Archive for August, 2013

The Last Post…

Posted: Sunday, 18th Aug 2013 in Thailand

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Today is my last day in Bangkok and SE Asia. I fly out late tonight or more correctly, early tomorrow morning; 2am to be exact. An ungodly hour. I fly to Guangzhou in China where there is a 2 hour stopover. Then a change of planes and a 12 hour flight to London where I arrive at 5pm tomorrow. I’ll be knackered! It was that or a much more expensive direct flight. No contest.

The day before yesterday (Thursday) was a strange sort of a day. I woke up at 7am following a reasonable night’s sleep. My stomach felt squeamish, very unusual for me. I went to the loo and both ends of my digestive system expressed copiously; though mercifully not simultaneously. This puzzled me as I had eaten dinner over 12 hours previously at a local restaurant with good customer turnover and fresh food. I would have expected to become ill a few hours after eating and not 12 hours later. Anyway, I was ill the whole day and could keep nothing down, not even water. I slept the whole day or rather dozed and woke up and dozed again and paid several visits to the porcelain throne. It was very unpleasant. This nausea and inability to keep any food down continues to today and I still feel a bit rough. I went to Boots (yes, they’re even here in Bangkok) and got some meds for the nausea and rehydration sachets. I don’t fancy feeling ill while on a long plane flight but fairly sure I’ll be ok. I wonder if I’ve caught dysentery and will see my doc as soon as back in London.

Anyway, nothing more boring about people withering on about their pains and aches, especially older ‘uns like myself. The reason I’m mentioning it at all is because it’s unusual. I have an immune and digestive system like an armoured combine harvester and generally grind noxious flora and fauna to dust. Also, it had not really happened before during my 5 months in Asia. I have also noticed that in the past, around times of great emotional change, that I often have a physical reaction. For example, during work time I’m never ill. Wait until holiday time and I come down with something. This has happened every christmas for several years now. Stress manifests physically through headaches etc frequently before I’m even aware that I’m stressed. And then there’s my voice and how this is an example of somatised childhood trauma. Etc etc.

So, I’m wondering. Is this unset stomach just a feisty little bug or something else. Being in Asia has been a real big deal for me and in many ways has turned my view of myself upside down. I was talking to some young American lads at an AA meeting in Phnom Pehn a few weeks ago and they were very excited about going upcountry and doing adventurous things. I reflected that this is not where I am at at all now although it was when I was their age and was travelling around Central Asia and India for several months. Today, at this stage of my life, it’s more about being, just being with myself in different contexts and noticing the responses. Being in Asia is very different to doing Asia. Actually, I do very little and am developing quite a taste for this!

Returning to the UK and nascent plans to resettle in Dublin are life changers as well and generate stress. Maybe this is what’s going on. Yada yada yada. I’m beginning to bore myself now. This is bordering on the self-obsessive so I’ll stop.

I am looking forward to long evenings again although I read in the Irish Times today that the evenings are beginning to draw in again. That’s a pity as it gets dark here at 6.30pm. There is no dusk; it’s day and then it’s night. I look forward to lanes as well as country roads.

See you soon.

Wat’s it all about..

Posted: Thursday, 15th Aug 2013 in Thailand

I had a few hours to kill yesterday morning. My train from Laos arrived early at 6am and I couldn’t check-in to my hotel until noon-ish. I dropped my bag off at the hotel and just took my iPad and Kindle with me. I was going to go to a coffee shop and read the Irish Times on my iPad and check my email and Facebook, you know, modern world things. On a whim, I decided to go to a local Wat or Thai Buddhist temple. I was feeling in a calm contemplative space and wasn’t too keen on getting spaced out by the photo luminescence from my iPad or sundry gadgets. Going somewhere quiet seemed just the ticket.

Wat That Thong is a local working Wat and not really part of the tourist trail. The word temple is a bit misleading as Thai temples are more like medieval monasteries than modern day churches. This one covered a large area and had several temple like structures as well as a school, health clinic and lots of other buildings. Many monks live there as well. The complex is built on the grounds of two older temples, Wat That and Wat Thong. For that they combined the names and named it Wat That Thong. Inside the main temple there’s a golden Buddha image and that’s where I went. I first thought I would just sit and rest and take in the atmosphere and this is what I did.

I belong to the school of ‘see one golden Buddha and you’ve seen them all.’ I’ve been to several temples in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, even one in Malaysia, and they’re all much of a muchness. I’m not trying to be irreverent here but SE Asia Buddhism is very specific to the culture and history of the region and, to me, seems very inaccessible and foreign. This means that I’m in the position of being an observer and not really a participant although I consider myself a Buddhist and have done so for almost 50 years, but more about that later.

The temple was similar to others I have seen. The main shrine was in a large hall beautifully decorated and containing one huge golden Buddha and several smaller ones. The way this one was arranged reminded my of my days as an alterboy in Dublin back in the 50s. Our local church, St Gabriel’s, had a main altar and two side ones, one to Mary and I don’t remember who the other one was. I used to serve 7.30 mass there every morning for a long time. I remember the devotion I used to feel in those days although I knew, but couldn’t afford to admit, that there was no god there on the altar and that the statues were just plaster and that the whole thing was just made up. Even in those days my head and heart were split apart. Nevertheless, I did feel devotion. I could compare this memory to what I observed in the Thai people and how they related to the Wat, monks, images of the Buddha etc. I tried to put myself in their shoes by remembering how I used to feel. Of course this didn’t work, it just started to make me feel alienated.

I was thinking these thoughts as I was sitting in the temple just taking in the calmness of the place and letting memories from my own past bubble up. There were about a dozen Thai people already there, just sitting or chatting quietly amongst themselves. Nearly all were elderly and most were dressed in rainy season robes which means that they were lay people who had taken temporary ordination during the rainy season. There was one monk there sitting on a chair and reading some text. I wished to talk to him but guessed that he didn’t speak English, as few Thais do. He also didn’t invite me with his eyes to connect with him. Thai people, or at least the ones I have observed, tend to mind their own business and only make brief eye contact with strangers. This was very obvious in places of enforced intimacy such as long distance train journeys. I spent a lot of time in sleeper carriages with Thai people and they generally left me alone unless I initiated contact. I did this a few times but the language barrier was frequently a big problem. I did share a 4 berth carriage once with two young men who were on a business trip. They were delightful and I felt “adopted” into an extended family. They made sure I got food and water from the attendant and wanted a photo of me with each of them. This was sweet. I was a bit shocked at first about the differing concepts of personal space Asian people have. The two men folded their bodies into what I, as a European, consider personal space. I immediately experienced this as both an existential threat and erotic. Of course, it was neither. I practiced a technique I have learned during my stay in Asia, I yielded! This has happened several times. For some reason, Chinese tourists like to have their photo taken with me. Go figure!

During the time I was there, several locals came and went and made donations of flowers or money, prostrated before the Buddha images and prayed for a while. I noticed the gentleness in their gestures and the kindness in their glances when they interacted with each other. I found this very beautiful and refined. Generally, I really appreciate the lack of aggressiveness in Asian men. Maybe the work ‘lack’ is the wrong one to use as it suggests an absence of something. When I compare groups of Asian men with groups of Western men, I value the refined consciousness and social cohieveness of Asia. I always feel safe here, even around groups of young men.

Anyway, after about half an hour, I decided to get off my chair and meditate. Just as I settled myself into meditation posture, dozens of monks floated in, their saffron robes and gentle natures very pleasing to the eye. It was time for morning prayers. A senior monk chanted the Refuges and Precepts in the old language of Pali used during the Buddha’s lifetime. I have chanted these thousands of times during my days as an active Buddhist and knew them off by heart. I struggled to follow the chanting as the Thai accent and intonation meant that I could not really understand what was being said. Nevertheless, despite a reluctance to being different, I chanted what I thought was right and it went ok.

