Songs from Under the Boughs of the Bodhi Tree

Stone lotus

The stone lotus.

We leave our shoes at the gate. Attendants brush past with long wooden brooms and keep the stones swept for the thousands of feet that press over the surface, that slip around the grounds. Lotuses bloom, and tiny flowers, yellow and orange, bob in minuscule cups brimming with pale sugar-water. The air is sweet and moves as though gently pushed.

It is past dusk, and there is a chill. The path below us is cold to the touch, it shivers through our feet and into us. The temple ahead is well-lit, a grey and purple beacon against a black banner of horizon. High above is a smattering of stars, tiny pin-prick holes in a sieve containing the light of the sky. It is a clear night.

There is chanting everywhere, everywhere. Loud-speakers pump a bass grunt, the voices of men, intoning in some difficult and throaty tongue, thrumming through the air. It hits us in the abdomens, it suddenly synchronizes with the deep noises in our bodies, the natural rhythm of heart and artery. There are other sounds in this distant ring of the grounds, in this peculiar orbit: bells; murmurs; the shuffle of dozens of pairs of feet moving in dainty, respectful gait. A dog’s bark, a baby’s cry.

Closer to the centre the music grows sweet. Monks and the lay gather in unison, in song. To my right, bald men in saffron lead dozens in Thai verses, more delicate and crisp than I have ever heard the language. I realize: it is a language that is meant to be sung, to be put to rhythm and harmony. A tinny radio accompanies them, by static and the scratchy percussion people shifting through the pages of their lyric sheets. Some gather to listen to their voices in the night, they sit along the balustrades and tilt their heads and are content.

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Modern Thai Buddhism, R2D2, and A Lot of Dead Water Buffalo

Wat Rong Khun - Front gates
Chiang Rai is a whim city for us. We have been rocketing through Thailand, and think making a run at the Laos border directly from Chiang Mai would tire us. Chiang Rai is only three hours away, and there is a regular bus service! Also, they had very similar names. Off we go.

The owner of our B&B is middle-aged, speaks flawless English, and her house feels delicate and genteel. We hide our drinking not just to appease her rules, but also because we suddenly feel the urge not to disappoint her. We don’t stop drinking, certainly, we just learn to become ashamed.

She scoffs when we suggest taking a tuk-tuk to the White Temple. We’ve heard good things, but have been told it is out of town and difficult to find. Our suddenly surrogate mom shakes her weary head, writes down some instructions in Thai and English, and tells us to simply walk to the market and find our way onto the local bus. Tuk-tuks, she implies, probably knowing we have already fallen victim to them numerous times, are for suckers. Find the local bus, pay the twenty cents, and you will get there in one piece.

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