It is my first trip to Thailand and I have booked myself on an 8 day tour of western Thailand through an international trekking company out of Melbourne . I did this because Thailand and Asia were new things to me and the cocoon-like safety of the tour allows me to reconnoiter the whole situation with reasonable stress levels.  Who knows?  Maybe I won't like Asia or be charmed by Thailand.  So it just seems prudent to keep the safety issues in hand, and the expense low, and the logistical hassles reasonable.   It turns out to have been one of the good decisions I have made in my life.  The tour has been just exactly what I should have done. One of the nice things about controlled environments is that they allow time for reflection.  You are not constantly being internally peppered with problems of too much decision making with too little information.  Adventure is when things are going wrong.  I am on vacation.

One day we were bolting down a dirt highway in the back of a truck when the guide pounded on the roof and made the truck stop.  Across the road was a bunch of Buddha statues.  Probably about 50 feet tall and I think I remember four of them.  It's a photo opportunity.  We get out and walk around. Up close you can see typical Thai Buddha statuary lack of maintenance. The statues haven't been repainted or re-gold leafed since day one. The paint is chipped, and everything is dirty, and the plaster is falling away in pieces.  Thailand.   Around the statues is high grass and trash.  The trekkers line up and start taking pictures.

There is appreciative oohing and aahing.  I am not a picture taker.  I don't believe that the act of taking a picture or the later act of looking at the picture necessarily delivers more information.  In later conversations with picture takers, I am almost always struck by what they didn't see and by what they didn't experience.  I think in some way the act of bringing the camera up to the eye may actually remove you from the direct experience.   Maybe that is why picture taking in strange places is so popular.  It acts as an insulator. Sometimes I think I see detail that others miss.

Across the road I see a monk.  He is aged and he is smiling and he is directing his gaze at me and he is holding something in his hands and showing it to me.  I walk across the road.  He is smiling in a winning way.  His teeth are black stumps.  Probably 50 years of chewing betel nut.  A mild sedative.  No wonder he is happy. Probably a smoker also.

Another mild sedative.  Let's see:   Don't work, free food, mind numbing substances, community respect, philosophic high road:   no wonder he is smiling.   But I am wrong.  That isn't why he is smiling.  He is smiling because he is a salesman.  He is holding in his hands a  Buddhist brochure open like a book and tucked into the right hand side for me to see is an American $10.00 bill.  He is begging.

And like all good salesman he is using props and a smile and he is priming the pump with a sample donation.  All I have to do to feel good about myself is match the size of the bill.  I am a salesman also.  It is how I make a living.  I know the game and I know the drill and I know a player when I see one.  I smile and laugh a little.  He thinks I am smiling and laughing because I am a rich farang on vacation and my guard is dropping on this dirt road in front of these unloved statues under the hot sun.  He is mistaken.  I am smiling and laughing because it is the only way I can deal with the disappointment of life.  Here I am half way around the world anxious to be seduced by new enthusiasms:  and it is the same old hustle.

I'm not being critical or negative. It is too soon for that. I am too new at this. Innocent. I am just doing what tourists do best.

Traveling far from home.  Open and generous to new experiences.  Hoping something or some idea or some person will be able to negotiate around my critical faculties and wow me.  Slap me and seduce me with a new point-of-view or a new valued memory.  But so far it has been dusty roads, and plastic bags of spice poisoned rice on elephant trips, and village girls with crooked teeth and motorbike scars and sores on their legs, and rural adults hampered by post-malarial-bout lifetime lassitude.  I am like an open wound of hope.  Please get my attention Thailand.  So far, nothing.  Normally, this time of year I would be in a Virgin Islands paradise:  sailing!

I turn and leave.  We pile back into the truck.  I look at the monk as we leave.  My tour guide has to worry about schedules and charm.  Not me.  I can just think and ponder and reflect.  That has value too.  If you listen to the backpackers and trekkers tell their stories they are rich in the detail of adventure and misadventure, the action and experiment of youth.  But I wonder if they had time to ponder.  Simple things like  "What am I doing here?"  and  "How much value can there be in associating with rustics?"  and  "On what level could I ever interact with that old monk: and if not, what's the point?"  and  "Why don't these religious people clean and pick up around the objects of their veneration?"  and  "What would my $10.00 donation have been spent on:  more betel nut and more cigarettes?"  and  "What has his life been like:  was it a life well spent, or only the best of several poor choices?"

It's been years since I crossed the road to see what that monk was holding towards me. I  am still thinking and pondering.  Maybe that was his purpose.  Not one of the picture takers, not one of the camera people noticed the monk!  The world of cameras and picture taking is fun, but the world is always bigger than our personal interests and activities.  The picture taking experience gives focus and detail, but it is also limiting.  Maybe before you start compulsively taking pictures of things that can't move, or talk back, or fight back; maybe it would be a good idea to look around.  There may be a more interesting story across the road.  Imagine how many hours that monk logged across from the big Buddhist statues.  Now imagine how few times his picture was taken or his name was asked.