Thailand Outback Up North: Covering Bodies and Bases, Filling Bellies and Logic…

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They say that life doesn’t always work out like you plan—duh. ‘They’ say lots of sh*t, of course, but ‘they’ seem to have nailed this one. So when I came back to Thailand a couple weeks ago for the many-hundredth time, I assumed that I would likely be an ordained Buddhist monk by now, albeit only seasonally, Thai-style, IF I felt ready enough with my meditation practice, and IF I felt confident enough with my ability to memorize the Pali-transcribed-to-Thai initiation ritual, necessary to seal the deal, and not be a failure nor a joke…

‘Nor be a joke’, that’s the crucial concept here, in this fantasy Disney-inspired Thai-land heavily colonized by long-term tourists, short-term customers and random retirees in the late innings of life, all of whom as ‘Farangs’ (western foreigners) constitute the punch-line of many a back-handed compliment or verbal slight, whether they know it or not, usually not. So that’s the reason I learned to dance the lingo, damned torpedoes, for better or worse, usually better, till death do us part…

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Shan ‘Tai Yai’ temple…

But then the King of Thailand died, and the number of short-term monks grew exponentially, ditto prices likewise, and I don’t really want a fancy ceremony anyway, nor care about the social conventions and connotations, but there are certain etiquettes to follow, certain palms to grease and certain feelings to appease, and nobody can really clearly explain to me exactly how this all plays out, anyway, and whether my previous sessions as novice would be indicative of my future sessions as ordained monk, or… or… or… SO…

So when my local trusted priest from Mae Chan Forest Temple offered to me to reprise my role as temple driver for upcoming outback trips to give away blankets and food for the rough winter season ahead, well, well… SURE! Why not? I don’t really want to be a monk, anyway, do I? Monks have the most boring of lives. Yes, but of course, mais oui!

I never really wanted to be a monk, not really! This was all just an elaborate dance to seal my deal as temple boy and designated driver, to tieow Thai for the rest of my life, or as long as I want—FREE!!! I can even contract out to multiple temples simultaneously as available on an on-call basis, first come first served, just call me, yeah, right…

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Tai Yai filling station

But it’s funny how we can retro-fit the logic to the circumstances if we need to, that existential need for a happy ending, that consequential need for causes and effects, and that socio-political need for correctness. But in fact, the life of a monk can be boring, hanging at the temple all day, and this travel plan, while not replete with details, just might offer some of the best travel of my life, nooks and crannies full of kids and grannies, with no tourists to speak of, much less guides and garnishes…

…this in a country rapidly losing its Third-World authenticity to homogeneous modernity, where the newest fanciest temples are built to attract tourists, not monks, and where wives are the most famous export, hence the term ‘Thai bride’, Brit-speak for ‘mail-order’. But that’s not the object of my search, and the Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism seems to be. But that flight is now in a holding pattern, and I’m back on the ground, in writing the final chapter of my travel book, uh huh. First stop is Pang Kham, beyond Pai, in Mae Hong Son province, on the Burmese border…

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Lahu hill-tribe at a festival near Chiang Dao

Now I’ll admit that I’ve long had a not-so-secret love affair with the tribal peoples of Asia, usually known as ‘hill-tribes’, though that is not always accurate. The closest I ever got was with the cute little half-bald Red Dzao girl from Taphin, near Sapa, north Vietnam, with whom I had an actual mid-day date of hot soupy noodles at a street stall, which several photographers decided that was good enuf pho’ them, so we chatted in Tieng-Viet-as-a-second-language, while the papparazi clicked away…

The next time we met up, she was otherwise engaged, so that was that, probably just as well, since I was probably about 42 y.o. then, and she was, let’s say—less. That same Yao/Dzao group is also elsewhere, and the ones in Thailand got quite excited when I showed them some handicraft product from their brethren in Laos…

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My temporary office

Yao/Dzao reside in close proximity to H’mong/Miao from China, but are often interspersed within a larger Tai culture there and elsewhere, Tais acting as something of a semi-tribal buffer between the modern nation-states and the stateless ‘hill-tribes’. Other tribes in the region include Karen, Akha, Lisu and Lahu, these latter two from Tibet and the main groups in the Burmese border region here, once again surrounded by the larger semi-modern Tais, ‘Tai Yai’ or Shan, in this case…

These are the brothers and sisters of those in Shan state Burma, including Khun Sa, who once controlled the opium trade through the Golden Triangle and fought the hated Burmese government with the self-styled ‘Shan State Army’, that once opined that they could actually run a country, and I quote: “If only some country like the US or UK would hold our hand”—unquote…

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Caravan Thai-style

But those dreams are largely dead, and life today is quiet along the border, life as lived by those closest to its precious turf, in villages where everybody knows everybody, and even a foreigner like me is welcome to stay in the home, with shelter from the cold, here where a fierce chill can set in this time of year. So temples and other well-wishers help out by distributing blankets, clothing and foodstuffs to help out—me, too, now, I guess…

To be continued…

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