Buddhism is a major religion in Malaysia, with around 20% of the population subscribing to the belief. As most devotees here are of Malaysian Chinese descent, many Buddhist temples in the country incorporate Chinese elements in their design and architecture, and tend to also include Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese folklore influences.
Thai-Buddhist temples are much rarer, especially in the south of Peninsula Malaysia (there are more up north, due to their close proximity with Thailand). In Selangor, as far as I know, there is only one major Thai-Buddhist temple : Wat Chetawan in Section 10, Petaling Jaya. Tucked in a quiet suburban area, the temple is located just next to a church, and has over 60 years of history.
The idea to have a Thai Buddhist temple was first conceived in 1956 by a group of Thai sanghas (monks). The proposal was well received by the Selangor government, who awarded the group two acres of land to build the temple. The project was also backed by the local community and sponsors. As a mark of the friendship between our young nation (Malaya gained independence in 1957) and Thailand, the late King of Thailand himself, Bhumibol Adulyadej, donated to the temple and officiated its opening when it was completed in 1962.
Over the years, the temple has undergone a few expansions, and today includes several shrines, monks quarters, a columbarium, and even a ‘herbal sauna’ where you can go to relieve aches and pains (the concept reminds me of the Thai massages you can get at Wat Pho in Bangkok).
The main shrine is located up a short flight of stairs flanked by two multi-headed nagas, known as Phaya Naga (lord of the nagas). Nagas are mythical serpents in Buddhist, Hinduism and Jainism, but they hold special reverence in Thai culture as patrons of water and medicine, so you will often see nagas ‘guarding’ the entrances to many Thai Buddhist temples. A popular myth is that nagas dwell in the Mekong, and were even involved in the creation of the mighty river itself.
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Before coming to the main shrine, you’ll pass by a pavilion housing a Phra Phrom (Four-Faced Buddha). Phra Phrom is a unique deity that is often associated with Thailand, and whose origins are believed to be Hindu (it is believed to be a representation of the Hindu god, Brahma). Thailand was once part of the mighty Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms in the region, and it is not at all surprising to see a blend of different cultures.
The Phra Phrom shrine here is decorated with colourful glass and mirrors, with offerings laid out in front of each altar. There are also small elephant statues surrounding it, as elephants are seen as symbols of good luck and fortune, as well as being the national animal of Thailand.
The main shrine looks resplendent in shades of yellow and gold, with gilded windows and a curving roof topped with chofas (a decorative ornament at the corners, made to look like a tall, thin bird, or a horn).
Two apsonsi flank the stairs leading up to the prayer hall. Apsonsi are mythical beings from Thai mythology, depicted as half woman on top, and half lion on the bottom. They are said to guard Himavanta, a legendary forest in the Himalayas that is full of magical creatures. Apsonsi aren’t the only chimeras in Thai mythology: there are also kinnaras – half-bird and half human celestials that are believed to be excellent singers, dancers and poets.
After removing my shoes, I stepped into the spacious prayer hall. There was a row of golden Buddhas on one side, each holding a pot. Devotees can drop their donations to the temple into the pots.
The Buddha statue in the main prayer hall was clad in bright saffron robes and seated tranquilly on a golden, intricately-carved dias studded with shiny pieces of glass and stones. The workmanship is a marvel to look at. Offered up a donation and prayer for good health for the fam and I – and an end to this pandemic.
Coincidentally, a monk was offering blessings, so I joined the session. While chanting prayers, he sprinkled devotees with holy water. You can get bottled holy water as well to take home.
Aside from the main prayer hall, there is also the Bhrama Pavilion, which houses a few other Buddhas and statues of former temple abbots.
You can grab some free books on Buddhism in this area. The books are usually printed by religious organisations, and even devotees with their own money, as the spread of dharma (Buddha’s teachings) is believed to help gain good karma.
As I mentioned earlier, the Buddhism in Malaysia usually has a Chinese influence, and this is no exception at Wat Chetawan. So amidst the elephants, roof spires and Thai-centric architecture, you’ll also find traditional Chinese influences: like this shrine to Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy) which is distinctively Chinese – think tiled orange roof, topped by a pagoda and dragons. Next to it is another shrine housing the Matreiya Buddha (commonly known as the Laughing Buddha – a Chinese semi-historical figure-turned deity).
You can light a pineapple-shaped or lotus-shaped prayer candle. Why pineapples? Well, I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s because in Chinese culture, pineapples are seen as symbols of good luck and fortune, because they are called ‘ong lai’, which is a homonym for ‘wealth/prosperity comes’. As for lotuses, lotus flowers are a common motif in Buddhism – since they grow and bloom in mud, they represent purity, rising from murky waters.
You can also find statues of characters like Son Wukong from Journey to the West – a classic 16th century Chinese novel based on the pilgrimage of Tang Xuanzang (he’s a real life monk who spent 20 years travelling from China to India to get sacred Buddhist texts).
Even if you’re not a devotee, Wat Chetawan is a good place to visit for its beautiful architecture and rich culture. If you come on a weekday, when it’s less crowded, the surroundings are actually quite tranquil and conducive for meditation – or just to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Entry is free, and there are some parking spaces within the compound.
WAT CHETAWAN THAI BUDDHIST TEMPLE
No.24, Jalan Pantai 9/7, Seksyen 10 Petaling Jaya, 46000 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Open daily from 9AM to 5PM