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Category Archives: Interesting Places
I wrote about my experience at Wat Suan Mokkh in 3 previous posts. You can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. This is the final post with practical advice and things I wish I knew before going there.
– Bring comfortable, loose fitting clothes. You can also buy clothes and toiletries at the meditation place. You can also wash your clothes there, in the dorm.
– Bathroom conditions are a bit unusual. Women have to wear a sarong while bathing (a piece of cloth wrapped around the body – you can buy that at the retreat) and men have to wear shorts. There are no showers, but a big water basin and plastic bowls. It’s not comfortable but it’s doable and after a couple of showers you get used to it. Cold water only, but Thailand is a hot place anyway and after a day spent outside, cold water can be quite refreshing. Women and men have separate bathrooms.
– Try the hot springs. There are two separate hot springs, one for women and the other for men. Women have to wear a sarong, same as when taking a shower. The place looks like a cross between a swimming pool, with steps leading to the water, and a spring. The water is hot, about 40 degrees Celsius and might be a bit of a shock at first but it helps a lot with the aches and pains, especially after sitting meditation. I went there twice a day and every time I felt like a new person.
– Follow the schedule. Every day the schedule is posted in the dining hall and in the dorms. You don’t need to have a copy with you, just follow the others and you’ll be fine.
– Free drinking water is provided and even a plastic bottle if you don’t have one. The water is filtered – you can’t buy bottled water or food so make sure you’re ok with that.
– No food in the dorms. Not unless you want a whole colony of ants to come for a visit. And since you can’t use any kind of insecticide (remember loving kindness), you’d better not risk it. One guy found an entire army of ants in his backpack. I don’t know if it was because of food, but he had to change the room.
– Bring a flashlight. You have one of those old fashioned lanterns in your room, complete with candle and matches but if you’re lucky like I was, you’ll break the candle and your matches won’t light because of the damp.
– Bring slippers/flip flops and a bath towel.
– Get lots of mosquito repellent. You can buy this at the retreat.
– Bring a yoga mat. Unless you really want to have the full experience – that means the concrete bed and wooden pillow – make sure you get an extra thick yoga mat. Also an inflatable pillow. You can use the mat for the yoga sessions in the morning.
– Don’t use makeup, perfume, body spray or any other beauty products. You’re supposed to give these up for the duration of the retreat. Besides, you’ll be spending all day outside and it’s too hot for makeup anyway. I did use deodorant because I don’t consider this a beauty product but a necessity. It’s not fun walking around smelling of sweat.
– Don’t worry about having only two meals a day. You don’t need a lot of food because you don’t do any physical effort. The most strenuous thing you’ll do is your daily chore – either sweeping, mopping, washing toilets or wiping the tables in the dining hall.
– Arrive one day early if you can. The retreat starts on the 1st of every month, but the registration takes place one day earlier. It’s nice to get to know some people before you stop talking for 10 days.
– Don’t be afraid of the creatures. During the retreat I saw frogs, spiders, big geckos, centipedes, a snake, a monitor lizard and a tiny dead scorpion. In the event that you get bitten or stung, the people who are in charge of the retreat will help you. When I was there they said last time a guy was stung by a scorpion was 3 years ago. He spent the day in the infirmary and was in a lot of pain but he survived. They claim to have a cure for a scorpion sting so you should be fine.
– Accept the fact that it’s going to be challenging. I don’t want to say difficult because it’s not the same for everybody, but it’s definitely going to be different to what you’re used to, especially if this is your first time doing this kind of retreat.
– Don’t give yourself a hard time if you can’t meditate for more than two minutes. 🙂 I know I didn’t. I wanted to go to this place to relax. Everything else was just a bonus.
– Ask questions. The organizers of the retreat and the monks in charge will be happy to talk to you, whether it’s a question about meditation or life in the monastery. Don’t expect an hour-long conversation but more like a quick chat.
– Be respectful and helpful. That means follow the rules, no smoking or drinking and absolutely no drugs or sex. Also, no chatting with the other participants at the retreat. If you break these rules you might be asked to leave.
– Take plenty of pictures before you hand in your camera. I only took a few and on the last day it rained, so that was it. No more pictures.
