Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Friend is a Thai Monk

On a recent trip to Thailand, I had the pleasure of accepting an invitation to visit a good friend of mine, Kann Kann, who I know from Chiang Mai, who was living in Bangkok and had taken his vows as a 'short term monk' at the very famous and revered Wat Bowonniwet Viharn.
Phra Panyawaro (shot with an IPhone 4)

Like many Thai men, Kann Kann had considered the process of becoming a monk and the merit it would bring him and his family. This is a very strong belief and practice in Thailand as the following quote states: 
'Being a monk in Thailand is not compulsory, but most men tend to do it! Maybe only for a few days, weeks or several months. Some choose that way for life. It is an essential part of preparing to be a man, and maybe one day, as the head of a family. Most young Thai men will enter the monkhood - become ordained - before marriage and normally for a period of three months - starting in the rainy season. Normally this is from July to October.
This short term 'fix' as a monk earns merit or kudos for one's parents. It is also openly encouraged for young boys to become 'novices'.
A short term monk basically lives the same life and ways as a 'career' monk of many year's standing and service. This will entail the ritual early morning trek out into the neighbourhood to collect food and donations for the temple monks and upkeep of the temple. He will eat either one or two meals daily - no more - and this only for the morning. During the afternoon, liquids only!' 

Phra Panyawaro and Myself (shot with an IPhone 4)

One thing I noticed straight away was the happiness and calmness on Kann Kann's (now known as Phra Panyawaro) face. He seemed to be at peace and I know it sounds kind of corny and stereotypical, but he was oozing a real sense of inner peace.

Perhaps it was the surroundings or the fact that he had already been living the life of a monk for 3 weeks and had begun to adapt to its rhythms and lifestyle, but I have spent many an evening with Kann Kann and shared many a drink and cigarette over long hours and at many bars and parties with him, and the look on his face and the ease with which he had adapted to the lifestyle, meant that this felt right for him to do at this time in his life.

He told me that he was happy, felt clean, clear headed, healthy and could see his old lifestyle, more clearly now that he had stepped away.

He also explained that his parents and extended family and friends were extremely happy for him and the merit it would bring them all.

What for me was extra special was the fact that I got an insight into his monk lifestyle by being invited into his somewhat humble room where he was sleeping on a flat bamboo mat on the floor and the only other things in his room was a fan and some books and a couple of cushions.

Although the day was extremely hot, and Wat Bowonniwet is situated in Banglamphu, right near the infamous Kha San Road, his room was cool and silent and I guess just the right place to shut out Bangkok.

It was also explained to me that although he was only going to be a monk for about 6 weeks, he must adhere to all normal monk practices and duties, as though he was a 'career monk'.

'A typical day in the life of a Thai Buddhist monk will start at 4.00am with meditation. This will be followed with chants, and thereafter out to the villages and neighbourhood to collect alms and food. Upon return to the temple at around 8.00am, there will be a communal breakfast. At sometime before noon, some monks will have a light snack - their last food before the following morning at sunrise. Afternoons are normally taken up with various Buddhist teachings, followed by a period of worship in the late afternoon, before retiring to do 'homework'. There may be duties around the Temple, such as repairs and cleaning to the general fabric of the buildings.

The modern monk, will often be seen talking into his mobile - as will most other Thais! And the sporting of a laptop is also to be seen.' 
Phra Panyawaro
After our conversation and tour of his room, Phra Panyawaro suggested a walk around Wat Bowonniwet so that he could point out the main buildings and different areas of the Wat.

I was actually amazed at the size and diversity of the architecture within the Wat, as well as the numerous canals filled with huge catfish and hundreds of turtles.

Just one of the canals filled with fish and turtles within Wat Bowwoniwet

Most of the canals were overlooked by huge old Banyan trees and were bordered often by different 'Monk Villages' with the temple complex.

One of the biggest and oldest trees within Wat Bowonniwet, which created a cool oasis and shady spot for a rest

As parts of Wat Bowonniwet date from about 1357, there are many many different types of architecture within the grounds of the complex. Although much appears to be newer and in fact is, there has been continuos occupancy and use of this temple and it has grown exponentially over this time, with 3 adjoining temples being amalgamated into Wat Bowonniwet. There is also the Thai custom of 'updating' older buildings with new facades and with lots of different areas and period buildings, including houses for monks, offices, libraries, viharns and shrine halls, as well as Royal Residences, it left me feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the eye popping beauty of the Temple complex. After a fantastic 2 hours with Phra Panyawaro it was time for him to retire to his room for meditation and study and for me to enter the heat and madness of Bangkok, step back into the reality of the real world, which was literally only a few metres away on the other side of the large white walls that surround Wat Bowonniwet.

Wat Bowonniwet is also well know as being the Wat where the Royal Princes, King Rama 4, 6, 7 and 9 have become monks and resided.

After a fantastic 2 hours with Phra Panyawaro it was time for him to retire to his room for meditation and study and for me to enter the heat and madness of Bangkok, step back into the reality of the real world, which was literally only a few metres away on the other side of the large white walls that surround Wat Bowonniwet.

What I remember as I bid my farewell, was both the first and last looks on Phra Panyawaro's face, I had seen today and that was a large and natural smile that seemed to take up his whole face! He also told me that he had decided to stay on another 2 weeks to assist his Ajan (teacher) with the upcoming Songkran festivities.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Phra Panyawaro for his time, friendship, insights and tour guiding and wish him luck in his future endeavours.

Lastly thanks to my subscribers and readers for taking the time to read this.

Tomorrow I will be posting on my time in Chiang Mai during Songkran.

Rob Steer

The main Chedi within Wat Bowonniwet

Many of the buildings were in a 'neo classical European style'
Royal Monk Residences

This was a large building in the centre of the temple complex, that had a bit of a European Church style to it

Just one of the monk residences within a village within Wat Bowonniwet


  1. Wonderful insight, thanks for the post.....

    1. Hi Zelda, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my blog! Much appreciated.