The sound of crickets chirping was the only thing that broke the silence of the cool night air. I decided to open my eyes just a bit to survey the scene. I was sitting cross legged on a little mat in front of an elevated platform adorned with two large Buddha statues and six monks facing us, all of whom were deep in meditation. It was so quiet with my eyes closed I could swear that I was sitting alone but there were easily a hundred fellow monastery goers sitting in rows around me, completely silent and motionless in the moonlight of the open air pagoda. “Ok, this is pretty cool.” I admitted to myself before attempting to clear my mind and return my focus to my breath.
"Enlightenment here I come”
Maybe this meditation and enlightenment stuff wasn’t so bad. Ah, nevermind. After about ten minutes my ankles and knees were screaming in pain. I imagined the famous 1963 photograph of the Buddhist monk who lit himself ablaze in protest to the Vietnam war. The image is so profound because during his self-immolation the monk remained sitting cross-legged, eyes peacefully closed in meditation, as flames consumed him. If he could do that, certainly I should be able to meditate through some minor discomfort. I redoubled my efforts to return to meditation. Nope. Not even close. Fuck it. I’m moving. As I uncrossed my legs my knees cracked loudly throughout the hall. As if that had been all that everyone else was waiting for, more knees started cracking around me as other uncomfortable, rookie meditators shifted their position. Good to know I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t reached a higher plane of human existence yet.
Earlier that day, the minibus from Pai had pulled to the side of the road and sent up a rolling cloud of dust. I hoisted my bag onto my back and started the 1 km walk down the road to the Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery. Nestled in among the hills in Mae Hong Son, an hour and a half outside of Pai, the gardens, ponds, and grass fields are immaculately manicured. The grounds are dotted with young westerners dressed in baggy, white drawstring pants and tunics walking slowly, reading, or lying in the grass gazing at the surrounding mountains. It sort of reminded me of what I would imagine a rehab center for celebrities might look like.
As I walked up to the reception with beads of sweat beginning to form on my brow, a man dressed in simple clothes invited me to put down my bags and grab some food in the open air dining area. Afterall, it was 11am, when the last meal of the day is served. I usually eat at least four or five times a day so I wasn’t sure how this was going to go for me. After filling my plate with rice and a vegetarian Thai stew I took a seat at one of the long communal tables. In contrast to the hostel atmosphere where everyone plops down together and social interaction with strangers is the norm, here most people were sitting alone silently or quietly talking with one other person. At the six long tables around me there wasn’t a word being spoken by anyone. I was almost done with my meal when I noticed the “silent section” sign. That explained why no one was talking at my table or the ones near it.
Pre-meditation Vipassana talk
I washed my plate and glass before signing in at the reception. Name. Passport Number. Date of Arrival. Projected length of stay. Hmm, how long did I think I could do this for? I put down three days. I should be able to swing that, I thought. Maybe even longer. Free food and lodging at a rockstar rehab center. Why not? A German volunteer walked me first to select some white pants and a shirt before showing me to the male dormitory. The experience felt a bit like summer camp. Inside the dorm there were painfully thin sleeping mats with a pillow and some clean linens. I smiled slyly to myself as I blew up my sleeping pad and slipped it under my mat. Sorry I’m not sorry. If I were going to achieve enlightenment I was going to need a good night’s sleep.
I consulted the daily schedule and realized I only had a few more minutes before the afternoon meditation session. I lowered myself onto my sitting mat in the meditation hall and within minutes the entire monastery population was neatly in rows around me, which was not surprising since participation is required for every scheduled event and ritual. The monk provided a Vipassana talk about Buddhist principles before we did seated meditation. This was followed by a walking meditation, in which you keep your gaze directed at the ground a few feet in front of you and try to keep a completely clear mind. We walked over teak bridges and along a foot path running past impressive cliffs, caves, and towering rainforest trees. I made a mental note that I would have to do the walk again when I could actually look around and enjoy the landscape. When we made it back to the open air pagoda we finished with a meditation lying down. Within minutes the sound of snoring started emanating from somewhere to my right. I tried to suppress a smile creeping across my face.
After the lying down meditation was over and my snoring neighbor had finished his nap, there was an hour of scheduled “mindful working”, during which one sweeps up around the grounds while keeping a clear mind. Before the evening chanting and meditation session, I made myself a big bowl of oatmeal with cashews and honey that I brought along. The next scheduled meal wasn’t until the following morning and I wasn’t going to achieve enlightenment on an empty stomach.
The chanting before the evening meditation was brutal. It was essentially an hour of awkwardly mumbling transliterated verses along with a monk who had a microphone on stage. It felt a bit like other organized religions and I decided that part sucked. Then, as if to remind me that I wasn’t cut out for Buddhism, a mosquito landed on my prayer book. Now I know I’m not supposed to harm any another creature while I’m here so instead of swatting it, which might attract attention, I opt to subtly squeeze it between my thumb and finger. Satisfying crunch. I look around. No one seemed to notice the assassination and we finally we settle in to meditate.
That night I slept deeply except for a trip to the bathroom outside. As I walked along the stone path the stars were brilliantly splashed across the sky above as they can only when there is no light pollution from nearby cities. The next morning I was up at 6am to partake in the monk feeding ritual. Everyone gets a bowl of rice to spoon out to the monks as they pass along the row with a food donation basket that you shovel some rice into. I ate a quick breakfast and hurriedly packed to catch the 8am roadside bus out of there. It was a great experience but if I had spent one more second there I would have probably lost my mind. I guess I’m just too restless.
As soon as I got back to Pai I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God I didn’t try to stick that out for a full three days or, heaven forbid, a full ten. I booked a bus back to Chiang Mai later that afternoon and then booked a flight to the Philippines the following day. But within 24 hours I had pushed that flight a week so that I could go check out Chiang Rai with my friend Amy, a UK social worker who had just quit her job.
Chiang Rai has the feel of a working city and so after one night there the two of us hightailed it 45 minutes north to a private bungalow at “Nok’s Garden Resort” set back in a quiet village with a wooded mountain backdrop. We were the only two inhabitants in one of the four bungalows that are along a little lake. The Austrian owner, Rudy, was a warm world traveler that decided to put down roots in northern Thailand. The following week was a relaxing retreat that included scooter adventures to waterfalls, hammocking, eating homemade pizza with Rudy’s family, and lounging next to koi ponds at cafes. With my batteries recharged and my tourist visa out of schlitz, it was off to the Philippines.