab some of his ashes or
a piece of bone to make protective amulets.
Still today, amulets with his portrait are as popular
as ever, while numerous statues and images of the monk
continue to bear witness to his fame in the North. Best known
of these monuments is probably the large bronze statue in
the shrine near the Huai Kaeo waterfall. Here the road to
the famous temple on Doi Suthep begins its course up the
mountain. Daily, hundreds of devout visitors respectfully kneel
and make a wai in front of the statue.
The wax statue I once thought to be the
venerated monk in person is now on display in the
wihan of Wat Si Bun Ruang, a temple near the Wiang Kum Kam ruins just south
of town. Its realistic craftmanship is still impressive.
However, maybe the most interesting place to
learn about Khruba Si Wichai is Ban Pang, about 100
kilometres south of Chiang Mai along the road to the district town of Li
in Lamphun province. Ban Pang's village temple, of which
Khruba Si Wichai was the abbot for many years, is on the top of a
hill and surrounded by paddy fields and orchards. Beside
the traditional temple buildings, a new marble construction
has arisen, its tower decorated with thousands of fragments
of mirrors. The entrance to this 'museum' is protected by
two statues of a tiger, as Khruba Si Wichai was born in the
year of the tiger. Additionally, the tiger symbolizes the wild and
fearsome powers of nature. Many meditation masters
who used to wander deep in the forests are said to have
been threatened by wild tigers, but the spiritual power
radiating from these monks subdued the animal. Maybe the tiger
is even the symbol of the 'wild' inside us that has to be
subdued on the path to becoming enlightened.
A large collection of paraphernalia is exhibited,
along with numerous amulets and photographs about Si
Wichai's life. The show piece is the old classic car that was used
to inaugurate the Doi Suthep road in 1935.
One aspect of this famous monk, however, is
less explicitly present than his religious activities. Khruba Si
Wichai was also seen as a rebel, the spiritual leader of
northern patriotism, a kind of Mahatma Gandhi, who fuelled the
resistance to colonization by Bangkok.
Khruba Si Wichai's followers, including at least
2,000 monks and novices from ninety temples in the North,
refused to be part of the Bangkok sangha hierarchy. Modern
state Buddhism was openly protested against, and many
people even refused to take up modern education. The
anti-Thai language feeling became widespread, while in some
government schools furniture was either burned or
thrown into the forest.
And the spiritual leader of this 'anti-colonial'
protest was Khruba Si Wichai. The crisis came to a climax when
he was summoned to Bangkok in November 1935 and detained at a prestigious temple for over six months. Eventually
a compromise was reached, and when he returned to
Chiang Mai, the monk received a hero's welcome at the
railway station. A crowd of eight thousand was awaiting him.
Reforms after the Second World War have
further integrated the North into the Thai nation-state, politically
as well as culturally. Ardent regionalism is a thing of the
past. However, during the turn of the century a remarkable
interest in their regional past has been kindling among the
peoples of the North. At the entrances of numerous temples, a
sign board with the temple's name in the traditional northern
script has been erected besides the sign in standard Thai. And
in department stores, paraphernalia of former days have
become hot items, as for instance products made from
the traditional northern sa paper and photographs of Old
Chiang Mai - with among the latter many pictures of Khruba Si
Wichai and his activities.
To get to Wat Ban Pang by public transportation, take
a local bus to Lamphun from the east bank of the Ping River near
the Nawarat Bridge. In the centre of Lamphun take a blue song
thaeo (pick-up truck) heading for Li. Get off at Ban Pang about 70
kms south of Lamphun. Wat Ban Pang and the Khruba Si Wichai museum are on top of a small hill, about 1 km west of the main road.
Text © 2007 Sjon Hauser