Asia, Thailand

Monk chat: a day at Buddhist University

‘Can monks have iPhones?’ Phra KK smiled at the question and pulled one out of his orange robes, joking about how he was using it for ‘sexy selfies’.

I’d never met a monk before Phra KK, and I was happily surprised by how chilled out, relatable, and sometimes downright silly he was.

While I didn’t want to be one of those ‘ya I went to Thailand and now I’m a Buddhist bla bla’ people, it seemed to me to me that to go to Thailand and not try to learn anything about the prevailing belief system (note, not religion) would be pretty ignorant and disrespectful to the culture. What’s the point in going to fabulous temples if you only take the pics for instagram and don’t really engage with the history, stories, and the importance of them in the lives of the people whose home you are fortunate enough to be able to visit?

I’ve always liked the ‘idea’ I had of what Buddhism was, but I didn’t know much about it apart from the fact that it was generally a peaceful thought system with an emphasis on meditation, kindness, and self understanding.  So I signed up for a day’s ‘Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation’ course at Wat Suan Dok, part of the Buddhist University in Chiang Mai.

A row of Buddhas at Wat Pho in Bangkok

The day started with an ‘Introduction to Buddhism’; the story of the life of Buddha, the finding of a ‘middle way’ between over indulgence in sensual pleasure and living in suffering, and an explanation of the ‘precepts’ (rules).

As expected, much of the philosophy appealed to me: the emphasis on peace and non-violence, including not causing suffering to others, not killing or eating animals, rejection of capitalism, treating everyone as equals, humility, and living in accordance with the eco-system.

Some of it would be more challenging: no music, no dancing, intoxicants, sexual relationships, and worst of all, no snacks.

The next part of the day was an introduction to meditation. Having come to Thailand as a ‘recovery holiday’ after a period of emotional crisis, I was very attracted to the idea of being freed from thoughts and finding stillness. It’s something I’d found impossible in the hubbub of London life, but maybe here in the peace of the temple, I thought I could find it.

A monk giving a blessing at Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Phra KK talked us through various techniques, and we practiced; sitting meditation, using beads, and a walking meditation in which you walk extremely slowly, with concentration of every moment of every gentle step. It was interesting to learn about how it worked for him and I can definitely see the value in it, but I found it too hard to detach. I was distracted and eventually bored, wondering what was for lunch and if he’d noticed if I stopped to scratch an itch. The focus on breathing definitely helps with calming and reconnecting with your body, and it’s something I’ve found useful as I’ve been learning to practice yoga. But as much as he promised it was normal to struggle especially to start with, I’m not sure it’s something I’ll ever be able to manage.

The day ended with a question and answer session, in which Phra KK fielded all manner of questions about the belief system itself and the feasibility of practicing it in life in 2019. He was very honest about the issues and scandals that had been in the papers- with monks using brothels or dropping out of the monastery after falling for some of the other delights of modern life.

He also shared more with us about his life; being orphaned, and how he was taken in by monks, and the monastery became his family. Monks can’t have money, and live only from the donations of others, but he worked for the temple every day for free to raise donations to give back to the orphanage that fed and looked after him. It seems that it’s common for homeless boys to be taken into monkhood in this way.

While I could see that it had given KK shelter and another chance at life, it was moving to witness his sadness and loneliness. It seemed a shame that having lost his family, he was forbidden from entering a loving and intimate relationship with another human and the chance to create a family of his own.  While he claimed to enjoy his life and came across as a peaceful and understanding person, I wondered at the loss of the love he clearly had to give to someone, and feeling of receiving in return.

Monk Phra KK explains Buddhism.

One of my greater scepticisms was brought up during the Q&A: the fact that, for a thought system based on ‘equality’, the vast majority of the Buddhist church does not accept female monks. I had bought a book about Buddhism to learn more and noted that, for all the talk of humans being treated the same, it referred throughout only to male pronouns, because of course the presumed default human is male.

