After the reawakening of my travel bug on the back of a motorcycle, I noticed myself growing slightly restless with the fact that I had been in the same city for over a week now. I’d been all around Bangkok, seeing the sights, tasting the flavours, and soaking up the smells, and while it truly is a huge city and simply impossible to see and do everything, I felt like a wanted to venture out and do some more exploring. At the suggestion of a friend who had traveled through Thailand before, I decided to take a day trip to the small town of Lop Buri, about two and a half hours north of Bangkok via train. Lop Buri, I had been told, was rather famous for its large population of monkeys that inhabit some of the old nearby temples. It might have seemed rather novel, but after spending to much time in the city I was interested in checking out a town that had been partially overrun by the native wildlife. The day turned out to be quite an eventful adventure, though not for the reasons I was expecting…
To make the most of my day in Lop Buri, I caught the 7:00 train. To allow ample time for getting ready, getting to the train station, buying my ticket and finding the platform, I crawled out of bed at 5:30 – the earliest I have gotten up for as long as I can remember. Navigating Hua Lamphong Railway Station turned out to be surprisingly easy though, and before long the train was pulling out of the platform and traveling north. It was a slow start, with the train stopping at several smaller stations in the Bangkok area, and a couple of times just stopping, seemingly in the middle of nowhere for no reason. But as the train kicked off again, I realised that the train tracks frequently crossed the streets roads, and I could only assume that we had been waiting for the barriers to come down and stop traffic so that the train could proceed. The further we traveled, the less frequent our stops became, and soon enough I was racing through the Thai countryside, wind in my hair from the open window and a smile across my face. It really was a great way to see more of the country than just flying from city to city, though I have to admit to nodding off into a micro-sleep every now and then – early morning starts have never agreed with me.
Due to some of the stops we’d made the train was running about 40 minutes late. I kept a cautious eye out for signs as we pulled into every station, slightly anxious about missing my stop, but it was about 10:20 when the train finally rolled into Lop Buri, so I jumped off and wandered out in to the town in search for monkeys. The sun was high in the sky now, and I wandered the streets for close to an hour, just observing the scenes and the environment, appreciating just how different it really was from the big cities like Bangkok. There were a couple of old relic temples, and I soon realised that these historic buildings were the towns biggest official tourist attraction. However, while I did find the temples intriguing to behold, I had come to Lop Buri for the monkeys, and so far I had not seen any. I told myself that I had a whole day, and that I simply mustn’t have been looking in the right places. I stopped walking and gazed out into the streets around me, and then looked down to the pavement… to see a monkey, casually leaning against a telephone poll and eyeing me with a look of disinterest.
It was as though I had stumbled upon them seemingly out of nowhere – one moment I was searching the streets desperately, the next minute there was a throng of them sitting on the footpath ahead of me. Someone had thrown some food on the ground – from what I could see it appeared to be a huge batch of hard-boiled eggs, though they smelt kind of rotten. Or maybe that was just the smell of the monkeys, I couldn’t say for sure. All I know is that the monkeys are scampering around to pick up every last bit of food. Some of them were fighting, some of them were mating, some were climbing up buildings and poles, shrieking wildly, while others sat about casually plucking scraps off the floor. I approached with caution to get a closer look, but they didn’t seem to pay me the slightest bit of attention as they hastily went about cleaning the food off the pavement.
That was when I noticed another old temple just down the road. As I carefully stepped my way through the crowd of lunching monkeys and approached the building, I realised that it was covered in monkeys. Some were running around on the grass and dirt that surrounded the temple, but there were more draped over the stone statues and steps, masses of limbs and fur all clambering up the concrete and into the shade that the building provided. Again, I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, and most of them simply looked at me with rather blank expressions – but I’m not sure if monkeys faces are really capable of showing emotion or if I was just reading far too into it. As I circled the temple, however, I encountered a bawdy collection of monkeys that were a little more feisty. It may have been something to do with the open packet of peanuts I’d left in my bag, who can say? But just when I thought that I was the monkey equivalent of a severely unfunny comedian, I felt a tiny pair of hands latch onto my shorts. I looked down to find a monkey crawling up my leg… and then turned my head to realise there was one on my shoulder too, and before I knew it there were about four monkeys hanging onto my various limbs. One was clinging onto my backpack, tugging at the at one of the tags on the outside of the bag, but thankfully none of them managed to unzip it.
At that point a local boy came running up to me, screaming and shouting. At first I thought that I was in some kind of trouble, but he began clapping his hands very close to my shoulders, and I quickly figured out that he had rushed to my aid and was scaring away the monkeys. I thanked him… and then awkwardly had to ask if he might take some photos of me, while the monkeys hung from my legs and shoulders. He obliged, so I edged back over towards the curious critters, and in no time at all they were all over me again, tugging at my clothes and calling out to each other. The local boy snapped a bunch of photos, then returned to my side to help scare the monkeys off again. I hung around the temple for a little while longer, though I kept a safer distance from the monkeys for fear that they might eventually figure out a way into my backpack. When I was done, I waved to the local boy and thanked him, and then continued on my way.
