revised: Apr. 1, 2003
Thailand is so different from China, but just as exotic...Bangkok was hot and humid but great fun. We saw many amazing temples and Buddhas, including the reclining Buddha as big as a house. We went to the floating market which was, just that: you ride a small boat and bargain as you float by other small boats filled with souvenirs, clothes, food, etc. A real trip! We got traditional Thai massage here - more like a chiropractic session than typical Swedish massage: More stretching and pulling, than kneading and rubbing. Thai masseuses (we saw no men) use much more of their bodies: elbows, feet, and not just their hands. And the price ($6 for a 2 hour massage) meant we could have got one all day!). Perhaps related, we saw a lot of American/Thai couples (ALMOST, but not exclusively Thai women with American men)- some for we assumed fairly 'casual' liaisons, but others looked like permanment couples- with children.
New foods: of course we've eaten tons of Phad Thai, sticky rice with mango, delicious coconut soup with lemongrass and a spice called ganlanga, which seems to be siamese ginger. We bought some to bring home, so we can try and replicate this when we return. Food here is often very 'spicy'- don't believe the waiter when he says it is mild!
Our Shabbat in Bangkok was again with Chabad, but to be honest, after the lovely experience in Shanghai with a side-by-side mechitza and lots of spirit, Bangkok was a letdown. First of all, the mechitza was a seven foot high wooden wall in the back of the room, and you can imagine Elyse's reaction to that! For an outreach service, it was hard to feel the spirit from inside a box. Outside the service stood a few hundred Israeli backpackers, shmoozing and socializing, clearly there for the free dinner following but the atmosphere was not very spiritual. Dinner had lots of nice singing but nothing vegetarian, so we quickly left. Oh well, you can't win them all. The impressive thing was all these Israelis in Bangkok who clearly felt the need for community, if not for Shabbat! From there we went on to the north, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and decided to cross into Burma (now called Myanamar) for just a few hours. Also great fun. Walked the narrow alleyways of a Burmese village, you can see a picture on the album of Elyse being surrounded by the local women selling woven bags. Took an elephant ride through the jungle and a bamboo raft, not your average day! We got a chance to spend a few hours with a hill tribe called the Akha. They have a traditional village "done up" for tourists, sort of like Black Creek in Toronto, but much more authentic. Before this kind of village, the Akha were known as aggressive hawkers and the tour guides hesitated to let tourists see their way of life, which is actually quite amazing. It is a kind of animism, spirit belief, freely permitted pre-marital sex and animal sacrifices you don't see much of nowadays! The really special thing about this village also is it is an attempt by the tribe, who are experiencing drug and alcohol problems, to rehabilitate itself through tourism. They completely run the village themselves, and you learn alot about their traditions and lives. They know that its better to harness tourist dollars themselves then to send their kids begging from the tourists and dress them up in native costumes for a dollar a picture. We were very impressed and pondered about the native folks in Ontario where building casinos is seen as a way to move them into self-sufficiency. Why not let the tourists see, experience and appreciate their native culture in these kind of "villages" and let the tribes keep those tourist dollars?
Another highlight was our day spent at a Craft Village- a resort with 'arts & crafts' for adults; Baruch took a Thai cooking class; other members of the family did batik painting, and had a blast experimenting with their artistic sides. It was a very different experience from the kind of touring we've been doing, and very refreshing.
Thailand is a very spiritual place, deeply religious. Temples and shrines everywhere. Every house has a kind of spirit house in front, and you will see people stopping in the street to light incense and say a quick prayer in the middle of work or shopping. Every Buddhist man in Thailand is expected to spend at least one month in his lfe in the monastery as a Buddhist monk, and they all do, even the most modern ones. Everywhere we went we saw saffron robed monks: singly, and in groups; sometimes we would see whole groups of novices (nine year old boys with their teachers) visiting temples. It was great fun making up names for these sights, like: "Monk on a motorbike" or "Monks in a trunk" (see photo album for examples).
Here was the biggest teaching we received: the monks go out each day with their large silver bowl for food. They only eat twice a day (am and noon) and must accept whatever offerings they recieve as their food for the day. (I guess this is one reason there is no system of kashrut or dietary restrictions here). People bow before them and deposit some food into their bowl- this is a great merit and everyone does it with great kavannah (intention) and gratitude. (We saw it done twice actually, once a monk in Bagkok and once a nun in Chiang Mai.) We asked our guide, "So the monks must beg everyday for their meals?" and she answered, "Oh no, they don't beg. We don't call it begging. We call it offering. It is we who offer them, not they who ask." They merely collect their offerings from a grateful public. Amazing kind of communal tzedakah done all the time as a common practice. Also all the temples have lots of opportunities for giving, and people freely do.
Our time in Thailand ended on the beach in Ko Chang- a pristine island five hours south of Bangkok where we lazed in the (hot) sun and snorkelled the clear, very warm Thai waters.