I began my travels in Thailand by flying to Chiang Mai from Sydney on the now-tarnished Malaysia Airlines, which I thought was a pretty damn good airline, but then again, my plane landed on, well, land. As a nervous flyer (despite having a mom who was a professional flight attendant in her younger years, and a dad who was an amateur pilot), I’m incredibly grateful to have returned safely to the US.
At the end of my last post I was in Sukhothai, the ancient capital of Thailand, the third dot on the map above.
My intention was next to visit a rural spiritual community in the center of Thailand near the border with Laos. (“Laos,” you should know, is actually pronounced “Lao.” I have no idea why it’s spelled “Laos” except to make English speakers feel like idiots when they finally have a reason to say it.)
I left Sukhothai on a bus bound for Phu Ruea, the town closest to the spiritual community, whose name I couldn’t (and still can’t) pronounce correctly – don’t even bother to try – leading to several unproductive conversations with ticket salespeople and bus attendants. Fortunately in Sukhothai someone had written the name out in Thai for me, so eventually I wised up and just showed the slip of paper to people.
The first part of the bus trip ended in Lomsak, a moderate-sized, undistinguished city. In Lomsak I briefly had an experience I’d only ever heard about: that of being a minor celebrity, possibly because so few farangs end up there. A young man on the bus approached me and told me he was dying to go to America and become a singer. At the station, a couple girls came up and wanted to talk to me. A policeman came by and checked my ticket to make sure I knew where I was going. Phu Ruea, dude!
My bus from Sukhothai was late in arriving – surprise – so I missed my transfer bus to Phu Ruea and had to wait several hours for the next one. Here’s a 90-second tour of the bus station that I made with all my extra free time:
I wanted to wait at a coffee shop with WiFi, but the taxi driver couldn’t speak enough English to understand where I wanted to go. Fortunately, she found someone who could, and together they figured it out. Thank you! The coffee shop was just a little shack on the highway where the owner and his family almost certainly lived. When it was time for me to return to the station, the proprietor left his 12-year-old son in charge of the shop and drove me back. I assumed he was providing a taxi service, so I offered him some money, but he wouldn’t take it.
What kindness and generosity I found in Lomsak!
A Focus on Permaculture
That night I finally reached Phu Ruea and the spiritual community (the name of which I will not reveal for reasons you will presently learn). The community was not Buddhist, but nevertheless seemed like a good fit for my needs. It would provide a quiet atmosphere where I could meditate, get some work done on my laptop, and be fed three square and healthy meals each day. In fact, I found it to be a pretty busy and noisy place (with a bunch of spiritual seekers and their little kids), so I got more work done than meditation, but that was alright. I met some interesting folks there, and like the previous meditation community I’d visited, the residents were all farangs along with some Thai employees. Here’s a little girl from Germany who was visiting with her mom:
In fact, I stayed for two weeks. I would have left for Bangkok after a week or so, but was warned away by my friend Jamie as the political situation was particularly volatile, with shootings and grenades going off – suffice it to say that tourism is down significantly in Thailand this year.
This spiritual community, like the one I’d visited near Chiang Rai, has a strong permaculture focus. If you don’t know what permaculture is, let Wikipedia help. In my opinion, permaculture will be a lifesaver as our global industrial energy and food system winds down due to the inability of our debt-based financial system to operate when economic growth is no longer a given, along with associated energy and other resource shortages. Oh, and then there’s climate change. But these are topics for a different day, aren’t they?
YJ, a resident who was in charge of the community’s gardens and orchards, revealed the shocking truth of how she’s learned about gardening and permaculture:
Here she tells me about the tilapia and catfish in the community’s pond:
The community’s goat pen was fun to see:
More about the permaculture aspects of the goat pen:
Rain barrels help the community get through Thailand’s six-month-long dry season:
Finally, YJ showed me the “chicken tractor”:
The Saddest Day
The saddest day of my entire trip occurred a few days after I arrived at the community. The pond was filled with local Thai kids who had a standing invitation to come over to swim each Saturday. There were about 15 kids playing and splashing around. I was about a hundred meters away, talking with Mahatma, an American guy and permanent community resident. Suddenly we noticed a boy no older than 10 being lifted out of the pond on someone’s shoulder. We ran over and found that he wasn’t breathing, so Mahatma started to give him CPR. Soon, two more community residents, both with nursing experience, arrived. The boy started to breathe, coughed up some water, and then stopped breathing again. Finally, it was decided to rush him off to the local clinic in the community’s pickup, with the nurses continuing to give him CPR.
We all prayed, or at least I did. He made it to the clinic alive, but died there. I was later told the clinic had botched the job, but who really knows? I was upset that the community didn’t seem to have enough safety measures in place (such as a trained lifeguard) to prevent such an occurrence. But that also speaks to my culture; Thais (and this particular Western community, enveloped as it was by the Thai culture) don’t place nearly as much emphasis on individual safety as we do (which, I have to say, isn’t all bad).
Two profound ironies: the boy’s nickname was “Boat.” And he’d had an older brother who had died – also by drowning.
The next day a group of Buddhist monks arrived and performed a service at the pond.
