Alms collecting in Sammakorn Bangkok

Serendipity in Sammakorn, or Chillin’ with Eco-Monks

21 comments
Street Photography, Thailand

Although Bangkok is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, the neighborhood of Sammakorn where I live is a bit boring. It lacks the golden wats, buzzing tuk tuks, and exotic character of the rest of the city. I am okay with this – I love my peaceful, green neighborhood. But, I generally don’t like to take photos here.

In spite of this, I decided to wake up early and see what interesting things I might spot near my house. I was rewarded mightily.

Shortly after I started taking pics, a man assisting a pair of monks who were collecting alms approached me and said, “You can take photos of these monks. They don’t care. In fact, one of them was a photographer before he became a monk.”

I chatted with the assistant, Jim, and the photographer monk, Phra Sangkom, as they walked around collecting alms and praying with the locals. Phra Sangkom lived in Texas for eight years, Jim was born in Nashville, and both of them spoke English perfectly.

I couldn’t believe my luck that I was able to walk and talk with them during the alms collection, but then they invited me back to the small meditation center for breakfast. This was awesome for two reasons – I got to see what goes on in the temples when the monks eat the food they collected, and I was very hungry.

I always thought monks ate like paupers, but they eat like kings – well, for breakfast at least. Monks have to stop eating by 11am each day, so they need to load up on calories in the morning.

We separated the bounty collected that morning and served the monks on trays. The monks were able to choose from an assortment of curries, stir fries, and soups to go along with the mounds of rice that were collected. They even had treats such as cookies, popcorn, and fruit for deserts. After the monks finished, the helpers and I ate the leftovers. Holy food, I can attest, is delicious.

Sammakorn Bangkok

Monks collecting alms in Sammakorn.

Bangkok Alms Collecting

Visiting the Maab-Euang Farm and Education Center in Chonburi

Phra Sangkom invited me to go to his home temple in the countryside the next day and said I could bring a friend. The next morning, Jim, the monk, my friend Shawn and I drove out of Bangkok before sunrise to a temple/farm/school complex in Chonburi called Maab Euang.

Phra Sangkom is working to spread sustainable agriculture to Thailand and all over the world. In Thailand, massive corporations have promoted mono-cropping that is having a devastating affect on the land. Farmers go into debt to clear land to grow just rice or wheat, and sell it to the corporations. This type of farming relies heavily on fertilizer and pesticides and causes runoff leading to floods in the rainy season.

Phra Sangkom’s philosophy, adopted from the late King Bhumibol, is that farms should be organic and the land should be divided as such – 30% crops, 30% forest/orchards, 30% water, and 10% dwellings.

By setting up farms in such a way, people become completely self-sustainable. Farmers have all the food needed on one plot of land, water runoff is contained, and fertilizer isn’t needed in industrial quantities. Diversifying sets them up to survive natural disasters such as a zombie apocalypse or a manmade disaster such as a trade war that causes the price of soybeans to collapse.

Maab Euang is a beautiful place – rice fields are interspersed among forests, herbs and flowers grow along the walking paths, water features full of fish and frogs dot the landscape, and forests of bamboo and banana trees offered respite from the hot sun. It is a veritable Garden of Eden.

Upon arrival in Maab Euang, we followed Phra Sangkom and three novice monks as they collected alms. After the alms were collected, we returned to a small room where we had a ceremony before eating the food. The food was divided and we served the monks like the day before. Jim gave the blessing in English, and one thing he said really struck me – “Food is real, money is an illusion.” He said we should not waste food because it deprives other people of eating, and is a waste of land and energy. I made sure and ate everything on my plate.

 

Studying at the farm were 53 adults from rural Thailand learning about the sustainable farm techniques along with a few younger students. Mid-morning, a busload of people arrived from Chaiyaphum, a province 280 kilometers away, to visit the farm and listen to a presentation by Phra Sangkom. We listened to the speech as Jim translated.

After lunch in the onsite cafeteria, we had naps and hung out in the temple. Before we took off, Phra Sangkom gave us a photography lesson. Did I mention that Phra Sangkom used to be an official photographer for Governor George W. Bush? He showed us photos of him with W. and Barbara Bush from back in the 90s.

