Let Money Be Your Guide (Part 2)

(Click here to read Part 1.)

Text and photos by Solaire Hauser

BANGKOK – Being a tour guide means telling a lot of stories. Sometimes, however, it is the storytellers themselves who share details about their lives.

Ithidej Sarunsiri has been a tour guide in Bangkok since 1998, and it wasn’t exactly the career he had always imagined for himself.

“Life is easy for Thai people,” he says, because the weather stays sunny almost throughout the year. However, in terms of his professional career, life did not always seem so bright.

After working in his father’s business for a few years, he eventually had to look for a new job when the Thai-based company suffered a hard blow during the financial crisis of the year 1997.

Even though becoming a tour guide did not seem like the best option to him back then, there were not many other choices available. So he started his training and began to pray to Buddha to help him get his license.

Now Sarunsiri walks tourists around the most famous sights Bangkok has to offer and explains their history to them. “I keep details like a library,” he says with a laugh as he turns to a giant golden Buddha statue to explain the story behind its creation.


Let Money Be Your Guide (Part 1)

How Two Financial Turmoils Influenced One Man’s Life

By Solaire Hauser

BANGKOK – Scores of tourists climb the steep steps to the top of one of Bangkok’s famous temples. In the shade of the great Wat Arun sits a man. He is wearing black trousers and a beige button-down shirt. A slight gust of wind wafts through his short black hair as he shelters his eyes from the hot summer sun that shines almost throughout the whole year in Thailand.

Let Money Be Your Guide 1

Sarunsiri now earns money as a tour guide, showing tourists in Bangkok around temples and other sights. (Photo: Solaire Hauser)

Life did not seem so bright a few years ago. Ithidej Sarunsiri, who introduces himself to foreigners as Michael, was one of many Thais whose life was turned upside-down when a financial crisis hit his country in 1997.

Back then, he was working in his father’s company, a big leather goods production firm in Thailand. Sarunsiri says that the business received a strong financial blow during that time. That was when he had to start thinking about finding another way to earn a living.
“My father is a one-man show business,” he says.  “I am just like an ‘accessory’ on his head.”

So Sarunsiri had to go and find his fortune elsewhere, and after a while his path led him towards tourism.

In 1997 he started his training for becoming a tour guide. Being a Buddhist, like approximately 94% of the Thai population in 2010, he asked Emerald Buddha, one of the Buddha statues in the Grand Palace, to help him get his license. Because at the time not becoming a tour guide would have meant not having a job.

One year after starting his training he began to work. One of his big advantages in the job was that he enjoys talking; for instance about the Buddhist tradition of sticking gold leaves on Buddha statues.
“I would put them on the mouth,” he says with a grin, because that is where he sees his strength, which he would like Buddha to protect for him.

The next time the world engrossed in a financial crisis, starting in 2008, Sarunsiri again felt the effects on his profession. Tourists from Europe started to decline, while at the same time more people from Asia flocked into Bangkok.

In general, the effects of this second crisis were much less severe for Sarunsiri. “After the financial crisis in 1997 many people lost their jobs, lost their home,” he recalls.

Still, the money he earns from showing visitors around the city is not always enough, so Sarunsiri took a four-year break from being a tour guide in 2008 in order to figure out web marketing.

In the beginning, the online world was still a mystery to him.

“Wow! Hotmail! I have Hotmail! I have job!” is one of the things he used to exclaim in the early stages of his marketing career.

Now he knows that a web presence does not equal a job guarantee.
However, it has helped him to attract more customers and be more successful with his actual profession, so he can be prepared in case another financial crisis comes around.

A Wish Upon A Tree

One Woman’s Choice to Pursue Enlightenment

[A long-form article]

By Solaire Hauser

HONG KONG – Jian Jue Sik, 31, kneels before a table in a small room, her face illuminated by the sunlight streaming in through the dark wooden bars of a window in front of her. She is wrapped in a gray robe, her hands folded in prayer. A statue of a man with a long black beard towers over her. The light changes, falling on the woman’s head. Her hair is shaved, only a few millimeters of stubby wisps remain.

Jian Jue is a Buddhist nun living in the Chi Lin nunnery in Hong Kong, a recent and controversial addition to the UNESCO World Heritage site short list. Since the age of 12, Jian Jue has been trying to find her path. Now, more than a decade later, she is following in the footsteps of her mother and devoting her life to Buddhism.
The story of how she came to Chi Lin is connected to two things: one of her Buddhist masters, and a tree full of money.

