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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ten days, four phases

December 6th was the King’s Birthday and December 12th is Thailand’s Constitution Day and I was lucky enough to have the entire week off in between.   Here’s the (relatively lengthy) travelogue in four chapters:
  • Motona Satu in the mountains
  • Tha Pae Gate
  • Lunar eclipse overnight in the Jungle on the Pai River
  • Renewed and refreshed with a goal

Motona Satu
The school was abuzz all week with many teachers asking me if I was “going to Chiangmai.”  I’d been instructed that I needed to be at school at 5am Saturday, to pack white clothing and to bring a sweater and socks.  We were spending the King’s birthday holiday weekend at a Buddhist monastery.

The teachers, bus drivers and a few family members milled about in the predawn chill with heavy jackets, scarves and knit hats, drinking coffee and eating leftover baked goods from the school’s canteen.  By 6am the school’s bus drivers had the four vans loaded up, the luggage was piled on the school’s pickup, the family ownership/administrative team had arrived in their SUV and the convoy hit the road.   We stopped four times along the six hour trip; for 2 bathroom stops (there were 40 women), breakfast, and gasoline.  I am seated in the front bench, right next to teacher Tuaw who speaks English well and her 12 year old daughter Ploy.

Once through the bustle of Chiangmai, we drove high on a winding riverside road into the mountains of Chiangdao. The van pulled off the highway and onto a side street, then another, past fields and small rural houses.   Before long we were turning into a driveway with a small sign and a curving road at the base of a small mountain and into the center.  Down past a simple kitchen and some other small houses,   we pulled up to a small pavilion.  It was then that I realized that I’d be sleeping on a tile floor, bamboo mat and a cotton comforter with the entire contingent of female teachers in the same dorm. This was not exactly the quiet and reflective space I’d envisioned, but I claim a space next to Tuaw and Ploy on the end of a long row and prepare for the experience.

We change into the white clothes, have a nice simple lunch and sat for the first of the prayer and meditation sessions with the Master Monk Napporn, who amazes me with his jovial presence in the temple.  Many of the attendees are wearing simple cotton clothing with the lightest tinge of blue lavender color, quite pure and pristine, like the color of the inside of a cloud.  Behind the Master Monk’s large seat at the front of the “stage”, three other resident Monks are seated.  Behind all of them is a glass encased room housing a giant Buddha, gold and silver lotus flowers, flower arrangements and red carpet.

During the prayers and teachings, I recognize some Thai words and phrases. However,  nearly all of it goes far beyond my understanding.  I have to bask in the presence and the honor of being here in this powerful place.  I suspect that I am one of just a handful of farang that have ever been on the base of this mountain.   After a late dinner and a simple recitation of the house rules by the resident caretaker, the girls pull out a golden banner and start sewing sequins on it. One of the teachers is entranced by my headlamp and models it throughout the large room to the delight of her colleagues.    I’ve been instructed that we will all be getting up at 5am for “cooking”, which I don’t quite understand.  Nonetheless,  I spend some time with my journal, do some reading and thus settle in to my very private haven of the English language.  By 10:30 pm, the entire dorm is eerily quiet.


The group starts rustling at 4:30 am and as most are getting dressed and some are using blow-dryers, others are picking through the food supplies that unfurled overnight.  We bundle up in the predawn and head up the hill to the monastery, where the 55 of us waits for the monks to finish their morning meditation.  I’m a bit stunned by the camera flashes and repeated entreats to join the group photo with two forefingers poised near the forehead against the dark backdrop of the day before dawn, but this is the excitement of spending time together.

As the monks move from silent meditation to articulated prayer, a silence falls over the group.  There is a gentle mist settling into the hills and it surrounds us all.  The monks come out and the group lines up in formation to provide alms, the plastic shopping bags brimming with noodle packages, the Thai equivalent of little Debbie snack cakes, bottles of water and power drink, small bags of rice. Each person places an offering in the "begging bowl", a wai is offered and then the person moves onto the next monk and repeats the procedure.    Each monk has a helper next to him, someone who removes the offering from the bowl and places it into the large plastic bin on the monastery steps.  The Master Monk Napporn utters a prayer to the group, one of the monastic volunteers pulls up an SUV, and the monks load up for another round of collecting in town while the camp truck loads to booty down to the kitchen.  The sun has risen and beyond the drive there are clouds rolling out as far as the eye can see.  More photos and the group retreats down the hill to coffee and a little pre-breakfast snack of flower-shaped butter cookies filled with pineapple jam.

