Phey Sihawong took an instant liking to fresh-faced monk Wirapol Sukphol, who, in 2000, moved into Nom Jan village in the Si Sa Ket district of Thailand’s Isaan region. The 70-year-old grandmother often cooked Wirapol’s favourite wild-mushroom curry and carried it to his hut, even though her bones ached from working dawn to dusk in the rice paddies. “There was something special about the monk,” she says. “He made people feel good to be around him. He was a holy man and people said he had special powers.”
Phey didn’t mind her granddaughter, Ying, going to the monk’s hut to clean for him. She was barely 13 and widely considered to be the most beautiful girl in the village, but this monk had taken a vow to lead a life of celibacy and simplicity. “It gave Ying merit with Buddha,” says Phey.
“I never thought anything bad would happen.”
Wirapol began to frequently drop by the small wooden house where Phey, earning just 100 Thai baht ($3.50) a day in the fields, struggled to care for Ying, whose parents had died before she could crawl. “Hey, Ying. Come with me and I’ll buy you a present,” she remembers Wirapol saying to the teenager. He bought her a gold necklace and other gifts, suspiciously extravagant spending for a monk who carried a bowl to collect alms in the village each morning.
It came as a shock to Ying when, sometime later, while she was tidying his hut, he forced himself on her. “I tried to push him away, but I didn’t know about the world,” she says, cupping her face in her hands to hide her embarrassment.
When her granddaughter fell pregnant to the monk she’d trusted, Phey was angry and confronted him. “I said, ‘What about the baby? How can Ying care for a baby?’ But the monk said it will be okay, he will look after them.”
It was the beginning of a fall from grace so spectacular that it has captured an entire nation’s attention and thrust a 33-year-old monk into the centre of Thailand’s biggest religious scandal, prompting unprecedented calls for regulation of its 200,000-strong monkhood.
Now defrocked and a wanted fugitive living in exile, Wirapol faces eight charges relating to false advertising, statutory rape, tax evasion, drug use, false academic representation, money laundering, claiming to possess supernatural powers and, most alarmingly, manslaughter.
“Over the years, there have been several cases of men who abused the robe, but never has a single monk been implicated in so many crimes,” Pong-in Intarakhao, a chief investigator with Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI), an elite police unit, told Thai journalists. “We’ve never seen a case this widespread.”
If you believe Wirapol and his thousands of devoted followers, he has built the world’s largest replica of the Emerald Buddha (the 45-centi-metre tall, green nephrite original is housed in the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace), can walk on water, fly, talk to deities, see into the future and is immune to cobra venom. They’ll tell you his spirit can leave his body during meditation and that, in a previous life, Buddha himself assured him he’d be reborn a monk and achieve great deeds. More temporally, he has amassed a fortune estimated by Thai investigators to be worth more than $32 million.
Ying did not know at the time she was sleeping with Wirapol that it is forbidden for a monk to touch a woman or that indulging in sex must result in his immediate expulsion from the monkhood. Under Thai law, sex with anyone under the age of 15 is considered rape, which meant Wirapol faced up to 20 years’ jail if his relationship with her became public.
Wirapol swore Phey and Ying to secrecy and transported them from Nom Jan to Ubon Ratchathani, a town in north-eastern Thailand near the Laos border, where he secretly rented a house. He’d sometimes visit wearing civilian clothes and a hat to disguise his identity.
Wirapol Sukphol never went to the hospital when the baby, a boy he named Satunom – or Nom for short – was born in 2002, and Phey never saw him once hold the infant. “He would sit and stare at the baby, nothing else,” she says. “It was strange.”
Ying says that, as the days passed at the house, she began to love Wirapol. “He took care of me and promised he’d leave the monkhood and we would live together as a family,” she says.
Six months after their move to Ubon Ratchathani, police became curious about who was living in the house. Wirapol panicked, fearing his indiscretion was about to be exposed, and swiftly packed up the trio and sent them to Bangkok, where he set them up in a rented apartment. He never visited them there, but sent money for food. It wasn’t enough, they say.
