A Day With the Good Doctor Ta
It’s an exciting day! We are off to spend the day with one of my favorite people in the world, Dr. Ta. We step outside the guesthouse to lovely sunshine and warmth. It’s 10am and we cram into the back of a red pickup truck with benches on each side and a cab top. It’s a small bus and quite cozy. Bouncing down the road, we sit across from one another, shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh and make our way to my teachers’ quiet compound outside this noisy city. His home is about fifteen miles from the city limits of Chiang Mai, in a place that seems like it could be a hundred miles or even a hundred years away. Surrounded by miles of rice fields in every direction, the road ends in a muddy driveway flanked by piles of dried palm leaves and some herbs that I’m not at all familiar with. As we pull in, we nearly hit a couple chickens chasing each other in a mad dash, squawking and flapping their wings, feathers flying everywhere. A dog is barking, birds are singing, people are laughing, this place is alive.
On our left we see some steam rooms under which a wood fire is being fed and stoked by a young man, his shirt soaked in sweat. A few steps from that, we see an outdoor kitchen where Dr. Ta’s wife is smashing garlic and Thai peppers and throwing them in the hot wok making that unmistakable sizzle which tells me I’ve only got a few seconds before that pepper drifts from the wok to my throat, causing a familiar bout of pepper induced coughing to the entire group of us. Just to the right of the kitchen is a corrugated tin roof (no walls) under which a number of local people are receiving massage, one of them from my teacher. As is typical, there is no privacy here. People in Thailand seem to live out their lives unabashedly, in plain sight. There is also a little house, the only place with four walls, way in back, where they probably sleep. I turn toward my teacher who is giving a massage under the roof that is doing it’s best to shield him and his helpers from the blistering sun. I wave, genuinely happy to see him. He nods and smiles a big, generous smile, gold flashing in his mouth. There is a special kind of nod in Thailand that is a wordless kind of acknowledgment, simple and direct. It’s nice. It’s refreshing. I’m happy to be back.
First stop though, before we meet anyone or do anything, is the altar where we make our offerings. For some reason that I have never gotten clear on, when we go to Dr. Ta’s, we make the required offering of 39 baht in change. I’ve done this before though. I am prepared this time and have prepared my students. With the 39 baht and 9 sticks of burning incense in each of our hands, one at a time we go to the altar to offer thanks and ask for teachings. This is how it works in Thailand, at least how it worked in the past. You didn’t go online and sign up for a class. You went to the teacher that you wanted to learn from and asked him if he or she would take you on as a student. You bring flowers, incense and candles and fruit. You give them gifts. Dr. Ta likes his whiskey. I happen to have a bottle of his favorite in my bag! But offer what you will, the teacher might still say no. Or, they might call you up at 4am, tell you it’s an emergency and to come over right away and then tell you to make them coffee. I know a number of stories of people who had to work very hard to get in the good graces of a teacher before the teacher would take them on. They had to prove themselves. Prove that they were worthy of receiving the teachings. Prove that they would honor the teachings. Prove that they had inner strength, patience and ability to persevere and not give up. Prove that they really wanted it.
This style of teacher – student relationship rarely happens these days however, especially in the city of Chiang Mai where education has been commodified western-style. But in other places around the country, where the traditional ways are still followed, this type of relationship is still valued and practiced. Going to Dr. Ta’s place in the rice fields outside of Chiang Mai feels like somewhere in between the old ways and the modern. I have spent years cultivating a relationship with Dr. Ta, establishing trust in every way that I can. And because he trusts me, he is quite generous with his time and attention (of course I pay him too!). He and his staff give us all massages. When we are not getting massages, we are in the herbal steam. When we need a break from the heat of the steam, we sit on a bench and drink some refreshing bale fruit tea. At midday, lunch is served and Dr. Ta tells us stories about how he used to be a truck driver but got very sick and ended up in the care of a Burmese doctor who cured him and then offered to teach him his knowledge. Then, without fail, Dr. Ta brings out the ya dong, a special kind of medicinal whiskey. It’s a big jar of homemade rice whiskey that has been infused with medicinal roots, bark, herbs and perhaps even a scorpion or snake. The daring ones among us do a shot or two. Dr. Ta’s massages are pretty strong. A couple shots of medicine before the treatment can sometimes help one get through it! After lunch, some more massages, lots of fun conversation, fresh country air and perhaps even another swig of ya dong, we say our goodbyes to Dr. Ta, his helpers and his wife. It’s a lovely day in Thailand. Half of us are sleeping as we bounce back to our guesthouse for the night.
Blue Lotus is going back in January. If you want to meet Dr. Ta and our many friends in and around Chiang Mai, set your intention, take a deep breath, and jump!