When the Monks return, we engage in a morning prayer session with the entire camp attending.  Just behind Master Napporn, there is a long table filled with the riches of the community’s food gifts prepared for eating.  They prayer ends and the Monks break their 20 hour fast.  We spend a few minutes watching the Monks eat their meal (consumed before noon) and the bucket brigade forms to transport the food down to the kitchen where it is served to the entire community.

  After breakfast, I’m invited to join a team of regular attendees from Bangkok that have joined the community for the holiday weekend.  I’m quizzed on my knowledge of Buddhism, gently reminded that I forgot to mention the five precepts, and then asked if I would like to spend some time with the Master.

As some of you know, I consider myself a spiritual person but have spent very little time in the presence of religious leaders.  Master Monk Napporn has been a monk for over 50 years. He is a writer with a great sense of humor and a large, solid presence.  With the help of a translator, I am invited to ask him anything.  Thoughts run through my mind, “what about winter solstice 2012?”, “what do you think about plastic?”, “how can I make best use of my life on earth?”   This is my one big chance to access someone who spends a lot more time closer to higher powers than I do.

Instead, I tell him that I don’t speak the language and recognize that I am feeling very different in my community.  I ask him for advice about how I can help the Thai people.   He tells me that we are all the same as people and recognize those elements of our humanity.   He tells me that he would like my help in extending the word of Buddhism and translating his book into English.  He tells me to ask another question, and I ask about how to control those naughty Thai students who talk throughout my classes.  This, he says, cannot be done alone. You must get help from the parents and the other teachers.  Be sure that you observe their naughtiness as a human condition and remove your emotional attachments to their behaviors; the goal of the meditation is to keep your heart unfettered with emotional attachments and to just observe the reality of whatever unfolds in front of you as the condition it is.

Napporn goes to the back room and returns with a statue of Buddha seated atop  Nāga and a beautifully polished crystal clear tear drop of rose quartz.  “This is cool like the deep water from which it came.”  The person next to me clasps it in her hands and brings it to her forehead in homage.  I am filled with a deep sense of responsibility and a longing to understand the intricacies of his words.  My translator Koong is whispering his words in English, struggling with her own mental dictionary as the Master continues on.   Master Monk Nopporn arises and returns the treasures to their shelf, but comes back with a gift for me.  It is a picture of himself taken at the birthplace of the Buddha, high in the mountains of India.  The sun is in his eyes.  Behind him, a shadow stretches out with a clear profile of an elephant's trunk and head where his head should be.



 I am stunned and bewildered with the magic of this image.  Why would this happen?  Earlier in the morning, I was shown photos of our morning alms giving.  Each of those misty raindrops is illuminated and this is interpreted as depicting angels.  They show me other photos of ghost images, a white aberration in the midst of an otherwise normal photo. To them, this is proof that there are energies and spirits in the world that we don’t see with our naked eyes.  The mystery of this experience is a gift and I am completely humbled.

After two hours and with some sympathy for my translator, I am reluctant to add any more questions to the day.   The Master wishes me well and moves into the residence to continue his day of writing and reflection.  Koong and I arise to leave and I hobble up, realizing just then that my feet are completely numb from being seated with my feet underneath me for so long.   With a few steps I make my way out of the monastery and into the morning sun as circulation returns and I'm able to walk down the hill and reflect on my experience.

The days follow in a similar pattern with morning service to the community following the breakfast and an afternoon prayer and discussion session with Master Monk Nopporn.  It’s hard for me to settle myself into meditation; my brain jumps between thoughts and recollections, the desire to sleep, the yearning to hear some words I understand.   After the discussion with Nopporn, I conjure up an image of a crystal clear heart, filled with the radiance and purity of white light, similar to Thailand’s prevalent cumulonimbus clouds this time of year. Not the empty heart and mind that I’ve gathered is the goal, but close enough.   I am sad to leave the place when it is time, but was told that I am welcome to return.  The prospect is enticing.



