Sunday night, I joined three Thais – Non, her son Mek and his girlfriend Noy – on a trip to Phitsanulok and Sukhothai in north central Thailand, just south of Chiang Mai. Our method of travel? By bus. Departure time? 10:30 pm (or so).
I have to say first that I was pretty much in the dark about our plans. I let Non purchase the bus tickets. (850 baht for each of us in the ‘first-class’ section and 650 baht for her son and girlfriend. That’s about $27 and $20, respectively.) The difference is better seats but I didn’t like having two seat standards. I tried to upgrade Mek’s and Noy’s seats on the return but something was lost in the translation.
There’s little to say about careening down Thai roads in the dark from 11pm-8am. It’s a somewhat bumpy ride and the bathroom is a major hassle, as it is like a small box and you are bounced around the walls.
Interestingly, we waited for the bus on the sidewalk in front of the bus station on Phetkasem Road. The bus was only stopping for us as it made its way from south in Koh Samui (I would learn later) to north of the country. It was a little late and I was worried me may have missed it, but my traveling companions, and the friends who brought us to the station, merely pulled out a mat to sit on the ground in a group. Meanwhile, I paced. The bus finally arrived and we joined already sleeping passengers for the 8-hour trip.
This wasn’t an express, stopping several times for passengers to load or unload. The bus was extremely cold and the light blankets they provide are not enough. Also, usually you stop for a meal midway in the trip, but not this time.
I was told that we were going to Sukhothai for an ordination of some kind, but when we got off the bus, we were in Phitsanulok, 60 kilometers east of Sukhothai, where Non’s daughter goes to university and where her boyfriend was becoming a monk.
Non’s other daughter, Nong May, and her husband, Roy, and their children, picked us up in a pickup and took us – not to the hotel – but to mom’s house, where more family was waiting for us. Everyone who has had their own family reunion experiences can imagine the scene. I just stood around listening to all the chatter I could not understand.
It was still only 9am and I had yet to have my coffee, or anything to eat since early the previous evening, so I took a walk, as I almost always do in a strange location. The food I found did not sound appetizing for so early but I did manage to bag some iced coffee.
After I returned, the whole group (11 people) decided to walk for breakfast, stopping at this restaurant below (and making the day for the owners!). Apparently, all they offered was Thai spicy food so Non ordered me a plate of fried rice and vegetables. Not my breakfast choice. So I remained hungry.
Then, to my surprise, we loaded into the pickup and headed west to Sukhothai. I should say here that I allowed Sai to book our hotel in Sukhothai, so I was a bit concerned about what I would find. The hotel turned out to be just fine, much better than the one I picked out online in Singapore. Only 490 baht a night ($16). (My biggest concern was whether there would be hot water and western toilet. No problem. Even had a terrace. Internet spotty though. It’s the Sukhothai Porncharoen Resort & Spa.
The drive to Sukhothai revealed the nature of the area. Huge swaths of rice and sugar cane fields lined the 4-lane highway. In town, stores everywhere were selling farm supplies and equipment. Tractors routinely saunter down the main roads.
Sukhothi itself seems a little aged. White concrete buildings show black streaks down their sides, probably the result of bird droppings being washed down the sides. The town has a very quiet vibe about it; even traffic is calm, with people routinely giving way to others.
While I was working online Monday afternoon in the hotel, the family went to the hair cutting/shaving ‘ceremony’ for Kuan, the soon-to-be-monk. I didn’t think this would be much of a deal so I let Sai, Non’s daughter, take my camera for pictures.
I have been interested in the monk process, and how men can quit the monastary whenever they feel like it. Non’s son went through the process two years ago, and he now is not a monk. So I did a little research. Here’s what I found about the initial process of becoming a monk.
“The first part of the ceremony involves the man’s head and eyebrows being shaved off. After this, he is dressed in a white robe and is then taken to the temple, carried on one of his close friend’s shoulders, with his family and friends following.”
“The ordination procedure for Buddhist monks, known as the ‘Going forth’, begins with the applicant’s formal request (Pabbajja) to a senior monk or bhikkhu for the novice (samanera) ordination. On receiving permission, the applicant prepares for the ceremony by acquiring a complete set of robes and getting the help of the monks in the monastery to shave his head.”
“Then he approaches the senior monk and pays his respects by bowing three times and hands over the robes, saying a passage prescribed for the purpose. Then he formally asks the senior monk to give him the robes, and having received them he is helped by the monks to put them on. The applicant then makes a formal request for the novice ordination. The senior monk acquiescing administers the Three Refuges and the Ten Precepts or training rules.”
The Ten Precepts:
1.I undertake to abstain from harming or taking life.
2. I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given.
3. I undertake to abstain from any sexual contact.
4. I undertake to abstain from false speech.
5 I undertake to abstain from the use of intoxicants.
6. I undertake to abstain from taking food after midday.
7. I undertake to abstain from dancing, singing, music or any kind of entertainment.
8. I undertake to abstain from the use of garlands, perfumes, unguents and adornments.
9. I undertake to abstain from using luxurious seats.
10. I undertake to abstain from accepting and holding money.
“Finally, as a novice, he requests the senior monk to be his Preceptor and on being accepted he receives a new name in Pali.”
I have to say that Kuan was almost unrecognizable with his head shaved.
Once the ceremony was finished, our whole group first traveled to the hotel Sai had reserved for us. The Porncharoen Resort was clean, comfy, western-style, and only 490 per night. Hot water shower, A/C, western toilet, even toilet paper. They even had some small breakfast foods and instant coffee available gratis. We were booked for two nights.
Once refreshed, finally after the long journey and day, we headed for dinner, a drive into the country to where Sai is living with Kuan and his parents. Here we ate baked fish and other dishes, while simultaneously fighting the mosquitoes. A good deal of Hong Thong Thai whiskey was consumed, with the resulting cheer and loudness.
When we were near the end of our evening, two local men, strangers to Non, showed up, obviously after some drinking. They, of course, noticed me right away and started directing questions at me. Of course I did not understand. I told them my name. There was some Thai conversation, and then my group decided it was time to leave. It felt like these two guys were looking for trouble, and even though I had two men to watch my back, Non noticed that the situation was not good. So we left.
Back at the hotel, we were all ready to crash but Non’s eldest daughter and her family were locked out of their room. At lease five people tried the key, even the owner, before the family of five was given another room, without their belongings. In the morning, The entry decision was evident. It came about 5 am. It looked like someone had blasted it with a shotgun.