Basho

Breaking the silence

of an ancient pond,

A frog jumped in to water —

A deep resonance.

This haiku by the poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is one of the most recognizable poems in Japan. Haiku is a short traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of seventeen syllables divided into three sections of five-seven-five. It was Basho who perfected the haiku form, but he also wrote beautiful prose in the form of a travel log with the haiku inspired by his experiences. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is his best-known work and read by almost every Japanese high school student and translated more than any other work of Japanese literature.

I first learned of Basho while researching pilgrimage. I was already familiar with the haiku form and its popularity in both Japan and the West but going deeper into Basho’s life and work expands my understanding of the form, but more importantly informs my own pilgrimages and soul journey. Although Basho spent a great deal of time traveling, it is this pilgrimage to the Deep North that called his soul. To wander in nature and discover the world was not a luxury for Basho but a necessity for his poetry and the calling of his soul.  On this journey, Basho developed a new form a writing called haibun, which alternates prose and haiku to describe his journey. The prose, equally as beautiful as the poems, explains the physical aspects of the journey where the haiku illuminates the internal images and experiences. He walked 1200 miles over five months with his disciple Sora and planned part of the route to include places described by other writers. Basho’s call to a pilgrimage was not a specific place but to experience whatever unfolded before him. “I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind–filled with a strong desire to wander”.

Basho’s words are beautiful in their simplicity and grace. He uses a lightness and gentleness to describe nature and life itself. Beauty becomes an essential element in the soul’s journey. Basho found beauty on his journey: in the change of seasons, fleeting moments of sun on dew, a hazy moon, the arch of the Milky Way. He found beauty in the smallest details of cherry blossoms, pine trees, wind and water. Life is fleeting and these details captured the ephemeral moment when life is perfect beauty. Basho took great delight and wonder in these moments that fed his soul’s path. It is in these brief moments that Basho experienced eternity and left a trace in his haiku.

Walking pilgrimages are inherently simple. Life is reduced to what you can carry on your back. Basho’s haiku perfectly alludes to the essentialness of his journey. Pleasure is found in the simple moment of a flower, the soft breeze, or sound of a cricket. Basho left behind the comforts of home and community to see the world in the simplest moments where the sacred is found. Basho doesn’t analyze or offer opinion on what he sees, rather he relates pure experiences as they happen in the moment and in his heart. Haiku becomes the way he expresses his journey. Although haiku is simple in form it is not simplistic for the subtly expressed by the image associations and verbal play enter in the depths of the human heart.

In the essence of his work, Basho is above all a nature poet. All his senses were tuned to the natural world and Basho misses none of the subtleties of the wind, seasons, smell and sound, often bringing him to tears in the moments of pure wonder and grace. His poetry and prose are words of praise and thanksgiving for life in all of its forms. The sea, rocks, stars, mountain, trees, flowers, all participated in Basho’s poems to the ineffable mystery of our world.

Although written almost 400 years ago, Basho’s story and poetry are timeless. His experiences and observations reflect his deep understanding of nature and his own interior life. Pilgrimage, as a time of solitude in nature, becomes a catalyst that opens an important soul space.  Basho heard the call of this soul space and left a beautiful account of what that interior pilgrimage looks like. His words are those of the mystic that sees the sacred in all things and in all places.

The title of Basho’s story, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, reflects the physical road and is a metaphor for the quality of the interior journey for the sacred does not come with broad highways and neon signs. The sacred is found with effort on a narrow path that takes time and sacrifice, suffering and joy. There is no easy and quick way to a lasting relationship with nature and the soul. Hard work and dedication are needed to find these numinous moments when the world becomes alive with wonder as we step out of time into the timeless.

Later this year I am going to Japan to see for myself what inspired Basho. I will be walking part of the 88 Temple trail on Shikoku island, a 1000-year-old spiritual pilgrimage and a sister pilgrimage to the Camino. Basho did not walk this particular trail, he walked north of what is today Tokyo, but the landscape and culture as well as the search for the heart and soul of nature aligns me with the spirit of Basho.  Basho wrote on many subjects that moved him to live in relationship with his soul and thus offers me language to seek the same beauty.