Tha Pae Gate
The school’s owner and her family drop me off at the hotel after lunch on Tuesday after a quick stop at the Royal Flora festival, where serindipitously we encounter a field trip of student Monks.  In the afternoon exploration of the neighborhood,  I am overwhelmed by the traffic, verbal invitations for Thai massage and Avatar-like posters for zip-line jungle treks, sandwich boards with scantily clad people riding elephants, lightpost flyers for English teacher training courses, the course of humanity that walks on the crowded narrow sidewalks.  I miss the school community and the quiet of the monastery.    I walk long and hard in a bit of a daze as I seek my ground as a new solo traveler, resisting the invitations of the Tuk Tuk drivers to go somewhere else.  That night, I’m a bit embarrassed to forage  nori chips, peanuts, carrot juice and chocolate from the 7-11 for dinner and retreat to the hotel room where I can watch English language reruns of the Office while nursing the new blister on the underside of my foot.   I am not the intrepid international traveler I'd hoped to be.


Tomorrow brings another phase of navigation, looking at maps and trying to determine the best way to take in a few of the sites I’d highlighted.  The prospect of negotiating in my pitiful Thai combined with the thought of trekking to Doi Sutep in the heat of the day and the high tourist season keep me in town, where I find some English language children’s books, uncover the challenge of purchasing the solutions for my rigid gas permeable contacts, lay down the baht for a trip to the Elephant Nature Park the following day, get a two hour Thai massage from women  in the latter stages of  job training at the prison and savor a cheeseburger.

In my travels, I really wanted to keep my impact kind to the earth, the animals and its people.   I won’t go to wildlife attractions like the “pet the tiger” place. Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for injured, abused and orphaned elephants.  Unlike many of the other camps that feature tricks and elephant riding, this place focuses on learning.  The profit from the daily visitors supports the work of Lek Chailert’s non-profit foundation.  Lek has spent her life developing programs that integrate environmental, cultural and economic  sustainability with the  desire to offer domesticated elephants a better quality of life and ensure habitat preservation for wild elephants.


Through the day I learned a few new things:  women can never become mahoots (the elephant’s caretaker/trainer) and in fact are not culturally permitted to ride the elephant at all.   There are less than 1000 wild  elephants in Thailand and approximately 2500 in domestic service. When elephants are targeted for work, they are taken from their mothers at a young age and beaten into submission through a grueling week-long “boot camp” and face continued dangers from landmines in Burmese logging camps, physical beatings, drug use and overwork.

Tourism is one avenue of employment for these creatures which eat about 300 pounds of food daily, but the wooden saddles used by many operators can be damaging to their tender skin.   Elephants also receive lots of sensory information through the bottom of their feet, which makes the urban begging behavior seen in many Thai cities all the more stressful for the animal.  This was a great way to spend the day and with the extensive projects that Lek has throughout Thailand, I suspect that I will spend some time volunteering with them again in the future.  Another interesting footnote—I was the only American in our group of 7 and didn’t see or hear any sign of my countrymen around.  Now I know I'm living on my own version of "edge."

The next morning I was off to Pai, a neat town about four hours up and over a mountain pass west of Chiang Mai.  Instead of taking the more expensive, faster, air conditioned and nausea inducing minivans,  I got on the public bus and was assigned a seat just behind the side door of the bus that stayed open the entire time.   It was also here in Pai that I arranged to meet Lilly and Sara, friends of the tenants in my house who have been spending the month in Thailand.  After dinner and a stroll through the night market,  they made plans to meet me in Kamphaeng Phet and I headed back to my hotel.

 As I was walking through the street market, I noted a young woman wearing a tank dress and not much else.  This struck me as a bit odd since the locals were all bundled up in scarves and sweaters, and as I observed became somewhat annoyed with the fact that her friends were carrying big open bottles of Chang, the Thai beer. Banners hanging over the street asked that people not drink or smoke on the “walking street”.   “Typical American.” I muttered to myself- and then recognized one of the perpetrators as someone I’d gotten to know at the teacher co-hort orientation my first week in Bangkok.  I re-introduced myself, exchanged some details about the teaching gigs and we small talked for a while until it was obvious that they were off to something.   I excused myself on the premise of an upcoming river trip the following  morning.  I sensed a twang of pity from them in my  traveling alone status, but whether this was my own isolated weirdness or actually the intent of some of the teachers I still don’t know.  I was onto a new adventure- mai pben rai.  It doesn't matter.

Overnight in the jungle
On the morning of the river trip, I was the last person to get picked up.  Thus, I got to ride in the front seat of the shuttle rig: a songthaew truck that are used for transport around much of Thailand.  These trucks have benches for seating in the bed of the pickup and are often used as taxis that go in the same general direction.  I had an opportunity to chat with Guy Gorias, the founder of Thai Adventure Rafting.   He shared the story of how he, as a trained physical therapist and French expat, came to be the only entrepreneur to run the Pai river between Pai and Mae Hong Song.  I was also impressed with the fact that I was one of two Americans in the group of 16; the other had lived in Chiangmai for five years so I think he was out of the “tourist” category.

