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The Monk And The Motor Scooter - John Langford

Posted by Tani James, Education Director on 31st May 2016

John Langford, guest blogger for PCU

  • Sign up for John's Travel Photography class here! It's offered during the week on the Thursday, the 16th and again on Sunday the 26th.

I was standing in the middle of a rickety bamboo bridge, hoping it wouldn’t collapse beneath me before I could get a photo of the sunset.

I had endured a four hour nausea-inducing ride up a winding mountain road, crammed into a mini-bus with 13 other travelers. Arriving in the small town of Pai, Thailand, I managed to find a thatched hut for $6 a night.

Crossing this treacherous bridge was the only way to get there. Each time I walked across it I held my breath until I reached the other side. And at night, it was black as pitch, so without a flashlight you were in real danger of putting your foot through one of the many holes in the flimsy walkway.

It was almost dark, when out of the corner of my eye I saw an orange-robed figure approaching. He stopped and we chatted about this and that, and just as the sun’s last rays were dissolving into the night sky, I explained that I was a professional photographer who had sold all of his earthly possessions and was traveling the world. I asked if I could take a photograph of his hands. Chuckling, he obliged my odd request.

We continued talking as I walked with him through the bustling night market. His name was Piak, a 52 year old Buddhist monk who was on sabbatical from his monastery in the south and was traveling around Thailand for a few weeks. He told me about his daily routine–rising at 4 o’clock each morning to meditate and pray and then walk the streets, carrying the metal bowl that monks traditionally use to collect contributions of food for their breakfast.

When I told him I’d like to make a small donation, he invited me to come with him to the temple, explaining that it would be improper to accept such a gift on the street, and that there was a ceremonial blessing that should be bestowed on the giver.

A few minutes later, we arrived at the temple, which was completely dark and Piak led me across a grassy expanse to the guest quarters. He unlocked the door and flipped on the light. His tiny place made mine look like the Taj Mahal. Without any preface or explanation, he went to his room and did not return. Pretty soon I heard the droning sound of his voice as he began his evening prayer ritual. The heat inside was stifling, so I went outside, sat on the steps and meditated as well, assuming he would eventually emerge from his chambers so I could give him my donation and leave him to do whatever it is monks do.

After about half an hour, he emerged with a bunch of newspaper and a stick of of glue. I wasn't sure if this was part of the ritual he had referred to earlier, but as it turned out, these were materials he had procured to repair the holes in the screen door that were allowing legions of mosquitoes to enter his Spartan accommodations.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to paste newspaper to a screen door–I hadn't–but it’s an exercise in futility. It requires the patience of a Buddhist monk to stick with it long enough to have any hope of success. But succeed we did, and by now I was eager to be on my way.

“So. I’d still like to make a donation if that’s...”

“Please, sit,” said Piak, gesturing to the floor and seating himself on a cushion.

He explained that because he was a monk it was important that his head be slightly higher than that of anyone else in the room. Wrapping his hands in a piece of decorative cloth, so that they did not come in direct contact with the money, he extended them towards me. I placed my gift in the cloth, which he immediately wrapped up, and then launched into an incantation. I had the distinct and unfamiliar sensation that I was being swaddled in cosmic bubble wrap that would protect me from falling through the bridge on the way home.

We chatted for a while, and as I got up to leave, I told Piak that I had really enjoyed meeting him and that the following day I was planning to rent a motorcycle and tour some caves nearby.

“I want to come too,” he responded.

“Do you know how to ride a motorcycle?” I asked.

“No. Too expensive. I ride with you!”

The next morning, Piak had very definite opinions about what type of motorcycle I should rent, choosing the most expensive option.

Since it was my money and I hadn’t ridden a motorcycle in 25 years, I opted for a moderately priced scooter with automatic transmission.

The next few days were a joyful journey that included hiking to waterfalls, crossing tranquil bridges that arched over quietly flowing streams, walking along peaceful paths through the forest, exploring caves and temples, and chatting with other monks we encountered along the way.

Piak and I talked a lot about Buddhism, and he expounded upon some of the more than 400 precepts that monks must follow. Among the many beliefs we shared, one that we agreed upon whole-heartedly was that the most important moment in our lives is right now.

We even visited at an elephant camp so Piak could rub noses with a creature that in Thailand is a symbol of wisdom. We also made a couple of stops at remote hamlets so that Piak, despite being "off duty", could buy food and sweets, which he distributed to the village children.

Those moments were interspersed with him shouting at me to slow down and me admonishing him to keep his helmet on and his chin strap fastened and not to ride side saddle. At the end of the day, we found a monastery where he could stay, and I went in search of a guest house so we could each have time alone and I could take a hot shower and wash the bugs off my face.

Everywhere we went, we elicited stares of disbelief. I realized about halfway through the second day that I was wearing an orange T-shirt, which made us look like we were wearing jerseys from the same team.

Near the end of our journey, as dusk was approaching, we came upon a breathtaking mountain. I wanted to pull off the road to take a photograph and savor the view, but as I slowed down and signaled, Piak was saying “No! No! No!” As we eased onto the gravel shoulder, slowly coming to stop, I shifted to neutral and coasted to the spot where we’d have the best vantage point.

Without warning, the front wheel slid out from under me and the scooter went down, sending both of us tumbling into a tangle of arms and legs and handlebars and saffron robes. I frantically scanned my body to determine whether I was hurt. Piak’s eyes were closed and he was immobile. My next thought was, Is Piak injured, and if so, how badly? If seriously, then how will I get him to a hospital? All of that took but a fraction of a second.

“Are you O.K.?”

He didn’t respond, and I felt panic rising in my chest. What if he’s dead? How will I transport the body? Who will I notify? Would it be easier to simply bury the corpse in a shallow grave and drive off?

He opened his eyes and blinked, and as we tried to untangle ourselves–a knot of yin and yang, east and west, jeans and robes, sacred and profane, a cumulative total of 104 years of life experience–I started to laugh. We were both unharmed, except for minor scrapes and cuts. The only casualty was a hole burned a hole in Paik’s robe by the hot exhaust pipe.

We made it home without further incident, and before we said our final goodbye, I asked Paik if I could take one more photograph of him. Eager to oblige, he walked with me to the bridge where we had first met. He looked serenely into the setting sun. I said goodbye to my robed friend and trudged across the bridge to my hut, feeling a little melancholy that I wouldn’t see him again.

The next morning, I found a multi-colored bracelet lying on the bridge. Had Piak left it there for me, or had it simply fallen from a traveler’s pocket? I’ll never know for certain, but I still have it on my wrist as a reminder of the man with whom I shared a magical and mystical trip.

Months later, I was chatting with another traveler I met in Vietnam, comparing notes about the various places we’d visited. She asked me if I’d heard about the severe flooding in Pai. I told her I hadn’t.

“I don’t know if you know where the bamboo bridge is,” she said, “but it was washed away completely.”

I thought of what a perfect metaphor that bridge was, spanning the gap between all of us, and how, despite our differences, all human beings have far more in common than we suspect. Knowing that the bridge had been swept away reminding me to live in the moment, seizing each opportunity.

You never know what a day will bring.

- John Langford