Tuesday, July 28, 2009

planting trees

As you might recall from my previous post, there’s a whole big section of Bangkok not far from where we live that’s all green and jungley still. I enjoy bike riding there, and trading the noise and tumult of big bad city-living for the sensory cacophony of birdsongs, green and textured plants, winding pathways, eddying waters, and fresh breezes.

I’m not the only one to notice the green plants and fresh breezes part: the area acts as a lung and liver for the poisons of the city, filtering out at least some of the pollution in the air and water. In order to further this cleansing, a young Thai woman (who’s also a student at Phillip Exeter Academy in NH) has founded The Giving Greens, an organization that buys green lands in order to protect them from development, runs nurseries to provide native plants to further propagate the greenness, and educates and encourages local residents to plant more trees.

This weekend, invited by an Australian in the know, we went to one of their tree-planting days. It was super-fun: we planted something like 1,000 trees, extending the green border just a little further into the city. The planting was muddy and very satisfying work, made easy by the pre-dug holes. The excellently-organized event also included charming dancing by the schoolkids resident in the green area, a feast of superb local food, free awesome t-shirts, and a great group bike-ride to the local floating market. Couldn’t really ask for more: I almost felt like I was getting away with something, not working hard enough and having too much fun.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

outings and aboutings in bangok

Petra and I have had a few unexpected free days recently, and made an attempt to see more of this city we’re living in. The first stop in our hometown tourism was the Golden Mount, a tall man-made hill on the edge of the old city topped by an ancient gleaming golden temple and stupa. Our guidebook promised panoramic views and peaceful quiet: the mount didn’t disappoint. While it’s theoretically the monsoon season, we’ve had a spate of some of the bluest skies I’ve ever seen, and the previous rains washed away much of the pollution, so the view from the hill showed off a gleaming, sunny cityscape hardly resembling my experience of Bangkok. Surrounded by a tight ring of trees and lifted as high as the skyscrapers, the comparatively fresh wind and lack of traffic noise was a welcome relief.

One of the most famous sights in Bangkok is Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. Built in the Ayuthaya period (1600s), it’s one of the oldest buildings in the city, and has a noticeably different shape and decorative motif than any intact structure I’ve seen in Thailand. While in most photographs is appears monolithic and pinkish, it’s actually many separate structures, each distinct, and comprised of many bright colors: orange, green, grey, brown, you name it. The entire temple complex is ornately decorated: the older structures are obsessively carved, while the newer buildings are mosaiced to within an inch of their arguable lives. I hadn’t looked forward to visiting the temple, instead considering it an obligatory visit as a Bangkok resident, but found myself thoroughly enjoying the temple itself, the quiet neighbourhood surrounding, and the view across the river to the palace area.

We reached both mount and wat by boat: the mount via the klong (canal) that runs near our apartment, and the wat via the central Chao Phraya river. The waters are high and filthy, thanks to the accumulated runoff of the entire Mekong Peninsula. Even with the displeasures of stench and overactive minds imagining dunkings and virulent infection, it’s still a superior form of travel within the city: it’s fast, there’s no traffic, there are more trees and fewer obnoxious foreigners, and it allows a glimpse into otherwise inaccessible neighbourhoods. And on these trips, there were bonus cool clouds and rainbows. Plus traveling on painted long boats somehow adds romance and adventure to otherwise mundane commuting. :) And who would turn down romance and adventure?

After visiting the wat, Petra and I retired to a very posh but hidden restaurant called The Deck that is right on the bank of the Chao Phraya, directly across from Wat Arun. We sipped tasty cocktails while watching the sun set over the temple, then watched the barges push their way against the current to reach northern Thailand. Ma, I sang the obligatory ‘Barges’ song for you. Couldn’t ask for a nicer evening.

Monday, July 6, 2009

religion in thailand

Unlike everywhere else I have lived, Thailand’s dominant culture and populace are not Christian. 95% of people in Thailand are Buddhist. The remaining 5% are mainly Muslim and Chinese Traditional Religion (Confucian/Taoist/Animist), with only a small fraction identifying as Christians.

In the 500s AD, Buddhism was brought evangelically to the area that eventually became Thailand. The region’s Buddhist leanings were further strengthened when it was conquered by the Buddhist Thai culture in the 1200s. We don’t know much of the region’s history between then and 1767*, but from its results we can see a great commingling of religious and cultural ideas from the various great land trading routes across Southeast Asia.

