The metal feels cold against my hand as I slide open the gate. The street lights harshly illumine the deserted street. As I shut the car door the dull thud breaks the early morning silence. A dog barks. And as I drive I can hear the dull rumble of tyres against the rough concrete.

As I pull out onto the main road I can faintly make out the flooded paddy fields on the far side. There hundreds of ducks sit on the low mud banks that partition the field. They weren’t here yesterday, and they won’t be here tomorrow. They’re simply taking a break as they fly south from Cathay to warmer climes. Later they’ll dabble in the shallow waters for insects and fish before heading on their way. I pause to envy them: a break in life; a respite from the daily round; and the certainty of better to come.

I pass the Old Man’s shop. Outside are stacked carboys of water and tanks of gas for sale. I can make out the outlines of the Old Man and his wife faintly illuminated by a single light bulb as they sit, stooped eating their breakfast from bowls, not talking; it’s not a tight, difficult silence, rather a relaxed companionship brought on by half a century of familiarity. There is nothing more to say, and nothing more that needs to be said.

I see orange-robed monks padding, bare-foot against the chilly ground, clutching their alms bowls tightly to their chests. A few women wait patiently to place their offerings in an alms bowl. They kneel behind low wooden tables bearing bags of rice and curry. A monk quietly recites a prayer in return for that which is proffered then moves silently on. This is as it has been for the last two and a half thousand years – a symbiosis between the sacred and the secular, between those set apart and those who remain.

Beyond is the modern: a convenience store that never shuts. The harsh light from its bright fluorescent tubes spills out onto the road. A gaggle of young men with motorcycles is encompassed by the blaze.

The railway station disgorges its passengers into the street: factory workers, students. Some climb into waiting tuk-tuks or onto the backs of motorcycle taxis, but most take a place on the back of one of the old, rusty songthaews that ply their regular routes around town. Others cross the street to the small market that clings to the side of the road to break their fast on rice soup, grilled chicken or one of a myriad of fragrant delights. I can smell the smoke, the spices and the burning fat from the braziers, see the steam rising from the bubbling aluminium pots. Mingled with the crowd are a few monks, their sacred orange flashing bright in the early morning light.

And on.

The sun is now low in the sky, a red disk suspended above the horizon. A band of mist hovers above the paddy fields. Soon light will flood the earth and a new winter’s day will begin.


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