 

 

Amid mountains of high summer,

I bowed respectfully before

The tall clogs of a statue

Asking a blessing on my journey

 

To talk casually

About an iris flower

Is one of the pleasures

Of the wandering journey.

 

In the utter silence

Of a temple,

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks.

 

 

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Temples of Taiwan

Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan

My friend Melynie is an expert tour guide and had a full agenda of amazing sites. Her home is near Puli, Taiwan, the geographic center of the island. First we went to the top of the 2nd tallest mountain, Hehuanshan, over 12,000 ft. The view going up was lovely but the top was in cloud providing pelting, freezing rain so we quickly descended to a lower elevation for a lovely picnic.

One day we went to see reproduction aboriginal villages of Formosa, the original name of Taiwan. At this park was also a mini amusement park with an imitation Space Mountain ride and a short cruise through Jurassic World. It was almost spring so we got a hint of flowering trees. The grounds were beautiful and would have been lovely from our gondola ride if we weren’t in yet another cloud. Highest building, tallest mountain and beautiful lake all had the same view on my trip—-pure white. Fortunately there were less cloudy days and the tall, sharp mountains with mist and pagodas made a picture-perfect scene straight out of a Chinese painting—yes it really looks like that. I shopped for tea sets and jade and ate at McDonald’s. I also tried Hot Pot. The vegetables and tofu were lovely boiling in broth, as long as I didn’t add duck intestines or pork belly. We ate at noodle shops with the kitchen on the street and tables behind. We visited a giant Kwan Yin statue presiding over a lake and feed every koi we could find. Just as we would run out of fish food I would dump the last in and start a fish riot—those things are noisy when feeding. But the highlight of the visit was—you guessed it– temples and they are world class.

The Mount Great Buddha took my breath away. High on a hill sits the world’s largest outdoor bronze and gold Buddha- 558 feet tall. It is a place of pilgrimage and a sign gave instructions for the traditional ritual for blessings. Make a half bow, with your hands clasped. Circle the statue clockwise three time while reciting the name “Amituofo”. Make another half bow and then a prostration.

 

Inside on the main floor are three 12-ft. tall Buddhas under a painted dome and 88 gold Buddhas, one for each sutra. On the upper floors are thousands of gold Buddhas along the wall with lights on the floor that looked like galaxies. It felt like I was walking in another dimension. This amazing temple, finished in 2011, is Western Pure Land on earth. Words fail me trying to convey this truly spectacular holy site. It is powerful and yet approachable. We were the only ones there that day and I felt like I had my special moment with this breathtaking Buddha.

Across the valley was our next temple, the Chung Tai Chan Monastery. Finished in 2001, this monastery was build for spiritual cultivation and refuge. This award-winning building embodies the Dharma with art, culture, science and the teachings of the Buddha. Four 40 ft tall temple guardians, the tallest in the world, greeted me letting me know that this is a holy place that I was to approach with reverence. Up the stairs is the red granite “transformation Buddha” also know as “the Great Majestic One”. Silence is required before this holy Buddha as he reflects his compassion in the world of suffering.

 

We joined a Chinese language tour so that we could see the rest of the building. On other floors were sparkling white Buddhas, a seven-story teak pagoda with the Medicine Buddha, two stairways for pilgrimage and meditation halls. Everywhere I looked were thousands of Buddha images. Although both of these temples are new, the power of the devotion to the Buddha gives them a serenity of deep sacredness.

There was one last temple that day. I don’t know the name as there were no signs in English. It was being prepared for the Chinese New Year and a conference. The smell of flowers and incense permeated this holy place all made even more beautiful with the sounds of the monks chanting their prayers. Each temple that day was a perfect and unique experience. Any one would have been more than I could have hoped for. But, the three together made an unforgettable experience in the heartland of this beautiful country.

