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By Tom Holmes
Editor's 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 on New Year's Eve morning trying to remember why I decided to spend 40 days alone in Thailand. I concluded that I had imagined a time of testing, sort of like when Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and was tempted by the devil or when Israel was in the desert for 40 years and their faith was tested.
For whatever the reason, the first fifteen days weren't at all like that. No demons. No temptations. Whenever I got into situations which were beyond my control, some-one—Nicky, my tuk tuk driver or perfect strangers—came to my rescue.
I thought about the forest monk telling me that I had courage. He might have thought so, but the truth was that as long as I stayed in Chiang Mai, I had a safety net which was only a cell phone call away. Besides, it wasn't courage that propelled me but a kind of interior compulsion. I just had to do it. According to St. Mark's account, the Spirit "drove" Jesus out into the wilderness.
So, I decided to do what I had been considering for several days. Come Monday, I would strike out on my own on an eight day excursion to four smaller towns in this northern part of Thailand, travelling by train and by bus. Maybe then, hours away from help from my friends, the demons and dangers I had been expecting would appear to test me. At the very least, I would be able to explore some new towns and see some beautiful countryside.
Since the front desk of the Riverside B&B was also a travel agency, the women who staffed it helped me make guest house reservations in Lampang, Phayao, Chiang Rai and Nan. That settled, I addressed another unmet expectation.
Aside from my conversation in Bangkok's train station with Bikkhu Buddha Dhatu, I hadn't actually talked to any real Buddhist monks. I knew that a college was connected with Wat Chedi Luang and that the monks who were majoring in English would hang out in one part of the wat and strike up conversations with farang (Westerners) in order to improve their conversation skills.
After a short twenty minute ride in a tuk tuk I was at the wat and taking pictures. I remembered that the monks came to the Monk Chat area in the afternoon so, since it was still morning, I wandered around doing the things I always did in wats—read my Bible a little, hang out in the shade, let my mind wander, wait for surprises. . . .
After awhile I noticed that I was feeling tired, because I had gotten to bed late after watching the muay Thai boxing match the night before. I was hungry, too, and hot, and I had to find a hawng nam (bathroom, literally water room). I left the shade of the big tree under which I was sitting and ventured into the hot sun almost directly over head, making my way around the ancient chedi in the middle of the wat.
I was trying to be careful. I always try to walk carefully, because I trip and fall twice a month on average. It's because my disorder makes my leg muscles stiff and my balance bad. Most of my falls are what I call "good falls," ie nothing broken, no trip to the emergency room for stitches. I was trying to be careful, but all of a sudden there I was on the paving stones with the wind knocked out of me and a nasty scrape on my left forearm.
I was immediately surrounded by Thais asking me if I was OK. . . .at least I think that's what they were asking. They helped me get up and waddle to a bench in the shade. After assuring them that I was not going to die, I was alone again.
It only took me a minute or two to figure out why I had fallen this time. I was tired, hot and hungry. I should have eaten a couple of granola bars before walking around the chedi to the monk chat. I sat for awhile, ate what I had in my back pack and very deliberately made my way to the shady spot where several college age monks were waiting for farang to talk to.
I spotted an empty seat at the little table where a farang couple was talking to a young monk. Turns out that they were from Switzerland. When I tried to enter into the conversation, the monk had a hard time understanding what I was saying. My resolve to venture out on my own was beginning to slip. First I fall down while trying to walk. Then I can't be understood while trying to talk.
Luckily, the two Swiss spoke excellent English and were able to "translate" my slurred speech into a language the monk could understand. When I thought about it later on, it was kind of funny—a young couple from the German speaking part of Switzerland helping me communicate with a Thai Monk—but at the time it felt like life was confirming to me that I was disabled. So much for having courage.
After twenty minutes of telling each other where we grew up and how we liked being in Chiang Mai, we did finally get into the discussion I had been hoping for. I asked the monk, through my translators, to explain the concept of kamma to me. He talked about cause and effect—if you do good, you receive good, and vice versa.
"Ok," I thought, "he's saying the same thing I've heard before, so I think I understand at least one Buddhist concept." Having that little exchange go well motivated me to try to explain the Christian concept of grace to him. But, no matter how hard I tried, nothing I said, even when translated by the Swiss couple, seemed to make any sense to him. I tried saying it was an uncaused effect. Then I used the word random and then the word surprise, but nothing I said seemed plausible to him.
I left Wat Chedi Luang feeling chastised, grateful and grumpy all at the same time. When the tuk tuk crossed the Ping River I asked him to drop me off at the parking lot where the mom and pop restaurant was located instead of at the guest house. I ate a bowl of lard nar, picked up a taro filled dessert waffle from a vendor, ate it as I waddled the two blocks back to the Riverside B&B, and was in bed on New Year's Eve by 10:00 pm.
It had been a long day. I had been tested, not by demons or Satan, but by being faced with my own limitations. I was so tired that I didn't have the energy to try to process everything that had happened that day. I slept so soundly that I only half heard the fireworks being shot off at midnight.