Sons of Isan: Living as a Monk in Thailand

Monks by a rice paddy in Thailand. Photo by Bill Reyland.
Monks by a rice paddy in Thailand. Photo by Bill Reyland.

Sitting, Walking and Living Like a Monk in Isan, Thailand

Bill Reyland writes about his book Sons of Isanir?t=gc0a7 20&l=as2&o=1&a=1935383647

sons of isanWhile this story took place in Thailand, it is not just a book about Thailand. It is a book about adventure, transformation and the renewal of spirit. It’s about intentionally ripping oneself away from everything one knows and loves and exchanging it for the wonders of the unknown, knowledge, and experience.

This book is also about paths. The ones we choose, or the ones that chose us. I was on a path in life so sure-footed I could have walked it blindfolded. As a musician, I had by all accounts a decent life, not a wealthy one, but a most fulfilling and meaningful livelihood, but as my life trudged onward I began to wonder about other things, and as my son grew older and before I was too old, I wanted to find some answers and see what I could accomplish. So I took this journey.

In Thailand, I took refuge in the northeast in a region known as Isan, where the people taught me how to sit like a Thai and then as a monk, how to walk like a monk.

In a rural Buddhist temple, I learned the art of stillness without the aid of television and from some very fine monks I learned that there is still an awful lot of grace and beauty in this world if we are willing to see it, but more importantly if we are willing to fully engage ourselves.

My experiences did not result in my transformation, or enlightenment in the Buddhist sense. That would take more than a year anywhere, Buddhist temple, or otherwise. It did teach me that spirituality and knowing one’s purpose in life is an incredibly difficult journey on an unmarked path.

Excerpt from the book

At five a.m. and speeding northward, I was once again perched on the back of a truck, watching the glittering lights of Bangkok fade behind a scrim of pollution. As we traveled beyond the city limits, I was immediately struck by the rapid transition from sprawling concrete chaos to the silent mosaic of rice paddies.

The fact that I really had no idea where we were going was no longer a concern. I had given up trying to get this information from Phra Maha, Nikhom, who despite his best efforts had been unable to make sense of my map.

By reading the highway signs and referring to my guidebook, I saw that we were at least heading in the right direction. A few hours after stopping to eat outside Khorat, we pulled into the city of Chaiyaphum, where we picked up an ancient Thai lady. She sat next to me in the back, and for the rest of the trip, happily fed me enormous sunflower seeds.

After our stop in Chaiyaphum, we left the highway and continued careening perilously down narrow secondary roads, deeper into the backcountry. The secondary roads were mostly unpaved and in many places completely washed out. Making our way up gentle foothills, the rice crops gradually gave way to great stalks of sugar cane, which over the years had replaced what used to be an area primarily devoted to poppy.

Waving at the farmers, whose faces were heavily cloaked against the burning sun and choking dust, we made our way through the remote foothills, leaving a contrail of fine, red dust in our wake. Finally, covered in red dust, we passed through a set of crumbling concrete gates into my home for the next three months.

Huddled up against seasonally barren rice paddies, the village, which was more like a hamlet, consisting of a dozen or so raised Thai houses in various states of decay. Under the houses, among huge ceramic water vessels so large a person could easily occupy one, chickens pecked and immense cattle stood, vacant-eyed and oblivious. Along the main dirt road, beat down by the sun, old men in traditional checkered wraps of green, red, and white, squatted under the trees.

My first impression of Wat Taksin was that it was nothing like the glittering well-kept temples of Bangkok. The once stark white and vibrant reds here were now muddy and dull. The foundations were mud flecked. The temple wall had crumbled and was decayed in some areas. The gate, which at some point had been beautiful ironwork, had only one side intact. The other leaned precariously against a temple wall among a knot of weeds looping around it like little hands.

Welcome to Isan

Kids at a festival in Thailand.
Festival kids in Thailand

At the temple, Phra Maha Nikhom was greeted with respectful ways by groups of chattering old ladies, while most of the men squatted around the fringes, smoking cone-shaped cigarettes. He seemed very happy to be home once again in his village.
“Boy, you okay now? Happy?” he asked.

“It’s nice to finally be here, yes.” I replied.

“No problem. You wait here, monk go home, see mother. Okay?”

“Okay,” I replied.

The villagers, apparently in shyness, also retreated and left me to sit on the steps of the sala. It was quiet—a still, dusty silence. The other monks, if there were any, had yet to make themselves known.

I began to wonder if the temple had been abandoned. It appeared to have been. Perhaps that’s why the people were so glad to see Phra Maha Nikhom. They at least had one monk. At that moment, I saw three old monks at the far end of the grounds, making their way through a tangle of dilapidated huts.

