The sim and the Isaan soul


The Northeast's temple chapels boast murals with surprising messages

From the front Wat Yang Suang in Maha Sarakam province looks like a simple chapel, a small building that is largely remarkable. 
That’s until you notice the wall that faces East, whose whitewashed exterior serves as a canvas for a mural painting. Circle round the chapel or ubosot, and the scenes scroll in front of you rather like a slide show. There’s the Lord Buddha sitting under a banyan tree, a legendary prince and his men marching against the demon king and, surprisingly, two young men exposing their white buttocks to get attention from the women. The art speaks volumes about the people of Isaan, identifying the ubosot as their “sim”, as a small Buddhist chapel is known in this region. 
“The sim, in many ways, is the soul of Isaan,” says Wittaya Wutthaisong, a lecturer in art history at Khon Kaen University. “Small and humble, the sim is a testament to simplicity, beauty, honesty and faithfulness.
Playfulness too, I muse, reflecting on the painting of Isaan men charming their womenfolk. 
Like Buddhist chapels elsewhere in Thailand, the sim plays a major role as a centrepiece of the temple. Important rituals, such as an ordination ceremony, are conducted by the monks inside the sim. 
Sim have existed in Isaan’s Buddhist temples since before the new trends in Siamese art and architecture were introduced to Thailand’s Northeast in the early twentieth century, 
Usually, a sim is a closed structure built of brick with limestone plaster with a firm foundation. It can be accessed by stairs on its east side, the rails of which are in the shape of the Naga, a snake-like creature with a crest. The hall is surrounded by small sandstone boundaries. The top and the roof are made of wood carved into the fashionable designs of the locale. The roof is three tiered with an extended part resembling a bird wing supported by a row of columns around the hall. The walls, outer and inner, are coated with white stucco and finished off with mural paintings.
“But their real characteristic are the mural paintings, “hub taem” as they’re called in the Lao dialect,” says Wittaya, as he leads me around the outer walls of Wat Yang Suang’s ubosot. “The drawing and the cool tones of the colours suggest characteristics that are unique to the Northeast’s folk art style.”
The murals usually depict the Vessantara Jataka, the story of one of the Buddha’s past lives as prince Vessandara, who gives away everything he owns, thus displaying the virtue of perfect charity. Another side of the wall tells the Isaan folk tale of “Sin Chai”, a hero who led his troops to battle the demon king. Traditionally, the local artist would paint the remaining walls with scenes, occasionally erotic, of the everyday lives of Isaan folk. 
“Blue, white, yellow and black dominate the galleries because the local artists had a very limited selection of colours,” Wittaya explains. “They made the most out of local materials. The white was made from clam shells and the blue came from the local indigo plant. They used paintbrushes made of bamboo sticks.”
Folksy and original, the drawings show little, if any, influences of Siamese mainstream art. The artists would first make their outline on the walls in pencil and if you look closely, the rough draft can be seen through the colour. They then painted using a powder colour mixed with home-made glue. Their strokes were understandably rough as their brush was roughly made from bamboo. 
What makes the sim unique compared to ordination halls elsewhere in Thailand are the paintings on the outer walls. Wander from Phuket through Bangkok to Chiang Mai and it’s unlikely you’ll see a painting on the exterior of an ubosot.
“The paintings on the outer walls would keep the devotees entertained while they waited outside the sim,” Wittaya says. “Women are not allowed to enter the chapel hall and only a few men can actually sit inside because the sim is so small. The rest of them would wait outside during the religious ceremony. The walls with their stories comforted and cheered them.”

That cheer no doubt came from the erotic nature of some of the art, with exposed bodies and raunchy scenes often making it to the chapel’s exterior walls. There’s a drawing of Jujaka, a greedy old Brahmin in the Vessantara Jataka, exposing his super-sized genitals, two men and a woman engaged in sensual fondling and, of course, those male buttocks. They are not scenes you’ll find on the walls of Wat Pho or other famed Thai temples but they are common to the Isaan sim. The message is not clear, but suggests that Isaan folk are not shy about displaying erotica on chapel walls.
Inside though, the drawings are decent and moral though still unique. Painted in vivid yellow, rather like Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers series, the Lord Buddha reclines on the wall of Wat Yang Suang’s chapel hall. Two monks, perhaps Mokhala and Saributr, hold a huge umbrella to shelter their master. It’s beautiful.
Many of the older sim have fallen by the wayside over the years, according to the university’s Culture Institution and been replaced by new ordination halls built on the original foundations in the same extravagant design that’s seen all over central Thailand.
A few beautiful sim have withstood the test of time but draw little attention from villagers let alone visitors.
“The old sim only appeals to art history students and a few academics,” says Wittaya with regret. “The pride of Isaan, for the part, is abandoned in the dust.”
If you’re travel around northeastern Thailand, you might want to check these temples for their sim.
<< Wat Chaisri, Muang, Khon Kaen
<< Wat Udonpracharat, Muang, Kalasin
<< Wat Photharam, Na Dun, Maha Sarakram
<< Wat Palalai, Na Dun, Maha Salakram
<< Wat Yang Suang, Borabue, Maha Sarkram
<< Wat Baan Lan, Ban Phai, Khon Kaen
<< Wat Klang Baan Lan, Ban Phai, Khon Kaen