– Remember this is only 10 days of your life. You may go through a whole range of emotions before the end but this is normal. This is a time of introspection, of spending time with yourself. It could be uncomfortable but it can be done.
One of the girls had a really hard time at the retreat. She would walk around in her own world of sadness. The organizers tried to help her, to convince her to stay on. She left on the seventh day. Many people will leave. It’s a fact. You’ll see the empty seats in the meditation hall and you’ll wonder where they are. Before I left I asked one of the organizers how many people were at the retreat. I was told 120. By the end there were about 93 left. You can leave at any time but I really encourage you to stay.
I really enjoyed my time at the retreat and would recommend this to anyone. The hardest part was dealing with the sleeping arrangement but after the third day I got used to that to some degree. However, I was never able to let go of a tiny fear of waking up in the middle of the night with a centipede or scorpion crawling inside the mosquito net. There was no insect screen at the window and I had to leave it open to get fresh air during the night.
On the last day (day 11), I went on a tour at the main monastery. The purpose of the tour was to find out more about Ajarn Buddhadasa, the founder of the retreat. “Ajarn” is a term of respect and it means “teacher” in Thai, but not only in the strict school way. It’s also used when addressing someone who’s an expert in their field, or someone who has spent years studying and teaching a particular thing.
After becoming a Buddhist monk at the age of 20, Ajarn Buddhadasa wanted to build a retreat where international visitors could come and find out more about Buddhism, a place where people could go back to nature and simplicity, living a life based on a few basic principles.
We saw where he lived, the place where he was cremated, a library of sorts (it looked a bit like a church, with painted walls and pillars), but I didn’t see any books; a monk was there, available for questions. I didn’t ask any, my mind felt blank and relaxed and I just walked around looking at the inscriptions on the walls.
Coming back to Bangkok felt like slowly re-entering another world. I was not used to speaking loudly and the noise felt abrasive to my ears. For a few weeks afterwards I felt calm and relaxed, even though I didn’t practice meditating on my own, and even now, some of that calmness has stayed with me. I know I’ve said this before but I am very grateful to have participated in this retreat. I do believe I came out of it a better person.
These are some of the books I got after the retreat, one of them “Life Should Be Harnessed By Two Bufflaoes” – I love that title.
This is the official page of the retreat Wat Suan Mokkh
1. It’s liberating not to place so much importance on the way I look, at least sometimes. At the retreat we all wore comfortable clothes, that means baggy pants and loose T-shirts. Shoulders needed be covered, no transparent outfits, and the pants or skirts had to reach below the knee. Nobody cared if you haven’t brushed your hair or you were so sleepy you were about to pass out during meditation. Many of us felt the same. I didn’t see my face in a mirror for 11 days. When I did see my face, in the airport restroom, I was surprised to see I had a tan but other than that I was pretty much myself. I don’t know what I expected. 🙂
2. Not talking for a while can be a blessing. You see so much more and your mind quiets down. Imagine you’re standing in line for lunch but the person in front of you is taking their sweet time getting the food. There’s no point in getting angry. You will eat, eventually. And there’s no hurry. It’s not like you have to be somewhere. So you let go of your irritation (because, remember, you can’t talk and tell the person in front of you to hurry up because you’re hungry) and you just wait for your turn.
3. Not wearing a watch can be liberating. Time was measured with the bell. I heard the bell and I knew I had to change the activity. The schedule was easy to follow and I didn’t even have to think, just follow the routine and if I forgot what was next, I just followed everybody else.
4. Complete silence would have been ten times harder. We listened to talks given by monks and laywomen and we chanted in Pali (the language of the Buddha). Actually the chanting was one of my favorite activities because the monk who guided us made some really good jokes (many of them involving the wooden pillow). I did not find the silence hard to deal with because there were always people around. Besides, I’m a quiet person by nature so this was actually quite nice. But not to hear another voice for ten days would have been a lot more challenging.
