At 6 a.m. on the island of Koh Pha Ngan (pronounced in my head as “ko paw gone”) as the partying tourists were just getting to bed, I was out for a jog in the soft, warm fog. It was already 75 degrees and the fog signaled it would be another muggy Thai day.The streets were quiet as I made my way down the uninhabited lanes as the native Thai people began to open shops and cook food at their stands. Among the calm I began to see men wrapped in bright saffron clothe wandering from home to home carrying baskets. The men stood out against the green, brown, and gray landscape. They were quiet as they shuffled from one person—who bowed low, and placed a food item in the basket—to the next. I was witnessing the food offerings that occur daily for many monks in Thailand.
94% of the population in Thailand follows Buddhism. Specifically Theravada Buddhism, in which monks do not build monasteries, but depend on laypeople in their community for food. The giving of donations is not thought of as charity because it is believed to create a spiritual connection between monks and regular people. The people believe they have a responsibility to physically support the monks, who support the laypeople spiritually in return.
I watched, trying not to stare. With the fog and the quietness of the morning the monks looked mysterious. Continuing on my run, I imagined the serious and intense daily lives they must lead.
I did not see another monk until I was on the ferry heading back to the city of Surat Thani on the mainland. Standing near me was a pair of young monks looking out over the Gulf of Thailand. Shy and nervous, I kept my eyes down.
All of a sudden I heard someone speaking English to me in a Thai accent. “Hello! How are you today? Isn’t this beautiful?” asked one of the monks. Unsure of the protocol when talking to a monk I smiled and replied, “It is beautiful, but it’s so hot. I don’t know how you can stand it all the time.” “Where are you from?” asked the other monk. I responded, “The United States. America.” At that the two monks began laughing hysterically. I felt my face warm with embarrassment; unsure of what I’d said that was so funny. “We thought so, because you have such nice teeth, but you’re so small.”
Just as I had the preconceived notion that monks were always serious, they had the preconceived notion that all Americans have nice teeth and are large. I learned that monks are not nearly as intimidating as they seem and a smile remains universal.