We sheered from the main road and followed a dusty pathway which led us to a Buddhist temple in the middle of the forest as the very name suggests – The Forest Monastery. A simple walk, the environment growing greener and greener, next to us ran a murmuring brook, a toothless old man wearing a Buddhist robes the color of saffron, the birds were chirping, and the stuff like that. We arrived to the very entrance and stopped there.
We didn’t know if there were any rules once we were inside – all we knew about vipassana meditation was a bit intimidating. Basically, you’re totally isolated from the rest of the world, the silence and no eye contact were essential, the sexes were strictly divided, the meditation sessions were clearly organized, you were supposed to get up at 5 a.m., and the last meal of the day was at noon. Intimidating, I’m telling you. But, let’s try it out.
We came up with an idea: each day we would draw lines on the ground by the main mediation hall – one line would mean that we wanted to stay, and five lines that we wanted to get hell out of there. If the total number of lines at the end of each day was seven or more, that would be our sign to go. What a plan, eh?
At the end it turned out that there was no need of the lines. Instantly, we noticed that men and women were hanging out normally. We joined them and they gave us some basic information – this was the most liberal vipassana centre. The food was great. The meditation wasn’t strictly controlled. There was plenty of free time and you could stay for as long as you wanted to. Each of us had his/her own cottage, and everyone could freely use their things…all in all, it was heaven.
Above all – just like all monasteries it was living off of donations. And it was working out perfectly.
We found the head monk as he was taking a walk and we saluted him with a typical gesture – with our hands put together. We addressed him as The Teacher, and he used Australia or Croatia to address us. He was a very nice guy, with a smile that never left his face. The only problem was that we merely managed to understand every third word he said, but since we’d come here to grow spiritually we establish communication on a higher level – body talk, lots of nodding and smiling. It always works.
He asked us how long we were staying showing us the way to the cottages that would be our home for the following five days. At the same time we were given the clothes we would be wearing while we’re in the monastery: a white pants and a white T-shirt. The cottages were meant for one person and each had a toilet, a shower cabin, a ventilator and a thin sleeping mat. It was definitely better than a number of other places I’d slept on in Thailand. I even managed to catch a signal on my cell phone so I could let my dear mother know that I was all right.
A day was, basically, like this: we were meant to get up at 5 a.m. and then a morning prayer and meditation would follow – in our cottages. We would chant and meditate until quarter to seven when a huge bell would give a sign to everyone to gather in the dining room. Since nobody actually checked up on me to see what I was doing I would usually get up at 6.32 a.m.
The breakfast scene was as follows: in the big hall which was called The Main hall, some 20 students sat on the floor – there was a white brass plate with a spoon and some rice in front each of us. Soon monks would arrive, the four of them, and approach each and every one of us with a bowl in which each of us was supposed to put a spoonful of rice as a sign of respect and giving. The moment each of us put four spoons of rice into four monks’ bowls we could finally go upstairs and start with our breakfast.
The food was strictly vegan: no dairy products, no eggs, let alone any meat. It fit perfectly into my Thailand vegetarian adventure. We only had two meals a day; the first being already mentioned breakfast at 7 a.m. and the second was lunch at 11 a.m. And that was all the food for the day. Still, food was really good, fresh and versatile. There was more than enough rice, vegetables prepared in different ways, tofu, and freshly picked fruit. All food was either bought from the money from the donations, or, in most of the cases, received as a gift from the local people who would come every now and then for a blessing and, in return, bring something from their gardens. Quite frankly, I prefer that kind of payment.
After breakfast we had some spare time until another ring announced joint morning mediation. In that monastery the meditation was practised in three different ways: a walking one, a sitting one, and my favourite, a lying one. The meditation was, in fact, a constant combination of the three: we would start with the walking meditation (to the unfamiliar by-passer we would probably seem like a bunch of hypnotized lunatics dragging themselves across the forest path), continue with the sitting one (which was quite unpleasant if your backs weren’t prepared), and finally we would end with the lying meditation (during which some of us would fall asleep – not me, I swear!). Each phase lasted between half an hour and forty five minutes.
We were free to use the time after the morning mediation to have some tea, coffee or something like that. Shortly after, a big drum would announce the gathering in the main hall. The procedure was quite similar to the one before the breakfast, except that now the monks didn’t approach us, but, instead, we would go towards them and give them the food. The girls were in charge of giving the blessing and presenting the gifts, while us, guys, would collect the bowls once the monks were done collecting food.
