Friday, November 11, 2011

Chiang Mai - From Wat to Wat

At her desk, Sophia, Sirilanna’s concierge, patiently removes tiny flowers from a stem as we eat our breakfast of yogurt, muesli, Asian rice, fresh fruit and fried eggs. When we leave the hotel, we see that she’s created new arrangements in the water-filled pots lining the stairway: green palm fingers spread wide on the water’s surface, white blossoms floating between each one. Simple. Beautiful. A quiet task that took some time and, with gentle color and grace, sends guests into the clogged, busy street.

For the road outside Sirilanna, indeed every road we walk in Chiang Mai, is a sensory assault of clamoring street vendors, ropy black tangles of overhead electrical wires, roaming dogs, dingy facades, bright red Tiger Temple vans, careening, beeping, tuk tuks (open-air rickshaw/taxis propelled by drivers on motorbikes) and… apparitions. In the midst of a neighborhood scrabbling with modern life, we’d come upon a wat, or temple, with sweeping red-tiled roofs tipped with graceful finials, soaring towers, stone elephants, and gaudy, snaking dragons with gold teeth and flashing, multi-colored glass scales.

We are in Thailand. Foolish as it sounds, we say it often. It is like a pinch, a needed pinch, to process our surroundings, so alien are they from anything we’ve known. It is with this sense of near-disbelief that we slip off our shoes and don the shapeless blue robes offered to cover shoulders and knees to enter Wat Chedi Luang to stand in the presence of a towering golden Buddha.

He is thirty feet tall, smiling, serene. I can’t avoid the contrast to a Christian church in which one is met by images of a tortured, bleeding man on a cross. In this spacious, dimly lit hall, I am enveloped by peace. Thailand is known as the Land of a Thousand Smiles and I reflect that it would be easier to beam if, instead of sin and the struggle for redemption, your culture were grounded in a religious philosophy of wisdom and harmony.

A cluster of life-sized Buddha statues surrounds the base of the Golden One. Each smiles, each sits in the lotus position, inviting me to fold my fifty-eight-year-old body into a similar pose. Instead, I take pictures.

Moving on, we visit several other wats in which wax monks meditate in glass cases. They are eerily real and I walk around and around them, examining fingernails, wiry eyebrows, and creased skin for hints of life. With their orange robes, shaven heads and lean bodies, might they be monks of the highest order, those who have reached nirvana? How long could one go without food or water if truly enlightened? They are immobile, unblinking, but so real. As with the many monks we’ve seen in passing, the robe and shaved head virtually eliminate individuality. But for the arch of a nose, the angle of cheekbones, each is one of all.

Karis says she’s heard that education is the motivation for many boys to become monks. We notice signs for a “monk chat” and when we stop in a few days later, the monk, Jikmy, confirms that 50% take the robe for that purpose. We sit on stone benches around a table beneath a large leafed palm. Four mongrels snooze at our feet, occasionally lifting scarred muzzles to scratch an ear or lick a paw. Scrappy as they are, they seem well-fed and content. Jikmy tells us that each temple has a pack of dogs. “They do not cross the line from wat to wat. Very territorial.” At 6:00 pm, the air is loud with ringing bells…and barking, howling dogs. “It hurts their ears,” the monk explains. “They bark to balance the sound.”

Jikmy is good-humored, educated, and enjoys practicing his English. He makes it clear that monks are not to touch women. He confesses that, as a twelve-year old novice, he would hug his mother during weekend visits even though that was not kosher. He is happy to pose for a picture, although he reiterates that Karis, Casey and I must remain hands-off. When he requests a pen to write his email address in order to get a copy of the photo, he recoils when I offer mine. I have to give the pen to Dave to hand to Jikmy. Please. This is not my favorite Buddhist tenet.

Still, one young man, as orange-robed, austere, and clean-shaven as the rest, asks Casey where she is from and tells her she is beautiful. That raises a sparkle from my girl at being irresistible even to a monk.

Doves coo as we stroll the bricked compound, fragrant with sweet jasmine. Small boys gleefully heft wooden mallets to whack heavy bronze bells suspended on racks setting off a solemn, resounding echo.

A beautiful, wizened, woman shaded by a coolie hat squats by the corner of a shrine. She wears a long flowing skirt and loose jacket and smiles widely to show off perfect white teeth. She gestures at her tray of peeping, woven, covered baskets, each holding fluttering wrens. “100 baht – set a family free.” She makes a sweeping motion and wiggles her fingers to the sky. Flight. Freedom. Lofty blessings to be had for roughly three dollars.

I know freedom will be temporary. I know it is probably a bad idea to encourage this practice. I think I read in one of the guide books that this is a Buddhist version of a Catholic indulgence – a mercenary act of compassion to buy a token toward heaven, although that doesn’t mesh with Jikmy’s explanations of his religion. Still, I am drawn.

The woman smiles at her success in sucking me in as I fumble in my bag for bahts. She hands me a trembling parcel of chirping, pooping (yes, on my fingers) life. I flip the latch and hold the basket aloft to watch as the birds perch on the rim, stretch their wings…and fly away.


Joanie said...

They bark to balance the sound." May be my favorite line of all time!! This is a beautifully rich piece, Lea. Thank you so much for inviting me into the wat. It does make me feel peaceful and free.

Tricia said...

I envy you your language here -- stunning descriptions and captured moments. More, more!! (maybe next career as a travel writer?? -- you're fantastic!)

Gerry said...

Sounds like you might become a Buddhist, Lea! I remember feeling that sense of peace in Bhutan whenever we were in the temples. I don't remember the part about not touching a woman, though. In fact, we gave a monk a ride into town one day - he had to go shopping because he was going to be "hibernating" in prayer for a period of time and needed food. He was singing along with the American songs on the radio, and didn't seem worried about being squashed in the van with 3 ladies!

Anonymous said...

Lea, as ever you hit the right notes: "a quiet" practice arranging flowers. So much of that Buddhist spirit is lost in the 'noise' in which we live. Your comment on the peaceful Buddha and the bleeding Christ? it says it all for me and is why I'm inclined to read Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk (who as it is lives in the south of France, but accompanies me on my Kindle to all doctors appointments) reminds anyone who hears him of the 'sound of the bell' which brings us to the quiet place you noticed so gently. You are the bell. When you return I want to share with you the flip side of Thailand's history. The queen engaged Francis Ford Coppola to create a filmed history of the wars with Burma as bloody and medieval as any in Europe. How the Thais got here from there is a miracle. Keep ringing your bell. We hear it. Judy

Laurie said...


I would've done the same thing with the birds. I love the idea of setting things free.

Great piece.

Your Weekapaug friend, David said...

Love your writing, my friend. I could see and feel everything so clearly. Thanks for sharing. Love to you and yours.