Temple of a Million Bottles
By B. S.
It’s easy to see why Thailand’s been dubbed the Land of Smiles. But with literally tens of thousands of Buddhist temples or “Wats”, if you prefer the Thai word, scattered throughout the kingdom; a more appropriate epithet for Siam just might be the “Land of Temples”. Let’s face it, whether you’re a local, an expat or a day tripper – who among us has not been to at least one of Thailand’s many opulently gilded temples? These lavish, colorful, and sometimes gaudy places of worship attract millions of visitors annually and are remarkable sights to behold. However, when pondering the many building materials that were needed to fabricate these stunning structures; rubbish, trash and garbage are typically not among them.
I doubt if it was Siddhartha Gautama who many of us may know as the Buddha, but some sage once said, “There is no such thing as garbage, just useful stuff in the wrong place.” The Buddhist monks who inhabit the Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew, situated near the Cambodian border in the Khun Han district of the Northeastern province of Sisaket, apparently took the above words to heart. You see, some thirty years ago the religious men were enlightened enough to have determined where the proper place for garbage actually was. While doing so, they also gave an entirely new meaning to the ditty “100 bottles of beer on the wall”! In short, they figured out a way to bottle-up karma by literally constructing each and every building on the temple grounds from over a million discarded glass bottles!
Temple of Beer
Just to be sure, for those of you who are singularly minded, this paragraph is not a reference to Walking Street or the nearest beer bar complex! Fabricated primarily from empty green Heineken and brown Chang beer bottles, Wat Láan Kùat or the Million Bottle Temple as the locals call it, resides some 370 miles northeast of Bangkok. The practice of reusing empty beer bottles as a building material began back in 1984 as an inexpensive and colorful way in which to decorate the monk’s quarters. Visitors to the temple couldn’t help but notice the glass glittering in the sun, and the clever manner in which the empties were utilized. Before long, the entire community found themselves collecting and then donating glass bottles to the Wat hoping to make merit and increase their good fortune. At first the monks were unsure of how best to utilize this unexpected windfall. But after some serious head scratching and a bit of sober meditation they hit upon the idea of transforming the waste into wonder. They opted to use the abandoned bottles to create a place to pray that was functional, beautiful, and environmentally friendly.
When one looks at Wat Láan Kùat today it’s obvious that the monks took their recycling duties very seriously. Over the years, their bottle building endeavors have expanded bottle by bottle and structure by structure. Today more than 1.5 million bottles have been set into concrete to create the twenty or so eco-friendly edifices comprised of a main temple, great hall, prayer rooms, crematorium, water tower, multiple bungalows used as monk’s quarters, and even a toilet block. Heineken and Chang beer bottles serve as the primary building components. However, various other types of clear, brown and green bottles have been used, including Mekhong whiskey, M-150 and Red Bull energy drink discards, and at least one decade’s old 7-Up bottle! The bottle caps that once sealed these binned bottles were also integrated into the architecture in the form of decorative mosaic murals, one of which captured the ever serene countenance of Buddha himself. Despite its unique construction, visitors should be reminded that the Wat is a working temple where people go to worship every day. As such, it calls for the same respect and decorum as any other temple in Thailand. The Temple of a Million Bottles is considered a “work in progress”. Therefore, the monks, anxious to continue their recycling efforts are more than happy to receive donations in the form of portable wealth and empty glass bottles, both of which will be put to use expanding the temple.
The Bottle House
As a sustainable building material, the humble vessel known as the bottle does not fade, it allows natural light to penetrate, and it is surprisingly easy to maintain. The earliest example of a structure made primarily from bottles is believed to have been the “Peck Bottle House” built in the small but booming silver mining town of Tonopah, Nevada by William F. Peck in 1902. At a time when the prices of lumber and brick were going through the roof and other traditional building materials were less than plentiful in the western desert, Mr. Peck managed to gather some 10,000 empty beer, whiskey, soda and medicine bottles from the surrounding saloons and emporiums to construct his abode. Other residents situated far from the railway lines took notice of this accomplishment and followed suit. Before long, numerous other “bottle houses” could be seen in the desert mining towns of the American west. Since then, bottles have frequently been used as an alternative building material and as an architectural feature in structures across the globe.
A Brick That Holds Beer
In 1960, some fifty-something years after the pioneer Peck built his glass house, beer brewing magnate, Alfred Heineken, the man responsible for the beer in the emerald green bottle happened to be on the Caribbean island of Curacao. While there, two things lodged in his subconscious. First, the beaches were strewn with empty beer bottles, many bearing his name; and second, there was an acute shortage of affordable building materials. This of course, caused the island’s impoverished inhabitants to inhabit shabby shacks of inferior quality. Vexed by what he had seen, he one day realized that he had the ability to solve both of those problems … if only his empty bottles could somehow be used as bricks. Intent on transforming this vision into a reality Heineken enlisted the aid of a Dutch architect to help him devise a glass brick that was capable of holding beer. The initial attempts at creating glassware that could serve as both a bottle and a building material proved to be both unsightly and too expensive for mass production. However, a design known as the WOBO an acronym for “World Bottle” was eventually settled on. Unfortunately, for the residents of Curacao, and the rest of the world, the World Bottle that was to be both a bottle and a brick never caught on. Thus, only a few hundred thousand bottle bricks were ever made.