Getting Buddha out of Thailand
A few weeks in Thailand and already I was dreaming of pasta.
I love Thailand because I’m a sucker for smiles. And Thai people smile – a lot – even when they know I don’t know what they’re saying. Besides, they love and care for stray dogs…and their toilets are so clean!
I’m grateful to be here to meditate, get massaged, enjoy the healing rays of the sun, read, and fatten up on Thai food. I’m in Chiang Mai with my partner and playmate Henry, and I wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t. Chiang Mai is a mini metropolis with magnificent temples that dazzle the eye and restore the spirit. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to surrender to the sacred stillness inside these sanctuaries. You just have to shut up and breathe. We’ve enjoyed living next door to a gorgeous temple and despite the impossibly hard chairs, forget sitting on the marble floor, we try to meditate there.
By focusing on the beautiful birds, flowers, amazing fruits, cheap food, and smiling people, I can tolerate the over-crowded, noisy, dusty streets jammed full of anonymous tourists from countless countries. Oh, about the beautiful birds – some of them screech and drive me crazy. I don’t know what berries they ate but they sound like they’re in trouble.
Henry and I are terrible tourists. We like to move into a place and act like we live there. We settled into a quiet part of the city, tried to look short and smiled a lot. We struggled to learn a few Thai phrases: good morning, good evening, thank you, that’s beautiful, it’s delicious, can I have the bill, do you think I’m stupid? The latter is useful when taxi drivers and shopkeepers mistake us for tourists and ask outrageous prices. I was proud to be able to say these few phrases until one night, I smiled at the desk clerk and instead of wishing him a pleasant evening I said, “Do you think I’m stupid?”
We were nicely hibernating and integrating into the neighborhood when our daughter from Texas called us to say she was planning a wedding. Henry and I were very happy she was marrying someone we were happy for her to marry. We offered to honor her marriage with a Buddha from Thailand. I don’t mean she’s marrying a Buddha from Thailand – I mean we offered to bring her a statue of a Buddha from Thailand.
We’d heard a lot of different theories about taking a Buddha out of Thailand. Someone said it was easier to take a cow out of India. Others said it was no problem as long as it wasn’t antique. I honor that the Thai don’t want tourists stealing their precious antique Buddhas. I thought they made new ones so the tourists could take them home.
I began to visualize the Buddha we’d send to our daughter: not too big, has to fit in her home; not too small, can’t look like we’re cheap; has to have at least a hint of a smile. The Buddha’s smile is meant to remind you that you are not the dumb ass you sometimes think you are.
Scoring the right Buddha was not easy. Neither is walking.
I walk with the speed of a snail on Xanax. Henry let’s me hang on his arm because he’s that kind of guy. And he doesn’t want me to fall on my face. We didn’t get very far. The city is like one big hole in the sidewalk, and we kept stopping to eat.
So we resorted to taking tuk-tuks, little motorized tricycles driven by brave drivers who defy reality and are probably so sick of tourists they’re suicidal. Bumping along through five lanes of traffic choked with huge red taxi trucks and kamikaze scooters – well, it’s fun but not relaxing.
Eventually we tuk-tuked our way to a woodworking village where numerous carvers and vendors sell all manner of things – furniture, place mats (which I wanted), wooden penises, tantric couples doing it in mid air – and finally we entered the right booth and voilà, there it was, the perfect Buddha! Happily we could afford it, and we knew our daughter would love it.
The smiling shopkeeper assured us that we’d have no trouble sending it to Texas. So we bought it. Ha-ha!
The next day Henry went to the post office and came back sweating (it’s 100 degrees in the shade) – lugging the Buddha. He growled, “They won’t ship him without a detailed receipt and a whole lot of official papers and license fees. I can do it but it’ll take some work.”
I exploded. “This is not an antique treasure we’re trying to smuggle, damn it. This statue is new. Beautiful – hand carved, yes; but it’s a young statue, never been loved before. Why didn’t smiling lady give us the receipt in the first fucking place?” I was definitely not in high consciousness.
Henry wisely ignored my question. “Let’s go back to the woodworking market tomorrow. We’ll take the red taxi truck with that driver you liked and you can get the place mats you wanted.”
He got me with the placemats. Plus, I totally loved this driver, who’d convinced me, without a word, that he was a gentle family man with a dog and six kids.
Back at the woodshop, face to face with the smiling shopkeeper, she looked me in the eye and said, “Oh, you’re having trouble to mail it?” She looked so innocent as she added, “Just put it in your suitcase with the receipt I give you now. No problems.” I started to believe her because she had the smile down to a science.
Henry wrapped up the statue but I knew he wasn’t ready to risk being searched, the Buddha confiscated, possibly jailed, and our daughter left with no Buddha from Thailand.
He calmly said, “I could go to the embassy, show my passport, and buy the license for shipping it.”
“What?” I screamed, heading into the street. “That’s it! It’s over. Let’s buy a fucking statue of Jesus.
Dear reader, this true adventure ends like a fairytale.
Henry schlepped that statue of Buddha – and me – to an official shipping office around the corner of the stall. I entered the office looking like Dracula, with a long scary face daring anyone to bullshit me. And well prepared, if necessary, to use my best Thai, “Do you think I’m stupid?”
But, three beautiful women greeted us, indifferently, a bit hastily, but smiling. One woman listened to our frustrations and when she saw a tear in my eye got up from behind her desk and hugged me. “Relax,” she said warmly. “No problem. You only need show passport, give a little money, we get license for you and Buddha goes to Texas.”
I was so happy the other two women stood up and hugged me. Really.
Relieved, joyful, and grateful that the Buddha would get out of Thailand, we headed for a bowl of pasta.