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My Most Memorable Foreign Friend: The Monk Who Liked Punk


April 23rd, 2014Travel, Asia, Culture
By Joe Jamieson

Images courtesy of Joe Jamieson

Buddhist statue in Thailand

This is a guest post by Joe Jamieson

Some years ago a very clever (anonymous) person referred to Thailand as ‘the land of smiles’. It’s an accurate mantle, as living there for 5 months banished my bad vibes and left me feeling feather-light.

Thai culture is a culture of happiness. Bad things happen there as they do everywhere, yet a charming sense of national optimism and ‘don’t worry’ positivity shine through above all else.

The people of Thailand have a cheery demeanour that rubs off on even the most miserable of folk. I’m willing to bet that you can think of at least one person with a permanent grey cloud above their head. If you can, point them east.

I’d been in Thailand for 4 months when I first arrived in Chiang Mai. It wasn’t dramatically different from my base in the northeastern town of Surin, but different enough to beg exploration.

The old ‘east meets west’ culture soup tasted great in Chiang Mai. Unlike many of the other hyper-westernised cities in Asia, this place had the balance just right.

My time in Chiang Mai was limited, so I wanted to do something big and exciting. I was taking a short break from a huge writing project and wanted to put some distance between me and my computer. What better place to escape to than the Thai jungle?

I bought my ticket from an old Thai bloke with a lovely pink hat, and the following morning we set off. My pick-up truck driver cut through the streets until the worn-out tarmac turned into dirt roads, then the dirt roads into jungle.

Scenery in Chiang Mai

I was to stay the night with an old-world hill tribe. They greeted me with the mile-wide smiles I was now so used to seeing. I threw my small backpack into the corner of one of the huts and settled into drinking a cup of green tea.

There was a comforting drone coming from one of the huts on the other side of the hill. I’d lived in Thailand long enough to recognise it as a Buddhist monk at prayer.

Then it was night.

“You!” the monk shouted as I walked past the following morning. He was stood on top of a chair waving a red piece of cloth above his head. After I waved back he motioned for me to come closer.

Not one to be shy, I jogged up the hill to get a closer look at his house. The hut was smaller than the one I’d stayed in the previous night, but it had a large roofed outdoor area with benches and what looked like desks.

The monk spoke less-than-perfect English, but it was impressive for someone who lived in the Thai equivalent of the Shire. He explained to me that this was a school and that he was the teacher.

We spoke at length, over tea, about travel. It turned out that he’d learnt English while living in a monastery in Tokyo. He’d lived there for 4 years and had picked up some Japanese. I happened to speak a little Japanese myself, so when we got stuck with English we switched over.

Being a Buddhist monk he told me about his concerns. He was worried that people in the world were all living life too quickly. He explained that if we move too fast and try to do too many things at once, we miss the world’s real, more subtle beauty.

The monk who liked punk

I’m a great believer in taking things slowly, so I paused to think about what he’d said. I think he must have interpreted the pause as boredom, because he quickly shifted into talking about the UK.

“Punk!” he suddenly remembered, “God Save the Queen!” He stood up as though he’d been bitten on the behind by a fire ant, and dashed off with absolute purpose into his hut. When he came back he had an old 90s-era walkman in his hand.

In a lowered voice he asked, “Are you happy?” With a punk monk standing in front of me I could only say “I am!”

He explained that when he had lived in Tokyo, punk was making a comeback. And this clearly made him very happy.

As we listened to God Save the Queen he spoke about how the songwriters understood Buddhism. Confused, I asked what on earth he was on about. He wrote some of the lyrics on an old piece of paper:

Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future, no future,
No future for you.

He leaned in close and said “Only you know what you want. Only you know what you need. Listen quietly to your spirit.”

“Don’t waste time living in the past or worrying about the future.”

“There is no future.”

“There is only now. There is only this moment.”

The monk’s smile lingered.

He walked over to an ancient cassette player and popped in the tape. I could only assume that the headphones weren’t loud enough.

He rang a small gold bell with an elephant engraved on it. “Time for school.” “See you next time.”

That was my cue to leave.

I stood up and thanked the monk for his tea and his wisdom.

I walked, enlightened, back down the hillside to the sound of the Sex Pistols with my very own, mile-wide smile.

It was an experience I have never forgotten and will never forget.

Anxiety shortens life

I hope you found this blog useful. I’d love to hear your feedback. Who has been the most memorable person you have met on your travels? Please leave your comments below.

Joe writes professionally for his favourite travel brands and blogs about the bewildering world in which we live. He has great faith in the good in people and this inspires him in all his entrepreneurial ventures. Go and say hello over on the JetsetterJoe blog if you want to find out more..

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