A SPIRITUAL NEW YEAR
By Andrew Biggs
I had a special New Year’s celebration. I did something I never thought I would ever do.
It all began with a drunken question from an equally-drunken friend back in early December at an Ekamai establishment.
“So what are you planning for this New Year’s Eve?”
I paused before answering. I was onto my fourth vodka-tonic so I was ready to drop a bombshell. Only I couldn’t think of any bombshell to drop.
“What am I doing this New Year’s Eve?” I answered by way of a question — a good dialogue technique which works well in Hollywood movies and newspaper columns, but in real life sounds contrived. “I’ve decided I’m going to see in the New Year meditating at a temple.”
It was the vodka talking, dear reader. I have no alternative explanation as to where it came from.
My answer received the guffaws of disbelief it had been fishing for, except for the one Thai in the group, who didn’t get the joke, and instead leaned forward and said genuinely: “Anu-mothana-boon:” May you be blessed.
Here in Thailand the concept of meditating at Buddhist temples for New Year has been growing in popularity for many years. Looking at the holiday road toll, one hopes it continues to gain popularity, as nothing else, it seems, is able to stop the locals speeding, drinking and dying over New Year.
This meditation is known as suad kham kheun. You arrive anytime after sundown on December 31, and sit and meditate with monks chanting until the clock strikes 12 midnight. Then you may go home.
It’s not exactly my idea of a crazy time seeing in the New Year. And yet after my drunken announcement, and the sincere comment from that solitary Thai, I decided to go through with it. I was going to see in the New Year in a way I had never seen it in before — sober.
I chose Wat Phrathat Phanom as my destination. This is one of the most beautiful temples in the Northeast. It’s about 500 years old and allegedly contains a breast bone of the Lord Buddha. It is a tall, slim structure of white and gold. To pray, you walk three times around the cloister. As you walk, there are paintings depicting dire warnings about falling off the rails of life. One that stood out was a painting of three down-and-out shirtless men in a prison cell, with bottles of alcohol and drug paraphernalia strewn about them. “Alcohol, marijuana and drugs are evil things” booms the caption above the painting. Be that as it may, if I ever have the unfortunate necessity to be jailed, may I end up in that prison.
This temple is not only attractive; it’s remote. It is 725 km from Bangkok in the province of Nakhon Phanom; Hanoi is closer to it than Bangkok.
I have a friend who lives in Nakhon Phanom, so I called him to inform him of my imminent arrival.
“Great,” he said. “There’s a new pub that’s opened in town plus a street fair they’re going to hold by the river.”
I explained that on this trip I wouldn’t be visiting any newly-opened pub or street fair. I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve meditating at Wat Phrathat Phanom. My friend shot back with a number of questions, such as my date of birth and middle name and mother’s maiden name, to ascertain I was indeed the man he knew, and not some imposter.
That is how I came to board a low-cost flight bound for Nakhon Phanom on December 30, pick up an overpriced rental car, and ferry myself towards a three-star hotel in Nakhon Phanom city: What it lacked in amenities, it surely made up for in photoshopped pictures on Agoda.
Nakhon Phanom city hugs the Mekhong River with parkland and public space. If you are into gorgeous sunrises across the twisting Mekong, then this is the place to go. You’ll also find sensational grilled chicken, somtam and sticky rice. The local rice whisky is called lao hai, sold and served in an earthen jug. It’s very potent, not that I’d know. I was on another mission.
My hotel’s balcony terrace bar was a great spot to watch the sun disappear for the last time that year, made even more special when the bartender asked which musical artists I wanted to hear over the sound system. It was the only hotel in Thailand playing Kate Bush, Visage and S-Express early on New Year’s Eve.
We arrived at the temple by 10 pm. The temperature was around 15 degrees. My first reaction was shock. The place was crowded with people dressed in white and seated on bamboo mats.
“You never told me I had to wear white,” I hissed to my Nakhon Phanom friend, forced to come along with me.
“You never asked,” he said.
Oh what the hell. Without white clothes or even a bamboo mat, I sat down on the cold concrete in the open space of the temple with a few thousand others, and closed my eyes to meditate as monks chanted over a loudspeaker. Above us was an elaborate web of white string, some two metres off the ground. From it you could tie a piece of string and clutch the other end as you meditated, so that we were all connected in our prayers.
I must be honest with you; Nirvana was nowhere to be found in that first 30 minutes. My mind was jumping all about the place. The concrete was cold. My hands, raised in prayer position and clutching that cotton string, were starting to ache. So was my back. It took all my willpower not to throw up my hands, ask my friend the name of that new pub, and head back into town.
But then, some time after 11 pm, I kind of got into the groove.
Listening to the monks chanting was a little like swallowing a Xanax. I started to feel calm and collected. I started praying for everybody I knew, wishing them well in the New Year. Once I got through everybody I knew personally, both domestically and abroad, I prayed for Kate Bush and the surviving members of Visage (I forgot about a prayer for S-Express). I even prayed for you, dear reader. By midnight I was relaxed, contemplative and peaceful, as well as happy to be one member of such a large gathering. When midnight struck, it was kind of sad to leave.
The next morning I caught a low-cost flight back to Bangkok. I felt strong and thankful. And the weirdest thing is I’m already planning my next one. Maybe there is hope for me spiritually.
Or maybe not.
That was last Sunday. That afternoon I floated down to the supermarket. I decided to eat more clean food this year – another offshoot of the New Year’s Eve experience.
My trolley somehow entered the liquor aisle. I remembered I was out of vodka, and there were all the Absolut flavors peering out at me, so I reached out my hand and –
Wait a minute.
You’re going clean this year remember.
Come on. One can’t be an angel all year, can one?
Fine. Go ahead and grab it. Spoil all the good deeds.
It’s not spoiling them! I’m just covering my bases.
Falling off the wagon more like it.
I was never on it!
That is how my year started. A little torn, but a little ethereal at the same time. Relaxed. Full of positive energy. Well-stocked in the liquor cabinet. I’m full of spirits, in more ways than one.