The new, the old and the timeless

After landing in BKK, navigating the midnight massive flow of arriving tourists in the indoor stadium-sized baggage claim/immigration area, I finally got into my hotel room about 1:30am Friday. But it turns out that airport hotels are…near airports… and the noise of airports. And there are signs that, well….are strange.


I did get some rest, but after more than 27 hours of travel, it wasn’t even close to what I needed. The main attraction of the following day for me was getting to Hualomphong Railway station for the overnight ride to Chiang Mai.

The station was an hour’s ride from the hotel, so I got to see a variety of city scapes, the old built on the new, the noise, pollution, the traffic congestion. All of it was new to me, but also strangely familiar. On one hand, everything has changed since I was last here during the Vietnam war era, except maybe the sprawl and the high-rises. But the density, the older buildings showing their age, the newer structures looking incongruous, the architectural hodge-podge, the street vendors, open-air markets and cafes….all of it looked pretty much as I recall it from 40-some years ago.

An anthropologist might examine this dense sedimentation of human achievement and find no sign of any real differences from the past. Yes, I’m holed up in a wi-fi hotspot in the railway station; but outside, the food, the music, the hustle, the noise, the feral dogs and cats, the backpackers from everywhere is the same. And the boxing is the same-except now it’s on a big-screen TV. At 6pm sharp, everyone stood, turned toward the portrait of the King, the uniformed personnel all saluted and everyone sang the national anthem. This is the state of our being: deference to a higher power.

The train car was acceptable, but not luxurious. My reserved seat put me across from a German high-performance motorcycle riding instructor. He was about to lead his third group of fellow Germans on a two-week 2500km motorcycle tour of the Golden Triangle. But his english was limited and my German is non-existent. He was removed to another car by the conductor, so I did not see him again.

As we got underway, passing one open-air cafe after another, including at all the train stations, I realized they are completely open to all the transportation pollution, and noise, especially from all the scooters. And though most of the scooter drivers themselves are wearing masks, you can’t wear a mask when you’re eating.

The conversion of each facing bench seat in the 2nd class sleepers to a curtained berth is a marvel of efficiency. All clean linens, pillowcases, blankets emerged from plastic coverings and were assembled with precision and speed. The opportunity to recline came none too soon. I had my doubts about whether any of this–the clatter, the motion, the close quarters–would be sleep inducing. I was pleasantly proven wrong.

There are things, however, that they don’t tell you in the travel books:

  1. Families with small children travel to Thailand.
  2. They sit near you on the airplane. Some of them are in your car on the train.
  3. After 9 hours of being cooped up, they are vocalizing what everyone else is feeling.
  4. There are toilets in each car. When you open the lid of the toilet, what do you see? The ground, flashing by. If you think about it, you will realize this is a labor saving feature.DSC00062
  5. When trying to pee into a toilet on a moving train, the toilet becomes a moving target. You will miss some of the time. Even King (LeBron) James misses free throws some of the time. But if both you and the basket are moving, it becomes more difficult to decide when to actually attempt the shot.
  6. Try sitting.
  7. Some of your inner journey lies in the middle of the railroad tracks in rural Thailand.
  8. Buddha remains in a perpetually even state of bliss.

I awake at 6:15 am. It is still dark. After 30 minutes, I can see the barest rose colored light of dawn. There are stirrings in the car around me. The staff is awakening to their duties. Now the shapes of jungle-covered hills emerge from darkness. Forest lines the tracks. The crescent moon is bright overhead. Dirt roads soon appear near the tracks, streams are visible, along with culverts and a few structures, power lines and streetlights; then roads, people tending gardens, now the odd scooter.

The sky gradually brightens, mountains appear to the east, paddies, harvested cornfields, small farms, residential compounds, livestock; more thick jungle.

In this world, where the marriage of ancient animism meets Buddhism, deities fill the spiritual panorama. DSC00052 Every home and business has an altar; every field has an offering place. Seeing the deity in everything and also in charge of everything is a common thread. Here, navigating the two truths of appearance and illusion is a requirement for everyday life. There is the outer world of human creation, the seemingly endless random frailty of mind in every act; thoughts for which there is no action, actions seeming to have no preceding thought (doesn’t that sound familiar?); the endless improvisation of survival, interaction, self-care, the purification of mind, body and speech are ongoing.

Here, the structures of large-scale modern social integration at ever-increasing levels of complexity become removed from indigenous life, where immersion in the natural world is intrinsic, immediate and ongoing. In this context, it is completely understandable why addressing the complexity of the inner world with its longings and aspirations, with its long arc of moral and spiritual development, its failures, incompletions and vulnerabilities becomes more important than attending to a fragile sense of collective responsibility and purpose.

Maybe this is why we have regarded the external world as a throw-away world—because in the final analysis, from the end of time view, all of this external manifestation of mind is the same, the absolute truth of emptiness. And yet, how we view and act in the external world, holding the inseparability of appearance and emptiness, makes all the difference, doesn’t it?

This is the very journey I requested.

6 thoughts on “The new, the old and the timeless

  1. Hi, Great account! Flavorful and funny. Thank you. Your concluding questions, “makes all the difference, doesn’t it?” Makes all the difference to what? The endless mindstream perhaps, which in ongoing and somehow rooted in emptiness. I look forward to your responses and reflections, Renée


  2. Hello Renee and thanks for your question. I was thinking this might be a topic for a post further down the road. I am not authoritative on this, but since you are asking, I think the difference we make in the world, the reality we choose, flows from how we handle the paradox of appearance and illusion. Buddhism as practiced in this part of the world is part of what is considered the outer tantra in which, according to Tulku Thondup in his compilation of Longchenpa, the two truths are addressed separately as if they are not indivisible; whereas, in the inner tantras they are not regarded as separate or treated separately in practice. So I am saying that sustaining the view of their inseparability and integrating that view into one’s practice opens us to the immediacy of every moment, making a more expansive, forgiving and compassionate presence more accessible.

    I guess that’s the short answer. ;))


  3. As travelogue, this rivals Orwell (not the Orwell of dystopian ‘1984’ or allegorical “Animal Farm,” but the class-conscious journalist of “Burmese Days,” “The Road to Wigan Pier,” and the essay “Shooting an Elephant”.) Rich and provocative.


  4. As travelogue, this rivals Orwell (not the Orwell of dystopian ‘1984’ or allegorical ‘Animal Farm,’ but the class-conscious Orwell of “Burmese Days,” “The Road to Wigan Pier,” and the essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Rich and provocative.


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