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Erin in Asia

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No Problem

Jet-lagged from our 17-hour plane ride, we slept until almost noon our first day in Bangkok. We awoke hot and thirsty in the cheap hotel room, so Beau went in search of water. He soon returned, laughing and shaking his head.

"The woman working the front desk was sound asleep," he said. "I finally had to go behind the counter and grab the bottle of water myself. I tried to be really noisy and wake her, but it didn't work. We'll just have to pay her later."

"She must be hung over," I guessed.

A hangover was a good guess, but it didn't take long for us to discover that sleeping on the job in Thailand is widespread. It soon became one of our running jokes, but actually the practice is neither uncommon nor frowned-upon here. In just our first few days in the country we saw pharmacists slumped over their counters, young internet café proprietors drooling on their computer keyboards, and street vendors sprawled out in doorways, leaving their, um, "Rolex" watches and "Guess" sunglasses available for anyone to take. Airport security guards, bicycle mechanics ... the list goes on and on. No one is immune or ashamed.

I now think that three major factors contribute to this phenomenon. We discovered the first on a romantic late night walk through a village in the Northern Chiang Rai province. As we strolled, we marveled at the moonlight on the rice paddies, the babbling of brooks on the side of the road, the friendliness of villagers who passed us by, and the shrill sounds of karaoke coming from the bamboo huts and concrete homes in which everyone lived.

Pronounced ka-roh-kay in Thailand, the karaoke phenomenon has taken over the country. The Thai are very proud of their country's rock and roll music scene, and they are not bashful about belting out a few tunes themselves. While many people sing while completely sober, in broad daylight at local restaurants, I believe many of the late night performers are aided by Thai whiskey or rice wine; both are popular homemade drinks. So, I could imagine quite a few people would be at least a little ... sleepy the next day.

The second contributing factor is related to the first: These late night crooners are also early risers. I'm not sure if they actually want to be — it's just that the roosters offer them no choice. First, you must understand that Thai roosters do not wake up "at the crack of dawn" like the ones in TV cartoons. They beat dawn by hours, starting their crowing at about 4:30 am. And they don't just crow once, like an alarm clock to awaken the farmers. They have conversations. The one sitting five feet from your head will talk to the one at your neighbor's hut down the road. Beau and I were particularly unlucky, because our resident rooster was either adolescent, hoarse, or tone deaf, and he didn't seem to realize it. His crackling crows were as loud and frequent as the others'.

I'm not sure if these roosters are actually waking up any rice farmers, but they are most certainly waking up owners of stereos and motorbikes, dogs with gag-reflex disorders, and breakfast chefs who relentlessly pulverize chili and garlic with their stone mortar and pestles. For these reasons, sleeping past 4:30 am isn't an option for anyone.

So, having experienced these late nights and early mornings in Thailand first hand, I truly understand the compulsion to sleep during the day. Still, while I've nodded off in my share of classrooms, none of my American supervisors would have ever taken kindly to me snoozing on my desk at work.

But the Thai are different — and I think this difference is the third and most important reason why everyone is sleeping on the job. By all accounts, firsthand experiences, and guidebook descriptions, the top priority in Thailand is to enjoy life. They value fun ("sanook") and relaxation. Unlike work-obsessed Americans, Thai people feel free to sleep when they're tired and have no customers (at least, that they know of). "Mypin lye," they say — it means "no problem." It's almost a national motto. People say "mypin lye" everywhere and often.

And this, I think, is the main reason we could have had as much free water, medicine, watches and sunglasses as we wanted. It's also the reason why it is so difficult to volunteer in Thailand. Which is a story for another day....


Beau and I have had a really amazing time in Thailand. Guess what we did one day in June.



We took a bunch of opium addicts for a jog!

It was hilarious. I felt like Robin Williams in some heroic-funny-doctor-takes-care-of-mental-patients movie. Here's how it happened:

We had arrived a day earlier at our new volunteering placement (once titled the "AIDS placement"). On the way, we had learned that our first two weeks would actually be at a detox camp for opium addicts. This was all fine and very good and interesting, until our new coordinator — our only semi-English-speaking contact — basically dropped us off at the camp, pointed at the 26 male addicts (ages 25 to perhaps 60), and said, "Your students."

Ummmm, yeah.

Our coordinator stayed for about an hour, during which time Beau asked her to ask the men questions. We started with, "What is a typical day in detox camp like?" We were looking for a schedule, like "6:00 wake up, 7:00...." At one point, the coordinator said "7:00 am jogging," so Beau said, "Ask them if we can go jogging with them." They and she nodded yes.

