Life in a Thai Monastery (Part 1 of 7)
Bangkok was teeming, as we disembarked from our long flight into a wall of heat and humidity, thick with filthy air and the wall-to-wall traffic that was 1981 Thailand. We were carried along helplessly by the crowd into a cluttered street where frantic cabbies vied for our attention, fighting over the scrap of paper held tightly in my fist with "train station" scribbled in Thai. The mink lashes most aggressive grabbed my arm and dragged me into his tiny cab, and before we could say, "Where the hell are the seat belts?" we were catapulted into arguably the worst traffic nightmare in the world - it was New York City on steroids!
The old cab sputtered through the orange, murky air as the driver's bloodshot eyes riveted themselves in some kind of supernatural concentration on the maze of shifting machinery that danced before us, one hand on the horn and the other flying between the shifter and the steering wheel. I glanced at Janet - her face was as white as a sheet.
I finally had to admit to myself that this nutty idea was probably a mistake. Janet trusted me implicitly, she always had. After all, I was her knight in shining armor, but now I was risking her life, not only in this insane, uncontrolled demolition derby, but with what I knew might lie ahead. My sheltered, middle-class yuppie concepts were being shattered in the naked reality that was Thailand, and the cold truth; that Janet could die here, hit me in the pit of my stomach. I promised myself that I would not let that happen.
We made a single vow to each other at our little informal Buddhist wedding ceremony a year ago -- the only thing that kept me going at times - and already I knew that I would never back off from it, no matter what. So far, we had stumbled, blindly, across three of the Great Freedoms, as we called them, and this radically changed our wild lives, but we knew there were more. How many more, we weren't sure of, but we would search until we found them all - that we agreed upon.
The driver was competent, apparently a veteran of the endless bedlam that only begins to describe this chaotic city, but the rural highways were even scarier. At least the congestion in Bangkok kept speeds down, but in the hinterlands the speed limit was only limited to how fast your bus, car, bicycle, or push cart could go. It was a no man's land; accidents were frequent and horrendous -- bodies lying all over the roadway until local villagers might (or might not) come by and drag them to the side. No ambulances in 1981 Thailand, and police . . . hah!
After an eternity of white knuckled maneuvering, squealing brakes, and eye-popping acceleration, we lurched to a blessed halt in front of the cavernous Bangkok Train Station. I checked Janet . . . she was still breathing.
This whole thing began as a pick-up game, running on bad judgment and good karma, or maybe the other way around, but we knew where we were going, or at least we had an address. The ticket vendors studied the Thai inscription on the aerogram we fished out of our backpacks, and after an animated discussion (not sure if they were excited for us or incredulous about our destination), pointed to a line of people across the station. We were yet to discover that the ticket we were about to purchase was for the most destitute region of Thailand - the parched, northeast countryside bordering Cambodia.
At six foot two, I towered over the little Thais in line who looked up and smiled as if I were a god of some kind. Thais had a way of making us feel that we were special, and as if they were nothing; they still respected Americans back then, not long after the war. The fact is; we Americans can be downright arrogant at times, while the people of Thailand are for the most part genuinely generous, friendly, and self-effacing.
We purchased the ticket with little difficulty and in the process discovered how much a Thai "Bhat" was worth. I had overpaid the cab driver ten times! No wonder he smiled broadly and bowed twice. Oh well, I guess it was worth it; he saved our skin in that traffic. Anyway, I made a mental note to pay more attention to money exchanges in the future.
We had some time to kill so we drifted over to the Bangkok Snake Farm. What a great, snaky place, full of snake pens and exhibits. Why not get a good look at what might do us in out there in the brush? I figured if we could identify the critters that could easily punch our one-way ticket to an impromptu cremation, perhaps we could avoid them. This is how farang (westerners) foolishly think when they first arrive in Thailand, as if they still have some kind of control over life and death.
I asked the curator what species was particularly dangerous, prompting him to proudly hold up a scarred thumb and vividly recount his "oops" with a Banded Krait that landed him in the hospital for two weeks despite the immediate self-administration of anti-venom. The reality was that we would be far removed from any hospitals in the poverty-stricken areas we were headed for, and far removed from anti-venom for that matter. But of course, ignorance is bliss, and we didn't know that yet. We naively believed that medical clinics were everywhere, just like at home in the good ol' US of A!
We gawked at the snakes, and they gawked back, and for some reason I was mysteriously drawn to the large black and yellow rings of the Banded Kraits. A premonition perhaps? And as we studied the identifying characteristics of the Cobras, Russell Vipers, Pit Vipers, Scorpions, and other fierce characters, I never thought for a moment that we would actually ever come in close contact with any of them. . . . Right.
Planning to remain in Thailand forever, (the best laid plans), we passed on the recommended inoculations back home. They were not only expensive, but only effective for six months, so we figured we'd take our chances, after all, we had always been healthy, plus, we were full of youthful perceptions, such as the false self-confidence that results from basic stupidity and an ignorance of the real world.
We were smart enough not to eat in Bangkok, however, or at least we were careful of what we ate, thinking that once we arrived at our destination (a Buddhist monastery), we would be safe from disease. In hindsight, that was really fogged-over, to say the least.
So, with horror stories of dysentery, hepatitis, malaria, and typhoid fever dancing around in our childish brains, reinforced by open sewers and unregulated, smiling street vendors handling their skewered chickens and rice dishes with filthy hands, apparently unfamiliar with the word hygiene, we bought a huge stalk of tiny Thai bananas and some Cokes, which became our breakfast, lunch and dinner. . . . Delicious!
Returning to the train station after our exhilarating romp through Snakeland, we curled up on an empty wooden bench and awaited our train. When I happened to roll on my back and glance up, I noticed ants crawling all over the ceiling towering above us! No . . . wait! They couldn't be ants that high up. My God! They were Thais, working feverishly on the massive, curved ceiling and barely hanging off scanty, lashed-together bamboo scaffolding that swayed dangerously back and forth. OSHA would not have been happy about this!
Watching the Thais work so devotedly in these hazardous conditions, I began to feel vulnerable, as if I had been pampered and privileged my entire life, and as if I was just beginning to wake up to reality. It was a haunting feeling -- akin to that feeling I had playing football . . . just before the kickoff.
- Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is cofounder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center, His twenty-eight years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers.