What would possess a middle aged English businessman to give up his wealthy, comfortable lifestyle in London and become a Buddhist monk living in one of the poorest districts of Thailand? In Phra Farang (Thai for "Western monk"), Phra Peter Pannapadipo, formerly Mr Peter Robinson, tries to explain what led him to such a radical change and what life as a Buddist monk is Thailand is like.
Given that Phra Peter is one of only a handful of Westerners who have become ordained monks within Thailand, Phra Farang would be an interesting document purely as a historical record – but Phra Peter’s measured prose and lack of pomposity makes Phra Farang a fascinating read, not only for his own life’s transformation but as an insight into Thai culture and Buddhist religion in general. Given that both are so traditionally alien to the West, Phra Peter makes them distinctly more comprehensible by charting his own path through his understanding of the teachings of the Buddha and coming to terms with living within the very different precepts of Thai monk life.
That said, Phra Farang is definitely a memoir rather than a primer about Buddhist teachings – and Phra Peter concentrates on anecdotes of contrasting memories of his previous lifestyle against his new Buddhist life. Beginning with a visit to the UK Thai monastery (situated somewhat surreally in the leafy groves of Wimbledon), Phra Peter describes how over the course of five years he decided to ordain as a monk. Originally he planned to do this in England but discovered he could only ordain in Bangkok – and so began his life in Thailand, despite being unable to speak a word of Thai and a fair amount of hostility from his fellow Thai monks who became jealous of the celebrity he was accorded as a farang monk.
Despite devoting a couple of chapters to his reasons for becoming a monk, Phra Peter remains quite vague about what specifically drove him to the change. He also gives little discussion of how he coped with the stringent demands of being ordained – celibacy being the most pressing one from this reviewer’s perspective. That said, his descriptions of his spiritual progress are lucid and moving, and the general good humour that shines from the prose indicates the writings of a man who has achieved some of the peace of mind that he is looking for. There are also numerous amusing anecdotes about his various linguistic cockups and practical gaffes with religious protocol. These are perhaps inevitable but their inclusion indicates not only a lack of po-facedness on Phra Peter’s part but also a desire to demonstrate that whilst monks are revered by Thai people, they do not consider themselves above or better than them.
Equally interesting are those parts of Phra Farang that deal with Thai rural life – Phra Peter moved from Bangkok within a few months of arriving and spent the rest of his time in Thailand’s more remote monasteries. Outside of the big tourist cities, Thailand is still an extremely poor country in many rural areas and almost wholly different to urban Thai life. Phra Peter’s recounting of various countryside rituals, traditions and superstitions, usually wholly unseen by Western eyes, provides a fascinating glimpse of this other Thailand.
Since it was first published in 1998, Phra Farang has sold steadily – it is certainly a hugely accessible introduction both to Thai Buddhism and the Thai way of life. All royalties from the book go the Special Education Trust, set up by Phra Peter to give grants to bright Thai rural kids who otherwise would not be able to afford to go to school, let alone university.