Northern Thailand: Beyond the Temple
Over dinner one evening, my host tells me that she works for the 'administration'. This morning she comes to my cottage with a pot of hot water for my instant coffee and oatmeal. She sets the pot, 2 cups and 2 bowls up on the table outside my cottage. Breakfast is an opportunity for us to get to know each other. In her guarded pleasant demeanor, she tries to explain that she works for the 'administration', and that she loves her job. Then she discreetly pulls out her Thai/English dictionary from her pocket. She does not have to go to work every day, but get called to resolve any issues and problems that come up. "A telecommuter in the village", I thought. I figure she works for the government because she's the one who directs or assigns my work. I ask her if she's a government official and tell her to look up the meaning of the word 'mayor' in her dictionary. She smiles as if she has learned something today. She shakes her head. "Okay not mayor, can you look up the meaning of 'councilor'?" I ask. She then gives me a big smile.
H, my Japanese colleague, and I go about our normal routine at the school. When we arrive at the restaurant, my host is waiting up for me. She mentions that she has a lot to do today to prepare for the monks' prayer for the dead: a three-day event. Before offering my help, I wanted to know more about this event. I wanted to ask her if burning the body out in the open is still practiced today, but I could not bring it up while we are eating lunch. After lunch and in my ignorant way, I open up the conversation about death and burial. "Cremation is becoming a common practice in the US, but it's done in the crematorium', I say. She tries to find some words to explain the 3-day event. I suggest the words "burial, dead, offering, celebration". "Oh we never call it a 'celebration', the body is burned after seven days", she says. Little did I realize that she's trying to describe the facility that needs to be prepared/cleaned-up? She asks a smart-looking young guy, to find the equivalent English word for the facility that we are about to clean. He comes up with the word 'cemetery'. My host says, "I'll meet you in the house at 2 and we'll go to the cemetery together."
Thinking that I'm going to witness a Buddhist rite of burning the dead, I have a mixed feeling of excitement and apprehension as we head toward the cemetery. We stop at the neighbors' to borrow a broom. "I'm going to sweep some ashes; remains from the last burning, perhaps." I thought. As it turns out, nobody died. We just have to get the facility ready for the 3-day event. The so-called cemetery doesn't look anything like a cemetery. It looks like a plaza with a century old tree in the middle and two open buildings, one on each side, with concrete benches. Farther down I see a temple-shaped pit. My host offers some information about the temple-shaped pit: burning is still done out in the open in the village, wood pyres are added to burn the dead. But in the big city like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the burning is done indoors in the crematorium.
The plaza is somewhat eerie because it is covered in dried huge teak leaves. My host and I start to sweep under the shaded area, sweat rolling down my back. My host calls somebody to bring us water. A few minutes later two women arrive with two bottled water and brooms, and start sweeping. Then a few more women and men arrive in motorcycles with their brooms. Soon enough the sweeping is done.
Then the women start hosing and cleaning the open buildings. More women arrive with their detergent and brushes to clean the benches. A huge truck enters to drop three very large tents and a number of smaller tent materials, thick blue blankets and orange-colored covers. The men assembled the tents. Before 5:00pm, the men and women have already created a makeshift temple.
The event officially starts at 7:00pm. The three-day event is about offering prayers for the dead. The monks chant, women bring offerings of water, flowers, money and food. Not understanding a word of what the monks are chanting about nor what the gestures entail, I feel a sense of isolation and separateness. At the same time, I feel privileged to be let in on this sacred ceremony. I see the beauty of the ceremony from the physical aspect: people arriving with food baskets, hearing the monks chant, seeing the monks pour water into the pit while chanting (Sat Nam). My host explains that Thai people pray for their dead relatives or give goods to monks in the name of dead relatives. Offering goods and foods to the monk is a 'good deed' to dead spirits and help them to shorten the time to wait for next life.
The following day we return to the 'cemetery' at 6:30am. Apparently, the monks camped out at the cemetery overnight. Each monk has his own tent. People arrive with their basket of food. I try to make an effort to follow their gesture, the 'wai' and every so often ask my host if it's okay to take pictures.
We form a single line in the middle of the 'cemetery'. My host gives me some food to put into the monks' bowl. After a religious ceremony, the monks slowly make their way down the row. We give them fresh foods as well as packaged food such as noodles. Some of the items are too big for the alms bowls that temple boys who carried big sacks assist each of the monks. The monk then empties their bowls into the sacks.
As we leave the cemetery, my host mentions that nobody gets hungry in the village. Everybody takes care of everybody. I nod my head in agreement. It is easy to discern what happened yesterday. It seems that everyone here has that communal characteristic, a part of something bigger. I then begin to understand why Thailand is called the "Land of Smiles" in a meaningful manner. It undoubtedly comes from the influence of Buddhism over the people. Religion and community are bound together by mutual responsibility to contribute to the well-being of all people.
NOTE: All photos by the author