Nine Buddhist monks, eighteen holes and 007
This past week I had the pleasure to attend the opening of the new office for Origin Thailand. Origin is a large IT software & services company which operates throughout the world. Origin is also one of the prime subcontractors for the project with I am working on. This is no real surprise as Origin is an 80% owned subsidiary of the Philips Corporation.
Origin decided to open an office in Thailand once they received an outsourcing contract from Philips Semiconductor’s Thailand for all computer operations related activities for the factory. A new office opening in Thailand, as well as much of Southeast Asia, is as much a religious event as it is a business event. The purpose of the religious ceremony is to insure that the spirits which are already located in or that will enter the new premises are only good spirits.
Upon entering the new office facility the first thing I noticed was the podium where nine padded backrests stood adorned with Thai writings and bordered with gold leaf. The number nine is significant as good fortune come in sets of three with nine being the most fortuitous. It is for this reason that arrangements are made for nine monks to preside over the opening ceremony in place of a lesser number. This is true of most religious ceremonies in Thailand, such as weddings, new homes, a new child, etcetera. However, for some of the poorer families there may by only three of six monks, depending on the wealth of the family.
I must admit that some compromises were made for this particular ceremony due to the number of Westerners, (farangs) that were attending. The most noticeable was the fact that we were allowed to sit in chairs instead of kneeling on the floor. I had heard from others that this was quite uncomfortable after the first five or ten minutes.
The ceremony was to begin at 10:30 in the morning. We were all seated as the nine saffron robed monks entered the room and walked up onto the podium. Once seated the ceremony began. With shoes removed the senior staff member from Origin Asia made his way forward to the small shrine on the left-hand side of the stage. Whereupon he kneeled, clasped his hands and bowed three times. Moving on his knees towards his left, he lit three candles and the joss sticks (incense). He then carefully arose and returned to his seat. During this process my Thai colleague sitting next to me instructed me to press my hands together and holds them close to my chest.
The head monk began to chant as he unrolled a ball of white silk thread and passed in on to the monk to his left. This continued down the row of monks until the thread reached the last monk. The thread symbolizes a barrier, which is to prevent evil spirits from entering the premises. With the thread held between the thumbs and forefingers the monk droned several chants. This lasted around 30 minutes. Towards the end of the chanting, the monk on the right began to roll up the ball of thread and pass it onto his right. This concluded the first phase of the ceremony.
It was now time for the monks to eat. The monks always eat first and are served symbolically by those for whom they are performing the service. In this case, once the food had been placed in front of each of the monks, the new management staff went forward – again barefoot and on their knees – to present the food to each of the monks. The audience sat patiently understanding that we were entitled to the ‘leftovers’ once the ceremony was completed. It is interesting that Buddhist monks are only allowed to eat up until noon; Where after they are only allowed water, as this shows that they do not need to give into the temptations or desires of the body.
Having completed their meals the monks were presented with two gifts. The first being a basket of household, everyday goods (detergent, soap, some food, etc.), the second being an envelope containing money. The money is also considered to be a gift to their temple.
This is followed again by a round of prayer where the new management of Origin sat on their haunches in front of the rest of the group. Of course there was another round of chanting which signaled that the ceremony was towards its end. Then the head monk rose and blessed the audience by sprinkling prolific amounts of water around (of which I was sure that I received more than my fair share). I hope that this means that I will be blessed in the future with lots of good fortune, which our project presently needs.
The final piece of the ceremony was the blessing of the entrance to the office. Once again, the head monk performed this, while the other monks and the audience watched. Above the entrance the monk wrote several stylized Thai characters which were intended to allow only the beneficial spirits onto the premises. It is bad luck to remove the writings, which are always left to wear off on their own. The ceremony concluded with a brief prayer and the departure of the monks. Last we were allowed to eat lunch – which there was more than enough despite this being the monks leftovers. The ceremony itself lasted around one and a half hours.
