In This Lifetime Or The Next

6 minute read.

Image of a Buddhist monk overlooking the Bangkok skyline.
Photo by Daniel Lerman on Unsplash

My father had not feared death – to him, it was but the end of one adventure and the beginning of another. The peach-like sun hung low in the sky, streaking shards of golden light through the clouds, while a trio of hummingbirds softly singing, imbued our farewell with a sanguine beauty. A group of close and carefully curated mourners gathered atop the mountain as his ashes were scattered, swaying, then dispersing into impermanence. Time slowed as I watched the last of his earthly vessel leave me in search of his next adventure.

In spite of his sudden passing, my father had expressed his wishes clearly.

“I want you to celebrate the life I’ve lived; not mourn the loss of the life I won’t live.” His hazel eyes sparkled in the hospital fluorescent. We tried our best. Naturally, there were tears at his funeral, though the sorrow was concealed by a palpable sentiment of gratitude from all those gathered: “There was no one like him,” was said in more ways than one by people for whom knowing my father was something they were truly grateful for. Ever adored, he lived a rich life, collected a wealth of experiences, and searched for meaning in everything he did.

The weeks after his funeral passed in a haze: a numbness took hold of my body, as if drops of lethargy had been injected into every one of my cells. As his next-of-kin, the post-mortem duties fell on me, and I automatically worked my way through a list of responsibilities. Grateful as I was for the distraction, I worried about how his death was affecting me. Unlike the deluge of tears that fell when my mother left my life, this time, there was no catharsis I shed not a single tear in the weeks that followed. My body felt constricted, as though my muscles were bunched together, ossifying into bone for each day that passed.

The moment I entered his airy apartment, I sensed that the finality of his absence had encroached into the very fibres of the walls. The space emanated with his energy, his scent; his unmistakable presence, yet at the same time, felt entirely devoid of life. Everything was spotless: surfaces cleaned, clothes folded, and books neatly stacked in alphabetical order. In the kitchen I found nothing that needed throwing out – nothing in the apartment seemed to demand my attention: an encapsulation of my father’s conviction to never be a nuisance to anyone but himself.  

Devoid of purpose, I poured myself a glass of cold tap water; the gushing stream splattered against the metal of the sink, which gleamed with immaculately polished steel. Raising the glass to my lips, I was seized by a picture pinned to the kitchen cabinet, one that had not been there before – a gateway into the endlessly expanding universe of recollection. Memories expand each time we recall them, nurtured by time and unconscious desire to grow into entire clusters of emotions that hold the potency of a homesickness for a home where we know we can never live in again. I stared at the photo while it stared back at me: my father and me, his hand placed on my shoulder to the backdrop of a spiralling temple with emerald-green porcelain tiles and golden bannisters. I was certain it had not been there the last time I visited the apartment.

Shortly following the death of my mother, my father took me on a trip. There was never any question of where we would go. “We’re going to Bangkok,” he announced, adamant on the destination. I remember it clearly: over breakfast one day he said – “Your mother came to me in a dream,” – and explained that she had chosen Thailand as her final resting place. There was a tender certainty in his words; the pain intensely lived in his heart, but his eyes told a tale of hopefulness. “Okay,” I said, not knowing what more I could offer – equally desperate to cling onto anything that would make her death feel less immediate, I never questioned his reasoning.

With my thoughts still on the picture, I moved towards his bedroom, where I sat down on the firm bed, stripped of sheets, and leaned back against the wooden frame. I remained reclined there for a long time, minutes passing simultaneously fast and slow. The trip had been a pivotal moment in our lives. Coming together in our shared grief, we both healed during our travels. For me, it was about growing closer to my father and reconciling with my mother’s death. For him, the loss of his wife was alleviated by the conviction that she was somehow still around and had sent us there. “Don’t you feel her in the air?” he asked, his open palms absorbing the sun by the palatial temples as though he could keep it and look at it on rainy days to come. My father had spent his life up until that point as a non-believer. Not an ardent one; not assured of any particular belief or the absence of one. He simply saw what was and felt no reason to believe in anything beyond what he could touch and grasp.

Drifting down a lane of memories, I recalled how joyously he had made us visit every temple listed in his stack of dogeared guidebooks. We both returned, if not invigorated, at ease with our loss. With his suitcase filled with books, charms, and ornaments, the apartment started filling with adornments from our Eastern pilgrimage. I turned my head to his bedside table. There sat a dark wooden Buddha proudly reinforcing the instructions that had already dawned on me: my father was instructing me from beyond the grave.  

I arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport on a Thai Airways flight along with a sea of tourists. It was just past five in the morning, and I was only on the brim of consciousness after a sleepless night. The small plastic cup of orange juice served to us just before landing bubbled in my stomach. I made my way through the terminal teeming with activity despite the early hour, then through customs before following the signs to the taxi rank. A man in salmon pink shorts and a tatty Real Madrid cap greeted me. “Where you go, mister?” he asked, cheerily with no sign of drowsiness. The seatbelts had been removed, allowing me to lean deep into the cushioned seat. My eyelids felt heavy, but each turn of the car jolted me awake as the cab manoeuvred along the massive highway.

Once in my hotel room, I slept for several hours, showered, and lathered myself in sunscreen. I looked down through the window at the pool, perfectly blue in the morning sun, surrounded by deck chairs starting to fill with guests. I was starving, and although I was only a child at the time of my last visit, I remembered Sukhumvit 38 in the Thong Lo district as a good place for street food. I hopped in a taxi – this one with seatbelts – and instructed the driver of my destination. I rested my hand atop the door until the heat was too much. The noise was intense: choppy car engines vibrating like chainsaws, mopeds nimbly whizzing between cabs, endless honking – the activity felt electrical, consoling, reminding me that even though my own world had stopped, the outer world spun faster than ever before.  

Stepping onto the street, the heat immediately rose from the concrete and mixed with the smell of food from a cluttered market. The scent of green chili, coconut and dried shrimp – sour, sweet, and savoury – entered my nostrils as I moved past the stalls, where cooks stood beneath colourful umbrellas, tossing food in large pans. A pack of stray dogs growled as a vendor emptied a pot of liquid on the street, while a group of children kicked a ragged football between two buckets set up as goal posts. Bangkok’s thudding heart pumped with blood. The city was alive and I felt it resuscitating me too. I settled on a stall with laminated pictures of countless variations of noodles, each one appearing more appetising than the next. The grandmotherly lady, perched over a huge and ancient looking wok, with gnarly grooves clearly older than I had been alive, was busy talking to a women seated on a wooden stool beside her.

“Sawadee, krap,” I said.

“Sawadee, kap,” she responded, loudly and happily.

I ordered a Pad Thai, handed her a fifty baht note, and sat down on a cold metallic stool awaiting my food. Barely a moment passed before a large plastic plate was served to me. Sprightly green coriander, chunks of tofu, beans sprouts and strands of garlic chives lay atop pastel-coloured noodles, held together by tamarind and fish sauce. I drizzled a spoonful of ground peanuts over the dish and squeezed the wedge of lime over it before taking my first bite. “Wow…” is all I could think as I devoured my lunch. The dish alone would have been worth the journey.

After this, I meandered through the shaded stalls. Today was a day of leisure; my mission to visit the major temples would begin the following day. After spending the majority of the afternoon on foot, I returned to the hotel by tuk-tuk in the early evening. As soon as I entered the reception, loud shouting and a TV blasting out noise from the hotel bar was all I heard.

“What’s going on?” I asked the receptionist.

“Rugby,” he responded with a bright smile.

I followed the noise into the bar, where the guests boisterously chanted in unmistakably Australian accents, pausing only to gulp down large pints of beer. I manoeuvred through the crowd to the counter of the bar, where I ordered a Chang beer, served to me in its green bottle and a tall glass. “Half-time, fellas!” someone called out, and the voice of the commentators was replaced by advertisement, all drowned out by people talking as most of them moved towards the bar. A man in a green and yellow rugby shirt moved beside me, turned my way, and bobbed his head. He was bald and huge, himself looking like he could give the guys on the field a run for their money.

“How you going, mate?” he said, in a pleasantly inebriated tone.

“I’m going well,” I said back, as he wiped his forehead of sweat with a flimsy napkin that immediately turned translucent.

“You new at the hotel?”

I nodded. “I arrived this morning.”

“Nice one, nice one,” he said as his beer was served to him, which he immediately sipped, inhaling all its froth. “What’s the plan?” He jammed his fist into a bowl of peanuts and swallowed them in one bite before extending the bowl to me.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m planning on visiting some temples.”

“Yeah, nice,” he said, “love a temple. Where ya going?”

