Bangkok: Temple opens door to its mysteries

By Kate Roff

Chat sessions with monks provide a rare insight into their lives, says Kate Roff.

Monk Thon, of the Chedi Luang temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, explains his lifestyle to tourists with near-perfect English. Photo / Joe Powers
Monk Thon, of the Chedi Luang temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, explains his lifestyle to tourists with near-perfect English. Photo / Joe Powers

We've probably all seen images of the Thai monks, draped in bright orange robes, and wondered what their life must be like. Despite thousands of tourists flocking to Thailand each year this religious order remains something of a mystery to travellers.

Visitors might nod in respect, or move out of the way of a passing monk in the crowded streets, but we gain little insight into their way of life.

However, in one of the most popular tourist destinations, Chiang Mai, one group of monks is changing that. They've opened their doors to visits from the outside world in a programme they call "monk chat".

The temple running the programme, Chedi Luang, is one of the older ones in the area and the resident monks practice their English each afternoon by conversing with curious foreigners.

It's no surprise that this sort of experience is possible in Chiang Mai - the city is fast becoming known as a leader in educational tourism.

It's the place to go for Thai cooking classes, meditation courses, Thai boxing training or to work with elephants.

Despite the Western influence pulsing through the city, it not only maintains its culture but seems determined to educate visitors. Monk chats appear to be an extension of this attitude, bridging the gap between the Thai community and the country's inquisitive visitors.

Monk Thon greets us at our monk chat session with near-perfect English. Although he was only ordained 7 1/2 months ago, his polite manner and open smile give the impression of wisdom beyond his years.

When I ask him to run through an average day for a monk he responds readily: "Well, we begin at about 6am, walking through the streets collecting food donations and then return for breakfast together.

"We then study until lunch and after noon we are not allowed to eat until the next day. We usually spend the afternoon studying at the institution where we live.

"We chant twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening and meditate in the evenings for about 20 minutes."

And what is your accommodation like? "It's nice, very simple but it's all we need. We have individual rooms, no beds, though - just mats to sleep on."

Why is religion so important to the Thai people? "Most humans want to have a refuge, in their hearts they want to find it, and even the agnostic foreigners who come to speak with us seem to want to find something."

What was your motivation for becoming a monk? "Well, in Thailand you can become a monk for as long as you like, there's no obligation to stay if you want to chose another career path, so a lot of young monks join to access eduction.

"There are two kinds of monks, forest monks and study monks. The forest monks are practice monks, and while I am one of them, my leader is very wise and realises that education is important for the young monks, should they ever leave the order, so we still study."

Do both types of monks wear the same orange robes? "They are actually different colours; the forest monk has a darker saffron-coloured robe, while the study monk has a brighter orange."

What's the best part of being a monk for you? "Definitely the education.

"No matter who you are in Thailand you can become a monk and receive education, as long as you live like a monk."

And what's the hardest part of being a monk? "The rules. We have 227 rules, one of the more difficult is that we are not allowed to touch money - it's hard in a modern world to get around that rule."

How do you get around a rule like that? "Ha, ha, I don't. Sometimes, if I have to break that rule, I just have to do it and go and confess afterwards.

"We do have four rules that you cannot break, though, or you have to leave the order: no killing, no lying, no stealing and no sexual intercourse."

What's your diet like as a monk? "We have to accept what we are given, what people donate, which is usually fried chicken and sticky rice. I do get sick of eating sticky rice, but we don't really have a choice!"

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas Airways has regular flights from Auckland to Bangkok via Sydney.

After flying into Bangkok, an ideal way to get to Chiang Mai is on the overnight train. It's a great way to see the countryside and is a safe way to travel. First and second class tickets have comfortable beds but you need to book in advance. Visit railway.co.th and hit "English version".

Where to stay: Villa Duang Champa offers a tranquil haven right across the road from Chedi Luang, where you can take part in your own "monk chat". The villa's spacious rooms are tastefully decorated and the staff are very welcoming. Located in the "old town" of Chiang Mai, this little hotel is a quaint escape in a perfect spot. Rooms start at a reasonable 2,400 Thai Baht.

Further information: Visit the Tourism Authority of Thailand's website.

Kate Roff travelled to Thailand with the assistance of Qantas Airways.

- NZ Herald

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