I stood quietly at the edge of the canal, my toes hanging over the edge of the wooden walkway that fronted the row of shops that lined the old waterway. The sun was not yet up, but already it was uncomfortably warm. I felt a drop of sweat slide down my spine.
I ignored it. I waited.
Finally, out of the pre-dawn gloom I saw what I was waiting for come gliding gently, serenely down the canal. A lone monk paddled a canoe, hugging the far side of the canal, passing right under the shops that lined the opposite side from me. At several of these shops, ladders descended from the walkway to the water’s edge, and on a few of these ladders, Thais waited, patiently watching the monk paddle slowly towards them.
As the monk reached a ladder with a waiting person, he stopped, taking hold of the ladder to secure the boat. The waiting person would then hand the monk small bags containing food. The monk placed the bags of food carefully in the canoe in front of him, and then chanted a blessing, the deep, monotonous sound of which bounced around the the canal in the otherwise silent morning.
And then the monk paddled on.
All over Thailand (and southeast Asia), monks make early morning rounds where Buddhists have an opportunity to “make merit” by giving food to begging monks. This is one of my favorite rituals because the emphasis is not on the feeding of the monks. The emphasis is that those who give food have an opportunity to practice being unselfish. In doing so, they become better people, closer to the ideal of divorcing themselves from worldly desires. The monk is actually giving you a gift by presenting you with the opportunity to be giving.
I had been out early in the morning in Bangkok and seen the monks walking from food stall to food stall, collecting donations.
But now I was in Amphawa, a town known for its floating market. And in Amphawa, many of the monks went out to collect donations not on foot, but in boats.
It was beautiful to watch. And very photogenic.
Which, of course, brings up a traveler’s conundrum. Is it OK to turn religious rituals into tourist attractions by showing up to take pictures? In many cases, my answer to this question (for me) is no. I generally leave my camera in my bag, or at least don’t point it at worshippers in temples. But the general consensus among the monks I have had contact with (as well as Thai people in general) is that photographing merit making is fine so long as you do it discreetly.
And thus I use a long lens so I I remain far away, and I tell myself it is OK. But I am still not sure I believe that. I still feel a bit uncomfortable.
But, in Amphawa, I fell to temptation because travel.