Meditating in Chiang Rai, life is like a tomato

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, 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

I woke up the next morning, a Friday, feeling like a wanted to loaf all day.  I took my time showering and saw that it was 11:00 am by the time I was ready to go. 

The hill tribe museum I had been to the day before was located above a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms which is operated by the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), based in Bangkok.  As the name of the restaurant implies, PDA is active in promoting family planning especially, in the Chiang Rai area, among tribal people.  I decided I’d go there for lunch and check out what PDA was doing.

I have to admit that I felt a bit self-conscious when I walked into the place.  The fact that all of the art on the walls was made from rolled up condoms in bright colors didn’t help.  And, sure enough, my server was very attractive.

Cabbages and Condoms turned out to be a disappointment.  My server seemed bored with her job and didn’t engage in any interaction.  My lunch was good but overpriced, which I expected from an NGO trying to raise funds, but I didn’t learn a thing.  Too bad, because it sounded like they were trying to go work, but the place didn’t motivate me to give them my email address and become a supporter.

I went out to the street intending to flag down a tuk tuk or sawng tae ou.  Instead I bumped into a samlohr driver, who turned out to be the least expensive transportation in town.  I was able to communicate with him that I wanted to go to the Doi Chang coffee house, but he didn’t know where it was. 

I had studied the map that morning and had a general sense of where I was and where I wanted to go, and, to my great joy, he seemed to catch the drift of what I was saying.  I crawled into the back of the rickshaw, and he began pedaling.  At most the trip was two kilometers long, but by the time we arrived at Doi Chang, the guy was sweating.

Khap khun krup,” I said as I waied my hard working driver.

Mai pen rai (no problem/you’re welcome),” he replied, reciprocating the wai.

It was 1:00 pm, and I had nothing planned for the rest of the afternoon but to hang out at Doi Chang.  Strange.  Even though I had had such good experiences with unscheduled time on Kampan’s porch in Chiang Mai and on the banks of the Mae Wang at the Riverside Bar in Lampang, I still had to work hard at convincing myself that I shouldn’t feel guilty about “wasting” a whole afternoon.

I ordered an iced coffee, of course, picked up a day old copy of the Bangkok Post and tried to find out what had been going in the world since I left the States on December 1.  I had been living in a parallel universe and was out of touch.

That brought to mind a difference I had noticed between the younger monks and their older mentors.  The young men in saffron who practiced their English at the Monk Chats in Chiang Mai laughed a lot and were curious about everything going on in the world.  One young monk, who had come all the way from Katmandu to study English in Chiang Mai, told me he was a Man U fan. 

In contrast, the older monks always seemed to be living in a zone disconnected from the world I moved around in.  They had no interest in whether Manchester United had won its last football match or not.  Except for the monk in Bangkok’s train station, older monks never greeted me, smiled at me or even acknowledged that I existed.  They just seemed to glide through life, “lost” in a detached, altered consciousness.

The reality from which I was disconnected was not the same reality from which the older monks I had seen were detaching.  Or, was it?  Back home I would watch the News Hour almost every evening and had my car radio set to NPR.  My friends and I would often get into political debates, passionate at times, as if what we thought was really going to make a difference in the world. During my solitary journey in Thailand, however, I seemed to care less about what was making the headlines back home.

Speaking of back home, I realized that I had been seeing a lot more farang in Chiang Rai than I had seen in Phayao or Lampang.  That’s because Chiang Rai is perhaps the trekker capital of Thailand.  Absent were the Westerners who wanted nothing more than to be tourists.  That is, they wanted “dip” into Thai culture from the shallow end of the pool, always staying in reach of the comfort of a five star hotel which served American food and where the staff spoke good English.

These farang were mainly Caucasians in their twenties, wore quick drying synthetic pants and shirts purchased from outdoor gear stores like REI and, when not wearing their hiking boots, made slapping sounds on the pavement with their flip flops.  They were lean and tanned and carried their forty pound packs from the bus station to the cheapest guest house in town with ease. They were about diving into Thai culture at the deep end.

From the perspective of my 63 year old, disabled body, they all seemed to be on the upside of the bell curve of life.  Their whole life was about growing.  They were constantly acquiring new knowledge, new experiences, new confidence in themselves.

In contrast, I was clearly on the downward slope of the curve.  My life was way more than half over, and my body, much like my twelve year old Mazda, was still useable but not worth very much as a trade in.  I didn’t wear flip flops, because I would trip in them and had left my hiking boots at home.  I wore what they called “sensible shoes.”

As I sat in the pleasant ambience of Doi Chang and watched these beautiful, young trekkers pass by on the sidewalk outside, I surprised myself that I didn’t feel more envious of them.  Maybe it was partly because I had been able to have adventures when I had been their age.  I had lived in Puerto Rico for two years.  I had canoed the Boundary Waters and the Quetico five times.  I had hiked Isle Royale alone for five days.  What the sight of those lean young folks triggered in me were good memories more than envy.

But, there was a more profound reason why I wasn’t jealous of their mobility and energy.  I had done a lot of letting go during the last decade of my life.  I had made peace, or at least a cease fire agreement, with the reality that I was inexorably sliding down the slope called aging.  I had come to the conclusion that because the slide was inevitable, all I would accomplish by trying to resist it would be to be to look like a fool. 

So I watched other crones and codgers whom I admired and tried to imitate them by learning how to slide with grace.  They didn’t dye their hair, have tummy tucks done or pretend that they liked hip hop.  They loved it when younger people enjoyed chatting with them, but they weren’t desperate to gain their approval.  They liked being where they were in life.

I decided that life was like a tomato.  It begins as a tiny seed and needs a lot of nurturing when it first sprouts.  After getting a good start, a tomato grows like crazy from May until August.  But then, when the dog days of summer hit, it stops growing.  For the rest of its time in the garden until there comes a killing frost, what tomatoes do is ripen.  That don’t become larger.  They become juicier.  I liked the thought of become juicy.

I had had enough of introspection by 4:30 pm, partly because I was getting hungry.  So, based on what I had learned about where I was the day before, I chose to waddle the two blocks to the City Home and then the block and a half to the night market. 

In the middle of Chiang Rai’s night market is a huge open air dining area with maybe fifty tables surrounded by food stalls.  A server from the stall nearest where you are sitting  takes your order while you enjoy being in the mild, seventy degree evening air.  As I waited for sampler plate of Northern Thai food, I enjoyed the music played by two guitarists performing on a stage thirty meters from me.

After a fun meal, I browsed the market and found an Akha woman selling hand sewn purses--or man bags as my daughter corrects me when I say I’m carrying a purse—for 200 baht($7) each.  To my eye, they were beautiful and within my budget.  I like bringing fabric items as gifts for friends back home, because cloth doesn’t break when luggage is thrown around at the airport.  I bought four.

On my way back to City Home, I was still a little hungry so I bought one of the popular little waffle desserts—this one filled with taro—for 15 baht from a street vendor.

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