I arrived a week and a half ago to “The Land of Smiles,” also known as Thailand, and its nickname has certainly lived up to its reputation. This past weekend, our program arranged a trip for the students to visit a mountain forest temple in rural Thailand. To get to the hidden temple, we piled into the typical mode of public transportation in Thailand, a Songthaew (pronounced song-tau.) A Songthaew acts as a cross between a bus and a taxi. This taxi/bus hybrid is a pick up truck with a covered bed and two rows of benches facing each other; in Thai, song is two and thaew is bench. After a very bumpy, but beautiful one and a half hour ride through small villages, past forests of rubber trees and through rice fields, we arrived at the temple.
Once we arrived, we were brought to the most serene garden, where we sat on straw mats and got a lesson from a Thai monk on Buddhism. Different perspectives on life and the continuity of life fascinate me, so I was very excited to hear what the monk had to share with us. It was difficult to understand everything the monk was trying to convey, as he spoke little English, but his main message was to let go of suffering and pain, because while the body may die, the mind lives on forever. After his beautiful lesson, he led us in a one hour meditation.
Feeling calm and renewed, we went to set up the area where we would be sleeping that night. There was an awning in part of the forest, with straw mats placed underneath it to sleep. We hung our mosquito nets and then tried to go to sleep. However, we quickly learned why the Thais refer to their 95-degree weather as the cold season. At nighttime, it is freezing! Imagine 25 students in nothing but t-shirts and jeans in the middle of the forest in Thailand without any blankets or pillows, trying to sleep on the ground…. Not fun, but kind of funny. Note to future study abroad students in Thailand, bring a sweater because it is not always 95+ degrees!
After momentarily questioning our decision to sign up to sleep on a cold, hard ground, we were reassured we made the right decision the following morning. At 6 am, a nun (the term for a female Buddhist monk) woke us up with three strikes of a gong to meditate and help prepare breakfast. As the morning wore on, more and more Thais were showing up from the village below the temple to meet the farang (foreigner in Thai) and offer the monk, as well as us, food.
Offering alms to the monks of the village is a daily practice in Thai life. Typically, Thais will line up at sunrise to give food to the monks. At 8 am, we each lined up with a plate of cooked sticky rice and offered the rice to the monk of the temple, who collected the alms in a large metal pot. The monk must collect a lot of food in the morning because he is only allowed to eat one meal a day. This is an act to practice self-control and self-discipline, two very important tenets in the Buddhist faith.
After giving alms to the monk, we sat and meditated with the monk longer before diving into a feast of food. At this point, there were at least 30 villagers, the monk and nuns, as well as about 25 American students and we were all very hiu, or hungry. We scarfed down sticky rice, bananas, tamarind, fish, green papaya salad, and some brave ones even tried chicken heart and liver. Even after eating as much as we could, it seemed we hadn’t even made a dent in the food!
Shortly after breakfast, we paid respects to the monk and the villagers one last time before climbing back into songthaews to go back to the university in Khon Kaen. It was overwhelming to see how accepting everyone was to welcome us to their temple and it was so kind to see a group of strangers have such an outpouring of affection to people they had just met. It was interesting to compare the teachings of Buddhism side-by-side with the values of Buddhism in action.