Then, somehow in the process of getting this information, it translated into our planning their days for them. The coordinator started asking us what would they do next. And she suggested we would be teaching them. So we made a schedule:

  • 7:00 — We all jog.
  • 9:00 — They eat and get their medication.
  • 10 to 12:00 — We teach. (Somehow this turned into us teaching English.)
  • 2:00 to 3:00 — We all play soccer.

That night, Beau and I sat around reflecting and basically saying, "What the hell?" Here we were, dumped into the second week of opium detox for a group of 26 Thai farmers, and we were supposed to run their days? HELLO? Neither of us had ever run a detox or drug treatment program before, we didn't know how their program had worked before or how well, no one there spoke English.... And why would these guys want to learn English? What did we have to tell them?

After more thought, Beau suggested that not only might we not do any good, but we might actually harm their treatment by interfering, or possibly boring or taxing them to the point of dropping out. (It seems that previously they didn't do much but eat, sleep, watch videos and of course karaoke! Can you imagine, all of the sudden they have to go to English class?)

So we decided to do the one day as planned, then tell our coordinators that our time would be better spent researching and making recommendations for opium detox and treatment.

Okay, back to the jogging....

We got up at 6:30 the next morning, put on running shoes, and went over to the detox camp. (We were staying with a young villager and her two children.) When we arrived, no one seemed to be planning to jog anywhere. Everyone was sitting by the fire, smoking and wearing flip-flops.

We started to wonder, does jogging mean something else here? Do they jog in flip-flops? Then we got nervous. Were these guys even allowed to leave the camp premises? But, not knowing what else to do, we motioned that we were going jogging, pointed to them and said in Thai, "You?"

Suprisingly, most of them decided to join us. One guy was really funny, kicking his knees up really high and yelling, "Nueng, som, saam, si...." ("One, two, three, four....") They were laughing and smiling, and we took off jogging through the village, all of them in flip-flops and many of them still smoking.

You should have seen the looks on the other villagers' faces as our parade passed through. They must have thought, "What kind of crazy therapy do these foreigners do?"

But everyone smiled, and we turned around shortly thereafter. I guess the patients had fun, although maybe it was because it was their first time outside the camp.

Otherwise, things have been really, really good. The area of the detox camp was a beautiful hill tribe village overlooking rice paddies. So green. We went jogging another night (just Beau and me), and the jog turned into a really nice moonlight walk, complete with lightning and lots of smiles and "hellos" from the villagers.

Amongst the Monks

I just got back from a five-day Buddhist meditation retreat! I learned a few things but still wouldn't consider myself enlightened.

We arrived at the temple by bus, completely covering a bunch of welcoming monks with red dust. The four other volunteers and I were met with curious stares, because we were farang (foreigners). We were two Japanese women, two men, a Swiss and a Brit, and me. We did our share of ogling too, taking in the hundreds of Thai boys and men with orange robes and shaved heads, sweeping the ground, stacking bricks, and riding motorbikes.

The head monk formally welcomed us. He and the others were very kind and accommodating. They attempted to speak much more English than we Thai, and made every effort to ensure that we felt welcome and comfortable. We were to be there five days to learn about meditation and experience the daily rituals of the monks at their temple.

And this was no ordinary temple. It was two hours from Bangkok, in lush green wilderness surrounded by beautiful mountains. More spectacular than the setting was the temple itself, which was in an enormous cave. In this cave, we would experience our first meditation with the monks. But on the first day we toured the rest of the grounds and got settled. Then we went to our dorms and slept.

The next morning we awoke at 4:30 am with the rest of the temple community. Aaahhh! More early mornings in Thailand! We started with a meditation techniques class in another building nearby. There we learned the correct posture and the locations of the seven bases of the body. We were given relaxation tapes. Most importantly, we were told to relax and to allow our minds to stop thinking. "When you stop thinking," we were told, "you will be able to see the light in the center of your body." After the short instruction we practiced the techniques. Our legs fell asleep, but miraculously our bodies didn't. No light yet.

    7:00 am: Breakfast.

    9:00 am: Another practice session.

    11:00 Lunch. This would be the last meal of the day. The monks do not eat dinner. They must digest their food before meditation, so that their bodies are completely focused. During our stay we were asked to do the same. We were assured, "Do not worry, you will not lose weight." I found myself wondering, then what's the point?

    7:30 pm: Meditation again, with our bodies pure and clean and food-free.

    9:30 pm: Off to bed.

The next day we followed the same basic schedule: Rise at 4:30. Practice. Eat. Practice. Eat.

Except that night we were ready to meditate in the cave with the monks!

Monday evening, at 7:30 pm, we sleepily walked from our dormitories to the cave entrance and removed our shoes. Padding up the brick steps, we took in the immense size and beauty of the cave. Gray stalagmites hung from the ceiling. A gigantic but svelte and handsome gold Buddha sat smiling at the front of the cave. One hundred and fifty monks silently knelt on the marble cave floor. A few bats squealed and fluttered by.

