Far from Traditional...

Trip Start Mar 01, 2005
Trip End May 20, 2005

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Far from Traditional, and any kind of Western influence here in Thailand, this weekend passed like any other...

We barely noticed that were no surprise visits from the Easter Bunny, no chocolate mini-eggs wrapped in shiny foil carefully hidden - awaiting capture, and no Sunday morning service followed by a visit with family and friends, as is tradition for many back home.

Here, a very different story unfolds.

It' s not uncommon walk the streets and brielfy forget that you're in a completely different country even though the cars drive on opposite sides of the road and you stand a good two to three feet higher than the closest Thai person. That is of course until you pass a giant gate that leads the way to an enormous white building trimmed with gold paint, flecked with tiny pieces of coloured glass and flanked by statues of powerful creatures like dragons, tigers and elephants.

Curiosity does at times get the better of you in a city where Temples - also known as Wats - are as common as 7-11's. There's practically one on every corner and in the time it takes to pass one, admire the beauty of the architecture, the sense of tradition and pride rooted in every mural and hand-carved spire, and perhaps sneak a peak at the monks, that's when you realize you're a long way from home, from any hint of Western religion and anything resembling a solid milk chocolate Easter bunny.

In a land where more than 90% of the people are devout Buddhists, it's easy to lose yourself in a very different kind of culture. 'Round these parts the "Big Kahnua" is the Buddha, the little chubby guy we usually see immortalized in stone, jade or wood, typically depicted sitting squat or cross-legged with a big round belly and a smiling face. Here, it's quite a different portrayal.

Born out of Hinduism, Buddhism - Meaning "to awaken" - has its origins about 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gotama, known as the first Buddha, was himself awakened (enlightened) at the age of 35. After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism - called the Dhamma, or Truth - until his death. His followers believed he was the first to reach Nirvana - the 'Buddhi' heaven - and the ultimate goal for all who follow his teachings. Like the birth - and death - of Jesus Christ, this event became the cornerstone of the Buddhist religion.

There are many different schools of Buddhist thought but the fundmental principle binding them all is a basic beleif in living life simply, having good karma and finding and respecting the delicate balance between people, nature and spirits. Unlike Christians, the Thais are also firecely superstitious, a trait that it inextricably linked to their religion. Shrines and "Spirit Houses" built atop plinthes decorate street corners, adorn empty rubble filled lots, and have their own cubbies in homes and restaurants. Everyday, offerings are made to the spirits at these little tables to please them, ward off negative energy and bless everything from a new scooter, baby or business venture. Aside from appeasing the spirits, the idea behind these daily offerngs of fruits, money, incense and even a pop (with a straw of course) is to earn a Buddhist good karma on the path to Nirvanva.

Along the way we've seen all kinds of houses, from the most elaborate, to the simplest.

Journeying this past weekend into the jungles of Chiang Mai, we spent two days and a nightlearning about the tribes who live on the mountain slopes, the spirits who dwell in the forest and the leaves we each placed on a termite mound to bless our passage through, the life, death - and subsequent selling of Bamboo worms, but more about that later, and listened intently as the retired monk (turned magician) answered questions we all had about his life in the monestry as a devout follower of the Buddha. It's easy to see why these two Farangs overlooked the all to familiar event back home that marks the turning point in a religion that's all too familiar, and of course, the coming of the Fluffy white bunny.

It's quite obvious from our travels through this country that the people who worship the little chubby smiling guy, aren't really all that different from most Westerners. Like us, they immortalize their deity in beautiful paintings and drwaings, sculpt immaculate (and yes, sometimes goddy and oversized) bronze, gold and emerald images, and wear little trinkets and charms around their neck to always remind them of the path they follow.

And driving the hour and a half back from the 'wilds' of Chiang Mai in an open pickup, flying along the 'highway' at incalculable speeds with nothing to keep us from bouncing out the back but a thin metal bar above our heads and the strength of our own tired,weary muscles, we pray to God, or perhaps Buddha - as the case is here - that we make it back in one piece.
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