The luggage belt jerked into motion. The rubber flaps sliding one over the other at the rounded corner where my husband and I were stationed, like a rhythmic game of snap. Everyone waiting. From the corner of my eye I spotted them. A lurid orange twist. Thai monks. Three of them.
I‚Äôve always been obsessed with the unknown. At five I was determined to find out where scabs go, so I would closely monitor my own. Usually they‚Äôd fall off without my knowing, and I was convinced that some stingy creature related to the tooth mouse was in charge of collecting them while I was sleeping. Later, my library card was my pass to books about the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster and levitation.
Monks rouse the same intrigue in me.
The trio stood at their own corner of the luggage belt. What were they waiting for? A bag filled with more orange cloth? Their beaten silver Alms bowls (I could see how those wouldn‚Äôt be allowed through a metal detector)? All three were shaven bald, all three wore some form of flip-flops. The one wearing spectacles reached in to a sling bag that I hadn‚Äôt noticed between all the layers of cloth and pulled out a mobile phone. He held down the power button to switch it on. I whipped my head around in search of my husband‚Äôs ear.
‚ÄúAre-they-allowed-phones?‚Äù I hissed through my teeth louder than the whisper I was planning.
We were in Chiang Mai. The city of more than 300 temples. Over the next week we would see the orange cloaked men wherever we went. Smiling groups attended the market. I spotted a monk drawing cash from an ATM. And seeking shade under the branches of a Frangipani tree, I saw one of the devout men slurping at a big plastic cup of Seven-Eleven iced tea.
‚ÄúMonk Chat?‚Äù he asked with a broad smile.
With each fleeting encounter more questions came up. I tried to store them in my mind. File them in order of importance, and slip a new query in to a spot where their seemed to be a natural link between the two questions which topped and tailed it. You see, we were going to get to chat to a monk.
Wat Chedi Luang is one of the bigger temples in the centre of the Old City of Chiang Mai. Blogs and TripAdvisor said that this is where monks hang about to meet foreigners and chat, so that they may practice their English. We cycled to one of the back gates of the gold-encrusted compound, where a metal bar made us dismount our rental bikes and carry them over the threshold. No spattering scooters allowed here.
We pushed the bikes around the premises. From a car park to an entrance. An older monk came out of the glass doors typical of any campus building. His gold rimmed glasses were pushed up high onto the bridge of his nose and he displayed a confidence that indicated he stood in front of a class all day teaching.
‚ÄúMonk Chat?‚Äù he asked with a broad smile.
Our nods were followed by his sinewy arm raising a heavy bag to his left. ‚ÄúOver there.‚Äù We kept wheeling our bicycles and came to a cool row of benches that lead to a dormitory of some sort. In the shade of giant trees. Three young monks seemed to be doing their chores. Spraying down the paving with water that was slapping out of a hose pipe, another sweeping, the other being sprayed and laughing.
‚ÄúMust be here‚Äù, I indicated with my head and the kind of excitement that makes me want to run really fast on the spot.
We sat at a bench and waited. I looked around. For the first time I noticed the ancient stone stupa and golden rods that pierce the smoggy skies. No one came. The boys carried on spraying and sweeping. The doors to the dorm kept opening and closing, monks coming and going. We waited about ten minutes before my husband mustered up the courage to say,
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think it‚Äôs going to happen.‚Äù
My disappointment that was already brimming somewhere in my throat suddenly surged with the addition of his despondence. We slid out from opposite sides of the bench, hitched up the bike pegs and kept walking. No monks felt like chatting today.
We hugged the shady shoulder of the road so that we‚Äôd only be tortured by the humidity. A cluster of bamboo day beds shared the shade, where people lay sleeping. Next, an unassuming structure. It was surrounded by tables and benches, shade and monks.
And a sign: ‚ÄúMonk Chat. Welcome to Monk Chat Program. Drop in to chat about Monk‚Äôs Life, Buddhism, Thai culture and anything. Don‚Äôt just stand looking from afar and walk away.‚Äù
My previous disappointment was so deep that it didn‚Äôt drain away fast enough to feel that run-on-the-spot kind of excitement again.
A small monk, already sitting at a table, gestured that we join him. Marco and I shared one of the curved benches. The monk sat across from us. His fingers were gathered in a loose heap on the table alongside a brown sling bag. He never asked our names and we never asked his. His first full sentence was ‚ÄúHow are you?‚Äù
Turns out he wasn‚Äôt a Thai monk, but Cambodian. He had come to Thailand to improve his English – which was just about perfect. At times he searched for the right word. His mouth already open, lips all set, but he‚Äôd wait until the best one came and then carefully spill it out in a tone that was just above a whisper. His lisp softened his speech even further.
