And I’m saying nothing in the past or future ever will feel like today. -Bright Eyes
Monday, June 1st was an important holiday in Thailand. In their belief, it is the day that the Buddha was born, received Enlightenment, and died. To celebrate, the children at Bunditnoi had the day off, and so did us teachers. Out of the goodness of their hearts, the director and manager of the school decided to take three of us farangs on a trip to the neighboring province of Buriram to do some excellent sight-seeing.
We were accompanied on the trip by Piyak and Yo, the Chinese and music teachers at school, respectively, as well as Ben’s friend Sanjoy, a 26-year-old ex-monk who now teaches at a different school in the area, and a fellow disrobed monk of Sanjoy’s.
There were nine of us. Between the nine of us, there were at least three nationalities (Thai, American, and Sanjoy is from Bangladesh), more languages than I could count, and a single covered pickup truck.
The director and the manager sat in the front seat. The rest of us piled into the bed of the pickup. There were two small benches that fit three of us each, and a mat on the floor for the last person. Sorry, Mom—no seatbelts.
The drive to Buriram took about two hours, including the stop to the Thai people’s favorite shop, 7-11. The seven of us in the back had some conversation, but mostly we were trying to sit comfortable on the little benches and, on my part at least, trying to imagine what wonders we were about to see. All I knew of Buriram was that there were some ancient temples and a football stadium there.
Ancient temples and the football stadium were, of course, what we were being taken to see. It was a hot day even by Thai standards, and although it drizzled in one very brief spurt sometime in the morning it remained hot the whole day.
We first arrived at Prasat Phnom Rung, an enormous temple complex built at the summit of a dormant volcano. From the parking lot you hike of a series of steep stone stairs until you reach a long, flat causeway flanked by fairly phallic pillars. From the causeway you can see the temple in all its glory. According to the few phrases of English plastered here and there along the way, Phnom Rung was built facing east to west, and every door, from the main gate to the entries to the small buildings within, is aligned so that the sun shines through them all at sunrise and sunset. It was originally a Hindu temple, constructed in devotion to Shiva, one of the most prominent Hindu gods. During its tenure was Hinduism, Phnom Rung was host to many rituals that involved nudity, sex, and fire. But it was eventually converted into a Buddhist temple, and stayed that way until it was abandoned.
The stonework at Phnom Rung is astounding. Most of the blocks are big, heavy, and have intricate details carved into them that are beautiful on their own, but also make up part of a larger pattern.
As we were leaving Phnom Rung Piyak nudged my shoulder and pointed toward the sky. There was a fain rainbow. But it was not like any rainbow you know—this one was shaped like a crescent surrounding the sun.
After Phnom Rung we travelled the short distance to Prasat Muang Tam, which was essentially at the base of the volcano. Muang Tam is slightly newer than Phnom Rung at 1,000 years old, and slightly smaller as well. To me, the highlight of Muang Tam was the lotus flower. Just past the main entry into the temple complex there was, on either side of the path to the inner temple, a large pool covered in blooming lotus flowers.
From Muang Tam we were driven to a food stall on the side of the highway, where we feasted on rice with shrimp, and then from there it was on to Buriram United, the immense sporting complex that had a racecar speedway, a football (soccer) stadium, and the biggest billboard I’ve ever seen. Plastered on the billboard was the face of the king (I face I am getting quite familiar with, as there are pictures of him everywhere) and the words, “Long Live the King” written in English.
Seeing the sporting complex was neat, but I think the wonder of the afternoon was on the drive back to Pak Thong Chai. The seven of us in the bed of the pickup were all exhausted…but we had bonded. Whereas on the drive out to Buriram we were sitting rather politely in our own space, on the way back we leaned on one another, tangled our limbs together to get the most comfortable positions, and we talked happily the whole way home. Yo sang us some Thai songs, and in exchange we sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I had a nice discussion with Sanjoy about our favorite books—he was quite into science fiction as a child in Bangladesh. He also taught me what has become my favorite phrase in Thai: Sabai, sabai, which is a versatile little phrase that generally means to be relaxed or easygoing. If somebody asks how you are doing and you’ve had a good day that’s not too stressful, like our day in Buriram, sabai, sabai would be the perfect response.
More on everything to come!