Looking for Buddha in Southern Thailand…

 

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Intl. Buddhist College at Sadao

Thailand may be famous for its Buddhism, but in southern Thailand Islam is king, in exact proportion to the percentage of persons of Malay ethnicity resident there, that being a crucial part of the definition of ‘Malay’, that and the language, usually referred to in Thai as ‘Melayu’ or ‘Yawi’, the latter better known as the name of the ancient Arabic script, but never as ‘Bahasa Malaysia’, the national language of Malaysia, and which, together with the dialects of Brunei and Indonesia, constitute a major international language…

But such are the vaguenesses and vagaries of politics, and culture, especially in a region largely defined by outside influences, DNA betwixt and between them largely identical, I suspect, from the Philippines through, over and around China, to India, by land and thousands of islands no more than superficial dressing to their primordial differences, almost all of which came after, first from the Indians, then the Arabs, then Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, French English American, in no certain order of dishonor…

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Muslims on the Beach at Songkhla

And so it stands today, a dozen countries defining the face of SE Asia, comprising all four major religions, with every major colonial language past imperfect, and as many modern ones, each with its own alphabet, save the modern Bahasa family usually written in Roman, not to mention hundreds of tribal languages in various phases of use and disuse, and whether or not connected by root or trunk to a modern language with which it is related by birth…

But this is none to the detriment of my search for Buddhism, quite the opposite, since cross-fertilization makes any living species stronger, whether genetic or cultural, and Buddhism is no exception, it the living embodiment of divergent strains from an original source, pollinating and cross-pollinating each other, in a dialectic both idealistic and historical at one and the same time, picking up new ideas, incorporating some into the body of knowledge, and dropping off outdated ones along the way, more the better…

So the object of my affection in this neighborhood, the International Buddhist College, in Sadao district near the Malaysia border, is not even of the same lineage as the predominant Thai Buddhist nikaya, or sect. It is a Chinese gray-robed Mahayana sect, in a Thai orange-robed Theravada ‘hood, languages of instruction either Chinese or English, so international in scope and intent, if not birth or location, and very similar in ideology to the other university I’ve applied to in Taiwan, though no direct connection…

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Songkhla’s Chinatown

But the cool place to stay in the region is Songkhla city itself, capital of Songkhla province, and one of my long-time faves, so definitely a factor in my being here, though long since over-shadowed by upstart younger brother Had Yai, to which it owes absolutely nothing. Ha! So this is a glaring anomaly, a Thai province in which the eponymous province has a larger city than the namesake, a testament to Songkhla’s age—and narrow perch between sea and lake, with limited room for growth…

But that only makes it more interesting, of course, a fact of which it is finally aware and awakened to, by joining in with fellow Thai city Phuket, Malaysian cities Penang and Melaka, and Indonesian cities Medan and Pekanburu, to celebrate their common colonial roots and old-town ambiance, probably best described as something like ‘Sino-Portuguese’ or ’19th Century overseas Chinese’ or simply ‘Chinatown’, Jake…

And most local people here are from somewhere else, really, so I’m right at home in the pan-Thai ambiance, part northern, part central, part northeastern and sometimes even local culture, i.e. food variety. And then there are the foreigners, ex-pats and oil-field workers, but they all have jobs, so that’s not so bad, as long as the price of oil stays over $50/bbl, or then it’s disaster, and even then a long way from the $100 it hovered at last time I was here three years ago, bars drying up and folding faster than they can be replaced…

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Beach at Songkhla

There’s only one problem: the skies drop water like a herd of elephants with bladder-control issues, aka ‘rain’. My guest house owner allows that, “It doesn’t rain that hard,” and then we both finish the sentence in unison, “but it rains all the time.” Ha! All of which makes it very hard to go visit IBC almost 60mi/100km away, uninspiring on a 100cc Honda Dream under the best conditions, but absolutely horrifying with the threat of rain hovering overhead like cruel fate assigned and consigned, pay on delivery, and then pay dearly…

So I put if off once, then twice, before finally deciding on the ‘nuclear option’, to book a taxi ride back to Had Yai airport, with side trip to IBC, equally as far the other way towards the border, the last-minute solution to an ongoing problem, this whole side-trip a somewhat dubious undertaking if I walk away empty-handed of the dharma, or at least the initial installment of my hopefully future undertaking, I the simultaneous undertaker and executioner, sometimes reluctant but doggedly persistent…

We’re playing for keeps here. And it comes off without a hitch, despite my pain-in-the-butt taxi driver. And my expectations at IBC are nil, too, it being a Saturday, and that the one before Songkran, when everybody goes home, like Americans at Christmas…

But not only is the Dean of Admissions there, but she administers the entrance exam to me, like a shot in that same butt, the fact that I’m being tested on sects of Buddhism of which I know little or nothing apparently not a deal-killer, since she never gave me a thumbs-down, so hopefully I passed the English-language essay portion, anyway, all systems go for my re-entry into the academic life, either here or in Taiwan. The new gap year is 62…

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