About twelve months later, Phey bought train tickets back to Nom Jan. That was 10 years ago.
“I haven’t spoken to him since we left Bangkok and he’s provided no money to feed Nom or send him to school,” Ying says sadly.
Wirapol Sukphol was born on September 18, 1979, one of four brothers to farming parents who lived in Ubon Ratchathani’s Phibun Mangsahan district in a house overlooking the Mun River, a tributary of the Mekong. Wirapol has only ever talked of his humble background and has never explained the two-storey mansion in which his parents lived – or, indeed, the temple next to it, which locals say they built.
Wirapol devoted himself to Buddhism at a young age, dressing, at the age of five, in white and meditating in the local cemetery while other children played. “Many people in the village called me ‘crazy boy’ because I was hanging out at the temple with elders,” Wirapol wrote in his 2011 best-selling memoir, Only This Life: Never To Be Reborn (which, since the scandal, has been withdrawn by its publisher).
He became a novice at 15 and, six years later, entered the monkhood in Ubon Ratchathani, where he became renowned for his meditative powers. He made long pilgrimages into the jungles of Thailand, Laos, Burma and Cambodia. On one occasion, he was bitten by a cobra, but he wasn’t afraid, he said, because it was actually his wife from a past life.
Following his ordination as a monk in 1999, Wirapol began to refer to himself as Luang Pu, a Thai title reserved for senior, respected monks. Then, after a period spent moving from temple to temple, he arrived 10 years ago at Ban Yang village in Si Sa Ket’s Kanthararom district.
Here, an ailing monk invited him to live in his hut at a cemetery. A local villager had donated land to the older monk, her lifelong friend, on which to build a temple – and Wirapol promised him that, when he died, he would supervise the project.
More than a decade later, there’s still no temple, even though the Si Sa Ket provincial Buddhism Office granted him permission to build one there in 2002. Instead, buoyed by a growing number of followers attracted by his witty speeches and supposedly supernatural powers, Wirapol built a monastery, called Wat Pa Khanti Tham, with a lake and an extensive network of buildings on the donated land near Ban Yang village.
The monastery’s centrepiece was an 18.5-metre Buddha made from jade that had been imported from India, its structure containing 9000 kilograms of donated gold. Or so Wirapol boasted. During the course of their investigations, though, police discovered that the statue was, in fact, made of tinted concrete – and if there had ever been any gold, it was now long gone.
DSI director-general Tarit Pengdith says Wirapol is being investigated for violating the Computer Crimes Act by posting false statements online to induce followers to donate money and gold for the building of the replica Buddha.
Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism (NOB), a government agency, has also prepared a police complaint, alleging that advertisements placed by Wirapol for donations to fund the Buddha amount to embezzlement since the statue is, in reality, a fake. It’s their suspicion that the donated money was transferred into the monk’s personal bank accounts. (Police are currently attempting to freeze 41 bank accounts in his name containing “millions of dollars”, says Tarit.)
Last month, police raided the monastery three times. They were particularly interested in a basement room, which they forensically tested for traces of narcotics. Urine samples were also taken from six resident monks and more than 10 staff, a common practice in Thailand to detect drug use. Police haven’t yet made public the results of those tests.
The wealth accumulated by Wirapol is stunning, considering a key principle for those who propagate Buddha’s teachings is to own nothing. According to monastic discipline, monks cannot even touch money.
At first, the people who came to the monastery were mostly poor local villagers but, over several years, they were replaced by wealthy people from other provinces of Thailand, including Bangkok, who were drawn in their tens of thousands to witness Wirapol’s personal charisma. With his slightly stooped bearing and warm, engaging eyes, Wirapol could captivate his followers for hours with long, off-the-cuff talks. “He spoke softly and spread serenity and he was funny, always making people laugh … we trust him,” says Sanga Som, 64, a villager who works at the monastery and has known Wirapol since he moved into the elder monk’s hut at the cemetery. “He is a very good man … he is very skilled at teaching dharma [the way of righteousness]. We heard the news, but don’t believe it is true.”
Phra Virot, a resident monk, believes Wirapol to be the victim of a smear campaign and has total confidence in his power of prophecy. “Before he left for France in May, he told me, ‘A big story will come out about me, but don’t worry: it won’t be true,’ ” he says, before adding darkly, “He will never be reborn. He is already at the highest level and the end of his suffering.”
Aoon Simmanee, a 55-year-old farmer who lives near the monastery, says that, one day, after a mediation session, Wirapol gave her a medallion with the numbers 5202 on it. “I put the numbers in the lottery and won 700 baht [$24],” she says. “I know he has special powers.”
Aoon’s husband, Boonlert Phamsorn, 46, believes his wife and others like her have been conned by the monk, whom they accuse of pocketing donations to fund his libertine ways. “I’ve seen through him all along,” he says.
Farm owner Tawin Manas, 71, has also known Wirapol since he moved into the area 10 years ago. It was his wife, Lon Manas, 68, who donated the land on which the temple was supposed to have been built. He says Wirapol used to be serene, caring and friendly, but believes he changed when the rich outsiders started to come: “My wife was among those who went to the monastery often to make merit but, after a while, she and other local people started to go to a temple in the village. It was smaller and quieter. There were strange stories and strangers coming [to the monastery]. Wealthy people with nice cars.”
Tawin doesn’t believe Wirapol has supernatural powers and doubts his ability to predict the lottery numbers. “If you give out enough numbers, one of them will eventually be lucky,” he says.
The popularity of the monastery alone doesn’t explain the fortune amassed by Wirapol, who habitually travelled in chartered jets and helicopters and owned a luxury boat. Investigators have found 10 plots of land held in the names of his relatives and there’s evidence he owns a luxury mansion in California. Authorities think he’s there now.
Before he went into hiding, Wirapol would travel throughout north-eastern Thailand with a police or military escort in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, one vehicle in a personal fleet of about 100 cars. Police are investigating his acquisition of 22 Mercedes, worth more than $3 million, bought between 2009 and 2011 amid claims the move was part of a money-laundering scam. Wirapol even made a TV advertisement for an air purifier and urged Buddhists to buy one and make merit by donating it to a monastery.
Wirapol’s lifestyle first came to the attention of pilot Piya Tregalnon three years ago, when he was regularly asked to find a private, seven-seat jet for Wirapol’s “commute” between Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani, with each charter costing about $10,000. Piya became suspicious, and decided to post photographs on his Facebook page of the monk sitting in a private jet, wearing aviator sunglasses, carrying Louis Vuitton luggage and flicking through a huge wad of US dollar notes.
In mid-June, his pictures went viral on social media sites before being picked up by the Thai media. “Now boarding Air Nirvana,” one headline crowed. “The most bizarre thing is what was in his bag,” Piya told journalists, referring to the typical monk’s cloth shoulder bag. “It was filled with sacks of $100 notes.”
Evidence of Wirapol’s double life then tumbled out. Pictures of him riding a camel beside the pyramids in Egypt and of him sitting in a cockpit at a Kansas aircraft factory, where he expressed interest in buying his own plane, began to surface.
In recent weeks, the media have published details of eight alleged sexual relationships, including one with 26-year-old student Pra Wa from Nam Keing village in Si Sa Ket district. According to the reports, when Pra Wa came to believe Wirapol was seeing another woman, she snapped a photo of the monk sleeping in her bed and posted it on her Facebook page. That picture went viral, too.
Wirapol’s supporters hit back, claiming it wasn’t him in the bed, and that the picture had been digitally altered. To back up her story, Pra Wa paraded a large copy of it outside the home of Wirapol’s parents, saying this proved they’d had sex. According to the same reports, Pra Wa eventually removed the photo from her Facebook page after Wirapol paid her the equivalent of $176,000 in Thai baht.
Onsa Yubram, a 42-year-old Bangkok house cleaner, also had an affair with Wirapol after hearing him preach a year ago, she told Associated Press: “His voice was beautiful, it was mesmerising. He captivated all of us with his words.” When his sermon ended and he held out his saffron bag, hundreds of people rushed forward with donations, Onsa said.
“His bag was so full of cash, they had to transfer the money into a big fertilizer sack. He told us, ‘Don’t worry, no need to rush. I’ll stay here until the last of you donate.’ ”
The Thai media also reported that Wirapol had an affair with a 25-year-old woman who lived near the Wat Pa Khanti Tham monastery to whom he fathered another son. As with Ying, he arranged to have her taken to Bangkok to avoid the affair becoming public.
He’s said to have fallen deeply in love with a 27-year-old woman from Bann Tased village in Si Sa Ket whom he renamed Kanya Wan Kan, which implies he wants her to be close to him. He bought her a rubber plantation and built her a luxury home in Si Sa Ket where he visited her often.
How Wirapol Sukphol got away with flaunting immense wealth while wearing the saffron robe has prompted some serious soul-searching within Thailand’s Buddhist institutions. “This case is a wake-up call for Buddhist people,” says Virod Chaiphanna, director of the Si Sa Ket provincial Office of Buddhism, which is responsible for Wirapol’s monastery. “People should consider carefully when they make merit to a temple, and not just follow others. It’s also a wake-up call for the monkhood, which must work hard to monitor monks so as to protect the monkhood from missing the obvious. Most monks are good monks, but there are exceptions.”
Last year, about 300 of Thailand’s monks were reprimanded and, in several cases, disrobed for violating their vows, including having sex and being in possession of drugs and pornography. Among recent cases published in Thailand, 30 monks were defrocked after urine tests taken at several dozen temples showed use of methamphetamine; one senior monk was arrested and defrocked for allegedly raping a 14-year-old girl; two monks were arrested for allegedly procuring a 14-year-old boy to perform sexual acts for their abbot and another monk was arrested for allegedly dealing drugs in a temple.
The NOB asks that temples supply annual reports on their accounts and assets but, in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, only 1321 out of more than 37,000 did so. (Wirapol’s Wat Pa Khanti Tham wasn’t required to submit financial reports because it was classified as a monastery and not a temple.) Research shows that Buddhists making merit donate about $4 million to Thailand’s temples every year.
Amid a national uproar in June as his dark secrets dominated the headlines, a special committee of monks was set up in Si Sa Ket district to consider the accusations against Wirapol. He was conducting a Buddhist meditation retreat in Provence, France, when the controversy broke on June 17, but refused to come home to answer the allegations. Instead, he flew to California. On July 13, the special committee defrocked Wirapol, effective immediately, based on evidence relating to his sexual indiscretions.
Early this month, the former monk contacted the DSI through his lawyer, Sukit Poonsrikasem, offering to surrender on condition that he be granted bail so that he can organise his defence. Aware that police also want to interview him in connection with a hit-and-run accident involving a white Volvo that left a man dead in Ubon Ratchathani’s Warin Chamrap district three years ago, he has hired a team of six lawyers, including a Hollywood heavyweight.
Nom, the baby conceived in Wirapol’s hut, has grown into a shy, 11-year-old boy with distinctive good looks and quiet charm. He is second in his class at school, but has had to stop attending because his family is under 24-hour police protection following threats by Wirapol supporters.
“You can see Wirapol in his eyes,” says Ying, who recently married and has a three-month-old baby. Ying’s husband finds only occasional work labouring.
When reports of Wirapol’s massive wealth were published in June, Ying made the decision to break her decade-long silence and reveal her relationship with the disgraced monk and the existence of their son. She filed a suit in the family court seeking $1.4 million in child maintenance. “I don’t want to see [Wirapol] hurt,” Ying says, wiping tears from her eyes. “I just want him to come and see what he has been missing, to see his son and take responsibility for him. He is a good boy and deserves better than I can provide.” – Courier