In the winter of 1995,  I travelled solo to Southeast Asia for the first time. The streets of Bangkok smelled of incense, diesel and charcoal cooking. Tuk-tuks whizzed by, and monks wrapped in orange robes walked down the streets in small groups.

A monk was the last person I expected would try to take advantage of me, but that’s exactly what happened. As the green traveller that I was would soon learn: things and people are not always what they seem, especially in cultures very different from our own.

Enthralled by the foreign sights and smells, I hadn’t noticed the young monk approach, so I was startled when he suddenly spoke to me. After asking where I was from, he went straight to the point:

“Can you help me with my English homework? We go to my temple.”

Temple in Bangkok (monk story)

A temple in Bangkok

I was surprised that a monk would address me. These holy men looked so purposeful and serious wandering the streets. I had found them rather intimidating to be honest. From what I had read in my guidebook, buddhist monks follow many rules, the five main ones being: refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and using intoxicants. They seemed very ascetic and virtuous, which makes the following monk story so bizarre.

When you make that fateful decision

I hesitated, but the promise of a “local experience” with photo opportunities sounded too National Geographic’esque to pass up, so I followed him.

The next thing I knew, he was squeezing into what looked like a wooden box and beckoning me to follow. I had seen temples in Bangkok, and this was not it. This was a tiny “room” made of wood where I couldn’t even stand up straight: a novice monk’s living quarters I assumed. But where was the temple? I thought of leaving, but decided to give it a chance. The guy was small and thin and didn’t look very dangerous. Plus, he was a monk, right?

The young monk sitting in his wooden "room" (monk story)

The young monk sitting in his wooden “room”

I looked around the room: a plank for bed, a few posters on the wall, and a ghetto blaster. He turned it on, and out came Hotel California. He pulled out a few sheets of paper, and we sat on the floor to look at the “homework”. It was tedious and pointless, and after a while I started to doubt that it was even real homework. I was feeling tired, bored, and cramped and finally got up to leave.

When you realize you won’t get off so easily

“You like beer?” he asked suddenly, pulling out a large bottle from somewhere.

This didn’t compute. Monks don’t drink, do they? Apparently he hadn’t read the guidebook. I took a few sips of lukewarm beer to appease him, then tried to leave again. This meeting was rather disappointing. And I had things to do. I was moving hotels that day and had to pick up a blouse at a silk shop. The monk said he would come along. I tried to talk him out of it to no avail.

After quickly changing into his “street clothes”, he hailed a taxi, waited for me while I checked out of my hotel, then hailed another taxi to take us to my new hotel. At this point I was getting a little ticked off and really wanted to lose him. He didn’t look like a monk anymore; he was just a young guy wearing jeans, T-shirt, and a baseball cap.

How do you get rid of someone who keeps following you no matter what you say or do? Yelling and acting up in a country like Thailand will make you look like a complete lunatic. Locals, and taxi drivers in particular, speak very little English, so I doubted that complaining about the situation would accomplish much.

At this point, I also remembered reading that buddhist families often enrolled their sons to study in a buddhist temple for a few years to gain “merit”, akin to some type of karmic brownie points. This could explain a few things …

Buddhists making offerings (monk story)

Local Thai buddhists making offerings at a shrine

When you think things can’t get worse yet they do

After following me to the silk shop, the fellow (I had never caught his name) insisted on coming along for dinner. I said that I was going to a rather expensive “tourist” restaurant, but that didn’t deter him. He was a man on a mission, and I was beginning to get an inkling of what it was. Nope, he had definitely not read the guidebook. I sighed quietly. This day wasn’t going to last forever, I consoled myself. At some point he would have to return to his “temple” or he would be missed.

But things just got worse. Since he couldn’t afford the food in the restaurant, he ordered a big bottle of beer, which he proceeded to drink at an alarming speed. By the time we walked out, he was quite drunk, and more annoying than ever. He followed me into the taxi.

Arriving at my hotel, I told the driver to take him back home. I slammed the car door in his face, walked quickly into my room, and locked the door. Ten seconds later, loud banging and whining echoed from the other side, almost giving me a heart attack. Fortunately, a quick call to reception solved the problem.

I sighed with relief, feeling somewhat embarrassed now. What was the deal with this guy? Was he really a novice monk, just an opportunist, or both? I would probably never really know. Things in life are never as clean cut as in the guidebooks.

As an independent traveller in a new culture, you’re bound to make some mistakes. It happens to everyone and you shouldn’t feel bad about yourself. Think of them as learning experiences that will make you a better traveller. And they could make good stories down the line!

Thai dancers (monk story)

Beautiful Thai dancers

(All photos in this post are from that first Bangkok trip in 1995.)

If you liked this tale, you may also want to read my most embarrassing travel story!

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