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The exalted and the profane

  

Originally published in the BANGKOK POST; Bangkok, Thailand

LEE Hong's, a popular Thai-Chinese restaurant in the centre of Hat Yai — the perfect perch for glimpsing the multitude of sins and dramas as they unfold in this seedy citadel in southern Thai-land. I dropped in for a bowl of sukiyaki, one of the Lee Hong's specialties.

Nok, a cream-skinned Thai girl with perfect straight black hair, in ponytail chic, is serving me with a smile. She's one of the best looking girls in Hat Yai but she did get a little assistance from her plastic surgeon. When she moves into the light I can barely make out a double ridge running along the bridge of her nose -- tell-tale stigmata of... a nose job.

Nok's doc was good though — it's not too obvious. And her secret is safe with me. No need for everyone to know that like so many others before her, Nok too has fallen be-fore the magic knife of the plastic surgeon. In fact, the plastic surgery business in Hat Yai is thriving — and for good reason. The main business in Hat Yai after all is women — young, pretty ones wanting to look even better.

At a table just over me sits a Malaysian with gold caps lining his two upper incisors, black hair combed straight back, a round, chubby face and perspiration stains beneath both armpits. He wears two large gold rings on his plump fingers and a thick, heavy, gold-linked bracelet around his left wrist. He laughs loudly and easily while puffing grandly on his cigarette. He is having a GREAT TIME and why not? Seated next to him is a pale, petite Thai girl, in her late teens, wearing a tight black leather skirt, nylons, high heels and a red shirt. She looks like a Chiang Mai import and speaks not a word of English. This does not inhibit our silver-tongued Malay from gilding this northern lily with his rich voice. His melting eloquence is interrupted only by frequent loud clearings of his throat.

She stares directly in front of her, occasionally tilting her head in his direction and offering only the softest of polite laughter. Her shyness and discomfiture suggests she is a newcomer to the world's oldest profession. This is not a match made in heaven, but then for one night it doesn't have to be. They get up from the table. It is a dark Gulliver with a munchkin clasping hands and strolling into the neon night.

Elsewhere, in the restaurant, a couple of backpack-toting farang ladies, in traveler fatigues, sit wearily slurping down some sugar cane juice. At another table are seated two local Thai families. The men sit apart from the others, talking loudly, filling each other's glasses with trusty Mekong while smoking cigarette stubs down to their fingertips. The women look after the children, feeding them, smiling occasionally at the men but never daring to intrude on the sanctity of their manly conversations. As the evening progresses there is much glass pounding and raucous laughter — as the alcohol levels rise so do the decibel levels.

Outside there's a chorus of beeping horns, turning motors and cars screeching to a stop. Motorcycles shriek by, driven by small bands of kamikaze youths, eyes glazed over, faces knotted in permanent, wind-fixed sneers, shirts billowing violently like sails in a storm, kicking up the gas and craving the 98-octane, gale-force high of instant death on the streets of Hat Yai.

Out of the corner of my eye, I make out a small invasion force of crisp, well heeled, finger-snapping Singaporeans walking briskly with a flotilla of sparkling, jangling Thai maidens following just behind. The gals are strutting their stuff — all painted up in bright lipsticks, rouge, and mascara. Their awkward gaits, a common feature of Hat Yai's ladies of the night, is caused by their extra-long high heels, clacking along the irregular pavements.

These pointy heels are an occupational hazard given the innumerable rifts, cracks and open sewers that are found in Hat Yai. It is a concession made readily though for the advantage an extra few centimeters gives to being picked to play queen for a night.

They are moving in the direction of the Poet Laser Disc, the only video hideaway showing English speaking cinema in all of Hat Yai. The selection at this cultural Mecca consists of such classics as Clint Eastwood's Dead Pool or Tom Cruise in Cocktail. The men assemble before the glass-covered menu, size up the cinematic delicacies for the evening, while the kit-tens preen and purr on the sidelines. After a brief exchange of grunts, they decide to sample more exciting venues elsewhere. They cross the street, zooming in on the Zodiac disco a couple blocks away.

The Post Laser Disc is some-thing of a haven for westerners passing through Hat Yai, given its singular status as sole repository of English-speaking. films. On any given night there is usually to be found a sprinkling of farang, wetting their whistles with Singha beer, dragging on a cigarette, enjoying some of the local color streaming by, and maybe even watching the movie.

Most nights, sitting off in the corner, usually alone, is Daeng; another one of the small, sad stories in Hat Yai. She is a bronze-skinned buxom Thai lovely who, for personal reasons, has limited her romantic rendezvous exclusively to men of the western per-suasion. Secretly, she is hoping for the oft sought after dream of so many of Thailand's part-time prostitutes — finding that interested and hopefully well-off westerner who will fall in love and whisk them safely into the bountiful and secure confines of matrimonial bliss; not to mention, a brand new home back in the village for mum, dad and little sister.