“Thought I’d start with Wat Arun.”

“Naaaah,” he said, elongating his sentence. “Fuck Wat Arun, mate!” He downed his pint of beer and burped loudly. “Nah, mate – that’s just a tourist trap.” He put his one arm around me and the other back in the peanut bowl. “No, mate,” he said with his mouth full of nuts, pulling me closer, waving his finger covered in traces of peanuts at me, “you, mate – you better go to the Ancient Emerald Temple.” His alcohol heated breath warmed the side of my face. “There’s magic there,” he whispered in my ear. “Trust me, mate.” His crystal blue eyes widened as he stared at me as though making sure I had received the message – “Okay,” I said – before he absorbed into his group of compatriots.

Back in my room, I flicked through various guidebooks that I had borrowed from the reception, looking for the Ancient Emerald Temple. It wasn’t until I’d searched through my third book that I found it: it was on the outskirts of Bangkok and seemed a difficult place to get to, but something told me that he was right.

The following day, I left immediately after eating a buffet of fresh fruit: mangoes, lychees, papayas, and pineapple. Reaching the temple indeed proved challenging. I first took the sky-train to the National Stadium, then a tuk-tuk to a local market near the river. Sweaty and deliriously thirsty, I stopped at a stall to buy a fresh coconut. How I ever survived without fresh coconuts widely available was beyond me. I did my best to walk in the shade as I travelled by foot until I reached the canal front. Once there, I gave a man a ten baht note and waited for the boat to arrive.  

A long and slender wooden vessel arrived, proudly waving a Thai flag at its rear. Devoid of tourists, this was clearly a means of transport for locals, and I sat down as the only foreigner. The combination of the straw roof and frisk breeze provided a pleasant refuge from the sweltering heat. Fearing that I would miss my stop I spent the trip half peering at my map, and half gazing at the dilapidated shacks endlessly clustered along the murky canal filled with plastic bottles and wooden pools with small canoes tied to them. I enjoyed listening to the sound of the Thai chatter around me and the sensation of drifting my way through the day. I knew we were nearing my destination when the tip of a large green, emerald spire, gradually pierced the horizon.

Once ashore another wooden pier, I found my way to the entrance using the emerald spire as my north star. After a moment, a group of orange robed monks crossed my path, seemingly venturing towards the spire. The temple was at the peak of a summit with pebbled steps running up along the side of the rocky façade. At the bottom, a small pond was filled with countless fish in variegate colours, at the end of which stood a small emerald Buddha on a stone ledge – I assumed this was a replica of the one I expected to find inside the temple. I looked up at the ever-expanding path and began ascending the steps. Further obscuring the path were large raintrees enveloping the path with thick greenery. Protruding branches forced me to crouch as I scaled the jungle-like trail. The moistened greenery, singing songbirds, and insects buzzing were redolent of a rainforest, and my shirt sticking to me like glue made it feel like one too. Halfway there, I was out of breath and drained from thirst. I walked further until I reached a large pavilion with another pond and a set of stone benches. Exhausted, I sat down on one of the benches. I momentarily closed my eyes when I heard the sound of a water bottle being shaken. Startled, I opened my eyes to see a hand extending a plastic bottle, held by a monk – an older man with a gentle but focused gaze.

“Drink water,” he said, shaking the bottle more vigorously.

For a moment I was reluctant to accept his offer but then took the bottle from his hand and let the cold liquid soothe my dry throat.  

“Thank you,” I said, “I think I needed that.”

The monk smiled at me and himself drank from the same bottle.

“It hot. Important to drink,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, very hot,” I agreed. Thank you.”

The monk looked about sixty and his wrinkled shaved head glistened in the sun.

He wore a pair of golden rimmed glasses over bright brown eyes, both his wrists were covered in clusters of beads in different colours, and his orange robe wound tightly around a svelte physique.

“You first time visit Thailand?” he said, now having placed his bottle in a satchel carried around his waist.

“No, I came once before with my father.”

This seemed to please him and he nodded encouragingly.

“But a long time ago,” I added.

“You bring him this time?”

“No,” I said, uncertain if I should tell him that my father had just died.  

“Next time.”

Although he didn’t remotely resemble my father, the longer we sat there, the more he reminded me of him – his soothing air and rich brown eyes blended with the man in front of me. The man had the serene presence one would hope for in a monk; each word he uttered he said gently but with excitement and assuredness, like he had long since figured out the ways of the world and would love nothing more than to share its secrets.

