Wat's up, Doc?
17, 1995 11:03
18:17 Saswasdee House; Bangkok-Thailand :: 16 APR 95
I know, I know. What an awful pun. But that's the best kind.
Oh, some of you may need a little explanation.
The Thai word for temple, typically a Buddhist one, is Wat. I'm
sure Abbot&Costello would have something to say about that, and it
would probably not go over very well here. As the Lonely Planet points out, Thais "take their Buddhism seriously."
This seriousness manifests in remarkably well constructed, lovingly maintained
Wats, a stark contrast to the dilapidated and rapidly failing condition
of Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim temples throughout Malaysia.
Also, since we're now in the north of Thailand, where religious
tendency switches from the prophet Muhammad on the Thai peninsula to the
teachings of Buddha, we now have monks (in brown robes) and initiates
(in orange). They are everywhere confounding my expectations, sitting
at food stalls sipping 7-UP, riding buses, climbing into taxis, and other
activities too mundane for men who should be chanting mantras, meditating,
defying matter with mind and otherwise seeking The Way.
I blame my western education for such patently ridiculous expectations.
Come to think of it, Amex could get alot of mileage out of western naiveté:
a monk checks into Boston's Ritz-Carlton, "alot of people don't know
what to think, but they take me seriously when I whip out my American
Express Card"-"Don't leave the monastery without it." And
while today we goggle-eyed several Wats ( the most remarkable being Arun
and Pho), yesterday's visit to the National Museum provided essential
context, or we'd have been goggle-eyed and dumb-founded.
I can walk into any museum in a Western country and recognize
many of the names mentioned, know the historical context of most events
and appreciate the social forces at work. The sense of these museums is
like a historical refresher course with advanced topics thrown in for
interest. On the other hand, five minutes in Bangkok's National Museum
and I'm wondering what planet I've been on all these years.
For example, the predominant early influences on Thai culture
are Indian, Chinese and Khmer. American high-schools and media teach us
a smidgen about India: there's millions of them; they're really poor;
although they make the world's wickedest curry, they'd rather starve than
eat their sacred cows, one of which might be their late mother; they have
this really old but still hopelessly pagan culture (that is, it's 'unsophisticated'
as opposed to our significantly more 'rational' mono-theism); they have
We learn a fair bit more about the Chinese: there's more than
a billion of them; they're really poor; with chopsticks they eat rice,
sweet&sour pork and egg noodles which they taught the Italians to
make; they have this really old culture based on the teachings of a guy
named Confucius who they're always quoting, even though the Communists
just wish he'd go away; they think that acupuncture works, that rhino
horn makes you randy and that performing Tai Chi brings something called
'inner peace' (that is, their 'superstitions' are, by definition, inferior
to our 'science'); there's a really long wall there but nobody ever tells
us who built it or what's on the other side of it from China; they crush
opposition with tanks (while we crush opposition by teaching the traditionally
oppressed that since they live in a land of opportunity their poor living
conditions are their own fault, ergo, what is there to oppose but their
own incompetence?); they have the bomb.
We don't learn a thing about the Khmer. If you've been reading
the papers at all over the last thirty years, you might confuse them with
the Khmer Rouge. That's only partially right. Same geographical area,
descendants of the same people, but times have changed. Those who call
themselves Khmer Rouge are a socio/political sub-culture, and a rather
nasty group at that. But the Khmer Rouge do have something in common with
the Khmer people of old: belligerence.
The visit to the National Museum showed that the Thai people
formed a distinct set of cultures well back into pre-history. Khmer influence
on art and other aspects of some of these early cultures is found primarily
north of Bangkok in Sukhothai and Chiang Mai. However, all Thai cultures
eventually profited through contact with the Chinese and Indians, in the
form of peaceful trade, political relations and the intermingling of peoples
from different cultural heritages. The Thai people borrowed religious,
architectural, artistic and administrative forms from both China and India.
The artistic, architectural and religious influences are all easily apparent
at the Wats. I also learned that by repeatedly conquering the Thai peoples
through force of arms, the Khmer and Burmese forced them to either mature
into a united nation or perish in oppression. They finally 'matured' late
in the 18th Century when Taksin cast out the Burmese for good (so far)
and united other long-separate Thai provinces under one nation. In the
meantime, he became Rama I, the first King in the still-ruling Chakri
Dynasty. What the National museum doesn't say is that Taksin was of Chinese
descent, not Thai. Hmmmm. Some forms of influence are more direct than
The image of Thailand an average North American might possess
probably doesn't go much further than the 'most beautiful women in the
world' thing along with the sexual depravity and dirtiness of Bangkok
and stories of great and copious 'weed'. I certainly never picked up much
more than this before friends of mine started telling me about their excursions
here. If it's further explained that Thailand was once called Siam, that
might ring a few more western bells: Siamese cats come from there, right?
Perhaps they'll think of that guy with the shaved head in the film The
King and I. "Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera!" At the mention of
film, some might recall that a James Bond film featuring Tattoo ("It's
da plane!") was shot in Thailand.
Ignorance is a basic form of prejudice. To say that I'm surprised
to see monks hailing cabs is to admit my prejudicial ignorance. Again,
I blame the schools and the media for this unrealistic image. Well, those
guys and my own willingness to accept their sanctioned versions of the
Truth®. However, while Truth often comes easily, real progress toward
understanding results most often in more questions. Ah well, the lesson
we constantly need to relearn is that there will always be more lessons.
So, the sense of being on another planet is a positive one. It
means the lessons will be coming fast and furious. I'll be spending more
time at the Wats and the museums, the art galleries and just sitting around
in weird places watching weird things happen, until they don't seem so
weird anymore. After all, if a Monk wants to get across town fast how
else but by bus or cab? What I want to know is, why would a Monk need
to cross town in a hurry?
Patrick. -- Responses Sought --
A man dug a well by the side of the road. For years
afterward, grateful travelers talked of the Wonderful Well. But one night,
a man fell into it and drowned. After that, people avoided the Dreadful
Well. Later it was learned that the victim was a drunken thief who had
left the road to avoid being captured by the night patrol-only to fall
into the Justice-Dispensing Well. Same well; different views.