Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bangkok: Cashpacking in Thailand

Last time we were here was 30 years ago, as backpackers. This time we’re here as ‘cashpackers’ with the freedom to stay in more comfortable gaffs, eat wherever we want, even take a flight if it takes our fancy.  We want to relive this a little but ain’t seeking out discomfort, so we’re staying in the flash Eastin Hotel, near the river for the local ferries, even has its own walkway into the station. It’s so posh it has an infinity pool on the 14th floor!
Nice travelling by boat in Bangkok, as the traffic’s a nightmare. Cars are killing these far east cities. The river’s fresh and the breeze counters the humidity but most of all you get a great view of the temples, longtail boats and heart of Bangkok. First up, a walk in Banglamphu, as we were meant to meet our wayward son. He’s been up to a few things out here, like saving a lad from drowning, fighting in bars for drinks (he’s a martial arts guy) and diving. Trying to find him is next to impossible. Never has anyone with so much expertise in communication devices been so bad at communication. In the meantime, we had a great lunch and a walk down the ever amazing Kho Sahn road where you can buy everything from a degree from Oxford (openly on sale) to a few scorpions to eat. The trip back on the ferry at night was spectacular with temples lining the riverside and boats plying their trade up and down the river.
Wat Arun
At Wat Arun where a bunch of Indonesians on the cross-river ferry wanted to take snaps of us, then the strange sight of five monks kitted out with smartphones, tablets and top-of-the-range cameras. I asked them if they ever studied sacred texts from screens – no, but wondered how these consumer devices squared with the stilling of desire, desire to consume, own, capture the impermanent world? Also seen a fair few monks in taxis. Stilling the desire to walk?
Wat Arun is covered with seashells and porcelain, used as ballast on ships from China. It’s not that old (early 19th C) and its three levels represent all existence, gratification of all desire and the top the six realms of happiness. I climbed to the top with the aforementioned monks. The Ordination Hall next to the temple has a fine Buddha and excellent murals.
Huge area of tents next to The Grand Palace is a sort of ‘occupy’ protest. It’s said the King’s a moderating force, but journalists and comedian’s get jailed for years here for the slightest so-called insult. At 85, he’s on his last legs, the red and yellow shirt battle may erupt again. The Crown Prince is no angel, apparently. A 61 year old was jailed for 20 years for sending four text messages. Even a ‘like’ on Facebook is an offence. Every country has its dark side.
Bar fights
Met travelling son and took him, and his mate Suhah, for a huge meal, as he’s been budget backpacking for six weeks. Tales of derring-do, as he was fighting in a bar down south for free drinks. He won all three fights, even against a street brawler and others 20k heavier. It’s all in the technique as he’s a 3rd degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. Sounds like a boys’ own adventure, as he also saved another lad’s life on a river trip – got him out, pulled out his tongue, prone position. Has been offered crystal meth, cocaine, heroin and a gun since he was here.
Wat Pho
Monks and mobiles
Thailand, and Bangkok are full of beautiful temples and monks a common sight. But the monks, like most things in Thailand are a conundrum. I’ve seen them on smartphones, tablets, with huge expensive cameras, wearing sunglasses, smoking, drinking coffee. Doing all the desirable things their religion suggests they should deny. It is expected that most Thai men become a monk for some time, usually before they marry or get a career. So the religion and the attitudes it instils are institutionalised in the culture. This is partly why Thailand is such a nice place to visit – the people are so laid back and rarely show anger or frustration, which is regarded as shameful.
Wandering around the Wat Pho with my son we went to a more obscure temple of contemplation, free from tourists, containing one Thai girl and a solitary monk, completely lost in meditation. The stillness of the monk was remarkable. I’ve taken time to try this while I’m here but my mind is like a washing machine in full spin.
Interlude – Buddhism
The Buddha appears in the 5th century BC in north eastern India , a married man with a child, who then decides to become and ascetic but that is not enough and so he turns to meditation for enlightenment. What I don’t see are the several facets of Buddhism that seem at odds with the stilling of desire, exemplified by the monks on mobiles. Philosophically, they see the world as impermanent, a world of appearances. This throws up the problem of what lies behind appearance and the answer seems to be a form of transcendental realism, a Kantian view. More accurately, a Schopenhauerian philosophy that sees ‘becoming’ as the ontological substrate. For Buddhists, it is the stilling of desire and dissolution of the active mind that leads to enlightenment and a state of oneness with everything and the ultimate state of stillness – nirvana.  Greed, hatred and delusion are the source of suffering, and suffering is seen almost as a disease. Attachment, sense of self are all delusional, as is yearning for happiness, also a form of attachment. Even words are delusional, fixing that which is impermanent. Nothing is permanent, everything changes. Meditation is the cure. Note also the absence of a creator God or prime-mover. The world is simply an endless cycle of living, dying and decay. This is a highly sophisticated philosophical position, spoiled by some rather worldly additions.
Hierarchy of reincarnation
The hierarchy of Reincarnation includes, animals, humans, ghosts in heavenly and hellish realms. We are in a cycle of reincarnated states, determined by our behaviour. Some are even reputed to remember past lives. This is symbolised by the Lotus flower, that goes through several states, starts as a bud and eventually opens into a flower. Is reincarnation is a mechanism introduced into a set of beliefs to drive moral behaviour? It teaches you to see other sentient beings as worthy of sympathy – there but for the grace of reincarnation go I but in order for reincarnation to work, it needs a redeemable currency – enter Karma. The calculus of Karma, the credit and debit account that is Karma, is the causal factor in your reincarnation progress . Note that there is no ideal, timeless ‘heaven’ here, as your Karma runs out and you’re back in the cycle of time and the universe of becoming. Buddhism is not nearly as utopian as Judaism, Christianity or Islam. And what’s with the glitz? Why do major world religions, that promote contemplation, reflection, prayer and inner stillness, spend so much time and money on colour. In Thailand the temples are spectacular sites of gold, green, red, orange and white. Monks wear bright orange robes. It’s a sensual riot. Finally we have the Buddha as idol. In a religion that encourages personal inner peace and stillness, I’m not sure why so many images of the Buddha are necessary. Why focus on another when the inner consciousness is the aim?

This I loved – alleys and streets packed with stalls. Tattoos everywhere. Chinese temples, much more garish than their Thai equivalents. We were caught in a monsoon thunderstorm, always something to behold, so holed up in a little café, before catching the boat home.


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