The Tucson Tarot Meetup is the source of much inspiration for these writings on the Tarot. Our meetings are informal and chatty, and always leave me thinking about something I hadn't quite realized before. When someone suggested we have a session on other favorite forms of divination, I was reluctant to go off-topic, but didn't say so. Happily so, as it turned out, because I walked away from that meetup with the first sentence I'd been looking for. "Ways to consult the oracles are as varied as is human imagination" will start off my book about the Tarot. Still, I felt like I didn't have much to contribute that week, so I took along this story about Jah Sticks to read to the group. The session was fun, but we ran out of time for the story. Maybe I ran out of nerve, as well. So perhaps a brief diversion from the subject of Tarot is in order here. This short story is from a series of travel stories I wrote in 2002 while visiting Thailand for nine weeks. Hope you enjoy!
Pung is feeling talkative as we wind up the steep mountain road in her dilapidated car. Cheerfully honking at every roadside shrine we pass, she presses her hands together and bows her head in the wai, the Thai gesture of respect. This repeated taking the hands off the wheel and the eyes off of the road is unnerving, but I manage not to say so. Pointing out every scenic view on the way and slamming on the brakes each time to offer me a better look, Pung negotiates the curves and tells me about Wat Doi Suthep.
The venerable mountaintop temple to which we are going was built in 1383, the same year the nearby town of Chaing Mai was established. According to legend, the site was chosen by a white elephant that climbed the mountain carrying a holy relic for three days, circled the location three times, and then knelt down on the spot. In those times, pilgrims had to trek up the mountain and then climb the many steps ascending to the Wat. Today, those steps welcome seekers and tourists alike, and there’s a small cable car available as well, for those who prefer. Opting for the exercise when we arrive, I trudge upwards, enjoying both the forested view and the giant white serpents lining either side of the walkway. Pung accompanies me for a bit and explains they are representations of the Naga, an underwater creature sacred to the Buddha, half snake and half dragon. She declines to go very far though, saying she will wait in the car where there is shade. “I like to take many naps every day” she tells me. “Take as much time as you like.”
Three hundred and six steps later, I enter an upper courtyard where the holy relic still rests in a chedi at the center. Buddha statues grace the courtyard in an amazing variety, with expressions ranging from tranquil to impenetrable. Some have their eyes closed, and some are open. Some are in seven different positions for each day of the week. One is made of green glass, and another is behind glass. A few are covered with small bits of gold leaf pressed on by devotees, and they flutter softly like butterflies in the breeze.
Spying a quiet corner, I decide to have a go at a Jah Stick fortune. Making merit, I light the candles and incense I purchased in the gift shop, and drop several coins into a box next to a rack filled with numbered slips of paper. Kneeling in front of a Buddha gazing at me with a serene smile, I shake the bamboo tube holding twenty-eight slender sticks until one falls out. Collecting the paper with the same number on it as the stick gains this advice: “Success in what you’re thinking. Luck and love will be yours, but you must be patient. Make sure to think of and pay respect to your beneficial persons, it will make everything easier.” Are all the fortunes so positive, I wonder?
Eventually, I make my way back down the steps and through the market place at their base to find Pung waiting in the shade as promised. “You like?” she asks. “We have tradition here that unless you have come to Doi Suthep, you cannot say you have lived.”
As we head back down the mountain, I ask Pung about something I’ve found confusing. “When is it proper to use the wai” I want to know, “and is it proper for a western visitor like myself to make the gesture?”
Nodding her head emphatically, she says yes, it is respectful to do so. “But you only do it once,” she says, “when you first see someone in a day and then again at the end of the day.” She gives an example. “When I work at the hotel I must go to find my boss in the morning and offer the wai, and then again before I go home in the evening. But I do not in between.” When she drops me off at Baen Kaew, Pung tells me we can settle up my bill after our next trip in a couple of days. Waving goodbye, she drives off without making the wai.
After dinner, I pay a quick visit to the wat across the street. This is a small neighborhood wat, and there are just two other westerners and four or five Thai on the grounds. I notice an alcove off to the side with Jah sticks and head right over, but am disappointed when the fortune is written only in Thai.
Two days later, Pung picks me up again. This time we’re going to the town of Lampang, seventy kilometers southeast of Chaing Mai. She misses our turn twice on the way out of town but finally finds the correct highway, and then shakes her head and laughs. “I get lost easily,” she confides ruefully.
Soon we are traveling through countryside and past bougainvilleas in an absolute riot of color. As we approach Lampang, my guide begins to wear an air of anticipation. “We will go to Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao,” she announces, “and then I will take you to my favorite restaurant!” As we pull into a small, empty parking lot, Pung tells me about the architecture of this temple, which has a mixture of influences. “That one, see, it have many roofs” she points out, indicating a tall pagoda with layers of pointing red tile. “That one Burmese. But that one,” she explains, gesturing at another shrine, “that one look more like bell. That one Lana style.”
