Thai Holidays Outback Up North, part 3: Six Temples, Two Borders, a Maharishi and a Funeral…

Continued from previous…

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Kwan Yin (Kuan Im) festival near Chiang Dao, with many hill-tribe participants…

So after the funeral in Uttaradit Province, Thailand, I’d like to explore that new border crossing into Laos, but my priest has other ideas, and he’s the boss. I’m the driver. So that means another late night drive from near the Lao border all the way back to the small town of Sarapee near Chiang Mai, finally pulling in to the temple about ten p.m. dead tired and more than a little wired, from twisty windy back-country roads…

This is all so that we can buy a new truck, to take to the Tai Yai ‘Shan’ people out on the Burmese border where we were last week. Seems they’ve graduated from blankets and dried noodles to new 4 x 4’s. Bizniz is good, I guess. So we do: drive, that is, out again past Pai, into the remote fastnesses of Mae Hong Son province, where foreigners are not usually even allowed to enter, much less drive, but membership has its privileges, I guess…

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Many temples have a chimney…

I suppose it’s a fairly unique path I’ve insinuated myself into here, a foreigner acting as private driver for a Buddhist priest, so I’m grateful for the opportunity. But the daily grind of driving is taking a toll on me, on a trip gone way past its planned two days. Seems the main lesson to be learned from Buddhism is: wait for it, it’s coming, any minute now, just a second more: p-a-t-i-e-n-c-e, blessed patience. Yes, the waiting is the hardest part and by the fourth day I’m a nervous wreck, from the stress and strain…

I just wanna’ go home, wherever that is. But there’s still another stop, and it largely mitigates the exigent circumstances, and makes the extra days largely worthwhile. Getting to attend a festival of hill tribe peoples out in their native habitat is not an easy proposition, such events rare and even more rarely publicized, most tourist involvement with the indigenous peoples limited to guided opium smoke-em-up tours and quickie trekking stops…

But the festival to Kwan Yin outside Chiang Dao in northern Thailand is Buddhist-sponsored, totally clean and totally sober, just good clean fun, and New Year treats for all. Out here the lines between Chinese and Thai, tribal and modern, Mahayana and Theravada get blurred, so a festival dedicated to the Bodhisattva (non-Theravada) Kwan Yin is not too surprising, and the fact that the female Kwan Yin was once the male Avalokiteshvara holds him/her in good stead in sexually androgynous Thailand…

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Lahu hill-tribes

What IS surprising is that the local hill tribes seem relatively healthy and prosperous, which is not always the case, and this in an area mostly devoid of tourism, the modern Thai gold rush. But the back-country looks could kill, tribal DNA not yet homogeneous, with some wildly divergent strains represented here. This will provide fresh starter culture when we over-bred Irish potatoes die out, just like 200 species of spuds in the Andes provided in 1845 during the Irish potato famine…

But my own future as a Buddhist monk-in-training is more of an immediate concern. After doubts as to whether I’d be ready to ordain as a monk, albeit only temporarily to start, and whether I’d be accepted by the other monks, and the local populace, since I’m a foreigner, which is a rarity, and whether I could even clear my deck of business and other affairs long enough to do it, and not be distracted, and not deceive customers, and not deceive my temple priest: my concerns now are of a different type…

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The Maharishi and Pra Somboon

concerns now are not whether I’d be too slack to proceed, but that the temple itself is too slack, and whether I’d even have enough to do as a monk after ‘Lent’, which is high season for Buddhism, the rainy season, and which has just recently passed. So that apparently means that morning and evening prayer chants are optional, strictly DIY, and the current monks don’t even walk the 3km/2mi into town. They ride—hmmm…

But I don’t wanna be just some guy in saffron robes sitting in the woods ‘contemplating my navel’, as they say, like the Rishi rock-star at Kuan Yin’s fest; I need discipline and instruction, not a note of excuse from my doctor, or my mother-in-law, and not some DIY honor-system Buddhism. I need ideas, brain-food, doctrine and dogma to accept and reject. My brain needs food to eat, or it will eat itself…

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Isaan monk

Then there are the cigarettes. Since the Buddha didn’t prohibit it, some monks just feel free to puff away, and they aren’t shy about it. It’s pretty disgusting. Cigs apparently restore a measure of masculinity to otherwise wing-clipped monks. This is especially true amongst the Isaan monks, from the Thai northeast, many of whom also immigrate to the Thai north. Now I don’t mind the meat, nor the full-body tattoos, but cigarettes? Blecchh…

It almost seems like there are two Forest Temple strains: Isaan/North with cigs, pork and sticky rice, and the Central/South, which is veggie, brown rice and smokeless, where I previously trained at Suan Mokh temple, and my distinct preference. But Isaan is the home of the Forest Temple tradition and by reputation the purest, i.e. strictest. Now I like the ‘little fast’ every day, only one meal, or nothing after midday, at least, but not the cigarettes. Can I request a non-smoking temple? I’m not sure if that’s possible…

There are other problems, too, such as trash issues, when the forest IMHO should be kept pristine and trash-free to a fault. But many ‘forest temples’ aren’t so ‘forest-y’ now, anyway, since mainstream acceptance means ideological impurities, and many of these monks don’t really seem like they’ve renounced much at all, more at home talking about six-cylinder motors than metaphysics. And while they don’t technically even touch money, I know priests that can bargain prices better than a funny-hatted fellow in Brooklyn…

To be continued here

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