Palinya ist Novize in Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai.

“Humans Have The Power To Do So Much Good”

Wat Chedi Luang is one of many temples in Chiang Mai that offer so-called monk chats. Tourists can exchange ideas with monks on all kinds of topics and learn about their lives. Here I got to know the novice Palinya, who deeply impressed me.

Palinya slightly inclines his head with the short cut dark hair. “How to say?” he says, looking for an English expression, while bobbing up and down with two fingers, pointing to an invisible target and then putting them thoughtfully on his lower lip. He always does that when thinking briefly. “You need a plan,” he says then. “You need a plan to make dreams come true.” Palinya’s dark eyes are awake and clear, his warm, friendly look full of curiosity. We sit under trees and tarpaulins to protect ourselves from the sun, a bit away from the tourist hustle and bustle in Wat Chedi Luang. And although it is shady, the 20-year-old in the orange novice robe seems to glow.

Novices learn English
Wat Chedi Luang, a large temple complex in the middle of Chiang Mai, is one of many temples in the city that offer so-called monk chats. Most of them are novices who answer questions from tourists and are extremely motivated to try out their newly learned English. Their English teachers, volunteers from all over the world, are usually there and help when there is a problem with the communication. For me, visiting such a monk chat was high on the list of things that I really wanted to do in Chiang Mai.
Palinya points to the seat next to him when I arrive and look around. “That‘ too close,” an American couple’s tour guide sais, who has also taken a seat at the table, plucks on my sleeve and points to the seat at the other end of the table next to her. Monks – and this also applies to novices – mustn‘t touch women or come too close to them. Wide necklines, short skirts and trousers or sleeveless shirts are therefore not permitted in Buddhist temples.

Sometimes visiting monastery is the only way to education


Novices kneel in Wat Chedi Luang during evening chanting.
Novices kneel in Wat Chedi Luang during evening chanting.

Palinya was 15 when he became a novice, he reports. He is the youngest of four children, has an older brother and two sisters. His family lives far away in Laos. He had no time to meditate in everyday life and he wanted to learn a lot more about Buddhism. For this reason and also out of gratitude to his parents, he decided to live as a novice. That was five years ago.

For many young men in Thailand, going to a monastery is the only way to get education. Guy, the other novice at the table, comes from outside the city and belongs to the Karen tribe. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have the opportunity to study,” he reports. Again and again during my almost two weeks in Chiang Mai I met young Thai men who reported that they had been a novice in order to be able to attend a high school and study as part of this. The price they pay for education is high, I think: beds as hard as a wooden board, mostly cold showers, novices and monks are only allowed to eat what is given – that is, what they receive from people on their morning alms rounds in exchange for a blessing, no amusement, no sport, no music, no lunch after middday – and last but not least no closer contact with women. It must be a challenge, especially in teenage years, I imagine. A price that young men seem happy to pay for a good education. “I want to find myself, create something, have my own business,” says the 23-year-old guy. And Palinya also has a plan. But he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Mindfulness, karma and religion

Palinya, Guy and me. Do you see how much Palinya (left) shines even in the shade?
Palinya, Guy and me. Do you see how much Palinya (left) shines even in the shade?

After a while I sit alone at the table with the two novices and their English teacher. We talk about mindfulness – the basis of Buddhism – life in the here and now, about karma, travel, similarities and differences between different religions. We see that many wars have broken out only because people didn‘t accept religious affiliations other than their own. Or because some are scared by other people’s differentness. Palinya wants to know how the Second World War came about in Germany and remembers that it was also about religion.

He listens with interest – especially when I talk about current developments in Germany, how worried I am that certain sections of the population in Germany are shouting slogans against those who are different from themselves, who are foreign, who look different, who may have different ideals and they therefore don‘t fit into their image of “their” Germany.

Live a happy life

The construction of Wat Chedi Luang was finished in the middle of the 15th century. In an earthquake in 1545, the top 30 of 82 meters collapsed.
The construction of Wat Chedi Luang was finished in the middle of the 15th century. In an earthquake in 1545, the top 30 of 82 meters collapsed.

The shift to the right in Europe was often an issue that I spoke to other (long-term) travelers in South America. Again and again, and so too Palinya, I have told how little I can understand that people make differences between people and that it doesn’t matter whether we are black, white or yellow: inside we are all the same, all people and all with the desire to live a happy life. At some point in these conversations, we have always come to the conclusion that everyone should be able to travel to lose the fear of the unknown, that schools should start much earlier talking about these topics before children are negatively affected by their parents in this regard. Because especially children do not make these differences.

Palinya nods. And then he says something that goes on my mind for a long time: “We humans have the power to do so much good here and now.” I look at him speechless for a moment. How right the 20-year-old is. We humans are the living things on our planet Earth that have the most power. We can destroy everything – on a small scale or at the push of a button on a large scale. But we can also do so much good.

Now we are both a little thoughtful and Palinya puts his two fingers on his lower lip again. We sat together for almost two hours. It is time to say goodbye to the two novices and their English teacher. After all, at least the two novices have to eat before 12 noon and then go to class in the afternoon. I would have liked to asked Palinya more. What is love for him, for example, or whether he kissed a girl before his novice days. “We humans have the power to do a lot more good.” While I’m having noodle soup and iced tea for lunch, Palinya’s sentence goes through my head. And I think if we all just … Thank you, Palinya!

Monk Chat Wat Chedi Luang
When: every day from 8 am to 5 pm
Where: On the north side of the temple.

A novice returns to Wat Chedi Luang after the morning alms round.
A novice returns to Wat Chedi Luang after the morning alms round.

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