5. A smile is an amazing thing. It transforms people in incredible ways and makes them beautiful. One of the women at the retreat – she was tall and a bit scary and she always had this intimidating look on her face – she smiled at me one day and it was such an incredible thing, it transformed her completely. For a few moments she changed from a grumpy woman to an amazingly beautiful one. That smile lasted only a few seconds but it’s something I will remember for a long time. I smiled a lot, since this was the only means of communication with the other participants at the retreat. A smile can make someone’s day. I know it made mine.
6. Pain can come and go, like a visitor. We were told to try and acknowledge the pain, even make friends with it, then let it go. Pain is not ours so we should not hold on to it. Three days into the retreat I wanted to cry, that’s how much my back was hurting from sitting meditation. But I realized it was my fault for trying to keep a rigid posture. I relaxed, and in time the pain went away.
7. I don’t need as much food as I think I do. During this retreat I was able to distance myself from what I wanted and to eat only what I needed. It was one of the best things I learned and it changed my relationship with food. From eating for pleasure, I began to think of food as fuel for the body. It’s true that I’ve heard this countless of time – food is fuel – but it never quite got through me. I also lost a few kilos, something I haven’t been able to do in a long time, even after months of exercise.
8. Practice “loving kindness”. That means refraining from killing any creature, from the mosquito to the snake. Spiders don’t want to be in your room, cockroaches don’t hate you and snakes are not evil. They’re all creatures, trying to live, just like we do. This is a practice I’ve been familiar with and I try to follow as often as I can. I used to kill cockroaches – they give me the creeps, but I’ve become more tolerant of them now. That’s a big improvement for me.
At the retreat, I spent a few minutes every evening looking around the room, hoping there wasn’t anything in there bigger than a mosquito. There wasn’t. Some of the girls at the retreat really freaked out when they saw a spider or a frog. I really like frogs, and had fun removing a couple of them from windows and putting them away, in the grass. I don’t feel quite the same about spiders but they don’t freak me out as much as they used to.
9. Speaking in public is still not something I’m comfortable with but I can do it and I actually say things that make sense. On the last evening we were invited to share our experience at the retreat. Usually being in front of a microphone makes me incredibly anxious. My voice shakes and my palms get sweaty. But I got up and I went and said something and the next day people came to me and told me how much they enjoyed my speech. I don’t remember all of it. It’s like somebody else took over my voice. But people’s reactions made me happy.
10. I should keep trying new things, even sleeping on a hard bed with a wooden pillow. Monks and nuns sleep like that every night. The body gets used to it. (We visited the nuns’ house. The rooms look pretty much like cells, except there are no bars at the windows. Everything is clean, neat, no personal touches. It felt…oppressive.) Besides, unless you want to follow the monastic life, this is temporary. If they can do it for years, why can’t I at least try it for ten days? That’s what I told myself. Besides, you never know what life throws at you and maybe one day you can say “hey, this is nothing, I once slept on a wooden pillow.” So I did sleep on the wooden pillow one day during nap time and then again for one whole night. I woke up a few times and wished that bell would ring because waking up at 4 a.m. was suddenly more appealing than putting my head on what I lovingly called “the chopping block”. But I’m glad I tried. I also cheated a little. In the storage room I found a thin sponge mat and together with my yoga mat they made for an acceptable bed. I also had a small inflatable pillow. It wasn’t the same as sleeping in a normal bed but it was an improvement.
I’m sure there are many things I’ve missed when putting together this list. It could have very well been 20 things instead of 10, but I tend to run away with the words and 10 seemed like a sensible number.
Next time I’m posting the 4th and final part: Things to consider and practical advice
CLICK HERE to read the first part.
4 a.m. – Rise and shine. Meditation eludes me. Silence.
After a night at the monastery I was looking forward to seeing The Dharma Hermitage. I went there in the morning with the other travelers, most of them in their 20’s and 30’s, backpacking through the world. It took about 20 minutes to walk there, while our bags were being brought up in a pickup truck. We went through the registration process which involves a short interview, picked a chore to do from a list and left our “distractions” (books, phone, camera) at the office. These 10 days are free from any form of technology, although some quick notes are permitted while listening to the talks. I wrote in a notebook nearly every day, in my room.
