I took my first independent mini-excursion this weekend. I thought I was making a pilgrimage to Sri Racha, birthplace of the infamous Sri Racha sauce. (They sell it in the states in bottles labeled with roosters…or ducks…a must-have condiment for any college kitchen…) Another KEI girl, Alana, wanted to see a nearby island named Ko Si Chang, and so we agreed to travel together.
Sri Racha is not the small provincial town I expected. The bus dropped us off on the side of a bustling, nasty highway. We tried to find our way to a mystical seafood market (championed by Let’s Go) by use of sign language, butchered Thai, and broken English. We did find some sort of market, but it was closed, so we detoured to a classy restaurant where the seafood was divine. Best $5 meal I’ve ever had.
We took off on a tuk-tuk (ooo…I love tuk-tuks) to the Sri Racha Tiger Zoo, the local tourist trap. It was…a bizarre and disturbing experience… Highlights include:
- Crocodiles. EVERYWHERE. Hundreds of them.
- A crocodile wrestling show where the crocs were more or less catatonic
An elephant show…I couldn’t stop crying…although they did look fairly healthy and well-kept…
- The scorpion queen. A lady covered with live scorpions. Seriously.
- “Happy Family”—two dogs, a tiger, and a pig in the same cage…right next to the cage with humans in loin cloths and tigers.
- Baby tigers suckling on a sow
- Baby pigs suckling on a tiger
The vast number of crocs and tigers convinced me of rumors that the zoo is a disguised meat farm. There is no other logical reason for keeping that many animals. Tiger and croc meat are very expensive, so it would be quite a lucrative enterprise to have the zoo double as a tourist trap and a meat farm…a disquieting thought. At the same time, I’ve seen the cattle meat farms in southern California, and I had to fight to keep my stomach in place. A meat farm that fronts as a zoo has to look presentable/pleasant, which I think leads to better living conditions for the animals…All the same, I’d rather wipe the Tiger Zoo from my memory.
Another tuk-tuk and a 40 minute ferry ride later, we were at Ko Si Chang, where there are [gasp!] no cars. It was fabulous. It made me realize that the true evil in Bangkok is the hordes of cars. They take the soul out of a place... (Sidenote: Khaosan Rd is closed to motorized traffic at night…) Tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and bicycles are fine, just keep your friggin cars to yourself, alright? Alana and I took an evening walk where we practiced our Spanish, swapped near-death experiences, and glowed over a group of elderly Thais playing bocci by the side of the street.
The next morning we woke early to explore the temples and beaches on the island. We were trying to find a giant yellow Buddha we had seen from the ferry, so we took a random side street and found something that looked like temple grounds. We timidly stepped inside and started looking around… This tiny little nun with a shaved head, white robes, and glasses scampered over the stony ground and invited us (in English) to have breakfast with the other nuns and monks. She promised us a tour after we had eaten. Our jaws must have sounded very loud hitting the ground like they did. We gave her enthusiastic nods. As we followed her back, she asked us a few more questions. We told her we were students at Mahidol, that Alana was studying psychology and I engineering.
We stepped inside an open building where dozens of nuns in white robes and monks in saffron robes sat on the floor around an ancient man who was lecturing quietly in Thai. “Now, we listen to the Master,” our guide said. We sat on our heels and she taught us how to show respect for the Buddha and the Master by bowing three times. The Master continued talking as his audience listened intently and respectfully. Reason #4906 (si gao soon hok) why I wish I knew Thai: I couldn’t understand any of his jokes—his audience laughed several times and all I could do was put on my stupid-foreigner face.
When he finished, he got up and sat at the head of an elevated platform behind a silver bowl. All the other monks sat down in a straight line on the same platform behind their bowls. The nuns sat on floor in front of the platform, in two lines facing each other. There were huge platters of food everywhere. A man began offering the food to the monks…he placed white trays with wheels on the monk platform and he arranged a couple of platters of food on each tray. The Master took some food, and rolled the tray down to the next monk in line. After a few people had offered food, our guide encouraged us to offer food. I nearly fell over. I had read about offering food to Buddhist monks (they can only eat what other people give to them, and they have to put it all in the same bowl) but I never imagined that I would take part in it…When I began placing the trays and bowing, our guide talked to the Master and told him (in Thai) that I was an engineering student at Mahidol…and I understood her. In Thai. I felt like singing.
When the trays rolled past the end of the monks, they were passed down to the nun level. Alana and I sat near the end of the nun lines. There was so much food…I wanted to try everything…I took just a little of each dish, and I still had way too much to eat in my bowl at the end. Curries, noodles, vegetables, spices, fruits…everything imaginable rolled by. When the last tray made its way past all the nuns, everyone (including us) took water from the little silver vases in front of them and poured it into little silver bowls. Our guide explained its significance…something about kharma and life…then everyone began chanting…it was beautiful to the point of pain. I was so happy I could have burst.
