Casual cycling is still rare in Thailand. Of all the local people who I have spotted on their bicycle so far, most belong to these two groups:
1. Poorer people using the bike as a cheap means of transport, often seen amongst industrial workers and elderly people;
2. More prosperous people using the bicycle for sport (touring), mostly driving state of the art bicycles in sportswear.
Apart from in Bangkok, I hadn’t really seen ordinary middle class people riding a bicycle; or at least, not until I cycled through Bang Kruat district in Buriram Province. On the roads there, I found myself surrounded by cycling students and mothers riding the bicycle with their brood. It didn’t take me long to work out why. Of course I already knew that the vast majority of Thai people look to Buddhism for direction in their lives – what if the religion literally drove by on a bicycle?
Meet Phra (Monk) Somboon Sumangkhalo, also known as the cycling Monk. He is often out on big cycling trips but I had the luck to find him at his Wat Pa Lan Hin Tad Temple.
Phra Somboon, 54 years of age, has been riding his bicycle for eight years now. His aim is to inspire other Thai people to do the same, as he sees it as a very efficient, earth friendly and healthy way to move around. He is hoping to inspire other Monks as well in order to spread the message to more Thai people, but many Monks still find it tough to cycle around, with most preferring to take a bus, car or motorbike. Therefore I felt blessed to meet this inspiring Monk myself.
Phra Somboon has already spread a lot of awareness across Thailand over the years, thanks to Thai media (see this preview for an episode of Human Ride featuring Phra Somboon). But his notoriety is also largely caused by his personal efforts in sharing his cycling experiences through the internet (his Facebook page being the best example). It was good to see him carrying around his Ipad and sharing most of what he captured immediately after.
Although it is the bicycle that has attracted so much attention to Phra Somboon, he emphasizes that it remains his medium, not his message. Talking about his message for other people, he is extremely clear on his most important rules for life:
1. Think of others before yourself;
2. Happiness is in your heart, not in the things you own;
3. Where there is effort, there is success;
4. Always be optimistic.
In reply to the question what makes concerns him most for the future, he mentions the growing impatience and selfishness amongst people. He worries that less people are recognizing the importance of religion, as he believes that without religious direction people lack important values that are so important to the direct environment where they live in.
One of his great examples is Jaruek, a 72 year old Thai man who is still very active in riding his bicycle. Phra Somboon has been following and co-cycling with him for three years, and he says he envyies the long distances Jaruek still manages to cover in a day despite his age. To me that sounded like a statement of modesty since Phra Somboon would later tell me he was involved in a very impressive bicycle tour, covering over 8,000 kilometers within only 4 months. Most interesting fact: he did it in a group of 20 people who are all over 50.
But it’s not just older people that are willing to stay fit. Phra Somboon is more aware than anyone that the youth is the future. That’s why he rides his bicycle with local school-kids from age 9 to 13 around the area of Prasat Phanom Rung every available Saturday. They ride up to 60 km with 10 to 30 people, and sing chants and meditation songs along the way.
As the evening set in we cycled through the area around the temple. Along the way several kids joined us on their bicycles. For me this was yet more proof of this honored Monk being able to encourage Thais to ride a bicycle. Phra Somboon would later tell me he has been interviewed by Austrian and German media but never made it to foreign television. Not yet I would say because he has plans for an inspiring museum. Just before I left he was keen on showing me something very special. He unlocked the door of his secret garage and I was faced with a unique collection of bicycles from all over the world. I was impressed and think it will be a matter of time before this respected Monk will hit the world.
Special thanks to Chancha for her guidance towards the Temple compounds and her translating. Thanks to Angelo for translating on site, Beth Hearn for her ongoing help in reviewing the English articles and of course, Phra Somboon for hosting me at an unforgettable time at the Temple grounds.