Buddhists believe in reincarnation: in their next life they think that they will take to their new body the spiritual attributes they have accumulated during this life, but that their material possessions cannot go with them. Therefore, Buddhists are taught to reject material values and possessions, favouring instead their spiritual lot – achieving a peaceful and happy mind through meditation practice and calm reflection.
Visitors to Thailand will immediately be impressed by the numbers of monks they see walking in the street and tending temple precincts. Their easy smiles and interest in practising English with tourists confirms for the visitor an image of gentle monks leading a non-materialistic life as they follow in the Buddha’s footsteps. Monks shave their heads monthly as a mark of respect for the Buddha and they often go barefoot. Those striking saffron robes with their wearer’s winning grins form the perfect holiday snapshot.
It is a rite of passage for young Thai men to attend a monastery as a ‘novice’ monk in their early teens. Most stay for a year and then return to everyday life. Others stay until their twenties, enjoying a free high-quality education. And some stay on longer, to be ordained into the monkhood. I was befriended by a group of novice monks at a training centre in Fang (north eastern Thailand). I was taken, as usual, to admire their temple and its Buddhas, and to see their quarters – basic concrete huts on stilts at the base of a hill, overlooked by an enormous white Buddha. Inside, though, the Buddha images and Pali scriptures adorning other monks’ quarters were absent. Instead, Manchester United posters vied for wall space with girly calendars – nothing offensive: Vietnamese models posing coyly (but clad) in Alpine meadows. A stereo bashed out the same nu-metal tunes that British teenagers play: east meets west. Another novice compounded my shock by showing me his shared room, replete with a portable colour TV hidden behind the panel of a writing desk. I was getting the fuller picture.
In Chiang Mai, the capital of northern Thailand, a monk sat down next to me on a city bus and proceeded to tap away at a new Sony laptop which he’d produced from under his robe. That same day, I was surprised to hear a mobile ringing – mobiles are much less common in Thailand than in the West.  And you’ll never guess who answered the phone!
Thailand is a beautiful country of many colours, contrasts – and contradictions.

Words by James Styring