It is the dogs that give me pause. Three of them, they spot me and my new bride tentatively searching for a Buddhist monk at a Wat (Buddhist Temple) in Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand, and they converge together to send out a howl, reminiscent of a light bulb being ground to pieces under the heel of a workman's boot.
In Thailand, dogs are plentiful. They roam the streets, they dart in and out of the open air markets, restaurants and bars. They have the sharp pointy snouts of a dingo, and each one looks like the one before it. Years, generations really, of cross-breeding have created a population of feral, yet lovable look-a-likes.
The natives don't chase them off with brooms or swat at them wildly with their sandled feet. In fact the dogs seem to have a revered place in the streets and businesses of Bangkok, Chaing Mai and Koh Pha Ngan. We learn early on that they are not to be feared. My wife Amanda, woke up early one morning, actually around 12 am, rustled awake by jet-leg and wandered out of our sweaty bungalow to the dusty, lonely street of Hin Kong beach. It didn't take long for her to be accompanied by a black and white mascot, who at first frightened her, but later she learns is only looking for a pat on the head, or more likely a spare piece of chicken.
On Koh Pha Ngan. The beach that host the famous, or should I say infamous, Full-Moon Party, A drunken orgy of Brits, Isrealis, booze and sand, that brings out thousands of University students from around the world to drink painful amounts of booze as they party, painted in neon, into the night, only to wake, their faces planted in the sand of the beach. and say "where the bloody-hell am I?" We attend, and I will leave it at that.
After the party, I see what I describe to Amanda as, "the ugliest dog in Thailand, maybe the entire world," scooting through the well-worn, streets of this weary beach town. His coat is long and mated with dirty, gum, and God only knows what else, as he shuffled aimlessly searching for scraps of food from alcohol-idled tourist.
I remember as Amanda and I escape the beach town, heading to the airport in a rattling Thai Tuk-Tuk, I see the "worlds ugliest dog," laying in front of a Thai restaurant, being meticulously groomed by a waitress. She untangles his sticky mane, and plucks bits of food, dirt and bugs out of his weathered coat.
The dogs here never snap at you, they never growl, and they certainly never pose a threat. So it is off putting when these dogs converge, snarling, howling, and warning us to stay away, as we shuffle outside the wat in southern Thailand
Amanda and I had talked for months about getting a blessing from a Buddhist monk while on our trip in Asia.
The search for this distant Buddhist wat is uncomfortable, it's hot and humid, and Amanda is laboring with every step after being ravaged (we counted more than 51 bites) from a frenzy of mosquitoes the night before.
At the same time I am burying my sweaty forehead into my arm, and am confronted with my own religious beliefs, or lack thereof. So it is curious to me that this is something that I want.
At first blush it probably strikes most people as the thing white Yuppies do so they can prattle on and on at party's to their liberal friends about how "spiritual," and "life-changing," the monk's blessing is to the upwardly mobile couple, only to forget the real meaning as they hop in their Subaru and dart off to The Pottery Barn for a coffee table and matching prints to go over the end tables.
I think people like the idea of Buddism because no one really understand what it is. People fill the void of knowledge with their own beliefs assuming that Buddism is all welcoming, all inclusive, all encompassing. My guess is, that if I was to really study the faith, I would find that it is diametrically opposed to my belief system in every way, from abortion to gay-marriage to equality of the sexes.
Oddly, given my reservations, I kept moving forward, only to be met by this pack of mangy, yapping, probably disease infected dogs.
Amanda isn't afraid, she parts her way through the yelping mutts, and drifts her towards the monk, clad in a brown, orange frock wrapped around his slender Thai body. He invites us in, escorts us through a room that serves as his restroom and laundry room, up some steep dusty stairs, that snake their way past a pile, of what appears to be thousands of pieces of chalk, into his modest bedroom. The lone mattress lay on a concrete floor. It is piled high with bags of food, offerings, and what appears to be garbage. This is his bedroom. No air-conditioning, a single oscillating fan, and three cushions on the floor in the corner. He performs a ceremony, blesses our rings, and tells us we, "Will be happy, will have children, (a boy), and will have a very great honeymoon."
At the end, he speaks to us in broken English about his love for friends world-wide. He tells us if we come back to Thailand we must stay with him, and he says if he comes to Salt Lake City, he will stay with us. His prayers are all in a language I don't speak, but he welcomed us in, he took the time to love us and send real, positive love out to the universe about our marriage. I don't know what he said during his prayer, I don't know if Buddha approved our bond, or if he even exists, but this little man, 8,000 miles away from our home, believes what he put into the world, and I embrace that with real love.
As we exit the monks hot bedroom and venture out into the even hotter Thai sun, those once menacing dogs lay silently nearby, one being scratched happily by a maintenance worker, the other digging his snout into his backside, searching for a nagging flea tormenting his leg, the third, lay sprawled in the cool dirt under the shade of the tree, he squints, and pants silently, it seems smilingly, as my bride and I shuffled through the dust back to our lives in America.