Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Buddhist But Not Exactly

Whenever I’m asked about my religion, I tell people I am Buddhist. People in our village and temple now assume it; my wife has for some time. In reading about our lives here in Northeastern Thailand -- especially how thoroughly integrated into the daily lives of our Kamattan monks and temple that we are -- I’m pretty sure you would think so, too.

Braided fragrant flower buds offered to our monks in respect.

Yet, despite the fact that I have practiced elements of Buddhism since slightly before my wife was born 45 years ago, and well before her father got serious about the family religion, I no longer consider myself much of a Buddhist -- but, a little.

When I was much younger, I used to say “I’m not a very good Christian.” Now, I tell myself “I’m not a very good Buddhist.”

I grew up a Methodist. I was first introduced to Buddhism in 1967, while in my freshman year in college, though the writings of Jack Kerouac who greatly influenced me as a writer. Soon afterward, I got interested in Zen Buddhism and for a long time considered myself a Zen Buddhist. My sons always thought I was just an Athiest.

When I met my wife three decades later, I adopted her practice, which is the Forest Tradition (Kamattan) of Thai Buddhism.

So, why do I no longer consider myself much of a Buddhist -- Kamattan or some other form? I guess it boils down to me being like a guy shopping in a market when it comes to religion. I’ll buy what I feel I need and I’m very selective. Some of the basic beliefs of Buddhism I definitely don’t subscribe to (i.e. reincarnation). As for the five precepts of Buddhism (not harming living things; not taking what is not given [stealing], sexual misconduct, lying or gossip; and not taking intoxicating substances like drugs and alcohol), I only hit about three out of five of those. I still drink beer and I trap rats on a regular basis, killing mosquitoes on sight.

Besides, there are too many other rules to follow in Buddhism. I don’t know half of them and forget much of the half I remember. Heck, as a boy I was challenged just trying to remember the Ten Commandments. Today, I’m glad to report that I’m meeting about seven out of ten of those.

For me, I’ve just selected what I’ve felt I needed and what made sense to me. I’m fine with anyone following a different path. I really believe whatever works for you is the best religion to have. My religion probably defies a label and takes elements from not only Buddhism and Christianity, but also Native American -- which are really the only three religions I feel I know something about.

My religion -- such as it is -- is boiled down to this: Our lives now, as animals on this planet we call Earth, is the only consciousness we will ever know. This is it. Make the most of it.

Make the most of it by being happy with best intent, best thought, best words and best actions (Buddha’s Four Noble Truths).

Do your utmost to help all living creatures. Live the life you will be proud to die by.

Even as simple as it is, “my religion” is a very difficult religion to practice. It makes sense to me though and challenges me to “up my game” -- actively trying to get better and be a better human being every single day.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Honeymoon's Over 3

The worst thing about the “honeymoon” period being over for me is that I’m not that thrilled to be around Thai people as much as I was my first five years here. This is causing me to be -- not reclusive, but less engaged and more private.

Our farmhouse -- "Bann Nah" -- night time.

Now that we’re based out on the farm, being removed from “the action” is not difficult. Yet, I’m always of the mindset when I’m on the move of where others are that I don’t want to run into. Often, my decisions on where I will be at a given time of day takes into account where others may be.

Thip trimming old lemon grass for replanting.

I also do the best I can to “be available and unavailable at will” -- mostly available, but aspire to being unavailable. The thing is, if you know my schedule, you know where to find me. So, that’s another thing I do: I purposely try to break my routines so I’m not so predictable. This is difficult to do especially in late afternoons when everyone knows I like to have a few beers at end-of-day.

Lowering sun backlighting our stairs.

I now understand why most Falangs build substantial walls and gates around their property. I used to make fun of the idea, reasoning that if you wall yourself in, how are you going to be an active part of the community? I now realize that activity comes from how often you pass the gate.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Honeymoon's Over 2

About a third of the negative incidents I’ve experienced in five years in the village have involved family and these have usually been land-related. The size of these incidents have been much larger than other incidents that have occurred. Family problems are lots more of a problem than neighbors just stealing your bananas or mangoes.

