If Bangkok is a hard working show girl grinding a living in Las Vegas, then Pattaya is her little sister that comes to visit on the weekends, drink to excess, and pass out on the couch.
By day she is a swirl of vendors hawking street food, cheap t-shirts, and trinkets for the deluge of tourists who come for the beaches, nightlife, and resorts that pepper the long crescent moon shaped coastline. Every few meters there is another Tuk Tuk or motorcycle driver ready to launch you away to the best gem shops, secret places that sell the real artifacts, tailors you can have a suit made for only $20, or whatever your heart desires.
At night she puts on her slinkiest dress and goes out to find whatever the night brings. She is pushy, foolish, laughs at jokes she does not understand, and accepts everything from strangers. I did not see this side of her for the most part. I wasn’t interested in how well she can dance at night or what she looks like when she sheds her clothes. Only driving back from the second days adventure did I see the flicker of neon begin to spark on. I sought from her not physical comfort or from the bottom of an empty glass. I wanted to dig deep into the sinew of her still good and vibrant heart, and the peace the morning brings her when the ruckus of night has had its fill.
Too many nights of my youth had been spent going down thatdestructive road. Through all my searching, the truth I found there is there is no truth there. There is no fulfillment of heart or mind. I didn’t need to look again. There was no curiosity.
I had booked the places I stayed at using keywords like “family friendly” and “quiet.” I had chosen correctly in Pattaya as my hotel was far from the walking streets where girls entice men into vice and debauchery and where bars overpour drinks preparing you for memories glazed and fleeting. I didn’t want to know Pattaya that way. I didn’t want to see her wearing that dress. I am probably one of very few white men who never walked down those streets while visiting here- even for just a glance.
Pattaya has a sensitive side- ancient Wats and Pagodas built to honor the Deities high on mountains, far away from the city on the coasts, and in its eastern local city centers. On the coastline, she went for the easy money. Its understandable. With the dam of tourism breaking in the last decade here with bargain vacationers from Europe, competition for tourists is tough. Cities build what people want. If people came to Pattaya for temples, like they do in Bangkok and Siem Reap, Pattaya would build more temples and museums. Unfortunately the Euro is her drug of choice, and she has found an easy way to do anything to get her insatiable fix.
That is not this journey. To escape this, to really see the side of her that she protects, keeps secret, and doesn’t want white foreigners to see, you have to be strategic and precise. It takes a keen eye for the right driver and about four attempts to show the location and prove you have a working GPS to get a motorcycle driver to take you to a temple outside the vast net of tourism. But once you break through, where the swag shops and bars slowly give way to local grocers, schools, and life deep in the marrow of the city, things change drastically. It becomes the real Pattaya: Home. Pleasant. Quiet. Sacred. Small. No makeup. No neon. Just a quiet city making its way through the world and trying to make life for its pepole a little better day by day.
Temples like Wat Bunkanchanaram can be found here. Refugees of real in a city trying so hard to be more than it should.
With the promise of extra Baht if he stayed, my motorcycle driver promised to wait. He wouldn’t be able to catch a close fare so I knew it made sense for him to stay and wait it out for whatever this white man wanted with this place.
I was desperately thirsty after my 30 minute ride through the town. There was a local cart vendor who was speaking to a monk. I bowed reverently to the monk and approached. I pointed to water after giving a respectful deep wai to the monk and an open low hand wave to the vendor. I said “1000 Bhat?” The monk laughed. It scared me at first as it was past 1:00, and eating and drinking in front of a monk after this time is not good practice. Monks fast for the rest of the day usually after this time, and my plan was to take my water and drink it outside the temple before beginning my merit. I was incorrect. He quickly spoke to the woman and she handed him a water.
He gave it to me and said “Drink! Drink! Hot everywhere today.” I tried to giver her the Bat. She smiled and refused. I asked if I could take their picture, wanting to remember the kind gesture in a city where you keep an eye on who is 4 steps behind you. He posed with her, and then quickly took me by the arm and said, “Come! Let us see Buddha.”
We walked into the Wat Center where there was restoration going on. The woman repainting the statues smiled and let out a surprised “hah!” when she saw me take off my shoes, place them on the left, and cross the threshold of the temple with my left foot first while not touching the door. It is a symbol of reverence, to not break the boundary of a temple by stepping on it- and is something lost on many flip-flop tourists that curiously peek into their world. It was a moment of pride for me, many weeks of research for true reverence and respect of the Thai culture and religion manifesting itself in a simple moment.
We spoke of why I was there, to make merit for my family member that had passed to ease his soul into his afterlife or his next. Google translate did the heavy lifting and after a few minutes he understood. I was not there to just take pictures. I did not want a selfie with Buddha. I wanted only to give. To understand. To help find a center where now I had none. He held my hand very very tightly and smiled. “Wheel has no center. See the wheel,” gesturing at the air. “There is nothing at the center.”
We prayed together, and I received a prayers for my journey and a blessing of songkram for my family with holy water. The offering symbolizing the cultivation of calmness, clarity, and purity bestowed from a monk to a layperson. After this he took his hands and wiped the water from my head onto my face, praying for my eyes, ears, and mouth to become open. “Pictures!” he said enthusiastically. I took my camera and was surprised as he joyously posed in front of Buddha- happy that he could help tell the story of my journey.
My quest to see Wat Bunkanchanaram was to look at the iron Buddha. It is an ancient artifact, small in stature and rare that it is not adorned like many others. At first I did not see it amonst the many dieties on the alter. But again to my surprise he walked up to the alter after the picture and said “come!” and waved me up to the elevated platform reserved for monks only. “This one very old very very heavy.” He said as he tried to lift it with an exaggerated show of exertion. “Look. See. Very heavy. Full. Old Buddha.” I was hesitant to touch it, but laid my right hand on the foot of the Buddha. I cannot describe how it felt to touch. I simply don’t possess the words. It is one of those moments that make you fell very small, and that your life is the smallest fragment of existence.
He patted the foot and said “Very old. Very good that it is here. Blesses this วัด (temple) being here.”
He touched the Buddha to the left and said to me that these two pray to him. Honoring home. “They offer their thanks for it being here.” He touched them with vigor and joy as if he were shaking hands with friends that had come back from a long trip. His reverence was not quiet and diminutive, it was expressible. His joy overflowed the room. I don’t know if it was my interest or just him everyday.
He was happiness.
He was living peace.
He had enlightenment.
We left after he showed me the restoration painting that the high Buddha was undergoing. The painter that had kept to herself was bashful having her picture taken. She tried to stop and get out-of-the-way for the picture. She pointed at the work wanting me to take a picture of that instead herself being not as important as the work that she was doing. I through gesture and “no no no” persuaded her to be in the picture.
He gestured towards the other temples and said “Please walk around. You are welcome here. I have work to be done.”
I walked around the Wat taking pictures and lighting incense and stumbling through the prayers I had been taught in the Wats in the outskirts Bangkok.
I made offerings to the monks who had retreated from the heat in the smaller shrines and halls. I purchased toiletry baskets and candles for them. Four of them total, each priced by a local on site shopkeeper at 3000 Bhat. Four dollars in all. When setting them on the giving plates in front of the Monks more blessing were given to me, and a gold Sai Sin was tied around my wrist- offering me their protection along my journey and binding the monk to me. After this we performed of the water bowl offering, where water is poured from a vessel into a bowl while prayers are said by a monk. The water is then carried outside and poured onto a sacred tree to give it life. It is a practice that acts as an antidote from attachment, and the honor that sacrifice of giving away holy water brings.
When I found my driver, still there sleeping in the heat under the shade of a tree I said I was ready to go. I looked around for the monk who had helped me and prayed with me. “Lose things?” the driver said. “No, we can go.” As I walked back towards the bike I saw him at the corner of the Wat. Quietly going back to the work he had started before walking over to the cart vendor.
I have performed these rituals many times before at many temples through my three days so far in Thailand, but there was more meaning in this one. More connection.
I was no longer trying to simply be the foreigner who didn’t know what he was doing. Did not wonder if I was doing it wrong or acting foolish.
I was emotionally and with understanding participating in sacred rituals that go back thousands of years performed and believed in by billions of people. I was gaining merit for Na’cho. I was doing everything I could to elevate his beautiful soul. I had begun the first muscle twitch in my attempt to stand.