When Monks Go Bad
Before The Friendship Bridge, that now links Thailand to Laos, I spent some time in Nongkhai. Laos was still veiled in secrecy at the time and could only be viewed across the brown swirly waters of The Mekong. At night, looking from my veranda high on
the crumbling river bank, barely a pin prick of light shone from the opposite side. Just the sound of dogs barking into the blackness, that seemed to hang so heavy, was all there appeared to be. I desperately wanted to go. I wondered what it would
have been like for people there to look across at Nongkhai with its lights reflected deep into the river, and the sounds of music drifting over the water from a riverside restaurant. Were they envious? From a boat I saw a line of young girls silhouetted
against a threatening sky. In sarongs they walked single file. I waved and some waved back. I was quite touched. I felt I'd glimpsed a small part of this hidden world.
Wandering around Nongkhai I met a monk, or he met me. On the couple of occasions that I saw him he just seemed to materialize in front of me. One evening he invited me back to his temple. Novice monks chanted from inside as we walked through the dimly lit grounds. He told me a little of his life, and that he was only there as a monk for the rainy season to make merit for his wife who had died. "Would you like to smoke some grass"? he asked, which came as a surprise. Ordinarily "a smoke" was something I could take or leave. But, as unusual as this guy seemed, I thought how could I pass up the chance to get high with a Buddhist monk at a temple in Nongkhai. I'd read Carlos Castaneda. Maybe I would become an apprentice to this mystical monk and gain the knowledge that only mystical monks knew. Discover the meaning of life. At the very least I was expecting to fly into deepest darkest Laos on beams of coloured light. How could I not take him up on his offer?
In a small upstairs room, at one of the temple buildings, we sat on a mat rolled out for us by a younger monk who busied himself pouring glasses of water. By now my mystical friend had let the top half of his robe down. For the first time I noticed his glazed dope fuelled eyes. His body was covered in scars. As the younger monk prepared a makeshift bong, made from a plastic water bottle, my man said, "I've been smoking for fifteen years, it doesn't harm me, I just have accidents". Okay, I thought, maybe we'll give the flying into Laos on beams of coloured light a miss.
Expecting a rolled joint inexperience led me to take a massive hit from the bubbling bong. Even with his thousand yard stare there was a slight flicker of concern as I fought to keep smoke from coming out of my eyeballs. My head exploded in great beads of sweat. I held on and things eased a little as my friend sucked on the pipe. He talked some more but slowly the enlightenment that I'd been hoping for turned to paranoia. The water, that I had been drinking, I was now convinced had been drugged. Previously I said I'd take some dope away with me but I was now sure he'd inform the police as soon as I left. The overhead fan now seemed to cast flickering shadows around the spartan room. I really wanted to leave but wasn't sure if I could walk. As the younger monk moved around behind me I felt certain that he was going to strangle me with his robe. As soon as I was able I made my excuses. Having respectfully removed my shoes and socks on entering I now stuffed my socks into my pocket and staggered away into the night trailing my untied laces through the puddles as I went.
I crawled on to my bed in the darkness as little red lights flashed behind my eyelids. I laughed like a loon. It was another four years before I made it to Laos.
In another case of what might have been I sat right up at the stage in a bar at Nana Plaza. Twenty or so girls danced above me in various states of undress. They were beautiful. The music was loud and a light show rolled around the room. It just hit me. I thought my God, these girls could rule the world from up there. The power that they held over every slack jawed farang in the place was quite something to see, and feel. The development of this theory, or vision, was dead in the water as soon as one lithe and sultry looking beauty plucked out one of her pubes and dropped it in my beer glass.
Out past Kanchanaburi and on up towards the Burmese border I was with Noi. We came across a forest retreat. People stayed in huts and spent their days in meditation and prayer under shady trees amongst groves of whispering bamboo. By chance our brief visit coincided with that of a highly respected monk. Everyone who was there got down on their knees before him as he worked his way through the throng with his entourage. Forget rock stars, or movie stars, this guy had a real presence about him. This guy was one of the most handsome looking blokes I'd ever seen. Everyone looked up in awe. He spoke to a fortunate few as he went. Women looked up with big limpid eyes, their faces like flowers following the sun as it moves across the sky watched as he floated past and bathed briefly in his saffron coloured glow. It was something beyond love. I swear this guy had an aura around him. I was standing back to observe but Noi, already on her knees, was urging me to come forward. I dropped to the dust beside her and became one of the chosen ones. He asked where I was from and told me that he'd been to Liverpool. One of his entourage gave me some Tiger Balm type stuff and a photo and the light diminished as the man moved on. Noi was impressed that I'd spoken with him.
Back home many months later I opened a newspaper and saw a photo of this monk. He'd been disrobed after some sort of European tour where Western women were also on their knees before him but for different reasons.
The late Spalding Gray, in his book Swimming to Cambodia, wrote of finding "the perfect moment". It's not something that can be planned, it just happens. A precise moment in time where nothing else exists, you are just in that moment. Gray found his "perfect moment", somewhat understandably, on a beach in Thailand. It's a personal thing. It can't be forced and will creep up on you when you least expect it. I think it's the best you can hope for in the LOS, rather than visions or enlightenment.
I took Wan up The Baiyoke Tower at dusk, which is not a euphemism but the tallest building in Thailand. The city was lighting up all around and we had the place to ourselves. I wrapped my arms around her from behind as we faced into the wind that snapped at my shirt and blew through her silky hair. She held her arms out wide, "Titanic" she said. It was a "perfect moment".
When Chiang Saen was still just a one horse town I stayed for awhile. I saw beneath the surface. There were people I never saw sober. On my last night people I'd come to know threw a farewell party for me. In a garden beneath the stars the food was plentiful and The Mekong Whisky flowed. One guy who sang at a local restaurant produced his guitar and sang for me "leaving on a jet plane". It was a "perfect moment".
In a bar overlooking Lumphini Park one afternoon I sat with a friend. The bar had been opened early just for us for no apparent reason other than this was Thailand. With free canapes to go with our beers we laughed at our good fortune. How could life be any better we thought. Then a CD was put on, softly in the background, and Nat King Cole sang Unforgettable. It was a "perfect moment".
I made love with Nok one night and looked deep into her eyes. She looked deep into mine. It was a "perfect moment".
There are good times and there are great times and then there are "perfect moments". Just fleeting moments in time. Try to capture them and they're gone like a dream upon awakening. It's the time in between whatever triggers the moment and the realization that you're having a "perfect moment". A "perfect moment" can't be guaranteed but at least in the LOS you will increase your chances.