Offering panoramic views of Prachuap Khiri Khan, a province in southern Thailand, a 10-metre platform overlooks thousands of hectares of a green tropical rural landscape. Shrubs, palms, and grasslands stretch almost as far as the eyes can see, restrained only by jungle-swathed hills gripping the shores on the horizon.
Scents of conifer tufts waft on the breeze that whistles through the forest, and giant stones stacked atop each other tower above deep green rubber trees. Crow pheasants make their familiar call in the distance.
Hidden in this corner of the province lies Wat Khao Hin Thoen, a stone park temple that a Thai Buddhist monk calls home. Sitting smack-bang in the middle of Thailand’s narrowest, 12-kilometre-wide coastal strip, this sanctuary is a short distance from the traditional Dan Singkhon market by the Burmese border.
Phra Kaset, now 75, has lived here for 38 years. Walking around the province alone as a 37-year-old, he looked for a quiet setting away from the modern world and stumbled across up to 40-metre-tall boulders, some 17 kilometres west of Prachuap Khiri Khan’s fishing port of the same name.
“I instantly fell in love with the place,” the monk says with a gleam in his eye. He found it peaceful and stayed. Phra Kaset piqued my curiosity when I met him at his temple in 2021. Intrigued by his choice to live alone for so long, I picked his brain.
Phra Kaset shunned the material world to live a hermit life in his temple some 300 kilometres southwest of Bangkok. Like other Buddhist monks who have devoted their lives to faith, he saw ordination as a clear path with no burden, a way of merit without any sins.
With some 95 percent of the kingdom’s denizens prescribed to Buddhism, the religion is Thailand’s dominating faith. With such intense cultural importance, men are morally forced to ordain as monks at some point in early life – almost like a form of ‘military service’ – even if only temporarily, to make and gain merit, thereby living longer and happier lives.
For Phra Kaset, becoming a monk for good has been a choice. “First, I was a monk for three months. Then, I decided to do it forever because the lifestyle made me feel good,” he explains.
His temple, which he spent 30 years constructing by himself, is set amongst a spectacular collection of huge stones and trees, with small signposts like ‘beautiful roots’ directing to points of interest. It’s become a tourist attraction of sorts, and while not as grand as some of the country’s better-known Buddhist shrines, it’s certainly a place of peace and natural tranquillity.
The orange-purple-brown-robed monk and I are alone, save for the four dozing wild dogs that Phra Kaset feeds. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in his ceramic-tiled open ‘living room’ under the temple’s tallest rocks, he says, “There are many arrows. You go behind; beautiful behind.”
Climbing the stairs past a pale, life-sized concrete Buddha figure, I hike following the arrows on a foliage-covered earth track, sweaty-browed in the humid midday heat. Leaves make muffled, crackling sounds as I walk and gauge the stones’ heights. 15-metre-tall rocks are all around me, as are rubber trees and ramson-looking plants, but without that distinctive smell of wild, broad-leaved garlic.
Suddenly, I hear quick steps behind me, turn, and wonder what the monk wants to get off his chest. “There was a large tree on a rock. I contacted some climbers and told them to remove the tree because its roots were breaking the rock. Now cragsmen know about this place. They come from all over the world, sometimes.”
Giving me a tour of his temple that’s laid out in a 360-degree pattern around the rocks, Phra Kaset asks me to take some pictures of him while meditating. Climbing on a jumbo-sized stone, he first sits down on his knees, feet pointing backwards, then cross-legged. He enjoys the view of the rural landscape for a moment before closing his eyes. I follow suit and soak up the rambling vistas, shooting photographs from all angles.
Between two boulders is a giant tree with monster roots that have grown across a rock, so huge I now believe his story of ‘roots were breaking the rock.’ The ground is covered in moist brown leaves, yet the monk sits down, unperturbed.
“What about slithering snakes?” I ask. “Have everything here. Cobra, python, scorpion. Sometimes, they come,” he flatly says as if they were some mates that have accepted him in their habitat.
