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Stories from Thailand

Hat Yai, Thailand

Arriving in Thailand

bothWe arrived in Thailand today. This is the 9th country we've visited!

We celebrated with a wonderful dinner of Tom Yam soup and steamed sea bass.

Tomorrow we head to the west coast for more island time. We will write more later. top

Ko Lanta, Thailand

Staying Put

bothEnough with the long bus rides. We've arrived to Ko Lanta and plan to stay about a week. The narrow island is about 20 x 5 km and has one poorly paved road, wide beaches, and nothing much to do except relax.

Our bungalow is on the north tip of the island on a tiny cape. The road leading to the bungalow has been washed away by the monsoon rains and cars can only pass through along the beach at low tide. The area is fairly modern, but electricity only runs from 6:30 PM to 8:00 AM.

The resort is just heading into high season, but remains almost empty. We have made good friends with the other guests and employees (Chuey is pictured to the right) and stay up late into the night talking about life.

 

 

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Thai Lesson

timOur off-season beach resort on Ko Lanta was nearly empty. With a full week to be productive on a quiet beach, I had the perfect chance to learn the basics of the Thai language.

I worked through the alphabet with my homemade flash cards, arming myself with a shaky knowledge of Thai's 44 consonants and 28 vowels and dipthongs. In no time at all, I found myself transliterating street signs and store names in my head as I passed by them on the streets of the small island.

I needed real help to get farther, so I approached the unhurried staff at Kaw Kwang Bungalows for answers. I soon found myself seated with two women to receive a Thai lesson and give an English one.

The Thai language is tonal, much like Chinese and Vietnamese. Words are pronounced with a tone that is either low, mid, high, rising, or falling, allowing many similar words to have different meanings. Thus the sentence, "The new wood was not burnt, silk burnt," is translated in Thai as, "Mai mai mai mai mai mai." Correctly pronounced, this sentence would sound like this, "Mai (with high tone), mai (with low tone), mai (with falling tone), mai (with falling tone), mai (with rising tone), mai (with falling tone)."

Mastery of tones is important when speaking Thai, so I started with some questions I had on the subject. My two friends had different names with different spellings, and yet they were both called Puey. Rather, one was Puey (with rising tone) and one was Puey (with high tone). So the three of us sat around a table saying, "Puey? Puey! Puey? Puey!" and laughing. High tones are the hardest to pronounce with westerners. Words are pronounced at the top of one's vocal range. When I try it I sound as though I am singing falsetto.

I quickly learned that most Thais don't understand tones by terms such as high, low, and mid. Instead they hear them from birth and just understand them naturally. Puey (high) and Puey (rising) were perplexed by my simple questions. When I asked them to place tone markers over the "Mai mai mai mai mai mai." example they looked at me with confusion.

Puey (rising) said, "Well it is just, 'Mai mai mai mai mai mai.'."

As if that answered my question easily... "Yes, but which one is rising, falling, low, mid, and high?"

That question began a chorus of "mais" in every tone. Puey (rising) and Puey (high) sat and repeated the word over and over, waving their hands in the air tracing the tones like orchestra conductors. The two women were still baffled and consulted the idle kitchen staff, which set off a larger chain reaction. The restaurant sounded like a forest of chirping crickets repeating one word over and over.

The group settled on one version of tones, which I discovered 10 minutes later in my textbook was incorrect. I didn't learn much Thai that day, but I had a great time not learning. top

Family Travel

timI talked at length about this trip before I left. Most people told me how lucky I was to go and added, "I wish I could do that."

I felt the most sympathy for those with a family and a house, understanding that when my turn came, I'd be chained to the desk job for life. But during my stay in Ko Lanta, I met a Danish family who gave me hope.

Sven and Anni were travellers too. Just like me, they were compelled to leave their jobs for a year, sell their house, and leave their old life behind. But they carried much more than a backpack - they took three of their children.

I asked about the logistics of removing kids from school for that long. Svend assured me that their children receive a good education on the road. They learn Danish, math, and science from planned lessons taught by their parents, books, and e-mail correspondence; they learn English and world studies by experience.

Svend spent his previous life as a workaholic. He rarely saw his children and wondered why he was at home when he could be making money. He even worried while planning the trip that he would be unable to relax. But the first time we saw his family, on a beautiful beach in Malaysia, Michelle commented on how well the family got along and how comfortable they seemed with one another. When I had a chance to talk with him in Ko Lanta, it became apparent that he was not only quite able to relax, but that he had used the time with his family wisely.

I fear that I will return from my travels and get caught back in the rat race of work, work, work. I used to view this as an inevitable outcome in our society to make it as a parent. Now I hope to travel with my children some day. Everything is possible when you stop wishing and start doing. top

Longboat Snorkeling

timWe took the snorkel trip from hell.

The boatman picked us up that morning half an hour late. His longboat was old - not antique old, but poorly maintained old. The bright paint that had once circled the bow was now faded and peeling. Small holes in the hull leaked steady geysers of water that the boatman's assistant constantly bailed with a makeshift bucket. Prehistoric millipede water bugs skulked around in schools under the damp beams of the hull. The short fabric roof that would protect us in the event of rain seemed to have only one purpose on a nice day - to prevent anyone over 5 feet tall from sitting up straight.

We pulled off the beach, rounded a cape, and escaped the tall waves of the ocean by boating down a protected channel. One hour went by. Another hour went by. We entered open water and cruised for another hour. By the time we reached the first snorkel area, two people in the boat were seasick.

Ack! The coral was dead. Nothing much to see here, but a few colorful fish attracted by the chum vomited by our two seasick friends. We swam to a gorgeous beach with nothing on it but a wooden fisherman's house and waited to go to the next area.

We snorkeled again under the sheer cliff of a limestone island, anchoring in shaded deep green water. This dive was everything the other dive wasn't. The limestone wall plunged 10 meters under the surface. I dove in, went straight to the bottom, and floated up slowly admiring the view. Beautiful - the amazing coral formations, bright colors, unusual fish. Everything snorkeling should be.

My rapture ended when I returned to the boat.

Another three hours back - or so I thought. But low tide had reduced our route home to a mud flat. (You would think a local boatman would know these things.) After some discussion in Thai between the boatman and his assistant, we headed into the mangroves. The boatman didn't know the area and quickly got lost. We drove into dead ends, took arbitrary turns, and asked some fishermen in the mud flats directions. It was approaching dark when I saw the assistant wave the gas container in front of the boatman in an expression that said, "We are almost out." We didn't have lights on the boat. Navigating in the dark was nearly impossible and we hadn't passed another boat in an hour. Just as I'd resigned myself to spending the night in the boat, we approached a familiar area. Another 30 minutes later, we mutinied and made the boatman drop us off on the town dock instead of at our guesthouse farther away.

We had snorkeled for an hour, but spent 10 hours on the trip. We were done, and nothing would keep us on the boat any longer. top

Sunset

michelleThis evening, Tim and I climbed over a hill at the end of the island into a cove. There, nestled by high cliffs, sat a small secluded beach, perfect for watching the sunset.

