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Buddhist temples form the backbone of Thailand’s tsunami relief efforts

(AFP) / 13 January 2005

KHAO LAK, Thailand - In a small thatched hut surrounded by hundreds of empty coffins, the head monk of Lak Khaen Buddhist temple explains why local shrines have become the backbone of efforts to identify the tsunami dead and provide relief to the living.

“For Buddhists, we believe that when someone dies they must be brought to the temple so that monks such as ourselves can hold ceremonies to ensure a better life in their next re-birth,” Acharn Phrakruwiboon Wetchakit told AFP.

He said it seemed as though 10,000 bodies had been brought to the temple within the first few days of the crisis -- volunteers say the official number was about 800 -- but the monks’ training had helped them cope.

“I have spent my whole life in the temple and with this life we are not afraid. My feelings were normal because it is my duty to help, like when a soldier goes to battle,” he said.

While the bodies were laid out in lines inside the temple after the December 26 disaster and then around a large open-walled sermon hall, monks prepared the top floor as a refuge for survivors and set up a table of international phone lines so foreign tourists could call loved ones at home.

The bodies have since been taken to Yanyao Buddhist temple, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) further north, where the remains of some 1,800 victims are being DNA tested by forensic teams from 22 countries.

At Lak Khaen the yards have been scrubbed clean and cleansing ceremonies held to disperse the spirits of the dead, but the temple continues to act as a clearinghouse for donated clothes stacked in about 100 large plastic bags beneath gold-coated carvings of the Buddha’s teachings on compassion.

Dozens of soldiers sort through donated food, which they then cook and pack into take-away containers for delivery to hard-hit local villages.

Leading food distribution efforts from the temple, Marine Captain Nadaecho Kerdchoochuen said without the temples there would have been utter chaos in the first days.

“Life and death is a cycle, everything must go on…”

“We were very shocked that so many people died. The road through Khao Lak was closed so people brought bodies here and to the north at temples in and near Takua Pa,” said Nadaecho, whose unit arrived from Bangkok the day after the tsunami.

“There are only 13 monks at this temple, but they arranged the bodies, tended to the sick with natural medicines, provided shelter and free telephones for survivors and distributed food donated to the temple,” he said.

The captain said the monks also initially helped in coordinating recovery efforts during the initial period of confusion.

“They helped the army and navy, helped the police and helped the volunteers and then they helped the people suffering losses, because they are the centre of where people get the power to pray and have better feelings,” he said.

Monks at Baan Muang temple about 35 kilometres (20 miles) north of Lak Khaen have given out hundreds of Buddha amulets to relief workers and DNA specialists to bless and encourage them in their work.

Most seem calm and unaffected by the stench of hundreds of bodies still stored at the temple, carrying out their daily duties without facemasks.

“It’s a sad tragedy but for Buddhists, we believe in reincarnation. Life and death is a cycle, everything must go on,” said 65-year-old monk Prapisarn Choktisarn, oblivious to the hundreds of wooden coffins stacked behind the temple.

He said the government last week issued a letter to all temples, urging monks to pray for tsunami victims and those made homeless by the disaster.

A local volunteer told AFP that apart from being a natural centre for the community to congregate in times of crisis, temples offered facilities that other institutions could not.

“There is space here for a start. There is nowhere to keep bodies at most hospitals here and definitely no room for survivors or even many people with small injuries,” said 29-year-old Runglada Srisomphet, who became a rescue volunteer after the tour company where she worked was swept away.

“Some people think the importance of temples has faded over the years but this shows they are still the centre of the community,” she said.

Photo courtesy: thaistudents.org

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