Wat Chiang Man and a Pepsi

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editors note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels

I woke up the next morning with a feeling that now the time alone I was anticipating was beginning for real. I had been alone off and on during the past eight days, but I always had something planned with Nicky, M or Sanit waiting for me within a day or two.

Now, except for Sunday mornings at Nong Bua Sam, I would really be on my own. Partly because my disability slows me down and partly because I wanted to digest everything I experienced, I plotted out a leisurely daily routine.

  • Get up around 7:30
  • Feast on fresh fruit at the breakfast provided by the guesthouse
  • Check my email
  • Around 10:00 catch a tuk tuk and explore Chiang Mai
  • Relax in the shade of the big tree in the guesthouse courtyard
  • Walk to a nearby mom and pop restaurant for a real Thai dinner
  • Read in my room till bed time

The place I chose to explore was Wat Chiang Man, reputed to be the oldest wat (temple complex) in town. There's something about wats that I love. The architecture is stunning—wihans (large buildings with a Buddha statue for meditating) decorated in vibrant shades of red, gold, orange and white; gold leafed chedis (see picture) pointing towards the sky; kutis (monk's quarters); and usually flowers and shade trees under which people can simply hang out.

One friend back home, when looking at my Thailand slides, remarked, "The Christian churches in Thailand look rather plain and uninteresting compared to the Buddhist temples." She's right. I never see tourists taking pictures of Christian churches in Thailand.

I thought about the difference a lot and came to the conclusion that Christian church buildings in Thailand are designed to be functional, i.e. they are built not to look at but to DO something in them. It's when a community of people fills them that they become attractive. Buddhist wats are designed more as places to BE in. Churches are constructed with pews and pianos so that congregations can worship together. Wats are designed for individuals to come to as individuals and just be there alone in an environment conducive to meditating.

"These Buddhists are on to something we Christians don't understand very well," I thought. Silence; quieting the mind; solitude without loneliness; meditative environments. I realized that it is not realistic to go to a lot of effort creating an outside environment where I live when to sit in one from November through March would lead to hypothermia. But still…

I took pictures at Wat Chiang Man, sat under a shade tree and more or less let my mind go blank as I took in everything around me. I took more pictures, snacked on some of the cookies I had received from Sanit and Jiraporn, read my Bible, prayed and took more pictures.

Around 4:00 I flagged down a tuk tuk, got off at my gusthouse and walked a block down Thanon Chiang Mai Lamphun to a parking lot where a mom and pop open air restaurant with seven small tables was tucked into a corner. I ordered green curry and rice, which the menu said would 30 baht (about a dollar) and a Pepsi.

When the Pepsi arrived, I realized that it was warm. That's why the glass the server gave me had ice in it. In the US that's not an issue, of course, but in Thailand it is the occasion for a big decision. You see, Montezuma lives in Thailand as well as in Mexico, and he loves to take revenge on those who drink the water.

So, the question becomes, "Has this ice been made from water that has been purified or has it come straight from the tap?" I knew how to say ice in Thai, but hadn't yet learned how to say purified water. There I sat, staring at a big bowl of green curry and chicken, trying to make a decision regarding whether to drink the Pepsi warm or go native and risk sitting on the toilet all night.

"What would the Buddha say?" I thought. I couldn't recall an answer in the Dharma (Buddha's teaching) about this particular question. "What would Jesus do?" Same conclusion. I was left, therefore, with the question, "What am I going to do?"

The answer I came up with had to do with my sense of mission. I was here to test myself, to get embedded—the term Americans use since the war in Iraq started—in a foreign culture and see what happens. Without clear, accessible advice from an expert, I decided to rely on my intuition and poured the Pepsi over the ice.

I arrived back at the Riverside B&B at 7:00 and realized that I had three hours left till bed time and really nothing to do. I thought about my time at Wat Chiang Man for awhile and then decided to get back into my murder mystery, Bangkok Eight. . . .and wait to see what my digestive system would do.

I got to a part where Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is reflecting on a conversation about cultural differences he is having with the blond FBI agent, Kimberly Jones. Sonchai muses,

The truth about human life is that for most of the time there
is nothing to do and therefore the wise man—or woman—
cultivates the art of doing nothing.

"A nice theory," I think, "but in my life I rarely have nothing to do, and most of my friends complain about being stressed out, not bored."

As I read further, it's as if Detective Sonchai heard my objection. He states, "What I see is the great juggernaut of Western culture with its insane need to fill space, all of it, until there is no space or silence left."

There was no TV in the room, and I was tired of reading, so I lay back on my pillow and let the day's events pass through my mind as if I were watching a movie. It was at the point where I was sitting under a shade tree at the temple that I drifted off.

Not only did I wake up the next morning feeling refreshed after a good night's sleep, I felt so good about what I had experienced on the previous day, that I repeated everything I had done all over again—same breakfast, email, tuk tuk, Wat Chiang Man, hang out, pray, take pictures, tuk tuk and mom and pop restaurant.

The only difference was that I picked up a can of Coke from the 7 Eleven on the way to dinner. Maybe I had just gotten lucky yesterday.

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