Stickman Readers' Submissions April 19th, 2004

Isaan – Monks And Wats Taking The Piss

By Family Comes First

He Clinic Bangkok

Before commencing my story, I feel it necessary to state that I am not in any way a religious person. I simply do not believe in a Universal God. However, I fully respect people who for one reason or another do believe, whether they be Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, Jews or whatever.

What I do object to are people who “take the piss” out of their own religion, or those, particularly Buddhist Monks and the Wats to whom they are attached, “take the piss” out of the ordinary people.

Let me explain.

CBD bangkok

For the past 3 years I have been living in a remote Isaan village, close to the Cambodian border. Most of those that stay in the village are the elderly and their grandchildren. Those mainly between 20 and 40 are away for most of the year eking out a living in Bangkok or elsewhere, working on building sites, in factories or in the “entertainment” business.

The young men of around 19/20 generally spend their days loafing around, and their evenings racing around on their motorbikes, drinking, taking drugs and generally looking, as do most men of all nationalities, for a bit of pussy. Suddenly, you will see one or more with his head shaved, bedecked in saffron robes, and with great pomp delivered to the local Wat to become a monk. No more drinking drugs or sex for him. Not at least until he is “released” which might be only a week or two. During his “incarceration”, he must pray, think only good things and of course do the alms run, accepting food from the villagers every morning. He must not entertain any thoughts of his past habits. The villagers turn out on a daily basis to offer food to these young men (whether known to them or not) asking for blessings.

Once their time is up, off come the robes, out come the motorbikes, and they must make up for lost time. Drink, drug and sex parties are the order of the day.

Now who is taking the piss? Men should not be allowed to be monks for brief durations. Unless they are truly committed to becoming monks, then, as in the west, they should not be admitted. How can the villagers expect blessings from part-time monks, whose minds are clearly elsewhere?

wonderland clinic

Now the other side of the story.

Most villagers where I live, and undoubtedly throughout most of Isaan and the country as a whole, are generally very poor, scraping together just enough money to get by on, and supplementing their diets with leaves, berries, various insects gathered during the day and the occasional snake or rat. Apart form their daily offerings of food to the monks, (the neighbours will talk if you don’t give), there are many other occasions during the month when they are expected to donate.

First there is the weekly Wan Phra (Monk Day) when the old ladies prepare food and wander off to the Wat to donate. Most can ill afford it, the grandchildren certainly go without sweets and ice cream, and sometimes without basic food. Yet go they will. Then occasionally the village loudspeaker system will start up announcing that monks from a neighbouring village will arrive later and that all should donate “dry food” i.e. tins, packets.etc. A boon for the village shop as everyone rushes around, borrowing money to go and buy food. Then there are the regular calls for donations to the Wat. New ribbons required, a massive candle for some religious ceremony, repairs to the monks living quarters and so it goes on. The old dears dig still deeper into their ever-depleting funds so that they can donate. Then there are the “tam boons” whatever they are <making meritStick>. More money required. Then the never ending delivery of white envelopes waiting to be filled!

Not only are the villagers scraping the barrel for enough food to live on, their homes are little more than basic shacks, no running water, no toilets, nothing to prevent the mosquitoes and snakes entering. Yet those to whom they are donating, the monks, amongst them many part-timers who wish they were elsewhere, have all the basic amenities and have more food than they could possibly consume.

So who is taking the piss?

Approximately once a month, sometimes more frequently, a villager will call in the monks, to make blessings for a sick elderly person, or a new motorbike, or just for general good luck. In the west, parish priests regularly call on the sick and dying. They are known to the families, and are not just anonymous representatives of the church. For their troubles they probably receive a cup of tea and a piece of homemade cake. It is most unlikely that they will return to their churches with a fistful of fivers! But here in Thailand it needs 5, 7 or even 9 anonymous monks to attend. They must be fed, watered and recompensed for their troubles. The whole village attends too, (whether invited or not). But most have no interest in the monks chanting. They are only there for the free food, beer and other refreshments. More wasted money – more often than not borrowed and never repaid!

Now who is taking the piss?

One old lady, some months ago, stopped to talk to me in Thai, whilst I was painting the wall outside my home. Roughly translated she said, “If you have money you can have a nice home but if you don’t have money your home is the same as a chicken shack”. My response was “I worked hard for my money and spend it on my home and family. You too could have a nice home if you spent your money on the family, instead of giving your every last baht to the wat, so that the monks can live a decent life”

She was not amused.

To conclude, it gives me great pleasure to advise that my wife, through her own free-thinking, and without any pressure from me, has come round to my way of thinking. She still believes in Buddha, but worships him personally rather than through middlemen (the wat and the monks). Money she would have donated to the wat, she now uses to buy occasional gifts for the village golden oldies, and at weekends will buy plates of kwitiou (noodle soup) for the poorest kids in the village.

Family comes first.

Stickman says:

As I'm not a religious guy and have but a basic understanding of Buddhism so it is a little difficult to comment.

nana plaza