South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Wat's up, Doc?
Date: April 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 the bomb.

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 others.

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.
  graphical element A Chinese story
Retold in The Tao of Pooh
By Benjamin Hoff