It is considered very bad form in Buddhist SE Asia to sit higher than a monk so the monks sat on a raised platform in the front of the temple. This meant that I could see them. I was surprised at how very young some of them seemed, some just like schoolboys. There was only one older monk. I got thinking about my own days as a Buddhist practitioner when I lived in communities and was on an ordination pathway. This was with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), now the Triratna Buddhist Community. The movement was formed by an Englishman, Sangharakshita, in the 1960s and integrated western philosophy and experience with traditional Asian thought and practice. I remembered my days in the shrine rooms of the FWBO and how disparate a group they were. I mean as Westerners. There would be blond ones and dark ones, hairy ones and bald ones, expensively coiffured ones and raggedy-headed ones, tall ones and short ones, skinny ones and big-boned ones, calm-eyed ones and wild-eyed ones, ones of this world and ones out of this world as well as the occasional other-worldly one, door slammers and door closers, self-contained ones and uncontained ones, quiet ones and noisy ones, big bony noses and pert little buttons of noses, bit flappy ears and little ones like seashells, bulging eyeballs just about to pop out and inscrutable little slivers, eyebrows like they came from the Sargasso Sea and ones like a manicured English lawn, etc etc etc. you get the drift! The Asian monks I observed all looked fairly similar, at least in outward appearance. They all had short dark hair, Thai features, etc. They all had their differences, of course, but the similarities seemed far greater that the differences. To my noisy European monkey mind this appeared very harmonious and pleasing and indeed pure.

I noticed as well that most of the monks were not at all focused during the ceremony, which did go on a bit. They fidgeted a lot and were constantly adjusting their robes, which looked fabulous by the way. I think being a monk in Thailand is like national service. But that is none of my business really. As I constantly do over here, I struggled to be consistent with my own beliefs and opinions while at the same time being open to a culture I don’t really understand. I think this is called being congruent.

The ceremony ended, all went their separate ways and I went back to he hotel to check-in, shower, change my clothes and have a nap. Ah, the hard life!

Messages, Smessages

Posted: Tuesday, 13th Aug 2013 in Thailand

When the universe decides to send me a message, she usually talks loudly. Well, I got a few messages from her recently. She is suggesting that’s its time for me to return home.

I just found out that my return ticket home is a type of scam. I was promised a return ticket and it appeared to be one but the travel agent, a dodgy sort, stated that it is called a dummy return and cannot be used. He promised to sell me one for several hundred pounds. I politely declined. I’m chasing this up with KLM but not too hopeful. This means that I have to buy my own return. As this is the height of the holiday season, they are very expensive. I could wait until 9 Sept when they are cheaper but this would mean being another month here and I really need to get back to London within the next week or so. The money is not a problem but I would prefer to spend it here in SE Asia instead of enriching an airline. I found some cheap tickets online but they mean a long stop-over in Delhi. Not a problem really so I will probably go with that.

Somehow, I am managing not to get pissed off about this; a bit annoyed maybe but not my usual fury. Asia is weaving its spell on me!

The other message is that I am beginning to get tired and a bit disconnected from life. I have been away from my home and networks for almost five months now and on the road living out of a (small) backpack for around six weeks. While this has been exhilarating and challenging and consciousness-expanding, it has also started to become tiring. I was talking a to few young backpackers yesterday and they were saying that they are exhausted. They have been on the road for only 3 weeks so its not an age thing. It’s more of a spirit thing. As a reformed addict, I want more and more from more and more. And then I want some more until whatever it is is drained dry. Well, it might be monsoon season here but I’m getting a bit dry. Time to go.

My way of travelling is about instinct, about not planning ahead and allowing events to unfold. For example, I never plan where and when I will be travelling to another country or town. I have a vague list of places I want to see and am confident that I will get there when the time is right. This has worked out really well for me and there is absolutely no pressure about itinerary, travel etc. It allows me to be in the here-and-now as fully as I can possibly be and enjoy where I am. The downside of this is that it is emotionally draining, for me, not to have a base where I can replenish my spiritual energies. I have invested heavily in the Bank of Life for the past 30 years and am relatively wealthy, spiritually and psychically. I have lived off the interest for the past five months without having to touch the capital but now the bank manager is beginning to look worried. Time to top up my account again.

I need to cut my trip to Laos short and return to Bangkok today so I have access to papers and can leave Thailand at a few hours notice. This is a pity because I was looking forward to seeing a bit more of Laos. However, I suspect I will be back to this part of the world again before long. I’m catching the overnight train today from Nong Khai at 18:20 and arrive in Bangkok at the ungodly hour of 6am.

That’s it. Back on message again.