The tide was out, so I wandered on the rocks, exploring the tidal pools. Large purple sea cucumbers sat listlessly in the water. Brown crabs scurried by, red eyes watching to see if I was friend or foe. A sea snake hid under a rock, its tail peeking out. Small fish darted around florescent green coral, waiting patiently for the tide to carry them back into the ocean.

This miniature world of activity could entertain me for hours, but it was time to turn my attention to the show above. As the sun crept closer to the horizon, the sky glowed orange and pink, each second growing more vivid and brilliant. The ocean below turned a shimmering gold as it reflected the light above. Soon the blazing orange ball hid behind a cluster of clouds and brilliant rays shot out.

Sunsets are some of the best of what this world has to offer. Glimpses of God's majesty. I breathed it all in deeply, my senses alive with the colors, ocean smells and the sound of crashing waves. I never wanted this moment to end. But the light faded and dark purple replaced the once glowing sky. Tim and I sat quietly, reflecting on the beauty we had just witnessed. Already the sunset was just a memory, but a memory to be etched in my mind for years to come. top

Bike to the Pier

timI was sorry to say goodbye to Ko Lanta, but I was glad to hitch a ride to the pier from Chuey.

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Chuey relaxes from a long day spent taking care of bungalows on the beach. A colorful Thai sea gypsy boat is decorated with streamers that help to keep the sailors safe. Receding tide and big sky. The receding tide leaves acres of ripples in the sand.

Ao Nang, Thailand

What About Bob?

timFour months have passed since I last saw a friend from home. And although I've met plenty of new friends along the way, I was happy to hear that Bob was coming to Thailand.

Bob is a "friend of a friend" who happens to be a nice guy and someone I'd be happy to drink a few Singha beers with. We corresponded via e-mail and eventually met in Ao Nang. But Bob wasn't traveling alone, but rather with a large group of people in a post-Bangkok wedding party. Much to our surprise, we found ourselves snorkeling, caving, dining, and hanging out with a large group of Washingtonians who were sympathetic to the cause of budget travel.

So we would like to thank Bob and his friends, and offer best wishes to newlyweds Dave and Usa - all honorary members to The Travel Year.

(Special thanks to Bob for his 5 box (240 tablets) gift of Pepto Bismol, a precious commodity that we have not seen since Samoa.) top

The sun sets on Rai Leh beach, near Krabi, Thailand. The beautiful seashore in Rai Leh beach, near Krabi, Thailand. This photo was taken from inside a cave near the top of a cliff.

Krabi, Thailand

Still Going Strong

michellePeople are starting to ask us, after being on the road for 5 months, if we are getting tired - tired of not having the same bed to lie our heads on every night, tired of living out of a backpack, and tired of the constant change.

Instead of growing weary though, we are becoming more energized. Daily I look around me and I am full of gratefulness. Thankful for the opportunity to travel for so long. Our minds and hearts are growing full with each person we meet, each rich encounter we experience, and each exotic land we visit.

I am looking forward to all the journeys ahead: eating Pho in Vietnam, wandering around the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia; trekking in Nepal, and riding camels in the desert of Rajasthan, India.

Of course, we miss family and friends from home and frequently long for a good cup of coffee. But we are still going strong (despite the lack of caffine).

As I sit here on the porch of my bungalow writing, large red ants are marching across a wall opposite me. The highway of ants crosses across the wall, up a stick, down a palm leaf on to another leaf and then out of sight. Traveling has given me the opportunity to sit, observe, and cherish even the small simple pleasures in life, like watching ants. top

Kao San Road

timThe night-bus dropped us off at 6 a.m. in a magnificently seedy place - on the backpacker slum of Kao San Road. At that early hour, the ratio of people drinking coffee and people drinking beer was dead even.

The area came alive later that night, as hundreds of people walked the pulsating streets or drank in outdoor bars. We found English language bookstores, Internet cafes, cheap guesthouses, money changers, noodle stands, knock-off clothes shops, massage parlors, and bargain travel agencies under the gaudy signs that hovered above the road. Our conversation competed with the pounding music of street-side speakers, tuk-tuks, horns, and barking dogs. We didn't find any Thai culture, but rather a weird mix of youthful-meets-budget-meets-European backpacker-meets-out for a good time-meets-holiday culture.

It is an interesting place to people watch. We sat in an outdoor pub with our new Kiwi friend Penny, drank a couple of beers, and played "Guess Where They are From." The rules are simple: pick a random pedestrian and guess where they are from and how long they have been away. It isn't hard. If you inventory their body piercings, tattoos, baseball hat, haircut, clothes, backpack size, overall cleanliness, and body language, it comes naturally.

If I stayed on Kao San Road for a week, I'd be guessing correctly every time. top

Welcome to Bangkok

michelleWe just arrived in Bangkok. After wandering for a while down small streets and narrow alleys looking for a place to stay, we found a decent hotel to live in for a couple days. Home has become the place our backpacks reside - changing every few days. Thin walls, noisy neighbors, and lumpy beds are our norm; good enough though for budget backpackers.

Today is sunny and I feel good. Our room is at the end of a long hallway and has many windows. Perfect for my voyeur tendencies. Out of the window, directly across the street, is the soaring orange roof of a Buddhist temple. Below is a small alley. Stray dogs, laundry hung out to dry, women washing dishes in large buckets and men standing on the corner are in my view. The alley is also used as an impromptu repair shop, so tuk-tuks and motorcycles stand in line while their parts litter the sidewalk. I have a feeling I will often hear the clanging and banging below while staying in this little room.

City noise can be annoying when trying to sleep, but it also adds to the flavor of travel. It's good to be in Bangkok. top

The River Boat

bothBangkok is one of the top cosmopolitan cities in Asia. To get around one can take a taxi, bus, tuk-tuk, motorcycle or walk. But my favorite is the riverboat.

Through Bangkok runs the Choa Phraya river and its canals. Riverboats run up and down the waterways all day long, stopping at the many piers along the river. By taking a boat to your destination, not only do you avoid traffic congestion and pollution but you are treated to the scenic views of Bangkok's river life with wind blowing through your hair.

Getting on to the boat is an adventure in itself. We wait on a floating pier for the next boat to come. The noise the bobbing pier makes as it rubs against its anchoring dock sends chills down our spines. Like the sound of metal bending before an imminent crushing break, the pier screeches in wait for the next boat. A whistle in the distance alerts us to its coming.

As it approaches the pier, an assistant whistles for the boat to stop. The boat's engine reverses and the rudder turns, stopping the boat abruptly and slamming it against the dock with a bang. This sends waiting passengers stumbling to regain their balance. The assistant continues with his whistles; short connected blasts and long blasts signal to the boat driver to shoot forward, reverse, or stop. Boat passengers, with very little time to spare, must jump to the dock while people on the dock must jump on the boat.

All during this commotion, the space between the boat and dock opens and closes with the bobbing of the water, trying to eat your legs. As the last passenger is in mid-jump, the assistant whistles and the boat lurches forward in full speed to the next pier. Landing safely onboard we sigh in relief. Another small transport victory! Now to settle back and enjoy the view. top

Massage

timThai massage is not gentle. It is a deep tissue, cracking, kicking, and squirming event. The massuse's hands are not enough to do the job. She must use her feet, elbows, and legs with equal abandon.

