Torture Porn Reigns in This Buddhist Hell Garden

Why you should care

Because Buddhism has never looked like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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“You are now entering Hell. Welcome,” says a sign in Thai, written in black and red, boasting a cartoon skull.

Hell, or more specifically, the Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden, takes a bit of effort to find. Following a two-hour bus ride from Bangkok to the southeastern province of Chonburi and landing in the sleepy town of Bang Saen, it’s a meandering motorbike ride down lonely alleys to the gates of a Buddhist temple. The entrance looks fairly common, but beyond the temple grounds, it’s anything but typical. Because in the quiet clearing nearby, the Hell Garden, a visual manifestation of what a Buddhist would experience in the afterlife, awaits.

At its center, a male and a female statue tower almost 20 feet tall. With skeletal frames and faces molded into alarming angst, their tongues stretch down from their gaping maws to their crotches. Circling the giant statues are 21 human statues with heads of animals. Their purpose: to depict the dehumanizing transformations awaiting in the afterlife, depending on the sin committed.

The gruesome — and at times almost comical — portrayal of punishments in an intimate, lush-green setting can be a real mind trip.

Built in 1986 by a Buddhist foundation, these Lynchian displays are today maintained by saffron-robed monks residing in the temple. A signboard sitting near the half-human, half-animal transformations reads in broken English: “The one who makes merit go to the heaven. The ones who do bad go to hell.” Each sign is strangely specific about which sin will result in which type of creature. For example, if you commit arson? You will be reborn as a snake. If you’ve started a fight, you’ll become a duck.

Past the animal/human tableaux, the dioramas get more graphic and grotesque. Forget living in the head of a mouse — those who committed murder, for instance, are hacked in the chest by a hell keeper with a cleaver, an ax or a spiked bat.

The Hell Garden thus becomes a paradox of sorts: a quiet place for contemplation as dapples of sunlight stream through the trees while gazing upon … well, a statue of a man with bulging eyes getting his genitals stabbed with a spear.

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(TOP) A graphic scene depicting a human being tortured at the Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden in Bang Saen, Chonburi province. (BOTTOM) This diorama portrays people being punished for having sexual intercourse with other peoples’ wives and husbands.

Source Courtesy of Dene-Hern Chen

“Thai culture teaches us all of these things will happen if we do bad things,” says Pucharnon Visut, a student at the nearby Burapha University who’s been to the garden several times. He’s standing in front of a statue of a hell keeper hacking away at the neck of a man with a bloody tongue unfurled. But how does he reconcile lesser sins, like drinking alcohol, with the graphic depictions of punishment in front of him? “I go to parties and I drink, but I also go to the temple and I donate money,” he says with a shrug.

Whether or not people take the violent displays seriously, there is value in the experience, notes Montree Sirarojananan, a Buddhist academic at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “I think it’s both fun and serious because parents believe that their children can get something from the morals.”

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(TOP) A statue of a woman having her stomach crushed by a bone vise operated by two hell keepers in the Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden. This is the penalty for abortion. (BOTTOM) A statue of a man is getting his throat hacked. His sin during his mortal life was undermining Buddhism.

Source Courtesy of Dene-Hern Chen

This lesson is displayed at the end of the garden with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. Clothed people with beatific expressions plucking fruit from a tree represent the Buddhists who offered alms to monks during their lifetime, their fates certainly a far cry from the nearby statue of a woman getting her stomach crushed by a bone vise.

Because of its distance from Bangkok, the Hell Garden remains a hidden gem, frequented mostly by Thai families. For anyone who has ever assumed that Buddhism is a peaceful religion, this glimpse into the gory afterlife will set you straight, offering an idea of what Thais truly fear in death. The gruesome — and at times almost comical — portrayal of punishments in an intimate, lush-green setting can be a real mind trip, perfect for a heady, thought-provoking afternoon before returning to the mind-numbing bustle of Thailand’s capital.

Entrance is free of charge though donations are appreciated. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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