The final day in central Taiwan was the blue blood eclipse moon on January 31. Unfortunately pesky cloud cover kept me from seeing the eclipse so I thought it was a good day to go to Sun Moon Lake. First we climbed 580 steps to the pagoda overlooking the lake and then took a boat ride on the lake. Street food was the perfect lunch, tofu stuffed with vegetables and spiralized deep-fried potato plus bubble milk tea. I live for bubble (boba) tea. This Taiwanese creation consists of milky tea with ice and large tapioca balls that you drink with a big straw making it a chewy, sweet treat. This original tea is the best I’ve ever had and I’m a connoisseur. I’m now trying to reproduce it at home so next time you come for a visit we will have iced bubble tea on the porch—a new Southern tradition.

Of course there were more temples. At Xuan Zang Temple the nuns were chanting as we walked around and viewed a relic from the 7th century. Next was a Toaist temple, Wen Wu, much more elaborate than the Buddhist temples. Every inch is red or gold, carved and beautiful. There are many levels, each one increasingly lovely. Both of these temples where modern but I liked that they are living temples and not relegated to just history.

The last day in Taiwan Melynie and I went back to Taipei so I could catch my flight the next morning. We spent the day at the National Palace Museum. Melynie had not been there yet and it was fun to explore together. Chang Kai-shek, the founder of modern Taiwan, saw the cultural revolution coming in China and packed up all the art collected for hundreds of years by the emperors and shipped it to Taiwan. The best of over 700,000 treasures are on display, spanning thousands of years of history. The most popular object in the museum is a Bok Choy carved from jadite—a unique choice but fun. You can buy a replica of this cabbage in every imaginable form. A walk in the formal gardens and it was time for supper. We ate in the mall deep in the central station. Melynie was so happy to have American food and find a book store with English books. She felt like she had a mini-vacation and a taste of home.

It was hard to part the next day. Everyday was fun and enchanting with sacred sites, beautiful scenery and lots of bubble milk tea. It was the loveliest adventure with the dearest of friends.

Taipei, Taiwan

Sometimes the Call to a pilgrimage has nothing to do with a travel bucket list but is instead an opportunity too good to pass up. The unexpected destination with no personal agenda can turn into an experience of great delight. It is just such a Call that sent me to Taiwan in January. Eighteen months ago my dearest friend since 4th grade, Melynie and her family moved to Taiwan to teach English and business at a small private academy in central Taiwan. Melynie has an adventuresome spirit and an intense wanderlust. Her husband spent his teenage years in Uganda. The ex-pat life was calling and they had the perfect temperaments and life situation to accept the challenge.

Since I was going to be in California in February why not just swing by Taiwan first—much closer and cheaper ($500) than from Tennessee and Melynie had time off for Chinese New Year. I loved Thailand and Cambodia so much last year that I will take any excuse to go back to Asia.

So after 4 movies, 3 marginal meals and a sleeping pill, I landed in Taipei. Melynie met me at the airport and we took the metro to the central station where I had booked an adjacent hotel (Caesar Park Taipei). I was tired but there was lots of catching up chatter before the lost night caught up with me. When we are together we are school girls again remembering happy times and beloved family and friends.

Taiwan doesn’t have a Great Wall or Taj Mahal, which keeps it off of most tourism lists. This is unfortunate for Taiwan but a delight for me. There was no lack of subtle and not so subtle delights without the crush of tourists which meant I had a very authentic experience instead of pre-package agenda for tourists. Taiwan has worked hard to include signage in English for all transportation and popular sites which made getting around on our own very manageable with my non-existent Mandarin. Taiwan is prosperous, very tidy, organized and friendly. There are lines taped on the floor in front of the metro doors so travelers will lineup in an orderly manor to let passengers leave the train first before loading into the immaculate and quiet trains. In short, Taiwan is easy to love but at the same time exotic and foreign.

The first day we took a train north to Jiufen and the coast and enjoyed a golden waterfall colored by the local gold mine and sandstone formations worn beautiful by the sea. Of course shopping and lunch are high on the agenda and the traditional market was delightful. The tiny shops have awnings over the narrow street keeping most of the frequent rains off the shoppers. Trinket shops and food stalls alternate along the way. I spent time writing with a traditional hair brush, choosing a stamp for my name and finding painted cats for gifts. Vegetarian Melynie and former-vegetarian me, made sure we chose our food carefully: fresh dumplings, fried rice and tofu were perfectly identifiable. Some mochi covered strawberries and ice cream wrapped in peanuts and crepes made a perfect dessert.

 

The next stop was Shinfen to launch traditional paper lanterns. This little town has built an industry around these rice paper and bamboo hot air balloons. We choose the color of our balloon to correspond with our wish for the New Year and then wrote these wishes on each of the four sides. The vendor wrapped the metal ties at the bottom with fuel soaked paper. He lit the paper as we held the sides. Quickly the balloon left our grasp and gently floated to the gods along with dozens of other balloons. A beautiful sight.

Back in Taipei we visited the largest night market, Shinlin, for more shopping and supper. Amongst the whole roasted pig, octopus tentcles on a stick, mystery meat sausages and “eight clawed octopus burned”, we found waffles with crème filling and delicious grilled cheese sandwiches which suited our less adventurous tastes just fine.

The second day we spent time seeing Taipei. First we went to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial to see the changing of the guards. This big complex has two large auditoriums and a memorial surrounded by traditional gardens. Chaing Kai-shek is the founder of modern democratic Taiwan and is honored with a large statue reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Every hour on the hour is an elaborately choreographed changing of the guard. Then the two new guards stand perfectly still for an hour until the next ceremony. Very impressive. We visited an art exhibit and signed our names to the guest book which looked so out of place amongst the graceful characters of the Chinese signatures.

The next stop was to the 8th tallest building in the world, Taipei 101. The architecture is meant to look like growing bamboo and has an elaborate fireworks display every New Year’s Eve. The first five floors have an extensive food court and upscale mall. But the main attraction for me was the world’s fasted elevator—84 floors in 37 seconds—3000 ft per minute. The return ride takes 45 seconds. That was fun! The observation deck theoretically has stunning views but that day I got to see the inside of a cloud instead. The inner workings of the tower are also on display—a large damper to offset the sway of the building. By then it was lunch time and of course I was ready for more amazing fresh dumplings. We visited a couple of temples but the best temples were yet to come. It was time to head to Melynie’s home two hours south of Taipei so we boarded the high speed train (280 km per hour) and then a local bus and arrived in time for dinner with her family.

The Snow Leopard

photo by Bernard Landgraf

Last week Hamilton and I took my mom to see the movie Born in China. She loves nature shows on TV and it was a nice outing for all of us. So after dinner out we headed to the theater where we were the only three watching the movie. I’m so glad we saw it on the big screen because it was spectacularly beautiful with pandas, monkeys, cranes and my favorite, snow leopards. The narrator had charming and engaging story-lines about each animal mother and child. We watched rolly-polly baby pandas tumble down the mountain followed by young monkeys jumping around their forest home. In the introduction and ending are cranes flying across mountains, lakes and a giant setting sun. I really don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful movie. But what I wanted to see the most were the snow leopards, the rare and elusive big cat that lives in the high and uninhabitable Himalayas.

I first learned about snow leopards many years ago when I read a book in book club called The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The book was written in the 1970’s about Peter’s expedition into the deep Himalayas. His companion was in search of rutting sheep but Peter was in search of himself and a rare glimpse of the snow leopard. He had lost his young wife to cancer the year before and used this journey to look deeply at his life and grieve. The two hiked for weeks through high and difficult terrain with a rag-tag group of porters to reach the sheep. During the long days of hard walking Peter reflected on his personal and spiritual life. He never did see a snow leopard for at that time less than a handful of people had ever glimpsed this elusive cat.

