Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism


Hand-made surroundings

A coconut shell bowl, a peacock feather fan, and a white cotton sari. Those are the only possessions of Mataji, a 38-year-old Jain nun featured in the the first story of William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: A Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a wonderful book I have been enjoying this week as I prepare to travel to India. Each section explores a variety of religious devotion through the story of an individual practitioner: a temple prostitute, a dancer who becomes a deity incarnate, and Mataji among them.

Jainism is a very ancient religion, described by Dalrymple as being similar to, but more demanding than Buddhism. While the Jains I have met are affluent merchants in Rajasthan, those who dedicate themselves to the ascetic path of ordination renounce family and possessions and take to the roads to wander for the rest of their lives. They are to avoid attachment to anyone or any one place. Their hairs are plucked one by one until their heads are bare, they eat only one meal a day which can be offered, but not begged, and the monks travel completely naked.

Mataji, as a woman, is permitted to wear a white cotton sari, no doubt hand-spun and woven khadi cloth. She also carries a bowl for water, which is strained to avoid swallowing small living things, and a fan to clear the path of tiny unsuspecting creatures that might be crushed by her footfall.

If you are to go through life with one set of clothing and two tools, how much richer can that life be if those objects are made of natural materials, marked by the hands that crafted them. Now, there is my bias and sense of attachment showing, but I was struck by the beauty of this aspect of Mataji’s life in a world where the poorest people may now only own a few plastic bowls and an acrylic blanket, a world in which increasingly, machine-made items are replacing hand-made, and the skills and traditions of handcraft are being lost.

In my early 20’s, when I was a devotee of poet and novelist Robert Graves and carried a machine-printed but dog-earred copy of The White Goddess from apartment to apartment, I read somewhere that Graves’ study in Majorca was filled only with hand-made objects, but for a few machine-printed books and the electric light fixtures.

Thinking about Mataji’s life set me to the very un-handmade task of googling for a reference to confirm this memory, which I found in a 1969 interview for The Paris Review. As he spoke with Peter Buckman and William Fifield, Graves hand-rolled his own cigarettes. “Yes: one secret of being able to think is to have as little as possible around you that is not made by hand.”  




Blessings far from home

When I get back home, I am going to dig out my old passport to see exactly which year I first came to Chiang Mai. Was it 1998? 1999? Yesterday as we paused at a traffic light, Sopin, my friend and driver for many years, lifted a folded copy of a Mingei newsletter from April 2000 from the dashboard of his car and handed it to me, grinning. On the side facing up was a photo of Sopin I took in January of that year, showing him holding a small child in the playground at the Vienping Children’s Home, a local orphanage we visited that year. We had heard about Vienping from a Japanese sociologist we had met and had been curious to see if we could help their efforts to support families with HIV and to place children with no other options with new families. After several hours inside, we found Sopin quietly rocking and talking to a little girl by the swings. He looked up, his eyes full of tears, smiling. As we drove away, he explained that he came there often and gave money when he could. He was so grateful for his own daughter and for his son, who he had raised after his brother could not. Sopin won my heart that day.

My friend and driver Sopin, resting for a moment in the passenger seat of his car.

Each time I have returned, Sopin, who lives across a small lane from my base at the Galare Guest House, has been my driver, and we have become friends—friends who can only speak in a sort of pidgin and mime—but friends who have shared children’s photos and stories on long car rides for at least ten years. As we ride, Sopin leans toward me and I speak loudly to be heard over the traffic sounds and past his hearing loss which occurred when he was in the army and a shell exploded near his left ear. Sopin has been my cultural and linguistic interpreter, my source for where to find offering bowls or packing straps, for which pharmacist to visit when I have been ill, for where to eat the best Khao Soy noodle soup.

I remember our first days with him in the red truck he used to have before it was ruined when the Mae Ping River flooded a few years ago—dashing to get boxes to the post office the last day of our trip. In the last few years Sopin’s wife Tim has sewn “Made in Thailand” labels on all the scarves and bags and cotton toys I have bought here—and there have been a lot! They have also generously stored goods in their tiny home for us until they could be taken to shipping.

