January 26, 2008

Wat Nong Pah Pong

(Quick note: I am back from Thailand and yesterday I passed my viva. So now back to my adventure…)

I was pretty lively at 4am because I had a really good sleep in the wardrobe (possibly my favourite room in the house). I woke up Mark, who looked slightly less pale than the day before, and Peng, and our last minute recruit Op (Pie’s cousin). The four of us got a taxi to the airport only to find out on arrival that our flight had been changed from 6am to 7am. So I could have spent another glorious 60 minutes in the wardrobe! Instead we had to suffer an unnecessary extra hour in the freezing cold departure lounge at Don Muang. I am horrified by the amount of buildings in Bangkok that insist on replicating the climate of a British winter.

When we finally got on the plane I think I must have been asleep before take-off. I remember waking up thinking we must be still stationary on the runway at Bangkok, when actually we were coming into land at Ubon. At the airport a driver was waiting for us with a comfortable minivan – our transport for the next few days. We found our hotel and met Joob Jang (my little sister in Ubon), then drove out into the countryside to a small village to pick up the rest of my family! Next stop was Wat Pah Nanachat where Luangpor and Tahn Manapo were staying. We had time for lunch just outside the temple, and at a local shop selling wooden stuff I bought a walking stick to offer to Luangpor. (This, I thought, might be useful on the various walking challenges that we would be undertaking in the following days, although given the speed with which Luangpor ascended the mountain the next day it may have been easier for us to keep up without it!)

Early in the afternoon we headed over to Wat Nong Pah Pong, the temple of the Venerable Ajahn Chah who died on this day 16 years ago. Ever since his death, the 16th January has been the biggest celebration of the year with thousands of people coming from all over Thailand to pay their respects to this great forest monk. Inside and outside the temple was thronging with people, but with Luangpor onboard we were able to drive into the temple grounds and right up to the door of the main sala building. Luangpor gave us a walking tour the grounds of the temple. It was completely different to the last time I visited because at that time I only saw a handful of people. On this special occasion the forest was crammed full of tents, people camping out for days to practice meditation, listen to teachings and prepare for this the big day. Most people were wearing white, and while the streets were a constant procession of people backwards and forwards to Ajahn Chah’s chedi, there were long lines of people sat on both sides of the path – it was an impressive sight. As we walked around behind the two monks it was like watching a mexican wave (or mexican ‘wai’) because all these hundreds of people put their palms together to respect a passing monk.

At around 3pm we took up a position ready to circumambulate Ajahn Chah’s chedi. I managed to lose our group at this point, just as the procession began. The monks set off first, I saw Luangpor right near the front with the most senior monks, there there was a long line of monks that seem to go on forever (I have never seen so many in one place!). The monks were followed by the nuns, of which there seemed to be many more as it took ten minutes at least for them all to pass. After a while it was difficult to know whether they were nuns or laypeople as nearly everyone was wearing white. I saw a farang that must have been Mark heading off into the distance at one point, and then it must have been another 5 minutes until the group I was in started to move forward. Walking along the long road towards the chedi all I could see was thousands of heads in front of me each with a flower, a candle and incense. I turned around to realise it was exactly the same behind me – there thousands and thousands! It was supposed to be a walk around the chedi so I thought, but when I asked someone they said there were too many people. It took quite a long time for all the monks, nuns and laypeople in front of us to pay their respects at the chedi, but slowly we inched closer and eventually we were able to place our flowers, candles and incense on the huge pile that had formed a ring around the chedi. As I walked back I got chatting with some locals of the young female variety – as you do – and soon after I bumped into my group who were not at all surprised to find that I have found some other company.

After paying our respects at the chedi, in true Thai style we headed for the food area which I had foolishly not noticed on our drive into the monastery. The first stall we visited was giving away free food, so I was soon in there getting myself some snacks. The next stall we went to was also giving away food. As I got further in I discovered this whole area of the temple was set up with stalls just giving food for free! And many were actively encouraging you to eat their food. Mark would have been in heaven! Instead, he was sleeping in the car – his stomach and body not yet recovered from the spicy assault it had received two days previous. We did our best to eat plenty for him, and on our way back we got him some bread (about the only type of food he dared to eat for a couple of days).

I was amazed by the generousity of the people on this day. I am sure many of them have very little, but here they were giving as much as they possibly could. I felt a bit guilty that I was just enjoying it and giving nothing. As I stood around eating there must have been a dozen pick-ups pull up full of food, the closest one to us was full of sweets and crisps – it was soon surrounded by children eager to be given some treats. This was repeated time and time again, literally feeding hundreds and hundreds of people – it was crazy but beautiful at the same time.

After sending Luangpor back to Wat Pah Nanachat and the family back home, we decided what we needed after a long day was a massage, and so thats where our diligent driver dropped us. The four of us were getting nicely relaxed in our private massage room when I started talking. The masseuses were soon in fits of laughter at my attempts to learn some phrases in north-eastern dialect. I think the others were not enjoying this disturbance, but it is quite addictive when whatever you say makes people laugh. I later found out that the reason for this amusements was probably that I did not understand very well what I was saying! When we left the spa and I practiced my Isahn language on a pretty girl in Seven Eleven, I found that my new words provoked a shocked reaction. It took several days for me to realise that what I thought was ‘how are you?’ might actually be a very impolite way of saying something like ‘do you feel good?’ – which, apparently, is not the short of question you put to girls in Seven Eleven!


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