The train to Bangkok from Hat Yai was a comfortable 13 hours in the second class sleeper car. Caroline took the upper berth and I took the lower. Our carriage contained about 30 people, mostly Thai, and was patrolled by happy guards in neat uniforms. Food sellers frequently hopped on at one station and disembarked at the next, and it was through these vendors that we bought hot corn on the cob, cashew nuts, and pineapple biscuits.
The countryside on the journey was filled with manicured stations and pretty towns, displaying huge Buddhist structures on distant hills and quiet town centres in the foreground. Large grey and white herons stood in paddy fields and squirrels hopped along the power lines, running beside the tracks. As we neared Bangkok the scene became uglier. Humble houses, crops and trees gave way to concrete walls and graffiti. Kids hung around in squalid playgrounds under highway overpasses, and two dogs fought while their rival packs barked in excitedly. The horizon became a panorama of haze and cranes, and the foreground was of old tracks housing rusted, broken carriages and engines.
Arriving into the bustle of Bangkok was unpleasant, but with heads down we managed to store our bags at the central station and find the MRT – the underground railway. We chose a couple of stops at random, both of which put us in the middle of hot, uninteresting business districts filled with bustling office workers finding lunch. These pointless, random stops were made more tolerable by a cup of sweet coconut water and a nice bit of chocolate cake.
We had no wish to stay in central Bangkok, and the small amount we did see looked a lot like downtown Kuala Lumpur, so we gladly retrieved our bags, took three trains to the Victory Monument, hopped on a mini bus, and headed up to Thanyaburi. Using a few directions written in Thai, we successfully reached a Big C supermarket and sampled some delights in the food court; pork meatballs on a stick, sausage with chilli, and bubble milk tea.
Before coming to Thailand we cast a wide net to find couchsurfing hosts, and emailed about fifteen people in five different areas. Of the fifteen, four replied, and only one said yes. That person was Sky, and she showed up in the food court just as we were finishing our last sausage, and greedily leering at what other people were eating. Sky was a native Thai who lived in Australia for about 20 years. Flawless English was just one of the several languages she spoke, and she had a deep knowledge of Thai culture, as we learned in the three days and two nights we spent with her.
Arriving at Sky’s house we met her Singaporean friend sitting on the couch. Once an IT worker in Singapore, he now spends his time in Thailand teaching English and meditating. I asked about rainwater harvesting in Singapore, because I’d heard that it was illigal there.
“No,” he said, “You can keep rainwater as long as you make use of it and it doesn’t stagnate. If the NEA inspectors find water stagnating on your property you can get a fine, because it can breed mosquito larvae and cause dengue.”
“How do they check for larvae?”
“If there’s been cases of dengue in a certain part of the city they will inspect all the properties in the area.”
“Do you get warned that they’re coming?”
“Any time they want they can bang on the door?”
“Ha ha, no they don’t bang on the door. They’re very polite.”
“But you have to let them in?”
“Oh, yes. If they knock on your door you have no choice. If they find plants in your house with water pooling and larvae you get a fine.”
This was unbelievable. “How much?” I asked.
“The first offence in $200.00, second offence is probably 500, then $1000. After that is jail time.”
Sky lived with her mother, a woman whom we first met hunched over a bucket in the kitchen peeling something for dinner. Nearly every time we saw her she was hunched over something, cleaning this or preparing that, and she absolutely refused our offers to help. She didn’t speak English, but laughed heartily when we attempted to tell her that her cooking was delicious in Thai (it’s kind of like saying ‘alloy’). At one point I wanted to wash some clothes, so I walked outside to the garden faucet, where Sky’s mother appeared to be washing buckets using other buckets. I held up my pants and pointed to a bucket, clutching a tube of laundry liquid.
“Ah!” she said, pleased, then said something in Thai, then started filling a bucket with water. Then she said, “Ah!” again and told me to sit on a small wooden seat in front of the bucket. I washed my clothes.
“Mmmmm,” she nodded, thoughtfully, and filled a second bucket for rinsing, then a third, scolding me each time I tried to cut corners.
I said the only Thai phrase I knew at the time, “Thank you.” several times during the encounter.
Sky works as a tour guide for Japanese tourists, and her knowledge of Thai culture, history and religion abounds. In the one full day we stayed with her, she took on the role of our personal tour guide, filling us with knowledge and capably answering any questions we threw at her. We were driven to a large shrine, built by a wealthy Chinese family in the 1970s, and introduced to several gods and monks, some of which Thai Buddhism has appropriated from other religions; Maae Phra Kongkha, Goddess of the Waters, who is etymologically related to India’s Ganga; Ruesi the Hermit, who provides wisdom and receives offerings of sunglasses; Guan Yin Goddess of Mercy, who stands tall and is usually flanked by a pair of devoted, but unnerving slave children; Rama, the God of Destiny with his four heads and eight arms, Ganesha the Elephant God, who the businessmen pray to for prosperity, and the list goes on.
Neither of us had considered that there might be revered monks, but we met two of the most revered (in statue form); Luang Pu Tuat, the Reverend Grandfather, who was given crystals by a snake and famously turned seawater into drinking water, and Somdej Toh, the Reverend Father, who may or may not have been the son of King Rama II. Statues depicting Somdej Toh are always easy to spot, because his meditation ‘signature pose’ is two closed fists just above his lap, one on top of the other (one potato, two potato).
Lunch was a famous Thai affair; authentic boat noodles. We walked a plank to the permanently fixed (but still swaying) vessel, and gobbled down the delicious sour, noodle soup with beef tendons. Not quite full, we had a second serving of a dry variety, as well as deep fried wantons and fresh salad.
Later we watched the proceedings at a Buddhist temple. A monk sat of the floor of a carpeted room that could have easily been a souvenir shop, and bestowed blessings of prosperity upon all those who had brought him gift hampers and cash, or those who had clipped bills to the various money trees, or those who had brought small, take home statues of Buddha or Ganesha. Shrines, joss sticks and worshippers abounded, and I found myself once again sceptical that Buddhism is not a religion, as is so often declared.
Being a monk, it turns out, is a notoriously difficult way to live. The 227 rules of discipline (eg, do not install oneself on a bed or a chair that is placed on a floor with broken planks and do not use a sitting cloth of more than 2.20 metres by 1.72 metres and with a flange over 1.15 metres of width) must be committed to memory and lived by accordingly. A monk will wake at 3am and meditate with his fellow monks. After a simple breakfast he must go out into the world with his alms pot and beg for food. Since he is supposed to live on donations, money is not to be collected, although some modern monks will take money and purchase food with it (as well as cell phones and cigarettes). Afterwards he will return to the monastery, where all the monks offer up their gathered food to eat everything communally. More meditation. Maybe some work around the grounds. No dinner. Repeat forever.
Becoming a monk is a huge deal in Thailand, and families will hold an elaborate party for a son who is off to become one, even though he may only be practicing for a couple of weeks. Nearly all young Thai men will become a short-term monk at some point, after which they can proudly add it to their CV, then go off and find a normal job like everyone else.
Sadly, our time with Sky was incredibly brief, and we said goodbye to her and her mother the following day. Our next stop would be Phayao in Northern Thailand, where we would spend two peculiar weeks working on a permaculture farm.