For some time now, I’ve known about this monastery/Vipassana meditation center in northern Thailand. I stumbled across it’s name in a book I was reading few years ago. It sounded very interesting right away and I thought to myself – maybe I’ll go there when I go back to Thailand some day.
Few years have passed, and my dream of buying a one way ticket to Thailand was finally coming true. After a month and a half spent in Thailand, I decided that I really wanna go to this monastery. I dwelled on the thought of going there for some time, because although it sounded appealing, it also sounded a bit scary to me.
No internet, no talking, no eating after midday, getting up very early, meditating for 8-10 hours a day, sleeping in dorms on a very thin mattress and with no access to many kind of luxury we all are so used to – you must admit it sounds a bit terrifying. While I was travelling through Chiang Mai, I met some people that did the meditations in the monastery and convinced me that this specific retreat offers more freedom in terms of talking and the types of meditations we will be doing. And my mind was made up. I’m going.
The Wat Tam Wua monastery is set in beautiful natural surrounding in northern Thailand, and is welcoming people with various (dis)knowledge of meditation. I was a complete beginner in meditation, my only meditation through movement was doing yoga sometimes.
Wat Pa Tham Wua is nestled in a mountain valley and is surrounded by woods, caves and palm trees. Little ponds dot the grounds and there are trees with massive yellow flowers that were in full bloom.
The surroundings were perfect to do “the job” I came there to do – very beautiful and peaceful, just the kind of surrounding I could see myself meditating in. Isolated and secluded from city noises, with no distractions other the singing birds. A place to really put your soul at ease.
The monastery is quite far up in the north of Thailand. Closest city is Pai, and it took me 2-2,5 hours to get to monastery from there (and if you are coming from Chiang Mai, it will take you about 4 hours. And I will tell you right away – the road is VERY curvy and I advise you to take a car sickness pill before the trip. I didn’t take it because I didn’t want to be sleepy when I get to the monastery, and I nearly puked at one point. When I was coming back from the monastery, a child sitting next to me in the truck did actually puke on my pants and passport, so that was fun 😀
Anyway, the monastery is on Highway 1095 about 2 hours from Pai and 1 hour from Mae Hong Son. The only mini bus company that runs past the monastery is Prempracha. It’s easy to get to Wat Pa Tam Wua from Chiang Mai, and you can even make a reservation online from Prempracha’s website. The bus ride from Pai costed me 150 baht. When I was coming back, I took the traditional yellow truck and it costed me 100 baht to Pai, and 80 baht more to get to Chiang Mai.
When I arrived, I was at first accommodated in a women’s dorm, along with other girls. If you arrive during the low season, you have a better chance to bit accommodated in your own hut or “kuti”.
There were about 25 of us in the dorm, everybody gets their own, very thin “mattress”, a pillow and two blankets. In the dorms, everybody sleeps on the floor. After two days, I was very happy when I got my own “kuti” 🙂
Man and women are strictly separated in accommodation, but were allowed to hang around in the other monastery grounds during some times.
The inside of the kuti is basic, the bed is not very comfy, but that sort of is the whole point – to eat, sleep and meditate in the same was as monks do 🙂 If you can’t bear without luxury accommodation, this isn’t the place for you.
I thought the bed will be really hard for my back, but actually, my back didn’t hurt at all during the day. If you have a travel pillow, it would be a good thing to have it with you during your stay here.
For most of the day, we would hang around the dining hall, where we ate, drunk tea, and read books. There is a small library with books about meditations, but also other type of books. Bringing a book or two with you would definitely be a good idea.
Rules of behavior in the monastery
Strict rules must be followed in order to be respectful and mindful towards other people, animals and surroundings of the monastery.
No laud talking, laughing, listening to music or doing sports is allowed. Anybody who had trouble following the rules and was disrespectful in any way, was kindly asked to leave. If you are thinking about coming here, you should definitely read these rules thoroughly and really give it a good thought about is it something you could do.
You are advised not to use your phone, the internet or any other distractions, in order to cleanse your body and spirit from everything that is actually just a waste of your energy – in order to meditate better and get more out of this whole experience. Since I’m a blogger and photographer, I thought it would be the hardest part for me not to use Instagram, Internet or my laptop in general. But I was SO wrong, it was actually really easy, and actually something I really needed to do, because I realized how unhealthy those things sometimes are for me. I didn’t miss my phone at all, I only used it as an alarm in the morning. But, the phones and using internet is actually not prohibited here, it is really up to you how deep you wanna get into whole this monastery/meditation experience and how much you wanna test your limits, do something differently and learn about your self .
Near the monastery there is a little coffee shop were there’s wifi, so if you really need to check your e-mails or publish something on your Instagram profile, there won’t be anybody stopping you 🙂 It’s all up to you. I didn’t have the urge to do that at all.
Everyday we followed this practice schedule:
- 5:00 Wake up and practice meditation in your kuti/dorm
- 6:30 Rice offering to the monks
- 7:00 Breakfast
- 8:00 Morning meditations (walking, sitting, laying down)
- 10:30 Food offering to the monks
- 11:00 Lunch
- 11:30 Free time
- 13:00 Practicing meditation in the Dhama Hall
- 16:00 Cleaning up the monastery areas
- 17:00 Free time
- 18:00 Evening chanting and meditations
- 20:00 Drinking tea and practicing meditation in your kuti
- 22:00 Bed time
There wasn’t actually as much free time as I thought there will be. I brought two books with me, but actually had barely the time to read one 🙂 Also, your free time depends on the amount of time you wanna spend helping around the monastery – cause there is always something to do, for example filling the bottles in the dining hall with water, cleaning the tables, washing the dishes (you wash your own dishes, but also the dishes of others if someone isn’t as mindful and leaves it laying around).
Selfless work is something that really helps to get into the whole idea of Buddhism and almost everybody does it around here. I’ve never seen so many people willing to help with, well, anything, as I’ve seen in this place. So beautiful and inspiring. Apart from that work which is actually optional, everybody has to do at least one hour of work during the day, from 4-5 pm. That work usually consisted of sweeping the leaves around the monastery grounds. So, when it was 4 pm, everybody would quit whatever they were doing, grabbed a broom and didn’t stop sweeping until 5 pm.
Our daily menu consisted of vegetarian food – rice + one or two dishes based on soy and vegetables, and sometimes fruit. Vegetarian food is the practice of Buddhist monks and is connected with the Buddhist rule of not hurting another living being. It really wasn’t a problem for me, although I was always a meat lower. I felt so light and my digestion was really unburdened with food. You can take as much as you want, there was always enough of rice and vegetable dish, although there wasn’t always fruits – for example, if you were at the end of the line while taking food, you probably didn’t get any fruit.
We had two meals a day. Breakfast at 7 am, and lunch at 11:30. Before every meal, there was a ritual of offering food to the monks. Monks can’t eat any food if the people don’t offer it to them. So every morning at 6:30 am, we would all take a little plate with rice, and monks would come to us – and one by one, we gave them a spoon of rice. Since there was always more then 60 people in the monastery, by the end of the line, monks would get enough rice. After that, they would bless all the food and invite us to have breakfast as well.
Women can offer the food only to the main monk, the Abbott – because women can’t really interact with other monks in some situations. Man could offer the food to the other monks as well.
Throughout the day, we meditated for about 8-10 hours in total. A lot. But it wasn’t that hard because this place offers to practice not only sitting meditation, but also walking and laying meditation.
Early in the morning, we would do a walking meditation just as the sun was rising. Walking meditations were really nice since we were walking around the beautiful monastery areas filled with flowers, palms and trees. During the midday walking meditations, we would walk through the forest and caves.
After almost every meditation, there was Q&A time with the monk leading the meditation, and anyone was allowed to ask questions about the meditations.
In the evening we would do an evening chanting – basically, that means that we were singing in Thai for almost an hour, for most of the time not knowing what we are singing about 🙂 But I really liked those songs, because they gave me a sense of calmness and they often sounded sort of divine.
How did I fell about the meditations?
Although I was a complete beginner in meditation, my meditations were sometimes really intense. Sometimes so surreal. I had few meditations that I still can’t really explain. Sometimes I felt almost paralised and couldn’t move. At other times, I would get really relaxed, without any thought in my mind, except “Bud-dho” (it’s a mantra we used for focusing on our breath – while we were breathing in, we would say to ourselves “Bud”, and while we were breathing out, we would say “Dho”). Sometimes I couldn’t get into meditations at all, so I would just sat there quietly. Many times I would start my daily meditations by thinking about all the things I’m grateful for in my life. That would fill my heart with so much gratitude and love and I felt so happy. That is also the greatest lesson I’m taking from this place. Something really beautiful happened to me here, and this whole experience showed me on what to focus in my life.
Some useful advices:
- The maximum amount of time you can stay in the monastery is 10 days, and while there is no minimum, they recommend at least 3 days. I stayed here for 8 days and I really felt like I soaked the whole experience beautifully.
- No alcohol or smoking while you’re at the monastery. This also means you can’t walk off the premises to smoke. You are supposed to refrain from these habits during your entire stay.
- You don’t need to book or make a reservation before coming here. You just come, they will always make room for one more 🙂
- Women and men are allowed to talk and hangout during certain times, but there are many times genders are separated. There are separate lines for food, and during meditations there is a men’s section (closer to the monks) and a women’s section (in the back).
- During the time I was staying there (end of March), it would get REALLY cold in the mornings so I definitely advise you to take 2-3 long shirts or hoodies plus some yoga pants you can wear underneath the white clothes that is obligatory to wear in the monastery.
- You don’t need to buy white clothes before you come, the monastery will borrow it to you free of charge.
- As a guest at Wat Pa Tam Wua, you will receive free meals during your stay. Be aware that they only serve breakfast and lunch, as monks cannot eat after noon.
- Whole place is ran on donations. So, you get accommodation, vegetarian food twice a day, water and hot beverages free of charge. But you are kindly requested to leave a donation in the end of your stay.
- A visit to the Forest Monastery is not for you if you are closed minded and aren’t willing to learn about meditation and Buddhism.