Published Date : Aug 2, 2019
A Ride Through the Park
Will Freda is a 2018-19 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Anuban Si Satchanalai School, Sukhothai Provicne. He is from Kennebunk, Maine and he graduated from Kenyon College in 2018. In college, Will doubled in Religious Studies and Italian. He spent my junior year in Italy, studying in Rome and Siena. He also spent a month in a monastery in China after his sophomore year of college, before he traveled to Italy. Will applied to Fulbright Thailand in order to continue experiencing and learning about other religions and philosophies.
I pedaled the rental bike along the side of the road at the Si Satchanalai Historical Park. No cars were in sight, but the intensity of the sun forced me to stop. I had been at the park for five hours gliding around the ancient ruins, and had used almost all of my energy. However, there was one more group of temples I wanted to see.
The Historical Park itself is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, with temple ruins of all sizes spread out across a vast area of land. I had spent the majority of my time in the main section of the park, an area surrounded by the old city wall and comprised of a number of temples, some quite large. I had parked my bike at a few of the bigger temples and walked around, exploring the nooks and crannies of the structures still intact.
A teacher at my school had told me about three temples located on a secluded hill outside this main area and I intended to find them. Now that I had stopped on the side of the road, however, I was questioning my understanding of the mixture of Thai and hand motions my teacher had used to communicate the directions the day before. Plus, I was out of water. That never helps.
I surveyed my surroundings. The Yom river moved lazily along to my right, and farm fields stretched out to my left. I felt sweat starting to run down my back, and whipped out my phone. Google Maps. Perhaps it was “cheating,” but using Google Maps on an iPhone will seem archaic to future generations too. Oh well. I scanned the screen and found a small road 100 feet up the road that seemed to cut left towards the general location of the temple I was aiming for. I kicked up the stand and continued on my way.
The road was nothing more than a dirt path, but I decided to take my chances. The bike rattled with every bump and pebble, and I felt every bit of the 30 baht rental cost (about 1 USD). Still, I couldn’t regret my choice. The dirt path wound its way past two houses and out through the middle of rice fields, a lime green in the bright sunlight. Banana trees lined the landscape around the fields. The fields seemed to shimmer as the rice plants swayed in the gentle breeze. All imagery I had never experienced in person.
I pushed onward and after beating my way through the sun I ended up on a deserted, paved road. To my delight, a temple waited at the base of a hill up ahead. I peeled off the road, glided to the dirt area by the ruins, and propped my bike against the trunk of a tree. The trees couldn’t mitigate the heat, but they at least provided some semblance of shade. Whatever sunblock I had applied to my face was now completely washed off by my excessive sweating. “Is this the most I’ve ever sweat?” I wondered. Probably.
I walked up the ancient stairs and past the base of the first temple. Weeds and foliage had sprouted between the cracks in the stones, and butterflies fluttered softly from bush to bush. Birds called lazily to one another. I took in a deep breath and let it out, listening to my exhale, in an attempt to align myself with the stillness of the scene. The ruins were from the 13th century, and the historical park would have been a massive temple complex. Hundreds of monks would have inhabited the numerous temples, performing rituals, meditating, and praying. But, it was impossible to imagine. Ruins can have the strange effect of seeming like they were always ruins. As if the temple was built with crumbling stones, and designed to be incomplete; each fallen stone meant to be nestled firmly in the ground. Old photos and videos have a similar effect on me. It’s hard to picture the moment captured as a real event. It seems like it was always that specific photo, meant to be shown at gatherings. Or broken down buildings in deserted places — was that really new once? Did people really inhabit that space?
At the end of the first temple a set of stairs led up the hill towards the second temple. I kept my pace for fear that if I rested, I wouldn’t find the motivation to continue to the top. The second temple was smaller than the first, or at least what remained of it, and the forest surrounding the temple was denser. I could barely see the landscape through the foliage, and due to the confines of the space the bugs took a greater interest in me. I walked along the base of the temple, towards the stupa at the far end of the area. The stupa looked sturdy, and seemed largely intact. Yet again I had the space to myself, accompanied by only the sounds of insects and birds. It was easy to forget the place was a UNESCO site. I wondered if that would change in the coming years.
When I reached the very back of the temple I noticed a small path that wound down a slope for a few meters, and then to another set of stairs that ascended higher up the hill. I vaguely remembered seeing three temples drawn on the tourist map in this area, but my mouth felt dryer and dryer as I eyed the stairs. I weighed my options, and ultimately my sense of adventure overcame my thirst. One more set of stairs. My legs felt heavier and heavier as I ascended, and I considered wringing out my shirt for water. However, it was November — a bit early for a low point. I shrugged inwardly and finished my climb.
The third temple had the largest clearing of the three, with the vegetation pushed back from the temple’s frame. The structure of a long hall was still intact, with columns of stone still standing on either side. These columns continued back towards a large stupa. Before the stupa was a Buddha image. The statue had portrayed a Buddha in full-lotus pose: the legs were crossed firmly at the base, and the back was perfectly aligned with the head. The arms were missing, though, and the facial features worn off. Yet, the statue remained dignified in his discipline, meditating in this spot day after day, despite the heat.
I turned, and sat down heavily on the top stair. At this height I could see much of the surrounding area. It had already been 14 months since I submitted my Fulbright application, unsure of the result. The month-long orientation in Bangkok was behind me, and my time in my province had begun. In one of my essays, I had written that my desire to learn more about the Buddhist tradition inspired my decision to apply to Thailand, and now here I was. Words had become reality.
Sitting beside the ancient temple on the top of a hill felt surreal. I kept reminding myself that this moment was happening; I was actually here. Someday it would feel like a dream. Someday it would only be a story.
I got up, ready to bike back to the entrance of the park, fantasizing about the giant bottle of cold water that awaited me. I took in my surroundings one last time. I’d be back, the park was 10 minutes from my house. Until then, the ruins would be here, just as they had been for centuries.
I have a year in Thailand, I thought to myself as I passed the other temples. A whole year.