The schedule was the same every day with small changes: rise, meditation, yoga, meditation, breakfast, chores, more meditation, talks about Buddhism and meditation, more meditation, lunch, chores, meditation, chanting, evening tea, more meditation, walking, meditation, lights out. You may think it’s a lot of meditation but all the activities are arranged in such a way that you don’t spend more than an hour doing each of them. Chores ranged from sweeping leaves to cleaning the toilets. I saw that chore list early on and because it’s a “first come first served” kind of thing, I was able to put my name down for sweeping the dining hall after breakfast and lunch. We also had some free time which I spent taking a nap. You can be sure that after waking up at 4 a.m. every morning, a nap was essential for my sanity and most of us made it a daily habit.
Waking up at 4 a.m. is challenging. The first couple of mornings I didn’t know where I was or where that terrible sound came from. It was the bell. But I learned quickly on that it was best to have my flashlight handy, look around before I got out of “bed”, and try to be awake and alert on the way to the bathroom (even if I was too sleepy to walk straight), because it was dark and I certainly didn’t want to step on a frog or spider or even a scorpion or a snake.
We were told the type of meditation we practiced at this retreat was called Anapanasiti (mindfullness of breathing). This means being aware of our breath and trying to focus on it. This was my first serious attempt and it was not easy, but I didn’t give myself a hard time over it. Breathing in and out, trying to visualize the air going through my body and back out without allowing my mind to wander was a hard task. My mind went like this:
Breathe in. Out.
Hey, this feels so relaxing.
I wonder what bird makes that shrill sound.
What time is it?
Breathe in. Out.
Slow. Don’t rush.
Oh, I could do this all day….this is not difficult at all.
How many people are in this hall? There are five rows on the women’s side, and it must be like 12 people in a row, so that means….
Don’t think! Just breathe, in and out.
Well, you get the idea. I was actually amused to see how my mind went off in different directions. What I found really interesting was that I never got bored. I would remember things, visualize things and have these funny internal monologues, but it never got bored and I found this strange. I would get bored at home, with so many things to occupy me: books, movies, and that bottomless pit called THE INTERNET. But there, at the retreat, walking around barefoot under the trees, watching the birds and the bugs and just being in the moment, there was nothing but a feeling of contentment. I felt carefree, light, even happy.
It was during one of those moments when my mind was doing anything but meditating that I really understood what this retreat was about. What I got from this retreat was something so simple it could be condensed into one word: TIME. I had time to spend with myself, for myself, time away from distractions, from people (as much as I love people there are moments when I’d rather be alone), from obligations, from doing things that are expected of me. Time, this essential concept we never seem to get enough of these days. Time to breathe, to be alone, to be in the moment, to enjoy watching a bird or a tree. Having to follow a certain program every day can be monotonous but it also frees one’s mind from having to make decisions. You just go with the flow. It’s an incredible thing, to be able to give yourself to the present. Sometimes I forget that.
Next time: Ten things I’ve learned from this retreat
Hello, again. I know it’s been a year since my last post but here I am, writing about something I’m excited to share with you. Don’t ask me what happened this past year. A lot has happened and most of it wasn’t that great. But what you’re about to read was (great, I mean).
In May I went on a silent meditation retreat for 10 days. I’ve never tried meditation before and I’m not Buddhist but ever since I’ve read about Wat Suan Mokkh in a book of travel essays called “To Thailand With Love”, I’ve wanted to go see this place for myself.
Because this was going to be a really long post I decided to split it into several parts and add a new one every few days.
“A retreat at the Suan Mokkh monastery is an emotional roller-coaster. But if you survive it, it will cleanse your soul.”
For days I’ve been sitting in front of my computer trying to put my experience at Wat Suan Mokkh into words. It’s harder than I thought. There are so many things I want to say and to explain, but taken out of context they will probably mean little to anybody else. But I will try, hard as it is, to tell you about my personal experience.