When the last notes died away, the eating commenced…my favorites: a Thai fruit called ____, an orange sweet potato type thing, and rice pudding with coconut milk. The nuns whisked our dishes away, and we were instructed to pour out the water from our little silver bowls at the base of a tree…I can’t remember the reason. Alana and I sat and talked with an elderly white gentleman who had also taken part in everything. A retired English professor, he now lives part time at the monastery. He told us that the monastery was slightly unusual because it functions like a commune—everyone pitches in to do something. Usually monks are supported by patrons and don’t get their hands very dirty… Then he left us in the hands of Sao Pui (Sister Pui, our guide)and asked her to bring us by his hut before we left.
Pui and Ying, another sister, reappeared in brown clothing and began to lead us around the monastery. They wore straw hats to protect their shaved heads from the vicious sun…They told us that there were 27 nuns there. Pui had been there for 10 years, I think, and Ying was the newest sister, just under a year of experience. Right before that, she graduated from college with a degree in Chinese. As they showed us the temple and various buildings, they explained that the monastery was fairly new and that it had been built by monks and nuns. “We build very fast because meditation together makes the work light. Work was not heavy because we were motivated.”
They showed us a mural of the story where Buddha as a prince leaves his palace for the first time. He sees four truths that he has never been exposed to before: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man. The first three prompt Buddha to ask why there is suffering in the world, and he goes to the forest to find the answer. After telling the story, the nuns took us into a small room with a body lying in the open on a low table. A decaying human body. “I think you never see this before, yes? This is my mother. She donated her body so that we could learn the truth. We will all end like this. Your body, it is not yours. You cannot change it. You cannot take anything with you…Suffering comes from desires and wishes. Your mind must be like your hand, it can pick something up, but it must also let it go. Do not be attached. Let it go. It does not matter.”
Wow. They don’t teach that in engineering school, kids…
They led us to the professor’s little white hut, which overlooks the sea. He welcomed us and talked about how nothing is real because everything is in a state of eternal change. I asked him about happiness and he told us that Buddhists believe it can be achieved by removing suffering. One way to happiness is to analyze pains, to watch them arise, objectively follow them back to their root, and in the process they will loose their power. (Buddha was an analytical man, he told us.) He spoke about a stage of bliss, but also that a monk once told him that he must pierce through this phase of happiness to find something deeper. “Someone once asked Buddha, ‘What do I do now?’ Buddha replied, ‘You start…and then you keep going.’” He talked a little about meditation breathing—my first piece of the meditation puzzle. He encouraged us to try it and ask someone else for the next piece. He told us that the Buddhism practiced in temples and monasteries can’t be found in books, you have to ask nuns and monks to find it.
The nuns led us to the gardens and gave us some of the sweetest juice I’ve ever tasted. They couldn’t tell us exactly what it was—a mixture, they said, apple and something else. Almost everyone at the monastery is vegetarian, they explained.
Sometime in my life I’m going to have a little garden like that—where I can grow food and feed it to other people.
They taught us about the 8-fold path and the senses. I was so overwhelmed by that point that I could barely absorb any of it. They took us past a room with a coffin and told us that every night a different nun sleeps under it, to remind them of their mortality. A cave came next, a natural limestone formation that had been reworked with a tile floor. There were bats. At the end we went back to talk to the Master one-on-two. Pui and Ying translated for us. He told us four things:
- Our minds must be like our hands…we must give freely and let go.
- We are born covered in lymph and blood, we are dirty all our lives, and we return to dirt.
- Open and close your eyes (nothing is real).
- Stay single. The suffering of two people is too great.
Alana and I had expected to spend the day exploring the island, but by the time we left the monastery, it was time to head back. The bus ride home was surreal. Between catnaps and philosophical discussions with Alana, I lost all sense of where I was, who I was…well, not exactly…I >did< know…but it felt as though someone had torn apart my mind and put it carefully back together while I wasn’t paying attention. Everything was the same, but it was…different.
In Bangkok, Alana and I parted ways. A few nights previous, I had tried to find a tango event and failed miserably, but between skytrains, taxis, a pair of Russian tourists, endless wandering, a bag of rambutans, and desperate phone calls, I got the email address of the coordinator, and thus better directions to the next event. I found my tango this night in a wild restaurant called Reflections…the décor felt like someone had way too much fun with some throwing darts and a design catalog. All the waiters wore knit caps with horns. I ordered “sweet curry with snails” and began chatting the usual dance banter. There were….ehh…about a dozen other people there…Germans, Frenchmen, Japanese, Americans, and all the Thais there had lived in the states before. No Argentines. As the next progressed and I danced, I forgot I was in Bangkok. I was some place without a location. The tango community is small, but strong…good dancers. Salsa is much more popular here, and I’ve heard that a bar offers free zouk lessons (from Brazil…apparently the “yoga of dance”), so I’ll probably try my hand…errr…feet at those. No swing. Someone led salsa to a swing beat and it almost worked. Fuck. I miss swing. I asked Apple, a dance instructor who knows basically every dance in the city, and she nailed the coffin shut: “I’ve never seen anyone dance swing here.”
When I stumbled out of Reflections, Bangkok hit me like a wall again. Here were the street vendors, here were the cars, here was the skytrain, and finally bus 515 to take me home. Between the Tiger Zoo, the monastery, and tango, I feel like I 've been leaping between worlds…36 hours is a long time.
I never did find any Sri Racha sauce...