Eager to get more pictures while meditating, he sits on a flat stone under two 20-metre-tall rocks. The sun peeks through a crack between the monoliths, lighting the space above the monk’s head so brightly; I imagine that’s what people see when they have a brush with death. It’s not the only thing that makes me sit on the edge of my seat, a stone slab.
Learning that his brother was a former gangster in his teenage years, I ask him about his ideas to try to uncover how his path differed so much.
“When do you usually meditate?” I ask. “In the morning and evening – and whenever I feel like it,” Phra Kaset replies, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. While we’re speaking, white clouds rise to the sky like smoke emitting from a forest fire. As the temperature has dropped in an instant under the patchy blanket of thick, grey-black clouds, we stay put in the shelter under the two boulders.
Just minutes later, the rain has stopped whipping down, but the wind is still howling. The monk stands up without saying a word; I follow close behind. Near one of his four small wooden jungle shacks – some of them are outfitted with nipa palm leaf walls – a sign in Thai reads: “Mine is a good life.” Phra Kaset sleeps in one of these simple huts. The other three cabins are for fellow monks who visit him now and then, staying overnight.
In other words, he’s never alone for long periods. The postman comes every day, and villagers bring Phra Kaset alms because Thai monks aren’t supposed to buy food. They come at the half moon, full moon, and new moon, to meditate and let him pray for them.
He says he uses solar-powered electricity, pointing at the lights mounted on stones near the entrance, and adds that there’s enough sunshine, even in the rainy season. As for the rubbish, he burns it. The smoke exits through a chimney.
“Do you never miss the outside world?” I ask him. “No,” he says, adding, “I like a quiet life.”
While devoting oneself to monastic life was common in the past to prevent the religion’s demise, Thailand’s Buddhist culture is still flourishing now for traditional reasons; it’s been planted into citizens’ lifestyles. According to media reports the kingdom had nearly 349,000 monks in October 2019.
Most men ordain before marrying because Thai nationals regard monkhood as a sign these males will be considerate and devoted husbands. Thai families and communities may even decide only to accept those who have taken the cloth.
Honouring deceased relatives is another reason to become a monk. Thais believe spirits can give extra merit. By and large, young men enter monastic life to please their parents. They see it as a filial duty to show gratitude and respect because ordination is believed to bestow merit on the family and improve karma.
Even so, most Thai men are only monks for a short time, anything between a week and three months. Phra Kaset, however, realised he’d never want to have a family. Growing up, he lived not just with his parents and older siblings; he also had other relatives around him. Seeing a mother give birth at home and living with a baby plus an infant, he perceived family life to be miserable. He never enjoyed sports like his peers and questioned national and cultural divisions.
While his friends loved football games, boxing stadiums, and cock-fighting, loud cheering crowds just made him thoughtful. “I don’t like games and gambles of any kind,” Phra Kaset says. He adds, “When I was a young child, I thought to myself, ‘Why do people in the world have to be divided into nations, wear different national costumes, and speak other languages? Why can’t we all be the same?’”
He found monkhood to be the lifestyle that suited him best. But this could have been very different had he mixed with other friends or been the older brother who was his diametric opposite in many ways. He turned to Buddhism aged 25 and has lived as a monk ever since.
Two butterflies, a yellow and a purple, black-spotted one, fly parallel over another notice that reads, ‘None other happiness more than calmness,’ which I presume means calmness is the greatest happiness. It crystallises Phra Kaset’s idea of a perfect life. A greater coucal pipes up, boop-boop-booping in the distance amid deep green rubber trees and shrubs as if to corroborate how peaceful life in nature is.
Taking a deep breath, imagining Phra Kaset finding this place as a 37-year-old man, I catch again the coniferous scents that envelop Wat Khao Hin Thoen, or translated into English: ‘Temple of Overlapping Stones’.
All images: © Philipp Meier