The type of Buddhism practiced in Thailand is Theravada, the same kind as is practiced in modern Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Sri Lanka (where Theravada originated). However, there are noticeable touches of Mahayanism in their worship, such as the belief that the king is a bodhisattva, and the growing popularity of the Chinese Kuan Yin (a persona of Avelokitesvara, another bodhisattva). For those of you who aren’t up on your Buddhist theology, very roughly think of the Theravadens as Protestants, and the Mahayanists as Catholics, and the bodhisattvas as saints. Think of how surprising it would be to find a statue of a saint in a Congregationalist church.

In addition to this sect-mingling, there are also a surprising number of Hindu deities appearing in Thai Buddhism. It’s not uncommon to see Ganesha sitting at the foot of the Buddha, or to find a many-armed statue of Brahma as the presiding figure at a major Buddhist shrine. Thais see no discrepancy in the two religions, taking a rather Indian approach of “more gods = more bases covered”. When asked about their beliefs, though, Buddhist cosmology spews forth, very little Hindu thought included.

Rather than the visually evident Hinduism, what slants the mental framework of Thai Buddhists away from the philosophy of the texts is animism and ‘superstition’. Thai animism is the pre-Buddhist traditional religion of the region, and is closely related to Chinese animism. It largely consists of considering and respecting both the spirits of local physical and natural places, and respecting ancestor spirits. Local place-spirits are thought to reside in anything from trees to rocks to streams, and respect to them can be seen in the garlands, paint, and offerings given to these locations. When a site has been cleared of its natural features (i.e. a building site), a tiny, beautiful and ornate house is built in which the displaced spirits will hopefully reside, so that they do not become angered by the destruction of their homes and cause trouble for the new residents. Identical spirit houses are also built and tended for the spirits of the humans who were attached to the place, traditionally the ancestors of the current occupants. Offerings of flowers, food, beverages, and trinkets are given to both types of spirit houses daily by the residents and other people connected with the shrines, with the hope that the spirits will stay appeased and will possibly assist the offerers. If the spirits are left unfed or otherwise become unhappy, the fear is that they will haunt and cause great trouble. Thais fear these ghosts more than almost anything else.

The other practices that Thais add to traditional Buddhism are what we would usually class as ‘superstitions’, though the term is considered offensive because of its assumption of inefficacy. The main practices are what Heine and Prebish call “the cult of relics, images, icons, and amulets”.** The protective amulets are most evident, worn on thick necklaces or placed on dashboards and handlebars. Upon closer inspection, protective and power-channeling talismans present themselves painted on the ceilings of taxis or even tattooed on the skin of believers. In addition to the physical lucky artifacts, horoscopes and day-associations take on great meaning and are consulted for any significant event, and the popular lotteries become a numerological wonderland of consideration and speculation.

These derivations from traditional Buddhism are completely ubiquitous among young and old, rich and poor Thais, but are not officially sanctioned by the Buddhist authorities of the country. Those authorities are, notably, the Sangha (community of monks) and the King. The King was, for a time, a monk himself, and is looked to in all matters concerning the country, from theology to taxes to technology. A thoroughly modern and well-educated man, he is able to advise on all these matters, and his word holds great sway, as does that of rest of the community of monks. Given this, it is surprising that these ‘superstitions’ continue so pervasively: the inertia of millennia of cultural practices is hard to resist.

Old practices still also dominate mainstream Buddhist rituals and worship. To walk into a temple here is not to enter a stark place of silent contemplation, but is to join a mingling crowd of stray animals, peddlers, orange-robed monks, gaudy mosaiced and gold-leafed statuary, tourists, motivational plaques, advertisements, strange odours, and discordant noises. It’s a real ‘bells and smells’ type of worship, with flower garlands, incense, candles, and food offerings stealing the show. Like Latin in pre-Vatican-2 Catholicism, Pali is the language of religion (scriptures, liturgy, etc.), so most practitioners don’t know what the words mean, making the endless mumble of the chanting equally surrealistic for all involved.

Humorously, this worship style is not limited to within temples and shrines. Buddhism is very much alive and well in Thailand, fully integrated into modern life. Statues, shrines, and other places of worship are incorporated into every street corner, mall, and skyscraper, allowing businessmen and shoppers to stop, bow, light some incense, and pay their respects throughout the day. You’re more likely to see worship being done by makeup-ed women in Prada than by monks.

