This morning I woke up early to try and make it to Wat Pho temple for their 8am stretching session. I just missed a boat so only arrived for the final few stretches and to receive green tea :) On the way into Wat Pho, I ran into my massage instructor who was surprised to see me, and at the class was one of the girls I'd learned massage with also there. Then, as I was leaving I bumped into another guy who'd been studying at Wat Pho but in a different course - Bangkok suddenly felt small!
Today is a holiday in Thailand. It commemorates the day when Buddha emerged from two months of fasting in which he had discovered the middle way and preached it to the the other monks. The middle way is the philosophy that goodness comes not from pure ascetisim, nor from full allowance of sensuality but from a middle ground between the two. At this time Buddha also presented the 4 truths, the fourth of which is the 8 ways to live a good life.
It so happens that this festival also marks the start of the rainy season which lasts about two months. Apparently Buddha asked his monks to not wander throughout the countryside during this time, as traditionally it was when the farmers worked their fields, to prevent the monks from trampling the crops. Now, the monks remain within the temple during this time - only emerging to beg for food. It is also customary that men become monks at some point in their life and many boys do so during this time. It is a time when the monks really focus on prayer and study.
The temple of Wat Pho and Wat Arun were packed today, not just with the usual tourists, but also with Thai people bringing gifts and performing ceremonies. By the time I reached Wat Arun mid-afternoon I was so tired I sat near to the activities the monks had set up and watched. They were so kind and made an effort to include me, bringing me water and explaining the activities to me. One tradition is to write your name and wish on a piece of wax, then dip it into a pot already full of melted wax. You then take a dipper and put a few spoonfuls of the wax into a tall cylindrical container. This then cools to become the large candles in the temples. The monk explained to me that Buddhists write what they will do over the next few months, kind of a new year's resolution. There are also tiles you can write on which then go on the roofs of the temples as they need more tiles.
There is one temple where it is customary to bring a candle, a white flower (don't know what it's called) and incense and to walk around it praying. People were doing that all day, and in the evening when the monsoon rains started up they continued to walk around - some even without umbrellas!
Between Wat Pho and Wat Arun I visited Pratunam market to buy gifts. From all my research it seemed to be the cheapest market in Bangkok where even wholesale buyers go for good deals. The prices quoted to me were so ridiculously high, and people would not go down. I walked away from so many stalls as they refused to drop their prices at all. In one place, the woman quoted the most outrageously high price for little wallets and when I asked her for a discount she asked me what my price was - so I quoted a ridiculously low price back to her. She went berserk! She started screaming at me calling me crazy "You crazy! that crazy price! you crazy!" and slapped me!!! My first instinct was to punch her in the mouth and break her teeth, my second was to bring in the police for assault.
Since I promote human dignity, I couldn't in good conscience punch her - even though I think it would have been good for her. Knowing, and having experienced that the police here are corrupt, I had to accept option two would be useless and possibly detrimental to me. So, I stared at her and quite sternly told her not to touch me. Then I walked away while she continued to scream at me. There were lots of beautiful items in the stalls in that row, but I couldn't stop at any of the places I was so embarrassed.
After that, I was too nervous to bargain - I've never been slapped while attempting to bargain before and was quite shaken up. What was saddest of all, was that the prices I managed to bargain down to - after a lot of effort on my part in each place - when I returned to Wat Pho, those were the same prices labeled on the streets, and the women lowered their prices much more reasonably even from that. I don't think I'll ever return to that market again...
I did have a couple nice experiences at the market. I was starving and discovered the food places where those working the stalls eat. The woman didn't speak any English so I ordered by making animal sounds and she would point to different items and make animal sounds. The food was delicious and quite cheap. Then I found a man selling Thai desserts with his family behind him, he also didn't speak any English, so I started saying Thai numbers so he could tell me the price in Thai. He and his family got so excited they started rattling off sentences and invited me to eat with them. Since numbers, hello and thank you are all I know, I thanked them for their invitation and left.
I then returned to Wat Pho this evening to catch the festivities by night. There are hallways with dozens of Buddha statues lined against the wall. Many people had set up mats, and were settling in for the night, I wasn't able to figure out what that was for. I really like the Wat Pho area. It is the place I know best in Bangkok - but it seems every time I leave that area I get massively lost, meet crazy or corrupt people or otherwise have some unpleasant experience.
On the holiday commemorating Buddha first preaching about the righteous way, I've met both people who live it and people who demonstrate why it is needed...