All photos of the temple and residents were taken with permission, with the hopes to educate people on HIV and further the goal of prevention.
Nestled in the mountains, outside of Lop Buri, resides Thailand’s HIV/AIDS Temple, Wat Phra Bat Nam Phu. Founded by a monk, Alongkot Dikkapanyo in 1990, the temple is a compassionate response to a disease that has plagued Thailand for decades.
In Thailand, the taboo placed on HIV positive individuals effects not only themselves but into their families and communities. It is not uncommon for a people with HIV to be fired from their workplace or even kicked out of their homes due to the stigma and the possible karmic backlash the Thais fear so greatly. This is not to say they are a hateful or uncompassionate culture, they, like a lot of people around the world, simply fear what they don’t understand.
Although education programs in Thailand are working to de-stigmatize HIV/AIDS, places like Wat Phra Bat Nam Phu are still a vital part the healthcare system for people with the disease. The temple offers housing, hospice/end of life care, and proper Buddhist cremations among other programs such as schools, family support, counseling, and art programs.
Personally fascinated with different cultures and their response to public health issues, I myself went to visit the temple in the fall of 2008. I hoped on local bus from Bangkok ,150 kilometers north, to Lop Buri to learn about the temple first hand. Upon arriving at the bus station, the stigma towards the temple was already very apparent. (Picture me, blonde American 20 something year old girl asking in Thai, for a ride to the HIV Temple). After every driver was convinced I was misspeaking, one man understood my intentions and agreed to drive me.
As we ventured out of the city into the rural area, the driver proceeded to ask me why I would ever want to go to such a place. He had all sorts of questions; was I scared? How did I learn about the temple? Did I have HIV?
Upon arriving at the gates, I was shocked (and saddened) at the huge 6ft tall signs at the Gates announcing “HIV and AIDS”, back in the United States thee would be a little more discretion, an interesting cultural difference.
Now out of the truck and walking to the office, I witnessed the purpose of the temple first hand. Behind me I heard a young man crying out for help as he attempted to carry his sick father through the temple gates. A staff member and a monk rushed to assist them just as the young man collapsed to the ground, his father still embraced. Just then, the only English speaking staff walked up and introduced himself to me. He quickly began to translate what was going on with the son and father. He explained that the son had been trying to care for his father but as his condition progressed, he became unfit to meet his fathers needs. His father was in the end stage of AIDS and needed advanced medical care, as he could no longer walk, talk, or eat. For years I had been studying this disease in HIV prevention in the US and reading books depicting stories just like this, but to see it 20 ft from me, raw, exposed, real- sent spikes of pain and sadness through my heart. The staff member then said, “Well now you see why we do what we do, so let me take you on a tour of the temple.”
As we walked around the grounds, there we small bungalows scattered around which he explained were the women and children housing units. We also passed a unique art display titled “Art of Bone Resin by AIDS Patients” and a building called “The Life Museum”. He told me that people pass away at the temple have the opportunity to donate their bones or bodies for either of the displays. The bones are added to resin and made into art by the other AIDS patients at the temple acting as art therapy. T
he donated bodies are preserved and added to the Life Museum, each with a posted story of the persons name, hometown, age at death, and means by which they contracted HIV. The museums purpose is to educate and deter onlookers from engaging in risky behavior. Past the exhibits, below a Buddha statue, thousands of bags of ashes, each holding one person, lay stacked in memorial. At the time of my visit, the guide stated that on average 1 person died every three days, and often times their ashes were not retrieved by their families because of fear.
Next, we went into the hospice. This was a profound experience for me. The room was divided into sections, new admits (meaning those who have just been deemed unfit to care for their own needs in the bungalow housing units) and those who were truly down to their last days of life. I couldn’t help but feel these peoples pain as those in the end stages were suffering from hundreds of body sores, thrush, and AIDS wasting syndrome. Monks and nurses by their side, they lay ready, they said, for death to take them. They all shared the same perspective they explained, they felt their past karmic sins had caught up to them and to be reborn into a better life in the future, they must make peace with themselves and leave this world with grace and gratitude. Even the new admits were in seemingly high spirits. I will never forget seeing the genuine, famous Thai smile on a couple of men sharing a hospital bed. They joked about their wild days and talked about how next time, they would live a good clean life, even if they were reborn into a dog the first time around. This light attitude in a seemingly dark situation was so inspiring, even in some of their last days, that laughed, they joked, they made peace.
I am so thankful to everyone at Wat Phra Bat Nam Phu. To the staff for their never failing courage and determination to care for those in need and for the patients for their willingness to share themselves with me even at their weakest moments. The commitment to dignity, social justice, and humanity at Wat Phra Bat Nam Phu is an inspiring example for all.