I asked him how long he’d been a monk.

“Twenty years,” he responded.  

“Twenty years,” I repeated. “That’s… a long time.”

He nodded then looked at the pond.  

“What about before?”

“Businessman,” he responded. “Very rich!”

I chuckled, taken aback.

“Then how come you decided to become a monk?”

He laughed and adjusted his glasses.

“I want to do something new and start life again. I give everything away,” he said, waving his arm through the air.

“Wow,” I said. “Weren’t you scared you’d regret leaving your old life behind?”

“No,” he responded, seemingly surprised. “Why be afraid of something new? Every day is new; a day never lived before – when we get out of bed, we say to the world, I will live through the newness of this day.” He raised his eyebrows and looked right into my eyes. “Exciting, no?”

His response to my question seemed completely out of context, though simultaneously exactly the right thing to say.

“Yeah, I suppose it is rather exciting,” I said, nodded, then looked at the fish moving vigorously through the pond.

He patted me on the shoulder. “No forget drink water,” he said, threw his satchel over his shoulder, and rose to his feet. With that he quickly made his way up the rest of the mountain peak, leaving me on my own. I watched him ascend the steps with the energy of a much younger man until he quickly disappeared.

The wind was markedly stronger at the top of the mountain. A large pavilion encircled the emerald spire which had guided me from the river. Standing below the peak, it appeared humongous, reached tall into the sky, piercing the cloudless blue. A large marble sign was raised on a stand below the spire with Thai writing in golden letters, beneath which, robed monks were bent over praying. For the first time since I’d arrived, I saw another set of tourists, a quartet of women speaking Chinese, each firmly grasping umbrellas to shield themselves from the Bangkok sun. I moved towards the golden railing to find a stupendous view of the city. I saw the river, skyscrapers and antlike vehicles speeding down busy streets. The air was thick and the sun layered atop my head with an intense heat.

Connected to the spire was a pillared structure with no doors. I walked through a dark hall where the walls reverberated with the sound of chanting so loud that it should have been audible from the outside, but somehow hadn’t been. I passed through the corridor, emerging in a small room suffused in candlelight, reflecting across shiny slates and porcelain tiles. Monks were seated along the floor in lotus positions while their mantras harmonised into a tremoring hum. Bathed in the light, sat the green, emerald Buddha, undeniably dazzling – glistening like a brilliant jewel demanding all available light. I lighted a stick of incense and slipped a twenty baht note in the rusted donation coinbox. The smoky air enveloped the shimmering Buddha, and I stood listening to the chanting monks. I swallowed my breath, feeling the absence of my father encroach into my soul, though the sharp shot of pain evaporated as quickly as it appeared and for the first time in a long time I felt tranquil. My mind and body levitated into a different space – my chest vibrated from the sound of the choir. I stood, transfixed, letting the sensation envelop me.

On my way out, I passed a framed board with a sign that read “Fortune Telling Paper” above a stack of notes, neatly placed in a small metal box. I took one and exited through the corridor. The flimsy paper moved from the breeze and I gripped it tighter. It was thin and blue, resembling aged parchment paper. The note had three pieces of writing in Thai, English and Chinese. Squinting in the sunlit pavilion, I lifted the fortune-telling note to my eyes – Those that love you never die. They leave momentarily, only to return in the next lifetime and love you again there, it said in English. I lowered the note, which quivered in the wind, and just then, spotted the monk who had once been a businessman – leaning over the railing, his orange robe glimmering in the sun. He turned towards me, nodded and smiled knowingly, before closing his eyes and letting the light bathe him in faultless gold. I walked towards the other side of the railing, still holding the piece of paper between my fingers, and felt the heated air graze my face. As I viewed the bustling metropolis, teeming with life, the breeze cradled my cheeks with hot air; I imagined that the wind was not but a breeze, but my father’s hand caressing my face, telling me he would always be by my side.

About Alexei Liss

Alexei is a writer and recent graduate of Oxford University's Master's in Creative Writing. He is currently editing his first novel, in which the lives of several characters become intertwined, bound by their relationships to time, loss and solitude.

Alexei is a writer and recent graduate of Oxford University's Master's in Creative Writing. He is currently editing his first novel, in which the lives of several characters become intertwined, bound by their relationships to time, loss and solitude.

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