Even though I’ve spent nearly half my life in a Buddhist country I haven’t really paid much attention to Buddhism as a way of life. Sure, I knew some of the rules and what’s appropriate and not, especially when visiting temples, but not much more than that. I know Thai people who go to meditate at temples for a few days, but these temples are in Bangkok and frankly this city is such a tumultuous place that somehow, in my mind, it seems like the last place suitable for meditation. However, when I read about Wat Suan Mokkh something clicked in my mind. This, I told myself, this is where I should go. The prospect of spending 10 days in silence, sleeping on a hard bed with a wooden pillow and eating two vegetarian meals a day appealed to me. Okay, maybe not the hard bed part with the wooden pillow but the rest of it, especially the silence. I wanted something different, a bit of adventure, something I haven’t done before. A boot camp for the mind, I thought. As it turned out, Hinshelwood’s words were spot on.
I did my research – read anything I could find about the place and watched videos of people talking about their experience. I booked my ticket and flew to Surat Thani province (an hour away by plane from Bangkok and about 8 hours by train) two days before the retreat started.
Arrival. Abandon all worries, all who enter here. Chaiya
I arrived at Wat Suan Mokkh on the 29 of April, at around 10 a.m. I figured this would give me time to familiarize myself with the surroundings and prepare for the days ahead. The retreat starts on the 1st of every month but participants at the retreat need to be there before 3 p.m. on the previous day. I was so excited about this journey I just wanted an extra day.
There are two separate places – one is the monastery “headquarters”, where anyone can stay for up to 7 days, and the other one, called International Dharma Hermitage, is where the 10-day retreat takes place. They are within walking distance of each other.
Wat Suan Mokkh or “The Garden of Liberation” lives up to its name. As soon as I passed through the gates at the entrance to the monastery, the world seemed to have altered. I was in awe, the kind you feel when you’re seeing something extraordinary. There were trees everywhere, tall and green and loud with cicadas. Monks and visitors walked around. Everyone was smiling. I felt welcomed and relaxed instantly. I was so immersed in the atmosphere I almost forgot to take pictures. My relaxed attitude was somewhat altered when I saw “the room” where I was going to spend the night. Sure, I’ve seen pictures online, but reality still took me by surprise. The bed was a slab of concrete, and the wooden pillow its worthy companion. My first night felt a bit like sleeping in a crypt, which is no surprise considering how many vampire stories I read.
That day I went to Chaiya with a couple of young American travelers I met at the monastery. A small town just a few kilometers away from the monastery, Chaiya’s most impressive feature is probably a coffee shop, which has Wi-Fi, fancy cakes and even fancier drinks. Think Starbucks on a smaller scale. There’s also a small train station, and the rest is just rows of town houses with shops on the ground floor.
At the monastery, bedtime is 9.30 p.m. Facilities include individual showers with cold water, there is only soap so you have to bring your own toiletries, and something I found extraordinary: there were NO BINS anywhere! Isn’t that a scary thought? Visitors are responsible for disposing of their own trash. I had a vision of myself carrying a plastic bag with me for ten days. What if there were no bins at the meditation place? As it turned out, there were bins at the Dharma Hermitage. That was a relief. It did make me more aware of the trash I produce and I did my best to keep that to a minimum.
Next time: 4 a.m. – Rise and shine. Meditation eludes me. Silence.
Ever since I read Letters from Thailand, I’ve wanted to go on a photo expedition to China Town. Last weekend I got my wish. I have been there before, many years ago but I don’t remember much.
Bangkok is a crowded city but China Town is absolutely packed. Old buildings stick together like pieces of a Rubick’s cube, the peeling paint of crowded shops, and everywhere you look, the ever present red and gold which is a favored combination among the Chinese people.
The air was heavy and sometimes I found it hard to breathe – a mixture of car exhaust, spices and burning incense sticks. A temple crammed between other buildings, a bright spot of color among the dull grey. Cats, walking, playing or sleeping under food carts. I chased them around with my camera but few of them did me the honor of posing. A Chinese woman smiled and called to me, pointing at something inside her shop. I went closer to have a look and found a mommy cat with her kittens, fragile little creatures that were just then having a milk lunch. The mother cat gave me a warning look so I stayed away, quickly snapping a few pictures before making my way out. I thanked the woman and she smiled at me.
Space is an issue in China Town and I found that especially when taking pictures there was not much room to turn around. The closely built houses had left narrow strips of pedestrian road, and I had to keep my elbows close and my camera closer, especially when passing by the food stalls with their uncovered pots. The suicide chickens (I know it sounds rather macabre but that’s the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw the cluster of hanging birds) are present everywhere and even though I was rather hungry I just couldn’t imagine eating that. I’m rather picky when it comes to food.