Thip's father and brothers and cousin, February 2017.

Although Thip and I gave away a couple of acres of very valuable property to our temple (increasing the family boon and improving its karma), helped family members out of financial difficulties, sold land for cheap to family members and let other family members live on our smaller farm rent-free (for over 10 years) -- very little of this is really appreciated; at least not what I would consider appreciation.

Of course, Lungpaw Boon Long is an exception to this. He values the help we gave him with the donation of land for the chedi (stuppa) and has helped us numerous times before and since -- maybe not as payback, but you have to figure het boon, die boon (give good, get good) has a part to play in all this.

However, the rest of our family -- and in particular, the immediate family: Thip’s siblings and father -- really are not happy unless we’re continually giving them something more.

Although I think this is pretty common among humans, I feel it is acute with our Thai family. Part of the problem, of course, is what my wife and I created. For a decade and more, when both Thip and I were working in the United States, thousands of dollars were sent back to family in forms of support (mostly to parents and daughter) and general assistance (to brothers and sister). So, the family got used to that.

I don’t think they ever have fully understood that now that I’m retired and Thip and I are living on one low fixed income, we cannot help them out as much as we used to.

Pretty much, you can figure when a family member is grumpy, there’s a good chance it’s because we haven’t given them something recently. This goes for even the smallest thing. I no longer complain to my wife when she buys food for family members or two of one thing when all she needs is the one. In a way, she is “greasing the wheels” and if that’s going to keep her family happy, so be it.

For bigger things, I’ve learned not to just give what is requested. I think about it and then give with conditions. Also, if it is something like an interest-free loan, I won’t give it unless I personally and privately feel like I don’t need the money if it isn’t paid back.

In writing about the incidents that happen and the problems my wife and I have with just trying to be good village and family members, you might get the impression that Isaan people are not good people. That is not the case. One reason I like being in the Isaan is because I feel I can trust Isaan people and they certainly look after me quite often.

With incidents and why the “honeymoon’s over,” it’s more an issue of being in and amongst simple country people who have obviously not grown up in the Western Tradition. Their way of thinking is far different than my own; and different than Westerners, in general.

In Falang forums, the subject of Thai intelligence is often discussed and I think many expats miss the real issue. It’s not that Thai people are not smart, it’s just that many are not well educated and those that are have not been educated in the Western Tradition.

Famous surfer Tom Blake had an expression that I keep in mind often, not just here in Southeast Asia, but wherever I am:

“They’re doing the best with what they’ve got.”

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Honeymoon's Over 1

Five years after retiring to the village where my wife was born and grew up, the “honeymoon” is definitely over. I’m not talking about my wife’s and mine, which amazingly continues! I’m talking about my relationship with villagers and family.

Main village intersection, looking from within Nung's store, where I buy beer and get my hair cut. My motorcycle in front. Our village house is two houses beyond the white one.

When I first arrived, I was warmly welcomed by everyone, even my known adversaries. Over time, though, people’s enthusiasm for me and me for them has waned. I guess it’s natural.

But, there have been some incidents that have undoubtedly sped the process along.

Interestingly, most of the incidents have involved land in one way or another. About a third have involved family or family and land.

One that did not involve land was the time when I still had my samlor (tuk-tuk). I was on my weekly run to stock up on beer in the next village over (Ban Pak Wet). Leaving the store, I did a U-turn not far from the store’s front. A motorcycle rider and girl friend from our village saw my late into the turn and dumped her bike. She and her friend were shook-up, but OK and so was the motorcycle except for some scratches. Well, of course, she thought it was my fault despite the fact that she has only one eye and was going too fast and the store banner blocked part of the road. To her credit, though, after a while she put it behind her and didn’t even ask me to pay for scratch repair. At a recent village party, she even wanted me to dance with her and was happy when I did. But, you know the major damage was the talk that went around about me and my driving (which is absolutely better than most everyone).

