My Thai family.
Most people send me a surprised look when I tell them that I have a father in Thailand. Some ask me whether I am half Thai. I always find that a strange question. Yes, I have dark hair, dark brown, not black. But that is about the only resemblance I can find when I compare myself with Thai people. No, I don’t have Thai blood running through my veins.
Still, I have Thai family. My father’s wife is Thai and through her I have Thai brothers, nephews, a niece, cousins, aunts and uncles. Although, one of my uncles is actually not Thai but German. With him and his wife I speak German, with one of my cousins I speak English and with my father and his wife Dutch. Unfortunately, I cannot communicate with the rest of the family other than by being as polite as possible and saying hello. It always feels a bit strange, but my Thai and Mandarin is far from good and their Dutch and English is also a bit rusty.
Vegetarian or not?
Whenever I am in Thailand, I try to accustom myself as much as possible, just like I try to do everywhere I go. I am a pescatarian, which means that I don’t eat meat, but I do eat fish. You would think that many people in Thailand eat vegetarian, because most of them are Buddhist. At least that is what I thought the first time I went to Thailand. I would never have to ask if something contained meat. I thought wrong.
It is right that over 90% of the Thai population is Buddhist. Many of them also practice other religions at the same time. But there is not one Buddhist school or way of life. According to some Buddhists they can eat chicken, pork and fish. Before Buddha’s search and after his enlightenment Buddha himself ate meat. Just not during his seven years as an ascetic. The monks that followed Buddha were allowed to eat meat if they did not see, heard or suspected that the animal was killed specifically for them. The same goes for his followers today according to the Theravada view, the most dominant view in Thailand.
The Theravada view is not the only school that says that Buddhists can eat meat. There are many different teachings and many different views. I found it interesting to read that the 14th and current Dalai Lama does eat meat. But only when he’s on the road and people offer him meat. When he’s in Dharamsala, his hometown, he eats vegetarian. So, one piece of advice: when you’re in Thailand check what’s in the food, because it is not necessarily vegetarian.
Like many Thai my father’s wife is a Buddhist. In their house is a small altar with a statue of Buddha (or: Dah Bu as they call him in Thai), some water and other oblations. However, they also have a small altar in their house for Guanyin (or Kuan Im in Thai). I will tell you more about this Guanyin later on. For now, I just mentioned it to illustrate that religion is a very important part of the Thai everyday life.
During my time in Thailand I learned more and more about the way the Thai practice their religion and came in contact with their habits. A lot takes place inside the house, but also outside. Rivers, for example, are visited to set fish free when it’s your Birthday or float a krathong at Loi Krathong (a Siamese annual festival). It is also very common for the Thai to stay in a monastery for some time once or several times during their lives.
The best place to visit to experience Buddhism is a temple. You cannot go to Thailand without visiting one. You’ll find them everywhere. The Thai come there to pray, eat and bring food and gifts to the monks. Whenever someone offers to bring me to one, I never decline. There is one I especially like. My dad refers to it as ‘the temple on the mountain’.
The temple of Guanyin.
When you’re in Phitsanulok and you follow the main highway nr. 12 leading you outside the city center towards the Wang Thong district. After about 16 or 17 km (10 miles) you will see the So Mo Klaeng hill (the mountain that my dad means) on your left. You take the exit on your left just before the military base. There is no public transport going there, so you need to go by car or taxi.
There are actually several temples on that road. It is a bit unclear what the names are as websites contradict each other. One is called Wat Ratchakhiri Hiranyaram and another Wat Phra Phutthabat Khao Samo Klang. According to Tourism Thailand the last mentioned one is the temple of Guanyin at the bottom and the first mentioned one is the temple on top of the hill, But when you look at Google Maps the last mentioned temple seems to be on the other side of the hill with a different road leading towards it. We leave the names for what they are and just enjoy what these temples have to offer.
The first temple you reach, is dedicated to Guanyin, the one I mentioned earlier. But who is this Guanyin? When I first heard the name I was told that this is the Chinese Goddess of mercy or compassion. And this makes sense looking at the beautiful elegant statues near this temple. But there is more to it. This Guanyin is the Chinese interpretation of an Indian Bodhisattva, called Avalokiteśvara. A Bodhisattva is a Buddhist, who has reached a certain stage of enlightenment, but does not want to enter Nirvana, because he or she wants to help others. Somehow the Chinese changed this male Avalokiteśvara into the female Guanyin.
This temple lies at the bottom of the hill and it is easy, but a pity to drive past it. Everything is in Thai, it is behind a gate and there are usually not many people around. I always find the water with the statues in it very peaceful and I enjoy coming here.
The temple on the mountain.
When you continue the road up the hill you get to the temple my dad mentions. Once you get there, there is plenty of parking space. The temple complex itself is quite big. It consists of several buildings.
Like with all temples in Thailand: don’t forget to take off your shoes when entering a temple and stay below Buddha. Also be respectful towards the people. It is always a good idea to bring something for the monks and to buy some flowers, incense or candles.
There are several lookout points on top of the hill. I love the views from these lookout points. They’re amazing. It is said that a forehead bone of Buddha is being kept in a pagoda on top of the hill.
The buildings themselves are abundantly decorated. There is a lot to see and we usually stay here for quite some time. At the temple complex you will find a restaurant, where you can get a delicious vegetarian meal for free. There is also a gift shop.
You will not find many tourists here, because this temple is a bit out of the way. Also: if you don’t speak any Thai you will have a hard time trying to figure out where it is, how things work there and how to behave. So it is best to go there with someone who speaks Thai. But if you do, you’ll have a great day out. I always look forward to my dad’s suggestion to go to the temple on the mountain!
Also on Travelharts.com.
The first story about Thailand on our blog was about a vegetarian cooking workshop we did in Kanchanaburi. You can read it here.
A story about what to do when you are in Kanchanaburi,Thailand. Also a recommendation of On’s Thai Issan vegetarian cooking school.
In the center of Thailand one can find Sukhothai Historical Park. In the past Sukhothai was the first capital of the Siam Kingdom. Check out the photos