This giving of respect and offerings is almost the entirety of most lay Thai’s Buddhism. As Tuchrello notes, most Thais “place little emphasis on the achievement of nirvana.” Instead of striving in meditation for the ultimate goal in this lifetime, Thais are generally content to leave that work to the next lifetime, and just look to have an easier life next time around, in which they’ll hopefully do a better job at the whole nirvana thing. They therefore generally limit themselves to accruing merit (good karma), mainly by supporting and revering the Sangha and giving material offerings to auspicious shrines or spirits. To me, this seems remarkably close to the unsavoury and lazy practice of buying indulgences, but it is considered to be quite honourable here.

While Buddhism sits strong in this country, it is not without its problems. The main challenge to the strength and continuation of Thai Buddhism has been brought by the establishment of government schools from the 1960s through today. While previously the temples were the sole sources of community education, with monks teaching the times tables along with the concept of interdependent origination, now the role of the monk is much more limited. Without the knowledge immediately applicable in this life to draw them, and with the obligations of western-style schools or work to take their time, very few students seek out the teaching of the monks these days. Not surprisingly, there are many fewer monks now than there used to be. Western-style media reporting of the inevitable monk scandals is also eroding the trust and respect of the Thai people for the remaining Sangha, and inter-sect competitions are preventing the Buddhist groups in the country from presenting a positive and clear message about the benefits of Thai Buddhism to its people.

The last challenge faced by Thai Buddhism as it moves into the modern era is that it currently grants women very little status, though the rest of Thai society is generally quite respectful and supportive of women. Lay women “primarily participate in religious life either as lay participants in collective [i.e. not personally benefiting] merit-making rituals, or by doing domestic work around temples.” (Tuchrello) Additionally, women are encouraged to financially support the male Sangha. In order to get personal merit, women try to bear a male child so that their son might be willing to gain merit for them. This not only adds to more children than are needed, but degrades the status of women in society and diminishes Thai Buddhism, which could only be enriched by the intellectual and practical contributions of the many devoted and active Thai women. While men are being entreated to join the Sangha, women are demanding to be allowed to become nuns.

"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them." -Sojourner Truth

(sorry, too many photos, I know. edited slideshow and captions soon.)

* 1767, the year in which the principal Thai city was completely sacked and burned by the Burmese, destroying all previous records and much religious iconography and architecture.
* *Buddhism in the modern world, by Steven Heine and Charles S. Prebish, pg 10
--William P. Tuchrello on the Library of Congress

Thursday, July 2, 2009


The town of Sanklaburi is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited since coming to Thailand. It sits just north of a reservoir created about 30 years ago at the convergence of three rivers. During the rainy season the old temple – the only building left from the town that was flooded to create the reservoir – is almost entirely submerged. If the water is at just the right height and the temple only half covered, you can slip through the door in a long-tail boat and float out over the stairs. When I was there at the end of the dry season, we crossed the threshold on foot with the deserted shells of freshwater mussels crunching underfoot.

The first evening we ate dinner on bamboo platforms built out over a quickly-rushing mountain stream. The whole restaurant – platforms, kitchen, and all – has to be dismantled and moved every year before the wet season because the stream swells to fill its little ravine.

The stars are beautiful in these mountains. Electricity is not a given and the air is lovely and clear. The silence in the morning is profound, after the geckos have stopped singing and before the birds have begun. But with the first hint of sunlight, the fishermen head out on the lake in traditional boats suped-up with third class motors that sound like your grandfathers lawnmower after the cover has rusted away, and you gain a new appreciation for the noise-amplifying acoustic potential of large flat bodies of water ringed in mountains.

Spanning this large body of water is the pride of Sanklaburi, the Sappan Mon (Mon Bridge). It’s the longest wooden bridge in Thailand, stretching an impressive 400 meters from the mainland to the island village housing the local Mon community. The distinct cultural identity of the Mon people is evident throughout the area: in the art and architecture of the temples, the crafts for sale in the markets, and the food. I brought home an old Thai whisky bottle filled with honey. It comes from people in some of the most remote villages in the mountains; cloudy amber liquid, always fluid in the constant heat, frothy on top, almost too sweet but still sharp.

Many of the people in this area of Thailand are of the Mon or Karen ethnic groups, each of which have a well-organised militant faction engaged in more-or-less active warfare with the Thai army, the Myanmar government, and each other. Competition for control of major smuggling routes is fierce and bloody. Factor in small gangs of ordinary bandits, and you begin to see how complicated life can be in these mountains.

The mountains themselves are tall and jagged, with raw and rugged shapes that seem out-of-tune with their covering of foliage so green it’s almost deciduous, interspersed with pine. From Thailand we watched the sun set over Burma; high above the barred border gate, magnificent clouds drifted freely across the sky.

Note: My colleagues took some of these photos – you know who you are, I thank you!