There are plenty of old buildings, most of them with shops on the ground floor selling a variety of merchandise, from traditional Chinese sweets, to pots, watches, small Buddha images, cooked food and pungent spices. I passed by a shop with people bent over small quantities of dried plants and something that looked like small twigs, sorting them in little groups, and I wondered if that was the local pharmacy.
Street vendors were out selling durian, the very smelly fruit (durian chips are much tastier in my opinion) and various snacks I’ve seen before but don’t know the names of.
It was rather claustrophobic, even though the weather was bearably hot, but the closeness of it all made me think on a giant ants’ nest and I had moments when I asked myself where all those people fit – there didn’t seem to be a lot of space and yet they were present everywhere and the partially-opened doors of the old buildings allowed for a quick look in the lives of their inhabitants. I felt like a voyeur, always looking, ready for a photo, trying to see in order to better understand the people. Here a tiny grandmother sitting on a chair inside the ground floor room, over there a row of wooden stairs, a glimpse of a Buddha image with the smoke of incense drifting out in the street, a pair of beautifully carved wooden chairs, people carrying boxes in and out of shops. Cats, gliding past, never in a hurry, and a panicked white rat trying to scuttle away from my approaching feet. He made my heart jump – rats and cockroaches have that effect on me.
I found my way out of the great maze and was assaulted by the hum of the traffic: tuk-tuks, motorcycles, buses, cars, a mixture of sounds, colors and smells, and in my mind I conjured the image of the mango tree and the red chair on the balcony and of space and quiet. Of home.
If asked to describe the city I live in I would say it resembles a great beehive, each little chamber like a secret place ensconced in the great construction of concrete, metal and wires. Bangkok is not a city made for walking, even if one is brave enough to fight the heat and slide through the crowded sidewalks, dodging the peddlers and the pots of food without their lids on, the uneven paving in places and the noisy tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis coming from all sides.
Strangely enough, there was none of that as I arrived at the Neilson Hays Library, located in one of the city’s busiest areas but mercifully enough on a side street that was almost deserted last Sunday morning. The building itself reminded me of the ones at home, in the area we call “the old city”, as it stood white and elegant and so very different from the other constructions I was used to, that it had the air of a familiar oasis in the harsh desert. The poster at the entrance announced “Bangkok Literary Festival” and I thought with a smile that I couldn’t have picked a more perfect day for my first visit.
I made my way inside, to the interior “garden” which was almost entirely occupied by stands of books for sale, and immediately to my right found the entrance to the library building and went in. A feeling of homesickness came over me as I saw the book cabinets crammed full of books, and I walked around for a while, recognizing an author here and there and finding a few interesting new ones whose works looked promising.
Right in the middle of the library there was a space arranged with chairs and a smiling little Asian man was talking about “The Art of Cook Book Writing”. I sat down at the edge of one chair and opened my booklet with the program for the day. The speaker was Ken Hom, a celebrity chef, whose love for food led to several books and a BBC tv series in 1984. The lecture was interesting even if a tiny bit pompous for my taste but enjoyable nevertheless. He spoke about his love for food, the traditional way of presenting it – “food cut up in squares or coming out of tubes is not my thing” (something along those lines – and I couldn’t agree more) and the importance of testing your food several times before you actually commit it to a book. He said another thing that stuck with me – if someone likes one of your recipes you’ve got a fan for life – and I remembered my friend Maggie who introduced me to Christmas cookies last December which ignited in me a passion for baking.
After the lecture I went into the Rotunda Gallery, a small circular room with paintings on the walls and an inscription right above the door. When I came out another lecture was about to start, and the speaker was a writer whose books I’ve seen in the local bookstores but somehow never felt inclined to buy: Stephen Leather. I spent another few minutes going around the shelves, taking pictures, looking at some of the magazines on the tables, and just enjoying myself.
I left with a pang of regret but also happy that I discovered a nice little refuge in the great hot beehive that is Bangkok, one that I would definitely go back to every now and then.
*Click on the photos to enlarge.