It was surreal. As I was getting out of my car down a quiet soi in Chang Klan, slumbering dogs yawning in the sun and a lonely vendor pushing a cart of noodles, bells ringing periodically in invitation, I looked up at an extraordinary building. It was an honest to goodness (see, even my language is becoming more reverent) Russian Orthodox Church, complete with onion domes and glittering gold crosses. As I neared, the exquisite sounds of a Russian choir grew louder; the lazy dog perking up its ear in interest. I entered the building and found myself, rather awkwardly, in the middle of a dining room filled with mostly-men, clad in black robes, singing hauntingly exquisite liturgical music. I had missed the morning ceremony and was arriving just in time for the pre-meal prayer.
Today was the official opening of St. Vladimir, the north of Thailand’s first Russian Orthodox Church; one of the more incongruous presences in what is already a rather quirky city.
I am invited to join the table and am seated next to Archimandrite Oleg Cherepanin, the Patriarchate and representative of the Russian church in Thailand. We break bread, and as Russian and what sounds like Slavic chatterings surround me, I lean in to talk with the heavily-accented man who brought the Orthodox Church to Thailand 17 years ago.
Father Oleg was sent to Thailand in 1999 to report back to Moscow as to the situation and needs for a church in the Kingdom. After three months he returned to Russia, report in hand, and was soon sent back by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia himself, to set up a presence in Bangkok. It took him eight years, liaising with the Thai government, to gain official recognition for the Russian Orthodox Church in 2008 and today he oversees ten churches in Thailand as well as three in Cambodia and one in Laos.
From all written accounts, and my short few hours with him, Father Oleg is a man who has immersed himself into his role. He has made a point of getting to know Thailand and shows a great respect for the country he is in. He speaks with compassion and understanding about Buddhism, saying that he greatly respects the religion and finds its philosophies as well as its deep historic understanding of the soul something he can relate to. He insists that he is not in Thailand just for Russians, but to help and assist anyone with needs, whatever their religion.
“Today we celebrate not just the opening of this new church, but the annual feast day of St. Vladimir, it was one thousand years ago last year when he passed away, and a good day to open our doors officially in Chiang Mai,” he explained of the day’s significance. “Next year we will also be celebrating the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two nations. There is a lot of history there. In fact, Czar Nicolas III and Rama V visited one another and in two days we will be celebrating the 125th anniversary of Nicolas’s visit to Siam. Chulalongkorn University is currently planning to build a statue to commemorate this occasion.”
Looking around the table, I am told that most of the robed and bearded men are from a volunteer choir in Bangkok. I asked whether this would be a regular occurrence, but Father Oleg told me firmly, though with a smile, that this isn’t a concert. Put firmly in place, I ask about today’s ceremonies.
“Our ceremonies and rituals are very important to us,” he explains. “Everything has an internal symbolism and significance. Ceremony is not magic, for instance, we light candles to mean that our prayers are like fire and our hearts like soft wax. Orthodox churches try to use all senses: for the eyes we have icons, architecture, vestments, candles, processions; for the ears there are chants, singing and bells; incense and other aromas are for the scents; there are action rituals such as making the sign of the cross; and there is bread, wine, wheat and water for the taste.”
“Other religions have missionary activities,” he went on to talk of the presence of his church in Thailand. “But I believe that if God gives, people will come. People can come here to feel, there is no need for words. I don’t believe that religion needs advertising, it is not Coca-Cola; it is alive, deeply felt, and we are here to help people to elevate themselves and feel closer to God.”
I am then introduced to Father Mikay from Laos, who spent eight years in Russia and Fathers Alexander and Seraphim, both of whom will rotate into Chiang Mai from other churches in Thailand. Neither speak English well, if at all, and their Thai is non-existent, but Father Oleg is sanguine about this linguistic barrier. “Like Pali or Latin, faith transcend language. We have our doors open all day for anyone to come in if they feel the need.”
After a quick Thai lunch Father Mikay offers to show me around, and as my photographer and I ooh and aah at the murals, gilded columns, resplendently kitsch accents and décor, a young robed priest jumps in front of us and photo bombs us. Startled we burst out laughing and some of the awe deflated as I take in the aromas of incense and candlewax, a couple of children running around being naughty, normalising what was becoming an almost hypnagogic experience.
With over a million Russian tourists to Thailand each year, and what Father Oleg reckons to be between 50-100,000 expats living here at least part time, it is no wonder the church has grown so rapidly.
“We have churches in areas where many Russians or those from countries which follow our church, need us. They come for guidance, support, or sometimes just to contemplate. What is very interesting is that we now have a flock of a few hundred Thais, mainly in Bangkok.” In an interview in 2013 with Big Chili magazine, Father Oleg explained that many of the Thai converts were in fact married to Russians, and converted to make it easier for family life.
The church is 100% funded by donations, according to the father, with around 70% donated by one individual who will remain anonymous; similar to Buddhism, the religion prefers those who donate to not claim any accolades from such largess. “We own all our churches, including the monastery retreat and cemetery in Ratchaburi and we are soon to open a theological collage in Phuket. Everything is under the foundation.”
Father Oleg insists he is not here to convert or proselytise, but to help and build relations. The church, he says, is also heavily involved with many charitable endeavours, saying that that during the 2010 floods in Bangkok, the church donated one million baht to victims, and that the church is also very active with charity work, donating children’s hospitals in Bangkok, old people’s homes in Phuket, and many other causes from the poor to disabled.
So far the Chiang Mai flock is miniscule, with fewer than a handful of faithfuls. Father Oleg is unconcerned about numbers, saying that the doors of the church are open all day, every day. There are 9am and 6pm services when all are welcome.
“We are living in a time that is post Christianity, looking around here, it is perhaps post Buddhism too,” he says with a shake of the head. “I can never understand how people can call themselves Buddhists and go and drink and do what they do. Same with Christianity. In Russia, we lost many generations of believers. Now you only see the young and the old. The people in the middle don’t feel comfortable with religion, they have been so indoctrinated to reject it, and they find it hard to accept the laws of religion. Yet, if you live as a Christian, how can you be corrupt? There is so much corruption in Russia. Everyone wants things quickly and with shortcuts.”
“One of my friends is a very successful Russian businessman in Pattaya. Whenever the church needs something he simply gives it. He does so much charity work, he is such a good man, but he was never baptised. His mind won’t allow him to be.” When I asked if it meant he wasn’t fully accepted by his God and that he wouldn’t make it into heaven, Father Oleg shook his head sadly.
My bubble of awe burst and I was reminded yet again of the complex foibles of religion. But in spite of my lack of belief, I walked away from my time with Father Oleg impressed with a man who seemed to ooze compassion and who believed in doing the best for his fellow man.
As I left the church, walking back towards my car, a man in a t-shirt, pair of worn jeans and a bright red beard was standing in the soi, head nodding to some tune on his iPod. He grinned and waved at me. Startled, I realised that he was one of the robed singers, heading home to Bangkok no doubt, and I waved back, ending my surreal morning.