He asked us where we were from. He repeated the answer, ‚ÄúCape Town‚Äù. And seemed to search his brain for references. He knew that it was a peninsula and that it was where Nelson Mandela used to live. The delicate connection forming between us and the monk kept being pierced by an American accent two tables away.
While he was coming to the end of a list of other religions that he studies, ‚ÄúChristianity, Islam, Judaism‚Äù. I peered at the next question I had stored. I didn‚Äôt want to insult him with its trivialness, but he came to a pause, and it‚Äôs all I had lined up.
‚ÄúCan monks own dogs?‚Äù
I‚Äôd noticed many dogs trailing monks or hanging around the temples. And I quite liked the idea of monks that had the same robes and same bowls and same haircuts, each having a dog. Not one of them exactly the same.
He never answered me directly. But seemed to like the question. The dogs that live at the temples are brought there. The monks take care of them and feed them. He smiled when telling us that temple dogs never bark, they‚Äôre quiet and observe the monks chanting and meditating in silence.
He said that it‚Äôs impossible for a person with a regular job and a normal life to be fully aware. Work and traffic, alcohol and bills. Distractions that get between us and peace.
I asked him about his family. Was he able to visit them? Yes, but for no longer than seven days at a time. Any longer than that, and he has to stay at a monastery close by and drop in to visit them. If everyone adopted this seven-day rule a lot of trips home would end on a better note, I thought.
‚ÄúI can‚Äôt hug my sister.‚Äù He added out of nowhere. I knew that monks were not allowed to touch females, but I‚Äôd never thought about the rule applying to family. I wanted to know if the same applied to his mother, but I couldn‚Äôt bring myself to ask him. I felt like his Achilles heel was already peeking out from beneath the hem of his orange robe.
He went on to explain the other rules of being a monk that accompanied celibacy. I noticed that a lot of the time he looked straight-ahead when speaking. I put it down to intense concentration. Some monks fall off the wagon. He believes that when you choose to stray, it‚Äôs you. There‚Äôs something in you that doesn‚Äôt want to be a monk. I like that. No scapegoat, no sign of some evil force with a goatee and a pitchfork poking you towards corruption or adultery.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs no such thing as good Karma.‚Äù The statement brought me back from the American‚Äôs conversation to ours. Not everything has an opposite? Here people believe that their position in life and society and on the spectrum of beauty is all fair, assigned to them in relation to their actions of the past. I wonder if that‚Äôs why everyone here seems content. Faces from the last week run through my memory. The guy squeezing pomegranate juice under a faded umbrella, the mom feeding her twins meat off sticks while waiting for the train, the lady that collects the 5 baht coins outside the bathroom. Is acceptance the key to happiness?
Once or twice in a response he would use the wrong tense, or forget to add the ‚Äòs‚Äô to make the noun a plural, but in the same breath he would correct himself. ‚ÄúBuddhism isn‚Äôt a religion. It is the teach ‚Äì teaching ‚Äì of the Buddha which is followed to lead a life of peace.‚Äù
The tradition of all Thai men being a monk at least once in their life, whether a month or a few years, is the attempt to create a nation of men that strive to be at peace.
I asked if there is some kind of hierarchy, like Catholicism and the pope. They have a guy – the Supreme Patriarch or Sangharaja. He assured me he wasn‚Äôt like the pope though. He was simply a representative for the monks of Thailand. He couldn‚Äôt make rules like the pope. My husband, catholic, said the pope can‚Äôt make rules. I reminded him that it was a pope that said that Catholics can‚Äôt use contraception. The monk watched the back and forth between us like he was watching tennis.
He said that the tradition of all Thai men being a monk at least once in their life, whether a month or a few years, is the attempt to create a nation of men that strive to be at peace. It seems to work for the most part.
He has decided to be a monk forever. So far 15 years. A tint of envy came over me. I wish I was so sure of anything. He said that being a monk allows him the opportunity to be at peace. He said that it‚Äôs impossible for a person with a regular job and a normal life to be fully aware. Work and traffic, alcohol and bills. Distractions that get between us and peace.
From the outside, we see giving it all up as a sacrifice. I think we may have it wrong. Life as a monk is an opportunity to give it all up. The opportunity to never again think about where your next meal is coming from, or choosing between medical aid plans. It‚Äôs the chance to avoid deciding what to wear in the morning or being the parent to a messed up kid. Less stuff. More peace.
It was time to return the bikes. They had Marco‚Äôs passport, the place closed at six and we needed to be on a plane the next morning.