Bangkok Post: OUTLOOK
Mission on the Mekong
To lend support to a campaign to revive Buddhism in Sipsongpanna in southern China, a group of Thais recently embarked on a river voyage to a city which shares Thailand's cultural, and racial, roots. NAUVARAT SUKSAMRAN, one of the travellers, recounts her experience.
A group of 30 Thais cruising up the Mekong in a compact boat recently seemed no different from any sightseers eager for a ride along the region's most famous river.
They gazed at the passing scenery, now and then pointing excitedly at clear streams from waterfalls merging with the muddy-red current of the Mekong. When their boat swung and zigzagged to avoid the rapids, a few cried out, only to laugh a few moments l ater.
Observant eyes, though, would see that these were no ordinary tourists. For one thing, a corner of their boat was occupied by heavy boxes, and more conspicuously, a red-and-gold Tripitaka cabinet used for storing Buddhist scriptures.
The river riders were actually merit-makers on their way to Xishuangbanna, or Sipsongpanna to Thais, in China's Yunnan Province. Their mission: to promote the study of Buddhism among the Thai Lue people there.
The city of Sipsongpanna is home to members of the Thai Lue, or Tai, ethnic group, who share racial and cultural origins with the Thais. They also share the Thais' faith in Buddhism.
"The monks and novices there need Pali and Tripitaka textbooks for their dhamma studies. But they can't afford them," explained Phra Phothong Akharathammo, a monk from Thon Buri's Wat Pleng Wipassana who played a key role in organising this merit-making trip.
Phra Phothong knows well the problems his colleagues in Sipsongpanna face, as he has visited the city before and keeps in contact with several Thai Lue monks studying dhamma in Thailand.
"When I told dhamma practitioners I planned to organise a pah pha trip to take Pali textbooks, a Tripitaka cabinet, and Buddha images to Sipsongpanna, they were enthusiastic."
The plan was for Phra Phothong and 29 Thai Buddhists to visit two of the city's temples: Wat Maha Ratchathan Suthawas, or the Golden Pagoda Temple; and Wat Paseh, or Chong Hua Suir.
The voyage began in Chiang Saen District in Chiang Rai, then progressed upstream past Laos and Burma to Sipsongpanna, covering a total distance of about 300 kilometres.
While the land route was more accessible and had been favoured by earlier Thai merit-making trips to Sipsongpanna, the river route was chosen this time. Organisers agreed it would make the pilgrimage more interesting, as few Thais have been on these str etches of the Mekong.
On the first morning of the journey, the tour operator informed the group that they would board the cruiser at Muang Mom on the Laotian side of the Mekong, which they would reach by long-tail boat. But some of them, unable to obtain permission to go thr ough Laos, had to ride the long-tail boat further to the Burmese side, where they were finally picked up by the cruiser.
According to a Laotian met along the way, travelling to Sipsongpanna via Laos is still unpopular, as the Laotian government and people are still ambivalent about the country's new, more relaxed tourism policy.
"It's often up to local immigration officers to decide whether tourists will be permitted to enter the country or not," he said, adding that the border crossing fee has been increased from 1,000 to 1,750 baht.
Riding against the current, the cruiser moved ahead at a slow 30 to 40 kilometres per hour. But the pilgrims, drinking in the scenery that greeted them from all sides, were not complaining.
As they progressed further up the Mekong, the current became became swifter. In some parts, the river narrowed and was full of islets and cataracts. Still, they were fortunate. Just over a year ago, the regional Mekong River Committee had used explosive s to widen the river's boating channel to allow vessels to pass through even in the dry season. Previously, boats could navigate the stretch near the Chinese border only from July to March.
The sand beaches and eroded stone formations dotting the Mekong add to its character. The sight of lush forests, mountain ranges, and in some areas riverside villages, also kept the travellers enthralled.
When the cruiser stopped at Chiang Kok check point in western Laos, Laotian children gathered to stare at the Thai "tourists". The leg of the journey following Chiang Kok was made more treacherous by split-level river beds. At some points the difference between the two levels was as much as a metre.
Despite his three decades of experience navigating the Mekong, Ye Chang Hu, a Chinese boater in his early fifties, had some difficulties.
In one particularly rough spot, he revved up the engine until it roared, but the current won and the boat didn't budge. Loaded down with its 30 passengers, not to mention Pali textbooks and the Tripitaka cabinet, it proved immovable.
Water splashed in through the windows, and in silence, the pilgrims prayed for safe passage. Realising he was losing the battle, the wise captain relented. He steered toward the bank, and to lighten the load, several passengers got off and walked.
Night fell quickly -- too quickly, it seemed. Despite plans to stop at the town of Kuanloei on the Chinese border, the group had to take its rest on the river bank at Muang Sing in Laos. Some slept in the boat, while others found comfort from a bonfire they made on the beach. Dinner was bought from villagers.
In the morning, they set out at dawn. It was three more hours before they arrived in Sipsongpanna. Tired but happy, the merit-makers headed first for the Golden Pagoda Temple, a monastery over a century old.
There, the Thai Lue people gave them a warm welcome, inviting them to visit their homes. Some also brought out their local products -- hand-woven clothes, silverware, and antiques -- to show and to sell. The temple was the visitors' home for the night.
The next day, the group rode 30-kilometres, this time on land, to visit the Paseh Temple, located in the centre of the city.
The group presented the temple -- the site of the city's first Pali school for monks, with some 80 monks and novices as students -- with Pali textbooks.
Said abbot Phra Kammon: "Before, monks and novices in Sipsongpanna led a rather liberal life. They weren't careful about their behaviour.
"Now that we're working on reviving Buddhist teachings, we hope our monks will become more disciplined and studious."
He expressed hope that the campaign will help restore faith in Buddhism among the younger Thai Lue generation.
The abbot's deep concern for his fellow Buddhists was echoed by Phra Khamtin, a Thai Lue monk and a leader in the revival effort.
"Buddhism here isn't in a good state," lamented Phra Khamtin, who has studied dhamma at Wat Phra Buddhabath Takpa in Lamphun Province.
"The influx of modern development has changed people's attitudes. Business and money have made everyone more competitive. Many have gotten involved in heavy gambling. Fake banknotes are rampant, as well as thievery.
"All these things pose obstacles to our work," said Phra Khamtin.
Phra Kammon also told the visitors of the new hotels, restaurants, and shopping centres being built in Sipsongpanna as part of the "Economic Rectangle" development scheme, which hopes to promote trade between Thailand, Burma, Laos, and southern China.
To assess the damage themselves, the pilgrims stayed the night in a downtown hotel, and wiled some time away with a favourite Thai hobby -- shopping.
On the way home, at Kuanloei, one of the boat's engines needed repair. So they stayed there for two days to wait for a new boat.
A stopping point for boats carrying goods from China, Laos, and Burma, the town boasts a variety of night entertainment spots, including karaoke bars and brothels.
The group hitched a ride on a Chinese ore container to Pha Tang -- the split-level spot -- to board their new boat for the homeward journey.
One last delay lay between the travellers and their destination. The boat reached the immigration checkpoint at Muang Mom in Laos after the official passing time. Not wanting to delay the trip any further, the tour operator shelled out 1,000 baht so tha t they could continue to Chiang Saen.
Back on home soil, having braved the mighty Mekong, the 30 Thai travellers had fulfilled the purpose of their trip. Having done their part for their Tai brothers and sisters, they found themselves with an abundance of merit -- and memories.