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We are staying in the unimpressive town of New Sukothai in central Thailand, using it as a base. The purpose of our visit lies twenty minutes up the road in Old Sukothai, the ancient city of the Sukothai empire. After tooling around here in the new part of town, we have already concluded that there isn’t much in the way of sights here. Little do we know that we are about to have one of our most interesting experiences in Thailand right here in this ho-hum spot.

Determined to beat the heat and the tour bus crowd, the alarm has gone off early, and we are off to visit the Old City. We stop to pet the cat we had tried to feed the night before when we notice a monk smiling at us, urging us to come with him to visit the temple complex just on the other side of this unpaved road. He stands tall in his flowing saffron robes draped around his gentle frame. He is not asking us, but rather motioning as if he had been waiting for hours, as if we are very late for a scheduled tour we knew nothing about.

In an instant we are following him toward the grounds despite our plans. When a monk offers to show you around a temple, you don’t say no…right? Brief introductions in limited English ensue, and his furrowed brow indicates that it is very important to him to show us around, as if he is on a mission. We attempt to ask his name, but he has no time for such small talk. He hurries us along.

dani & jess & monk in sukothaiDebris is strewn throughout the lawn, a result of the massive flooding that hit Central Thailand a few months back. The land is actually divided into four parts: in the center there is a large temple with a smaller temple being rebuilt in front of it. Across an open space covered in elementary students there is a large three-story school. The fourth part in the back is near the monks’ quarters, where we enter. It is a bit of a mess, but our monk friend insists that it is picture worthy, leading us over to a small damaged temple.

He sits down in front of a destroyed altar, and his animated face becomes expressionless. “Take picture,” he says, and Dani enthusiastically snaps a shot of him. “Now, you here.” He places me near him, poses behind me and demands again, “Take picture.” Dani snaps the shots and as she approaches to show him the pictures, he insists that I take the camera and that Dani pose with him. I stand up, take the camera and take a picture of Dani with a monk. Over the next two hours we will end up taking over 80 similar shots, of the monk, then me with the monk, then Dani with the monk, all at his command.

dani & jess with monk in sukothaiBut we don’t know that at the moment. For now, we are quite excited to be escorted through this buzzing scene of monks and school children whizzing by as we stand on either side of our own personal monk escort, listening as he tries to explain how the grounds are laid out.

I notice his face twitch quite severely for a couple of seconds. He rummages around inside his robe to grab a pen and then opens his palm to draw a map of the grounds. At first it seems spontaneous, but on his palm we see the inky remnants of dozens of maps drawn there before. He just draws thicker, darker lines right on top of the old one, writing school, temple and of course – The Map.

the map
drawing the mapThen we are led over to a table outside and he seats us as though he is our teacher and we are his students. There are a few more seconds of twitching before, on a piece of paper, the monk draws the same map as on his hand.

drawing the mapThe situation has now crossed over into being entirely bizarre, but Dani and I agree that we are both fascinated at how quickly he can draw and write English words upside down.

We are instructed to take more pictures, and then, as fast as we sat, we stand and he is rushing us toward the temple. We start our tour inside the temple with an awkward ten minute session of drinking warm water together out of three glasses he insists on fetching and filling for us. We then proceed to learn first hand from a monk just what to do inside a Buddhist temple.

What to do inside a Buddhist temple

General rules within a temple are simple. First, all shoes must be taken off outside out of respect. Shoulders must be covered and all pants and skirts much reach below the knees to enter the temple. Never point your feet toward the Buddha, and your head should never be above the Buddha’s head.

Most of this we already know, but we have never taken part in the actual prayer. Until now, that is. He asks us nothing, and does not baby us. Instead, we have to keep up with him on this crash course in Buddhism. We head to the first of many altars and the monk hands us a few sticks of incense and a candle each, fishing out a lighter from one of the inner pockets of his robe. Down on our knees, we touch our heads to the ground three times in prayer, then stand up to light the sticks and candle and each get put in its own special place. Incense is lit to pay the highest respect to the Buddha, as it is believed that incense trains the mind to focus on a single object during meditation. The bowing signifies one’s respect, compassion and commitment.

dani & jess with monk in sukothai thailandFor the next 45 minutes we moved from altar to altar, Buddha to Buddha, each time taking pictures of the monk, then me with the monk, then Dani with the monk. He stands always stoically, and so still, he looks no different to the wax figures we have seen in many other temples throughout Thailand. He particularly wants us to get pictures sitting cross-legged in meditation pose, over and over again.

sitting monk &daniHis twitching has gotten a bit worse, a result, it seems, of a very important ceremony he has now decided to perform on us. It just so happens that our visit takes place shortly after the New Year, which is a time when the special Baci ceremonies take place. Not to leave us out, the monk takes two pieces of white string, and ties one around each of our wrists. He is acting as the ‘mor phon’ or communal elder, and this ceremony, which also involves sitting around a floral centerpiece, lighting candles, and in our case of course, documenting the entire experience with dozens of photographs, is done to ensure blessings of the spirits and help us bring the good in with the new year, and leave the bad in 2011.

jess & monk braceletAt this point Dani and I have made friends with two kittens that have been following us around, so we are juggling kittens, candles, incense sticks and the camera as we take turns taking pictures of each other with the monk.

dani & jess & kitten & monkWe have no fresh fruits or flowers with us to add to the altar offerings, but we do stuff a few of the donation boxes with a bunch of Thai Baht, truly thankful for this experience, no matter how absurd it has become.