Tim and Sopin Boonkiat

This visit has me awash in nostalgia. I have been coming to this place on the other side of the world from my home for many years but never staying very long, generally about a week per visit. I do not speak Thai—only a “Sawatikah” and a “Kapunkah” here and there—pitiful really after so much time and a puzzlement to my friend Steve Werner who has lived here many years, speaks Thai fluently and plays host to a growing crowd of expats and travelers at his restaurant Spirit House at the northern end of the city. He always asks when I will be able to stay longer, to become a part of the circle of friends who sit at the big table.

Even with the language barrier, I have come to love this place and am grateful for the familiarity of my work here. I have been buying silk from Vinita for a decade, digging through bins of clay amulets from the same vendor and stopping in to visit the amulet seller’s scholarly brother to see what artifacts he has. I have seen their children grow, their shops renovated, their temples gray and I appreciate the smile of recognition and the wai when I step into their shop each year.

Entrance to the Galare Guest House in Chiang Mai

Fon’s warm spirit and ready laugh help make the Galare a special place.

As you drive into the compound that is the Galare Guest House, it is impossible not to notice the wood sign that says “Your Home Away from Home”. It has been that for me. I have always stayed at the Galare and while I sometimes have flirted on Tripavisor with other options, I always come back. I enjoy the peaceful breakfast by the Mae Ping River, the warm laughter of Fon at the desk and the generous staff that has changed little in the time I have been coming. The staff here has been here a long time; they also never seem to age while my hair grays more each year. And—Sopin and Tim are right across the lane. My family and few of my “home “ friends have ever been here, but this place has become a part of my story.

This year is different. Sopin is on dialysis after spending a month in the hospital last September. He has lost 20 kilos and more of his hearing. His port, bound in clean white gauze, bulges from his open collar He tires more easily.

Sopin’s trusty Super Saloon, which now must be hot-wired to start each time.

His car, the “Super Saloon”, the large old sedan missing its front bumper still sits in the alley by his house lovingly covered with a cotton cloth and a hand-made A-frame “Taxi” sign. The coins—old and new brought to him by friends and customers from all over the world- that once covered the doors and the dashboard have been pulled off and put in plastic bags, leaving little adhesive marks all over the interior. Tim took those and the paper bills from the ceiling off last September, thinking the car would have to be sold. But his special amulets in cases still swing form the rearview mirror. A photo of the Chicago skyline and a new dragon bobble from Mexico add to the décor. A special few monk and Buddha figures still sit above his steering wheel and the gear-shift is still ringed with many white cotton Buddhist blessing cords, with a new addition.  The other day as we embarked on rounds the morning after his last dialysis session, Ellen gently tapped me on the shoulder from the back seat and pointed discreetly—a pale blue plastic hospital bracelet rested atop the cotton cords.

Blessing cords

Now, we are headed home. In a few hours, Sopin will drive us and our many bags to the airport for the long haul back to family, friends, our homes and our work. While I haven’t asked any of the temple fortune-tellers what lies ahead, I hope to be returning next year, no doubt a shade grayer, and I hope to spend more days with Sopin in the Super Saloon.

— Ann


Hot Hot Hot

There is no denying it– it may be cold back in Atlanta, but it is hot here in Luang Prabang.  The evenings are cool and pleasant, but the afternoons, in the mid-nineties, can be brutal on the dusty shadeless paths outside town along the rivers or on the stone walkways in the city.  Listless tourists sit in front of iced coffees or stumble from wat to wat and then back to their guesthouses.  Tuk tuk drivers sleep in the bit of shade offered by their idle vehicles.