It was just past noon, and as I wandered the streets I came to the slightly bleak realisation that, other than the monkeys and the temple ruins, this small country town didn’t have a lot to offer. While I did find it interesting, there’s only so long you can walk through the streets of a little country town and absorb all the cultural differences. The small town couldn’t have been more different from the big city hustle and bustle of Bangkok – in a way it reminded me more of some of the smaller towns in countryside Australia I had been to, except that the element of relative poverty was quite distinct. However, I had not properly visited the rest of the historic attractions, so I consulted the map that I had acquired at the monkey temple and made my way to some of the other sites.
There was one particularly large temple complex that I enjoyed walking through – the scenery looked like it could have been lifted from a Forest Temple in a Legend of Zelda video game, adding to a sense of adventure (for myself, at least). The grounds were huge and as you wandered inside you quickly lost sight of the main road – in some parts it felt as though you were actually lost in the jungle somewhere. It was a different kind of beauty than the Grand Palace, which was still fully functional and constantly had people attending to the paint and decorations to keep the complex looking beautiful and up to date, despite their ancient histories. These ruins had a completely different vibe – the stone was worn and broken, grass had overgrown all the floors, and many of the structures were in pieces. It was not completely abandoned – some on the inner chambers showed signs of recent visits, perhaps to pray or show respects, so it was as though these monuments had been allowed to age gracefully, growing old and worn, rather than constantly revitalised to be kept new and pristine for all of eternity.
I spend a while reflecting on these juxtapositions, when suddenly I heard a voice call out. I turned to see a Buddhist monk walking slowly across the grass, smiling and waving. I had seen many monks during my time in Thailand, though most of them had seemed rather solemn and stern, keeping to themselves whenever I saw them riding the BTS through Bangkok. However, I had personally known a Buddhist nun back in Australia, so I wasn’t too concerned or nervous as the monk approached me. If truth be told, I felt a little special that a monk had stopped and taken the time to even pay me attention, although this time I was the only person in sight, rather than a face in the crowd on a busy Skytrain. We met face to face on the grass, and he spoke to me in what was limited, broken English.
“You alone?” he asked in a gentle voice that almost sounded like a quiet sigh.
“Me? Am I alone?” He nodded slowly, and I looked around, as though some friends may have materialised around me while he had been asking the question. “Ah… well, yes. I’m here by myself. So yeah, I guess I’m alone.”
The monk nodded and smiled. “Ah yes. Come and sit with me.” I didn’t really know how I was supposed to refuse a holy man in his own country, so I followed him to one of the temple ruins. He laid out a small orange cloth to sit on, though it was only big enough for himself, and then motioned at the ground beside him. As I sat, he asked me if I was thirsty. It was impossible to not be thirsty in the ridiculous midday heat, so I told him that I was. He had been carrying some plastic bags, and from within them he pulled out a large bottle of water, and a few smaller bottles of flavoured iced green tea. He offered me one of the teas, and filled up my small empty water with some of his own. They’d all been newly bought, still sealed, and I figured that monks would be known for their kindness and sharing. I knew enough about the teachings of Buddha that greed and material possessions weren’t something that meant a lot to them, so I graciously accepted his offer and drank the tea.
But you can imagine my surprise when, after some small talk about where I was from and what I was doing, heavily strained through the language barrier, the monk proceeded to pull out an iPhone.
“Can I take photo?” he asked me. I was taken aback – it certainly wasn’t the kind of encounter I’d been expected from a revered holy man – but I didn’t see the harm in it. I then asked if I could take a photo of him, thinking that it would make a nice picture to go with the story of how I met Buddhist monk in a tiny village in Thailand.
He smiled and nodded, but as I went to take the photo, he shook his head. “No, no. Of both of us.”
I was even more surprised by that – taking selfies with a monk? Though I wasn’t one to shy away from the unconventional, so I shuffled over so that we were sitting close enough, and leaned out my arm to take the picture. When I showed him afterwards, he gave a little giggle and pointed to our faces, side by side. “Black, and white!” he said through his mirth as he pointed at both of our faces, one by one. He’d told me was forty-nine years old, though I might have guessed older, and it was strange to see a grown man take such delight in the simple juxtaposition of skin tones. He even reached out to take my hand and examine the paleness of my skin, and held our arms together to see the difference. “Black and white,” he repeated with a grin.
“Ebony and ivory,” I chuckled, going along with joke, though I think the phrase was beyond the limits of his English.
