Perhaps it was successful marketing as the “land of smiles” that first attracted me to Thailand, or maybe the intriguing and mysterious culture- whatever it was Thailand seemed to me to be the ideal introduction to Asia. I took a gap year before university to travel and explore the world. I wanted to find out as much as I could about different beliefs and ways of life. I wanted to have the chance to help people who truly do face a daily struggle. I wanted to see with my own eyes what pictures can only half show. Basically I wanted to be able to look back on my own experiences and memories rather than just read about those from somebody else’s imagination in the latest fiction novel.
When I read (in one of the hundreds of brochures that dropped through the letter box) about the chance to have a “real Thai experience” I knew it was for me. Somewhere down the line I seem to have acquired a gene with a big anthropological interest – or it could just be nosiness – but whatever it is I love to see other ways of life, cultures and belief systems. Thailand seemed to represent Asia in all its glory, and just the word “Asia” has always held a certain something in my heart. Asia is the continent which has 60% of the world’s population; covers 29.8% of the earth’s total surface area and is home to some of the most fascinating religions and reputably the kindest people. Images of tuk tuks, floating markets and idealic beaches flood into my head. The chance to see all of this without the hassle and hustle of Delhi. Perfect.
So there it is. On the 26th April I found myself alone in Bangkok airport, eagerly waiting at the conveyer belt in baggage reclaim. I was so excited and keen to get out of the vast swarm of sweaty tourists and desperate lonely business men to find the real Thailand. Eventually I admitted to myself that no amount of waiting was going to make my bags arrive. It was hardly surprising. My plane had been delayed setting off from Heathrow due to a terminal closure in Frankfurt (where I had to change). As a result when we arrived in Frankfurt we had missed our landing slot so had to circle until we could land. By this time I should have already boarded the connect flight! When we did finally make it to the runway we were then told that not only had we flown into the wrong terminal, but the airline in question had some how managed to lose all of their ground crew- so in fact there was no one to get us off the plane. By some miraculous intervention I did make I did make it onto the next flight, but there never had been much chance that my bags would have been able to join me too. Anyway, I was given 2000 baht (about 30 pounds) and told that my bags would arrive within the next couple of days. They did – so apart from being slightly sweaty and smelly when I was meeting the rest of the group in Bangkok it was fine!!
I only spent a couple of days in Bangkok, but I thought it was an amazing city. It is a vibrant, cosmopolitan and hugely diverse metropolis of fast roads and lethal drivers. Although it can feel slightly intimidating at first this is largely fuelled by the recent spate of claims that Thailand is no longer as safe as it used to be. Bangkok is a buzzing and exciting city and I challenge you to not find it and its grand temples astonishing. Thanon Khao San is a little street right in the heart of the backpacker district and I thoroughly recommended a visit, or two, if you get the chance. It has an amazing vibe and is an excellent place to buy those souvenirs that you know you need to get.
I had joined a gap year project with Real Gap in Thailand and we were based in a town called Singburi which is to the north of Bangkok. We had four action packed weeks of sightseeing and adventure, and most mornings our group of 30 would climb into the back of what can only be described as a cattle truck to be transported to our next visit. Weather wise Thailand we found things pretty unbearable as the humidity reached 90% on most days, but soon we realised that it just wasn’t going to change. I just hope that our poor in-country representatives didn’t take our lack of energy, dragging feet, grumpy faces and desperate cries for water as a lack of enthusiasm for what we were doing.
The second week’s itinerary was one of the great attractions of the trip for me. We were told that we would spend time living in a Buddhist monastery and have the chance to directly learn about Buddhism and the way of life in a Thai monastery. Looking back I am not quite sure what I expected. Perhaps I thought the monastery would be an ancient and beautiful building. I assumed it would be of those buildings that you get a sense of awe and wonder when you enter. Or like a church, when you can feel its religious importance and significance.
Anyway, dressed in our prerequisite whites, we all expectantly filed in to the monastery. We went straight in to a modern and air conditioned room (imagine the delight), with big swinging doors and a cool marble floor. Here we dumped our bags and waited for our experience to unfold. Within half an hour a monk appeared. Dressed in his orange saffron robes and with the customary shaved eye brows (that were once used to distinguish the Thai from the Burmese monks during war, but now is just tradition) the monk started to teach us to meditate. This was hard and uncomfortable but I did get times within that initial hour, just fleeting moments that I believe were mediation. The hardest thing about the mediation was trying so hard to think of nothing. When you try to think of nothing you are of course actually thinking of thinking of nothing. I tried to clear my head but still kept trying to conjure up new ways of detaching myself and freeing my mind – which then resulted in me thinking! When we weren’t doing this we were concentrating on the excruciating pains in our ankles and feet which came from sitting in the lotus position on a hard floor for so long.
As a group we did one hour of sitting mediation, and then another hour of walking meditation when we walked with our eyes closed at about the pace of a snail in a circle. How anyone was expected to meditate and not crash into the person in front still remains a mystery to us all.
Not long into our walking mediation attempts our monk’s brand new Nokia mobile phone rang. Desperately trying to stifle our surprised giggles we were relieved when the bell for lunch was rung- at 11.00 a.m.!
A monk with a mobile was not what any of us had expected. Later that day we had yet more meditation practice, and yet again his phone beeped. This time it was only a text but our enthusiasm was starting to wane as what with one thing and another we were now feeling slightly dubious about the sincerity of our whole temple experience.
At one point we were sweeping leaves from the court when we saw one monk, a big jolly fellow, with his head nodding to the beat pumping from his i-pod. Wow, that certainly wasn’t what I had expected to see.
We were told that although the monks don’t eat after 11 a.m. for religious reasons, we could, just so long as no one saw us. Who would we meet in the little shop that just so happened to be conveniently located right outside the compound but a whole queue of monks all lining up to pay for their assortment of cookies and crisps!!
One of the most amusing sights as far as I was concerned was the library. We were told that there was internet access at the monastery and by internet access I took this to mean a room with some computers and not much else. This internet access actually turned out to be in a huge library that housed not only many books but magazines and DVDs. Sitting at the computers in the library were the pre monks – the younger monks who were in training, playing on the computer games – racing cars, shooting guns and generally killing people. Now I must admit that I was quite taken by surprise. The whole library was well equipped and not generally what you would expect to find in a small Thai monastery. But more than this, it was the pre-monks that I found the most comical. This could quite easily have been passed of as England, and isn’t at all how I expected monks to pass their time. But looking back – how should they??
We left the temple feeling slightly disheartened and seriously ripped off, but looking back it was amazing. If I hadn’t joined the company, I would never have been able to spend time in a monastery, and just because it wasn’t how any of us had expected it to be doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an authentic temple experience. I am actually really glad that I saw it like it actually is. Seemingly that is how Thailand and its religion now is. This could be seen as good – it’s developing and changing with the progressing world. But equally it could be bad – after all Thai culture and values are being lost.
However I take it, I had wanted to experience the true thing, and I think that is what I got. If we had been taken to a quiet little temple where all the monks abide by every one of their stringent rules, without a hint of modern life, western influence or a TV, which just would not have been the Thai experience true.