Monthly Archives: February 2006

Old Patong: Guitar Noi[1979]

We met Guitar Noi late one night at Chiannes beach shack.

Noi was slender, very tall, kinda Marleyesque with his extremely long hair and fu man chu stache and beard. Always a big grin on his face and a gentle nature.

Noi rolled in about 11PM, we were just watching a little dog chase crabs on the beach and generally lazing from a huge bbq fish meal that Chinanne had expertly fixed for us earlier in the evening.

Noi brought his guitar along and I quickly asked him to play “Stairway To Heaven”, well, he DID! Never missed a note in fact, none of us there could believe how talented Noi is!

He played one song after another, we tried to sing along, aided by a case of Singhas we yelled out the lyrics of every song Noi played and Noi even taught us a few local Thai songs along the way. Daybreak suddenly jumped up from behind the big mountain to the east and we all groggily stumbled back to our homes and bungalows.

The next day Patong Patty and I were talking about the night before, when we met Guitar Noi, Margaret and Chianne invited us to go along with them to the big Patong Beach Hotel and see Noi’s show there that evening.

During the day I sat with the guy that would later become “Paradise Bill” and we watched the first windsurfing contest on Patong Beach! The wind surfers kept circling around and around we just figured it was the course they had to follow, but sadly found out that a German tourist, in fact a Doctor who had the blues when his girlfriend left him and he drink too much and took a mess of pills, resulting in him swimming too far off the beach and drowning. It was bad news for sure.

The good news was Noi WON the first ever Patong Windsurfing Championship! Noi was quite the athlete and easily out distanced ALL the competition without any trouble!

The time finally came, we walked up to the hotel, located about mid beach and sauntered inside.

Guitar Noi was behind the organ, playing elevator music, but when he saw us, he immediately got on the microphone and said “now we gonna shake em up some” and began playing Neil Youngs “Southern Man”, I walked up next to him and we began singing and with Nois excellent musicianship and singing, we brought the house down!

From then on, every time Noi saw me and he was behind the organ at work, he’d start playing Southern Man and we’d sing together and maybe several other folk songs at the time.

After work, we went thru the bushes behind the big Patong Beach hotel to the little place that Noi resided with his dear wife Lek and their darling wee daughter Oraphin.

Lek made us all welcome, we sat on bamboo mats for several hours and sang more songs and party’d on.

We were overjoyed at meeting Noi and his family and would be friends for evermore!

Stir-fried Pork with holy basil

One of the most famous Thai dishes around the world is this one, stir-fried pork fried with chili and holy basil. You don’t have to use minced pork, as variations include chicken or beef. In Thai it is called moo pat ga-prao. The last part refers to the basil. It is quite simple to cook and the result is very delicious. Can you believe that the above was cooked a few days ago at my local food shop? It is one of those places with an open front with a minimum of decoration. There are thousands of these shops around Thailand. They are much cheaper than going to a restaurant. Believe it or not, this dish was only 25 baht which is about 60 cents. Most foreigners miss out on these meals as they think that they will get ill if they eat street food. So, they decide to pay three or four times as much in a restaurant for exactly the same dish. The ingredients probably came from the same market and were cooked in the same kind of kitchen. I am not saying you won’t ever get ill by eating street food. You just need to use some common sense. If you see a lot of Thai people eating at a food stall or food shop, then the chances are high that the food is not only delicious, but safe to eat too!

As usual, I have also shot a video showing how this was cooked. It is number 11 on the list. Thanks to Pornsiri Kitchen in Soi Sulao for giving us the demonstration.

It’s about Isaan

Before I go any further in Thai Blogdom I ought to explain a few things.
I’ve been here for more than 10 years and although I live in the political borders of the Kingdom of Thailand I have spent 99% of my life here in an area known as Isaan

rice planting

Geographically Isaan begins at Korat, east to the Mekong, north to the Mekong, with Loei as its western border. It consists of 19 provinces. The southeastern provinces (Korat, Buriram, Surin, Sisaket and Ubon) have a mixed Khmer and Lao influence, while the rest of Isaan is Lao. For practical purposes while Korat is geographically part of Isaan the modern province has little in common with the remainder of the area.

The daily lives of the majority of the people in the reqion revolves around the village, the wat and the village school. All rites of passing from birth to death including graduations, marriages and anything else of any significance are celebrated with a baci (pronounced “basee”). More about the baci in a future blog.

The village wat or wats are still a major part of life and where the young men go to spend their time in robes before adulthood.

Everyone has a child, or niece or nephew or some type of relative in the village school, and school events bring the whole village out.

