Teaching Monks to “Cook Sandwiches”

In the third floor classroom of Chiang Mai’s Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University, the eyes of thirteen students registered varying degrees of confusion as I taught the first part of the English lesson: we do not “cook” sandwiches in English, we “make” them.  Clad in the saffron robes of Theravada Buddhist monks, the students wrestled with this anomaly of English.  “Will we make sandwiches today?” asked one of them, trying the new verb on for size.


One of the highlights of my recent trip to Chiang Mai was a morning spent helping my friends Ron and Kari teach English classes at the Chiang Mai campus of one of Thailand’s two monastic universities.  Ron and Kari are a Texan couple about my age, whom I first met nearly six years ago at Union Language School in Bangkok.  Most of the students at ULS are missionaries although other students are welcome.  My answer to the common question I received from fellow students – “What brought you to Thailand?” – was usually met by bewildered silence.

Ron and Kari were the exception.  They asked questions and were interested in meeting Tawn and over the years we have stayed in touch as their missionary work has taken them from Thailand to Kenya and back again.  Now they are in Chiang Mai and one of their duties is to teach English classes to monks and novices attending Buddhist university.  When they heard I was coming up, they invited me to be a guest teacher.

“The monks asked if we could cook sandwiches,” Kari explained.  “You would be good at teaching them that.”

On Thursday morning, after spending an hour practicing the intricacies of telling time, Kari pulled out two loaves of bread, a half-dozen tomatoes, a jar of mayonnaise, a container of lettuce, and a container of bologna.  First, we cleared up the confusion over which verb was appropriate.  Since we don’t use any heat, we “make” sandwiches, not “cook” them.  Next, we practiced the names of the ingredients.  “Bologna” seemed too difficult, so I called it “ham.” 

Finally, the fun began.  Working in groups of three, the monks, who range in age from 18-44, came to the front of the room, sliced tomatoes, and assembled sandwiches.  There were a few mishaps, such as the sandwiches which ended up with mayonnaise on the outside of the bread.  But all in all, everyone seemed to have a good time.


An advantage of having me teach this segment was that I could work more closely with the monks than Kari can.  One of the restrictions for Buddhist monks is that they may not touch, or even accept things handed directly to them from, a woman.  Sometimes, like when a monk who has perhaps never sliced a tomato in his life is having problems, it is easier to get in there, grab the knife, and demonstrate.  This would be complicated if a certain physical distance had to be maintained.

At the end of the class, everyone ate their sandwiches along with a banana for dessert.  Who knows if they liked their food; monks are required to eat the food they are given without complaining or expressing like or dislike.  But several students asked when I would come back and teach again, so maybe they enjoyed the sandwiches well enough.  There were requests that we cook massaman curry next time, though. 

While the class lasted only two hours, and I didn’t have much time to talk individually with the students and learn more about them, it was a fun experience.  Several years ago, I volunteered as an English teacher in a small provincial primary school and teaching is something I enjoy.  Maybe I need to make another trip up to Chiang Mai as a guest lecturer.  At least I have the right hair style to relate to the students.


Settling in to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, roughly one-tenth the size and population of Bangkok.  Located an hour’s flight north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is nestled in a valley surrounded by low mountains.  Temperatures this time of year are similar to Bangkok’s, but a little less humid and ever so slightly cooler at night.  We lucked out that our visit coincided with a bit of a cool spell, with temperatures about 28 degrees (82 F) during the day and 24 degrees (74 C) at night.  The weather was overcast most days with light drizzle, so we were spared the harsh sun.


At the heart of Chiang Mai is the old city, delineated by a moat and the ruins of city walls shaped in an approximately 1.5 km square.  The eastern portion of the old city, near Tha Phae gate, is more of the touristy area.  Our hotel, the Tamarind Village, was a few blocks west of that.  The hotel is named after the 200-year old tamarind tree, pictured above, that shades one of the courtyards.


Set back from the main street by a long, bamboo-shaded driveway, Tamarind Village fits the cliche of an “urban oasis” and is surprisingly quiet and calm.  The buildings are laid out in a series of courtyards, each of which is very lush.  The rooms are somewhat rustic, with simple interiors, and the staff are extremely friendly and helpful.


