Say Wat? Thai Temples, Buddha and Monk Chat

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Before our ride on the overnight train to Chiang Mai, we stayed a few nights in Bangkok to fit in some more shopping and visit the Mercy Community Centre.The Mercy Centre was similar to the Boys and Girls Club or YMCA, but offers a lot more extensive health care, community outreach to homeless youth and single teenagers and offers education to young pre-school aged children as well as children who are behind in the school system.   We arrived just in time to see the children recite their Thai alphabet and sing us the Thai version of “head, shoulder, knees and toes,” wearing their adorable school uniforms.  I wouldn’t mind coming back to Thailand to volunteer at this place…a great cause and a great population to work with!

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The Grand Palace was also on the agenda of “sights to see in Bangkok” and the home of the renowned Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha).  A “Wat” is simply the Thai term for temple, which Thailand is filled with being a predominantly Buddhist nation. When entering the palace or any temple, we were required to wear clothing that covered our knees and shoulders out of respect. The dress code was strictly enforced by the military men and security at the entry gate. Such standards made surviving the scorching heat quite difficult, especially since we visited the primarily OUTDOOR temple around noon at the hottest time of day and probably the hottest day ever..just our luck!  Nonetheless, we had a great time admiring the ancient Buddha statues, adorned with gold, jewels and the artistic Thai patterns and tiling surrounding the wat. I’m not particularly Buddhist, myself, but, I was amazed by the tourists who perform there ritual kneeling and offerings toward the Buddha in each wat we had visited. Not too far from the Grand Palace was Wat Pho, home of the “Leaning Buddha” consisting of an enormous statue of the Buddha in a reclining position. They were certainly beautiful sights.

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We said our final goodbyes to the Bangkok life and headed North to Chiang Mai, a slower-paced yet still large city surrounded by forestry and the Thai jungles..or at least that’s what it seemed like as we were on the train.  After we unpacked and settled in our rooms at a lodge between Chiang Mai university and the Chiang Mai City Center, we visited yet another famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep located atop Mount Doi Suthep which overlooks the entirety of Chiang Mai.  It was quite a walk up the endless amount of stairs to reach the wat, but the view was well worth it. We even ran across a few monks!

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Speaking of monks, one of our required assignments was to engage in organized sessions known as “Monk Chat” at a nearby temple called Wat Suon Dok. Offered three times a week, monk chat enables the general public to speak individually or as a group, to the local monks about anything relating to Buddhism, meditation or just lifestyle ideas as well as offer Thai monks an opportunity to learn how to speak English to foreigners.  I was surprised at how young many of these monks were. They ranged from over 60 years of age to as young as 19!  In fact, most of them were between ages 21-28. the monks I talked to were at first, hesitant about their ability to speak English. I reassured them that I was equally as hesitant about my knowledge of the Buddhist lifestyle and encouraged them to ask me questions as I struggled to ask them relevant questions.  I ended up learning a lot about the fundamentals of the Buddhist mindset and found it interesting that these monks aren’t too different from us college students , at least the two that I conversed with…the value their sleep during their summer breaks, listen to Linkin Park and Shania Twain, and enjoy cheering on their favorite football teams!

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I really do respect the uniformity of religion that seems to pervade Thai culture. It is a point of connection and further brings together community. The role of Buddhism is evident in the general attitudes here in Thailand, unlike the radical and conflicting religious views that exist back in the States. I don’t think I’ll be converting to Buddhism anytime soon, but I certainly appreciate its positive effects on the lives of the people here as well as the integral role of monks in improving lives, particularly in the community health sector.

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