After a five hour bus ride out of Chiang Mai, I was finally relaxing at a riverside tavern. I was having a boring conversation with two Swiss women sporting Calvin Klein sweaters and a 55 year-old electrician whom I later befriended. Ten minutes into the conversation, I decided the Singha beer had satisfied my thirst and had rendered me intolerant of mindless chatter.

I took leave of them and headed to the first of many stairs up a cement mountain side bearing effigies of Buddha and other idols in the Buddhist pantheon. The stairs mounted to stalactite cement caverns so low I had to stoop to get by.

At a turn in the cavern I came across a group of three people taking snapshots and laughing. They were talking about Burmese politics and also how Chinese heroin traffic had paid for the monastery we were climbing toward. At the top of the stairs was a fat Chinese buddha in polychrome which overlooked the hamlet of Tha Ton on the Maekhong River. I joined them in climbing the stairs and in conversation, but we all soon grew quiet when we reached the summit revealing a monastery complex echoing with the chanting of orange-clad monks bent on their knees in a temple.

The whole valley below was shrouded in a brownish gray haze. Fires dotted the mountain across from the promontory. The air was thick with smoke as frogs sang in tight harmony and rats darted across the square.

I decided to go up to the 3-storey tall white Buddha that dominated the temple complex and the three others followed along. We walked up a winding road sided by little cabins, each one for a guest of presumably higher Buddhist rank. Finally we arrived on the giant Buddha pedestal where Chris, an American epidemiologist, gently whispered to his Buddhist god. The two others absorbed the stillness. I walked to the giant gong at the Buddha’s side, lifted the mallet and looked back at Chris. Looking up, he smiled. I banged the gong and it groaned deeply. The wind wafted the smoke and haze and I did the sun salutation with the desire for communion.

The night by now had almost entirely fallen and the hillside fires burned like candles as Chris explained how they were part of a plan of slash and burn perpetrated by the Burmese in their quest for new Thai territory. They had taken up residence on a couple of hilltops with command posts that frowned at the simple Thai villages below. The Thai military resisted mildly and was giving up acreage here and there; in the northwest corner of Thailand, this was far away from Ayuttaya province and its cobbled dreams of tourist highways.

Chris had just finished a stint of five years of research on AIDS in Bangkok and made sure to pepper every one of our remarks with a retort built on piles of detailed knowledge of Thai politics, warfare, sex and food production.

The two Brits, a BBC documentary team on assignment, were more circumspect. They felt much needed to change ecologically and politically in Thailand and expressed themselves in pious tones that would have worked well in more diplomatic circles. I agreed with them, but felt the need to expose the patronizing tone they had adopted. They insisted mechanically that their science and their views made the most sense for the globe and not just Thailand. (I sometimes wonder what the Native Americans thought of Europeans cutting down forest in order to build massive air-choked cities.)

As we sat on the Buddha’s toes, a rat passed between my legs and scampered into a bush. I had no idea this had happened and was only informed by my companion’s laughter. I felt violated at first and then, calmed by the monk’s chanting drone, let myself fall into submission. Maybe this rat was someone I need to meet.

The air was thick with smoke as we descended the Buddha stairs. I felt happy for the first time in some time for having connected meaningfully with people. I tried to remember the rat’s shy inquisitiveness when I encountered stressful situations later on.

Text and Photography 1998 Andy Hadel of Bmotion Design
The Red Buddha is a woodcut made by an anonymous Thai artist.
Andy Hadel has a B.A. in French from U.C.L.A. and a M.A. in French from Middlebury College.

 

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