At 27, Phra Sarachai Chotipanyo has devoted more than half of his life to being a monk.
When he was just 13, he noticed that many of his friends in Thailand were choosing to become junior monks, so he decided he would too.
Now he, along with Phra Rittayos Tammasolo, has moved to Warrnambool where the city’s first Thai Buddhist Temple has just opened its doors.
Through a translator, Phra Sarachai Chotipanyo told how he grew up in a poor family. Both his parents worked as labourers and, after finishing primary school, he started attending a religious school to become a monk.
“He became very inspired by the teaching and principles of Buddhism,” his translator Kit Rojanabenjawong said.
Phra Rittayos Tammasolo, who was raised in a middle-class family, was 34 when he decided to become a monk. His mum worked in a noodle shop and his dad was a sales assistant. They divorced when he was a child and said it was mostly his sister, who is 20 years older, who looked after him.
After leaving school he worked as a barista in a cafe, living a life he described, through a translator, as typical of a young person who would go out at night and go to parties.
But after spending a week listening to the preaching at a nearby temple, Phra Rittayos Tammasolo was asked by one of the monks what he had done to repay his parents and if he’d considered becoming a monk.
In Thailand, there is a tradition that if you become a monk at a certain age, your parents will go to heaven.
“Not everyone would do that. It is a belief,” his translator said.
“He decided that he was going to do it for a week and then after he did it for a week became very interested in the religion so he decided to do it for another three months.”
He spent the next three years as a monk in Thailand before he decided to return to his old life.
However, he still attended the temple, dressed in white when he visited, and practiced the teachings of Buddhism.
“He returned to normal life for about a year. He just found that life as a normal person was very chaotic and he missed the peace of Buddhism so he returned and became a monk again,” the translator said.
That was five years ago. He now he calls Warrnambool home. Life as a monk meant having to give up all his possessions, not that he ever really had much, he said.
Warrnambool’s Ronnie Knackstedt was instrumental in getting a Thai temple in Warrnambool, and last month the doors of the Lava Street temple finally opened for the first time.
The south-west has a small but growing Buddhist community, and many would regularly make the trip to the Thai Melbourne-based temple which has now decided to permanently base two monks here.
The Melbourne branch has been operating in Australia for about 25 years and Warrnambool is now home to one of the first regional Thai temples outside of Melbourne. The other one located in Ballarat.
“The temple in Ballarat is much more established because of its proximity to Melbourne and Ballarat’s larger. We’re just taking small steps,” Ronnie’s husband Bud said.
Ronnie has been living in Australia since 1990 after meeting her husband in Thailand.
Bud said his wife has had to travel to Box Hill to attend Buddhist events and getting a temple in Warrnambool has been in the back of their minds for many years.
“We’ve actually brought monks to Warrnambool from Box Hill a number of times and even brought one out from Thailand,” he said. “People that live here who are Buddhist need to have a source of leadership.”
He estimates that there are about 100 Buddhists in the region who now come to the temple.
When it’s time for prayers, many have to sit in the hallway because there is not enough room in the temple – a large lounge room which has been converted to a temple - to fit everyone.
Worldwide there is estimated to be about 100 million Buddhists, and in Thailand more than 90 per cent of the population practices a strand called Theravada Buddhism.
In the past few weeks a shiny 800kg solid bronze statue of a Buddha has arrived and the new sign has been erected outside the temple which is called the Warrnambool Wanaram Thai Buddhist Temple; Wanaram meaning park for monks.
“It’s a good thing to be involved in some sort of community effort,” Bud said.
“There’s a lot of negativity going on so might as well do something positive once in a while. We’re in the process of getting more involved through TAFE and the hospital for meditation purposes, for guidance as well if needed.”
The temple holds services every Sunday and is open from 9am to about 6pm every day.
“It’s similar to a church. You can go into a church anytime. It’s the same thing here. If you need some personal assistance or you want to talk to someone, that’s the time to do it one-on-one,” Bud said.
He said part of the routine at the temple was to bring food for the monks.
“They have nothing and they request nothing. So whatever they have is what’s given to them by the community and the community supports them,” he said. “They have nothing.”
The monks leave a very meagre, poverty existence, he said.
So far there had been enough support from the community to keep the temple going in Warrnambool, Bud said.
“We’re pretty much self-funded. There’s some funds coming from Thailand, some funds are coming from Box Hill but mostly we’re self-sufficient,” he said. “We’re having to finance ourselves.”
Word is getting out that the temple is here with international visitors stopping in to check out the new facility.
Sommai Kidking, who was in Warrnambool to visit family, said he heard about the new temple and had to come and visit.
Kit, who has been in Warrnambool for 14 months, said it was great to now have a temple in Warrnambool to come to and practice his religion.
He said the chanting and prayers heard at the temple are not in the Thai language, but the language of Buddha who lived in India about 2500 years ago.
The Thai community is also planning to hold another Thai New Year Festival, known as Songkran, in Warrnambool next April. Also known as the Water Festival because it is popular to throw water on each other, it is the biggest day of the year for Thai people. “It’s like Christmas and New Year all rolled into one,” Bud said.
A tribute to the Thai king will be set up outside the temple on Saturday to mark two years since his death.