The first time I read this book I understood absolutely nothing. Yep, I couldn’t comprehend anything Peter was talking about. I was young and I had no context for his experience. But interestingly enough I never forgot the book for somehow I sensed that it was important and so is the snow leopard. Over the years photographers captured a few distant images of the snow leopard in the wild but now this movie gives us a look at their elusive life.

I was inspired to read The Snow Leopard again after seeing this exquisite mama and babies try to survive in such a harshly beautiful environment. Hamilton had his copy high on a shelf so I got a ladder and pulled down the small paperback. The pages were old, discolored and rough. I started to read it for the first time in 25 years. This time I understood every word. Time had given me context for this beautiful pilgrimage into a harsh land and a grieving heart. Peter is a Buddhist and now all the words and stories about the Buddha made sense and after having a long walking pilgrimage myself I now understood his journey and deep need for a quest into the unknown. I had finally grown into the book.

At the same time I was revisiting another book I read over 20 years ago, The Ecstatic Journey by Sophy Burnham about mystical experiences. This is another book I didn’t understand on the first read but yet never forgot. These two books came into my life when the words were as elusive to me as the snow leopard. My life experience had no context for the story. But time changed that, for I persevered and built the vocabulary and experience to revisit these spiritual classics and now every word is like a tonic and a blessing. Like the new and amazing images of the snow leopard these books now can be part of my heart for I can see them now, when before they were so hidden with my lack of experience.

What books and movies do you need to revisit? What is waiting to for you to read with new eyes now that you have grown and learned? When time and experience combines with learning and wisdom we build new path ways to new mountain tops and are able to finally glimpse the snow leopard.

Persy on her snow leopard blanket.  It makes her feel exotic and mysterious.

Bayon Temple, Cambodia

After our magnificent morning at Angkor Wat we had breakfast and a nice rest before heading out to the afternoon temples. I was glad to catch my breath from the morning because the afternoon was just as incredible. It would take a month to see everything here so I’m glad we decided to spend two days here. Next time I’m going to stay a week.

The first stop was Ta Prohm which is still mostly ruins unlike the temple of Angkor Wat which has been largely restored. There were still piles of carved stones everywhere and I would have felt like Indiana Jones finding an ancient secret temple if it hadn’t been for the crowds—but I can fantasize. I was definitely in an exotic world where dreams and reality collide. Now, in this massive tumble of stone are new gods— giant 400 year old trees overtaking the temple walls. Instead of a temple to Buddha it is a temple where nature and stone are the Divine. The dappled sunlight and green lichen made it all feel ancient and wise.

 

On to Bayon Temple just down the road where there was no doubt who was in charge of the Universe. For on every side of every tower are a total of 216 giant faces of the all-knowing Brahma. I was reminded at every turn of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. I just loved it! We wandered around the stone temple where heaven and earth are blending together and God is made visible. Like the Sistine Chapel where God touches Adam, at Bayon temple Brahma is amongst us intertwining with our every moment.

In the center is the shrine to Buddha in a deep dark alcove. I took off my sandals and stepped on the smooth, cool stones worn and polished by the devotees. Just inside the dark was a tiny old woman with incense and flowers. I made my donation and stepped deeper into the holiest part of the temple. It was overwhelming to be kneeling with my insignificant offering and without the traditional words so all my mind and heart could find was gratitude.

The next morning we headed out to see more temples. Hamilton had accidentally washed his pass and there was just the vital information still visible. It did provide all the ticket checkers a good laugh. I pride myself in being able to remember temple names but I didn’t do such a good job this day. So I will have to just give descriptions. First was a pink sandstone temple with delicate and elaborate carvings of the Hindu gods. The second temple had a long bridge where one side had a dozen or so gods on one side and demons on the other. The entire temple was built around the duality of light and dark, gods and demons. There was beautiful two story library which had books made of palm leaves, now lost to time. Another temple has eight big elephants, one at each corner of the two levels. There was a hospital temple and a temple for water blessing and we finished with a temple used as a crematorium. None of these temples have active shrines and are much smaller and therefore fell like beautiful archeological sites rather than holy ground.

