On golden pond
Khon Kaen

A mural painting on the back wall of the 19th Century chapel at Wat Srathong. NATION PHOOWADON DUANGMEE

A small chapel in the Isaan countryside offers a reminder that simple is often best

Leave the paved road at the small town Mancha Khiri in Khon Kaen province and wend your way through the rice paddies, mango orchards and the dry Isaan plain. Eventually you'll happen upon the village of Baan Bua and the front yard of Wat Srathong, the temple of the golden pond. Walk in and rest your eyes appreciatively on the small, white sim - or Buddhist chapel.

Its beauty comes from its simplicity. Unlike many large temples, where egocentric head monks often appear to be competing to have the world's largest or tallest pagoda, Wat Srathong's old chapel is small and original.

The whitewashed outer walls of the chapel, which faces east, are adorned with mural paint¨ings and the roof has been retiled in a light saffron-colour to match the original terracotta. Within the triangular gable frame, a large painting of two blue elephants and three Buddha images pays testament to "hubtaem" - Isaan's unique painting style.

In fact, the old chapel won the locals Unesco's Merit Award in 2002, recognising and honouring them for their conservation spirit.

"The small, old chapel speaks volumes about the unique Isaan architecture and our origins," says Surasak Thada, Baan Bua's resident archaeologist

Almost every small town in Isaan, Surasak continues, seem to have a legend or folk memory that relates to Laos and Baan Bua is no exception.

The story has it that a princess fled her home in today's Laos to the old settlement of Nonbankhao, which is in walking distance from Ban Nong Bau, where she settled down with a young man. Unfortunately, the old settlement was abandoned in 1832 due to the shortage of water, and the new village was founded a few kilometres away at Ban Nong Bau.

"We left everything behind except the sand¨stone Buddha image," says Surasak.

The new settlement at Ban Bua was completed with remarkable religious fervour, with villagers building a wooden stupa, stone boundaries and the spirit shrines. But time flies and people die. Almost every piece from the 1830s has surrendered to the passage of time, save this small chapel.

"Back in 2000, the chapel was in a very bad shape. It could have fallen apart whenever the wind was really strong," says Surasak, as he takes me round the chapel.

But the community had other ideas and with the assistance of the Fine Arts Department and Khon Kaen University, locals from all walks of life set to work restoring the chapel hall.

"Students repainted the wall and the mural painting, while the old folks helped bake the tiles for the terracotta roof," says the archaeologist.

The workers were careful to adhere to the chapel's original colours. The mural paintings were repainted in yellow and blue and show men hanging around the mystical Naga serpents and unidentified animals at the corners of the wall.

"This piece remains me of Mediterranean art," says my Filipino friend, staring at the wall painting of a man in a long skirt, whose hair is styled a little like Edward Scissorhands.

"Really? I see more of a primitive cave painting," I reply.

Climb the Naga stairway into the chapel hall, and you'll find total peace. The walls here are bare and the only adornment is the sandstone Buddha image brought from the old settlement.

If the bricks and terracotta around the chapel could speak, they would whisper that the chapel of Wat Srathong is the finest piece of architecture in the whole of Isaan. It's original, simple and best of all, humble, but it's beautiful, just like the people who made it.

If you go …

Wat Srathong, in Mancha Khiri district, is about an hour's drive from Khon Kaen. Head south from downtown Khon Kaen on Highway 2, and turn right on to Highway 229 at Hua Nong village. Keep driving until you arrive in Mancha Khiri district then turning at Na Muang Street. Wat Srathong is a few kilometres down the road.