Sat 13th – Mon 15th Oct
So being in Thailand and there being so many retreats I thought I’d looking into going to one and connecting with myself. After not doing ayahuasca in Peru, I have thought since then that I wd suss something out here instead.
Whilst in Chiang Mai I met with a guy who works at a retreat in Pai but I was put off by them practising Osho Kundalini meditation because I’d seen the Netflix series Wild Wild Country. I’m sure it isn’t like this now but it was enough to put me off and as a beginner into the field of meditation, I thought this wd be a step too far.
Whilst at my hostel in Pai, I met a few people that had been to the Wat Pa Tham Wua Monastery and all completely sang its praises – from the beautiful location and grounds, to the meditation itself and that it isn’t massively strict in its enforcement. The other key difference to other places is that when it says it’s donation based – it is completely that. You put money in an envelope at the end of your stay. Others say donation based but charge 1200 to 1600 baht per night.
You also don’t book this place. You just catch the bus to Mae Hong Son which costs about £3 from Pai bus station and takes about 2 hours. Just tell the driver where you’re going and he makes the stop – they’re used to it.
From getting off the bus, there’s a guy from Spain going too, we make the 1km walk up the path from the road towards the monastery. It’s definitely a secluded place, surrounded by 2 typical Thai mountains and in plush forest grounds with a river and waterfalls. Just the ticket for a bit of time out and meditation.
On walking up I realise I’m in shorts and vest and quickly grab the pashmina I bought to cover up. I’m so las I did as when we arrive,everyone is in the middle of a meditation session. There must be well over 100 people in there. Im quite shocked, I thought there wd be far far less. Maybe it’s because it’s the weekend…
The head man who seems to manage the place beckons us over, tells us to leave our things and go join in…wtf…I’ve no idea idea what I shd be doing. Oh well, in at the deep end hey!
A Thai woman beckons me over and leads me to a space on the floor with spare cushions. I follow suit and sit cross legged like everyone else and hold my hands in the prayer position. When everyone else leans forward and bows and puts their head to the floor, I do the same! This bit is soon over then all the men sit on cushions facing the monks. The women queue in rows of 3 facing the head monk. In turn each row of women passes a traybof food ir drinks to the abbot then the guys pass it down the line to the monks, each one taking some as it goes down the line.
Once each monk has all their food, we join the queues (separate ones for men and women) to get our lunch. It’s a strict vegetarian diet as monks don’t eat meat but it is seemingly plentiful. I’d read to eat a lot at lunch because as monks aren’t allowed to eat after midday, we follow the same rules therefore, at 1130am, this is my last meal of the day!
I get chatting to few girls over lunch…each having been here varying lengths of time and all really like it. Once we’ve washed our dishes, I check in and get assigned my room. Luckily I’d read about privates so quickly ask for one and manse to get the last! after getting my key, I receive my bedding and get myself kitted out in my whites!
The privates are cute little wooden shacks set the beautiful grounds but are very very basic.
The bed looks less than comfortable but at least there is one as I’m not sure if monks sleep on the floor…
There are also a few friends to greet me in the bathroom! Welcome to nature!
There’s no time to lay around. Here runs on a tight schedule
and the gong is going for 1pm meditation. This is in the form of one of the Buddhist beliefs on beauty and materialism. About how you can have all the things money can buy but still be unhappy on the inside. It resonates a bit with me but I can’t see myself changing the habits of a lifetime just yet!
Next is walking meditation. Led by the monks,
followed by the men, then the women.
We walk barefoot around the ground – this is because Buddhists believe that by being barefoot, feet connected to the ground, is a way of keeping close and connected to earth and nature. Wearing shoes prevents this. As we walk, your meant to focus, as in really focus on walking. No thoughts just focus on the body, on ur legs, on ur feet and putting one in front of the other. Separating mind from body. This sounds quite simple but as walking is something we do without thinking, thinking and thoughts are something we are naturally stoned to doing whilst walking! I manage it for very brief moments but my mind does keep wandering off in various directions – something the monks refer to as ‘monkey mind’.
After the walking part, it’s back to the temple and it’s time for lying down meditation. Having had a bad nights sleep the night before in the hostel dorm, I focus on my breathing and promptly fall asleep! I thought I must have been quite good at this bit until I later read that apparently this is wrong and there are techniques you shd use to prevent this happening! This is strange for me as the only time I ever try meditating is to get myself to sleep!
With this session over, I grab some books from the library. I’m interested in learning but the books are just so badly written that none of the explanations make much sense to me. Others seem to love the guidebook they suggest you read but for me it’s just too wordy on concepts that make no sense.
I meet a Sanji, a girl I met over lunch and we go for a walk around the grounds.
There is a shop on sight that sells pot noodles and snacks etc. Just because the monks don’t eat after midday doesn’t mean we have to abide by those rules if you can’t. It is however shut for some reason which is good as I want to try and follow this bit.
Break is over all too soon and the bell rings for 6pm meditation. I get the book that everyone seems to have and wonder what’s in store now. The abbot tells us to turn to whatever page and then the chanting starts!
Oh dear god….this is so not me! This isn’t helping me meditate at all and is slowly grinding my nerves.
After an hour it finally stops then it’s an hour of vipassana – silent meditation.
This is ok, it’s kind of peaceful as it’s dark and they turn off all the lights. The only thing stopping my meditation taking on any real flow is sitting cross legged on the floor for so bloody long. How the hell do people sit like this for so long, I can’t stop fidgeting and the only thing I’m currently mindful of is the fact my legs are aching and I have a numb arse!
After each meditation there’s a chance to speak to the monks and ask questions. To try and get the most of my time here I ask how to combat monkey mind. I am told it’s normal, our minds haven’t been trained to stop so it’s a new form of exercise so to speak…but for the mind. I’m given a few techniques to follow so hopefully tomorrow they’ll help.
Finally I can go to bed. I’m looking forward to a good nights sleep but by god, this is the most uncomfortable bed I’ve had in nearly 9 months. Cue – a dreadful nights sleep and an early start.
We have to be down in temple for 0620. I’m given a bowl of rice and follow suit and sit around the perimeter of temple.
Men sit on one side where the monks go to first then the women fill the rest. As the monks walk around each of us, everyone gives each monk a spoonful of rice into their big dishes known as alms.
I thought they wd go hungry but when I see the amount of rice in each bowl I wonder how they’ll ever eat it all…and how they’ll fit in lunch only a few hours later! Guess they’re used to it I suppose.
This process is known as Tak Bat, and like lunch yesterday is done as a way for Thai people to give back by offering food to Buddhist monks who help teach others to be good and virtuous. It’s not charity in the way we know it. Thai people see it as a virtue. Giving alms to monks is about showing goodness to others and doing good deeds. Once each monk has visited every person and got their spoon of rice we can joint our respective queues and get our breakfast. It’s weird having rice and veg for breakfast buts that’s all there is so it’s case of just tucking in.
After breakfast it’s pretty much straight into morning meditation. We start with vipassana
but I can’t concentrate or focus at all. Whilst sitting cross legged, monkey mind kicks in big time with my thought process following along these lines…oh, looks like I shd shave my legs! What’s that lump on my foot? It’s beautiful outside, wd be nice to sit out there. I wonder how much longer this will last, I got a million and one things I cd be doing. Oh look, a lizard on the ceiling! Try as I might to focus on my breathing and the mantra I learned yesterday, nothing is working. Monkey mind follows me into the garden and our walking meditation. We take a different route around the grounds and all I can think is god I’m bored and why on earth are we walking this slow, come on guys…speed it up a bit!
I even count how many people are here – I’m number 71 and there are a good 20 or so people behind me (difficult to count them as I’m meant to be meditating and looking ahead)! Everyone else seems to be in the zone and I’m feeling much like a fraud for being here! The more I try and use the techniques I was given yesterday, the worse it gets, then I remember reading in my book yesterday that forcing it to happen is the wrong thing to do too and against Buddhism rules….god, I can’t win.
Back in the temple and the lying down meditation I enjoyed yesterday isn’t helping either. I think I’m so frustrated by the previous 2 that I just want this session to be over. The abbot, as interesting and funny as he sometimes is, has now completely lost me and is talking in broken English about a smelly skunk! Thank goodness this session is finally over!
After this it’s a short break and the whole lunch procession of yesterday begins again. I’m sat on a chair this time and as I get comfy I’m quickly approached by someone to say you can’t cross your legs by sitting! Ooops…I didn’t know that one…no offence meant.
A lovely girl from France I met yesterday is doing the full silent retreat. It’s by choice and those doing it wear a badge saying silent and happy. I think about giving it a go but with all the meditation we’re doing anyway, I feel I’m silent enough for pretty much most of the day. It’s only breakfast, lunch and the afternoon break where we get to talk anyways.
After lunch we have a short break and so I go for a walk with 2 lovely girls I met. I am shown to Buddha’s cave which is beautiful and spiritual.
The second part that tells the story of Buddha is quite cool.
Then it’s straight in afternoon meditation. This goes much better than this morning. I still get monkey mind but am able to control it a bit better and refocus. The walking and lying down meditation is also quite good again. I am however not getting as much out of this whole experience as I thought and my biggest monkey mind thought is that I cd be doing so much more with my time than being a phoney Buddhism follower.
With thoughts of a premature departure, I plan on doing tomorrow mornings meditations and leave in the afternoon. I spend the afternoon getting my stuff together ready. Despite not liking the chanting meditation at all, I decide to give it another go.
I get cramp sitting and stretch out my legs. Again I’m approached and politely told this time not to point my toes to Buddha. I’m really sorry and didn’t mean to offend (again) but it was either a leg stretch or ruin everyone’s meditation by yelping in pain with cramp!
After 50 minutes I can’t take no more and discreetly leave. I can meditate, be with my own thoughts in my room which translates into planning my next few days after leaving the retreat.
The volunteer I spoke to said he wd look to get me a lift to Chiang Mai with some people heading back tomorrow but the fear of being stuck here prompts me to make the decision to leave on the 8am yellow taxi van.
Morning comes and I say goodbye to a few people, hand in my key and leave a tidy donation then wait with everyone else for the songthaew which arrives around 8am and costs 100 baht.
There’s a fair few of us leaving today. The monks all line up near where we’re waiting ready to start 8am meditation and as they walk off, the abbot stays with us and wishes us well, he hopes we’ve learned a lot, will keep practicing and return again some time. He very sweetly gives us all a parting gift too.
I’m a bit disappointed in myself for leaving after such a short stay but it just wasn’t for me. Maybe if I stayed longer I wd have broken through the barrier and got more out if it but with only 2.5 months left travelling, it was weighing on my mind that I’ll get more out of that than I will here. In the end, that was the clincher. I did however learn a bit about meditation and how to use it and they are the principles I will take forward with me so it wasn’t at all a waste of time. I have since read that maybe being a complete novice isn’t the easiest way to settle into life here…I didn’t understand all ‘the knower’ stuff and found it extremely difficult to separate body from mind. I think a few one to one sessions to understand the principles wd have been good to help me put into practice during the sessions.
I would like to thank Wat Pa Tham Wua Monastery for my time spent there and for letting me experience and be a part of your retreat, your beliefs and practices. It is truly an awesome place that many many people get a lot out of….myself included but maybe just not as much as most. For any newbies out there reading this, please don’t be put off by my post or my experience…it is a great place to give both meditation and Buddhism a try….you’ll get something out of it.
It’s time now to get back to Pai in our little crammed yellow truck. One thing that strikes me on the journey back is how everyone suddenly becomes more normal and personable once they’re back into normal clothes and out of their meditative states and the journey back is full of conversation – a lot about wanting a cigarette and a beer…all of which are banned at the retreat!
Note – In case some people question the use of phones and cameras at the retreat – they are allowed, it isn’t offensive and the monks are ok with it too. Yes, it might have broken my meditation and concentration…but for my part, I only used when monkey mind had set in and well and truly won!