It was one of my last weekends in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I was all set to go to a Handsome Furs concert on Saturday night. It was shaping up to be a good weekend. Then a regional HIV/AIDS trainer who’d done some work for UNICEF in Burma and Thailand invited me to make a trip with him to Wiang Haeng. We were to go three to four hours north to the uppermost part of Chiang Mai province on the Shan Burma border. A project he had been working on there for a long time had recently won the prestigious UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Red Ribbon Award. It’s a novice monk center (ages 5 – 16 roughly), where a small community of young monks spread HIV/AIDS awareness to the surrounding villages.
It was an opportunity not to be missed, to be sure. But the choice boiled down to rock and roll versus monks and HIV. As you can probably surmise by the title, I chose to go on the trip. Dr. Laurie Mound, the brilliant UNICEF liaison/former Thai Theravada forest monk, picked me up in the morning nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. We drove out of town and toward the distant mountain range that marks the Thai-Burma border area. After about two hours on the main highway, we turned left on another smaller route that took us up and up into the swirling mountains near our destination.
We pulled into Plikwiwbk Dharma Center [sic] around noon and met the head monk, Phra Tanee, an inspiring and yet modest Buddhist with a beaming smile. We were immediately served a steaming lunch of plenty. We had piles of white rice and fresh vegetables, grown on the farm (the novices also do some organic farming and compost fertilizer from the weeds that grow in their lotus pond).
It poured all afternoon (‘tis the monsoon season), and so we stayed in. Later in the afternoon, we headed 15 km away to the border, which has now shifted to run right through a formerly Thai monastery that had close links to the novice monk center I was staying in. Since 2004, the Burmese army has set up camp in the old novice quarters, and the old market is all overgrown because it had been mortared so heavily and is now covered by landmines. When the Burmese army advanced so aggressively, the Thai army was called in to force a measure of neutrality.
As a result, a lot of the novice monks are Shan runaways who fled the Burmese army’s incursion into their homelands. Without Phra Tanee’s guidance, many of them would have no school or food.
On the second and last day (I only stayed one night), the monks at a nearby school had organized a large, formal blessing ceremony to give thanks to Laurie. Arriving with Laurie, I was fortunate to be included, though I hardly deserved the front row status and intimate white string blessing ceremony. I didn’t deserve their profound thanks. The senior monks sat on the side, six or seven in a line connected by a white string, which was in turn connected to two wreaths, one for Laurie’s head, and one for mine. They chanted for an hour, during which hundreds of novice monks sat on the floor, and Laurie and I sat cross-legged in front. I was squirming uncomfortably by the end, from the pressure on my knees and ankles. At the conclusion, we prostrated to the senior monk and he cut our strings, giving us two bracelets that would bring us a long life of prosperity and health.
After this, we had coffee with Phra Tanee and said our thanks. We were on our way back to Chiang Mai before noon, again starting the slow haul over the mountains.