Noah and I spent a lot of time exploring Buddhist temples while we were in Chiang Mai. Hayley joined us for our visit to Doi Suthep, the highest temple in Thailand, but otherwise it was a Mum and Son explorer team as Hayley got used to the change of pace that comes with being on the road again (aka she needs afternoon naps!).
Exploring temples with young children can be challenging. Adults want to go slow, take it all in and snap a 1000 photos.Young kids want to climb, touch, run, jump and ring any drum or bell they see, whether its appropriate or not. And just as you’ve found the most amazing 700 year old stupa that you could photograph for hours the cries of ‘I need to go to the toilet RIGHT NOW’ or ‘Mum I’m REALLY thirsty, I’m going to die if I don’t have a drink RIGHT NOW’ start.
But I’ve found that temples can be fun with kids. Some of course have elements that appeal to kids like bright murals, ponds filled with fish to feed, bells to ring or sculptures that to kids appear amusing. We’ve seen sculptures of chickens in superhero capes and amazing monsters, but perhaps the strangest of all is the ‘MOM’ dragon at Doi Suthep. The kids really liked this one.
But the easiest way to make temples fun for kids, and get them engaged enough to learn about the religion and culture, is to embrace your inner child and join in their explorations.
Putting away the camera is my first step. After that I find its just a matter of letting the kids take the lead, joining in and accepting that I don’t need to do see things in a logical order (or at least my logic) or get that perfect postcard photo. When Noah and I explored by ourselves we climbed stairs backwards and wandered where ever he wanted, even if that meant going off the path. And when I got excited and engaged he did too, and it was at that point that he slowed down enough to learn something about the religion and history of the temple we were visiting. The best thing is, being a curious 5 year old he notices things I would have missed. Like this dragon who’s head that you can see actually springs out of the mouth of another dragon.
Sometimes I fall back into the instinctive ‘mum’ monologue – “don’t touch that” “don’t bash that drum”. But then Noah looks at me with the look on his face that I just know says “But why mum? The monks are watching me and they don’t care!” and I realise he’s right. No one but me cares. So I try to get back into the spirit, let him play the drums and then take him in to investigate the murals to find out what he thinks of it all.
Exploring with Noah by himself has been a great insight into the way his mind works and his character. We’ve also learnt quite a few things about the temple that we wouldn’t have otherwise known thanks to the insatiable curiosity and imagination of a 5 year old, both actual facts and made up silliness.
Here’s a few things he’s taught me about himself and temples in Asia.
(Disclaimer: most of the following are false, except in the mind of a 5 year old. No disrespect is intended towards Buddhism and any of the temples we’ve visited – the following are meant to be read as silly things a 5 year old believes and not actual facts)
1) It is neccesary to ring EVERY bell in the temple If you’ve met Noah you’ll know he’s loud and active. Really loud. Last week at Doi Suthep just outside Chiang Mai, Noah hit the jackpot – a temple filled 10000 bells. OK so it wasn’t that many but there were at least 100 and Noah had to ring them all. I resisted my usual mum instinct to limit his music making and let him go for it. For a child that usually gets bored and gives up on activities half way through in favour of a new game, I was impressed to see him actually focus and finish a task that he set himself.
2) Temples are the domain of dogs and wolves. Kids really do see the world differently. When we walked into Wat Chang Man in Chiang Mai the lawns were covered in dogs. We saw dogs laying on the steps and even one wandering around inside a temple itself. As I thought about how innappropriate it seemed from a western Christian upbringing to have the grounds of a religious building filled with dogs, Noah excitedly walked around pointing out why it was the perfect place for dogs. Shady lawns with soft green grass, steps to guard and Monks to play with … and yes, when you look at it that way, a temple is indeed dog heaven. According to Noah one of the dogs was even a wolf and we spent a good part of our visit avoiding waking up the sleeping wolf for fear of being eaten.
3) It’s possible Monks like karaoke Once we picked our way past the sleeping dogs and wolves on the steps of Wat Chiang Man to enter the main temple we discovered a microphone set up on the floor. Now of course the logical explanation is a service was about to start that the speaker required projection for or the nights chanting needed to be especially loud … but Noah prefers to think that monks like karaoke just as much as the next person.
4) Those little birds do stay free … or otherwise known as why we let Noah believe in that fairytale … On our first visit to Wat Chiang Man, Noah encountered a lady selling birds in tiny wicker cages that could be set free for good luck. He really wanted to set some free but I said we had to come back later with Hayley so she could join in. I also mentioned I was worried that perhaps the birds were just trained to fly to the nearest tree and wait to be caught again by the lady. It’s a common trick that you see in temples in Asia.
The idea of the birds not being free and getting put back into the tiny cages really bugged Noah so when we went back the next day he walked straight up to the lady and asked her point blank if the birds really got to be free. She assured him that they did. Satisfied he released 3 birds and spent the next twenty minutes telling me all about the life he knows these birds will now have free in the trees with their friends, raising babies and catching insects. It was a beautiful story.
Should I have told him the lady was probably lying? I chose not to. In his version of the story he’s a hero who helped these little birds have an amazing life. In my version he let the birds have a brief hour of freedom before being crammed back in their tiny cages (still an outcome that was worth the 60c we paid to release the birds). I’d rather he grow up continuing to believe he can make a difference in the world.
5) Murals are only worth looking at if they have demons stealing princesses or crocodiles eating people Like most of the temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Chiang Man had amazingly colourful murals telling Buddha’s life story. They were bright, intricate and perhaps the most beautiful depiction of his story that I’ve seen in Asia. Most showed Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree at various stages throughout his life or the times he left the palace to see the world.
Of course Noah’s wasn’t interested in these.
His favourites? The paintings of shipwrecks with people thrown overboard getting eaten by sharks or crocodiles and the murals of evil demon looking characters stealing away princesses (my knowledge of Buddha’s life isn’t complete so if I’ve misinterpreted any of these stories my apologies).
6) Ants are the bane of all evil Back in Queensland, Australia there is a problem with an introduced species of ant known as a ‘fire ant’. There are ad campaigns on the freeways, giant posters in government buildings, TV ads and if you live in a 2km radius of an area they’ve been discovered in men come around to your house to spray it every few months. Growing up with this Noah has developed just a small irrational fear of ants. All ants are fire ants that can either bite you, chase you (fire ants actually do this) or spit fire (because obviously if they are called fire ants and are evil enough to deserve so many posters, ads and spraying then they must be able to set people on fire). Since any ant could be a fire ant, you need to run away from them at top speed with a great deal of shouting.
He’s getting better, but ants are still something to be cautious of. In one of the Wat’s we explored Noah found a lot of ants. Ants on the 700 year old stupa that I wanted to photograph … so of course we had to leave quickly. Tiny ants on the offering table who were clearly a danger to world peace and had to be avoided at all costs. Then Noah discovered the most amazing statue of a four headed elephant made from painted sesame seeds, one of his favourite foods. I would have never realised it was made from sesame seeds if it wasn’t for the powers of observation of a curious 5 year old, so I’m really glad I was listening him to that day! It really was a wonderful work of art. Rather than being able to enjoy how awesome it was, Noah quickly became concerned that come tomorrow those evil ants from the nearby alter would finish with their fruit offerings and move onto the elephant. Best to get a quick bite in first.
(Just to repeat the disclaimer: most of the following are false, except in the mind of a 5 year old. No disrespect is intended towards Buddhism and any of the temples we’ve visited – the following are meant to be read as silly things a 5 year old believes and not actual facts)