Although it only took us an hour to get to the farm in the morning, Bangkok traffic meant the return took over three hours, which was great because got to learn a lot about our hosts. Jim served as a monk for three years in rural Thailand. “If you want to learn about what really goes on in this world, be a monk,” he said. “You see so much suffering, you forget your own problems!”

Phra Sangkom is one of those rare people who work 16-hours a day. He is working on his Ph. D, teaches the monks and students at Maab Euang, and serves as monk ambassador for Thailand. He travels to the United States often for work. And he does all that with no food after 11am! I’d be hangry and unproductive all afternoon.

That night, exhausted yet excited, I lay in bed smiling at my good luck. By waking up early and being in the right place at the right time, I had the serendipitous experience of meeting two incredible people and an amazing adventure. I guess my neighborhood isn’t so boring after all. ◊

Maab Euang Photo Gallery


 

Further Reading – Eco Monks Work to Protect Thailand’s Environment.

 

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Currently living in Bangkok, I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

21 thoughts on “Serendipity in Sammakorn, or Chillin’ with Eco-Monks”

  1. We have a saying in Indonesia that good things will come to those who wake up early — at least that’s what I grew up hearing from many adults. I prefer going out early in the morning when the streets are still quiet and the tropical sun is still bearable. In a few occasions too I experienced firsthand how visiting places in the morning could guarantee you a more pleasant walk. You’re so lucky the day you decided to wake up early you met those two monks!

    • I am not normally a morning person, but I wake up between 5:30am and 6:30am for the reasons you mentioned – beat the heat and the quiet. I love mornings here. But normally I drink coffee with my cats before going to the gym or running. I need to change my morning habits so I can take more early photos.

      As you are well aware, getting up early when traveling and beating the crowds to the sites is the best.

  2. What an incredible story Jeff; it reads better than fiction—getting a photography lesson from an eco-monk who used to be a photographer for George W. So cool! I need to start getting up earlier.

  3. Oh, I love this post Jeff. Serendipitous indeed! So many layers to this gathering of people & one I suspect that will continue to be in your heart.

    • It was all too perfect. They spoke fluent English, I got to learn a lot about Buddhism and farming, I got some great food, photography lessons, etc. I was afraid I’d be bored at the country temple but I was entertained all day!

  4. Serendipity meets openness, I would say. You were presented with an amazing opportunity, but you also took it and ran with it. Good for you! The results are a great story, one that I’d love to be a part of. What a great couple of mornings!

    • When I am overseas I tend to be friendlier and more open, I think. And in this situation, I could hardly say no! Everything was too perfect.

    • Those unexpected encounters are the thing that make travel special. We know before the trip of the places we will visit and the main foods we will eat, but chance encounters with locals, eating exotic foods, and other lucky things that happen can’t be planned. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Your blog has a whole new look. I love it!
    What an amazing experience you had. How incredibly serendipitous. You should get up early more often! And as usual your photos are excellent.
    Alison

    • I got the blog layout idea from Bama. I think it is much more organized. Not only did it teach me to wake up early, but I realize there are so many stories in my neighborhood I’ve yet to explore. Thanks for the comments!

  6. Wow and wow again! What a wonderful chance encounter. Kudos for letting the cats have their coffee without you. The work the monks are doing is wonderful. Hopefully, their lessons will be taken to heart.

    • I think they are making an impact in Thailand based on things I’ve read and seen. It is a great way to set up a sustainable farm so hopefully it continues to grow!

  7. Now that is worth getting up early for. I was wondering from your social media how you found yourself dining with the monks. Fabulous photos as always and I think I should like to walk in your shadow to have such amazing adventures on what would seem to be an ordinary day.

    • My wife messaged and asked what I was doing and I told her I was eating breakfast with monks. She did not believe me.

  8. Now this is what life is all about ~ those incredible meetings and connections that come up and are a treat to everyone. Incredible post, Jeff, and I can see too where being a positive person helps create such situations for you as well. And then there are your photos ~ immaculate as always 🙂 Enjoy the week ahead.

    • You are right – those surprise connections and meetings are what make travel, photography and life so special. Thanks for your comments!

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