They seemed to be heading right for me but made no indication of acknowledgment. I, too, made no indication, but as they drew nearer, I happily waited for them and said, “Hello.” One of them, with a very kind face of frosty stubble, immediately began to address me in halting English, and leaning in for emphasis, he said to me, “I love you! I… love… you!”

Monks by the river.
Monks by the river

This monk then abruptly displayed a sheet of paper that he produced from the recesses of his robes, on the front of which was a colorful advertisement featuring kittens and a ball of yarn. The old monk then pointed proudly at the kittens, smiled, and said, “I love kitten, hmmm… I love you!”

“Thank you!” I replied. “I love you.”

“Sesechechee love you. Love kitten,” he continued proudly. I assumed Sesechechee was his name because he repeated this several times while pointing at himself. Except for grunts and nods of approval, the other two monks said nothing but stood on, beaming with delight.

Sesechechee then proceeded to dig through his robes, this time producing a soiled legal-size envelope containing several battered and filthy king-sized cigarettes. Unfortunately, one of the conditions set forth regarding my stay was that I quit smoking, so I reluctantly, and with great pains, declined.

Satisfied with the exchange, the three old monks grunted something in Thai, to which I responded cheerfully with, “Okay!” and they left me lingering in a marvelous cloud of stale smoke.

Alone again on the steps, I watched the chickens peck around the fringes of the village. Along the temple wall, there were several concrete game tables with crumbled checkerboard tops, and the broken benches set around them were propped up with chunks of other decaying tables. I watched as a small plastic bag skidded across the ground, snagging the underbrush and flapping in protest. I contemplated the dirt under my nails, the mingled filth of the journey from Bangkok.

There was a yellowish stain on my ankle from the seven hours in the back of a pickup. Highway dirt and now the fine dust of Isan, which coated my feet, stuck to my brow. I imagined the amount of mud my sweater could produce if wrung out. I stunk, and I really wanted Sesechechee, or whatever his name was, to come back so I could smoke.

Old Thai.
Old Thai

After Phra Maha Nikhom returned, he led me inside the sala, one of only two buildings on the grounds. It was a vast, empty room, devoid of furnishings, and immaculately clean. On the second floor of the sala lived a much younger monk, with whom I would share a cell and who would also be my caretaker. He was very kind but silent.

Separated in half by a sagging bookcase, his cell consisted of a monk’s bowl and random clumps of orange robes, scattered about like modern art. On the other side of the bookcase where I was to sleep, I was amazed to see a king-size waterbed, complete with padded rails and headboard shelving.

The only thing missing was the water. Climbing into this at night was like sleeping in a coffin. A coffin would have probably been more comfortable, though.

Dispensing with formalities and without a single word, my room-monk took up a tattered broom and began sweeping away wispy clumps of cobwebs that clung to the walls and barred windows. While he worked, I watched as they floated around, gently landing on his clean brown scalp. From somewhere in the village, a rooster crowed and an old woman laughed. Transfixed by the moment, all I could do was stand there.

After I was settled, my room-monk led me back outside and directed me to sit in the bed of a waiting pick-up. A moment later, at the sound of the temple bell, the other monks arrived and setting their shoes on the tailgate, climbed in beside me. Sesechechee, apparently amazed to see me again, happily seated himself next to me, beaming. Two other elderly monks took me in without comment and for the remainder of the ride conversed in hushed voices with occasional glances in my direction.

Lunch Under the House

Lunch was not eaten in the temple but deeper in the village under a traditional teak house, which rested above us on massive teak posts. Here, the whole village had gathered to offer the monks their single meal of the day. Sitting among them upon a large central mat, I tried my best to appear comfortable as they unabashedly stared. From the platform where they sat, the monks, with the exception of Sesechechee, who silently mouthed, “I love you,” behaved as though none of us existed.

The food there was interesting. With bare hands, they transferred their offerings of rice into a central basket. This was then doled out to the monks, again by hand, chanted over, and then eaten. In my estimation, you were eating out of the hand of every person in the village—a village lacking soap dispensers, paper towels, and toilet tissue.

Despite this, I had decided that if I was going to live in Isan, I had to overcome my Western standards and get with the program. Clearly, no one there was dying of botulism, and despite the fact that the people were very poor, they were immaculate in appearance.

Buy This Book From Amazon Sons of Isanir?t=gc0a7 20&l=as2&o=1&a=1935383647

bill reyland

Bill Reyland is the author of many stories about Asia.

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