Thailand is the cleanest Asian country I’ve visited. (Well not counting Singapore which is almost sterile since everything is concrete or indoors.) In the past few countries, there is rubbish everywhere and people tend to put it in piles and burn it from time to time. Bleh - the smell of burning plastic is the worst. But not Thailand - they even have recycling! And I didn’t believe this at first but there are also people that make a living by going through the bright blue garbage bins and taking out anything that is recyclable as well.
I was surprised that the traffic here is pretty much a parade of pick-up trucks. While waiting at a bus stop one day, I counted and there is literally about one sedan for every 20 trucks. Then at the other extreme lots of people buzz by on motorbikes as well. Maybe it’s just Fang but I just expected mostly motorbikes with some small cars mixed in and even tuk-tuks.
There are pictures of the royal family everywhere. On calendars in shops and restaurants, framed in the middle of street medians, on giant billboards. But most of them are not current and show especially the king in his much younger days. Not that I would have any reason to, but I’ve been told on multiple occasions not to insult the king as Thai people are very patriotic and hold their king in high regard.
THE TEMPLE TOUR
I thoroughly enjoyed the little temple tour that was arranged for us on Sunday. Oui, a Thai lay person that runs a canteen at the nearby school and helps out around the temple, drove us around in a truck to three very different temples north of Fang. The first was a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple which is not out of place since there’s a pretty significant population of them in Northern Thailand. It featured the traditional style architecture with the sloping roofs, lots of red and gold, paper lanterns and dragons draped over everything. There was also a ginormous Budai statue, or the Laughing/Fat Buddha that most people recognize in the West because they are always in Chinese restaurants and nail salons. Budai was a Chinese monk who was so well liked and admired that the Chinese consider him a Matrea or Future Buddha. Not the same at all as the original calm, cross-legged, meditating Buddha that lived in India 2500 years ago.
The second stop was an immaculate meditation retreat (open to Thai only) with a golden pagoda that you could see shining amongst the green mountains from far away. As we were driving up the last incline to the entrance, the left and right sides of the road were lined with adorable, lotus-shaped huts that house the resident nuns and guests. The circular temple was gorgeous inside and out and had a series of paintings of the Buddha’s life and legends on the inner walls and a lotus mural carved and painted all along the outer walls. In the center of the temple was a delicate looking glass structure that made me feel like I was looking at a scale model of the Emerald City from Oz. Strategically placed throughout the property was a collection of statues of Buddha, devas and nagas like an outdoor art gallery.
After this we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch and I had pad see ew - the closest thing they served to pad thai. It was basically big, flat noodles with veggies. I was craving a salty snack while they prepared my food so I perused the racks of potato chips that they had to offer - and even 90% of these were meat flavored! There was pork, shrimp, chickend and even cuttlefish flavored crackers or chips, along with like two regular potato flavors and one bag of Thai Cheetohs. I ended up skipping the junkfood appetizer.
Our last stop was an impressive, seven level Forest Temple that was about as close to the Burma border as you can get. The mountains to the west form a natural border with Burma and Graham even pointed out a military base in a clearing atop one of the peaks. I was probably way too excited to see a cat which was pretty scraggly looking and was missing an eye, but still… kitty!
There was an amazing little meditation path the wound through the woods and ended at a giant concrete ‘boat’ overlooking the Me Kok river. The panoramic views of the landscape were incredible from this vantage point. As we walked along the path, Graham told us that some of the older monks can recall the days when wild tigers and elephants used to roam the area but of course they have long since disappeared. The trees would be gone too if it wasn’t protected temple land, and even then some loggers still try to force their way in sometimes.
This is also the location of Wat Thaton, an impressive, rainbow colored temple that houses a variety of Buddhist relics, so it’s kind of like a museum too. There are even ornamental baby Buddhas outside. We took a break here before heading home and I indulged in ice cream, thai iced milk tea and had a cup of traditional hot tea.
So many feels today! I decided to have lunch at the canteen that Oui and his wife manage at the school. Yesterday he invited me there for lunch and said his wife would cook me something vegetarian but I wasn’t feeling great yesterday so I just had toast here instead. Today I walked over at a quarter past 11 and all the monks were heading to lunch as well. Oui wasn’t there but his wife was and she was very cute and very pregnant. She offered me iced thai green tea which is very sweet and loaded with condensed milk. Then she cooked me a simple meal of some sort of greens and sprouts with sauce on a bed of rice. I covertly added my usual handful of peanuts for protein and flavor. (I always do this at alms breakfast as well.)
I sat by myself at the end of a picnic style wooden table. It was just like sitting in a cafeteria back home except the students were all boys with shaved heads, wearing bright orange uniforms. One monk cautiously walked past me and said hello. I responded “hello” enthusiastically and eventually he sat down at the table - as far away from me as possible on the other side, but still. He had pretty good English and I found out he was 18 and his name is Kon. After a few moments, another monk shyly approached, said hello and politely asked permission if he could sit across from me. “Yes, of course!” He was very eager to practice his English and was so honest that he admitted he was nervous to practice with me and that he needs to work on his confidence. I assured him that his English was very good. His name is Long and he is 17. He practices a lot because he wants to study English at University and I don’t blame him. It will definitely open up a lot more opportunities for him. The two boys were in the same class and they have been monks for 5 years.
By this time, it was time for them to go back to class so they excused themselves and I thanked them for talking with me. The temple gets plenty of guests but I doubt most of them interact with the monks so much. I really hope I gave those two kids some confidence after our little chat!
When I was finished with my meal, Oui’s wife offered to refill my tea and I asked her how much for lunch and she insisted it was free. I had a 100 baht note (about $3 USD) in my pocket and tried to hand it to her but she refused until I insisted she take it for the baby (in her tummy). She finally accepted it with a wide grin and I walked away with a smile, myself. It can be a bit intimidating being the totally obvious, odd person out but all the Thai people I’ve met so far are so nice so it really hasn’t been bad at all.
Another English-speaking monk actually added me on Facebook last week which I thought was a bit strange at first but then I thought they are just people that want to make connections like everyone else. I'm pretty sure he's going to University soon and may not even be a monk after that. Who knows?
As of today everyone else is gone, even the coordinator, Graham (but he has a good excuse: he’s getting married.) So it’s just me and Longtail, our resident temple dog who I sometimes prefer to call Roadblock because she is always laying across one of the top stairs so that we have to step over her completely. She rarely moves - I think because the other dogs tend to bully her but she’s got it made and gets her own food and water and far more attention than all the others.
I'll be leaving on a mini bus to Changmai city on Sunday but I'm super thankful for this incredible, unique and inspiring experience.