A theme of this blog has been impermanence, and this event was yet another reminder of it. I certainly hadn’t planned that my visit to this community would include watching a 10-year old boy fight for his life and lose. But shitty things happen. People die – in sad, as-yet-mysterious (Flight 370), or unusual ways. About the latter: in Thailand, hundreds of people die each year from falling coconuts! Which seems like a pretty good way to go – a little rustling from above, and then Konk!
This event had the potential to lead to the community’s demise, but I learned that the boy’s mother requested, and received, a payout, probably in lieu of bringing a lawsuit. A wise decision for the community, whether it was at fault or not – apparently farangs almost never win in Thai courts. The exchange of money after such an event seemed a little gauche to my Western sensibilities, but then again, I was in a poor, rural area in a still-developing country, so it was also understandable.
After two weeks at the community, the political protests in Bangkok had calmed down, so I took a bus to the Big City and spent the remainder of my trip with my dear friend Jamie, whom I met in grad school at Indiana University years ago.
Here I am with my buddy Ronald on Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker hangout, which, like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, seems to be famous mainly for being famous:
Jamie is a superstar teacher on the international school circuit, and has taught fourth grade in Bangkok for several years. Still, she had plenty of time to hang out. One day we went to see Bangkok’s Chinatown. Take our entertaining mini-tour:
That day also happened to be a big Buddhist holiday. So we went to a local wat (temple), which was jam-packed with laypeople:
A Cool Day in a Hot Country
Another day I visited Bangkok’s Wat Pho, which prides itself on having one of the largest reclining Buddha statues in the world. It was pretty dark inside so I couldn’t get a good shot, but here’s a photo from the web that offers some perspective.
That same day, I had one of the best experiences of my entire trip. I visited Wat Mahathat, one of the few Buddhist temples with an active meditation center. I asked if I could interview a monk, and was told I could speak with Ajahn (Teacher) Suphat, an elder monk and international meditation teacher.
Ajahn Suphat is in his 70s, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He’d become a “novice” monk as a teenager, disrobed at age 30 to get married, raised two children with his wife, and then re-robed in his 50s. I didn’t ask what that entailed for his wife, though if nothing else, Ajahn Suphat was following in the footsteps of the Buddha himself, who left his wife and young son behind on his quest for enlightenment.
I sat down, and after a few minutes, Ajahn Suphat appeared and asked if I’d eaten lunch. I hadn’t, but he insisted I do so: “You must have some of my food.” I realized that “my food” meant the food that had been given to him that morning by the local community. (Monks walk the streets each morning to receive their daily meal from the laypeople.) He sat me down and left for about 20 minutes while I experienced a monk’s meal. What an honor! Here’s a blurry photo:
When Ajahn Suphat reappeared he took me to a quiet room where I was able to record him talking about various topics related to Buddhism and meditation. Most of the topics I was already well-informed about, but I was curious to know how he would teach. In keeping with our theme, here he tells me about annica (also known as anitya) – impermanence – as well as anatta (no-self) and dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness), the so-called “three marks of existence” according to Buddhism:
After the interview he insisted on a photo:
Jamie had always wanted to visit Angkor Wat, the World Heritage site, which is both an ancient city and set of temples deep in the Cambodian jungle. So we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia for a long weekend.
At our hotel, a sign certified that the hotel staff were licensed to “exploit places”:
What a relief!
Cambodia isn’t as developed as Thailand. Just about anywhere you go in Thailand you’re not more than a few blocks from a 7-11 (for better or worse, Thailand is the most convenient country I’ve ever visited – whatever you need always seems to be nearby). But Siem Reap, at first blush a charming city that soon lost its luster, could only muster a 6-11:
Despite that limitation, Siem Reap’s “Pub Street” was pretty cool:
We spent a long and very hot day at Angkor Wat, about 10 kilometers from Siem Reap, though we were told it was possible to spend three days and still not see everything. By the way, “Angkor Wat” refers both to the entire complex of ancient cities and temples and to a specific (and the largest) temple. In fact, we were told that the Angkor Wat temple is the largest religious structure on the planet.
Our tuk tuk driver first took us to some of the smaller temples:
Here’s some of what we saw:
A doorway (unfortunately without a stairway) to heaven:
Here’s a temple that’s famous for the trees that are taking it over:
Finally, late in the day, we came to the main Angkor Wat temple:
In inimitable 4th-grade teacher style, Jamie explains more about the meaning of “temple”:
The grounds were immense:
Hindu in origin (with Buddhist elements added later), the temples had astonishingly intricate artwork:
There were some hard choices to make along the way:
Some of the stairs revealed acrophobic tendencies in myself and quite a few other tourists:
Naturally, there was also something cheesy for the masses:
The immensity of it all:
As we were leaving, we spied a group of novice monks:
Back in Bangkok
Later, back in Bangkok, Jamie took me to an incredible restaurant, where I had the best Thai food of my entire stay in the country. Here’s Jamie giving a tour of our meal:
…which ended with…
Don’t miss this final video, where Jamie and I share deep thoughts about the musical preferences of the Thai people:
My trip around the world – three continents, nine countries, twelve amazing cities – was coming to an end. It was time to pack my bags…
…and be off to Bangkok Airport for the 30-hour journey home – Bangkok to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Chicago, Chicago to Indianapolis, and the shuttle to Bloomington.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog more than I’ve enjoyed writing it — writing is hard work!
See you on the road!