Later, Rathana would tell me that the monks were technically not even allowed to touch the lay people. If I had known that, alarm bells might have gone off inside my head a little bit sooner. Yet I put it down to a supposedly gentle nature of the monks, and I myself am somewhat of a tactile person, so I didn’t think much of the gesture. However, he had noticed my tattoos, and became very interested as I began pointing out all the spots where my body was adorning ink. He wanted to take photos. I just laughed and went along with it, although when I went to roll my sleeve up to show him the bird on my shoulder, he said “No, no”, and made a lifting motion to the bottom of my shirt. It seemed a bit odd, but I didn’t really mind, so I went along with his request and removed my t-shirt. He then asked me to stand up, and it wasn’t until I was standing shirtless in the middle of an old, abandoned temple while a Buddhist monk took photographs with me on his iPhone that I fully comprehended how bizarre, and definitely not normal, this situation was.
I put my shirt back on, but the monk wanted to take some more photos of the two of us. He wasn’t as good as taking the selfies so I offered to operate the iPhone camera. It wasn’t until he went to pose for a photo by kissing me on the cheek that I knew something was definitely wrong with this picture. Not wanting to simply grab my things and run at the first sign of weirdness, I instead tried to diffuse the situation by asking if he could take some photos of myself in front of some of the old temples. He agreed, and took a few photos of me in front of the various buildings, but as we sat down again it wasn’t long before he was wanting to take more photos. The bright sun combined with the shadows and shade we were sitting in made it quite difficult to get the lighting right within the photographs – I thought it seemed reasonable that he was simply trying to just get the perfect picture. Though after a while I began to grow tired of the whole ordeal. I had expected to perhaps discuss Buddhism, world peace, the meaning of life – something, or anything, that might have been considered somewhere closer to enlightening. Instead, I’d starred in a topless photo shoot and sat through mostly unintelligible conversations that were completely lost in translation.
When I finally plucked up the courage to tell him that I had to return to the station and buy my ticket – a half-truth, but I wasn’t going to tell a monk I was leaving because I was bored and/or slightly weirded out by his company.
“Ahh,” he said with a sigh. “Wait, sit down a moment.” I had already put my backpack on, so I lightly eased myself down onto the step where he was sitting.
“It was very nice to meet you, thank you very much for the tea and the water,” I said to him, genuinely grateful for that part of our meeting.
“Ahh, goodbye,” he said in his high, airy voice, and outstretched his arms. A hug was a hug, so I thought nothing of it, and lightly leaned into the embrace.
At the most, I had been expecting a light cheek kiss, something appropriate for acquaintances who have just met. So this monk very much shocked me, not for the first time that afternoon, when he turned his head to try and kiss me on the lips. I was stunned – I had absolutely no idea what to do. I certainly didn’t want to kiss him, but in my mind I was still thinking ‘How do you say no to a freakin’ monk?!’
I just sat there, our faces touching for an awkward moment. Then I felt his tongue press against my tightly closed lips, and I knew that I had exceeded my daily limit of weirdness. I firmly pulled myself away from the monk, but I was still at a loss of words.
“No,” he said to me in that soft voice, which had made the jump from gentle to just plain creepy. “You kiss me for longer time. It’s been so long.”
“Ahh…” I just stared at him in disbelief. “No. No, I’m sorry. I have to go now.”
“Okay,” he said, his voice exhibiting that strange quality that made it sound like he was sighing. I was sufficiently creeped out, but as I hurried out of the temple to the main road, I actually spared a moment of sympathy for the man. He’d been a monk for seven years, and I couldn’t even imagine how lonely one would feel after that long.
Then I remembered that he had basically forced himself upon me. I scurried back to the train station and caught then afternoon train back to Bangkok, shuddering every time the moment replayed in my mind.
Over the weekend, I recounted my story to the group I had gone out with last week – Anna & Co., if you will. While they found my experience highly entertaining, none of them seemed that shocked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t even a real monk”, one of the guys said, and suddenly the cynical worldview that my sociological background had gifted me with came flooding to the surface of my mind.
“Yeah, that’s true”, Anna had agreed. “Still, many of the monks don’t even choose to become them. Poor families that have too many sons often donate them to the monasteries.” I imagined being donated to a religious institution, and forced into a life of celibacy, and while for me that seemed like an awful punishment, my experience had left me a little shaken and unable to muster up any more sympathy for the monk. The discussion continued. “In a way it’s pretty similar to the sex scandals of the Catholic Churches and what not, although…” Anna looked towards me with a genuine look of sympathy. “Not to condone what he did to you at all, Robert, but I think we can all agree that we’d much rather them try with 21 year old men than with 10 year old boys!” I returned the smile, and we all had a bit of a laugh at my bizarre experience, while still recognising that perhaps such incidents aren’t as isolated within certain religions as one might first expect.
I don’t think I can say I was glad it happened – the way it turned out with the Buddhist monk was not a pleasant experience in the slightest. Still, it was definitely a unique story I would be able to tell of my travels for a long time – I mean, how many people can say they’ve been hit on by a monk?