Yesterday, we rose early to see the monks walk through town to collect alms in their begging bowls, the sticky rice and bananas that will sustain them through the day.  They march silently in single file from the wats along the streets where the devout — women mostly, and tourists– wait to drop a little something  in each bowl as they file by.  The poor also wait, and sometimes receive a little bit of something from the monks’ bowls as charity as they pass.  Mostly, the older ones give to the poor.  The tourists buy packets of sticky rice or individual small bananas from street vendors so they can participate in this experience, and train their large camera lenses on the stream on monks as they approach.

Monks on the move– collecting their food for the day in their begging bowls at 6am

After our monk time, visitors file back through the streets to enjoy breakfast in their guesthouses and a bit of cool before the heat begins.  Our guest house is on a small street just off the local fresh market and each trip in or out takes us through piles of peppers, fresh fish splayed on banana leaves, baskets of live ducks, tubs of frogs, bowls of larva, and arrays of vegetables portioned out on plastic sheeting.

The fresh market around the corner from our guest house

We headed off toward a pair of artisan villages over the river where crafts people make hand-made mulberry paper and weave silk.

The long bamboo footbridge across the point where the Mkong and Nam Khan rivers join. Weaving and paper making villages await on the other side.

After crossing the bridge, we walked past a small refreshment stand overlooking the Mekong, through the woods, past a rustic blue spirit house, over a trash dump and down a long, dusty path to the first village.

In the woods above the Mekong

We visited a workshop run by a Lao silk designer and bought several wonderful indigo and golden silk wall hangings from her before proceeding down the road looking for more.

While we found a few lush loosely woven silk scarves at another place, we were disappointed that there was very little to buy.  So much of what we found was machine made and of synthetic fabric and most of the looms were idle.  We had heard from a young American woman working at our guest house that in the last couple of years many cheap imports from China have arrived, pushing out traditional goods, and we saw the evidence here.  So sad.  Even in our last visit here three years ago, we saw many more beautifully made traditional pieces.  The prices of the good work here are quite high, making it challenging for us to find     good work to bring home.

We regret we did not get good photos of these hangings, but we will carry them back and have them at the store by March 8.

We also bought a number of hand-made mulberry pattern lanterns with pressed flowers and leaves that fold up into triangles.  You may remember these from before.    They are lovely hanging on their own or around a low wattage bulb.  These lanterns  also make great gifts.  Because of our baggage allowance for our trip back to Thailand, we will have a limited selection.

After retracing our steps to town, we needed to find some shade, cool drinks, and a a bite to eat.  We chose an attractive little spot on the main road and ordered a Lao Papaya salad “just a little spicy”.  We both pride ourselves on our tolerance and enjoyment of spicy food but know not to ask for local spicy in Thailand or Lao.  We had eaten many versions of Thai green papaya salad and were eager to taste the Lao version.


Oy and oy boy!

We quickly ordered sticky rice to go with our meal.


Resting in between bites, we worked at our lunch for an hour before waving out little white tissue napkins in defeat.  Here’s what remained of our meal.  The salad was a lot of work.  Tasty, but a lot of work.


Chiang Mai-Part the First

We are sitting at Wawee Coffee on the Ping River killing time until we leave for Luang Prabang.  We haven’t had time to catch you up on our shopping, shopping, shopping.  You really need to hear those lost 3 words as the staff of the guest house here great us as we stagger in laden with bag after bag after bag every day.  They haven’t even seen the mountains of textiles we have left with our driver’s wife to label each day.  Full disclosure, gentle reader, we have blown past our budget at each stop.  You will be pleased.  The laptop is running out of juice, but we will post pictures and more from Laos where the pace will be more relaxed.  Know that we have a gazillion scarves (cotton and silk), BAGS, and lovely carvings old and new.  See ya!


Feet Feat

Ohhh… did we walk today?  Today, we explored some old favorite sites and big Buddha figures and then tramped around to discover some new spots in Bangkok.  Tomorrow is the Chatuchak weekend market so we are now resting early with our feet up.

Here’s a detail of the sole of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Po.

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