It felt a little bit like a wedding ceremony gone backwards. It was only 9 o’clock in the morning, but we were sitting at a round table with Mod’s extended family. Servers were bringing out fish and fried rice and stirfry and soup. All around me, celebrants were pouring water and soda and whiskey and beer. All the tables and chairs were draped in white cloth with ribbon and enough fans were blowing to keep the humidity to a minimum on this brisk 95° winter day. “Are you hungry?” Mod and her mother asked me, as they had generously been doing every hour since I arrived, finding as much humor in my refusals as I found in their queries.
I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. I knew Mod’s cousin was becoming a monk that day – they’d mentioned something about his head being shaved at the break of dawn. But was this celebration just for him, or were there many new monks?
Mod and I had met a decade earlier when we were both exchange students in Slovakia. We’d both been terribly shy in those days, but were as close as you could get to being friends while having no common language. When I bought a ticket to Thailand, I’d reached out to see if she was around and she’d graciously invited me to join her at her mother’s home in Phetchabun. As her hometown had no airport, we elected to meet in Bangkok at the international airport when she dropped off her brother as he flew to Malta. In a cruel twist of fate, the last time Mod and I had been together at a transportation hub my passport had been stolen. This time, it was just my wallet, and I’d learned enough lessons from my mishap a decade prior that the theft was more of an irritation than a tragedy, and Mod now spoke English quite well and could assist me in uselessly reporting my details to Loss Property.
Regardless, we were now seven hours north of Bangkok in a city that Mod had apologized to me for a dozen times, saying there was nothing to do here. I’d assumed we’d be in a small village, but rather we were in a metro of around a million people with parks and shopping centers and schools galore. Mod’s mother, Wan, would have been an ideal host mother as an exchange student: she was bubbly and generous and teaching me Thai words at every turn. The two of them took delight in introducing me to their customs and finally explaining to me what was happening with the rituals I saw at Buddhist temples.
Language was nowhere near as intimidating as it used to be. Although I knew less than a dozen words in Thai, the rhythm of conversation is the same here as anywhere. Oh, apparently it’s time to dance. No, thank you, I’m full. Yes, that is a funny child dancing. Nah, I really don’t need a shot of whiskey at 10:30am.
I was doing Dry January anyway, but I was surprised at how much alcohol was offered to me that morning. Fortunately, these strangers were much less pushy about forcing me to drink than some of my friends and dates had been. A while back I’d started making an intentional effort to not question someone if they weren’t drinking and simply to offer an alternative instead. It’s been uncomfortable being on the sober side to realize that most people aren’t even curious as to why I’m not drinking, just demanding that I should be. Some pushed in jest when they saw my ginger ale, others were adamant that I was judging them for having a beer and determined to knock me off my high horse at that rooftop bar. At least Mod’s family and friends were gracious in my gesturing to my soda water to signal that I was good! Then again, that’s been the case in everything I’ve seen in the Land of Smiles – even the most urgent child trying to sell peanuts or flowers will move on when you shake your head no!
The night before the monk induction ceremony, Mod had commented how everyone was staring at us while we were walking around a lake. I hadn’t even noticed until then, but now I could feel eyes following me. I was both a stranger to this monk and his community, and a foreigner. Wan grabbed my hand and started bringing me around to other tables, introducing me as her daughter’s friend from America. Somewhere along the lines I think my name blended into Alice, and I just rolled with it. Sawadee ka! I bowed my head to my pressed palms as Wan showed me off to everyone. That must have been the permission everyone had been waiting for, because now I was no longer off limits!
Wan pulled me onto the dance floor, the music throbbing against my eardrums in the heat of the late morning sun. The first woman seized my hand and I felt myself being dragged over to a table of young Thai men and by their surprised gaze and laughing eyes knew that I must have just been offered in marriage to them. She held on to me tightly while another woman grabbed my other arm and pulled me back towards the dance floor – neither willing to let go as my arms stretched over the heads of a dozen women. My god, I felt tall. The woman trying to set me up finally released me and as I was twirled back into the crowd yet another woman came up holding a full bottle of Hong Thong and tried to offer me a swig of the whiskey. Wan saved me now by dragging me out to the front of the stage and we danced while the drummer pulled out his phone to film us. As we melted back into the crowd, yet one more woman seized my arm and pinned my elbow beneath her as she marched us back off the dance floor and she deposited me at my table. Three more women walked up and tried to hand me whiskey, but fortunately it was time to move onwards away from the reception and on to the ceremony.
Now, granted, I’ve never given much thought into the celebration of how a monk joins a temple, but a few things still caught me off guard. The first was the sheer size of the gathering – the amount of food, the live music, the flowers, the people. All of this was a huge ceremony, but monkhood wasn’t always something long term – in fact, if I understand it right, Mod’s cousin will only be a monk for a week because that’s all the vacation time he had off from his police job. A man can be a monk for life and get free education and live around the world, but it seems very common to simply become one for a short period of time.
The second surprise was the music. Turns out that a portable rock band leads the way as you circle the temples three times very, very slowly. I could hear the parade coming up the road a solid half hour before they actually arrived at the ceremonial temple.
And oh! When they arrived! If I’d thought the reception was chaotic as a foreigner, I was about to be proved woefully ignorant. Wan pulled me once more into the mass, and I felt myself being passed around from local to local. I danced along, sober and in white formalwear amongst a drunken crowd of yellow tshirts. I quickly discovered the word in Thai for “beautiful” is “sooy” and just as quickly pretended that I had no idea what was being said and gesticulated at me. As I was pulling out my phone and filming the festivities, I felt a hand grasp at my arm and the woman it was attached to gesturing she wanted a selfie with me. Suddenly I couldn’t move as every time I tried, yet another group of Thais would gather around me for a group picture and then a solo picture and then a new group picture. I finally wiggled free and chased down Wan and Mod. I still got pulled into surprise dances and selfies, but it lessened as my hosts were dancing directly behind the rock band on wheels, drums blazing and electric guitar riffing some pretty impressive solos.
As we completed our third slow rotation around the temple, I felt myself being swept up the steps, kicking off my shoes and suddenly standing next to baskets of origami flowers. The new monk, dressed in white, had been carried on someone’s shoulders for the last hour and Wan whispered to me that it was because his feet were not to touch the ground. Someone threw a rug down before the Buddha statue and the band ceased as they placed him on it, his freshly shorn head covered in a yellow powder as he bowed three times. He spun around and sound erupted again as suddenly everyone was throwing hundreds of the origami flowers into the crowd beneath us – cameras were flashing and people were laughing. The crowd lifted him again, bringing him inside the temple. Wan pulled me inside and we knelt and watched the ceremony. A dozen monks dressed in the traditional orange robes sat crosslegged on either side of the room. The monk-to-be moved on his knees in his white robes so his head was never above theirs. I watched in silence for the next half hour listening to chants in… Thai? Sanskrit? I have no idea. There were a few points where the observing crowd giggled and whispered how clever the new monk was in his replies. He pulled off his white robes and changed into orange ones, continuing his chants.
We walked outside and the monk walked through the crowd for his first gifts – children and grandmas and everyone in between tucked incense sticks and Baht into his satchel. Finally, he stood on the steps and chanted over the crowd – a full monk.
And just like that, it was over. Mod, Wan, and I wandered back to their car. Exhausted and grateful to be in the air conditioning in the hot afternoon sun, we started driving back.
“Come here, Alice, darling.” Wan called over her shoulder. “Are you hungry?”