Somewhere in the middle of the day we stopped for a bit of lunch in a local open-air restaurant and I got a bit of shopping done. It is hot in Cambodia, think Tennessee in August, and we walked and climbed a lot so I was happy with an afternoon swim and Hamilton caught up on the latest issue of the Wall Street Journal. Our time in Cambodia was all we had hoped for and more. I was so sorry to leave the next day but I will be back for more adventures.

I’m so happy to have this visa in my passport.

A bit about Cambodia: Cambodia is the poorest country I have visited and is still far from recovered from the atrocities of the 1970’s where 1/3 of the population was murdered. I found the people to be courageous and resilient in trying to make a life for their families with so few resources. Their plight really reminded me how privileged we are in the West. Cambodia might not be at the top of most peoples’ vacation destination list but it is one of the most life-changing places I have ever been.

A couple of weeks after I got home I was watching a wonderful series on Netflix called The Kindness Diaries. Leon rides a motorcycle around the world with no money, only relying on the kindness of strangers. In episode 10 and 11 he is in Thailand and Cambodia and really highlights the plight of these counties. I highly recommend this show and Leon’s beautiful experience.

The Gods Drink Whiskey by Stephen Asma. I read this book on the trip and it is a well done commentary on life in Thailand and Cambodia and Theravada Buddhism. Dr. Asma is a very insightful and entertaining writer.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Hamilton and I each had things we wanted to do and see in Thailand but we both had a deep desire to go to Cambodia and visit Angkor Wat. When we would talk about visiting Southeast Asia it was always traveling to both Thailand and Cambodia. When he was a boy living in Thailand it was not safe to visit Cambodia. Just say “largest temple complex in the world” to me and Angkor Wat goes straight to the top of my must-visit list.

Angkor Wat is in the northern part of Cambodia next to the city of Siem Reap, just a couple of hours south of the Thai border. The largest religious monument in the world, it covers over 400 acres with with dozens of individual temples. The most important and best preserved is the temple of Angkor Wat. The temples were built starting in the early 1100’s and were active until the 1700’s. During that time it changed between Hindu and Buddhist many times depending on what king was in power but is now Buddhist.

After our bus tour we had made arrangements to go to Cambodia. It seemed like a good idea at the time just to drive down to Siem Reap as we were relatively close to the border. Well, it was a bit more complicated and challenging than we expected and included dragging our suitcases through the long and congested border gray zone and surrendering our passports to a man on a motorcycle along with bribes for visas. There were moments I was pretty sure that I was going to be featured on next season’s Lock Up Abroad.  Eventually we made it to our beautiful hotel and finished the day with a sunset boat ride on a large lake with floating villages. We flew back to Thailand a few days later—a wise decision. I love a good adventure but that border crossing was almost a bit too much adventure.

The next morning started bright and early because I wanted my first glimpse of Angkor Wat to be at sunrise. Our guide picked us up in the dark and we went and purchased our tickets and walked through the night across ancient paths and bridges to a pond with a dark silhouette of the temple on the other side. The stars were bright and Venus was hanging low with the moon. We stood with quite a large crowd waiting to see this remarkable holy site be illuminated by the morning sun. Eventually the sun peaked over the tall towers and reflected on the pond in front of us. As the temple reflection mingled with the water lilies, it almost too much to bear, with the pink, blues, purples of the flowers and morning sun illuminating this glorious shrine to the gods.

 

We walked across the bridge, through doorways, up and down steps until we reached the center of that holy place. It was still early so there was a cool breeze and the larger crowds hadn’t yet arrived. It is as awe inspiring as the great cathedrals of Europe, the monumental temples of Luxor, the crystal city of Machu Picchu and the magnificent Grand Canyon. It is a humbling expression of man’s insignificance before the Divine.

On the bottom level are four pools with four more pools on the level above. Every bit of the walls inside and out were covered with fine, detailed carvings depicting the epic stories of the Hindu gods as well as celestial dancers celebrating life. We climbed the narrow and very steep steps to the upper level to see the second set of pools and look out at the deep green countryside. Along the walls were headless Buddhas in mediation. Some had gold sashes reminding visitors that this is still a very holy place. As with all of the great temples built by our ancestors, it is breathtaking in the current expression. I can’t imagine how amazing it was with ponds full of lilies, the walls painted and the Buddhas whole.