Leaving Pai, we passed fields where The women wore cushions like a low riding fanny pack that provided a bit of support as they squatted to plant garlic.  The truck passed through a Karen tribal village that had only gotten electricity last year.  I mentioned to Guy about what occurred when TV arrived to Alaska Native villages in the early 60s’; that one anthropologist referred to is as “cultural nerve gas”.     What will this advent of electric power bring to these people?

Before long, a couple from Spain, a single Frenchman and myself were on the river with our guide Peaw.  A father and rapidly approaching 40, Peaw had been boating since he ran into Guy as a teenager and needed a job.   As the boat floated downriver on the first day, we passed a shady place where the rich, earthly, cool and oh so clean smell of the jungle drifted over the water.  Breezes fluttered the single leave of a bamboo plant and Kingfishers flitted about. We saw a sunbathing water monitor (over three feet long!) slither into the water.  Monkeys swung around overhead and Paew apparently saw a python.   The fig trees were laden with fruit and majestic teak and mangrove trees lined the river.

  The current was lanquid but steady until the rapids appeared with a few more rocks than I would have wanted.   One raft flipped and with little fanfare was resurrected and back on the river.    We arrived at the jungle camp, a quite primitive but serviceable facility with sleeping bunkers and a covered eating area, alongside a small stream.   The land is owned by the Thai government, but apparently Guy makes payments to the appropriate person and makes sure he does his part for the community and jungle.   It all works out.

After dinner, a group gathered around the camp fire and were all mesmerized by the emerging  light of the full moon in the darkness of the deep wild.  Shortly after it appeared above the horizon, I was delighted and awed to witness the progression of the  lunar eclipse.  After watching for a while,  I went into dining area where a sub- group was fully immersed in a candlelight card game.  “Hey you guys…just wanted to tell you... there’s a lunar eclipse happening...  if you want to check it out.”  As the moon got dark, Orion and a planet emerged.  The eclipse moved through as I went to bed, but the light from the moon was still bright most of the night.

The next day after a muddy hot spring soak and a swim in the river , I made a snap decision to fly from Mae Hong Song instead of engaging in another 6 hours of bus  travel back to Chiangmai.  As the small jet took off, we circled around the town and there lay the glittering thread of the river amidst miles of jungle and mountains.  This region definitely deserves more exploration and I promised I’d be back.


Renewed, with a goal
My last 24 hours  of my trip was consumed with shopping.  Once I got settled in after the flight, I headed out for a long walk around Chiangmai’s legendary night market.  Booth after booth of Angry Bird merchandise, paper lanterns, elephants in all forms, silks, woven cottons, jewelry, Buddha paintings on velvet, shoes, khaki shorts and t shirts were all in stock.   I found a green polo shirt (Wednesday’s color)  in size XXXXL that fit and a pair of capris for exercise.  The next day,  I was up and out the door in the remaining five hours left in Chiangmai to stop by Rimping supermarket.  This market stocks  western food where I purchased Thai peanut butter at a decent price, but noted that the 6 oz of extra sharp Tillamook cheddar was 780 baht ( about $20)  and visit the Wapporn Day market for some extra kicks.

 I always have mixed feelings about retail in America, but this market left me stunned and wondering about the capitalist manifesto.  Floors and alleys crowded with any sort of shop imaginable. Plenty of sales staff to help you ding anthing.  Christmas music playing.  Crowds of people on Constitution Day holiday shopping making their way through the aisles.  With all this selection, I know there is  potential of finding clothes that fit, but I was losing steam.

Then, down the street and into the temple, where a woman was offering me a chance to build luck by releasing a set of very small birds from very small  bamboo cage (there are often plastic bags of live fish hanging from racks alongside many Thai rivers with the same premise) and a nice Donald duck eating noodles sculpture.   Then, it was time to pick up my luggage and leave the city.   I went to the bus station without a clue on departure times, but as luck would have it the bus to Kamphaeng Phet was leaving in 45 minutes. Before I knew it, I was settled on the bus with my trusty anti-AC pashima shawl on board.  As the night settled in on the highway and the driver's Thai country music gently crooned, I'd realized this was a milestone.   My first experience out of Kamphaneng Phet, all by myself.