Monday, July 4, 2011

Buddha & Buffalo

Leaving Chiang Rai, we checked into a lovely hotel in Chiang Mai where we each had a huge luxurious suite.  I needed to break away from the herd so I took off on my own to explore the area near our hotel, which was pretty hoppin’ since it’s close to Chiang Mai University.  I did something I rarely do when I’m traveling… wimped out and ate a pizza.  Usually I scorn anyone who can’t hang with the local cuisine but Thai food, though amazing, can get a little monotonous after a steady diet of it for three weeks.  Then I went for a foot and body massage which lasted for two hours and cost me about 9 bucks including tip.  It was therapeutic, not only to get my aching muscles stretched and relaxed, but to get away from the group for awhile so I could soak in northern Thailand and just be.  I can never really get a true sense of place when I've got other people serving as a layer between me and the world. As a matter of fact I ate my pizza at a sidewalk Middle Eastern restaurant just so I could people-watch.  Unfortunately, people watching included observing the prevalence of old, fat, American men strolling the town with their hot, young, Thai "girlfriends". 
This is a recruitment poster for boys to become monks.  Actually, every Thai boy is expected to become a monk for at least a few weeks.  Doing so will bring the family good luck.  That's basically what this poster says - something like "Give your parents good luck, become a monk!"  Or, maybe "Be all that you can be - in the monastery!"  Or perhaps, "We're looking for a few good monks" - or, "Be strong, be Buddha strong"  . . . you get the picture
      Here is a Buddhist monk’s daily routine:  Up before dawn to pray.  Once it’s light enough outside that the monk can see the lines on the palm of his hand he is allowed to leave the monastery with his silver bowl to collect alms of food.  The monk will walk the streets collecting milk, canned vegetables, flowers, and other offerings until their bowl is filled.  Then he probably books it back to the monastery ASAP because he’s not allowed to eat after noon – so anything that’s been collected must be eaten for brunch or saved for the next day.  The rest of the day is spent in prayer, tending the wat (temple), and other monastic type activities (though it’s pretty common to see monks walking into stores buying high-end products and talking on their cell phones – go figure).

Even the king became a monk during his youth.  This is a photo of him during his time of service

      Buddhists, at least Thai Buddhists, believe in a concept known as “merit making.”  If a believer commits some kind of transgression, it can be atoned for if he or she does good deeds.  By “merit making” one can change one’s fortune, make up for sins, and ensure good karma to hasten the end of the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation and reach nirvana.  So, our first full day in Chiang Mai we left our hotel before we could see the lines on our hands (about 5:30 a.m.) and went to stand outside the monastery waiting for the monks to come out.  I thought this would be kind of a hokey touristy thing to do but we were the only non-Thais there.  There were about a dozen or more townspeople waiting to give their alms and there was local merchants set up to sell food baskets to those who showed up without an offering.  The Thai professor who is traveling with us gave his food donation and then went on his knees before the monks, “wai”-ing them deeply.

Once their bowls were filled the monks would recite a blessing for us and re-enter the monastery.  The proverb is correct - the early monk does get the food because as I was putting my last can of lychees into one monk’s bowl a bunch of other monks came quietly walking out.  Feeling like a jerk because I didn’t have enough for the new crop of monks, the professor (we call him Ajarn Tom and he got his Ph.D. from Southern Illinois) explained that they all pool their donations upon returning to the monastery so I needn’t feel guilty.  We saw the stragglers heading off for town with their half-filled bowls as we drove away.

THAI PROVERB:  “tham dii, dai dii; tham chua, dai chua”  Do good, get good; do evil, get evil” 

      In what proved to be a drastic change of pace we next headed for a rural area and pulled into a rice field at the foothills of the Doi Suthep Mountains.  There we met a farmer who is preserving the traditional methods of Thailand’s agrarian culture.  He explained in tentative English that, even though the “iron buffalo” (tractor) can do in a day what it takes a real buffalo to do in a month, he believes it’s important to preserve the time-honored practices.  He gave us a demonstration of how the buffalo follow commands, ordering them into the water, telling them to duck under, and back on dry land telling them to go left, right, forward, backward, lie down, etc. (All these commands were in Thai and I can’t remember them but he wasn’t saying “gee” or “haw”!)  We had the opportunity to ride the buffalo and a few of us who were dressed appropriately seized the chance for a ride.  I have to say, though I feel comfortable riding big animals, the huge 2 ½ feet horns on this buffalo gave me pause.  But up I went and luckily I didn’t get gored, nor did I fall off into the buffalo-poop muck.  AND I stayed on for longer than 8 seconds so I guess I win the rodeo!

Beautiful rice fields of Thailand

LOVE this photo!  I'm either getting pretty good at photography or else Thailand is just darned photogenic!

Planting rice

      The farmer demonstrated all aspects of rice farming to us.  (Well, he has his son and daughter demonstrate while he explained.)  We saw the rice field being plowed by the buffalo, then the rice being planted and harvested.  Next we were allowed to try for ourselves other steps in the rice production cycle, such as beating the stalks of rice to separate the grain from the stems, threshing the rice, and cleaning it, etc.  Additionally, we saw the buffalo walking in circles to provide the “buffalo-power” of a mechanism which squeezed the juice out of sugar cane.  It was a great demonstration and I’ll never mindlessly eat a grain of rice again after seeing the work that goes into producing it!
Threshing rice

Producing rice is a lot of work!

Doing my part

      Our afternoon session at another Buddhist monastery where a monk was going to give us an explanation about Buddhists practices and meditation was cancelled because of a miscommunication with the English-speaking monk who was supposed to meet with us – he didn’t show up.  I’ve been stood up by a monk.