Every so often in Asia, I am struck by the reality of how surreal my life can be. I often feel blessed to have the opportunities I have had, and I often feel awed by the incredible things I have seen. But, only in rare moments am I really forced to pause and reflect on the oddity of my day to day existence. For example, a monkey steals my breakfast, I spend over an hour trying to find a hostel in Phuket after a driver, who we paid to drive us to our hostel, decides not to, and I wake up under a mosquito net in a tree house on a private beach.
One of these rare “you live in unreality” moments occurred during my holiday in Chiang Mai. I suddenly saw myself, as if from above, seated in a quite corner of a little ornate Thai Buddhist temple. I was holding a string connecting me to Stephanie, her mom, a German family, and a little old monk who was chanting a hauntingly beautiful monotonous prayer as he threw holy water on us and prepared to send whatever our hearts so desired to whomever ‘out there’ we wished. Talk about unreality.
When the prayer finished, the monk ceremoniously tied a monk-blessed bracelet on the women’s left wrists and the men’s right while boisterously announcing wishes for good luck in business, love, home ownership, money and relationships. And then it was over, as fast as it had occurred. I was back to navigating a walking tour of Chiang Mai’s temples with Stephanie and Clara, the unreality of the moment before simply a palpable memory.
With over 60 active Buddhist temples and 300 temple ruins within just the 4x4 km Old City and many more temples in the greater metropolis, it is no wonder monk encounters are common in Chiang Mai. Before sunrise, one can spot monks on every street and alleyway in the city collecting their daily alms. Alms gathering involves carrying a bowl and bag which the monks will present at the door for donors to offer them food in exchange for prayers and blessing. Monks are not allowed to cook for themselves as it is considered an uncleanly task.
Not only will you spot monks in the early waking hours, however, as many spend their time in the temple complexes eagerly waiting for the chance to practice their English with tourists. We had a lovely conversation with a 25-year-old monk who had been living at Wat Phra Singh as first a novice and then a monk for 10 years of his short life. He has hopes of leaving his life as a monk behind to start a family and teach Thai children English when he turns 30. In the hour-long conversation, we discussed everything from the requirements of being a monk to the sects of Buddhism to famous American boxers. As it turned out our monk friend was a huge fan of Muay Thai or Thai Boxing and could rattle off the names of tens of famous boxers, the only of which I recognized were Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (but mostly because of the grill).
Monks also wait in the temples to offer their insight into the histories of the buildings and traditions of Buddhism. In some of the smaller complexes they offer prayers and blessings complete with the aforementioned blessed-string tying ceremony.
In addition to exploring the infinite temples, which naturally included these monk encounters, Stephanie, Clara and I took a Thai cooking class indulging in classic Thai dishes like green curry, papaya salad, pad Thai, spring rolls, and mango sticky rice. We wandered through the street markets and pampered ourselves with classic Thai massages. We donned harnesses and flew like gibbons on 15 zip lines in the tree-top canopy before hiking to the top of a breathtaking waterfall. We went elephant trekking to a hill tribe village, climbed the steps to a mountain temple, and took a dinner cruise on the Ping river, once again enjoying all the local flavor Thailand has to offer.
The natural and man-made beauty, the incredible food, the ever-smiling people, and the memorable adventures with wonderful company made my weekend in Chiang Mai one which I will always hold dear. And as I look back, the vivid memories seem to fittingly turn a lovely shade of fading orange.
Everywhere in and around Chiang Mai the monks can be seen wearing their golden saffron colored robes in emulation of Buddha’s humble garb and to represent their own detachment from the physical world in pursuit of enlightenment. Yet the presence of the robes themselves seems very much an attached and necessary element in the creation, maintenance, and pure existence of the physical world that is Chiang Mai. The orange-red of the monk’s robes ebbs and flows with the bustling traffic and movement of people, it interlaces itself into the daily life of Thai’s and tourists alike, it twirls and spins into every corner of the city until it becomes indistinguishable from the city itself, it weaves colorful, intricate designs into the passage of time here, and it shades and coats my memories. And what a lovely city Chiang Mai is because of it.