Women

Hat Yai boasts other things in addition to flesh peddling, discos, and massage parlors. But not much more. It does have some of the finest department stores in Thailand. From "Diana" to "World Department Store" to "Odeans" and other smaller but well stocked shopping smorgasbords, Hat Yai is a shopper's paradise. At night it is a shimmering orchestra of neon splash, each store vying for YOUR almightily baht. From across the border, as far down as Singapore, they come up to Hat Yai, emptying their pockets and buying. But if you really had to say what Hat Yai's, greatest attraction is — there's not a lot of argument there — it's women. This is what really keeps the immigration officials simmering in their sweat down in Pedang Besar — that steady stream of lechers pouring in from Malaysia and Singapore.

You're not interested in women, massages, discos or shopping — and honestly, Hat Yai is about the last place you'd like to be in Thai-land. Just a night over before and after the infamous visa-run to Penang, right? You may wonder... is there anything else to do in Hat Yai?

I am riding my Honda JX-110 down a narrow, winding dirt-gravel road, raising a haze of dust and smoke in my path. I turn left to follow an even smaller road for about half a kilometer. Around me in dense green foliage, rolling wooded hills, lush meadows and rice fields. Another short turn and the road opens into a large temple courtyard known as Wat Satchatam ("the truth").

Wat Satchatam is a forest re-treat dedicated to followers very intent on practicing Buddhism in its most profound and challenging aspects; with particular emphasis on meditation. Rite, ritual and ceremony take a second seat here (unlike many temples) behind concentration and meditation exercises performed by the monks, nuns and lay devotees throughout the day. Although only a 10-minute jog from the centre of Hat Yai it is, in ambiance and state of mind, on the other side of the plan-et. Curious about this unexpected find and in a need of a change of pace, I arrange to spend a few days.

It is 4:30 the next morning. I am strolling slowly back and forth with hands cupped together just below my navel, alongside my forest hermitage, absorbed in "walking meditation." My humble abode consists of a hardwood floor, a mat, a thatched roof and — that's it. It lies nestled in nature's bosom, surrounded by trees and wildlife and... snakes. Yes snakes. Some reputed to be poisonous and seen occasionally traversing the same narrow dirt path that I must walk to get to the main courtyard. That's OK though. I was informed that no one has been bitten of late — yet, like those of us who have a deep rooted fear of sharks there is a similar nervous, feeling some of us get when it comes to snakes. No matter. Life is impermanent anyway, and well.... let me get back to my walling meditation.

The next morning I was sleeping soundly at 4 a.m. when Phra Maha Jaroon, the chief monk came by. He assumed that I would be up by now -walking my beat and enjoying the early morning air in quiet meditation. Upon discovering that I was still in the throes of an REM cycle and dreaming mightily he happily aroused me so that I wouldn't miss this very special time: "Yome" (the name monks use for the laity), "Wake up!" "You are missing the very best part of the morning. THIS is the time for meditation," he said exuberantly. I can't say I greeted him with an equal share of cheeriness. For the next two hours though, I dutifully trudged, like the best foot soldier, back and forth, in front of my hut, mindfully following the "in-breath and the out-breath" and only occasionally lapsing back into the euphoria of sleep.

We have returned from alms-rounds. I am sitting cross-legged with the other laity, opposite the monks and nuns, enjoying some specialties offered this morning from the local village. The various dishes come as hot, hotter and hot-test and my mouth begins to feel like it's been blow-torched. This is down home country cooking, southern Thai style, and although my palate has weathered some strong gastronomic storms in Thai-land, this food, unexpurgated and uncensored, is clearly several degrees hotter than anything I had previously sampled. Just outside the kitchen, the temple dogs are yelping hungrily and scratching like Marat against the wooden door. I am almost tempted to slip them a little of this liquid fire to quiet them down.

As I reach over to grab a spoonful of the clotted pig's blood marinated in hot green curry I hear the admonishing but friendly voice of Acharn Jaroon: "Sati!" he says and then repeats with solemn emphasis: "Sati..." After a pause he takes a long, deep breath, filling his gills like a blow-fish and slowly, even gracefully, exhaling. Seeing this grand display of "Sati" in action, I feel compelled to respond in kind. With my spoon hovering only inches above the green paste of curried pig's blood, arm stretched outward, back hunched over and face nearly buried in a bowl of rice, I too reach deep down into my solar-plexus and suck in at least a couple gallons of spicy air. After filling my tank I then release the gas slowly. I look up at my teacher. He smiles approvingly, "Safi..." he utters softly. He then returns to his food. I experience a vague sense of having done something right.

