Bowling for Monks

One of the pleasures of living in Saigon is the ability to get a flight (usually) or a bus to neighboring countries.

I have made two visits to Cambodia and one to Thailand with ease and given my temporary residence status there are no visa issues returning to Vietnam.

These trips reminded me that Southeast Asia does not have one common denominator and that each of the nations of the region has their own unique qualities.

In Bangkok I was overwhelmed by the traffic.  Cars clog the roads making them impassable in contrast with Vietnam where urban motorbikes lend themselves only to chaos, not gridlock.

Yet the modern and incredibly efficient monorail system guides you seamlessly from the airport to center city where taxis or tuk-tuks (motorbikes to which a carriage is attached) deliver you to your destination.

High rise buildings tower over head and while Bangkok has a reputation for sleazy bars and lively nightlife those places exist isolated in a district far from the one I was ensconced in.  My neighborhood consisted of old streets and stores, royal palaces and temples, canals, and incredible street food.

In perusing stores in the city I found that many of the products, surprisingly, were not home grown but “made in China”.  This is true in much of Southeast Asia and a source of both contented discount shoppers and consternation.

But on my search for authenticity I learned that there was a street where the traditional begging bowls of monks, called “bat” were made; Bat ban – the home of the bowl.

In the midst of torrential rains I wandered aimlessly until I happened on the street, actually an alley, where a handful of families still eke out an existence as their predecessors did for centuries, making bowls for the monks.   It is an amazing process to watch. Eight pieces of metal melded together through fire and heat and held by a metal ban.  Painstakingly, it takes two days to produce a bowl and the pleasure of watching the men and women at work while the rain pounds the tarpaulin over my head makes for a great outing.

The artisans of Bat Ban are a fading breed. They tell me they cannot compete with the mass producers, Thai and Chinese. There is genuine sadness in their eyes to be the end of a line.  I admire their handicraft and buy two bowls, hold them in my hands satisfied in knowing the tradition, creative process and artists that produced these works of art.


About Dr. Roy Nirschel

Thirty years experience as an educator; international traveler, occasional writer, on a personal journey. Author of My Seasons in Saigon (available at Upon the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States I promised to go to Mexico; I did! Carol and I are here now. In the spirit of full disclosure, I promised to go to Mexico if Hillary Clinton was elected president too. The Seasons in Saigon are over; I am uncertain about Vietnam for many reasons despite my love for the country. Now it is Mexico time.

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