Bangkok was a good introduction to this side of the world but I was also happy to leave. The capital is not a place to explore on my own. It’s huge and messy and smelly and beautiful and overwhelming at the same time. London on my own would be fine, Rome would be fine but Bangkok for the person I am, it was good just for a couple of days.
I had a good feeling about Chiang Mai even when I was still in Europe, reading articles about this area of Thailand. Here I can breathe – literally. I can wander around the main areas without having to worry about scams (whereas in Bangkok, someone is always trying to sell me something).
This city is close to the border with Myanmar and lies among some of the best natural wonders of the whole country. It was a feast to swap the polluted big city for this small green spot and it was visible already from the plane.
Of all the things you can do in this city, there is one that makes me really curious: chatting with monks. I am not sure why. I assume it’s because until I used to attend Catholic Churches (out of my mom’s will) I was obliged to talk with priests. Wearing those long and dark suits, always warning us about hell and redemption and the guilt which we can’t shake off alone!
There are various temples in Chiang Mai city where you can visit to chat with monks. Most of them are students willing to practice English with tourists. I chose to go to the Wat Chedi Luang temple, where it seems easier to get them (but there are other 3 or 4 temples where there are set timetables for conversations). After about half an hour of strolling and being kidnapped by Thai students for practicing their English, I eventually found the spot where monks use to wait for chatters. And I picked the funniest looking one.
Chiara: What’s your name?
Monk: Sơn (pronounced [səːn]). It means mountain.
Chiara: Nice to meet you. My name is Chiara. My name in Italian means light.
Monk: oooh nice! *starts laughing hard and repeatedly* Italy is so far away!
Chiara: Yes, it is…Where are you from?
Monk: South of Vietnam. From a small village.
Chiara: When did you start studying to become a monk?
Monk: When I was 13 years old.
Chiara: How old are you now?
Chiara: Since your 13 years old, have you always been living in the same temple?
Monk: I changed only two. But since my 13 years old I have been in Chiang Mai.
Chiara: Do you miss your family in Vietnam?
Monk: Yes, a lot
Chiara: How often do you hear from them?
Monk: We talk on the phone but my family is very poor. So I always say not to call me to save money. We talk once a month.
Chiara: Do you think you will live as a monk for the rest of your life?
Monk: *Squeaky laugh* I don’t know. I can speak for today, not for tomorrow.
Chiara: Is your dad also a monk?
Monk: No. Buddhist monks can’t be married.
Chiara: Why you are dressed in orange?
Monk: Buddhist monks can choose a color and I like orange.
Chiara: And why is your head shaved?
Monk: Because it’s a Buddhist law to symbolize you are renouncing to material things. The eyebrows have to be shaved too.
Chiara: So you live in this temple?
Monk: No, but mine is very close to this one where we are.
Chiara: Does a monk have career goals?
Monk: I have one goal which is to get good in English and go to Vietnam to teach English to poor kids. My country has a lot of poor kids.
Chiara: Do you have any source of income right now?
Monk: Just donations
Chiara: And with just donations, you can afford a smartphone?
Monk: Yes *squeaky laugh* sometimes there are generous people around!
Chiara: Is it hard to be a monk?
Monk: I don’t think about this. Is it hard to be rich if you were born rich? Is it hard to be poor if you were born poor? No matter where you are in life, you have to accept your conditions.
Chiara: Was your family angry when you decided to become a monk?
Monk: No. In our traditions is actually a good thing when a member of the family becomes a monk. No one has ever complained so far!
Chiara: Do your relatives come to visit you?
Monk: No, they can’t afford that. Sometimes I go but it’s not always that I can take a flight.
Chiara: Do you have a car?
Monk: No, no, no!! *triple squeaky laugh* Monks can’t drive!
Chiara: So what do you guys do for fun? Do you study all day?
Monk: No, of course not. Normally we gather to chat or to visit other temples.
Chiara: And do you live all together?
Monk: Yes, even if sometimes we can separate. Like when you are in Universities and go to a different campus.
Chiara: Do you also play football?
Monk: *Laugh hard* nooooo, we can’t. But I used to love football when I was a kid.
Chiara: How’s your typical day?
Monk: I wake up at 6 and meditate for about one hour. After I gather with the other monks for one hour of group chants inside the temple. Done with that, it’s about studying for the most part of the day. In the afternoon sometimes I visit other temples and I meditate for another hour on my own before dinner. I use to be in bed by 10 o’clock.
Chiara: So you meditate just two hours per day?!
Monk: When you start you may need more practice, so you meditate more. Right now two hours are enough for me.
Chiara: What’s your favorite Buddhist principle?
Monk: I have two favorites. Don’t envy other people and be present with your life in the now.
Chiara: So you don’t envy those who can play football?
Monk: *Smile* I can control that!
Chiara: You know your English is very good?
Monk: Thanks. I love learning.
Chiara: Does it all come from books and lessons?
Monk: Most of it. But I also have to say thanks to Avril Lavigne!
Chiara: Really, you listen to Avril Lavigne in school?
Monk: Noooooo, in school we can’t! On YouTube…with my smartphone! *He lifts the phone as a trophy*
Chiara: What’re the other means you use for learning?
Monk: Traditional books, of course, we have lots of them (about Buddhism) in English in school. But we are also allowed to use a computer.
Chiara: Which one is your favorite?
Monk: So far it’s chatting, it’s nice to experience things together with other people from all over the world!
Our chat lasted for about 20 minutes and every word he said seemed thought carefully. He transmitted a sense of peacefulness, even though he has a contagious and loud laugh!! He also seemed firmly convinced about his choice. Most of the religious people (not just Buddhists) use to convey this sense of being sure when talking to us – ordinary people. Is it really like that? Is it imposed? Is it fake? I don’t know, only his heart knows. I just hope that he really means what he says otherwise such life would be a prison!
The biggest memory I will keep from this conversation is that his words (actions, thoughts) seemed to be always grounded to what is practical. We were talking about these things and today and what we have now. Undoubtedly coming from the religion itself (whereas in other ones, we have to wait to be dead to experience what is ‘the real life), this young monk seemed enough at peace with the external world and did not want to take any distance from it, rather get closer and find harmony within.