Paths

"Sati" is a very important word in Buddhism and especially so at Wat Satchatam. It is Pali for mind-fullness. Maintaining "Sati" throughout the day, in any and all activities, is one of the eight cardinal "paths" of Buddha's eight-fold noble path. It refers simply to being aware of yourself, feeling your body, being mindful as it were, all of the time. During the day, Acharn Jaroon can be heard advising "Sati" to monk and lay person alike. Under all conditions, I am forewarned, "Sati must be maintained."

I am sitting in the meditation hall with about 20 lay devotees and a handful of monks and nuns while Acharn Jaroon guides us through a meditation exercise. He is amiable enough, yet his manner and bearing suggest more nobility than humble monk. While attentive to the audience he manages to re-main attuned to the subtle modulations of his own psyche and body, as if checking over with his mind the precise physiologic weave unfolding inside himself and particularly the cyclical rhythm of his own breathing, like a jeweler scrutinizing the inner matrix of a 16-carat diamond. Locals and monks alike, mention in hushed tones, while looking over their shoulders, "he has SAKSIT (spiritual power)."

We are well into our second hour of meditation, which came on the heels of a solid half-hour of in-spired chanting. Although we are urged to maintain our concentration, I am having trouble. My mind is wandering. I am thinking about my pet canary, buying new shoe-laces and next year's golden wed-ding anniversary for my Aunt Sophie and Uncle Joe. Any number of urgent considerations seem to be competing with the in-breath and out-breath for my mind's attention. Worse yet, my knees are aching.

On top of everything I am falling asleep. I am not used to waking up two hours before the sun rises and walking in step in the forest. My right upper eyelid is beginning to droop. It descends a little more and finally meets the lower lid. My right eye is now shut. My left up-per eyelid is also beginning to swoon. In fact, my entire head be-gins to tilt slowly forward. In another instant I will be asleep.

This descent into dream's happy antechamber is met head-on with a bristling "Sati!" from the acharn. My head snaps back like a switch-blade. Acharn Jaroon only smiles and continues with his discourse. He recognizes the symptoms of an initiate.

The afternoon finds me hot and tired and restoring myself by curling up in my hut with a good novel. After a long morning of unmitigated meditation I am in desperate need of a break. The idea of continuing with the morning's activities is the furthest thing from my mind. Just as I am settling into my book I hear footsteps. A wave of anxiety begins to form in my toes, spreads rapidly up through my abdomen and chest, finally cresting somewhere between my ears at the very instant I hear the voice of the Acharn. Although you would think that escaping into a thriller is as harmless an activity as can be, around here I get the feeling I may be committing a heinous crime. "You must practice Sati" Jaroon booms. Like a naughty school boy, I put the book down, sit up, cross my legs and begin focusing on the in-breath and out-breath once more.

To keep my mind from wandering I am given a little trick. I raise my hand and forearm slowly, up and down, bending at the elbow. I am spending this afternoon, sitting in a forest with arms moving up and down in catatonic rhythm and concentrating on the "in-breath and out-breath." It's really not so bad except that at 5 p.m. the mosquitoes start to come out — and I am defenseless. As a member of the monastery I am required to abstain from the killing of animals. I am uncertain if a mosquito counts as an animal but not wishing to make a bad impression on my first day I allow their feast to continue — with me as ritual lamb... it is slow torture.

The next morning Acharn Jaroon and I ride over to another forest monastery about two kilometers further down the road. A five-minute walk up a hill and across the top of a waterfall brings us to the meditation retreat known simply as Bon Ton. After climbing another 75 feet beyond the water-fall, through dense, virgin forest, we come to the hermitage of Phra Jumras. His residence overlooks the surrounding hills, is utterly quiet, has no running water or electricity and, for his purposes, perfect. When I asked him to summarize if possible in a sentence, his spiritual practice, he offered, "to see the emptiness of the self."

Sitting (cross-legged and in some agony) on the bare floor of Phra Jumras' simple home, peering out onto the undulating, emerald hills-capes in the distance, yet so close to the frenzy of downtown, it is hard not to be struck by the obvious contrasts. To go from window-shop-ping for 16 year-old prostitutes to the untouched forests of Bon Ton is a mighty full sweep of the dial. Yet, right alongside the more earthy and well-known attractions of Hat Yai, there exists places like these where concepts of pleasure run slightly more rarified to say the least and confirmation that Hat Yai can offer something beyond the flesh trade.

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