As before, Pung waits for me in the car while I explore. This wat has an ancient feeling about it and I am the only tourist. In a far corner, an old man plays a three-stringed instrument that looks like a violin, but which he plays like a guitar. His plaintive melody wafts over the quiet morning to find the burbling of congregating Mynas, and together they seem to create some kind of magic. Suddenly, and just for a moment, I can hear footsteps all across the courtyard and soft, chanting voices from 500 years ago. Back in the present, I notice there’s one other person in the wat, a man kneeling in front of a cracked and peeling Buddha. Trying not to interrupt his contemplation, I make merit of my own and then jiggle out a third Jah stick, only to find this fortune as unreadable as the last. As I walk by on my way to the exit, the meditating man smiles and gives me a thumbs up.
Pung is on her cell phone as I approach the car. “Good, I get direction,” she assures me, frowning a little. “I think I know how to go.” I’ve heard there are other interesting things to see in Lampang, as well, like a hot spa park and an unusual waterfall. Will we be going to any of them after lunch? Pung shrugs and gives an embarrassed little laugh. “I not know how to go”, she admits. “I get lost. I usually ride with driver and talk to guests. I not drive.”
That explains a few things, anyway. Intent on her pursuit of “the best noodle soup anywhere”, Pung is quiet with concentration as she threads our way to the restaurant, with only a little bit of backtracking. Before long, she pulls the car off to the side of the road and parks. There’s no building here, just an awning with two small tables underneath and a grill set up right by the road. “This restaurant my favorite!” Pung exclaims. Ordering two bowls of noodle soup and sodas, she sits back and smiles at me cheerfully. I decide this is a good time to ask about my fortunes. Pulling out the two slips of paper written in Thai, I hand one across the table to Pung.
“I wonder if you will tell me what these say?” I ask her. “I’ve heard it is a Thai custom to say only pleasant things, and not to say something that may be unpleasant. But I would appreciate it if you will tell me the truth of what these say.”
Pung looks at me impenetrably for a moment. Then, “Okay, Julee” she says dubiously, taking the first paper. Quickly, however, two steaming soups arrive at our table and we divert from the fortunes to lay into our bowls for a while. Eventually, Pung reads the little slip I’ve given her, and frowns. “Well, this is very bad,’ she tells me, “you should just throw it away and get another!” She crumples it up and puts it underneath her bowl. When I raise my eyebrows in surprise at this, she says softly “It say your life is like that of the diseased fade leafed banyon”. Now I laugh in surprise, and hand her the remaining fortune, the one I got today. She studies it for a moment and then her face falls. “This is also a bad one,” she says, “but sometimes it is better to know these things ahead of time. So you can be prepare.” She trails off, then steels her resolve and continues. “It say you should be very careful to keep your heart cool. You must keep your inner thought to yourself. You must not let yourself become angry and to say angry word. You are quick to become angry, this you MUST NOT do! It will be better for you by the end of the year. In twelve month”. We eat our soup in silence for a few minutes after this, and I watch in amazement as my slender guide devours two enormous bowls to my one. “Well,” I say finally. “That seems pretty accurate.”
The drive back to Chaing Mai finds me confiding in Pung. “I have had a difficult year,” I tell her. “I had a very close friend who died of cancer.” She nods understandingly, so I go on. “This friend, her very favorite thing in the world was to go trekking, and she did not want to die in a hospital hooked up to machines.” Pung nods again. “So I and a few other close friends sat with her at home while she died”. Now it was Pung’s turn to be surprised.
“That was very hard,” she says. She’s quiet for a few minutes, and then tells me one more story. “My grandmother was dying last year,” she said. “I would go to see her in the home where she was. Where they could make her more comfortable.” She mimes putting on an oxygen mask. “I would lay in bed with her there and she would say ‘Bring Pung a pillow!’ because she know I love to take many naps every day.” Pung shakes her head with regret and continues. “And she would tell me ‘Just stay here and sleep’, but sometimes I have to leave anyway. I have much work. But now I wish I had stayed, I wish I could have been more...”
After a moment I give her the advice someone once gave me. “You did the best you could, Pung. Try not to be so hard on yourself.” We fall quiet and watch the bougainvilleas again, and soon we are back at Baen Kaew. Getting out of the car, I say how much I’ve enjoyed our discussions, and Pung agrees that she has also found them to be pleasant. Walking toward the guest house, I turn to wave good-bye and see Pung bowing deeply, offering me the wai.