Upon entering a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I encountered a pleasant sense of peace accentuated by the overwhelming visual, aural and olfactory stimuli: the pungent incense wafting through the open doors; the low, echoing timber of the gong and temple bell; the priceless gold statuettes, ancient relics and other revered ornaments; and the stunning giant gold Buddha that sat gracefully center stage.
Here, in Northern Thailand, the temple or ‘Wat’ is the center of village life serving as a school, theatre, meeting hall, playground, outdoor market and political centre. It embodies all aspects of life and spirit, perpetuates a long legacy of local community artistry and celebrates Thai culture as a whole.
After quickly surveying the small carpeted area in front of the giant Buddha, I quietly sat near one of the columns and remained there trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. I made it a point to take only a few photos, then stopped and observed, trying not to be perceived as the ugly American.
Within moments a young Thai girl and her family walked into the temple. She immediately sat down casually yet respectfully at the foot of the statue. Being raised Catholic (not by choice, mind you) this type of comfort in a “place of worship” was unfamiliar; she sat as one would do on one’s carpet at home.
After a few moments she gracefully turned, looked at me and smiled. Without a word she told me it was ok. That I was welcomed in her country and that it was ok to be whoever or whatever I was.
It took me by surprise and I didn’t immediately respond with a counter-smile. This was a moment of clarity.
As I looked around the room, the unusual artistry of the temple became more recognizable; the local people became familiar and Thailand became more meaningful. The weight of trying to fit in was lifted, and I realized this was my place too. This belonged to all of us.
This wasn’t my first visit to Thailand or to a Buddhist temple, nor was I driven by the typical tourist anxiety that results in a sightseeing frenzy. This time I was greeted by business owner, hotel workers, restaurant servers, and artisans who call this land home. Curious looks were followed by broad smiles and open arms as we were reacquainted. Furthermore, I repeatedly ran into travelers who have also made this an annual trip.
Days later I was in Patong Beach, Phuket, a beautiful playground for the world’s salacious and adventurous. There I was for another anti-Xmas and New Year’s celebration; an exercise in living in the moment.
On the beach, beautiful floating luminarias gracefully lifting in to the air as dangerous mortars were launched into the midnight sky by untrained intoxicated thrill seekers. On the streets, the local girls were falling in love with their temporary boyfriends as traveling families were pushing their baby strollers through exploding boxes of fireworks and thousands of cans of silly string.
It was utter mayhem; a chaotic moment where there is no-where to run. So I plopped down on the sand and I took another hard look my surroundings. Again the same conclusion: acceptance.
Fast-forward two weeks to the rat race, to my beloved Los Angeles. Back to one of the most amazing places on the planet. Being born and raised here. I understand it. Cruel and giving, it is graced with amazing scenery, nightlife, talent, and potential… but we have much to learn about acceptance.
So let’s start by embracing all our guests, especially those who may feel a bit out of place, for it is they who will be propagating our message and returning not only as patrons but as friends.