Thailand is a country where golf can be considered the national sport. There are numerous courses and for the most part fees are inexpensive. It is also one of the key company events within Philips Semiconductor which occur roughly on a monthly basis. Although not having my own clubs yet, (our container is scheduled to be unpacked on April 30th), I had been yearning to play. Initially, I looked into buying a new set of clubs in Bangkok. However, after some investigation I have found that prices in Bangkok for clubs are about 25% higher than in the US. And since I’ll be visiting there soon enough it seems wiser to make my purchases there instead of here. In the mean time, my secretary Renu was able to loan me an old small set of her husband’s clubs. Initially I planned only a few trips to the driving range in the evening.
The driving range that I visited was also a new experience for me. The ‘Hole in One’ has a lower and an upper deck. So, while you’re practicing on the lower level you see balls flying in the same direction but coming from above. The driving range was also nice as there was also table service for drinks – or a complete meal if you liked – while you are hitting balls. I may try this with Nancy for an evening out once she’s her. On the more extreme side were those practicing with a ball boy. The young Thai was crouched down placing balls on the tee one after another while his employer stood above him swinging away.
In any event, my secretary asked if I would like to join her for a round of 18 holes last Saturday. Even though she waited until the last possible moment to ask, Saturday morning around 10am for a 1:30 tee time, I decided to go ahead and join her. She had planned to play at Muang Ake golf course. This was indeed a good opportunity as this course was one of two, which are in close to our future residence.
Upon arrival my small sack of clubs was immediately whisked away by one of the attentive female caddies. I located the group I would be playing with. There would be two groups in all, a group of four Thai gentlemen, followed by Renu, her friend and myself. The start time had been changed to 2:30, as this reduced the green fees to half price. The green fees were then 750 baht or around 20 USD.
The course itself was well laid out with plenty of water and sand hazards. Palm trees, providing only minimal shade in the strong afternoon sun, sparsely covered the course. My caddy was a diminutive Thai woman. I may have been provided with the smallest caddy, due to the small size of the golf bag that she had to carry. Most of the players had full sized ‘pro’ bags which are quite large and heavy. The other caddies seemed to have no difficulty with this, despite the sun and the heat.
Playing was pleasant enough, even though my performance was far from my expectations. One pleasant surprise was the white circle, which provided a 2 feet perimeter for the home. Once inside you are allowed take a gi’me, which assumes that even the worst of players could make the short put. This was done to help speed play. Strategically placed about every fourth hole was a shaded snack stand that provided cool drinks as well as some food including of all things, fried chicken legs.
The caddies were quite skilled. Mine not only provided valuable course information, ‘left ok, right water’, and ‘wait, too close’ or ‘green go left’, she also provided valuable support such as, ‘ball go in water’ and ‘shot OK’. At the end of the round of 18 the caddy fully deserved the 200 baht fee or about $5. I still always find it a nice touch when the Thai’s wai to you after receiving their payment. The wai is a gesture of thanks, which is performed by pressing the hands together and bowing the head. Returning the wai is not done and a simple smile is more than expected.
Another event which is of note, although more brief that the previous two encounter, is that of going to the movies. Movies are very popular in Thailand, which are most of the Hollywood production type. Similar to Europe, the introduction of new films to the marketplace lags the US premiers by 3 to six months. I do think that films tend to however show-up in Thailand somewhat earlier than in Europe. On this occasion I decided on breaking up my routine by going to see the latest James Bond. I chose the MGM theaters at the Emporium shopping complex that is one of the better I have seen. Inside the theatre it is quite modern and large (in any event larger than many in the Netherlands), with comfortable seat with full backrests. The price of a first run film is about 100 baht or USD 2.5. There are also several fast food restaurants in the mall, it is not unusual to have persons eat a meal inside the theater. This seems to be tolerated by the theatre staff. After the previews and commercials, the audience is required to stand during the national anthem while they pay homage to the ruling monarch, Bhumiphol. This may by one of the last democratic monarchies where the sovereign still commands the respect and reverence of the entire population. -Allan