It was clearly a question he was asked a lot, and while he noted and seemed to believe that something should change, did admit that in the vast majority of the monkhood it was not possible for women to be ordained. It is possible for Buddhist women to become nuns, but they do not share the same status in Thai society as monks. Go figure. While there is much I have taken from learning about Buddhist teaching, it’s my biggest bugbear and barrier from taking it truly seriously as a thought system.

That said, the day and experience was one of the most valuable things I did during my trip, because it helped me to understand the history, culture, and the nature of the people I had met during my time there. I’m sure that because I’ve been blessed with meeting so many warm and hospitable people in my travels that I’ve been guilty of saying many a time ‘the PEOPLE from X place are the best thing about it, they’re the best people in the WORLD’ about a few places. However, in Thailand, the Buddhist influence really is noticeable in your reception and day-to-day interactions.

Sure, if you only hang out on Khao San Road or go to full moon parties you might get harassed and badgered at the seedier end of the spectrum. But if you take the time to get to talk to people you will experience their genuine warmth of feeling, patience, kindness, and most of all humility, to an extent that I’ve never known anywhere else. It’s a culture where people are in the habit of putting others before themselves not just for show, but because they genuinely mean it. I was promised a ‘land of smiles’ and it did not disappoint. With all the wankiness of ‘wellbeing’  aside, it really is a place that had a great healing power for me, but that came from learning from the people as much as from the cheap massages and fresh, healthy food. Buddhism seemed to me to be above all about empathy and being a better person, and while I’m not ready to give up snacks, I tried to learn to be a better person from them.

While I work hard in my career to redress the privilege I never earned in life, am a loving person and loyal friend to those around me, and live day-to-day in a way that I hope causes the least suffering possible, I’m flawed and there are many thoughts I have that I’m ashamed of. A little jaded from life, I can be guilty of being sarcastic, bitter, angry, bitchy, resentful, jealous, and selfish at times. When I’ve been hurt, I’ve taken a lot of relish in fantasising about that person being hit by a truck. None of these things I’m proud of.

The thing I took away most from what Phra KK said about living a life of kindness was about the need to let go of anger and trauma from the past. That if a person has hurt you, doesn’t care about you, that dwelling on that pain only serves to hurt you further. The person who hurt you isn’t thinking about it anymore. You can choose to let the ugliness grow inside you, or not, but if you live with ugliness, you will become ugly, by which he meant more unkind. Everyone, no matter where they have come from, has experienced suffering.  People will hurt you, bad things will happen. But that everything is impermanent. By moving forward it doesn’t mean that thing hasn’t happened, or that it won’t continue to make you sad. But it’s the choice to give another chance to yourself: to not be defined by your suffering, to surround yourself with love, and by doing so learn to channel the negative energy into positive, and suffering into peace.

With thanks to the Buddhist University and Phra KK for the experience. If you want to donate to the orphanage, or if you are going to Chiang Mai and want to learn more, you can book through the Monk Chat website or turn up at Wat Suan Dok on Mondays and Fridays.

Finding peace by the river in Chiang Mai.
Asia, Thailand

What to do with one week in Chiang Mai

Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai has become a hub for digital nomads and other travellers that came to visit and ended up staying. A world apart from the chaos and stickiness of Bangkok, a few days here makes it easy to understand why. The climate is cooler in the northern part of the country. The structure of the city around the river and gates makes it easy to navigate. It’s friendly and fun but much less sleazy, and you can use it as a base to go out and explore in the Northern hills and beyond. Here is a rundown of my recommendations for a week of travel in Chiang Mai:

Learn about Buddhism

Buddhism is the beating heart of Thai culture and it would be ignorant to visit this country and not learn more about it. It’s a thought system that appeals to me for its peace-driven ethics, but I knew only a little of its history and practices.