The shrine to Buddha is back on the main level. Although Angkor Wat was mostly lost in time, for 300 years the main temple was always tended by monks so the energy never left this special place. Two monks were sitting by the shrine giving blessings to those who were ready to receive. I lit incense before the golden Buddha and then knelt in front of the monk for my blessing. First he put a pink cord on my left wrist and the took a whisk dipped in holy water and shook the water on my head as he chanted prayers.

It was hard for me to leave, I had dreamed of that morning for a long time and I didn’t want my visit to be over but it was getting warmer and we hadn’t had breakfast. So I said my good-byes knowing that I would be back. Like so many of the most holy places on earth, it is so overwhelming that I can’t take it in on the first visit. As I write this I’m listening to the music that I chose for my pilgrimage and my powerful memories entwine with the notes. I will go back.

Vishnu

Ayutthaya, Thailand

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After a few lovely days wandering Bangkok, it was time to explore the countryside of Thailand. We boarded the bus and drove out of town and into the suburban sprawl of modern civilization. Eventually we were out in the jungle and our first stop at an elephant camp where I fed the baby elephant and some of my fellow travelers took a ride through the jungle. Next on the agenda was some shopping at a floating market. Small narrow boats devoid of most safety precautions and with very sputtery engines sped us up the narrow canals to lunch and treasures for sale. I happily parted with my money for silk scarves for friends and a Buddha for my altar. After that we came to the River Kwai, made famous by the novel Bridge On The River Kwai about the labor camps during WWII. The movie of the same name won an Oscar for best picture in 1958. The river runs peacefully under a modern railroad bridge and past a very tall statue of Quan Yin. Some little girls entertained us with renditions of American tunes on their toy guitars, not quite ready for Nashville but charming none-the-less. That night we stayed in individual huts surrounded by the exotic jungle accessible only by narrow boats.

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The next day Hamilton went off with the group to explore more WWII sites while I enjoyed the pool and jungle and watched the river go by. We left the next morning by boat along the river cliffs, the morning fog made our ride very beautiful and it really felt like a land far from home.

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The next major stop was Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand from 1350-1767. It was eventually raided by the Burmese and the Thai government fled to what is now Bangkok. For hundreds of years the temples fell into the hands of time and nature until it became a World Heritage Site. It is this combination of former glories and decay than make it so beautiful to me.

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That perfect day in Thailand we visited 3 temples. The first one, Wat Cahi Watthanaram, has a beautiful central prang or tower surrounded by 4 smaller towers. All along the walls were Buddhas, not the shinning gold ones of Bangkok, but Buddhas that had been ravished by time and vandals. Two beautiful Buddhas are on tall pedestals were whole and serene. I stood and breathed in the history and elegant architecture of this place that has stood for 400 years.

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After lunch the next stop is probably the most famous of the Ayutthaya temples, Wat Mahathat, where there is the Buddha in a banyan tree. As nature took over the abandoned land, one serene image was entwined in nature and became even more beautiful. Even in neglect the peacefulness shines. I wandered around the site listening to chants on my ipod and admiring each Buddha in its own experience of decay. Some of the Buddhas were just feet or maybe even legs and a hand and occasionally a whole Buddha. But no matter what the current condition, each is honored.

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The third temple on our visit was Wat Si Sanphet, considered the most important of the temples. Three restored stupas stand in the center and are the models for the later temples built in Bangkok. I walked around and admired each stupa individually and then as a group. The deep, blue sky was the perfect backdrop to these markers of sacred space. I was hot by the time we finished and I was happy to climb back on the cool bus to the hotel for the night. But each temple, and there were many more we missed, was a special experience, each with a distinct style and purpose but all the temples working in harmony to honor the enlightened path of Buddha.

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