When the lunch is over, which is, by the way, very delicious and abundant – rice, potatoes, pumpkin, tofu prepared in different ways, vegetables, watermelon, pineapple, mango, apples, litchi – we had some free time to hang out with other people who were in the monastery. We met some who had been there for only a few days, others who came back repeatedly, and there was also a guy who had been living there for a whole year. The time spend in this peaceful place in the middle of forest made us realize why some people who want to live there and come back every now and then; too bad we had to go to Malaysia to catch our plane to Australia.
The sound of the bell meant that it was time for a joint afternoon meditation. Even that one consisted in walking, sitting and lying; and meditating of course. As far as the meditation itself is concerned, I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t fully concentrated: first, it was because of the restricted time we planned to spend in the monastery; second, I had so many thoughts running through my head and I was supposed to clean my head of all thoughts and this was because no one actually explained to me what I was supposed to do/not to do during the meditation. However, I would definitely recommend it – maybe some of you could discover something I didn’t.
The rest of the afternoon was free to take a rest (although I wasn’t sure from what we had to take a rest), read a book from the well-adapted library, talk a walk across the estate, but also give a hand around the chores since there is always something to do: cleaning, collecting the leaves in the yard. If you wanted to, you could always find something to do. The time for work/rest was over at 7 p.m. when, for the last time, the sound of bell announced that it was time for the last meditation session and chanting. Usually, at that time, the power would go off so you had an opportunity to do some more meditation or whatever one wanted to do before going to bed. However, there were some things that weren’t allowed: killing (do mosquitoes count?), stealing, sexual intercourse, vulgarity, drugs and smoking.
Chloe had a dream.
She was in an over-crowded hall with a stage and a couple of guys on it. Each of them assumed the appearance of a god – a Christian one, a Muslim one, a Jewish one and so on. They addressed their audience carrying a message: Mother Nature had sent us to this Planet to be your spiritual guides, but you completely misunderstood us and got it all wrong. Now, we are afraid of losing our job because Gaia is doing a check-up. And she won’t find many nice things.
Some people in the audience were marked with black colour and they were told by the gods that they had blown it big time and that there wasn’t any hope for them. Some of them, on the other side, were marked with white colour and gods were proud of them since they had done many good deeds during their life. Others weren’t marked with any colour.
A wonderful and powerful dream which ought to be true – basically, all religions are the same, and, unfortunately, individuals and institutions had misused them for ages, instead of insisting on cooperation so they could lead people to a greater cause – respecting each other and saving the Planet, which had only been lent to us so we could use it, not destroy it. Now, Mother Nature will come to f*** us all up.
Before leaving the monastery I had the youngest monk shave my head. I’d love to say that there was something spiritual to it, but there wasn’t. Chloe (her monastery all-white outfit made her look like a nurse) was treating a small infection on my head (a consequence of the close encounter with the surfing board a few months ago), so I simply made it easier for her. At the same time, I was the source of joy for everyone around me who couldn’t help but laugh after seeing a bald man with a beard.
And that was our stay in the Buddhist monastery in the north of Thailand. We arrived there with no expectations, and we got a lot more: the most beautiful images of our stay in Thailand so far, peace and we were surrounded by smiling faces.
However, it was high time we got back to the road and carry on with our journey to Malaysia. We didn’t have any plans about our next destination, but we did remember that our host from Chiang Mai had mentioned a friend in Mae Sot, a place 450 kilometers from the monastery. During one of our many rides in the back part of a truck we sent him a text, and there was almost an instant response from him sending us a number of Freddy, a CSer from Mae Sot. After a couple of messages we sent to Freddy, we found ourselves a host. CS can sometimes be so easy.
Still, we had some problems with hitchhiking that day. Normally, we would find a ride after 15 minutes, but that day we had to fight against rain which was the cause of a low traffic so we even thought about setting up a camp by the road and continuing the following morning. It was getting dark, and there were more than 300 kilometres to our next destination. Suddenly, a truck pulled over. Coincidentally, he was headed to Mae Sot. Another hit of good luck.
However, that time our luck came with a little surprise – our co-driver was totally drunk. Drunk, but funny. He kept turning around telling us about his job, and insisting that we inform him the next time we’re in Thailand via e-mail – he gave us the address. He did all the things at least twenty times drinking one bottle of beer after another. He did have some problems while opening them, but once they were open there was no hope for them.
Suddenly, something happened that would definitely make me remember that ride for the rest of my life: after one of many toilet-breaks the co-driver took over the wheel. In that moment there were five if us in the car: the drunk driver, the sober co-driver, a co-driver’s sister who joined us in the meanwhile who kept quiet all the time, and two passengers scared to death. It was dark, the rain was sipping, the road was bumpy and with a lot of curves that led us through a thick forest next to the border with Burma, and our driver, whom in this state I wouldn’t trust with guarding the state seal, was very confident in these curves. Chloe and I simply exchanged worried looks realizing that we had to do something. We had to do something to put a stop to this nonsense. It took a minute or two to think what we should do next, but it hit us when the driver was trying to change the CD while there was another truck coming ahead of us.
Sorry, could you, please stop the car? – I tried to sound as kind as possible.
Why? – he asked, once again turning around.
I have never driven a car in Thailand, so I would like to try it out, if it’s not a problem. – I tried.
Oh, no problem! – he exclaimed pulling over abruptly.
Even though my driving licence had expired, even though there were police check-points ahead of us, even though I hadn’t driven a car for nearly a year, even though I had never driven a pick-up, even though I had never driven on the right side of the road, I took the wheel. There is the first time for everything. There is only the last time for dying. I won’t go into reincarnation, despite the fact I am all enlightened from the time spent in the monastery.
It took me a couple of minutes to get used to shifting gears with my left hand and driving a vehicle that big, but I did it. The former driver was already snoring in the back seat putting his right leg on the right side of my seat kicking every now and then like a dying frog hitting my right arm. I couldn’t believe and all I could do was laugh, while his sister kicking him with her fist a few times which prevented any further kicking from his side.
After some 200 hundred kilometres and two check-points, the sober cousin took the wheel and, finally, took us to Mae Sot. We had very interesting time in the back seat with the drunk driver, who decided to stretch across the whole back seat, totally neglecting the fact that there were three of us. After all, it was his car; there was nothing we could do about it.
Freddy welcomed us all smiling and cheerful, despite the fact that we arrived at this place after midnight. We threw ourselves at him thrilled to see him, and, instead of a bedtime story we told him all about our drive to his place.
Mae Sot is cool, so as our host. He showed us around the town, took us to the local sauna, to the restaurant with the most delicious dishes, showed us the border with Burma, but, most importantly, he took us to the Agape orphanage.
When we arrived to the orphanage there were about hundred kids. Sometimes there are more than 300 hundred of them. All kids are from Burma and they are either abandoned or their parents are so poor that they had to give them way. The majority of them technically don’t exist since they have no documents or any paper: some of them don’t even know when they were born. They don’t want them in Burma, in Thailand they end up as sexual slaves, or in the best scenario – in an orphanage like Agape.
However, the energy of the place is…simply not possible to describe. The orphanage is run by a man who is himself a political refuge from Burma. He started with only ten kids some ten years before and he’d been even offered am asylum by the US government but he turned them down since he wasn’t allowed to bring his children with him. He found himself a place in Thailand where he could do what he really wanted to: spend his life helping all those kids who wouldn’t have any chance of a normal life if it weren’t for him.
Our host Freddy was also helping the orphanage by visiting them several days a week. He’s good as gold. We had lunch with kids, spent a few hours with them having a really good time with the music of ukulele and we, also, threw a dance or two. Chloe ended up with a tanaka on her face, a cream/powder made of tree bark, and it’s used for medicine, make-up and traditional purposes. We laughed quite a lot, and given the entire situation, cried a bit, too.
On our way back to Malaysia we stopped in Bangkok just to take a few photos of Wat Pho, The Lying Buddha and the chaos on the streets. We remembered how many people had told us that Thailand was a dangerous country. We, however, had a total of zero bad experiences; nobody even tried to rob us. After all, we didn’t have anything worthy – we didn’t carry much money with ourselves – the little we had was on my MasterCard.
Moreover, I spent the last euro of the initial 1000 Euros of my budget in Thailand. Let me explain you the situation with my budget. The idea was to for me to set off on a one-thousand-day journey with a budget of one thousand Euros and once the money is spent somehow managed to get by. Not spend much money, earn something every now and then, and by the end of the journey be on a positive zero. Since I spent my budget in Thailand, and didn’t do much to make some money while I was in Asia, I decided to cheat a little and wait until I got to Australia where it would be much easier to earn something.
Still, I was on a strict budget – I could only spend 6 or 7 Euros per day with only two things on my mind – not get lazy, but also to prove to all of you that there is no such thing as luxury in this kind of travelling.
We managed to spend one night on a gas station, inside the tent. We visited friends from Trang whom we’d met earlier on our way. Finally, we returned to Malaysia, spent a few days at our brother Henry’s place in Kuala Lumpur, and got on the plane for Australia.
After nearly eight months I was, finally, leaving Asia. I t was time for a new continent – Australia!
GALLERY – THAILAND.
YT VIDEO – NORTH THAILAND: