In a remote hamlet in Chiang Rai, Thailand, a monastery sits on a tall cliff. At the northern entrance, a statue of a rearing horse acts as a gatekeeper to the secluded world of The Golden Horse Monastery.
The monastery was founded by former Thai boxing champion Phra Kru Ba Neua Chai, who became a Buddhist monk. The monks take in destitute children and train them in Thai boxing and equestrian skills, often with horses that have been saved from slaughterhouses.
Heading north from Chiang Rai for about an hour, the River Kam slinks around the tall cliffs, and high on one of these cliffs perches an ancient monastery, the Wat Maa Tong, or the Golden Horse monastery. The Golden Horse shrine is reputed to date back to the time of the Lord Buddha, where legend has it that he left a sacred footprint there.
Now it is a thriving monastry, but wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, the story starts some eleven years back and tells the tale of a young Thai man, at the pinnacle of his boxing career, we are talking about Samerchai.
Samerchai was born to farmer parents in the Muang Chiang Rai district. He worked hard and attended Ramkhamhaeng University, and from there he joined the Army. During his service he built up a deserved reputation as a fierce fighter, a boxer, and was to lose only three fights in fifteen years. It was while he was preparing to challenge for a world title that something strange happened to Samerchai.
Always a devout Buddhist, to the dismay of his many fans, he suddenly turned his back on the world of boxing and decided to enter the priesthood. Leaving his fame and fortune behind, he slipped away into the North and made his home in the jungle caves of Mae Sai. There he sat himself in the Lotus position and began meditating.
For many long days and nights, as is the tradition, like Buddha he sat and he contemplated his own being, seeking the elusive enlightenment. On the seventh night he had a vision. And for each and every night for seven nights afterwards he saw the same vision – go to the Golden Horse shrine. Samerchai followed his heart and the next day began the journey north towards the shrine.
After many weeks of travel, taking alms along the way, Samerchai reached the Golden Horse shrine, which had long been abandoned. It was remote, high up the precipitous mountains and the dark forest that surrounded the shrine was rumoured to be haunted, local villagers in the Mae Kam valley were scared to even go up there.
Samerchai slowly won the respect of the animist villagers there, but his life was by no means easy. The Shan warlord Khun Sa was a fierce and powerful drug baron, a lynchpin in international drug trade, he did not like this monk intruding on his territory. Khun Sa tried to intimidate Samerchai, for the shrine was on the path for the drug traffic between Burma and Northern Thailand.
Khung Sa sent several of his thugs to teach Samerchai a lesson and deliver him a beating, for not even Khung Sa would risk killing a holy man. The thugs did not know who Samerchai was, and outnumbered ten to one, he delivered instead a beating to them. Several times Khung Sa sent his men to ‘persuade’ the monk to leave, but the monk was not only able to defend himself, he was also clever, and set traps and concealed hinself cunningly, striking only when he was ready.
The Army had all but lost hope of trying to combat the drug trade in the area,when rumour came of the lone monk sitting high in the mountains daring to brave Khun Sa and his thugs. They hunted around for other monks, willing to follow Samerchais lead, and to establish a monastry, bringing their dharma with them and so persuading the hilltribe villagers to abandon the drug trade where they cooperated with Khun Sa.
Samerchais reputation continued to grow among the locals, and one day something strange happened. A local person had won the lottery, and as is common when one encounters a stroke of luck or good karma, the local man gave a fitting donation to the respected monk, and as seemed fittiing he donated a fine horse. Samerchai had another insight, this horse could greatly help him spread the dharma or teachings and at the same time enable him to keep an eye on Khun Sa. He wasn’t the only with an insight.
Suddenly horses bound for slaughter were regularly donated to Samerchai, by those that had come into fortunes, or by those that had come to listen to him preach and had been impressed with his dharma. Samerchai and his monks, tended the horses, making them better where necessary, and then donating them to the army or to the hilltribe villagers. At the same time, he took in orphans of parents slaughtered by Khun Sa’s militia and ordained them as novices or ‘nen’.
They were well cared for, were educated and became disciplined young men, role models for the youth in the surrounding villages. And the nen learned how to ride the donated horses, and how to fight. Samerchai taught them how to defend themselves witht their hands and feet, while never losing their temper. He explains his philosophy,
‘Boxing helps me to become a better Buddhist. I learn to control my emotions. I find beauty and peace in and stillness in boxing. I get rid of my animal instincts and control them to the point where they become beautiful, an art form for sport, for education, for the discovery of truth. The word Thai means freedom, and when I practice muay thai I fell free – free from my emotions, from anger’
The revered monk attracted so much attention and support from the local people and the army garrison that Khung Sa gave up his
operations and disbanded his militia and is now himself a devotee of Samerchais, admiring his determination and courage. Khung Sa himself is now making amends by helping reforestation projects with his own ill gotten gains. More vicious drug cartels have stepped into the vacuum, but with Khung Sa’s knowledge and joint patrols by the fighting monks and the Army, the cartels by no means have an easy life.
Those nen that have now grown up and have graduated, have become translators of various language groups for the Army. Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Cheen Haw (Chinese), Lua, Hmong and Yao boys have all graduated and now help to improve communications between the various border hilltribes.
Samerchai has taught his young charges to respect themselves through self-discipline, Buddhist education, horsemanship and a pride in their people. Challenging the drug caravans is dangerous and perilous, but the reputation of the monk and his standing with the local villages and the Army means that few dare to rid themselves of this ‘turbulent priest’.
As more flock to his remote monastry, Samerchai now thinks that it may soon be time to move on. To a greater and more accessible monastery where more can hear this the Dharma of this remarkable monk?
No, smiles Samerchai.
He plans to retreat further into the jungle, to start once again, now that his mission, shown to him in a vision, has been achieved.
There are only two ways to approach the Golden Horse monastery, up a sheer cliff face or from a track from the north. At the gateway there stands a fierce guardian, a tall golden stallion that rises and kicks out at strangers until the monks gather him in. It is a fitting guardian for the Golden Horse temple and the fighting monks of Samerchai, high above the river Kam, in the Golden Triangle of Northern Thailand.