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Category Archives: From The Land of Smiles
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.
Songkran, or Thai New Year, starts today. From the 13th to 15th of April, there will scarcely be a dry spot or person in the entire kingdom.
Originally, I was told by various Thai people, Songkran was celebrated by pouring water over the elders’ hands, a gesture meant to convey paying respects. Also, people would gently splash water on their family, neighbors and friends. This was, and still is, a good time to make merit at a temple, either through donations or simply by praying for one’s ancestors. These days, however, things have gone full on crazy.
While I enjoy a holiday just as much as the next person, it’s not fun to walk down the street just to be drenched head to toe in ice water, some of it mixed with baby powder. I have been splashed while in a bus that had open widows, on the street, and once a guy armed with a water gun made a grab for the taxi I was in. Luckily the taxi driver locked the doors and I was safe but for a moment I saw myself forced to take an unwanted shower.
I get it, it’s the hottest month of the year, the water symbolizes washing away the old year, bringing good luck and leaving you clean for the upcoming one. For most people it’s fun and fun is good but with the risk of sounding like the Grinch, why should I be included? Why can’t people just splash others who look like they want to join in this kind of fun?
Last year I was on Koh Chang, an island on the eastern side of Thailand. Husband and I had rented a motorcycle and we were driving on the winding road, extremely steep in parts, much like a roller coaster. It was a great trip, and so far we had managed to elude the rain showers that broke every now and then. Until, in the afternoon, on our way back, we saw crowds waiting on both sides of the road and I knew then we had made the wrong assumption that we were going to get away dry. We didn’t. They were very thorough, and as other motorists slowed down to avoid running over people, we were forced to do the same and got a thorough washing down. Not even my phone and camera inside the backpack I was carrying between me and my husband got away. Ice water, powder, the whole package were poured down on us from buckets, sprayed from water guns and full on drenched from several water hoses. There was no way but to bear it and drive away as soon as we could on the only road. Nobody was splashing water on the beach.
The area we live in celebrates Songkran a week later, so there’s the added joy of having to go through this again. Last year when we ventured out by car, the only vehicle to use if you want to stay dry, we spent more than two hours driving at a snail’s pace through cars, motorcycles and pedestrians in various stages of undress walking the streets in various stages of sobriety. They were armed to the teeth with water containers, and all of them were drenched and painted with white powder.
This year I’m staying home. I have some great books to read, movies to watch, and enough food for a few days. There are enough things to occupy my time with while the city is waging its water war. Happy Thai New Year or Sawadee Pee Mai!
I’m a little late with my Christmas post this year. I had planned to do it yesterday, but when I was done with my “experiment” I wanted nothing more than a shower and the bliss of lying down with a book in my hands.
When Christmas comes around this part of the world, it’s a rather melancholy affair for me – thinking of family and friends who live thousands of kilometers away, the holiday visits and symbolic gifts, the tree twinkling with lights, and coming in from the cold, hands all red and frozen, thawing slowly in the aromatic warmth of the kitchen where various culinary delights are cooking or baking, well, all that is apt to put me in a less than cheerful mood. Not that I miss the cold, far from it, and I do have a Christmas tree (plastic, of course), but still it wasn’t enough to make me feel like the holidays have arrived. So, I asked myself, what should I do? Why, bake, of course!
As a child I have often watched my grandmother, aunt, and my mother bake a traditional dessert for Christmas. It’s basically a roll of dough filled with Turkish delight of various colors, or ground walnuts, spices and baking essences – rum is the favorite one for this particular dessert. There was no house without it at Christmas, and in those times, the women would follow their own particular recipes, and they were all slightly different but amazingly delicious. Just the thought of cutting into that rich sweetbread and releasing those wonderful aromas, made me nostalgic. So I decided to bake one, or several, and see how they would turn out. And bake them I did. It wasn’t difficult, but being my first time with this recipe, there were things I hadn’t considered and had to speed things up a bit. Nevertheless, a few hours later, when it was all done, and the baked dessert was cooling, and the smell was in every room, I finally felt like it was Christmas. Did I enjoy the whole baking experience? Very much. Would I do it again? I’d like to, next Christmas!
Photo of the day: waiting for the flood to pass through Bangkok so things can get back to normal. While several areas in the city are flooded, other parts are dry but no one knows for how long. The fact that the high tide is also due this weekend doesn’t make things easier. If I celebrated Halloween I might have gone for a mermaid costume. Or a fish.
Later on, I went out to meet a friend. During a visit to the ladies’ I saw this sign and it made me smile. I needed that.
The time has come, at last, to go on a little trip. After months of dreaming, days of planning, here I am, just hours away…if the weather doesn’t go crazy at the last minute (the floods are still expected to hit Bangkok these days and it’s raining as I’m typing this).
The bag is packed, my camera is ready. Being a fan of www.bookcrossing.com, I’m also taking two really amazing books to release along the way. Paulo Coelho’s “11 Minutes” will be my book to read on this trip, if I have enough energy left at the end of the day.
See you next weekend when I get back.
The amount of time I spend in a taxi over the course of a day can vary between 40 minutes to 2 hours or a little more than that, depending on how bad the traffic is and whether my return trip also takes place in a taxi or if I use public transport. Having no car to call my own – not that I would want to drive one in this chaotic city, thank you very much – and still wanting to make it to work at a reasonable hour, I have little choice. So in the mornings, instead of switching between various means of transportation I choose the easier way – the bright pink, yellow, blue or plain green cars cruising the streets with a TAXI sign on top and a red light at the front. Being in a taxi everyday can be interesting, fun, scary or downright creepy, much like riding a roller coaster. The taxi drivers I meet range from the silent one to the chatterbox, from the I want to practice my English with you to the one who’s trying to teach me Thai, from the grunt man (because that’s the only sound he makes) to the singer (let’s turn up the radio and sing along, in Thai, of course).
Yesterday I was in a hurry. After a hectic day, wanting to take my aching head home as soon as possible, I hailed the first taxi that passed on the street outside my work and hopped in. The driver didn’t say anything at first so I told him the address in Thai and made myself comfortable and ready to enjoy my book. He asked me something in Thai, but his words were drawn out and spoken carefully, not like the quick jabbering I’m used to hearing. My reply seemed to satisfy him and so once again I turned to my book and lost myself in it. I was reading Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, and this is a very hard book to read in a taxi. Why? Well, because every few pages I just wanted to cry, and not silent tears that can be wiped before they even have the chance to slide carefully down the hills of my cheeks, but a hearty loud cry session, the kind you do in the bathroom with the door closed and the water running. Oh well. Every few minutes I had to take a break and look out the window and breathe deeply.
Me no speak English good, I heard the driver say. I tried to put my reply into a smile and we seemed to understand each other. He was very young, probably in his early twenties and he drove carefully, not in the quick jerks and stops that are the trademarks of most taxi drivers in Bangkok. A thought sprang to life in the back of my mind – there’s something strange about him, he talks funny, like he’s not from these parts, like he’s just learning the language. One or two questions later I was sure of it and my curiosity got the better of me so just before I got out of the car I asked him in my broken Thai: You’re not from here, are you? That’s what I’d like to think my words came out like but it was probably more along the lines of “You not Thai, huh?” He turned to me and offered a broad smile that made his eyes as round as two perfect circles, and then it was plain to see he didn’t look like a local either, made two fists of his hands and shaking the right one he said Thai, then the left and said Malay and brought them together, then pointed to his chest and said Thai. So, I thought, your mother is Thai and your father Malay, or the other way around. He pointed his index finger at me and then used it to draw an invisible circle in the air around his right ear and said, in his carefully spoken Thai – You notice, huh?
I smiled too and nodded, and it struck me how we had both tried to speak in a language that was not our own and how sometimes a simple smile is worth more than a hundred jabbering words put together. How wonderful it is that when words fail us, we can still speak, with our hands, our eyes, even with our smiles. Than even when we find it difficult to say the right words, the body language is sometimes enough. That even though we were both aliens, we found a common language.
One of the “perks” of living in a perpetually warm climate is the amount of creatures one discovers in one’s house. From the ants – who can be a royal pain, and who seem to like the cakes/muffins/cookies (take your pick) which I bake and leave out to cool and come back only to discover at least one has been invaded by the little black pests – to the snakes, rats, frogs and monitor lizards which can be found in the yard, most likely without their heads, as a result of their lost battle with the three dogs we have.
I still remember the day I saw a huge monitor lizard for the first time. It was sunning itself on the concrete wall that separated our house from the next one on the left, and the first thought that crossed my mind was, oh my God, what’s that crocodile doing there?!? I stared at it from behind the safety of a window, couldn’t help but admire its long body, small head and the tongue darting in and out of its mouth. That’s when I realized it wasn’t a crocodile. The mouth was too small and the snake-like tongue didn’t fit the picture either but in my panic I wasn’t thinking about such obvious details. Oh, to have a camera at that very moment! By the time I went downstairs it was gone – back to the green wilderness at the back of the house.
We have moved to another house since then, and the biggest excitement we’ve had so far was the nocturnal visit of a small rat that came to nibble on the fruits on the kitchen table. Bananas were his favorite and that was his undoing. We caught him in a cage, released him far from the house on a field and not long after he was back. Or maybe it was his brother, who knows. The bananas on the table didn’t lie. So we took out the cage again, caught him and took him even further away. He didn’t come back, I’m glad to say. As much as I liked Ratatouille (remember that movie?) this one didn’t quite fit the picture. And I doubt he could cook, that would have been just too good.
The gecko is by far my favorite “house guest”. Although in the beginning I found it creepy to live in a house with those little creatures running here and there (now don’t imagine hundreds but two or three would be a more accurate number), these days, after more than a decade, I find it quite amusing. Sometimes I catch them, holding them carefully, and just look at the little bit of grey life in my hand, its little heart beating wildly under the thin soft skin, the legs trying to scramble free and once it has escaped, it vanishes with the speed of which only those small creatures are capable of when frightened.
This morning I saw one of them behind a curtain in the house. I hoped it wouldn’t move while I went and got the camera. It didn’t, not much anyway, and the sound of the device didn’t scare it away. There it is, our little house guest.