Expectant, hopeful, and humbled at this sight, we moved timidly to our assigned spots at the back of the cave, women on the left, men on the right. We sat in the proper positions, folding our legs beneath us and sitting on our calves, feet pointing away from the Buddha and the monks. We bowed three times in respect and waited in silence with the monks for something to happen.

Soon, an older monk arrived, sat in front of the Buddha, and began to chant. The other monks repeated his chant, their hypnotic songs filling the cave. We sat in our places, listening, neither moving nor comprehending. The chants were quite pleasant, and I didn't mind that they lasted a half hour. Once they finished, the meditation began.

The monks stopped their normal routine to set up the English language relaxation tape we had used in practice. As they prepared the tape, I remind myself of the lessons. Clear my mind. Do not think of anything. Focus on the center of the body and let my thoughts disappear.

The tape began. A woman's voice—gentle, with a thick Asian accent—resonated throughout the room and then repeated itself.

Now let's find a quiet corner and gently sit down. We will relax de body from de head to de toes.
Now let's find a quiet corner and gently sit down. We will relax de body from de head to de toes.

Okay, I'm sitting. I'm relaxing. Maybe I show bow my head? Okay. Dang, my legs look fat all folded up like that. They're so stubby. Yuck. I'd better lose some weight while I'm here. Five days of white rice and no dinner ought to do something. If I don't lose weight, maybe my stomach will shrink and I'll be used to eating less food. Shit, I'm thinking. Okay, listen to the tape.

. . . body, letting de stream of sent-tee-mental from de knot of de head down to de toes. Relax de eyelids, and down to de cheeks, de nose-trils, and de front of de neck.
Relaxing de body, letting de stream of sent-tee-mental from de knot of de head down to de toes. Relax de eyelids, and down to de cheeks, de nose-trils, and de front of de neck.

Hmmm. Everything in my body is already relaxed. I've pretty much been on vacation for two and a half months. I have no stress. In fact, if anything is going to stress me out, it will be these five days of useless time. I really didn't think I could get any less productive than we were in our volunteer placements last month, but this is unbelievable. I can't wait to start my life in Bangkok and start working. I wonder how much a laptop will cost me. Maybe I should order from Dell. Oops - okay listen to the tape. Clear your mind.

Okay, this is boring. Man, my posture is bad. Sit up straight. Strengthen those back muscles. Sit-ups would probably help. I can't wait to join a gym. I wonder where I'll be living.


Did a monk just fart? Oh my god, he did! All of the young monks are snickering. That's great. I've got to write about that. The sound carries well on the marble floor and cave walls. I'm glad that wasn't me. Oh damn. Stop thinking. Tape tape tape.

. . . Imagine a stall of rice and beer . . .

Man, that sounds good. Wait. What did she really say? Was that the first or second time she said this sentence?

. . . Imagine a star of light and clear . . .

Oh. That's stupid. "A star of light and clear." What's the point of imagining a star? I really don't get this stuff. I wish I had some rice and beer. I'm so hungry. Oh no, my stomach is going to growl. It's going to sound so loud. Okay, I can prevent it. Mind over matter. Mind over matter. That's funny, I'm in meditation thinking mind over matter. About my stomach. Ha. Actually, why should I care? It's their fault, they don't give us anything to eat. Okay, that's not fair. They're really nice. Look at the nice monks. I really like those robes. I wonder if they wear anything under the robes?

. . . and soon a shaft of happiness will burst through and fill your body . . .

What? Do they know how that sounds? "A shaft of happiness"? Or is it just me? I wonder how much longer this thing is. Hey, my hands look kind of weird all folded up symmetrically. I wish Beau were here. He would die though. If the meditation and lack of activity didn't drive him insane, the no-dinner thing would. Plus there's the separate male and female sleeping quarters. It would be fun to sneak out at night and meet somewhere though! Man, I wish he was here.

. . . and they touch each other and feel happy . . .

Okay, they definitely changed the tape. This is like porn meditation or something. Maybe I should listen.

Imagine you are surrounded by de green grass of de lawn.

God, is she still talking? I'm so bored. Why don't they get someone who can speak English at least? You don't need to be a nun to read the audio script. You don't even need to be Thai. Oh, I am so bad. Hey, I think the tape is done.

Sowatdeedum la dum pa wum de dum . . . .

Yeah, the monk is doing the final chants. Nice.


Afterward we file out of the cave with the monks. Dressed in earth tones among the crowd of orange, we clearly stand out. Our teacher comes over. "How was the meditation, Erin? Did you see the light?"

"Ummm . . . . "


I can't wait to get back to Bangkok and weigh myself. I might not become enlightened here, but I definitely will be lighter.

Copyright © 2001 Erin Neel