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Category Archives: Travel
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.
Last weekend I took Stephen King to the beach. Now as I’m typing this I realize the title of the post may actually be the name of a drink, one of those sugary cocktails with a tiny umbrella stuck in the orb of a tofu eye (for a touch of horror) or maybe with the promise of a hangover of horror proportions. What do I know, I’ve never had a hangover. But I digress.
Husband and I decided it was time for a nice getaway to the beach and since space is now not a problem – gone were the days when we lugged our backpacks to the bus terminal – he packed Revival (hey, isn’t that another drink-worthy name? or a hangover cure?) by the same author and off we went for a blissful weekend of doing nothing but sit and read with the sound of waves breaking in the distance and the occasional horse carrying mostly children trotting along the shore.
The weather was overcast for most of the time since we are right in the middle of the rainy season but that was not a problem. I actually prefer it to the blinding scorching sunshine present the rest of the year.
We found a stone heart on the beach…
…and also a dead jellyfish which we inspected by touching the creature and discovering a tiny starfish right next to it which we promptly released into the sea because it was still alive and moving. My desire to take a picture was overruled by the desire to return the starfish to the sea while still alive.
We sat down on comfortable beach chairs under a big umbrella and proceeded to read. You can see I made some progress but not as much as I’d hoped. Hardboiled crime is not my favorite genre but we do amazing things for the authors we love.
On the road leading to the beach we stopped at this place because how could I not? I named it “the book shack”; it had mostly Dutch books for sale. The Dutch must read a lot. I barely saw any English books at the free book zone at our hotel or the book shack. We passed by it several times without seeing the owner or anybody near it for that matter.
I remembered this “mobile restaurant” from previous visits. The somtum, or spicy papaya salad, is deliciously hot and the grilled chicken legs and stick rice a great companion to one of the most famous Thai dishes. I asked the guy’s permission for a photo and he nodded and walked away.
On the same road I saw this sign and resisted the urge to scrawl Narnia under that last destination.
Khao Yai National Park is about two hours drive from Bangkok. My husband and I have visited the place once before but always wanted to go back and explore further. Famous for its waterfalls, jungle treks and wildlife (including leeches!), it’s a perfect spot for a quick holiday because it has open fields as well as jungle treks. Many treks can be done without a guide, and we did two, one short and one long, stopping along the way near the running water to admire some colorful butterflies. The longer trek through the jungle took us three hours one way; the road wound up and down, straight and easy to walk on, then blocked by fallen logs, then almost vertical so we had to climb, while other sections of the trail had steps, some man-made, some just tree roots and hard packed earth. Quite a few thorny plants, some at eye level. My long pants were very useful to keep me scratch free but not great to keep the leeches away, even if I had sprayed my legs and arms with insect repellent. They probably liked the orange flavor. I should have worn socks.
Many of the animals didn’t seem too bothered to see humans – the gibbons were quite friendly, climbing up on cars and even coming close to touch people and beg for food. A curious baby gibbon found a scorpion but kept well clear of it.
The deer were grazing in the open fields, and a couple of them came quite close to an information booth where a ranger was watching. It felt so out of this world to just sit in the car and see the animal a few meters away. It wasn’t afraid, just grazed placidly as in the distance a fawn was bleating, probably calling for its mother. When we came back by the same route the deer was sitting on the grass.
In the jungle we spotted a crocodile, sunning itself on a log, and a baby monitor lizard tentatively making its way out of the water. Gibbons jumped between trees above us, big millipedes scuttled on the path and above all, extremely loud cicadas sang various rhythms.
The waterfalls didn’t have that much water – it’s best to visit them during the rainy season which is still a bit away – but we enjoyed dipping our feet in the shallow water and laying down for a short nap on the rocks near the small Kong Kaeo waterfall. The most spectacular, Haew Narok Waterfall, is a sheer fifty-meter drop to a natural pool at the base. Visitor access is restricted to a wooden deck accessible after going down 175 steps. Walking down the steps felt like descending from a sky scraper with no walls. I felt a bit dizzy but held on to the rails and walked slowly. Climbing back up was even more challenging because some steps were almost vertical. The way to Haew Suwat Waterfall is straight through the jungle. One of the most famous waterfalls, it can be seen up close, as the terrain is not that rocky.
The best part of the whole trip was seeing the animals in their natural habitat. The weather was hot but not as hot as in the city, about 28 degrees Celsius, and plants kept us away from the sun – it was almost like going through a tunnel. We saw elephant droppings and near a suspended bridge a Giant Black Squirrel (that’s the name of the species) bigger than a cat, who successfully avoided my attempts at photographing it.
Another famous attraction of the area is watching the bats come out at sunset. We found a place to watch them, behind a temple, a few kilometers away from the park itself. Apparently there is a bat cave somewhere in the mountain and if you’re there at the right moment you can see them flying away. What’s impressive about it is not that you see the bats up close – in fact they’re so far away they resemble a wisp of smoke – but the fact that it takes about five minutes (I looked at my watch) for all of them to fly away from the cave in a long queue. I’m glad we had the opportunity to see them.
On our way back we stopped at Khao Yai Art Museum and saw bronze sculptures and lovely paintings by Thai artists. My favorite is a painting I called “Beautiful Death”. There’s something beautifully ugly about it, like a reminder of the ravages of time.
Home is such a thin word. So thin, and yet it can s t r e t c h between two continents. Maybe all thin words like this – hope, love – possess a flexibility that allows people to carry them everywhere, even across the oceans. But while hope and love can begin anywhere, home once had roots.
How do we define home – is it the place where we first saw the light of day, the place where we have lived most of our life, or the place where we live in at the moment? I’ve been asking myself this question for years.
Last month I was home – not the place I have lived in for more than a decade, or the one where I saw the light of day, but the one in between. My second home, perhaps that would be a good name for it.
I saw family and friends, went places, touched snow for the first time in years, ate way too much, slept erratic hours, visited bookstores and a big library, bought souvenirs. And I felt almost like a tourist, taking out my pocket camera to snap quick photos before my hands froze and I had to stop and search in my pockets for the warmth of my mittens. This is one thing I did not miss, the biting cold, the sudden departure from the 30 degree Celsius weather to temperatures below 0.
I found the city slightly changed – a bit more modern, cleaner, the people nicer. I was shocked by the number of pastry shops selling pretzels sprinkled with salt and poppy seeds, a popular snack which I indulged in nearly every day. I forgot how many such shops there were. I missed: bread, cheese, and the joy of walking without sweating in the first five minutes; mulled wine with a hint of pepper; Romanian books. I’ve read one in which a little old lady with a razor-sharp mind and the ability to deceive nearly everyone almost gets away with committing a crime. But then her cat spoils everything. I think Caroline would have enjoyed this book.
I visited a bazaar with all kinds of artsy things for sale and I took a photo of an old picture and I remembered M—l and his collection of vintage photographs he sometimes blogs about.
I had a great time. And I came back with some photographs and a handful of great memories.
On the third day of our holiday it started to rain – not a great day for photos. We had booked a tour to Mae Sai and The Golden Triangle. There’s not much to say about this day except for a few interesting bits and pieces: a visit to the beautiful White Temple with its own runway through “hell”, a trip to Laos where a taste of cobra whiskey was offered for free, some interesting souvenirs in Vietnam – beautifully carved masks, opium pipes and bone figurines, and a disappointing viewing of a “hill tribe village” that was about as real as a staged play. But the next day, everything got better. Much better.
Double click on the photos for a larger size.
I love elephants, these gentle giants with their slow movements, the huge trunk, the rough skin, their apparent docility and impressive strength. I had been on an elephant before, on a sort of “chair” used to take tourists for a walk in the jungle. They were quite safe, those contraptions, and all you had to do was sit down and enjoy the view. At this elephant camp, however, we were about to learn how to ride without one.
Kaitlyn and I arrived at the camp after about an hour drive from our hotel. The camp leader, Mr Woody, gave us an introductory talk about the life of elephants and how they are trained. The two necessary objects for training are a machete (to cut the food for the elephant) and a wooden stick with a hook at one end, to direct the animal. We were eight people that day, and were supposed to ride two on each elephant.
The morning was spent rehearsing commands, in Thai, for the elephants. To get on the elephant we said: bend your leg; then using the leg as a ladder, we said higher so we could climb up onto the animal’s back; with the hook we pulled gently on the right ear for going to the right, and left ear for the opposite direction; backwards proved to be useful when the elephant got sidetracked in the jungle and had to be brought to the path; stop, go don’t really need any explanations while walk slowly we didn’t have to use, thank God. The last thing you want when riding an elephant is for the animal to start running. Open your mouth was a command we used when feeding them bananas, which they couldn’t get enough of. Rule number one is never get close to an elephant without a mahout around. The mahout is the person who takes care of the elephant and they know the animals quite well.
After we each had our turn in practicing the commands, it was time for photos. One of the elephants was pregnant. An elephant carries its baby for 22 months before giving birth and Christine, the biggest elephant at the camp, was more than halfway through her pregnancy. I had never seen a pregnant elephant before. There’s a first for everything.
Everybody got on the elephants and then my turn came. You, come on up, said one of the mahouts and even though I love elephants, I’m always wary of them at first – they look well trained but then elephants are BIG. And a bit scary.
Getting on the elephant was easier that I thought. Right hand grabbing the ear, and with the left pulling the skin at the back of the animal’s leg, then climbing up. One can sit right behind the animal’s head (which made me dizzy because of the swaying) or on its back (more comfortable). Getting down proved to be more difficult, at least for me, and I kept sliding clumsily instead of retracing my steps. Oh well.
After lunch the elephants took us for a ride through the jungle. Not far from the camp, gentle green hills surged forward, thick clumps of vegetation with walking paths going through. Halfway through the ride it started to rain and that slowed us down a little. We arrived at a wooden pavilion, a sort of house on stilts, without doors or windows. After a short break, in which we fed the elephants more bananas (and got our hands super sticky in the process), we climbed back on and made our way downhill. The rain had turned the path to mud and puddles made our trip slower than usual. Kaitlyn and I rode on Christine, and I would look at how she took her time when the terrain proved too slippery. I was a bit nervous but it was amazing to see how careful she chose her next step, her trunk swaying, the mahouts shouting encouragements while I tried not to slid forward too much (for the return trip I was sitting on the back of the animal).
Once we got out of the jungle the elephants made straight for a big pond where they were given a bath with big scrubbing brushes. They seemed to enjoy it, lying down on their side, the trunks submerged in the water, letting the people scrub away on their skin. Apparently they must have two baths a day to cool off and kill the parasites.
The weather had cooled down considerably and since it was raining again, I just sat under a huge umbrella and watched. And took pictures. It looked like everybody had fun.
After coming out of the water it was picture time again before walking the five minutes back to camp. We changed into our dry clothes (the camp had provided t-shirts and pants for the day) and hopped back into the car for the ride back to the hotel.
By this time next year Christine will have had her baby. I wonder what the little elephant would be like. Maybe I can go back next year and see. That would be something!
Double click on the photos for a larger size.
Five wonderful days in which I saw how silk was made, learned how to ride and command an elephant, hiked to a waterfall, got licked by a cow, crossed the border into Laos, visited The Golden Triangle and fell in love with Pai, a small town with a very laid-back attitude.
Day 1 – Chiang Mai
I’ve heard only good things about this city. Everyone I talked to encouraged me to go there for a visit. It’s surprising that I didn’t get there sooner, considering the fact that I’ve been living in Thailand on and off for more than ten years but somehow the beach was always where I would end up on my holidays.
The trip was short – a little over an hour by plane. It was almost as if we hadn’t left Bangkok at all. Chiang Mai is in the north of the country and it’s one of the most visited cities in Thailand. Once there my friend Kaitlyn and I left our luggage at a hotel and went to visit the famous Doi Suthep temple.
It was a cool day, so very different from Bangkok days where the heat and humidity can make it challenging to survive without air conditioning. The temple was up on a hill and we had to climb a number of stairs before we reached the entrance. Proper attire is required: no short skirt or uncovered shoulders. Kaitlyn was offered a sarong to cover her legs, as she was wearing shorts.
We walked around for a couple of hours, took some pictures and admired the view from above. The temple is beautiful but nothing special, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to them along the years.
On the way back we stopped at a silk factory where we got to see the whole process of making silk, from the actual silkworm to the looms where the fabric was woven. Here a bamboo basket with worms eating, there another one with cocoons, then the cocoons being boiled and the silk thread being spun on a wheel and then bleached with natural dyes. I wanted to touch a worm and I did, gently. It was very smooth and soft. It lifted its head as if wondering what was that giant creature (me) and what did it want (just to see what it felt like). No silkworm was harmed. 🙂
I had never seen the whole process before and I found it interesting.
We arrived back at the hotel tired but not ready to sleep yet. A visit to the Sunday Market proved to be a great idea. I’m a big fan of handmade products and I bought a cloth-covered notebook, a bracelet and a…heck, I don’t know what it is but Kaitlyn found a very apt name: the bamboo jar. It’s light as a feather and I had never seen one before. The saleslady told me it can be used to store foods like boiled rice. I thought it would be great to use as a piggy bank or to keep my bills from buying books. Maybe someone can come up with a better idea. 🙂
For dinner we stopped at a local restaurant and tried Khao Soi, a special dish served in northern Thailand. A big bowl of yellow noodles in a rich coconut broth, slightly sweet and spicy and very delicious. I wondered how come I’ve never tasted that before.
Here are some pics. Next post, day 2: learning how to ride an elephant.
Double click on the photos for a larger size.