Other “stories that go on” -- while they may have involved relatives -- I do not classify as “family incidents.” Some examples:

· At our village house, our neighbor and relative next door arranging her gray water line from the bathroom so it seeps onto our property. I caused a stink about that. It still continues to flow.
· Same neighbor likes to gamble and I have complained about her gambling friends parking on our property so they wouldn’t look like they were over gambling at her place. One day the police in plain clothes come by and ask where the owners of the motorcycles are. I point next door and the gamblers are busted. I didn’t gain any friends with that, but I wasn’t about to lie to the police.
· First year I was here, I heard a big party going on and went to investigate. One of the larger families in the village was having a New Year’s party. I was invited in and stayed for a little while. Later, I found out that the family collected money from all family members to attend and some did not take kindly to my “crashing” the party.
· Running kids out of our backyard.
· Running guys hunting lizards out of our back yard.
· Having to put up fences to keep human traffic from flowing thru our back yard.
· Building a bamboo fence from the bamboo our neighbor (Gam Nan, the head of the village) lets fall onto our property.
· Chasing away people stealing our mangoes in the front yard.
· Yelling at (which you don’t do in SE Asia) cow herders who don’t control their animals well enough to keep them from getting on your property -- cows love mangoes!
· Falling asleep one night -- after too many beers -- on the front patio. Scandalous, I tell you!

There are more, but these are the ones that come quickly to mind and just give you an idea of the kinds of things that “go on” in a Thai village. Interestingly, many of these problems were solved by Thip and I just moving out to the farm. I’m still around looking after the house and property in the village, but neither one of us is around long enough to have “stuff go on.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

Cambodia Trip 2.8 - Homeward Bound

On the morning of my departure from Siem Reap and Cambodia, Bunleng and I had a farewell breakfast and talked about possible plans for next visit.

My friend dropped me at the bus for O Smach; the one we had arranged with the spirited Gahnya, just days before. As previously noted, this is a new service, so it was understandable that there was only one other passenger other than myself.

This second trip to Cambodia, I did not follow the pattern of the first. This time, I just retraced my steps back to Surin, Thailand. There, I walked over to The Falang Connection, had a Beer Chang and asked some Falangs with touring motorcycles if they knew of a good, inexpensive place to stay. I had done this once before, on my first trip to Surin, and ended-up in a dump. This time, I made sure my question dismissed the really cheap places. The bikers pointed me to the Majestic Twin, which I had previously noted on Internet searches when I was planning the trip, so the recommendation made sense.

The Majestic Twin was slightly more pricey than what I’m used to, but I think I’m just gravitating toward that mid-range because I’m tired of roughing it. Anyway, “I’m worth it,” as the expression goes. The Majestic Twin was certainly clean and comfortable. I recommend it.

After getting the room and showering, I took a walk around, targeting the nightlife area. As the sun dropped, I found myself in a new Falang bar called Monkey House, owned and operated by expat Lee who is a very likable guy and a great host. I partook of the beer and the food ordered in. The Monkey House is right across the street from the big disco place that khon Thai from miles around flock to. I left before the show really got good (“eye candy” going in and out and hanging out, outside). On the walk back, I passed the soapies place and, man, were there some beautiful girls lined up there.

Next morning, I left the Majestic Twin in the dark in order to catch the first bus to Khon Kaen. From Khon Kaen I bussed it to Nong Bua Lamphu and then took a moto to our village house. There, I showered and headed out to our country house. I was home by nightfall.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Cambodia Trip 2.7 - Das Flies Off

On the day Das was to fly out, we spent a leisurely morning tasting coffees near Ivy Guesthouse. One coffee shop was operated by the group Das is affiliated with, who work to stop human trafficking.

Early in the afternoon Bunleng drove us out to the Siem Reap Airport where my son and I bid farewell. It was not too emotional, as we had had the longest quality time together in at least a decade. Also, I would be seeing him again in a half year when I travel back to the USA to visit all members of our immediate families.

On the way back to Siem Reap, Bunleng and I stopped at a quick-stop market and had some beer together outside. I let him know how much I appreciated his help to us, this trip, and kicked around some ideas for next.

