I have a talent for getting lost. This talent has taken me to places that I would never have found on a tourist map. I’ve met people who had rarely seen Americans, and taken part in experiences that were not intended for foreigners. I’ll go in the wrong direction, arrive at the wrong temple, eat dinner at the wrong restaurant, maybe even spend the night in the wrong hotel.
This talent led to a transformational experience on my first trip to Thailand.
During my first two days in Bangkok, I had seen the two major temples on the east side of the Chao Phraya River: Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, better known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. I had yet to visit Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, in Thonburi, on the west side. Wat Arun looms over the Chao Phraya like a dream image, its majestic towers and stone pillars dominating the riverbank opposite the more stately temples of Wat Pho. I could see the tall chedi all the way across the river, so I decided to walk across the bridge instead of taking the easier short ferry ride. I thought I would enjoy walking through the streets surrounding the temple, and that all I would have to do was keep the tall tower always in sight.
I wended my way toward the temple, distracted by the unusual sights of Thonburi, which is not a tourist area. This is a neighborhood populated only by Thais tending their stores, frying fish at small stalls, hawking clothing at the markets, pushing their carts down the streets. I was entranced by the sights and smells: old wooden houses, rickety food stalls with thick smoke rising from the grills, fruit stands with bright orange papayas and dark purple mangosteens.
I resumed my walk towards what I thought was Wat Arun. When I reached the chedi, it turned out to be the tower of an old, dilapidated neighborhood temple—far from the majesty I had expected of Wat Arun. The buildings were colorful—green and red rooftops, spiraling decorations—but they were in disrepair, with paint peeling and wooden structures deteriorating. Rather than being disappointed, I was delighted to stumble upon a part of “real” Thai life.
Dressed in traditional saffron robes, a young Thai monk who spoke broken English came up to ask me, “Can I help you? Are you lost?”
“Yes, I’m lost, but that’s okay. May I visit your temple?”
He replied, “We rarely get visitors here. This is just an old neighborhood temple. We are happy to have you visit.” He then proceeded to ask me where I was from. When I said “America,” he told the other people there that I had travelled ten thousand miles to visit their temple. They considered it an honor that I had made such an effort.
The monk then told me that a ceremony was about to start. His brother was about to be initiated into the monkhood. Ironically, being part of the family, he could not attend the ritual himself, but asked, “Would you like to enter the temple and see the ceremony?” Of course I was delighted, and asked if there were any customs I had to follow. He told me to just take my shoes off and sit on the red carpet among the other attendees. The only “rule” was to not point my feet at the Buddha.
I was struck by the relaxed atmosphere in the temple. People were chatting amiably, passing around orange juice and Pepsi-Cola. Children were running around and playing. Everyone smiled the everpresent Thai smile and they made a space for me to sit among them.
On the altar, along with the statues of the Buddha surrounded by incense and flowers, there was an electric fan with a pink ribbon around it, and a blue plastic cooler. As the ceremony was about to begin, a monk picked up each of these, as if they were important ritual objects. The crowd murmured excitedly as he held up the electric fan.
The crowd quieted as the ritual began. A row of monks formed a procession, and the head monk and novice sat at the altar. They recited incantations, made ceremonial movements, and welcomed the initiate into their brotherhood. At the end of the ritual, a group of monks and other attendees formed another procession, marching toward the altar, carrying colorful decorations, flowers and ceremonial ornaments. Before I knew it, the monk I had befriended in the courtyard had walked in behind me, placed a long-stemmed ornamental fan into my hands, and firmly pushed me into the procession. Instead of merely watching the ceremony, I was now part of it!
The people in the community then presented additional gifts to the new monk: sandals, an umbrella, a radio. Now I understood the fuss over the fan and cooler; in perpetually hot and humid Bangkok, these are very valuable gifts.
Finally, the initiate and his family gathered for photos. They surprised me by asking if they could include me in the pictures. Of course I obliged, but by this time I was wondering what strange new planet I had stumbled on. This being only the third day of my first trip to Asia, I was in a wondrous, dreamlike state. Wanting to send me copies of the photos, the initiate’s brother asked me, “What’s your name and address?” Not only couldn’t I remember my address for several seconds, but for a moment I couldn’t remember how to spell my name!
This was my first venture into Thai Buddhism. I had been welcomed by a group of strangers more warmly than I would have been in a church or synagogue in America, where I had lived all my life. I was a foreigner, but felt very much at home—a feeling I would continue to have every time I visited the Land of Smiles.
I also realized that my very identity was now in flux. It had not just been a momentary lapse in memory when I forgot my name. Thrown into a strange ceremony in a foreign culture, I was no longer sure who I was. So much of our identities are formed by the culture we are brought up in, that we are not even aware of these imprintings until we move into a new and different culture. I had not made it to Wat Arun, but I had made a much more important temple visit. Thanks to the initial warmth of the Thais in this temple, I felt that I could explore not only the unknown parts of this rich and vibrant culture, but the unknown parts of myself.
Anyone is allowed to observe a Buddhist ordination. Just go to a temple, find a monk who speaks English (not too difficult), and ask when the next ordination ceremony will take place. Be sure to dress properly. The best time to do this is just before Khao Phansa, the beginning of the Buddhist Rains Retreat, when many young monks are ordained at the start of the rainy season. This occurs sometime in July, following the full moon—best to ask a few days ahead.
The best temple to visit for this purpose is Wat Bowonniwet, located in Banglamphu, on Phra Sumen Road near the intersection of Rambuttri and Tanao. You can walk there from the Phra Athit pier on the Chao Phraya Express boat line. Many monks choose Wat Bowon for their ordination, as do members of the Thai royal family. You’ll be walking in the footsteps of Thai kings.