The Buddhist temple of Wat Po runs a well known Thai massage school that came highly recommended to us by two people we met while travelling. One traveller's massage at Wat Po cured her long-term leg injury. The other traveller's massage caused her to orgasm on the table. (The former had no need to return. The latter returned every day for a week.)

So Michelle and I went to Wat Po to see for ourselves. The massage room was large and full of beds - no clothing was removed, so there was not much need of privacy. The massuse started with my legs and worked up. She pressed deeply into my muscles and cracked the joints in my fingers, the joints in my feet, and my spine.

I moaned, stretched, crunched, and left bouncing with energy. top

Same, Same...but Different

michelleThe women stared at me in confusion. It's a look I am getting used to.

I am standing at a food cart on a busy street in Chinatown ordering steamed dumplings. But when I don't speak Thai, the women murmur among themselves and giggle nervously. Finally, one speaks up, pointing to her Thai face and says, "I thought you same-same?"

This is a phrase I have heard countless times since arriving in Thailand, where I am mistaken as a Thai. I smile politely, explain I am from the U.S., and tell them I am part Chinese. Tim doesn't think I look Thai at all, but apparently the Thai people disagree.

Mistaken identity has occurred in every country I have visited so far. I was mistaken for Panamanian, Costa Rican, Hawaiian, and Samoan. I thought it wouldn't happen in New Zealand, but I was asked if I was Maori, the indigenous people-group of the islands. I have been mistaken as Singaporean, Indonesian, Malaysian, and now, Thai. I call it "the art of camouflage." With my mix of Chinese and English, my face seems to blend into every country I have visited so far. That is, until I speak. Then it is obvious I am a foreigner. It has been a great way to meet the local people - a catalyst for many conversations. Until I reach Europe, I think the confused looks will continue. top

The chedis of Wat Po (Wat Phra Chetupon), Bangkok's largest and oldest Buddhist temple. Aside from its size and architectural majesty, Wat Po is famous for housing the 46-meter long reclining Buddha and for being the premier school of traditional Thai massage. A lotus blossom in Thai Buddhism is thought to rise from the water skyward the way the Buddha rises from earthly suffering towards enlightenment.

Sukhothai, Thailand

The Festival of Lights

timWalking through the 13th century ruins of Sukhothai would normally fill me with a sense of historical awe. I'd marvel at the ancient capitol of Thailand, at its Buddhist temples, crumbling pillars, pottery kilns, and 700 year old man-made lakes. But we arrived to Sukhothai during the Loi Kathrong Festival, and the historical park was filled with the energy of the present.

Thousands of people from all over Thailand participate in Sukhothai's Loi Kathrong festival. During its eight day life span, this "festival of lights" feels like the American Fourth of July. Families spend time together, eat lots of food, and watch fireworks. The festival climaxes on the night of November's full moon, where participants float little banana leaf boats (krathongs) covered in flowers, candles, and incense across the waters of the old city.

We arrived four days into the festival and watched it grow larger with each passing day, so that by the last day the number of visitors was reaching critical mass.

So many people! We shuffled through the food stalls with the masses, passing by endless supplies of noodle soup, cut fruit, balls of meat, green oranges, exotic drinks, pressed squid, and roasted insects. The vendors were doing a brisk business - especially the ones selling skewered meat that had covered the park with a blanket of fog-like barbecue smoke that smelled like chicken. And the noise! The large crowd competed for my ears with loudspeakers blasting music, a Muay Thai boxing match, and a beauty pagent.

We found a quiet place with a spectacular view to watch the fireworks. We were in front of a ruin surrounded by the water of a man-made lake. The lake reflected the action of the festival, doubling the silhouettes of people walking through smoke on the other side.

Nearby our staked claim, a jovial group people drank Thai whisky and laughed. One of them asked where Michelle was from and refused to believe her answer. The women whispered and giggled and the men continued to speak to her in Thai. They were a friendly group, offering me a big glass of whisky over and over again until Michelle poked me in the ribs and I finally accepted. Every time I made the mistake of drinking more from my glass, it was promptly refilled. Michelle and I chatted with them in broken English and Thai until the fireworks started. By the end of the night, I'd been offered lots of whisky, seltzer water, fried fishballs, noodles, a better place to sit, and I'd launched my kathrong with a couple of the women in a makeshift ceremony with a large crowd watching.

The fireworks were supposed to be the climax of the festival, but for me it was the ride home. The historic park was a 12 km ride home on a songthaew (a flatbed or pickup truck with rows of seats in the back). In this busy hour, most of the vehicles were packed. The owner of one songthaew motioned for Michelle and I to hang on the back of her truck. I smiled, Michelle grimaced, and we both hopped on.

The crowds also left the park by bus, pickup truck, tuk-tuk, and motorcycle. You wouldn't have guessed there were lines painted on the road by the way drivers zig zagged their way towards home. As our songthaew flew down the road at 50 km/hour, we stood on the edge of the bumper hanging on for dear life. I felt like an extra from the Road Warrior - and let me tell you, the Thai whisky went a long way in fostering my mood. Headlights from the menagerie of speeding vehicles cut through the smoky air like spotlights in an air raid. I swung back and forth on the back as we arced around motorcycles and accidents. Wahoo! I was at one with the moment as a little boy in an amusement park.

(Thankfully, we arrived safely!)

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Vendors

timThe lively market of Sukhothai is full of friendly faces and interesting food.

In the market, you can buy fruit from this woman:

Vegetables from this grocer:

Meat from the butcher:

And later at night, skewered meat:
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A marigold garland rests peacefully on the hand of Buddha. Elephants decorate the base of this historic chedi  in Sukhothai.XXXXSukhothai was the capital of Siam during the 13th and 14th centuries. The historic area of the city was inscribed as a Unesco site in 1991. A Thai child cradles a realistic toy pistol while under the watchful eye of Buddha. A Thai woman sells fruit on street in Sukhothai. A Thai woman sells vegetables on street in Sukhothai.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Staying Put

bothYesterday we flew from Hanoi to Bangkok, then we took an overnight train north to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is a beautiful old city full of character and charm. The Old City lies in the center, marked by a square moat and red brick walls. The city is full of Buddhist temples - there seems to be one on each corner. Bright red and gold roofs glitter in the sun as we walk around getting our bearings. The city is also has a cosmopolitan feel with large shopping malls, ATMs, and movie theaters.

We plan to rent a room here in Chiang Mai for a month and take a break from constantly moving from one city to another. The month has an educational theme in that we plan to take a Thai massage course, take Thai cooking classes, and even hear a lecture or two on Buddhism. On the weekends we will visit the surrounding hills, trekking to see the hill tribe people who reside in the surrounding areas. This is where we will spend our Christmas and New Year's - our home away from home.

 

 

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A Dining Experience

michelleTonight, Tim and I set out to find a restaurant highlighted in our guidebook for its delicious fishball soup (ground fish shaped into small balls). We mistakenly walked pass the restaurant so ended up eating at an outdoor restaurant by a popular night market. We delighted ourselves eating sea bass and asparagus, rice, and a vegetable green curry dish.

Dining outside, especially in a tourist area, brought many distractions. Every few minutes walking street vendors approached our table, hungry for our money. Without leaving our table, we could have bought lottery tickets, flowers, jewelry, purses, nuts, candy and musical instruments.

At one point, I jumped high in my seat when I turned around and found a huge colorful paper-mache lion's head inches from my face. Under the mask were the eyes of a small boy peeking out. The mask was almost equal to the size of his body. His partner, a slightly older boy, demanded sharply, "You give money! You give money!" I know it is a Chinese custom near the New Year for the Chinese lion dancers to dance in front of business and storefronts. Giving offerings to the lion ensures good luck for the upcoming year. These clever lads were approaching diners, demanding money in return for blessing. We shooed them away, taking our chances on acquiring good luck.

My favorite seller though was the man selling elephant food. As Tim and I finished our meal, I looked up to see an elephant slowly lumbering toward us on the road. A man sat on top of him, looking equally as bored as the elephant. Another man approached each table selling fruit that the buyer would then feed to the elephant. I was so startled to see an elephant in the middle of a city street I couldn't help but stare. We didn't buy any fruit but watched as others offered it to the large creature. He hungrily accepted it with his large trunk.

This went on for a while until a policeman told the elephant driver that the elephant had to move. It wasn't until the elephant turned around that I saw the flashing red light attached to his tail. The light swung back and forth with each swish of the tail - a noble attempt to warn passing vehicles of this large gray mass in the road. It was a fitting reminder we were in Thailand, land of elephants. top

Room for Rent

timWe found our room and settled in - rent plus two bicycles for a month for less than $80. Why can't D.C. be this cheap? top

Thai Massage Class

michelleOne of our dreams of our trip was to take a Thai massage course in Thailand. We want to return home able to wow people with our magical hands û relaxing and stretching muscles until they melt.

First on our Chiang Mai agenda was signing up for a massage class. So today we begin a two-week course at the Institute of Thai Massage (ITM). The first week we will learn the basics and the second week we will learn more advanced techniques.

Thai massage originated in India 2,500 years ago, around the time of Buddha. Unlike Swedish massage, which mostly kneads the muscles, Thai massage works the body's energy lines and involves much stretching. To someone who sees Thai massage for the first time it might look very strange. The masseuse uses fingers, hands, elbows, arms and feet to massage and can twist the client into some pretty impressive positions! top

Massage: Week 1

timAfter week one of Thai massage class, we have discovered that I am as limber as Michelle is stiff. My muscles feel energized and full of life, while she is walking Chiang Mai like an 80 year old woman.

It is the stretching that gets to you. The moves are so close to yoga that our instructor John (Chongkol) calls the practice of Thai massage "yoga for lazy people" and we start each day of class with an hour yoga session. After the stretching and the hour of demonstration that follows, we practice on each other for several hours and repeat the moves several times until we get it right (moves such as "the plow" handstand with legs bent behind head). All the while, Thai assistants sit beside us and point out problems with our technique.

After only one week of practice, I can see a remarkable change in my flexibility and energy. Too bad Michelle just wants to spend the weekend resting her sore muscles. top

An elephant stands watch over Wat Chiang Man, the oldest Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai - built in 1296. Reliefs carved on the outside of the Buddhist temple Wat Jet Yot. The sloping wooden roof of Wat Phan Tao in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a prime example of the northern Thai An intricate carving adorns a door in the northern Thai temple of Wat Phra Singh (1343 AD), also known as Wat Lee Chiang Phra. An intricate carving adorns a door in the northern Thai temple of Wat Phra Singh (1343 AD), also known as Wat Lee Chiang Phra. The stupa is the centerpiece of the Doi Suthep temple, which was established in 1383 and overlooks the city of Chiang Mai from an altitude of over 1600m. Statuettes of revered monks and Buddha adorn the Suan Dawk temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wat U-Mong, Thailand

Buddhism

timThe Buddhist temple of Wat U-Mong is only a couple of kilometers outside of Chiang Mai - an easy distance on my one-gear mountain bike. I arrived with enough time to enjoy the 600-year-old temple's Buddhist library, quiet forest trails, and tall bell shaped chedi. At 3 PM, I walked down to the Chinese pagoda overlooking the picturesque lake for today's event, an informal discussion on Buddhism led by an English monk (hosted every Sunday).

He looked similar to the other Thai monks in his orange robe and sandals, but the sun glinted off his white shaved head more intensely than from his darker skinned brothers. He sat down in the lotus position and started the conversation with a few minutes of contemplative silence.

He then fielded questions that participants had about Buddhism, and continued by discussing in detail the themes that emerged in his answers. For the next two hours, 20 people participated in a conversation that was interrupted only by the splash of huge catfish from the nearby lake.


To know Southeast Asia you must learn a little about Buddhism. So what is it?

Buddha was born a wealthy prince in India 2500 years ago. Though he lacked for nothing, he felt a deep compassion for mankind's universal suffering and renounced his life of luxury to find a remedy. After many years of asceticism and meditation, he realized the teachings of Buddhism, became enlightened, and communicated the Dhamma (teachings of Buddhism) to the world.

Buddha taught that everything on earth is impermanent. In the end, flowers wilt, computers become obsolete, cars break down, bodies grow old, and spouses die. Yet we grasp on to these objects like they will last forever and suffer when they do not. Yet impermanence is their nature - they are just doing what we knew they would.

Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering (or Unsatisfactoriness)
  2. The arising of suffering
  3. The cessation of suffering
  4. The path leading to the cessation of suffering
Suffering Suffering extends from every problem we face in life, from major catastrophes to minor inconveniences. Like a doctor curing a disease, Buddha asks us in the First Noble Truth to look deeply into our suffering - to ask where it hurts and discover which disease needs to be cured.

The Arising of Suffering To determine the correct medication needed to cure your disease, the doctor must understand the cause of your illness. This you must do with the Second Noble Truth. You must determine how suffering arose in you.

Buddha teaches that universal suffering is caused by the craving of sense pleasures and attachment to desire. His prescription is to recognize desire for what is and let go of it.

The Cessation of Suffering Your suffering ends with the cessation and complete extinction of your craving. Following the doctor's advice cures the patient.

The Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering To stay away from suffering, Buddha prescribes the Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right Understanding: (Sometimes translated as Right View) Cultivating a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths.
  2. Right Thought: (Sometimes translated as Right Intention) The product of right understanding. Fostering loving kindness, compassion, and the wholesome thoughts that lead to the liberation from suffering.
  3. Right Speech: Cultivating deep listening, speaking truthfully, not speaking with a forked tongue, not speaking cruelly, and not exaggerating.
  4. Right Action: Abstinence from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
  5. Right Livelihood: Not earning a living by dealing in arms, slaughtering animals, killing humans, selling intoxicating substances (alcohol and drugs), selling poisons, making prophesies, or telling fortunes.
  6. Right Effort: Putting your energy towards ending suffering by nourishing the wholesome and rejecting the unwholesome.
  7. Right Mindfulness: Watching your thoughts and actions and directing them appropriately.
  8. Right Concentration: Developing concentration and control of the mind by being present to the moment.
Web Links Want to know more? Buddhanet.net has a wealth of information about Buddhism, from basic teachings to good resources. Also, I'd recommend just about any book by Thich Nhat Hahn. top

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Healing Touch

michelleYesterday, riding home from class on my bike, my pant leg got caught on a pedal. One minute I was enjoying the sun warming my face and the wind blowing through my hair; I was free, free from class, free from work, free to travel the world. The next minute I was sprawled on the gravelly earth, hugging the road as if we were long lost friends. Rising, I found only a couple cuts and bruises although it seemed the road didn't want to say good-bye. Rocks and pebbles and dirt clung to me. My left palm burned with fire. I mounted my bike and rode home much more cautiously.

Today in class, my wrist throbbed and my palm was purple. This is not good considering palms are main instruments used in giving Thai massage. The palms move up and down the body, warming and relaxing the muscles. Today I was using only one palm and Tim was getting a very weak massage.

One of the massage assistants approached me with Tiger Balm in her hand and a concerned look on her face. She spoke little English but it was clear she wanted to help. She took my hand in hers and began circling Tiger Balm around my injury with her thumbs. Soon tingling mingled with the pain. I watched in fascination as she then massaged my arm, starting at the elbow and moving toward the wrist. She worked my arm's energy lines pressing carefully with her thumbs. Then at my wrists, she stopped the blood flow with her fingers for a few seconds. She raised my hand to her ear and listened. What was she listening to? My pulse? The energy flow? She massaged my wrist one more time and then listened again. When she was satisfied, she moved up to my hand and gave me an awesome hand massage. Each finger was kneaded, pulled and stretched. She ended the show with a slight shake of my hand - to rid the area of any bad energy and hopefully to make room for quicker healing.

The pain faded quickly and within hours the purple and swelling almost disappeared. It was an amazing lesson on the body and what healing touch in the right hands can do. I am so glad I am in this class. top

Babies Home

michelleThe sound of children tumbled towards us - squeals, laughter, cries. I led the way up the stairs as five friends from massage class followed. At the top of the stairs were brown doors; not knowing what to expect beyond them, they looked large and daunting. I took a deep breathe and pushed them open.

The room was momentarily quiet as thirty-six small eyes stared at us. Then recognition lit their faces: we were visitors, coming to play. The children old enough to walk yelped in delight and ran towards us. Soon we all had children desperately tugging at our pants, wanting to be held. I picked up a lively young boy with a bowl-cut hairdo, his bangs slightly covering his eyes. All the other volunteers also had at least one, if not two, children in their arms. Victory and contentment from being held shone from their smiles. Others, still on the floor, wanting to be held, screamed from the injustice. There just weren't enough arms.

We were at the Vienping House for Babies. It's part of an orphanage serving most of Northern Thailand. This particular group of children were the one to two year-olds. In other rooms and buildings on the complex were housed the infants and older children. We had seen signs asking for volunteers to come play with the children and decided to visit after our massage class. We entered their world after a short 15 minute bus ride out of town.

For the next couple of hours we played with the children. They flowed from one volunteer to the next, eating up our attention. I stood, now with a small girl in my arms, and surveyed the room. It was clean and orderly but sterile, reminding me of a hospital. The floor was hard tile and there was no furniture, only a couple mats. Toys were scattered around the floor- plastic cups, beanie babies, tin bracelets, toy cars and miniature plastic kitchenware. Children sat and played with them, as staff and volunteers watched and played too.

As I watched to scene before me, I contemplated on what circumstances brought these children here. Why were the parents unable to care for their children? I looked at the small faces and wondered, knowing there could be a myriad of reasons: poverty, death, prison, abuse, illness.

My thoughts drifted to the children's mothers. I couldn't imagine the pain and sacrifice the mothers had to endure to give these little ones up. I know if I had a child and then had to give it up, a large part of my heart would die. Even thinking about it made me shudder.

We played with the children and poured out as much love and affection as we could in a short amount of time. The cynic in me wondered if it even mattered; with so little time, did it actually make a difference? I had to believe, even if it was for my own sake, that the answer was yes. That every hug, every kind word, and every laugh helped the children grow and feel more welcome in this world.

When it was time for them to eat dinner and the staff politely signaled it was time to leave, we all reluctantly said good-bye. Once outside the brown doors, I turned and looked through their glass windows. A small boy was still waving and blowing kisses at us, bidding us a warm farewell.

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Graduation

michelleToday we graduated from Thai massage class! I wouldn't say we are experts at this ancient art form, but after 60 hours of in-class practice, we have a solid foundation. And we have diplomas to prove it!

To our friends and family interested in testing our new skills in Thai massage: start groveling now!

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The Power of Touch

michelleI brought Tim along on my return trip to the orphanage. The children piled on top of him, clambering for attention. He handled it really well!

Cher, a friend from our massage class, was also there. She is from Maryland and we have enjoyed hanging out with someone from so close to home. As a professional massage therapist, she was in Chiang Mai to take several massage classes.

It was Sunday, a day most of the staff at the orphanage takes off, so the volunteers were extra busy with the little ones. We took them outside to play and brought them in for a bowl of rice porridge around lunchtime. Most of the children could feed themselves and we helped the ones that couldn't.

After lunch, we set up a conveyor belt-like system to give the children baths. A volunteer would strip a child of their clothes and then pass him/her to another adult at a large sink. There the children were soaped up and rinsed off and then handed to another adult to be dried. Each child was then passed to a counter to be dressed in clean clothes. It was very efficient and in no time all 18 children were ready for their afternoon nap.

One little girl though stopped the flurry of activity in its tracks. She had been very quiet and still on her mat and no one had really paid much attention to her. Sometimes, unfortunately, it is the loud children who get the attention while the quiet ones are overlooked. But when we undressed her for her bath we were shocked at how skinny she was. Her body was frightfully thin and frail. One volunteer, who had been coming for three months, was outraged the little girl had deteriorated so badly. She informed us the girl had arrived a month ago, healthy and plump. Now she was just a shadow.

It was obvious she was suffering from emotional trauma from the sudden separation from her mother/parents. The staff, with so many children to look after, was not able to give her the attention she needed. In her grief, she was withdrawing û not eating or interacting. She needed more than what the staff could give.

Cher asked for some olive oil and then, using her massage therapist background, began to give the baby a massage. For the next 20 minutes I watched her hands slide up and down, stroking and touching. Cher explained how essential touches is to human survival and that at an early age if infants do not receive enough tactile stimulation, they can literally whither and die. It's called the 'failure to thrive' syndrome. Children can have their basic necessities like food and shelter met, but without touch they will not survive.

As Cher's hands massaged, her mouth also worked, showering the girl with soft whispers of love. Slowly the baby's whole being transformed. Her body went from a tight angry ball to a relaxed comforted child. Her facial muscles loosened and a smile emerged.

The other children were all lying on their mats falling asleep but the child whimpered and cried when Cher went to lie the little girl down. She was not ready for the touch to stop. So Cher sat and rocked her until sleep arrived.

The hand is an amazing conveyer of information. There is power in touch. Power to convey love û to hold, to stroke, to nurture. Watching Cher work was a testament to the power of loving touch.

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Happy New Year!

bothJust like everywhere else in the world, welcoming in a new year in Chiang Mai brings much celebration. Last night people dressed in their best to dine, party-goers sat in bars wearing festive hats swaying to the live band music. White lights hung from trees and bridges illuminating the city. We had a nice dinner with friends by a river and then stopped at a food stall, eating banana pancakes for dessert.

At midnight, fireworks exploded in the sky sending streams of color cascading towards us. In the distance, miniature hot air balloons made of paper glowed orange in the sky. We watched them float peacefully upwards until they disappeared into the stars.

As champagne bottles popped and people celebrated around us, we couldn't help but marvel over our last year. A year ago we didn't even know we'd be traveling. Now, 12 months later, we've been to ten countries, swam in four oceans and three seas. We've hiked in jungles, on mountains, along volcano rims, and through caves. We have ridden in buses, tuk-tuks, songtaews, cyclos, motorbikes and cars for thousands of miles. We have seen mangroves, marshes, rain forests, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And the journey isn't even half over! 2001 is sure to bring equal, if not more, adventures our way.

To our family and friends who love and support us from home and to the new friends we've made along the way...

Happy New Year!

With love, Michelle and Tim top

Thai Cooking Class

michelleFood in Southeast Asia is delicious. Our stomachs have grown large as evidence to this fact. Picture the Chinese Buddha with his round robust tummy happily protruding and his smile of contentment. This is what we are starting to resemble. Often Tim and I pat each other's stomachs and call each other "our little Buddha." We have consumed countless fruit shakes, banana pancakes, and bowls of noodle soup.

Thai food in particular has captured our heart and stomachs. It is a wonderful mixture of sweet and sour, hot and salty flavors. We have feasted on Tom Yum soup, Phad Thai noodles, green curry, and coconut curry. Upon returning home we want to continue eating Thai cuisine so we took a cooking class at the Sompet Thai Cookery School.

The school was a few miles outside of Chiang Mai nestled in a garden by a river. It was an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city. Our teacher, Mrs. Busara, was a spunky Thai woman overflowing with energy. She gave us a tour of the garden while throwing interesting food facts our way. We walked among cumin, mint, leeks, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chives, lemon grass, basil, eggplant, peppers, and mushrooms.

After the garden tour, we set to work and the next couple hours were a whirlwind of cooking activity - chopping, slicing, cutting, pounding, stirring. We made green curry paste, Phad Thai, fish cake, coconut milk soup with chicken, hot and sour prawn soup, and dipping sauces. Each student had their own work area and stove to cook. When all the food was ready, we settled down to enjoy a beautiful feast. Yum! top

An elephant stands watch over Wat Chiang Man, the oldest Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai - built in 1296. Reliefs carved on the outside of the Buddhist temple Wat Jet Yot. The sloping wooden roof of Wat Phan Tao in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a prime example of the northern Thai An intricate carving adorns a door in the northern Thai temple of Wat Phra Singh (1343 AD), also known as Wat Lee Chiang Phra. An intricate carving adorns a door in the northern Thai temple of Wat Phra Singh (1343 AD), also known as Wat Lee Chiang Phra. The stupa is the centerpiece of the Doi Suthep temple, which was established in 1383 and overlooks the city of Chiang Mai from an altitude of over 1600m. Statuettes of revered monks and Buddha adorn the Suan Dawk temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Pai, Thailand

Relaxing Pai

michelleThe sight of two small boys floating down the river, clutching bamboo poles to help them float, greets us. The current quickly carries them out of view. It has late afternoon and we just arrived in Pai, a small laid-back town near the north border of Thailand, close to Burma.

Our room, a bamboo thatched bungalow, sits atop wooden stilts, overlooking a gentle, green river. Light flickers off the surface like sparkling jewels. Surrounded by intensely bright bougainvillia and large leafed banana trees, I stand on our balcony and breathe in my surroundings. Across the river, children laugh as they run along dirt paths between rice paddies. Farmers finish up another day of work as the sun begins to set and the land glows in golden hues.

Small coffee shops and restaurants with relaxing ambience line the streets of Pai. It's a place that attracts hippie-types and backpackers, with a relaxing atmosphere that woos the mind and body to slow to a crawl. I've heard Pai is a difficult place for travelers to leave - its charm and beauty become intoxicating and time seems to melt; days turn into weeks if you are not careful. The longer I stand here enjoying the view, the more I understand why. top

Festival

timWe heard one traveler say, "I've come to the conclusion that the air in Pai is lazy." I couldn't describe the town more clearly myself. It radiates calmness and serenity while simultaneously sucking from you any productive ambition you once displayed. So days are just spent relaxing and enjoying life.

Today's full moon seemed to agree. It rose from behind the mountains as slowly as people ambled down Pai's darkened streets. (We witnessed its rise riverside with drinks in hand.) The moon followed us through the dirt streets and down an alley lit by torches, to the field where tonight's full moon cultural festival was being staged.

A bonfire illuminated the center of the field with a dancing circle of light. Several straw mats were scattered around the field, illuminated by candlelit, so we chose the closest one to the warm fire and settled down for what turned out to be a long evening.

The Shan hilltribe men started the night, playing local music with their traditional bamboo instruments while we ate dinner. The music complimented such local dishes as pumpkin and tofu curries, pork, cabbage, eggplant, and rice.

After dinner, five Lisu hilltribe women danced around the fire wearing a strange mix of traditional clothes and thick Spice Girl shoes. A lone male musician playing a wind instrument circled opposite them in what looked like a courtship dance, wooing the women with his ability to dance and play simultaneously.

Other tribes danced to a different tune, such as the two women in bird costumes who danced to the offbeat music created by a five-foot high Coke bottle shaped drum and five gongs. What other music would sound better for dancing around a fire with wings strapped to your back?

Later in the night, the hilltribe people said their good-byes and handed the music over to the foreigners. Old hippie, folk, and Irish tunes filled my ears and, for better or worse, made me forget for a moment what country I was in.

There I sat under the full moon - next to a fire, listening to music, eating sticky rice, enjoying the company of friends, and hanging out with nothing to do. I'd found the essence of Pai. top

Elephant Ride

timElephants are huge. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but that was one of two thoughts running through my head before the elephant trainer ushered Michelle, our friend Catherine, and me to mount the enormous elephant standing next to us.

We climbed a ladder to an elephant-high platform where I was 'volunteered' to hop on first. I stepped barefoot across the elephant's broad neck, walked the rear, swiveled around, and sat down on its bare back. When I looked down, the other thought running through my mind came through more clearly - my brain reminded me that if I fell from this height, I'd break my neck and my mother would give me the biggest, 'I told you so!' finger wagging ever. But then I saw the giggling eight-year-old boy who was the trainer for the other group's elephant and felt much safer about my position. At least our guide was old enough to drive a car.

The guide sat on the elephant's neck and controlled it by grunting commands, nudging behind its ears with his bare feet, and tapping it lightly with a mean looking pointed hammer. As we ambled down the road, my legs gripped the elephant's back with the same efficiency of a child's hand palming a basketball - the elephant's torso was too large for my legs to get a good grip, so I had to rely on gravity and my friends to keep me on top.

The short stiff hairs on the elephant's hips swished below mine and, with each lumbering step, gave me the sensation of being tickled by bristles from an old scrub brush. Meanwhile, the trainer made "Ughh, ug, ungg!" noises and drove the elephant down into the Pai River.

My skepticism about taking a touristy elephant ride faded away when we reached the deep section of the river. The trainer barked the new command of "Bon, bon, bon" and the elephant turned into a slow motion bucking bronco, dunking us into the cold river and hosing us down with sprays from its trunk. (Brave Catherine in the front took the brunt of the trunk spray). It was better than any amusement park flume-ride I'd ever seen. Between our fits of laughter and the dunking we took, it was a miracle we stayed on.

We arrived back at the elephant camp after our 90-minute ride sporting sore bottoms and wet clothes. But the elephant put up with us so graciously that Michelle tipped him a big bunch of bananas.

Here is a sketch that Michelle drew of the elephant:

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Burmese Children

michelleA trickle of sweat rolls down the spine of my back. It tickles a little. The afternoon sun, high above, makes the white pages of my book glaring bright and I have to squint to read. I sit on the bungalow balcony letting the sun soak through my skin and turn it a couple shades darker.

I hear laughter in the distance and look up. Across the river I see a line of children making their way through the rice paddies. They laugh and yell, run and skip. Older children lead the way and little ones struggle to keep up. I watch as they make their way over the river on a rickety bamboo bridge and then turn down the dirt path in front of my bungalow. Their semi-uniform line reminds me of a rag tag marching band except their music is their laughter.

Soon the children pass under me, oblivious to my watching eyes. The same dirt that covers their skinny arms and legs has seeped into their clothes leaving a brown orange film, muting out the underlying colors. All the boys wear dirty baseball caps too large for their heads and all the girls carry shoulder bags. As they march pass, my heart inside is warmed as much as my outside solar-heated skin. Despite their obvious poverty they skip and play and laugh as children should - with carefree spirits embracing Life. A young girl at the end of the line looks up and catches me watching. I smile and she smiles back shyly.

Later in the afternoon I walk with Catherine (our new Irish friend) down the dirt path to the Riverside Guesthouse next door. I can still hear the children's chattering voices drifting in the air. I am curious to know what they are doing. A large round-faced Thai man greets us and introduces himself as Johnny. Off to the side, nestled by small bamboo bungalows, I can see the children sitting in rows under an open-air thatched roof.

Johnny tells us they are Burmese refugee children and he has donated some of his land to start a school for them. Every afternoon they children come to be taught, hopefully, by tourists and volunteers. His face suddenly brightens as he asks us to teach.

We wander to the back of the school hut and watch. A woman visiting from Turkey is teaching. I watch in interest as she struggles to teach English words, numbers and songs. Confusion mixed with wonder crosses the children's faces. I can see they understand very little of what she is saying. It is hard to teach when the teacher doesn't speak in their native language. They try to listen and behave but soon are fidgety and bored. So the class breaks into small groups. I sit with the older girls and help them write their alphabet. I write a letter and then they copy it. Next, I write my name for them and then they write their names in Burmese. The strange curling characters of their names look as foreign to me as my written name probably looks to them - two different worlds meeting under a thatched roof. We can't communicate by words but plenty is said through the small touches, nodding of heads, pats on backs and glowing smiles.

Later, a Thai man in a long black ponytail teaches the children math and Thai. The warmth between teacher and students makes it apparent he has an on-going relationship and commitment to the children. I found out later he comes everyday from town to teach the children as a volunteer.

The sun is beginning to glow its familiar evening 'it's time to relax' light. School is over and the children strip off their clothes and run to the river to play. Their brown bodies shine like polished stone as they splash, laugh, and play the way children should - with carefree spirits embracing Life. top

A serene lotus pond in northern Thailand. Five Thai kids flash big smiles and try to impress us with their phrases of broken English,

Chiang Kong, Thailand

Border Town

bothThough we have enjoyed our month in Chiang Mai, it is time to say good-bye to our familiar surroundings and move on to new places.

On today's 7.5-hour bus ride - a ride plagued by the choking smoke of a burned out transmission - we miraculously arrived to the northern Thai border town of Chiang Kong. Tomorrow we cross the Mekong River, enter Laos, and take the slow boat to a small town called Pakbeng. top

Bangkok, Thailand

National Pride

timIt is early morning in Bangkok's busy central train station. We have just arrived on the night train from the border of Laos and have 11 hours to kill before the next train takes us to southern Thailand.

I am looking down from the second floor at a cavernous hub of activity - people rushing to meet trains, buying tickets, and waiting patiently. At precisely 8:00 a.m. the Thai national anthem starts barking through the PA system, and like God pressing the pause button on his omnipotent remote control, all life freezes below me - the moving stops, the talking falls silent, and those sitting stand up rigidly to attention.

I am amazed from the anthem's start to finish. When it finally ends, life resumes without missing a beat. top

The chedis of Wat Po (Wat Phra Chetupon), Bangkok's largest and oldest Buddhist temple. Aside from its size and architectural majesty, Wat Po is famous for housing the 46-meter long reclining Buddha and for being the premier school of traditional Thai massage. A lotus blossom in Thai Buddhism is thought to rise from the water skyward the way the Buddha rises from earthly suffering towards enlightenment.

Chaiya, Thailand

Buddhist Retreat

michelleIt's six in the morning and I am awake to watch the sunrise. We are on a train, heading south to Chaiya. There, we will participate in a ten-day silent meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery. I listen to the calm rumble of the train, the sound of passengers slowly rising from their sleeping compartments and the attendants softly treading down the aisle, selling coffee and tea.

As the Thai countryside flashes by out the window, I contemplate what awaits us at our destination. I am nervous, not knowing what to expect. I have never been silent for so long. Not only will my voice be silent, but the things I usually depend on to distract me from myself will not be available either - television, radio, books, and writing. So it will just be my thoughts and me. I wonder if I will enjoy my company or drive myself crazy. I realize that in my 30 years I have rarely been alone for long periods of time. So as the train pulls into the Chaiya station I am filled with some apprehension, but mostly curiosity, of what the next ten days will offer.

It is 8 a.m. and we are some of the first participants to arrive and register at the International Dhamma Hermitage. It is part of the Suanmok Buddhist monastery but this center is set aside for foreigners. The main monastery is a couple kilometers down the road. The center grounds used to be a coconut plantation so the grounds are covered with row after row of palm trees, as well as banana, papaya and Banyan trees. I am immediately struck at the peacefulness of the place.

Before we register I am handed a list of guidelines to read and agree upon. They include: we will rise every morning at 4 a.m. and go to sleep at 9 p.m.; men and women will sleep in separate dorms and eat on different sides of the dining hall; we will only eat twice a day (first at 8 in the morning and then at 12:30 noon); when bathing, we must stay covered. Women should wear a sarong and men should wear shorts. We are asked to dress modestly, making sure our shoulders and knees are covered. We are asked to watch out for poisonous snakes, scorpions, and centipedes (especially in our beds). And of course, no talking, not writing, not reading, and no note passing.

I register and then go to explore my living quarters. A large, enclosed brick building, resembling a fort greets me. The inside of the building has a large communal courtyard with a grassy field. Rooms open into the courtyard and wells for bathing and laundry are spaced in the four corners and 3 sides. I do as I am instructed and take one wooden pillow, one mosquito net, a bamboo mat and a blanket. My room is nothing but a concrete square with a concrete bed, but it is actually much cleaner than many of the guesthouses we have been staying in on this trip.

After situating ourselves, we head back into town to do last minute errands. Upon returning we talk to a few others as they arrive. There is an excited giddiness in the air. People are nervous, curious, and wary. It feels like we are entering a grown-up summer camp.

In our final moments before the retreat starts, Tim and I sit together trying to use words we will silence in the next hour. But not much comes. Already our hearts and minds are becoming more still, preparing for solitude. We wonder what it will be like to be separated after spending 8 months constantly together.

One hundred and forty people have arrived from all over the world. We sit in a large open hall, surrounded by palm trees, sand, and three ponds. People sit on their own square cushion on the cement floor, where we will sit for the next ten days. A bell is rung. The silence begins.

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Schedule

timOne may ask what we do here at the Suan Mohhk Buddhist meditation retreat - how we fill our days. They keep us pretty busy, as this schedule will testify:

  • 04:00 Rise and Shine
  • 04:30 Morning Reading
  • 04:45 Sitting Meditation
  • 05:15 Karate/Tai Chi
  • 07:00 Sitting Meditation
  • 08:00 Breakfast & Chores
  • 10:00 Dhamma Talk
  • 11:00 Walking or Sitting Meditation
  • 11:30 Sitting Meditation
  • 12:00 Walking or Standing Meditation
  • 12:30 Lunch and Chores
  • 14:30 Instruction/Sitting Meditation
  • 15:30 Walking or Sitting Meditation
  • 16:15 Sitting Meditation
  • 17:00 Chanting and Loving Kindness Meditation
  • 18:00 Tea and use of hot spring
  • 19:30 Dhamma Talk
  • 20:00 Walking, Standing, or Sitting Meditation
  • 21:00 Bedtime
  • 22:00 Lights Out
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Symphony in Silence

michelleAt the beginning, keeping silent for ten days seemed like a daunting task. But after five days I am finding it easy and peaceful, even preferable. It is refreshing to be in a group of 140 people and yet there is no opportunity for cliques, no competition for attention and no insensitive statements. Usually in a large group, the louder ones dominate. But here, we are all individuals in the same boat, on the same level. It is refreshing.

So often we talk and never really listen to the words we speak. We spend much of our lives using words to impress, flatter, and convince. The silence has helped me look inside and my mind is able to reflect more deeply and listen on a deeper level.

Without words to clutter the air and mind, other sounds have emerged much louder. The sounds of nature have come alive! There is a symphony going on around us. Fish splash in the pond, birds sing melodies and leaves rustle with rhythm. Dragonflies hum, crickets fiddle tunes and frogs croak in harmony to the beat of the gecko's cry. All with the finale of a "boom!" as a coconut falls to the ground from high above.

Listening to nature, for days on end, has made my heart skip with delight. top

Dawn

michelleEvery morning at 4 a.m. a bell rings, calling us away from our dreams. Night still lingers, the moon still shines, and it will be another three hours before the sun's rays arrive.

I watch the slow change as darkness flows to color - purple to blue, green to gold. We all stand in awe and respect as the sun makes its spectacular morning appearance. There is stillness in the air as the giant orange ball floats above the pond and a midst slowly rises off the water.

It's a great way to start each day.

Nature's first hue is gold Her hardest hue to hold Her early bud's a flower But only for an hour. Then Eden sank to grief As leaf subsides to leaf, As dawn goes down to day Nothing gold can stay. By Robert Frost
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Self-Discovery

timThe journey of self-discovery is a hard one. By the end of our retreat at Suan Mohhk, our 140-member group had dwindled down to a mere 100. Forty people couldn't handle something - the silence, the solitude, the concrete beds, the message, the no smoking policy, or the infrequent mealtimes. Or just maybe, they just didn't like themselves as company.

I understand their feelings perfectly. There were many times this week where I wanted nothing more than to flee the retreat and go to the beach. But these times were mixed with happiness and determination - and that is what kept me working on my mind instead of my tan. When I look back at my journal entries, entries that range from cursing anger to unbridled joy, I can clearly view my normally stable personality vacillating between extremes.

But we didn't meditate about childhood or problems, but rather to watch our minds in action - to watch the cause and effect of our thoughts as they arose. We can compare this meditation to the passive act of watching television. If you watch enough TV you eventually begin to understand where the plot is going to lead before the show ends.

I learned you can do the same thing with your mind - if you watch it carefully enough, you can know where it is going, and if you desire, control the outcome. top

Chaiya, Thailand

The Middle Path

timWe ate just twice daily at Suan Mohhk - a bland breakfast of rice soup at 8:00 AM and coconut curry with brown rice for lunch at 12:30 PM. But that left 19.5 hours between meals with nothing more than a cup of soymilk in the evening. As someone a dietician would call a grazer, I feared growing hungry between meals and ate too much at mealtimes for the first couple of days.

But Buddhism teaches moderation and mindfulness: moderation to eat just what is needed to live a healthy life and mindfulness to enjoy each bite of food fully. Over the 10-day course their lessons sank in - I took less food and enjoyed what I ate more. I experimented until I knew how much food I needed to keep me satisfied and found out that I needed far less than what I was used to eating. And by the end of the retreat, despite deliciously rich coconut curries and 23 hours a day of inactivity, I've lost 5-10 pounds and I feel wonderful. top

Wat Suan Mokkh meditates during sunrise. This Thai Buddhist temple runs ten day silent meditation retreats in English for foreigners." >The abbot of <a href=Wat Suan Mokkh meditates during sunrise. This Thai Buddhist temple runs ten day silent meditation retreats in English for foreigners." />

Ko Samui, Thailand

Return to Civilization

michelleWe made it! After ten days of silence, deep reflection, early mornings and being separated from each other, the retreat was over. Who ever knew meditation could be so hard?

As we stood outside the retreat center along a highway waiting for a bus, cars and trucks zoomed by. The world was brighter, louder, and busier than I remembered. Now we were headed to Ko Samui, an island not far away, to relax on its beautiful beaches.

From the minute Tim and I were reunited our mouths gushed with words. I was astonished at what different experiences we had. For the one-hour bus ride, two hour ferry ride, 45-minute taxi ride, and then late into the night, we talked. We shared our experiences, thoughts, ideas, and observations. We talked philosophy, religion, spirituality, and the meaning of life. We agreed that, although the retreat was difficult at times, the insights we gained were very valuable.

Ko Samui is one of Thailand's most popular beach resorts. I can understand why with its turquoise water, fine sand beaches, fancy hotels and restaurants. We will spend the next couple of days here soaking in the sun's rays, swimming, writing, and reading. top

Ko Samui, Thailand

Next Stop

timWe weighed our two options carefully: either an overnight train followed by 24 hours of travel on some of the worst roads in the world, or a quick 75-minute hop on a regional airline. We chose the easy way from southern Thailand to Cambodia and booked a direct flight from the resort island of Ko Samui to Phnom Penh.

But in coming to Ko Samui to catch our flight, we traded in our usual crowd of backpackers for retirees on package tours and Europeans on holiday. Let's just say, we feel a little out of our element and look forward to being back with the other disenfranchised travel riffraff û which we will be sure to find in Phnom Penh. top