Isaan festivals reflect their Lao sources and show a people comfortable in ther own skins. I am always amazed to watch central Thais at events such as candle festivals, or even at That Phanom for Magha Puja. They generally wear clothes that cost more than many Isaan people earn in months, but walk around looking terribly uncomfortable and unsure of what to do or how to do it. For Isaan folk all these events no matter how auspicious are simply part of the cycle of life that they are part of every day.

women in pa sin at the wat

Most meals at home include khao ngiao (sticky rice) and are eaten family style on a mat on the floor. As a matter of fact most old style homes contain little furniture at all.

The pa sin (Lao full length wrap around skirt) is still seen regularly on women and with great frequency at functions and festivals.

The language of the day is Lao. Amongst themselves and at home it is the way people talk to each other. Thai is taught in schools and is used at formal times, but is most heard when Thai television is playing.
More about Isaan coming…

To see more of Isaan

Buy The Superstition Or Keep The Cash

Steve Suphan’s blog a few days ago on the Khmer Monk with the spooky knack of picking lottery numbers prompted me to think about the Monk’s motivation. Simply superstitious, spiritually endowed or just a con man. During my travels to the Kingdom over the years I have seen numerous examples of similar behaviour both as an observer and as a participant. Three of these incidents have always stuck in my mind.

Ban Phutsa spirit house

In 1992 we were staying in the Isaan village of Ban Phutsa when we were phoned from Australia by a family friend and advised that thieves had broken into our home. My Mate from Australia said not to worry and that he would deal with it, but I was still tempted to return home early. Village family and friends learnt of my potential decision and at dusk of the same day my wife Mali and I were frog marched to a house in the village to have our bad luck dealt with. There a village layman reputed to be endowed with spiritual powers went to work. In his open air kitchen, he chanted, fed us mysterious herbs and on this cold December night he upended a bucket of water on both of us. The whole thing was so ridiculous I could only laugh. The moral of the story – we decided to continue with our holiday and had a fantastic time.

One morning the following year we rode our motorcycles at dawn into the town of Phimai. At the town’s famed Sgnam Banyan tree we came across a Phra Tudong – a wandering ascetic Monk. My sister-in-Law Orrathai who is a devout Buddhist saw it as a propitious moment and literally burst into tears with emotion. We invited the old Monk back to the village which is about 12 kilometres from Phimai. He came back with us to the village and stayed two days. Faithful to his tradition he slept outside beside a clump of bamboo on my father-in-laws property. He was invited into the house many times where villagers would come and present alms. He performed ceremonies which clearly had animist origins but did so in a spiritually calm manner. For me it was a remarkable experience. On the last day the old monk quietly advised that he was leaving. I offered to walk with him up to the main road but with a smiling admonition he waved me back to the house. That was the last time I ever saw him.

About three years later and back in Isaan, word was spreading about the village that another Phra Tudong had taken up temporary residence on the outskirts of the village. I rode out to the monk’s encampment but found in contrast to my previous encounter with a Phra Tudong the smell of Commerce. This Monk was a lot younger and chubbier than the ascetic I met in 1993. His camp included a table and chairs and a modern three-man tent. But what really gob smacked me was that he also had a late model Toyota Utility together with a driver. Beside the camp was an open fire on which sat a bubbling cauldron full of a foul smelling liquid. The Monk dispensed this supposedly “spiritually” endowed soup to several enthusiastic villagers who simultaneously passed over Baht contributions to the monk’s chauffeur. Call me a cynic but the whole scene reminded me of tent show hucksterism.

spirit house

Looking back at these three incidents, I would have to say that the first was high farce, the second spiritually significant and the third simply buyer beware. The common thread between all three was superstitious practice but the difference was the individual motivation. My main rule of thumb when confronted with superstitious practice in Thailand is to try and determine the motivation. If it comes from the heart, just go with the ride and enjoy the spiritual rewards. If it’s a situation like Phra Commerce above, just walk on and make sure that your wallet is not missing.

Buddhism – 100 Years of Ajarn Buddhadasa

In May of this year, UNESCO will be honouring the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ajarn Buddhadasa (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu) in their calender of ‘Great Personalities and Historic Events’.

Now, Thailand has had millions of monks come and go, so just what made Ajarn Buddhadasa “Recognized as one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in Thai history?”

‘Buddhadasa’ meaning ‘A Slave of the Buddha’ was born in May 1906 in Chaiya district, Surat Thani province to a wealthy local family of Chinese descent. Even though his mother had plenty of spare cash she was known for her frugality and ‘Buddhadasa’ was taught to work for his pocket money from a very young age.

