Letters From Bangkok: To a Small Island From Abroad
15 October 2018
What can I say about Bangkok that I haven’t already told you about? It’s the most-visited city in the world and, still, I feel like it is under-explored. Most people who visit use it as a stopover on their way to the mountains in the north or the islands in the south. It’s the biggest airport in Southeast Asia and therefore cheaper to fly into.
The travelers I’ve met here have stayed for one or two nights, usually, before heading out to different cities in Thailand. There’s a steady concentration of expats somewhere in Bangkok, but I’m still trying to figure out how to jump into that circle.
The main attractions in Bangkok are its many Buddhist temples that tower in gold over the city. Thailand is renown for having over 40,000 temples – this compared to the 400 churches in Malta which I thought was impressive enough. Although I’ve yet to find an exact answer, I know that there are thousands of temples in Bangkok alone.
Whenever I go for walks around the city, I tell myself to stay clear of temples because I don’t want to exhaust myself on the touristy things. Yet, it somehow always happens that I end up in a temple.
I can’t help it, there are temples literally everywhere. Often, they’re in rundown neighborhoods where people’s homes are falling apart and crowded. Right in the middle of those neighborhoods is a giant golden temple. It’s absurd.
I’ve yet to understand the etiquette inside the walls of a Buddhist temple. It isn’t like the behavior expected when you’re inside a cathedral in Europe or a Mosque in northern Africa. It’s much different and much more laid back.
There are kids hollering and playing, obnoxious tourist taking photos during services, and even locals are on their phones while the prayer is spoken. The only rule I know of is that shoes must be taken off before entering.
Even monks seem to go about their lives freely inside the temple. I know there are many things I’m not seeing because I’ve learned monks must abide by a strict set of rules, but so far I haven’t seen it.
Last week, while I was in one of the larger temples which I’ve been, Loha Prasat Wat Ratchanddaram, I met a group of monks from a temple in a neighboring city. Bangkok is so big that a city two hours away could be considered a neighboring city.
I met them because I was accidentally standing right in the middle of their photo. I, too, was taking a photo and didn’t expect a group of monks to be doing the same thing.
For a couple of them, it was their first time in Bangkok. I can’t imagine growing up two hours from one of the biggest cities in the world and never visiting. However, a couple of them had been monks since they were little boys and a monk rarely goes far from his temple.
Most of them didn’t speak English too well, but one guy, Masha, spoke excellently.
One of them mumbled something to me and that’s when I noticed I was in their shot. “Oops, sorry about that,” I said. Masha translated the monk’s mumbles. “He wants to know where you are from,” he said.
I told them I was from the United States and immediately Masha and I got into a conversation about his family in Arizona. Then, surprisingly, he told me he has a sister-in-law from Kansas! I didn’t know what to say so I asked what her name was and acted like Kansas was small enough that I might know who she was.
I didn’t, but then he started to tell me about his dream of becoming a missionary in New Mexico and the conversation got a lot more comfortable. I learned from a book I read by Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums, that New Mexico is sort-of the epicenter of Buddhism in the United States. Several Thai people I’ve spoken with have expressed interest in traveling to New Mexico.
At first, it didn’t make sense because I don’t often hear of people wishing to travel to New Mexico, but once I made the connection to Buddhism through Masha, it all fell in line.
He wants to teach English at an international school while on his mission to the United States, but he also wants to learn how the United States education system handles teenagers. He made a very astute observation through movies and T.V. shows that the United States has a different way of teaching teenagers how to be grown-ups.
He doesn’t believe the way kids are raised in Thailand prepares them for adulthood adequately. It’s ironic because I always believed that teenagers in the United States don’t grow-up quickly enough and my experiences at eighteen were so innocent when compared to yours or other Europeans at the same age.
Ultimately, he wants to return to his home in the northeast of Thailand and open his own international school/temple that focuses on teenagers and bringing them to adulthood.
Although he was very well-spoken in English, I can tell Masha is the type of person that never stops learning. He asked for my email and we exchanged Facebook information so that he could ask me questions about the language and I could ask him questions about Buddhism.
There are still so many things I hope to learn about Buddhism and the temples like why poorer neighborhoods always built around them and why the temples are always so empty despite being a top attraction of Bangkok. That’s part of the reason why I’ve decided to travel slowly like this and stay in cities for a month-or-so at a time. I want to figure out the details while I’m still here.
I haven’t been to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, yet. It’s the largest temple in the city. Maybe all of the tourists are hiding out in there.
Anyway, by the time you get this, they will have already announced the winner for the singer/songwriter national finals in Malta. I’m pulling for you to get to Rome, my dude.
Good luck, take it easy.