Entering the Field – finding friends and a note on noodles

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Dong, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wat Dong, Chiang Mai, Thailand

After riding around the moat that encloses central Chiang Mai city, passing wats and enticing cafes, songteaws and fresh fruit stands, I turn the corner and enter into the temple grounds. A quiet hangs over the temple and adjoining school in the late afternoon sun. Children, dressed in blue and white school uniforms play on the playground next to the 500 year old chedi structure. The contrast stands stark between the rusted swings-sets and plastic seesaws with the commanding ancient architecture. I walk the grounds, take it all in. I see things I didn’t notice when I was here before, over two years ago. This time perhaps, I am more attuned to nuance and detail. I see the novice monks looking shyly at the other children laughing boldly, playing rough-house. I see the intricate detail and inlay work done in the chedi mount. I imagine what this place looked like when encircled only by trees and forest animals, instead of low-rise condominiums and coffee shops.

Novice monks and school children play in the shadow of the temple grounds.
The sun glistens gently from behind the old spire structure.
The sun glistens gently from behind the old spire structure.

I go inside the viharn structure – the heart of the temple – and prostrate in front of the Buddha images that feature in the center of an elaborate golden alter. I sit for a long while and meditate. I am not very good at meditating, so I usually just take the opportunity to think some things through. This time I ask for guidance and I ask for good fortune as I intend to begin my fieldwork within these temple walls today.

I don’t know who I am asking, but it feels good to just ask who or whatever is receptive – the land, the Buddha, the temple structure, a spirit – I doesn’t really matter whom I pray to, but praying always seems to force your mind to articulate what is really of importance.

Outside the viharn structure, I am happy to find the same auntie making her famous Khao Soi Luang – rice noodles with a thick tofu sauce, herbs and spices. I wai to the old auntie, and she greets my face with a smile. She remembers me! I praise her noodle dish as my favorite in Chiang Mai and I am not feigning enthusiasm. I have dreamt about those noodles since I left Chiang Mai and it was heaven to finally slurp down a bowl. Auntie tells me about all the upcoming activities in the temple – she of course is the perfect person to ask about the goings on, since she sits in her noodle shop from dusk till dawn, 7 days a week; keeping an eye on everyone, chatting and serving up steaming bowls of heaven on earth.

Khao Soi Luang - Shan noodles with fermented soy, herbs , broth and spices.
Khao Soi Luang – Shan noodles with fermented soy, herbs , broth and spices.

I am chatting with the auntie and some other noodle patrons when a familiar face appears to my side. It is Sai Pa! My old friend, a refugee from the Shan State in Burma and an arts enthusiast. But he is looking very different.

Last I saw him he was clad in a saffron robe, shaved head and a dense network of Buddhist tattoos on his body. Now he stands before me wearing a hoodie, skinny jeans, designer shoes and he’s showing off the new leather jacket he just bought for his next motorbike trip to Mae Horng Son. I am delighted to see him.

He tells me he finished his time as a monk after Khao Pansaa (the monk’s rainy season retreat) in 2012 and has now been living in the temple assisting the monks. He looks happy and healthy. He tells me he missed me and shows me a You Tube video he uploaded of me dancing at the Khao Pansaa festival. I’m embarrassed and amused.

Soon, Sai Pa gestures for me to follow him into the temple, we go through a side door within the worship room. He is taking me to see the Pra Adjarn – the temple head monk and teacher. I sit down and wait for him to appear. The large saffron clad monk appears behind the curtain and takes a seat on the couch. We sit on the floor and prostrate before him. He greets me with a warm smile and says he remembers me. I tell him about my research project and how happy I am to be back. The occasion seems like I should be asking him many questions and I do. I tell the monk that I am here to learn the Tai dances, learn about their culture, music, arts and their struggles as refugees in Thailand. The head monk smiles and says:

“You are welcome here. We are happy you have returned and you are free to join in our activities – dancing, language classes and festivals. You can feel free to speak to anyone and ask them questions.” He then gestures towards my friend Sai Pa, and says, “You are in luck because Sai Pa here is a master Tai dancer and musician. He will teach you our arts.”

My heart is beaming – two hours of being back in the field and I have been welcomed by the Tai community, my research has been given the head monk’s blessings and I have found my kru fon tai, my Tai dance teacher.

Now the real work begins – six months of ethnochoreological (dance ethnography) research, intensive interviewing, participant observation (deep hanging out) and many more bowls of heavenly noodles.

Tani is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the Unversity of Hawai’i at Manoa. She is currently in the middle of conducting research about dance and nationalism amongst Shan (Tai) migrants living in Northern Thailand who have fled from the clutches of war and violence in Burma. She will be posting regular “notes from the field” here.

**all names used here, including the name of the temple are pseudonyms. This is to protect research collaborator’s identities.

Tani with Phra Adjarn
Tani with Phra Adjarn

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