Anne and I were wandering in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, looking for our hostel on the River Kwai. Some might say that we were lost; but we did know that we occupied a dark alley flanked by the Red Light district and Death Railway. On the upside, we had escaped the tourists and touts.
On the downside, two rottweiler mutts blockaded the path ahead. They were small, but their flashing tiger teeth were more startling than my pearly whites ever were (and Dr. Bagden, my orthodontist, can confirm that mine were an investment). From the other end of the street, a vintage duct-taped motorbike zoomed by carrying a long-haired, Fabio-gone-loco sort of man. He slowed but did not stop. Anne and I were both exhaling when he whizzed back and began to circle us. After his 3rd lap, Anne yelled, “No, go away!” in firm (read: terror-stricken) English, and we dashed.
Yes Mom and Dad, I know this was bad, and I will locate all of my future hostel-stays in posh areas. (Ahem, a subsidy would make this more possible.)
Fortunately, the story ends happily. Our hostel appeared on the horizon and I finally broke my 11th-grade 800-meter time. Nonetheless, we were ready to leave Kanchanaburi. Lonely Planet ushered us to a meditation class in the verdant Soi Yak mountains nearby.
What LP failed to mention was that the classes are not for beginners. Nor are they in English. Nor are they meditation classes, so much as a course in how to endure four hours of kneeling; while chanting Thai adulations, bowing to a 35-meter tall Buddha, and keeping clean our white toga attire. (Not yoga—toga.) We were accompanied by nuns and nuns-in-training. Anne and I prayed that we had not inadvertently committed to the latter party.
What went awry? The dream-like emersion began with cheerful ladies in white sheet dresses. As it turns out, they are dressed that way to demonstrate purity rather than to convince tourists of their cleanliness and authenticity. Who knew?!
The ladies, one of whom spoke limited English, attempted to disguise their confusion at seeing us. They handed us white robes, confiscated our cell phones, and sent us to shower. Lastly, Anne and I surrendered earrings and bracelets, as self-adornment contradicts asceticism. In fact, when the nuns saw our red-painted toes, they couldn’t have looked more scandalized if Howard Stern had jumped out from behind their Buddha. Later that evening, nail polish remover surfaced; I suspect that they did a quick grocery run on our behalf.
After showering, we followed the group of one-hundred sum Thai women up to an expansive open-air platform. The only item in the room was a mammoth buddha surrounded by violets. The group knelt onto straw mats and began pressing their foreheads to the floor, chanting “Graaaan. Graaaan. Graaaaaan.”
Anne and I glanced at each other. We were unwilling to betray the center’s unquestioning hospitality. We were eager to learn some sort of meditation since we had hauled all the way out to Soi Yak. This was a unique opportunity. And the buses had finished running for the day. So we lowered our white foreheads and blond hair to the ground, humming “Graaan” with as much accuracy as grasshoppers trying to imitate turtle doves.
The center binds guests and residents to a set of rules, which includes, “No sleeping on a glorified or elevated surface,” and, “No eating at wrong times of day.” (This would be any time after 12pm, though I am still baffled as to the wrongness.) That night, Anne and I lay wide awake in sleeping bags, bellies rumbling.
I suddenly felt as though I were on a Girl Scouts camping trip. We were with a group of over one hundred women, all of whom wore uniform sashes. We followed a leader and sang seven times more songs than the average layperson would consider sane. Girl Scout trips had also instigated stomach growling; not because we were purposefully fasting, but because we never managed to cook anything good.
The memory made me feel less at odds with the situation, and I fell asleep.
We woke up to a gong at 3:30am. Luckily, it is never to hard to leave the comfort of a straw mat on the floor. Anne and I rose for another two-hour bout of chanting, which for us was more a lesson in Thai pronunciation than meditation. Fortunately, there were two English-translation Chanting Books (the Buddhist hymnal), so we knew we were praising the Enlightened One rather than pledging allegiance to a cult.
After chanting, we absconded off of our sore ankles onto our sore feet. The ladies formed a line and we walked through the surrounding nature, across a suspension bridge over a river, bearing flashlights but not shoes. This was “meditative walking,” and it was both beautiful and surreal.
“Meditative cleaning” wrapped up our experience.
Anne and I hopped a bus back to Bangkok, hailing passersby with the one Thai phrase we have perfected: “Hello, fellow holy one.”