The following is my personal account of my time at this monastery, not Gav’s. His experience was quite different to mine.
So after Pai we decided to go to a Buddhist Monastery for a week, we first heard about this place when we were in Bangkok and Ronan was about to go there from Chiang Mai. It is a place that teaches Vipassana meditation (or Mindfulness Meditation) to both Thai and Westerners in English (with some Thai). Mindfulness is quite hot right now, especially if the Guardian is anything to go by! There have been a slew of articles in the last few months, related to jobs, school kids, depression as well as opinion pieces on the hype surrounding it and most recently this comment piece. All from one newspaper and that’s only a handful! See? Super hot right now. Most of these are from the “inner smile” standpoint not the non-self one we were about to learn though.
Although our choice to go here wasn’t based on the current new age fashion, we were going there primarily for the challenge, to learn a bit about the religion from a cultural standpoint as we had been travelling in Buddhist countries for quite some time and to save money as it was donation only so the suggestion was to either bring food or in our case we donated some clothing (after we were finished) and a small cash donation to cover our stay. If you couldn’t afford to give anything you could contribute by doing chores (in the spare time detailed below).
While we were in Chiang Mai we had picked up our lay person clothing in one of the monastery shops. The clothing looked a bit blue/purple but we were assured that they were in fact the white clothing worn by the lay people.
We had planned to leave Pai on a Saturday by moped and split our stuff so that we had one rucksack -with a backpack inside so our stuff would be separated for the monastery as we would be in separate accommodation and leave our other bag at the guesthouse in Pai. On Saturday morning however we were greeted with an ominous grey sky and as we walked into Pai for breakfast (and to get the bike) it started raining. We figured it was just a light shower but as we tucked into our burgers from Café de Pai (for delicious flesh would be denied to us for the next seven days), the heavens opened and it lashed it down….for ages! By the time we had finished brunch we decided it would be too dangerous to do the mountain pass as we would likely encounter more rain so bikeless we went back to the hotel and add on another night, the owner thought this was hilarious! So we unpacked again and repeated the entire morning the following day only more successfully as we actually managed to leave.
The road to the monastery between Pai and Mae Hong Son, is more of the same lush scenery and winding roads we saw on the way to Pai, in fact some spots were even more spectacular and after a leisurely 2 hours we found ourselves at the entrance to Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery.
What an entrance it was! From the road it is a 1.5 km drive to the temple main entrance which is flagged by two huge karst mountains covered in lush foliage with an immaculately kept flat valley of gardens, ponds, trees, air plants and huge lawns.
We arrived just after 3pm (free time) and we greeted by what turned out to be the junior monk. He registered us and explained what was expected of us for the time we were in the monastery- basically respect the monks and Buddha, attend all sessions and contribute to the community (do some cleaning-minimum cleaning your kuti or hut and the area around it), don’t go to the other sex’s terrace or kuti, no public displays of affection. Also meat, alcohol and drugs were banned from the monastery (though this was not an issue for us).
The layperson in charge of the accommodation wasn’t around so we were brought to the Abbot for introductions and for him to assign our kutis.
Gav was assigned kuti 5, and I was put in 36- with clothing (we had that already) and bedding to be provided once the lady returned from her trip offsite.
So I settled into my massive kuti- with my hot showers and two toilets and all the space and gave it a clean. We then had our first session starting with chanting and meditation for 2 hours. For me this session was a bit of a washout as I still had no bedding so rather than focusing on the present moment and my breathing etc I spent the whole time worrying about how I was going to nothing but a sleeping bag liner and trying to work out what I could use in my bag to keep myself warm since I’d moved most of my stuff into Gav’s bag back at the guesthouse. So after a rather uncomfortable 40 mins of seated meditation while I worried excessively I managed to ask one of the monks who sorted it out for me so within 5 mins I finally had my mattress (think roll mat), a blanket and the smallest pillow known to man. It was not the most comfortable but as I was close to the entrance the monastery dogs kept me awake barking- they seemed to enjoy the echo off the mountain and I had a massive male gecko outside that was calling all night. My first night however wasn’t as bad as Gavs..
Poor Gav had gone with the monk to kuti 5 only to discover that someone else was already in there and the monk put him into kuti 1- the oldest kuti on site. While my one had no glass in the windows but mosquito screens, poor Gav had no glass and no screens and a very small mosquito net with holes in it in the centre and questionable (but ample) bedding, cold shower and Asian toilet and no lock on the door. He also had the added bonus of the gong and drum for summoning people for the various community activities (see below), on the one hand this meant he didn’t have to leave his kuti until this was sounded (I showed up 30 mins before time) but on the other hand it did mean that it was quite loud in his kuti at these times. He also had two massive female geckos, his reluctant flatmates I called them, which I enjoyed hearing about but they did crap everywhere luckily they landed on the mosquito net so could be cleaned easily.
The following morning bright and early after a poor night’s sleep saw our first full day and our daily schedule for the week was as follows (you were to try to be mindful at all times):
5 am– Wake up, be mindful. Practice individual meditation. (shower,get dressed, etc)- (the kitchen needed help from 5.15 am – we never made that one…)
6.30 am– Rice offering to monks, followed by breakfast.
7-8 am– free time/cleaning up
8-10 am Group meditation- Vipassana (walking, sitting, lying down).
10-10.30 am– bringing down lunch/preparing offering
10:30 am– Offering lunch to monks followed by main meal for the rest of the community ( no eating after midday)
11-12.30 pm– free time/chores
1-3 pm– Group meditation- Vipassana (walking, sitting, lying down)
3 pm– free time (or more chores if you fancy)
4 pm– Community chores: sweeping the grounds, cleaning the sala, monastery areas, laundry (note: while cleaning be mindful)
5 pm– Relax time Afternoon tea (no Eating-this was not enforced as we saw many folks tucking into mangos, pot noodle and crisps)
6/6.30 pm-7.30/8 pm– Evening Chanting and meditation
8 pm-10 pm– Practice individual meditation in kuti. Lights go out around 8.30/9pm
The first full day we were there I found incredibly lonely- Gav was always in his kuti- they had books available so he was reading up about meditation and Buddhism-and shot off after every meal or activity. Everyone else, although very pleasant, were in their own head space being mindful or were being silent so for the first day finding my feet wasn’t the nicest experience. It reminded me of the first day of school as a child where you hadn’t a clue what was going on.
However after you went through it once it was a lot easier- plus knowing how hard it was we tried to help any new people we saw who looked a bit lost.
Also on the first morning I did try help out with breakfast when I rocked up at 6 am but got a very curt response from the cook so didn’t try after that- she was a bit scary. So we started the day properly at 6.30 am with a rice offering to the monks, most days they started with the men first but on our last morning they started with the women first.
After the morning blessing the monks retired to the library and additional food was brought to them by the Thai lay women, we then would wait for breakfast. Often it was a simple affair of cabbage stew/potato curry or pumpkin curry and rice depending on what was donated. As we were there during Buddhist Lent however the day we left we got an amazing breakfast! It was quite an equal community with men and women queuing first on odd and even days.
After breakfast you got a bit of free time, which was nice for a wander around the grounds, or read one of the books available on mindfulness and Buddhist teachings, do some cleaning or wander around collecting the fallen ripe mangos that litter then lawns near the lay accommodation.
The first meditation session would start with a brief 20 minute lesson on some aspect of mindfulness, what to concentrate on for the session or something similar a brief relaxation and then we would get up off our cushions and would form an orderly line-monks first, then men, then nuns (there were none there when we were) and then at the end the women. Then we would have a 40 min walking meditation around the small garden. On completion we would return to the hall for seated meditation, often there would need to be a toilet break in between, which was fine but I found the minute I spoke to someone/or they spoke to me I’d lose my focus for a while. The seated meditation would last 40 minutes-it was quite uncomfortable, but then this was followed by lying down meditation, for 20 mins. For the first few days I’m sure I fell asleep doing this.
After the first session there was a brief break before the lunch offering, during which either the men or women did the offering depending on who the Abbott chose. Shortly after a discussion and a short meditation (which was torture if you were really hungry) we had a lovely lunch- again this varied in variety.
After lunch we had our second session- of the three types of meditation, with a short talk on Dharma or body awareness in mediation.
Following this the afternoon passed quite quickly, free time, community cleaning. After the first day Gav and I used to clean paths together – it was during our first session of this that the abbot came to chat with us and gave us a bracelet each and as it was hot– the abbot gave us a strawberry green tea drink each, it tasted gorgeous there with our (almost) sugar free palates..not so good once we left and were back in Chiang Mai).
After cleaning we had a bit of free time for coffee- this is normally the time we saw people eating pot noodles from the nearby shop, crisps or fruit. We actually had no problem with not eating from midday.
Then it was evening chanting, and a seated meditation as the sun went down. Followed quite swiftly by bed.
Ok so sounds not too bad eh?
Half way through the first day, I was moved from my plush huge room with hot shower to my own hut- complete with wooden bed and cold shower. After the first day this wasn’t too bad and you got used to it.
The first night in this new hut was ok, and the second day was my best day. After this I stopped sleeping well and was getting more and more progressively tired, I was kind of done after 5 days, just out of tiredness and as I was so tired my back started killing me. The days went buy quite fast though and all of a sudden it was the 6th day. Also every day there were people coming and going, it worked well with Buddhist philosophy of impermanence/change (anicca) but to me it reminded me a lot of my last job where you just got used to having someone around and all of a sudden they were gone. After a few days you got used to it though. Likewise the suffering (dukka) experienced in meditation, it got slightly easier each day but only in the morning sessions- in the later sessions my tiredness kicked in. I enjoyed the experience but being so tired did take the gloss of it a bit. The monks were great though, the scenery was fantastic and the food was pretty good but by the end I was glad to have completed the 7 days there and was ready to leave. It was an interesting experience in very beautiful surroundings and we are both glad we did it.
On our last morning, we finished up our visit with the morning rice offering and breakfast and then packed up our stuff, cleaned our clothes and kutis, took a few last pictures, said goodbye to the abbot and then headed off.
I have to say it was quite an adjustment! We were sick of each other within a few hours (we were both exhausted)! To diffuse the situation I ended up having to go out for a massage to fix my back as I felt like I was hunched over, after a good Thai massage (at the aptly named Masterly Massage) I was able to stand up straight again. A good nights sleep sorted us out and we eased back in to normal chaotic day to day living.
To get back to Chiang Mai, we hoped to go by moped again but it was going to be an extra 500 B for a one way hire-they like the bikes to stay in Pai- so we got the bus back. A whole 2.5 hours with a Chinese girl throwing up at every sharp bend in the road, poor thing. we were very glad finish that journey.