Wanting to visit the Falang bar “Wear the Fox Hat,” I had Bunleng take me into the Night Market area, near where it is located. But, he didn’t know it and my directions were fuzzy. So, I ended-up having him drop me off. Then, I just stumbled around until I found it -- with the help, two different times, of guys who spoke a little English.

All Falang bars are night bars, so I wasn’t expecting much in late afternoon. When I arrived, the girls were just opening up and I got to see Darron’s wife again. I had a beer and peanuts and then left.

On the way back to Ivy, I did some clothes shopping at the Night Market and then stopped at the 50-cent beer place where I had met Darron and Paolo days before. It was now night time, so I got to see a little bit of the action on Pub Street in its prime time. Fun for many, but not my thing.

Even so, this was my last night in Cambodia and I didn’t want it to end.

Sophea Vann and Sreyoun, two of the Ivy Guesthouse staff

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cambodia Trip 2.6 - West Baray

Das was “templed out.” I know the feeling. So, we bounced ideas back and forth as to how we could put best use to our full day together. Finally, we came up with a plan for him to see a different side of the temple complex by riding a bicycle around the West Baray.

While he did this, Bunleng and I looked for Cambodian silk at reasonable prices -- which, of course, there aren’t any. Most all the silk for sale in the tourist areas of Siem Reap are imports. It is hard to find Cambodian silk and even then, the price is high and the designs limited. This not only goes for silk, but for most all presents one might buy for loved ones or oneself. It’s most all imported from Vietnam, China and even Thailand.

Bunleng took me to one place where they show you the entire process of getting silk thread from worms. That was very interesting. I had had an idea of it, but not the details.

We rendezvous’d with Das and then the three of us went to one of Bunleng’s favorite lunch spots, a place he has been regularly eating at in the 10+ years since he returned to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh. I had to be careful with what I ate.

We dropped Das off at the guest house and then did some more scouting around for gifts, but for one reason or another were unsuccessful. The most that came out of about two hours going from stone carvers to silk wholesalers was that I was able to have my picture taken and buy some more passport photos -- which I use regularly whenever I leave Thailand to visit neighboring countries.

That night, Das and I hit the arab food restaurant once again.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Cambodia Trip 2.5 - Grand Circuit

Second and what turned out to be our last day of touring the temples, Bunleng took Das and I out to Angkor Wat for the sunrise show.

The top of Angkor Wat was open this time (it hadn’t been, on my first trip), so that was a neat, new element to add to my memories of this most special place on the planet.

I was so happy that we had sunlight on all our days of picture taking. It had been somewhat of a bummer my first trip to be under overcast skies most of the time.

After Angkor Wat, we broke for a late breakfast and then Bunleng took us to the best of what is called “the Grand Circuit.”

We ended our temple touring in mid-afternoon so that arrangements could be made for my bus back to O Smach. In the process, we met the very lovely and spirited Gahnya, who was really a delight to watch in action as she finally got me booked on a relatively new service that does not run every day between Siem Reap and O Smach.

That night, Das and I ate Middle Eastern food at a small restaurant not far from Ivy. Food was good and the proprietor quite the character.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cambodia Trip 2.4 - Small Circuit

Das and I had breakfast at Ivy, then got going around 8 A.M. Bunleng was waiting for us, as we proceeded to go on what’s called “the small circuit” of Khmer temples in Siem Reap.

Before we got to the temples, though, I had to purchase my pass (Das already had his). I was surprised to find the old structure for getting the pass was now just a check-point. The main ticket booth is now housed in a very large complex near an even larger complex of hotels catering to visitors on group tours -- usually Asian.

I surprised my son with my agility and stamina going around and up and down the temples our first morning together. He even made mention of it. I hadn’t thought about it much, except in appreciating I had a little more experience behind me, this second trip to the Khmer temples of Siem Reap. First trip I walked through on wet sandstone in sandals! 

We broke for lunch and then continued on. My idea was to see the best of what I’d seen on my first trip along with some new sites and, of course, the best of the best for Das.

Switching gears, we took a long tuk-tuk ride out to Phnom Krom to finish the day with a sunset over the Tonle Sap: