Today would be my first visit to the “Big Temple” of Broken Road which is central to the family’s strict Buddhist routine. But we do arrive a tad late following the Sweet Potato Party, as it’s important to be showered and clean when visiting temples, and this goes more so for merit making on Holy Days. When we arrive to the temple it is already busy and most of the congregation has already taken place facing the stage. In the front rows of the congregation they kneel and sit with legs crossed while, in the back half of the hall, they sit more comfortably in plastic chairs. All face forward to the front stage where the Buddha statue and altar are on display and six monks wait patiently haunched on crossed legs next to them. The lead monk is stands next to the front altar and, over a microphone, he makes the introductions to the service. And, as always, I have no idea what he is saying. The hall has an open entrance so it almost merges with the surrounding carpark, and the dogs of the temple can just roam in and around the congregation.
The temple is just a short walk from our compound but, with other engagements, Napow drives there this morning. Arriving to the car park she leaves the truck next to the open entrance of the hall and we go to join the ceremony. With us we carry a tiffin tin, which is like a tiered metal lunchbox, along with a big bowl of rice, which we will offer to the monks. But, as we reach the entrance to the hall, I realize that I have left my camera in the back seats of the pickup. So I rush back to the truck and, from the front driver’s seat, I lean over to grab the camera from the back. This is when my rear presses against the horn and a long meeeep rings through the temple. The heads of the congregation turn towards me and the lead monk pauses on his microphone. Quite possibly the worst introduction I could have hoped for. I have little option now but to continue and, head down with embarrassment, I skulk into the temple hall, as I search for Fanfan and Napow. When I find them, they look more embarrassed than I do.
At the front of the temple hall I follow Fanfan’s lead to open and offer the tiffin tins to the monks on the front stage. Treats today, each sealed in individual bags and fastened with elastic bands, include fried eggs, a hot and sour pork bone soup, and some panaeng pork curry. Just one of many offerings they will receive this morning and I’m sure one of the few perks in being a monk is the choice of food each day. But they will have to fast through to the next morning as monks cannot eat after midday. So we then pray in front of the monks before moving to the far side of the hall where the monks’ alms bowls are set along tables against the wall. We then join the queue to scoop spoonfuls of rice into each one. But next comes the tricky part as we move to the front altar where we would make offerings to the central shrine. I was never great with these ceremonies and, with the congregation already full and waiting, I feel like all eyes are on me.
When making offerings to the shrine I hold two candles, two incense sticks and a small bunch of ceremonial flowers. This is the norm. At the front shrine I again follow Fanfan’s lead to light my candles, which, in turn, I use to light the incense sticks. We then both hold the candles and incense between palms, held out in front of us, and pressed together in prayer. We both bow our heads, and Fanfan says some words, before stepping up to the shrine for the offering. First we simply set the flowers to the base of the shrine. This is the easy part. Next, however, was to offer the incense sticks but, being among the last to arrive, there was next to no room left in the tray. So I spot a narrow space at the back and nervously guide my hand up and over the wall of already burning incense sticks. Then, as I lower the incense sticks into place, I burn my pinky and drop the sticks into the tray. The incense sticks fall back against the shrine and I watch helplessly as the searing red embers burn at the gold paintwork of the shrine. And there was no way my hand was going back in to fix it.
Having hopefully gone unnoticed, I shuffle away, and start with the next offering which is the candles. And now I am face-to-face with a wall of flames. This time I give up before I even start as there was no way I was going to put my hand in there. Fortunately Fanfan too concedes, and saves me the embarrassment, and we instead smother our candle wicks and set them, unlit, at the base of the shrine. Finally I can escape and we return to join aunty Napow who already kneels at the front of congregation. I feel relaxed again, but this doesn’t last long. So the service begins and the lead monk walks to the shrine where my incense still singes away at the paintwork. When reaching the altar he then turns to the congregation and points in my direction. And I pray “Please not me. Please not me”. He begins to communicate with Napow, in Thai, while I just completely panic inside. “Is he pissed that I ruined their holy shrine? Or maybe it was the car horn?” Of course I expect the worst when Napow nods her head and signals me to take a walk to the front. “What if I run?”
So I get up from my haunches and scramble between the lines of congregation to the front of the temple hall. I am still confused, and panicced, with worst case scenarios running through my head. It isn’t until I reach the front that I find the opposite. In Buddhism there are few days more important than Holy Days and, on this Holy Day, I was chosen to lead the service, alongside the lead monk of the temple. By doing this I will have lots of karma bestowed upon me, yet I still want to run away, and hide. “Please don’t faint, please don’t faint”. I can’t help picture myself falling face first into the shrine as, again, I find myself face-to-face with the shrine. This time all eyes were definitely on me but fortunately the lead monk would help me through the ceremony. If I knew what he was saying. He begins by handing me a long metal candle holder, with an already lit candle sticking from the end of it. He then directs me to light the two large candles which sit in the centre of the shrine. This was comforting as he obviously missed my previous attempts otherwsie there’s no way he’d trust me with such an important ceremony
But any relief is tiny compared to the pressures I am now under. This is when I realize how ridiculously childish my t-shirt is today. It reads ‘Fast Food. Good Taste’ and it has cute dancing muffins, with Anpanman faces on them. Today was the wrong day. I then refocus and hold out the candle stick so the flame is held against the wick of the first candle on the shrine. I then pray “please light, please light” but it doesn’t light. Then the lead monk steps in to help me, by pulling down the candle, and holding it to an angle. I have another go and, finally, the wick catches fire. Then, with a sudden spur of confidence, I manage to breeze through the second candle, and go on to two further incense sticks. No problem at all. I smile and thank the monk, and with an immense sense of relief, I ready myself to scurry back to safety.
But I don’t get far. Just as I turn to leave, a temple helper sets his hand on my wrist, and leads me to the front, centre of the congregation. He indicates for me to kneel on a mat on the floor, in front of the monks, and I can hardly say no. I do look to Fanfan, hoping maybe she could get me out of it, but she seemed to be enjoying my angst. I can feel the anxiety all over my face. Anyway, the temple helper signals for me to kneel on a rattan prayer mat, and both of us haunch down on our knees in front of the monks. I continue to follow his actions, by holding my hands in prayer, and the monks begin to chant. After each verse the helper signalled for me to bring my palms to the ground, and to bow three times. Fortunately I had covered similar prayers before.
The prayers then continue, for a good five minutes, although this feels like much more. But the longer I balance on my knees, the sorer my knees become, and they now felt like they were on fire. This isn’t a first for me where, in past ceremonies with the family, I have always been allowed to sit cross-legged, or I am been given a small chair to sit on. Because I have otherwise not knelt like this since primary school and, in Thailand, it is common practice. They really don’t know how sore it is. So I begin to panic again as I have no idea how long the ceremony would last. And I begin to picture myself buckling over with cramp, and writhing around in agony, in front of the congregation. Fortunately, I was teetering on my threshold for pain, a dog strolls up to the front, and rolls over, to start licking away at his bits. And with the spotlight shifted slightly I turn to thank the helper and monks, before scurrying back to Fanfan between the lines of congregation. It was in no way a fun day for me, and I terrified for most of it, but back at the compound the family and neighbours were all excited to congratulate me on my new found karma. It was a proud moment.
In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief.