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.
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.