Morning Alms Round

In my blog yesterday, I was talking about What do Thai people eat for Breakfast?. At the end of the blog, I wondered aloud what monks would eat for their breakfast. Would it be something simple or something lavish? Well, my answer came much sooner than expected. Last night, I had a phone call from Phra Nattawud inviting me to come out with him on his morning alms round. I agreed and set a time and place to meet him. Little did I know what I was soon to let myself in for.

My alarm clock woke me this morning at 4.55 a.m. The sky was still pitch black. I was tempted to go back to sleep, but I was also eager to go out to witness my first alms round from a monk’s point of view. I had seen monks out on the roads before but usually only when I was driving past in a car. Never really close up. And anyway, by the time I usually get out of bed the monks have long since finished and have returned to their temple. So, I got up and showered and went downstairs to make myself a quick cup of coffee. The thermometer in my back yard already read 30 degrees Celsius. It was hot and still dark!

For such an early hour, there was certainly a lot of traffic on the road. Not quite “rush hour” traffic but enough to make it only a little quicker than normal to drive to the temple in Bang Na. I finally arrived at 5.50 a.m., ten minutes before our appointed time. No sign of him. I was a little worried that he had gone already as he said he wouldn’t wait for me if I was late. His grandmother then came out of her house and said she would go and look for him. I am not sure if I mentioned before, but she lives right next to the temple.

Five minutes later, Phra Nattawud’s grandmother came back. “They are still getting ready”, she said. I replied never mind as it was still a little on the dark side. Then all of a sudden it was light! I had never noticed that before. But then again, I have never really been up at that time of day before. It was like a light being switched on. Now I could see that monks were already going out on their alms round, or binderbaht as it is called in Thai ( บิณฑบาต ). Some went alone and others in pairs. A few bigger groups were followed by a dek wat, which is a temple boy who goes along to help carry the bags of food. Then one monk came out, lit up a cigarette and then promptly hailed a motorcycle taxi!

Finally, Phra Nattawud came out walking behind another monk who was introduced as Phra Daeng. My plan was to discreetly walk behind them to take pictures and then sometimes walk on ahead to get more pictures of them coming towards me. I was going to try my best not to attract too much attention. However, my plan was foiled when Phra Daeng passed me their bags to carry! So much for my plan to merge into the background. I was now to be “dek wat farang” who had to walk four steps behind the monks at all times. Both of them found it very amusing. I just smiled and said, sarcastically, “thank you very much”.

So, at about 6.10 a.m., two monks and a dek wat farang left the temple for the morning alms round. As you can see from the above photograph, they were both barefoot. I think you would have to have pretty tough skin to be able to walk down some of these roads because of the gravel and rusty nails. Fortunately I was allowed to wear shoes. I had always thought that monks would walk slowly along the road with their head bowed down in contemplation. I thought with my long legs I would easily keep up – but I didn’t reckon on this monk being a reincarnation of Speedy Gonzales. I had a hard time keeping up with them. I certainly couldn’t speed walk past him as he was just going too fast. The only way I could take the above picture was to wait for them to stop to receive alms so that I could then go on ahead a little.

Our first “customer” of the day was a man driving his car towards us. He stopped and got out of the car and then approached the two monks who were by now standing still looking downwards. As the monks are barefoot it was then proper for him to take off his shoes before he offered them some food. In Thai, this is called dtukbaht ( ตักบาตร ) He then got down on his hunches while the two monks chanted a short blessing in unionism. A very beautiful scene. I asked Phra Nattawud later what the blessing meant. But he said he had no idea as it was in Pali. However he knew that the end part was wishing them a long life.

Then it was soon over and they moved on. While monks are walking, they are not allowed to keep looking around for the next meal. They should look straight ahead with their heads slightly bowed. If someone wanted to make merit by offering food, they would then call out “nimmon” ( นิมนต์ ) to the monks. But, in reality, it was obvious who was about to offer food and I don’t think I ever saw anyone utter those words. Most people were waiting for them by the side of the road. They had set up a low table with a bowl of rice and plastic bags containing curries. These people weren’t offering food to just one monk. They would wait for others to come too.

The route that Phra Daeng took was exactly the same every day. He would also leave at roughly the same time. People knew he was coming a certain way and if they passed outside their house they would wait for him there. Otherwise they would go to the top of a soi (small lane) and wait for him. Phra Nattawud later told me that some of the laziest monks would just stand outside places like 7-eleven or the market and wait for people to come to them. They would then take a motorcycle taxi back to the temple.

After we had stopped for the sixth time, their bags were completely full of curries and deserts. All of the rice had been placed in their alms bowl. As the bags were to heavy for them, they passed them both onto me and I gave them the two empty bags. It had by this time, crossed my mind why they needed to collect so much food. I pondered this as I struggled under the weight of the bags as we stopped for the seventh, eighth and ninth times. I then asked Phra Nattawud why we had to stop so many times? Couldn’t we just go straight back? “No”, he said. “We are helping them make merit by allowing them to give us food. If we didn’t let them do this, then it would be extremely rude.” Fair enough, I said, but what about all the food that is left over? “Wait and you will see” was all he said.

After about one hour of walking we finally returned to the temple. Here waiting for us were Phra Nattawud’s own parents waiting to give an offering. Something tells me that out of all the food he was given today, the food he received from his parents was what he was going to eat first. A little side note that I want to mention at this time is how the tables have now been reversed. Before it was Phra Nattawud who had to wai and be respectuful towards his parents. Now they had to wai him and crouch down out of respect. Not only that, they also had to address him more politely than before. Earlier I saw his grandmother call out to Phra Nattawud by saying “Gor” which is his nickname. She quickly corrected herself and said “phra” instead. There is in fact a new set of words to be learned which I will talk about later.

By now you are probably wondering what happens next. Well, with your permission, I will continue this story tomorrow. I have a lot more to tell you on the subject of monks and food.

Don’t forget to visit my Photo Album with many pictures of the alms round this morning.

I will be interviewing Phra Nattawud soon about life in a Thai temple. If you have any questions that you would like answered, then please e-mail them to me.

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