About three years ago when I was still new to Chiang Mai,
I used to go to a place along the east side of the moat to have my hair cut.
A few young boys and girls worked there and they were so charming I got the
habit of dropping in on them even when I didn’t need anything done with
the grey, thinning lank locks. I got to know them fairly well. They were a
diverse group from many different parts of Thailand. Though they came from
different parts and different backgrounds they had the same dream: one day
their talent would be spotted; they would be picked up by a movie director
or fashion designer and whisked off to richness, fame and glory in Bangkok
at least if not Hollywood itself.
Suan Dok on Suthep Road, Chiang Mai.
I liked them all. Their youthful ambition and vivacity
appealed to me – it provided a nice counterpoint to my own decline in
dreams and advance in cynicism.
There was another reason for my visit, too: I was
learning Thai. Their English was ‘not so good.’ I sat with them for
hours. I learned a lot, I was entertained and I was – even if not
magnificently so – coiffed more variously than an ageing Irish has-been,
bereft of dreams, should ever hope to be.
But some times they went missing and I couldn’t figure
it out. The person left behind to announce their absence did not quite have
the same appeal – she spoke perfect English and was almost as old and
past-ambition as myself. She used to bark at me ‘They are gone to the
On their return they also told me (albeit in much sweeter
tones) that ‘yes’ they had ‘gone to the temple.’ I was puzzled.
ever noticed this? Right in the middle of the city, part of Wat Suan Dok.
What could they be doing ‘at the temple’? Monks hair
provided even less training ground than my own. In time the truth emerged.
In a medley of English, Thai and sign language I extrapolated the
information that more goes on at temples than praying. Temples are social
gathering grounds for all kinds of activities – people meet in temples,
dogs take refuge in them, boys play football in their grounds, hens lay
there eggs there, hatch them and raise their chicks – and student
hairdressers practice hairdressing there. They don’t practice on monks-
they practice on people who are not monks. On certain days people come to
the temple to have their hair cut for free. The students come in minibuses
and give their services without payment for a day.
and accommodating, the monk chat is provided by the temple on Mondays,
Wednesdays and Fridays from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.
And that was the first time I discovered the varied
potential in temples. I started going myself.
My hairdresser friends suggest it. They assured me I
would find some monks happy to teach me Thai language. I did. Each morning
at about six-thirty I pedalled down to Wat Suan Dok. There, under a
spreading tree and with hens scratching around and dogs trying to bury
themselves in dust I first learned to distinguish between a rising and a
high tone in Thai language. My mentor was a monk from Udon Thani. He spoke
clearly, slowly and with a deep understanding of ‘farangs’ difficulties
with things Thai. It was not only his didactic skills that helped me along,
he seemed to see inside me – to see my mounting angst and mentally massage
it away. And it wasn’t just the good monk that made things smoother for
me; it was the surroundings, too. Something about the place calmed me down.
Learning became easier – I became relaxed.
the dogs feel relaxed at Wat Suan Dok.
Wat Suan Dok has a lot to offer. It is equally welcoming
to rich and poor, to farang and to the plain curious of any creed or gender.
If you want to know about Buddhism, about monks, about their lives, their
beliefs, or even if you just want to find out more about Thailand and what
makes Thai people different, there is no better place to spend a few hours.
Go to the Monk Chat that is provided by the temple thrice a week, Monday,
Wednesday and Friday from 5 p.m. until 7p.m.
You simply go there and sit and talk to the monks. The
arrangement is casual and accommodating. You can spend the time talking to
just one monk or join in with a few of them, or share a monk or two with
other farangs. You come away with more than information. You come away with
some understanding of temples, Buddhism and what being a monk means. I would
be surprised if you do not come away feeling a little more relaxed – and
something else, too. Something I cannot put a finger or word on.
I have gone there many times now and no two visits have
been even similar. Each time I meet another monk and get another point of
view – views as varied and seeming contradictory as some of the tenets of
old monk on the temple ground sells merit making goods.
I was reared an Irish Catholic. I went to boarding school
to Cistercian monks on the side of the Knockmealdown Mountains in southern
Ireland. The place was not a novitiate; it was a straightforward high school
for ordinary young men who had no aspirations to monk-hood. I loved it
there. Though to the outsider life would have looked tough, there was
serenity about the place that went some way to calming the youthful savage
in us who studied there. We got up every morning at 6, washed in cold water
and spent much of the day either studying or in reluctant prayer. For
recreation we were taken on mountain walks. I think it had something to do
with sapping the energy out of us, to calm the eruptive, impure forces of
raw Celtic youth.
We climbed high and looked back down on the place we
lived a life physically austere but rich in energy. There was an aura about
that place. To this day I remember the unusual calmness that used to hang
over us on top of that mountain. It may have been sheer exhaustion after
such a physically exerting climb. I like to think there was something more
enigmatic at work.
There is a seeming chasm between the belief system of the
Christian Cistercian monks on the side of that Irish mountain and the
saffron robed ones in Wat Suan Dok, yet there is an eerie similarity to the
feeling that permeated the gangling Irish youths on top of that Irish
mountain and the one that sits calmly over the young monks at Wat Suan Dok.
Maybe the twain between East and West shall never meet, but for me there
is a mental bridge in the early stages of construction at Wat Suan Dok on
Suthep Road here in Chiang Mai.