I’m about to spill words out of my head in a characteristically incontinent and haphazard manner, relying on a deadpan tone to create the impression of worldliness. My aim is nothing grander than to mildly entertain friends and strangers in the process of appeasing the creative urge. However, I would like to preface this post by making clear that I don’t for a moment think that Thailand is any kind of utopia. It has many problems of the social, economic and political kind. I do not share the view that people get the government they deserve; I judge a country by how the majority of its people behave. In this regard, I find Thailand a fine example of how life should be lived. That it is a predominantly Buddhist country may go a long way towards explaining this, but that does not mean I wish everyone was Buddhist. In fact, it’s a cause of pain to me that people don’t behave decently towards one another simply because it’s the rational thing to do. Anyway.
There’s many a monk in Thailand. I was surprised to see monks using ATM’s, smoking cigarettes and typing text messages until I talked to a Thai man my age who had spent a couple of months as a monk. For many young Thais, spending a short period as a monk is comparable to an Englishman obtaining a Duke of Edinburgh award – it makes your parents happy, it looks good on your CV, and if you’re lucky, you might learn something useful.
My ex-monk enjoyed his two months of abstinence from worldly desires, quietly accepting the present moment, patiently observing it turning into the next present moment. He doesn’t believe in the countless superstitions that have evolved over the last two and a half thousand years, and I was pleased to hear him confess that most Thais don’t either. I share his view that Buddhism is the same as any other religion in its critical message – ‘PLEASE can you just be KIND to each other!’
Buddhism distinguishes itself from most other religions in that its followers by and large recognise the gist of the message as more important than the dogma that goes with it. In Buddhism, threats of punishment and promises of reward are not made by an omnipotent deity watching your every move. There’s no systematic scripture, and no body of pseudo-academics – sorry – theologians – to interpret and dictate it. The Buddha explicitly stated that he was nothing but a man, and made no claims of holy progeny
With this in mind, it’s hard to imagine what a Buddhist extremist might be like. Thailand is characterized by its polite, smiling, non-confrontational population. I don’t anticipate Buddhist extremists murdering teachers of heretical thought to little girls in the near or distant future. The regime of a Buddhist dictator would probably be limited to compulsory haircuts once a week. Fillets instead of full roasts. If there was such a thing as the Buddhist Inquisition, the Siamese Tomas de Torquemada would travel from town to town, assembling the locals and asking them to let him know if there’s anyone among them who might benefit from some extra rice with their supper.
Nor can I imagine politicians justifying their use of bombs, bullets and white phosphorous in resource wars of choice by evoking the teachings of Gautama Buddha. ‘If, like me, you’re a man of faith…’, said the famous catholic, Tony Blair. ‘God told me – George, go fix Iraq!’, said born-again Dubya. ‘Kill the infidels in the name of Allah,’ said any number of mullahs. But no-one is going to say, ‘I think the best way to achieve nirvana is to drop bombs here, here and here.’
I have no Duke of Edinburgh award, nor do I intend to become a Buddhist monk, but if forced to choose between the two, I would shave my head and reach for the orange duvet cover every time. No tents to put up, no storms to weather, no red anorak to wear. No implicit congress with the chinless victims of inbreeding, either. Buddhist monks in Thailand, as far as I can tell, are living the dream.
You can buy monk-buckets from most mini-marts. What is a monk-bucket? Monk-buckets are orange plastic buckets which contain a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, a packet of instant noodles, a small bottle of soy sauce, a bottle of water, a carton of detergent and a can of deodorant. You buy them to give to monks you might happen upon. Thais routinely pay their karmic dues in this way, buying essentials for monks who are famously light on possessions.
Monks smoking cigarettes is a funny one. They get around the obvious dubiousness of such a habit by cheekily claiming that since abstaining from tobacco was not specifically recommended by the Buddha, it must be ok. It would be churlish to point out that cigarettes didn’t exist in their current form in the time of the Buddha, and that chain-smoking L&Ms isn’t really compatible with a life devoid of desire. The same presumably applies to ATM’s and mobile phones.
That said, I admire anyone who smokes in Thailand. They’ve introduced a law whereby cigarette manufacturers are obliged to print photographs above their branding which graphically illustrate the perils of long-term tobacco use. Sometimes it’s a dissected lung, sometimes it’s rotten yellow teeth, sometimes it’s a picture of a low-birth-weight baby in an incubator. Since there’s little prospect of me becoming pregnant, I make a point of asking for the packs with the baby on them. This law has breathed fire into the street-trade economy, as hawkers on Th Khao San road do a brisk trade in silver cigarette cases. That’s not a typo, by the way. It’s TH Khao San. The backpacker ghetto in Bangkok.
For a long time, I thought I was a misanthropist – someone who dislikes people in general. It turned out I only dislike shit-heads in general, but the sheer abundance of shit-heads in the United Kingdom makes the distinction complicated.
British and American men of a certain age often share the same curious trait – they think themselves superior to anyone who looks or speaks differently to them. ‘Dude, I ain’t fuckin’ eatin’ that shit, I’m going to fuckin’ McDonalds, man, then we’re doing some shots and getting some pussy’ is as commonly yelled as ‘Fackin’ ‘ell, mate, they’re showin’ the fackin’ Chelsea game over there’ by red-faced, shirtless fat morons. I wish these people’s hearts would stop simultaneously, such that they’d fall to the ground like ripe apples, clutching their chests and, for the first time in their thoughtless, arrogant lives, shut the FUCK up.
Sorry. I had to get that off my chest. It’s probably my fault for coming to a country that values concepts as far-out as shirt-wearing.
How can I recover from my immature descent towards being snippy on the internet? Well, let me tell you how much I’m looking forward to not having to take anti-malarials every day. Once we’re out of Laos (highly malarial) and Cambodia (medium risk), I can stop taking Doxycycline. It makes me feel like I need to burp, but no burp will come. Daily discomfort, even if mild, becomes wearing after a time, and the friendly bacteria so beloved of the Yakult corporation will be relieved to learn of the end of hostilities. I was so close to making a record-breakingly tasteless analogy pertaining to gut bacteria just then, you don’t even know.
Last night, while I was asleep, my gooey and congealing new tattoo left a perfect print on my white cotton pillow. I’m going to have to turn it inside out before we check out to avoid getting charged lots of baht for damage. The spontaneous tattoo has also reduced my budget somewhat. Pre-tattoo, I was enjoying Singapore Slings in the smartest bars in Bangkok. This evening I had a pad thai and a couple of beers for less than two quid. The sacrifices I make!