A Wish Upon A Tree: Jian Jue SIK

A Buddhist nun walking along the streets of Hong Kong. (Photo credit: Evita Li)

Before Jian Jue became a nun, everyone knew her as Yee Lai Heng. At that time, she was searching for the answer to a question that had haunted her since childhood.

One day when Jian Jue was 12, her mother asked her to pluck out her gray hair.
“Mum, why do people get gray hair?” Jian Jue remembers asking.
“When people get older, they get gray hair,” her mother said.
Then they get sick, and then they die.

“I felt very sad,” says Jian Jue. And that’s when she asked the question that would change the course of her life.

So Yee Lai Heng became Jian Jue Sik, a Buddhist nun on a spiritual journey towards enlightenment and a quest to find the answer to that one simple question:

How can I find a path that doesn’t lead to eventual sickness and death?


Jian Jue’s search lasted years.

Born in Malaysia, her first job was working as a secondary school teacher in her home country in 2005. She also taught 3- to 12-year-old primary school kids math using an abacus.
“I have always liked calculating,” she says with a laugh.
She took the teaching job after quitting college, where she had studied Accounting for one year.

But even then, she felt life held something else for her. Still, her efforts to find out what it was had so far been fruitless.

Jian Jue was accompanied in her search by her mother. They went to Christian church together, in case they would find their calling there. When that didn’t work, they turned to other religions.

For Jian Jue, Buddhist temples had always contained a certain fascination. While working as a teacher, she was also volunteering at a temple.

Jian Jue still remembers the first time she went to a temple as a girl. Upon entering through the gates, the first thing she heard was the chanting of the monks.
“For some reason, I started to cry,” she remembers. “It was a feeling like going home. I felt ‘touched inside’.”
Then she smelled the incense.
“I always thought it looked easy. But it’s actually quite complicated.”
Jian Jue realized that incense burning requires determination to the task. Usually, a number of sticks are used, which have to be burnt more or less equally.

Jian Jue went to temples regularly after her first visit. She also started chanting at home almost every day.
Her decision to eventually become a volunteer was sparked by her trip to a temple for Buddhist monks.
“I felt that the temple was very dirty,” she recalls. “All the books were so dusty.”
So she offered to help keep the place clean.

Even though she went to the temple three to four times a week after school, Jian Jue hadn’t yet considered becoming a nun herself.
In 2006, her mother got in ahead of her: she told her family she wanted to become a Buddhist nun. For most of them, this choice was unexpected. Jian Jue was 24 at the time.
“I think maybe she didn’t make her thoughts about Buddhism too obvious because she didn’t want to leave her husband,” she says.

That may also be the reason her mother didn’t ask to become a nun right away. Instead, she asked her husband’s permission to live in a nunnery in Malaysia. About two months later, she told him she wanted to be ordained as a Buddhist nun.
Jian Jue’s father agreed, only demanding that she go to a temple only for women.

“I was in Indonesia at that time, in a temple,” Jian Jue recalls.
But she came home to see her mother’s ordination ceremony, as did most of her other family members. Together, they watched as a Buddhist master, also called a shifu, shaved her mother’s head and presented her with her Buddhist robes.

[Click on the page numbers below to read the next part of this article.]

A Man of Memories

By Yan Chiu, Solaire Hauser, Evita Li, Momo Mao

HONG KONG – Light bulbs, cables and fans hang from the ceiling of a small store on the side of the street. A man sits in an old chair next to the tiny door, his wrinkled hands buried in a box of shiny silver tools.

Choi Chueng Yun, 77, has been sitting in this chair almost every day from early morning until afternoon since his retirement.

The products he sells in his store in Wan Chai are former possessions of people he has helped to move out of their apartments. Ties, housewares, memorabilia and old books tell a story about their former owners. Customers rummaging through Choi’s bookshelf might sometimes even find a dinner invitation from the 1980s between the dusty pages of a Harvard Law book.

What the products in the shop don’t tell, however, is Choi’s own story.

Born in Guangdong in China, Choi came to Hong Kong when he was only 13 years old. Those times still hold bittersweet memories for him.

“Those days were not easy, but we felt happy,” says his wife.

Working used to be an obligation for Choi. Now he does it for fun.

“I could have retired. But I’ve become attached to the old stuff, so I can’t just leave.”

Interview by: Yan Chiu, Momo Mao
Camera operators: Solaire Hauser, Evita Li
Editing by: Yan Chiu, Solaire Hauser, Evita Li, Momo Mao
Narration: Solaire Hauser
Special thanks to the Choi family.