The Makha Bucha festival at the Dhammakaya Temple in Bangkok on March 4, 2015 (AFP Photo / Nicolas Asfouri)

Sci-Fi in Bangkok

BANGKOK, March 16, 2015 – The Wat Phra Dhammakaya temple in Thailand is one of a kind, with its flying-saucer shaped stupa made from thousands of golden Buddha statues. It sits at the heart of a religious complex the size of an airport, said to be home to 3,000 monks. Located in Bangkok’s industrial north suburbs, the gigantic complex is among the first things you see when you come in to land in Don Muang, one of the capital’s two airports.

The futuristic temple is also controversial in Thailand, its gargantuan scale often criticised in a country where many still live in poverty. The Buddhist cult that manages the temple, the Dhammakaya Movement, claims some 10 million followers around the world. It has long faced criticism over its fundraising methods and has just been forced to reimburse a donation of around 20 million euros (600 million baht) alleged to have been embezzled by a businessman hoping to secure a favorable reincarnation.

THAILAND-RELIGION-BUDDHISM-MAKHA (AFP Photo / Nicolas Asfouri)

Major festivals can see 100,000 devotees packing the site, with one of the most impressive the Makha Bucha, which celebrates the Buddha’s ordination of 1,250 monks who went on to spread their master’s teachings around the world. The Makha Bucha is traditionally marked with circular, candlelit processions at sundown in temples all over Thailand. The processions at the Dhammakaya are simply spectacular, like something out of a Sci-Fi movie.

THAILAND-RELIGION-BUDDHISM-MAKHA (AFP Photo / Nicolas Asfouri)

The ritual lasts a good two hours. Participants form two concentric circles around the stupa, first the monks, then the tens of thousands of faithful come from all over Asia for the occasion. The ceremony begins with the arrival of Phra Dhammachayo, the mysterious abbot of the Dhammakaya Movement. He takes places inside an air-conditioned lodge – a cool haven in the hot and humid surroundings – and launches into his sermon. Delivered in Thai, the hour-long monologue seems to lead his followers into a hypnotic trance.

Then suddenly it stops: no one utters another word, the hum of the power generator is cut short. The huge crowd is motionless, plunged into a deep silence.

THAILAND-RELIGION-BUDDHISM-MAKHA (AFP Photo / Nicolas Asfouri)

The quiet meditation lasts half an hour, during which time photographers are allowed to come and go among the faithful, sat cross-legged and still as statues. A member of the cult stays by my side at all times to makes sure I don’t break any rules, like straying too close to the circle of monks.

THAILAND-RELIGION-BUDDHISM-MAKHA (AFP Photo / Nicolas Asfouri)

Finally, at sundown, the worshippers walk clockwise around the illuminated dome, three times, with candles in their hands. Then they form a candlelit alley which the monks walk along, to mark the ceremony’s end. The mood is strange, like something out of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. With the monks in the role of aliens freshly landed on board their spaceship.

THAILAND-RELIGION-BUDDHISM-MAKHA (AFP Photo / Nicolas Asfouri)

To photograph the monks’ final retreat, by far the evening’s most spectacular sight, I manage to climb to a vantage point up above the scene, on a scaffold set up for us by the organisers. All of the international media are there, along with several dozen photographers and cameramen employed by the Dhammakaya Movement, who have special equipment to capture the ceremony from every possible angle. Without a doubt: the cult has mastered the fine art of public relations.

Nicolas Asfouri is an AFP photographer based in Bangkok. Visit his website here.

THAILAND-RELIGION-BUDDHISM-MAKHA (AFP Photo / Nicolas Asfouri)
Nicolas Asfouri