The extraordinary physical labour that gave form to Bunleua’s visions was offered freely by a generation of his followers, many of them, like Bunleau, poor sons of Isaan, all of them profoundly devoted to their charismatic leader, who supervised their work while reclining on a silk-covered canopied bed.
The sculptures range upward to 25 metres tall a seven-headed serpent representing the various lives of the Buddha – and a half kilometre in diameter – ‘the Circle of Life’, entered through a vagina-like opening and concluding in a skeletal representation of the end of human existence.
There are massive Buddhas, standing, sitting and reclining, dozens of huge, coiled serpents, such oddities as a family of dogs motoring in an open car.
All were completed with virtually round-the-clock labour – the seven-headed serpent was completed in only five months – under solely verbal direction, without drawings or plans.
Workers received paltry food, humble lodging, and the abundant spiritual guidance of Poo Bun, as they addressed him.
‘Poo’ is an honour usually reserved for monks, which Bunleua decidedly was not. His idiosyncratic mix of Buddhism, Hinduism and shamanism alienated the Thai religious establishment, and continues to spark controversy today.
The Buddhist Council of Elders has even posted a notice outside the garden to make clear Bunleua Sulilat was not one of their own.
Nonetheless, many of each day’s visitors regard the garden as a kind of religious shrine, leaving flowers, candles, incense, fruit and personal mementoes outside the glass room where lie Poo Bun’s mummified remains, his coffin draped with multi-coloured twinkle lights, his hair and nails tended by followers who swear they still grow.
Pursuing the vision
Bunleau Sulilat was born in 1932 in Nong Khai, then a tiny, dirt-poor village that relied for its meagre existence on farming and fishing, and on trade with merchants just across the Mekong River in Laos.
Among his contemporaries was the mother of Kochaporn Na Nonggai, the elegant presence who today operates modern Nong Khai’s bustling Pantawee Hotel.
Granddaughter of Nong Khai’s first provincial governor, Kachaporn’s mother grew up in a house where the hotel now stands, maybe a dozen metres from Bunleau’s childhood home, and the two regularly walked to school together, according to Kochaporn.
“My mother liked him very much,” she says. “He was very funny, very smart, very charming. And he was very, very handsome.”
Ambitious as well, young Bunleau wasted no time setting off to experience the larger world. He travelled for long periods to Nepal and India, where he claimed to have experienced – from the bottom of a cave where he lay trapped for weeks without food or water – the religious conversion that began his life as a shaman.
Centuries older than any organised religion, and still widely practiced throughout the world, shamanism rests on the notion that some people are capable of direct contact with the spirit world. These contacts with the other side provide insights that those on this side may use to resolve questions about health and wealth and love.
At some point in the late 1960s, Shaman Bunleau ended up in Laos, just a few miles across the Mekong from where his life began. His fame spread widely as a combination doctor/pastor/marriage counsellor/financial advisor.
According to local legend, recalled by Kochaporn, one of Bunleau counselees followed his recommendations and won the Laotian lottery.
In gratitude, the lucky winner bestowed upon his Shaman a sum large enough to finance Buddha Park in Laos, Bunleau’s first sculpture garden, and the realisation of a fevered dream from his nights in the cave.
Russian-born shaman Diana Manilova, who for several years has lived and practiced in Chiang Mai, offers her own interpretation of that dream.
Spirits consulted by Manilova told her that Bunleau had been in a previous life a slave during the construction of Angkor Wat. “That temple was built on bones and suffering,” Manilova said, “on the pain of slaves, on hate. The Buddha appeared (to Bunleau) and told him that he must build a great temple out of love.”
The Communist revolution of 1974 brought to Laos a government not notably sympathetic to religious mysticism or personal eccentricity. Bunleau, who embodied both, abandoned Buddha Park with a handful of his followers, including a cousin who still lives at Salakaewkoo, and stole back in the night to Nong Khai.
Before long, Bunleau’s reputation as a Shaman took hold on this side of the Mekong as well. He was able to begin a new and even grander sculpture garden in a remote forest area outside town, finding helpers easily among the otherwise unemployed young men who comprised his flock.
They were an attractive group, by and large, and very fit: Rumours persist that Bunleau’s relationships with his workers were sometimes sexual, and that he may have left Laos largely out of fear that he would be vulnerable to punishment for his homosexual nature. Whatever his successes among the boys of Isaan, however, Shaman Bunleau was not as well received by the townspeople of Nong Khai.
“When my mother heard that he had become this holy man who could do miracles,” recalls Kochaporn, “she laughed.”
The truth lies inside
“He had many enemies,” says Taness Waiyapat, 75, of his late cousin Bunleau.
Taness worked on the first sculpture garden in Laos and was among the small group of acolytes who set up camp in the Nong Khai woods in 1975.
Ownership of the land on which they built their first sculpture was hazy – a massive seated Buddha whose face is marked by distinctive eyebrows similar to those of Bunleau himself.
As Kochaporn points out, land was not then in much demand in and around Nong Khai. In the 1970s, particularly outside the city, she said, “Anyone could go anywhere and where you went is where you lived.”
As Nong Khai began to develop in the late 1980s, in anticipation of the opening of the first Thailand-Lao ‘Friendship Bridge’ in 1994, property ownership and resultant taxes became a matter of serious concern for the provincial government.
By this time, though, Bunleau had acquired many patrons, and collectively they were able to acquire title to the new densely packed ten-rai site. By the time the Friendship Bridge was complete, making Nong Khai a major port for commercial and visa-run traffic, Bunleau’s health was rapidly failing. Some sort of anaemia, they say, although many attribute the Shaman’s illness to the after-effects of a broken leg he had suffered in that cave.
Bunleau spent his last days in bed, under cover of a sala erected over a fish pond, attended by small groups of devoted young men who brought him food, massaged his back, plucked the whiskers from his chin.
As he weakened, he acquired a megaphone with which to call out instructions. But the strength of his personality never wavered.
“I remember him as being very, very decisive in whatever he said,” recalls Julian Wright, English-born owner of nearby Mutmee guest house, who met Bunleau on several occasions toward the end of the Shaman’s life.
“A very powerful personality,” says Wright. “Whatever he said, and some of it was more than a little abstruse, you knew he absolutely believed it.”
After Bunleau’s death in August 1996, his community disbanded, and the sculptures themselves fell gradually into disrepair.
Eventually, the provincial government recognised the potential of Salakaewkoo as a visitor attraction and took over its maintenance, ironically in conjunction with the Nong Khai Buddhist Association.
The sellers of tickets and trinkets outside the sculpture garden today are not always well-versed in the history of the place. Many in Nong Khai don’t know of Bunleau at all, and maybe most regard his sculpture as an oddity of interest only to farang.
At a folding table on the top floor of the three-story museum built after Bunleau’s death, under a window across from the Shaman’s coffin room, Taness Waiyapat does what he can to keep his cousin’s legend alive. He sells palm-readings for 50 baht, but the reminiscences are free.
“He had many enemies,” Taness repeats, “but they could not defeat him. His power was too great.”
Taness remembers from long ago a man teetering against bankruptcy who came to Bunleau for help. The Shaman took the man’s shirt for a week, returned it, and within a short time the man had become richer than ever before.
“I saw it,” says the old man. “You only know what you see with your own eyes. I loved him.”