While visiting Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, we saw a banner advertising a Monk Chat program, where foreigners can sit down and chat with a monk about their daily lives, Thai culture or really anything. It’s a great way for foreigners to learn about monkhood and the local culture, while the monks get to practice their English. We thought it was a nice initiative from their part and decided to come back and chat. Plus the banner was pretty good at making us feel guilty about just “looking from afar.”
We went on a Sunday afternoon and there was just one monk available, with two people already in line for the chat (apparently more are available on weekdays). We sat down and waited until the groups in front of us were done and we introduced ourselves. We spent over an hour talking to the monk and we learned a lot about his chosen lifestyle.
What’s your name? How long have you been a monk? What’s your daily life like?
His name was Nop, and he was 23 years old, but he has been a monk for 7 years already, with no plans of leaving the monkhood anytime soon. Monks can leave at any point, no set obligations. Most of his day is spent reading, meditating, and chanting. Monks also participate in a lot of charity, and most are in some sort of Buddhist education program.
We were surprised by how unrestrictive monkhood was, as apparently anyone can leave at any point with no consequences. In many ways this really fosters real commitment and devotion, because nobody is ever forced to be there. I imagine some people try out monkhood, find it’s not for them, and after their studies, go back to a regular life.
What do you eat? Where do you live? Can you buy things?
Monks can only eat from sunrise until noon and nothing thereafter, until the next sunrise. At sunrise, monks participate in what’s known as an Alm’s Ceremony, where they walk through the street with their bowls and people offer them food. All monks live in their respective temples and each have their own private room. They can and do buy things – food, drinks, cameras, etc (they even go to 7-Eleven just like us!). However, pretty much all they have comes from donations, even the money they spend.
It was quite shocking to learn that they don’t have dinner and stay more than 17 hours without eating, every single day. Nop admitted that it was very hard in the beginning, but over time you get used to it. While monks live a very simple and humble life, they have everything they need and people really respect them.
Do all monks wear orange? What do you wear to sleep and when it gets cold?
All monks wear orange, and there is no difference between the shades of orange. Some wear brown or red, but those are jungle monks or Burmese monks. The orange ensemble actually consists of four pieces, with multiple ones for laundry purposes. For sleeping, monks just wear the inner pieces, while in the winter, they can wear more layers.
We didn’t know there were four pieces because it looks like one giant sheet wrapped around the body. Once we did see a monk with a knitted wool hat matching the rest of his outfit in the same orange colour. Some monks also carry bags on their shoulders, often in contrasting colours, like blue or green.
Do you get to see your family?
Monks can see their family as often as they would like, mostly limited by geography. If a monk’s family lives nearby, then he can visit often or they can come visit him at the temple. If a monk lives far (as was the case with Nop), then he doesn’t see them as often, because he has to take a roundtrip bus on the weekend, and some places are too far to be worth the long journey every weekend.
It was heartwarming to hear that monks could visit their families, especially important for the young ones who join monkhood in their early teens. I always thought monkhood was like boarding school, where you were stuck somewhere away from your family and only get to see them twice a year, but clearly that’s not the case.
What are monks not allowed to do?
Monks can’t kill, steal, break the law. They are also prohibited from playing any sports, as competition can cause problems among them. Nop likes watching soccer (when he found out Carlos is Brazilian) and wishes he could play. They also can’t run (only walk) but they can weightlift and do basic exercises in the privacy of their rooms, like crunches or pushups.
Monks are also not allowed to touch women (except their mom and sisters) or receive anything directly from them, as women may “corrupt” them. So if a woman hands something to the monk, she needs to put it on a table or the ground, and the monk will then pick it up from there. We told Nop that we saw another monk hugging girls in Bangkok for pictures and he facepalmed, calling him a bad monk.
There were many things that we were pleasantly surprised that monks could do, such as utilize technology, such as watch TV, use computers and the internet. Nop even had Facebook! We never imagined we would be Facebook friends with a monk!
This may have seemed like a one way interview, but that was far from the truth. Throughout the conversation, Nop interjected with questions for us, and we told him about ourselves just like he told us about himself. At one point he asked me if I spoke Mandarin, as he had been learning some and would like to practice with someone. Of course I said yes. He had been studying for only a month, but he could say many basic phrases. I was pretty impressed. We talked very simply about his family, his school, etc. Even Carlos was impressed and he didn’t even understand much of what we said. I was glad that I could give something back to Nop, especially since most of the conversation was him giving us information.
We highly recommend the monk chat to everyone. It may seem a bit daunting in the beginning, but the monks couldn’t be more friendly and welcoming. Throughout our travels, some of the most meaningful conversations have been with locals about their daily life and culture, which is better than any museum we could go to. We never imagined we would get to talk to a monk! This was hands down one of the most unique and unexpectedly great experiences so far.