The Horrifying Sights of the ‘Hell Gardens’ in Thailand’s Buddhist Temples
A Buddhist monastery garden in Thailand greets its visitors with an enthusiastic, somber salutation. “You are now entering Hell,” the sign at the entrance reads. “Welcome!”
The Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden in Tambon Saen Suk, Thailand sits leisurely just outside the main temple. But where one might expect icons of exaltation and songs of praise, the otherwise beautiful landscape consists of grotesque scenes from the ‘Naraka’ or ‘Narok’ — also known as the Buddhist hell.
These sights, grisly as they are, make the garden especially interesting. Most people imagine places of worship featuring only the celebratory aspects of their religion, but the Wang Saen Suk puts a unique — yet equally profound — spin on this idea.
“I think it’s both fun and serious,” said Montree Sirarojananan, a Buddhist academic from the Thammasat University. “Parents believe that their children can get something from the morals.”
Despite its uniqueness, the Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden isn’t the only one of its kind. Other Buddhist spaces in Thailand have been emphasizing the concepts of hell, suffering, and punishment as a way to remind and discourage people from committing sins.
The Wat Mae Kaet Noi, built in the city of Chiang Mai, belongs in this category of “hell temples” — and claims to be the most gruesome one yet. In fact, it was made entirely to instill fear in people’s minds.
Founded by a monk named Pra Kru Vishanjalikon — also known as Sa’ad — the temple had been inspired by his horrifying visions of Naraka in his dreams. He wanted to share these visions with others.
“I want to scare people. I want to make them afraid of hell and sin, make them feel ashamed,” Sa’ad told travel publication Roads & Kingdoms. And perhaps the claim of being the most terrifying hell temple holds some merit: the imagery was so explicit that Sa’ad himself compared some of the scenes to “porno.”
Imagining and Building A City of Hell
The statues in Wat Mae Kaet Noi were displayed in brutal depictions of rape and torture in extremely detailed scenarios: self-inflicted abortions, bloody orgies with demons, and dismemberment, to name some.
Reading about the horrors of hell is one thing; seeing them in graphic, life-sized statue exhibits is another. These “hell temples” are accomplishing something far greater than just departing information on what awaits a life of sin — they are also making people cautious and afraid.
“It’s definitely not a place I want to visit again, here or in any life,” a visitor said.
But that only means that the place is achieving its intended purposes. Sa’ad, after all, had made it his life’s mission to warn people of the terrors of hell and purgatory. He said that he built the place after an evil demon showed himself in one of his dreams.
The monk narrates the account to Roads & Kingdoms: “A red demon spirit approached me. When he spoke, the ground trembled. He told me: ‘When you go back to the human world, you have to build a city like this.’”
Most people know Buddhism as quite a peaceful and temperate religion — gory and violent scenes don’t seem to fit anywhere within this belief system. But it does not take the concept of sin lightly.
According to tradition, the Naraka is reserved for those who break the essential doctrines. The Death King named Phaya Yom judges the individual based on the gravity of their moral errors, and the severity of the judgment depends on the sin. (Theft, for instance, equals dismembering a hand, and sexual misconduct equals some gory sexual punishment.)
However, unlike in other religions, this hell does not serve as an eternal punishment. Those who have “served” their time in the terror-filled domain are reincarnated, and a chance of reaching enlightenment is still given.
Sa’ad himself is a direct witness to sin, forgiveness, and repentance in the community. In recent years, he reported finding “real dead babies” by the statues that depicted women — covered in blood — murdering their children.
In Thailand, abortion was illegal and often deeply frowned upon. Women would perform it according to their own prescriptions, and some of them would leave the dead fetus by the statues “as an act of repentance.”
On one occasion, Sa’ad said that he’d seen a woman crying, mourning over her actions and the dead fetus. She asked him to bury it in the garden. Moved by her grief, the monk agreed. “She knew she had made a mistake,” he said. “She felt guilty and she was trying to repent.”
Still, of course, he hoped that such incidents would no longer occur. After all, that is the primary purpose of these hell temples — to remind people of the grisly afterlife that awaits sinners.
Restructuring Worship Spaces and Practices
But perhaps there are more to these places than being tourist spots or warnings of hell. After all, Thailand has no shortage of strange, if slightly unorthodox, places of worship (such as the ‘David Beckham Temple’ and the serpent-clad Wat Samphran).
The Wang Saen Suk, the Wat Mae Kaet Noi, and the other “hell gardens” in the country fall under that category. The shock value is certainly there — as it always is — but these spaces challenge the conventional ways of religion. Most of the time, religion only features its most uplifting aspects: images of heaven and light, familiar stories from sacred texts that we often took comfort in. Rarely do we find eccentric, jarring images as its highlights.
While it’s important to celebrate the beautiful side of faith, it’s just as vital to be reminded of all its other facets — even if it’s less than pleasant.
Beyond the cautionary intent of these hell gardens, they stand as a foundation of an evolving group of believers. Sa’ad’s horrifying ideas for the temple had initially been met with scoffs and disbelief, but once the garden was built, he realized how meaningful it became to the community — uncanny as it was.
“Lots of Thais come here for birthdays, weddings, and funerals,” Sa’ad said of his work. “For them, it’s something different.”