It’s 6 AM in Chiang Mai. Suthep Road, a major thoroughfare leading to the Old City is quiet, except for a few songthaews and motorbikes occasionally zooming past. The sun is quietly threatening to spill it’s dim light over the scene in a matter of minutes, but for now, it’s still dark.
A handful of devoted local ladies put the finishing touches on an assembly of baskets of rice and other food items on their roadside display tables. Slowly, groggy locals arrive and shuffle over to purchase a basket. Then, they each take off their shoes and settle into onto the sidewalk, waiting.
Then there’s a flash of orange. A monk wanders down the sidewalk and approaches a pair of kneeling locals. They place each food item from their baskets one by one into the metal tin he holds. Then, with their heads bowed and palms together at the chest, the monk blesses them in an ancient language. The devotees reach down and pour water from a small vial into a tiny bowl on the ground. After the monk has finished, he moves on and the locals stand up, put their shoes back on and find a small tree to deposit the water on.
This is the tradition of morning alms, a scene that can be witnessed at dawn all across Southeast Asia, wherever this type of Buddhism is practiced. I’m here because I’m on a mind and soul tour of Chiang Mai. My guide is James, a former monk, who hands me a basket and encourages me to take off my shoes and kneel when the next monk arrives.
James explains that offering food to monks at sunrise is a common devotional practice of Thai Buddhists, which make up about 85 to 90 percent of Thailand’s population. It’s a positive way to start the day, earning every person who takes part in the charity merit or good kharma. The pouring of water into the cup represents the purification of the mind, and spilling it onto a plant afterwards is an act of giving back to nature.
When I look around, I’m the only Westerner, and I worry that taking part in this tradition casually could be seen as disrespectful. I’d also seen tourists acting like fools in Laos while observing an identical practice. But James assures me that Buddhism is an inclusive religion, one that encourages everyone to take part in any devotional practice they are inclined to. As long as you are giving the monks food in the name of charity and respect, it’s a good thing.
I follow James’ lead and as a monk approaches, I hand the food from my basket to him. I pour the water into the bowl and bow as he blesses me. After, I smile at him as he moves on to the next person ready with their basket, and he smiles back. I feel happy that he is going to get a healthy breakfast.
Monks at Breakfast
After giving our offerings, James takes me a local market, where we buy more food – rice, fried pork, oranges and juice – and then head to Wat Umong, a temple just outside the main city that is surrounded by trees, giving it a jungle feel. Dogs, cats and dozens of chickens wander the grounds of the Wat, and a giant stupa hovers over us above the tree line.
James takes me into a smaller building, telling me we’re going to give more offerings and observe the monks eating breakfast. I tell him it seems odd to me to watch a people eat, but he tells me it’s another act of devotion for locals, especially for friends and family of monks in the temple. We sit quietly on the floor while monks file in and have a seat on a raised platform.
We hand the head monk our offerings, along with several others. One elderly woman smiles broadly at one of the monks as she hands over her food and she tells James proudly that the monk is her son. Once the food is assembled, the head monk offers up a blessing to the handful of us that have assembled. We pour water into small bowls on the ground, as we did on the street.
After accepting the food, the monks chant for a few minutes then begin their meal. James and I linger for a bit before heading out to explore the rest of the temple’s 15-acre complex.
Wat Umong was built in 1297 and is famous for it’s giant stupa and it’s eerily quiet man-built meditation caves. The tunnels were supposedly begun to help contain a famous but deranged monk from wandering off into the surrounding forest. Now they offer a place for monks and laypeople to quiet their mind in front of one of the many buddha images.
The grounds also include a fish pond and paths lined with “talking trees” adorned with Thai Buddhist proverbs, some with English translations. The serenity of the temple complex encouraged such calmness of mind that I wondered what it would be like to live in such a place.
I asked James what it was like being a monk, and after considering it for a second, he said, “very peaceful.”
The Life of a Monk
Monks in Thailand wake up just before sunrise every morning. Because they are not allowed to have possessions, including food other than what they are about to eat, they must venture out into the town to receive their morning alms if they wish to eat.
After breakfast, they study Buddhist texts, clean the temple, or meditate, before eating again at 11 am. They aren’t allowed any food after noon because Buddha said eating later in the day would cause monks to have too much energy, making abstaining from sex and other forbidden things difficult!
They spend the afternoon studying more, perhaps teaching if they are older monks, and then they begin chanting and meditating around 6pm. James told me some monks do this only for 10 minutes, some for several hours. At around 7pm, they begin to turn in for the night, knowing that the following day will be identical to that one.
“It’s a simple life,” James explained. “You have no possessions or worries about the future. You just devote your life to the temple, and everything else is decided.”
Wat Suan Dok
We could feel the searing heat of the late-morning sun on our backs as the songthaew dropped us at our last stop – Wat Suan Dok, a royal temple built at the end of the 14th century.
The golden stupa, or chedi, is said to house a relic from Buddha brought here centuries ago from India. Because of this temple’s popularity and royal significance, it receives money from the Thai government, but also survives on the donations from the devoted in the form of money placed on “money trees” inside the main structure.
After admiring the beautiful gold and colorful glass adorning Wat Suan Dok, James brings me into a large room in an adjacent building and introduces me to Kay Kay, a monk that resides at the temple. He’s jovial and speaks English well, and I feel right at home with his welcoming attitude and energy.
We sit down in plastic chairs facing each other, and Kay Kay tells me I’m allowed to ask any questions about the temple, Thai buddhism, or life as a monk. This is a service offered by several temples in Chiang Mai – “Monk Chat” as it’s called – and offers visitors and locals alike the opportunity to speak with a monk one-on-one to learn about the faith and it’s teachings.
Kay Kay answered all of my questions with so much enthusiasm that he occasionally went off on tangents for over ten minutes, but I didn’t mind – it was a great opportunity to find out more about the core beliefs of the Thai people and how it compares with other forms of buddhism around the world.
The key idea I took from Kay Kay was that buddhism as much as a religion as it is a lifestyle. The most important aspect of devotion is the personal commitment to mindfulness, which each buddhist is encouraged to seek in their own way. Peace between buddhists, nature and people of all faiths and backgrounds is also highly prized, something I wish more religious leaders in the world preached.
After speaking with Kay Kay for nearly two hours, it was time to say goodbye. I loved discussing with him the differences between his beliefs and those I grew up learning and following. He gave me a small book called “Karma for Travelers” and sent me on my way.
It was a serene day spent gaining insight into a religion (or should I say “lifestyle”) that I won’t soon forget. I look forward to taking the mindfulness suggestions that Kay Kay gave me and applying them to my own life.
As James and I headed back towards my guesthouse, I asked him why he decided to stop being a monk after five years. He told me that while he loved the simplicity of the monastic lifestyle, when he turned 18 he decided he was ready to face the real world with what he’d learned.
“I wanted more – to be able to work, make money, have a family, whatever I wanted out of life.” Embracing the unknown, he used his English-speaking skills he learned as a monk and became a tour guide, teaching travelers from around the world about his country and his faith. But, he agrees it was his belief system and experience as a monk that gave him the tools he needed to succeed in life.
I like to think that, in the same way, by introducing travelers to his faith and encouraging mindfulness, he and Kay Kay are equipping them to venture forward as more peaceful citizens of the world. As for me, I definitely walked away from the morning feeling more mindful.
If you’re interested in doing the same tour with Urban Adventures, you can find out details here. Please note that I did not receive any money or a free tour from UA in exchange for writing this post. I paid for the tour and enjoyed it so much, I thought you guys should know about it!
If you’re interested in learning more about the core beliefs of buddhism, here is a helpful guide.