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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 voyage lies twenty minutes up the road in Old Sukothai, the ancient city of the Sukothai empire. We came to visit the ruins of Sukothai, one of five UNESCO World Heritage sites in Thailand. (If you’re planning to visit the ancient ruins, I highly recommend this ultimate guide to visiting ancient Sukothai).
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. This wasn’t really how we’d pictured our visit to Sukothai, but 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.
Debris 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.
But 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.
Then 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.
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. These rules don’t only apply when you visit Sukothai, but any Buddhist temple.
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.
For 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.
His 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.
At 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.
We 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.
Visit Sukothai and learn from a monk
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.
We 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.
It 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! So if you’re planning to visit Sukothai, be warned: you may be hijacked by this monk..