Monks and boys

In Southeast Asian nations, it is embedded in their culture that boys will be initiated as monks some point in their adolescence. Age varies by country. In a couple countries- Laos and Myanmar- boys as young as five have been seen in novices’ robes.

Buddhist monks have many tenets they go by. Not unlike monks of the Christian faiths, they abstain from many of life’s pleasures. Sex, indulgent food, gambling, etc. Their lifestyle is very basic, although how spartan depends on which interpretation their monstery prescribes.

All is good until you realize how young the boys are. They may be the best behaved little cute kids you’ll ever encounter, but not even the best lecturing can undo the fact that they are children with their wants. Which makes for great people watching for those of us who are familiar with the Buddhist restrictions.

Do not come in physical contact with women. Boys don’t care. When they run down the street or crowded temple, robe clothes flying around them, they squeeze between and bump into people, even women. When I show them pictures I’ve taken of them, they grab my arms to see or climb into my lap to shove out their friends crowded around.

Food is for basic sustenance, not enjoyment. The boys come around for alms collecting as part of their errands in the early morning. If they are not in a formal procession line, they tend to drift into stores that sell candy or cookies in hopes that someone will throw a bag in…

Material goods only cause distraction. When in a line, as they file past toy stores, they rubberneck, the space between the monks widening exponentially towards the end of the procession, where the younger boys are.

I watch many foreign tourist fawn over how cute the boys are. I agree. They are absolutely adorable. They add a cheery face to an otherwise austere religion. They break the invisible wall many of the men have built up in their fear of breaking any rules. As a woman, I do not approach the monks. Instead I let them initiate conversation. The elders do if they speak English and are curious, though that is a small demographic. The children just come right up, breaking the ice for their older brothers to start asking me questions.

It certainly is worth asking a local what the boys talk about, especially if the bystanders seem amused. One recent instance, the boys at the end of an alms procession line were squabbling. They were fighting over who gets to be last, because the giver was known for delicious food. They were hoping the last boy will get all the food left. The fact that the food is supposed to be consolidated and redistributed back at the monastery was moot to them.

I think joining the monastery for a minimum of a week is a fantastic tradition. The younger the boy, the less likely he will truly walk away with deep appreciation of Buddhism. But I can see Mama enjoying her free vacation. Heck, I just may do that to my children in the future. Pack up a couple sets of clean underwear and bundle them off the Buddhist camp.

Happy New Year!

Today, Thailand celebrates its New Year, Songkran. Originally the date was tied to the lunar calendar but now is a fixed Georgian date of April 13th.

In some respects, the new year is celebrated the same way across many Asian cultures. Go home to family. Clean the house for a new clean start. Visit the temples to pay respects and seek blessings.

Thailand’s Songkran has evolved into another try of celebration. A huge water fight. Originating from the old tradition of drizzling friends, family, and passersby with blessed water from the temples, people now just douse one another with water in any way they can, from waterguns, to bowls, to water bottles, and hoses. No pedestrian, car, or motorcycle is spared.

Perhaps to further the country’s tourism, Bangkok has long established a Songkran Festival site on Khao San Road, also known as backpacker’s road. The pedestrian strip is lined with water drums, water gun sellers, bars, sidewalk food stalls, and water sellers. People just stroll up and down, targeting indiscriminately or specifically.

I went armed daringly with my cameras. All my friends had water guns and looked at me like I’m crazy. I knew I was risking damaging my camera but I had to try. I already did the water gun thing in the past and simply wanted to try to capture the experience in camera. I think I came up with some respectable results. What do you think?

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postscript: My DSLR survived though I will need to give the lens some good cleaning tomorrow. My point-and-shoot seems to made it out though the dampness has led to constant interior glass fogging which I hope will resolve itself in my dry super a/c’ed apartment overnight. I found people in general were pretty respectful of the fact that I carried a camera. Sure, unaimed, random water was unavoidable but few targeted me once they saw my camera. I wasn’t alone in carrying a DSLR. Many have planned better and cut out plastic bags to protect the body. Most taped plastic bag like crazy over the entire camera except the lens opening. Clearly lovers of the automatic mode.

Human nature at its best *and* worst

Best: Generosity
Best: Dignity
Best: Reverence
Best: Kindness
Best: Curiosity

Worst: Scamming
Worst: Disrespect
Worst: Exploiting
Worst: Begging
Worst: Selfishness

Luang Prabang’s traditional monk procession, if you think about it, is a very odd practice, if it weren’t for the very cool photogenic sight of all the orange robes queued up. Essentially, they walk out each morning, receiving blessings and food offerings from the villagers. Then they take the offerings- sticky rice- back to their wats and break fast. All in silence. Sounds awfully alike trolling for food to me.

That struck me are the four- well, five including my type- categories of actors in this play when I watched.

Me- Get the easy one out of the way. I was one of a significant chunk of tourists there to watch from afar. If you call across the street ‘afar’ (you’ll see why I say it is in a minute). We don’t contribute. We generally don’t talk much, other than occasional low-tone exchanges to each other. Our biggest noise maker are our cameras. We are spectators. Oglers to those may not welcome our presence.

The Monks- the central figures to the whole tradition. They walk silently down, queued up by wat. They create a physical space between different lines, letting the logjam ahead of them clear out a little before proceeding. They receive the offerings from the villagers. And occasionally give them back. For the Buddhists, giving, especially to the monks, brings better karma. And the monks receive.

Villagers- There were fewer from our vantage point of view, an indication the tradition has gradually given way to the tourism industry. Yet, we had a direct view of a woman, dressed in her fine lace blouse and traditional wrap skit. With an air of grace, she would wai (a clasped flat palm gesture that indicates respect) and cup fistfuls of rice into the caskets of the monks.

The beggars- Mostly kids, sent out by their parents. They are a ragtag group that placed empty basket and bags, and sat between the villagers. They are counting on the generosity, the same karma point collection mentality, of the monks to give back some rice. And many do. The more intrusive ones literally doggedly stay at the heels of a band of monks, holding out their bags. Those tend to be less successful.

The tourists- the UNESCO status is both a blessing and a curse. Busloads of tourists, usually Asian, line up with pre-set baskets of rice to join in the experience. Only they tend to do it in halfs. One half will sit on the sidewalk, ready to make the offerings. The other half will hover on both sides of the processing, taking photos. Since the monks cannot interact much, some tourists will simply throw an arm around a monk’s shoulder while another snapped a shot, all without requesting for permission. Others literally thrust the cameras in the monks’ faces as they walk by.  As a fellow tourists, I was horrified and embarrassed.

Money and luck?

In a recent transaction with a marketplace vendor, I fell into a friendly light mixed-Thai-English conversation. She probably gave me the most opportunity outside language class to practise my Thai, mixing English to help me and gladly answering my questions of how to say specific words or translate expressions she zinged out in her thousandsylabolspersecondspeaking.

Somehow, by the end of the transaction, she had the impression I was a successful wealthy American (??)… and took my bills and flapped it over all her merchandise in her stall, high and low. I asked what she was doing and she said “spreading the good fortune.”

So when does good fortune come to this good luck charm- me?

You are invited to dress in black


Official mourning period was 14-16 November, when the public was “invited” to dress in mourning colours and somberly. Colours are black and white, with request to lean more on the black (why they just don’t say wear only black, I don’t know). I am finding, though, a handful of the female population have determined that “somberly” doesn’t necessarily mean “modestly.” I’ve found myself staring at one woman for a bit until I told myself “well, it’s all in black.”

As any royal request goes, an invitation is pretty much obeyed. The reverence of the royal family is something most of the rest of the world would not understand. To give you a shapshot of the sea of black, I’ve taken a video of a crowd coming off a train platform.

Official Mourning

The country has gone into mourning. The King’s sister passed away earlier this year, and the country has gone through the ritual of paying respects and mourning.

Nov 14-16 was declared official days of mourning as they proceed with her cremation and the remainder of the process of her State Funeral.. and citizens were advised to “dress somberly.” And entertainment facilities requested to “cease fun.”

We found a majority were wearing black (including ourselves)
And a coworker showed up wearing the brightest possible blue Hawaii shirt.

Restaurants were still open, but the one we visited last night was patronised completely by foreigners, whether it’s because it’s more popular amongst foreigners or because of the mourning I do not know.

Thai National Anthem

This morning’s encounter: Thai national anthem.

The folks at work had mentioned it but they only knew that it played at 1800 in the evenings. When I asked what time it played in the morning, because if they played at night, they must play it in the morning, right? No one knew.

Now I do. 8am, on the dot.

Oh, it took me my utmost willpower and training to not only avoid giggling, but to also keep a straight face.

Tradition and respect mandates that people stop what they are doing and stand in attention when the anthem is played. At the time the anthem came on, I was amongst a whole hoard of people, pouring out of the skytrain into a quiet station. I was near the front and those leading the crowd were mostly women, noisily clacking the stairs leading down from the platform with their assortment of high heels and sandals. They were running. They must be late for work.

Then without a word everyone stops. I look up and see the stairs across from me, also with people coming to a stop in the middle of the steps. On both cases, the bottom half of the steps were empty, gleaming their clean floors and banisters. At first I thought maybe there’s something going on the bottom of the steps and the people in front wanted to avoid. Using my above-average height, I craned my neck to peer down and didn’t see anything.

About the same time, everyone started to quiet down to a hush and I finally heard the reedy tones of the anthem being broadcasted through some PA system.

I looked around to watch the people. The cars and taxis still rushed by in the road beneath us because they can’t hear the music. The street vendors continue stirring their wares, probably being too far from the station. A couple of women looked impatient, but most stood immobile, with the stairs in front of them feet empty, untouched. It was as if someone froze time on the station, smack dead in the middle of rush hour. That was then I wanted to crack up laughing.

The minute the tune was over, the women resumed running, clacking those heels down the steps and out of the station. I guess they were supposed to be at work by 8.