There are only 43 rooms and, despite it being low season, the hotel was fully booked.  Many of the tourists were European with a large number of French families visiting.  The restaurant next to the pool serves a complimentary breakfast buffet each morning with both indoor and outdoor seating.  It was a nice place to relax but I can’t spend too long cooped up in one place so headed out to explore.


Outside our hotel and just down the block is a busy corner with a Wawee Coffee.  Wawee is a Chiang Mai based chain that offers very tasty coffee.  I made a few stops there over our vacation and enjoyed lingering and watching the people pass.  The customers were almost exclusively tourists, which left me feeling itchy, but they also provided several interesting people watching episodes.


Passionfruit meringue pie.  Oh, this was very good!

The intersection at which the Wawee Coffee sits is a microcosm of Chiang Mai or, at least, the touristy part of Chiang Mai.  Let’s talk about what you can see at this corner. 


This corner seemed to be a magnet for the lost and disoriented travelers.  As I sat there, I saw group after group stop at the corner and struggle with their Lonely Planet guidebook or maps, puzzling over the directions, and then head off down the street.  Sure enough, a few minutes later they would come back, evaluate their books or maps again, and head off in another direction. 

At this corner, a Thai man (in camo shorts) was speaking with lost tourists.  He speaks proficient English and asks the tourists where they are going.  He gives them directions and then suggests they take a tuk-tuk (the three wheel vehicle in the background), which of course is conveniently waiting.  It is conveniently overpriced, too.

Another thing you can see in this picture is a pair of foreigners on a rented motorbike.  So many tourists rent bicycles and motorbikes in Chiang Mai.  I have to wonder how many accidents there are.  As I drove about town, I watched as tourists rode either dangerously fast or dangerously unaware of traffic around them.  Thai drivers are aggressive and the streets in the old city are narrow.  Not much room for foolish and inexperienced tourists.


Two other common sights in Chiang Mai are shown in this picture.  First, the yellow (actually, usually red) pickup truck with covered seating in the back, which are called “song taews”.  The name means “two rows” and refers to the two benches in the back of the truck.  These are used something like taxis in that they don’t usually operate a fixed route.  You flag one down (it may or may not have a sign indicating where it is heading) and name your destination.  If the song taew is heading that general direction, you can hop on, otherwise the driver will wave you off.  Fares are negotiated but are usually inexpensive.  It is initially a little complicated but ends up being a pretty effective way to get about. 

The second common sight is the side-saddle female passengers on the motorbikes.  You see this throughout Thailand and I’m always startled by how effectively these ladies manage to balance themselves.


The final common sight are monks.  Chiang Mai is home to two monastic universities and scores of temples and you see a greater concentration of monks and novices here than anyplace else in Thailand.  A snapshot of Chiang Mai would be incomplete without some saffron robes in it!  More about monks in Chiang Mai in the next entry.


A Row of Novices

There is something about monks that makes them very photogenic.  Perhaps it is the bright saffron robes, a brilliant color that creates notable contrast in photos.  Perhaps it is the pared-down simplicity of their person: no hair, no eyebrows, nothing but their robes and an alms bowl.  Perhaps it is the beauty of and image repeated, when you see a row of monks.  Whatever it is, I’m not the first photographer in Southeast Asia to notice that almost anytime you have a monk in a scene, there’s the opportunity for an interesting photo.

Last week while walking to the Skytrain station in the front of my alley, I passed a less-common sight: a row of novice monks collecting alms without any adult supervision. 


There were nine of them – an auspicious number – along with a tenth who was armed with a megaphone and was announcing their presence.  Unfortunately, I didn’t understand exactly what was happening.  Normally you can find a few monks from the local temple on the next corner up, right at the Thong Lo fresh market.  They are there every morning and the locals, mostly the housewives and housekeepers who are shopping for the day’s ingredients, will make offerings to the monks.

It was unusual to see a who group of novices actually walking the street, so I imagine perhaps they are part of a group that will be entering the monastic life and this is part of their training.  Just a guess, though.

Just a note for when you travel in Southeast Asia: Buddhist monks (at least the Theravada variety who wear these saffron robes) do not accept monetary alms directly as they are forbidden to by the Buddha’s teachings.  Offerings are made of food, robes, candles, toiletries, etc.  Monetary donations are made directly to the temples where they are handled by lay members.  In my travels to Hong Kong and Singapore I have seen “monks” on the street soliciting cash donations.  It is likely they are not legitimate.