This is the first of a series of posts looking at Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, which I visited on a Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City cycle trip in September 2015.
“Sabai, sabai,” said my Thai cycling guide on more occasions than I could count, as he accompanied me and a dozen other bikers on our way through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam late last year.
It’s pretty much the Thai equivalent of Kiwis’ “sweet as”. It means everything is fine, life is good. For Chai, a former Buddhist monk from Chiang Mai who came to cycling late in life then devoted himself to leading long-distance bike trips through Indo China, the saying is as good a summary as any of the Buddhist philosophy that permeates Thai culture.
It’s a culture that embraces the traveller, is tolerant and welcoming, advocates spiritual contentment and the search for self enlightenment and inner peace. Many cultures (and religions) claim those attributes. But there is something about Buddhism that sees its followers seem to exude their religion, which has led to many in the west adopt Buddhism or aspects of it into their lives.
I’m a Catholic turned atheist. I generally dislike but am tolerant of religion after a brief stint channelling Richard Dawkins to anyone who would listen. But one of the most lasting impressions of my Indo China trip was the outlook of the people I met, who despite often living in poverty and still bearing the scars of genocide (Cambodia) and war (Vietnam), were incredibly gentle, philosophical, relaxed and upbeat about life.
It definitely made me think about the material things we value and pursue in western culture that can lead to a less than serene life. More on that in later posts…
Religious rest stops
Thailand is literally a country of temples – there are some 38,000 of them, so virtually ever town or hamlet has one. As a traveller, they are regular rest stops when visitors are free to park up, use the facilities, visit the temples and chat with the local monks.
The monks would appear beaming to welcome us or bemusedly watch us resting in our Lycra outfits. They were instantly recognisable in their ochre-coloured robes. One day we came across a monks’ school and watched in fascination as hundreds of young robe-clad boys chanted in the temple, their prayers merging into one echoing drone.
Chai told us that he may yet return to the monkhood for another stint, which isn’t uncommon. It appears a serene sort of life – devoted to prayer, quiet contemplation and self-improvement.
But monks – and Buddhist nuns – are totally reliant on the community for food and shelter. Celibacy is compulsory. And Chai told us that the life of a monk is a very busy one – lots of religious tuition, organising community events, taking care of the temples and dealing with the trials and tribulations of the devoted coming to monks for guidance.
In sum, it’s not quite the chilled out existence we’ve been led to believe it is.
The branches of Buddhism
Modern Buddmism in Thailand is followed by around 94 per cent of the population and is an amalgam of influences stretching back over 2,000 years.
Initially, Buddhism in South East Asia was derived from India – Mahāyāna Buddhism, which is the main branch of Buddhism accounting for over half of all Buddhists.
But by the 13th century, Buddhism was all but dead in India, where the dominant religion today is Hinduism, which shares many parallel beliefs with Buddhism. The dominant form of Buddism adhered to in Thailand is Theravāda, which was initially dominant in Sri Lanka, but spread through South East Asia as monk missions were set up throughout the region.
Over the centuries, the Theravāda Buddhists retained links to the Mahāyāna Buddhists back in India, so that the former took on aspects of the latter as well as some elements of folk religion. Buddhism therefore has a complex history, but every branch has largely the same belief structure, derived from the “Four Noble Truths”.
Dukkha as used below basically means “suffering”. Buddha is often quoted as once saying: “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.”
The Four Noble Truths
1. The Truth of Dukkha is that all conditional phenomena and experiences are not ultimately satisfying;
2. The Truth of the Origin of Dukkha is that craving for and clinging to what is pleasurable and aversion to what is not pleasurable result in becoming, rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath;
3. The Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha is that putting an end to this craving and clinging also means that rebirth, dissatisfaction, and redeath can no longer arise;
4. The Truth of the Path Of Liberation from Dukkha is that by following the Noble Eightfold Path—namely, behaving decently, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation—an end can be put to craving, to clinging, to becoming, to rebirth, to dissatisfaction, and to redeath.
The various Buddhist sects interpret the Four Noble Truths in different ways and as we know from Christianity, interpretation is everything. But the Buddhists I met weren’t particularly fussy about interpretations or doctrine. They take what they need from the religion and many Buddhists I met meditate every day.
Bangkok in late September is manic with activity, lush-looking and deluged most afternoons by monsoon rains.
It makes temples a great place to take refuge and this city has some spectacular temples to visit.
Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of Emerald Buddha) is a must, as are all of the other temples within the Grand Palace compound – though that particular complex of buildings is heaving with tourists toting selfie sticks.
In many respects, though not as grand, the regular suburban or rural temples are better places to sit and study what goes on in a Buddhist temple, including that fantastic chanting.
This article has a great rundown on the top Bangkok temples to visit.
More info on the Exodus Travel cycling tour I went on.
Next time: Biodiversity loss in Thailand and the displaced animals needing a helping hand