Just a few minutes later, our monk gives us a handful of gold flakes – which in turn ends up answering the last question we have about Buddhist temples. In most temples, there are small Buddhist statues and other sacred statues that seem to be flaking off massive amounts of gold. It turns out that there are postage-stamp-sized booklets holding gold leaves (hammered down to .000005 inch thick), which Buddhists stick onto statues as a sign of respect to the Buddha, and the temple, as well as when requesting favors, especially related to health and wellness. This is harder than it seems at first, and we both end up with as much gold on our thumbs as makes it on to the statues.

dani & jess & golden leaf sukothaiWe have finally completed a full circle around this large temple now, and I have one foot outside, already sliding on my flip-flops when I realize Dani is sitting back in the chair with our monk. I nearly burst out in a fit of giggles at just how long and strange this hi-jacking has been, but I eventually regain my composure, grab one of the kittens and sit back down to join them with a final glass of water together before we leave.

Once outside, there really is always more to learn. Now he insists on showing us the very old-fashioned, yet simple and effective pulley system the builders are using to get the gorgeous tiles up on the top of the second, smaller temple that has been rebuilt as a result of the floods.

monk & tile machineIt takes another 20 minutes before we are saying the last official goodbye to this monk who, in the course of two hours, has grown quite attached to us. This has been one of the most interesting days we’ve ever had in Thailand. We are fully hydrated, have been fully blessed and have starred in a series of photo shoots with a monk. Not your average day…not even in Thailand!

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Tags : buddhismsukothaithailand
Jess

The author Jess

34 Comments

    1. OMG Andi – he literally made us take three of each situation. One of him, one of me and him and one of Dani and him. I accidentally got the giggles twice, but managed to maintain my composure. 🙂

    1. Hi Sabrina, totally one reason to travel. We learned SO much about Buddhism, and the culture inside the temple that day. Wouldn’t trade it for the world!

  1. Amazed that he allowed western women in the temples without their arms and legs covered – that’s a grave insult to most observant Buddhists, and to Buddha. Only monks and nuns, who should be effectively “bare” before the Buddha-nature, should be bare-armed or bare-legged.

    1. I am not sure if you have been to many of these types of places, but our outfits were far more conservative than what the majority of tourists have on, usually. All the temples ask is that you have your shoulders covered and take off your shoes. There are often girls with skirts on, guys with tank tops. And lastly, we didn’t even PLAN on going into this temple, so he obviously didn’t have a problem with it, nor did the other monks who were very nice to us as well.

  2. In the last shot with the bucket, he is asking you to leave a bucket of offerings/food for the monks and their charities as payment for the tour, which I assume you did. The monks don’t do these tours just for fun, of course.

    1. I understand your concern, but he wasn’t trying to get anything from us. If you read the post, it wasn’t a tour. We didn’t sign up. We were walking by, and tried to leave the entire time…You could tell by the way the other monks looked at us while we were there. Our monk was a bit slow/special and was proud showing us around. We asked him about the bucket, which was transporting tiles up to the top of a second temple. There was no where to even leave money there, it was part of a construction site…and we left a donation at the temple anyway of course.

    1. It was hilarious! And even more so because he had no idea how funny it was…he wasn’t so much touching Dani as directing her, though. It was such a cool learning experience, too, one we won’t forget!

  3. I have had similar experiences in India which usually ended in the priest begging for donations to “rebuild” the temple. Are you sure he wasn’t trying to solicit a large donation?

    1. Absolutely not. He was definitely a bit slow…mentally…and he was absolutely loving showing us around. he was very proud of everything, which is why he was showing us in such detail…

    1. Thanks Fidel! Do you mean the cafes along the street in Old Sukothai or in the new part of town? I think we both preferred Old Sukothai to the new town, even though it was more touristy 🙂 The experience with the monk made Sukothai unforgettable for us.

    1. Erm… yes.. interesting is a good way to put it 😉 We certainly did not think we’d spend so much time with that monk when we followed his invitation!

  4. Awesome! One of those ‘fated’ experiences perhaps, where everything just happens to be in the right place at the right time. I LOVE that about travel! And especially about Thailand, where the stuff to see is always so different and fascinating! I bet no-one else you know has had their own ‘Monk for a Day’!
    Tony
    Tony James Slater recently posted..THANK-YOU!!!

    1. We definitely were in the right place at the right time 🙂 It was a fascinating experience and definitely something we won’t forget anytime soon.

    1. Hello Gerard, thanks so much for your comment – great to hear from you 🙂 I love how you put it ‘let circumstances guide you instead of sticking to the script’ – that’s the perfect way to describe this absurd, yet fascinating experience!

  5. A few years late to be commenting but this exact thing just happened to my friend and I, only it was at 10:00 at night! I found your post after a Google search to see who else has experienced this. Btw, if you haven’t already found out, his name is Teera.

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