 ‘Monk chat’ is a programme run by many monasteries with the dual purpose of teaching Westerners about Buddhism and helping the monks to improve their English. I went for a day course that was an introduction to Buddhism held at the Chiang Mai campus of the Buddhist University. Who knew monks are hilarious? Phra KK spent a day teaching us about Buddhist history, ethics, meditation practice, and constantly cracking us up.

The Buddha at the Blue Temple

Visit Chiang Mai’s temples

Every corner in Chiang Mai seems to be home to a temple, or wat,  with a history hundreds of years old, exquisite architecture and murals that tell ancient stories. Chiang Mai is no exception. Within the city, make time to visit Chedi Luang, arguably the most interesting since it dates back to the 14th century and part of the site is a ruin. Wat Phra Singh displays iconic Lanna architecture, while Wat Phra That Doi Kam is home to a huge Buddha that gazes down the steps as you approach it.

If you only have time for one temple, prioritise taking a songathew (a kind of pick up style bus with two benches in the back) up the mountain to visit Wat Phra Doi Suthep. You have short sharp hike up to reach the golden chedi but views, let alone the complex at the top, will reward you.

Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Go to an ethical elephant sanctuary

Sadly the majority of tourists still don’t seem to have got the picture when it comes to the abhorrent cruelty of elephant riding. However, as awareness has been raised in the last few years Chiang Mai has become home to a variety of sanctuaries for elephants rescued from the entertainment and logging industries. Do your research as some ‘sanctuaries’ still keep elephants locked in boxes at the end of the day – TripAdvisor is your friend for honest reviews.

I would recommend Ethical Elephant Sanctuary. It’s run by members of the Karen Hill Tribe, who have always lived with elephants. You can read more here about my wonderful day meeting, feeding, going for a walk with, and washing down the elephants. Although I prefer to see them in the wild, it is magical to be able to be up close and intimate with these gentle giants and to know that they are being well cared for.

Take a day trip to Chiang Rai

If you have more time I’d recommend staying overnight in Chiang Rai because a day trip is a bit of a rush. However, apparently the city isn’t much at night and since I was short on time I arranged a one day tour of the main sites through an agency. In a packed trip we managed to see the White Temple, that is downright bizarre, the beautiful Blue Temple,  and the ‘Black House’ full of historical artefacts. You can also opt to visit the longneck hill tribe. 

The White Temple at Chiang Rai

Eat your vegan heart out

Chiang Mai is home to some of the best vegan food in Thailand. Taste from Heaven makes the hottest and most fragrant green thai curry served in a coconut. The vibe in Aum kept tempting me to return again and again, enjoying a mix of local dishes and fresh sushi while enjoying the views from their open veranda upstairs. If you’ve had too much to drink, Munchies offers western style vegan junk food. Free Bird is a non-profit that uses the proceeds from its restaurant and zero waste shop to fund projects that support refugees from Myanmar. There is another branch of the fantastic May Kaidee restaurant chain. The markets are also a great source of cheap vegan snacks, particularly V-Secrets where you can get four small dishes for a steal to share with a friend.

Papaya salad and avocado maki at Aum

Check out the nightlife of Chiang Mai

The North Gate Jazz co-op is the go-to spot for locals and tourists alike. It has a super chill vibe with regular musicians performing improv, cheap beers, and so many people come that they spill out onto the street, some perched on stools, others swaying and dancing along.

Another popular night time destination are the ‘cabaret’ shows. I was a bit wary of the ‘ladyboy’ aspect, partly because I’d never use that word to describe trans people or those who enjoy wearing drag, although it seems the norm here, and partly because of my concern about trafficking. That said the performers in the street convinced me to pop in and see a remarkable rendition of Rhianna’s ‘umbrella’ that was fabulous, fun, and the performer seemed to genuinely be loving life. (I swear to god if I hadn’t known I genuinely might have thought she was the real Rhianna). So I leave you to make your own call on that.

Revellers enjoy music at the North Gate Jazz Coop

I stayed for a week and only managed a fraction of what this city has to offer. So whatever you do, make sure you make time for it in your trip to Thailand.