I did it, I made it to the eve of my first weekend as an official teacher here in Thailand. Sitting in the English teachers’ office packing up for the weekend I look up from my bag to see one of my Thai colleagues standing over me with a huge smile. I freeze and just smile. “Oh hi!” I exclaim, probably too enthusiastically, “Sawatdee krap,” fumbles from my mouth as I try to assess the situation. “Would you like to come to the funeral this Sunday night? We’re all going as a department. Your coordinator will pick you up Sunday at your apartment, 6:30, ok?” Frozen, I agree before I can even process what just happened.
Whose funeral? Do I somehow know this person? Is this a test? Have I passed by agreeing? What do I wear? Do I bring something? A million other thoughts run through my head as I walk home trying to make sense of it all. I text my non-Thai colleagues privately on the side to get answers. The head of the English department’s husband has recently passed and she has invited her colleagues in the department to attend the traditional Buddhist funeral – it’s normal, don’t sweat it, I’m reassured. Don’t sweat it!? I haven’t know y’all a full week yet and I’m going to one of the most personal and trying events that one can attend. In all honesty, I don’t even know the head of the department’s name yet and I’m already attending a funeral in her husband’s honor.
Mai pen rai
After figuring out what I need to wear and having an internal freak-out over the weekend, Sunday night comes and I find myself in the back of my coordinator’s car with a friend of hers. They’re chatting the entire ride (in Thai, obviously) and occasionally asking me if I’m ready to drive us back from the funeral. I can’t tell if they’re joking or not so I chuckle and agree but provide the caveat that the roads here terrify me and I’ll probably drive us on the wrong (right) side of the road. The ride continues in silence from that point on. Shit, did I offend them? That wasn’t my intention! I’m just still trying to even figure out where in the hell I am. Shit, shit, shit.
We continue driving for what seems like forever making our way further and further into the sticks. I try to keep a mental map of our route in case this is a huge, unfunny joke where they drop me off in the middle of nowhere and tell me to figure out how to get back. It doesn’t work. Every field looks the same and the road signs might as well be in another language. Oh wait, they are.
Finally we arrive to the Wat (Buddhist temple) and it’s in the sticks. Relieved that I’m not being abandoned in the woods, I hop out of the car eager to get this going. The sooner it starts, the sooner it ends. I’m directed to carry some bags into the temple but in order to do so I have to remove the dress shoes I put on. I’m the only one to have worn lace-up shoes. I missed the memo saying wearing slip-ons or flip-flops is acceptable. Awesome. I’m THAT guy. Sticking out like a sore thumb already I become even more self-aware and begin sweating – the nerves, the Thai heat/humidity, and my all-cotton outfit combine to create my own personal sauna within my clothes.
I think everyone can see (despite my best efforts) that I am completely out my element. Smiles and wai’s start to come my way and my reticence starts to subside. My coordinator comes back from parking the car and directs me to a canteen-style building across from the wat, “Eat,” she tells me as we walk into the canteen and the smell of traditional Thai dishes meets my nostrils. Alright, I can get with this. Before me lies a buffet table of about six vats of Thai dishes ripe for the taking. I have no idea what anything is but I take a healthy portion of each. Fried fish, some type of coconut milk curry, fish cakes, minced pork with chilis, and of course, rice. I eat more than I should because that’s what I do in uncomfortable situations. “Can’t embarrass myself speaking if food’s constantly in my mouth,” was the motto.
We eat and chat as more funeral-goers arrive including the other non-Thai foreign teachers from my school. I let a huge sigh of relief out and settle into a more comfortable state as we walk into the wat.
I’m taken aback. Not at the beauty of the interior, but at the joyous attitude I sense as soon as I enter the building. It’s almost as if we’re not at a somber event, at a celebration rather. Then it hits me, it is a celebration. Everyone here is celebrating the life of Teacher Pimon’s husband, they’re happy they’re able to be here and celebrate a friend’s life. It’s beautiful.
What takes place over the next hour is one of the most unique and incredible experiences I’ve had the fortune to participate in during my short 28-years here. As opposed to the funerals I’ve attended in the past where friends and family recant tales and fond memories of the departed, this is focused (it seems) on the 4 monks stoically conducting the ceremony. The men walk and take a collective knee front and center stage and a sudden hush moves briskly through the temple. With only the background sound of a nearby fountain spewing its water the monks begin a ritual prayer in Thai and in unison the crowd begins to pray along, hands placed in prayer, heads bowed. The enchanting yet mysterious chant continues undisturbed for an hour straight. I’m frozen in fascination, watching every move the monks make – the scratch of a nose or hand every so often, otherwise motionless. How do they do it? I wonder.
The prayer comes to an end almost too soon – I want to see more! Know more! Explain, please! - and family members come to the front of the stage to present each monk with what appears to be a new set of robes and various offerings; a new bedding set, multiple oscillating fans, and other sundries too much to list. The items are handed over in a clearly ritualistic way with each monk appearing to bless each offering and the person who presents it.
And just like that, it’s done.
The Wat empties as each guest is handed a box of Thai baked goodies as we exit and depart back to wherever it was we each came from. On the way home my mind is racing a mile a minute with curiosity but I can’t get any questions out. I keep replaying the ceremony in my head – the sights, the smells, the sounds of uniform prayer. It was all so mysterious, so fascinating, again, so beautiful.
And that was only my first weekend here.