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Chiang Mai’s Monk Chat

14 Oct Posted by in Thailand | Comments
Chiang Mai’s Monk Chat

The mysterious Buddhist Monks

Well aligned in a slow walking row, the orange procession of the Buddhist monks is coming down the street. It is 5am, the sun shines and the city is already awake. The backfiring tuktuks are dashing to get their first customers, and the food stalls are spreading their smells around the neighbourhood. Last night doesn’t seem to have pushed people to go to sleep, or maybe I am late and I missed the very beginning of the show.

Buddhist Monks collecting offerings

Buddhist Monks collecting offerings
Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

Arranged in small groups, the monks quietly walk on the side of the road. Regularly stopping, they are waiting to be given offerings from people meeting them in front of their house – mainly women. The monks avoid contact either with the gifts or with their benefactors; they only let the generous people slip their offerings in a round tin urn strapped around their orange toga. To accompany them in this task, a younger disciple is walking with them, mainly hanging around to quietly observe and to hold an umbrella protecting his mentor from the sun.

From where I am, I can see money, sticky rice, fruits or candles being offered. Each time a monk receives something from someone, he says a short prayer to bestow good fortune on their charitable donator, and then silently walks away. All the people give a lot to the monks; it is believed in Buddhism that being generous with them will help one having a better life in their next step towards Enlightenment… or maybe a prayer would be beneficial to their problems or even their business.

Watching this ceremony from afar awakens in me the need to unveil the mystery of the Buddhist Monks…

Wat Chedi Luang’s “Monk Chat”

Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

I am in Chiang Mai, vibrating commercial city of northern Thailand. Chiang Mai has completely fallen into tourism’s hands and every street is infested by gift shops, expensive travelling books boutiques, Irish pubs, pizzerias or “Thai massage” salons. The night market, even if sparkling with colours and sequins, is clearly overrated. In this tourist uproar, it is possible though to step away and to find quiet islands in the old city. Some temples in town offer this quietness. I step inside the magnificent Wat Chedi Luang, in the very centre of the old city. This immense 14th century temple which sheltered the famous Emerald Buddha during the 15th century is more than 80m high… it is hugely imposing. Gathered around – a few other nice temples and what seems to be the administrative centre.

As I walk past this building, a small poster attracts my attention: “Every day from 8am to 5pm, join the Monk Chat”. This is the chance to unveil the mystery! Hopefully, I will meet a Buddhist monk and have the chance to know more about his life. I saw in my travel guide book that the Chiang Mai North University organized this kind of cultural exchange, but I didn’t know Wat Chedi Luang would offer the same opportunity. With no hesitation, I rush to the reception and ask for a meeting with a monk. In very basic English, the receptionist tells me there is no Monk Chat today because the monks are not available but I should come back tomorrow anytime.

The day after, the monks are not available either for some obscure reason…

And God created the Monk…

On the third day, my insistence is at last rewarded. As I step inside the small building, the receptionist recognizes me and smiles at me. No monk is visible anywhere, but she tells me to wait a moment outside, one might come soon. I sit next to a small table in the courtyard, and wait. After 20 minutes, an orange stain appears at the horizon, and seems to be approaching.

The monk walks past me. I try “Monk Chat?”. He looks at me. He seems to hesitate. After a few seconds – a weird moment – he finally sits in front of me just saying “okay”…

His name is Pritcha. He is 28 years old. He is struggling a bit with English, but does well. He comes from Laos, the neighbouring country. He had to become a monk to pay respect after the death of one of his parents, as it is a tradition in Buddhism. He took this opportunity to benefit from the cheap education provided to young boys willing to become a monk. In fact, most of the young boys choose to become a monk because the studies are 50% cheaper for them. It is hard indeed to get good education because schools can be quite expensive. But claiming they are a monk, youngsters have access to university for a bargain compared to the normal price.

Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

Anyway, being a monk for at least a couple of years is a prerequisite for every young Buddhist boy. After this period of time, they can simply decide they want to go back to “normal life” – or not. Some simply remain in holy orders. If they do, it is of great pride for the family to have a monk amongst them and will definitely bring them good omen. It’s been more than 8 years that Pritcha has been a monk. I ask him if it is a vocation to him. He replies he has chosen long studies to become a teacher, and confesses to me that he is now a bit bored with being one.

The 21st century monk

Bored to be a monk? What of the vocation? What of the mystery? I start to understand that being a monk is more like going off to do military service… Mostly, they have to do it.

But further than my questions, Pritcha seems to pay a special interest to other subjects, especially football. He loves football. The discussion digresses. He wants to know how David Beckham is doing these days. He is quite unlucky to find out that this sport is not really one of my interests and that I can’t provide him with any useful information. As we are just chatting about sports, something rings. It sounds like a cell phone. He looks at me smiling, and plunges his hand into his toga. He pulls out his brand new Blackberry and reads an SMS he just received. He smiles again. “I have to go now” he says, gets up, shakes my hand, and quickly walks away… I stay sitting here, wondering.

I guess I won’t know more. My “Monk Chat” ends just as it started; suddenly. My romantic vision of these mystic ascetic people is now a bit clearer, even if new questions now come to me. And my main one about Buddhist Monks now is: “What was this SMS saying?”

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