As Buddhist's, Thai's believe strongly in the process of making merit. The belief is that the actions taken in this life, will determine their position and happiness in the next. The three basic ways of making merit are to pray, to maintain the Buddhist commandments and to give alms. In a modern and lets face it, seemingly sinful city like Bangkok, this process can often feel at odds with what's happening in the current life. Even in the bars of Bangkok's notorious 'Entertainment Districts', every venue will have a small shrine where prayers are offered and food is given to the spirits of their ancestors. On Bangkok's streets, every morning between 6am and 7am, thousands of monks will walk in their saffron robes towards their various temples. While the tourist sleeps, Thai's will flock onto the streets and place food into the monk's bowls. They add freshly prepared rice, fish, vegetables and fruit to the monk's bowl and place candles, joss sticks and flowers into the monks shoulder bag. Then, they will bow their heads and receive a short blessing from the monk. As the monk performs the blessing, they will often pour water between them signifying that the merit that they receive is to be shared amongst the donors entire family. Most tourists probably miss this daily act, but to understand it, you have to leave Bangkok and travel to the more rural areas, places that are yet to be affected by the cultural pollution that has infected the towns and cities of Thailand.
In Bangkok, or in any other major town in Thailand, you'll see many young and middle-aged people. However, you'll seldom see a Thai of any great age. Thai's are historically village dwellers and the villages are the homes of individual extended families. The cities are for the young with careers, places for making money to provide for the extended family back home. Life will usually begin and end in a small village, often a village without a name. The city or town is for the middle part of life, a means to an end but never a place that a Thai will really consider to be 'home'. Home is a rural place, a place where the family can trace it's ancestors back to the times of deforestation, a time when the travellers levelled the land and began irrigating and planting their rice. The buildings are new, the traditions are ancient and the contrast between the two can seem irrational to the European eye. It is only out in the villages where everything begins to make sense.
We kick off our shoes and follow Tassaneeya up the burning marble steps into the coolness of the dark Village Temple. Thirty elders of Tassaneeya's family, mostly the womenfolk, sit around the floor on uniformly sized straw mats, mats upon which they'll pray, eat and sleep for a period of 24-hours. They're all dressed in exactly the same white robes, they share the same facial features and chatter together in chirpy Isaan Thai. It's a language derived from Thai and Lao, a language that I struggle to understand. Amongst the thirty sisters and cousins, I eventually pick out Tassaneeya's Grandma. She looks at me and cracks into the most beautiful and toothy gleaming smile. Three monks with shaven heads wearing less than pristine saffron robes, sit cross-legged on a small dais and quietly meditate. To the side of the dais stands a small and temporary internal room that wasn't there on my previous visits. It has walls of golden silk fabric that flow and shimmer beneath the cooling breeze from the whirring ceiling fans above us. In front of the curtains is a low altar covered with flowers, burning candles and strongly scented smouldering joss sticks. The chattering has stopped, all attention is now on us, or more particularly, on Hannah. As whispers turn to giggles, I pick out several often repeated words; 'sow, farang, narak', girl, European, lovely, Hannah is the subject of all conversation. The eldest monk gestures for us to come forward. We kneel in a line before the monks and offer the goods that we have brought for them. UHT milk, paper tissues and fresh fruit. They smile and together nod their approval. We knew that the monks would approve of our offerings because they operate something of an informal 'wedding list' system, we'd brought only the things that remained outstanding. The ritual of making merit might be ancient, but it's also totally practical. You give only what is needed at the time, nothing is wasted. The people take care of the monks and when the people become, for whatever reason, incapable of taking care of themselves, they can join the Temple as monks. A perfect system of welfare. We light candles and joss sticks on the altar in front of the curtained room before returning our attention to the three monks. They provided their blessing and smilingly indicate to Hannah that she should turn around. Forewarned by a fatherly whisper, Hannah turns around slowly and with hands clasped tightly together, head bowed, she speaks quietly, 'sarwasdee ka'. To the European eye and in perfect unison, thirty identical septuagenarian women return the smiling gesture and say aloud, 'sarwasdee ka'.
You had to be there, it was a moment in life that is unlikely to be repeated. In a slightly scary movie, this would have been a 'one-take' scene, perfect, surreal and so bloody funny. Everybody was laughing, excited that they'd met another European, a girl, and a girl who spoke some Thai. We leave the temple and wander outside in the Temple gardens. We're still laughing, Hannah asks me what 'the thing' behind the curtains was? There was no point in trying to hide it from her, the whole point of traveling in this way is to discover. I told her what was behind the curtain and surrounded by strongly scented joss sticks ...... but unfortunately we wont be here for the Senior Monks final funeral on Monday.