As the eldest son, Buddhadasa in adhering to Thai tradition, ordained as a monk at the age of 20 at a local temple. No-one expected him to continue wearing the robes for that long but Buddhadasa soon made his wish well-known that his role as a ‘monk’ was to be taken seriously. Wasting no time at all Buddhadasa Bhikkhu travelled to Bangkok to further his education in Dhamma. Buddhadasa believed as a kid that Bangkok was “The Land of The Awakened Ones” and a hub of scriptures and enlightened gurus!

After 6 years in Bangkok, Buddhadasa returned to Surat Thani. He was supposedly very unhappy and completely disillusioned with the behaviour of the monks he met and knew in Bangkok. “They dined after midday, had sexual relations with women and engaged in hocus-pocus superstitious rituals”.

Disenchanted with life in the ‘Sangha’ he quit his studies and went to live ‘solitary’ at an abandoned monastery. Buddhadasa spent the next twelve years of his life alone at Wat Trapangjik while many of the local community and other monks in the area refered to Buddhadasa as “The Mad Monk”. They had never known of any other monk before who would sit in solitary meditation for hours on end and study Buddhist scriptures so diligently, he just had to be crazy!

In 1943, with the financial help of his mother and brothers, Buddhadasa founded ‘Wat Suan Mokkhabalarama’ (The Garden of Liberation) in Chaiya District. A decade or so after, Buddhadasa made a trip to India “To follow in the footsteps of The Buddha” and it was there that he realized for the very first time “A deeper understanding and practice of the true teachings, or dhamma, of the Lord Buddha”

One of Buddhadasa’s aims was to ‘teach dhamma to the world’ and established an ‘International Dhamma Heritage’ which brought in thousands of westerners over the years to learn dhamma and meditation. In fact, Buddhadasa became so well-known in the circle of western Buddhism that he was once “more popular with foreigners than Thais”.

In 1993, Buddhadasa left this world after previously surviving a series of heart attacks. Buddhadasa, during his 67 years as a Buddhist monk never once stopped ‘teaching’. Even though he had only a grade 9 education, Buddhadasa received five Honourary Doctorates and his books and transcripts fill an entire room at the National Library.

Teachings and Controversy

Throughout his life he was a monk of controversy, celebrated by some, and detested by others. He taught what he called ‘Pristine Buddhism’ and declared that Thai Buddhism as a whole was ‘Polluted by materialism, corruption, ritual and politics’. Buddhadasa known as a ‘reformist monk’ was never one for concealing his feelings and spoke out at Thailand’s Leaders. He took on a pro-environmental, anti-materialistic stance and taught what he called ‘Dhammic Socialism’
Buddhadasa said “Don’t believe that socialism is dead! This is just the material propaganda of neo-conservative diehard capitalists. Real Socialism has never been tried on a large scale. Socialism is the opposite of the individualism with which we are brainwashed today”. Buddhadasa quite simply taught that “We must live together and help each other”.

During the 1970s at the height of student revolts, Buddhadasa was denounced a ‘communist’ by the political leaders at the time and was very nearly imprisoned.

Buddhadasa didn’t just upset political leaders with ‘hard hitting facts’ he also caused a storm of controversy through Thai Buddhism Circles. He supported the teaching of women and the ‘Bikkhuni Order’ (Female monks) which were taboo subjects at the time. Buddhadsa did not just study Buddhism he spent his early life as a monk reading scriptures from all the world’s religions and upset even more people with the likes of….this, startling claim:

“If you go on a deeper understanding of the dhamma, until you finally realize the absolute truth, you will discover that there is no such thing called religion – that there is no Buddhism, Christianity or Islam”

Many monks and Buddhists saw this ‘universal’ claim of Buddhadasa’s as ‘undermining of Buddhist tradition’. Then, at the same time, Buddhadasa was criticized by some western Christian leaders “A Buddhist monk has no rights to interfere with our teachings”.

Buddhadasa was afraid of no-one and used the lowest possible form of Thai language such as the pronouns ‘tua goo’ (I) and ‘tua meung’ (you) with everyone he met. Many four star police and army generals were supposedly to have left Wat Suan Mokkh furious with the way Buddhadsa showed ‘completely no respect’ and looked down on them as if they were just no-bodies. This was exactly what Buddhadasa taught of “there is no I, my or mine”. Many political leaders stayed well clear of Buddhadasa and Wat Suan Mokkhe for exactly that fear of ‘the mouth of Buddhadasa’. He listened to the advice of no-one and even before he died, was said to have rejected HM The King’s offer of having him flown by The King’s own personal helicopter for medical treatment in Bangkok.

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu had always said:

“Buddha was born on the ground, he journeyed on foot to teach dhamma, and he died lying on the earth, i will follow him, i will always keep my feet on the ground”