Khao Sok had been a time of planning and just enjoying the natural surroundings. The seasons and visas have always been the things that are going to dictate our journey to the greatest extent (partly because of the regions we want to visit) and after a few days of brain storming and researching we both felt we had a clearer idea of where we were headed over the next few months. Bidding farewell to Marita (for 2 days) we began the cycle to Suan Mokh, the monastery where we would partake in a ten day silent meditation retreat or more accurately, meditation boot camp.
Our first day should have been easy. In fact it was supposed to only be a 55km day. I envisioned being done by lunchtime. Alas, this was not to be. Astrid and I decided to take a road that was no longer a road. Signs clearly marked it as such but we decided to ignore them. Even when we met a group of Chinese cyclists who had tried the same road but had come undone, we did not turn back. It was too great a temptation to see if we could get through. Plus I seriously hate retracing my steps. Basically it was once a normal bitumen road but had been closed for some reason and now the jungle had encroached, leaving only a small strip of concrete to cycle on. It certainly made me appreciate how quickly nature takes over when the humans go away. The road was also incredibly steep, so we were forced to push the ladies during parts of it. It was hard going in the heat of the day but finally we did begin to descend, winding our way down off the mountain. At the bottom there was a great big fence with a padlock on it. I immediately began planning how we could lift the bikes over, but this was not required as a group of Thai gardeners saw us and came and helped us get the bikes over. What legends. They must have thought we were freaks.
Once over the fence we found ourselves in very odd surroundings. Manicured lawns, seemingly empty guest houses, the big dam wall and almost no people. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast and it was almost 3pm, the next few kilometers of steep climbs and descents really tested us. Randomly we saw a sign to something called ‘Guilin’ . Astrid decided to google it, and it turns out it was a highly recommended restaurant. So we went and had lunch in a very posh restaurant, on a lawn, overlooking the dam and karst mountains. We felt rather out of place but had the best ‘wingbean salad’ ever. And it wasn’t even that expensive.
After lunch we were faced with another closed road. Our choice was to ignore it and cycle over the dam wall, or to go around, possibly adding 5km of undulations to our day. Feeling a little rebellious, we wheeled the ladies around the barrier and sped across the deserted dam wall road. At the other end we could see Thai people watching and laughing at us as we struggled to maneuver the bikes under a barrier. No one complained or approached us. Now we were in an area full of local tourists. There was a monument, views of the dam, Karst mountains, people picnicking, drinking and playing loud music. Oh and a temple. There is always a temple. Being exhausted we wandered around and briefly considered trying to hide our tent somewhere up there, but it was too busy. It was one of those moments where I felt truly homeless and a little overwhelmed.
Things improved though, we met the Chinese cyclists again, who were very impressed by our bikes (especially how much they weighed) and our journey. Then on our way down into town we found a guest house, which was full, but using google translate the lady was more than happy to let us camp and use the toilet/shower for the small fee of $3. There was even a restaurant. Another lesson about how things always work out and we always find somewhere to sleep.
A delicious breakfast was had a few kilometres down the road and using the i phone we planned our route through the back roads. Thailand is really great in the fact that it does have a network of back roads. The morning was spent cycling through palm and rubber plantations, observing Thai life from behind the scenes. Unfortunately I did stuff up the directions by not looking at the map properly and we did 10km in the opposite direction. Astrid was understandably less than impressed. Oops. In the afternoon we found a great local market, bought snacks and clothes and stumbled across a river by following a sign with a serious looking dude and some water on it. All around the river, locals were enjoying some leisure time; swimming, washing their cars, setting off fire works and playing loud music. We had a dip and then decided it was too good a place not to camp, even though we only had bananas to eat for dinner. Once everyone left, the place was quite tranquil and reminded us of camping in Australia.
The next day a short cycle bought us to the Suan Mokh monastery. Here we were required to sign in and were given free rooms for the night. Actually the rooms were more like cells (think barbed wire and bars on the windows) and it made me wonder who they were trying to keep out or in? We did some washing and set up our rooms before heading out the front for some lunch and to meet Marita. I guess at this point what exactly we were doing probably requires an explanation. Meditation is something Astrid and I have been interested in and practicing on and off for about a year. A loose definition is mindfulness with breathing; basically sitting down and concentrating your mind on the breathing, rather than the million random thoughts about the future and past that most of us have swimming around in our heads. Or falling asleep, which is often what happens to the other percentage of people. If you have ever tried to clear your mind of all thoughts and just concentrate on breathing you will appreciate that this is quite difficult to do. The mental and physical benefits of mediation are rather astounding and the science is starting to come out to explain this in a way us rational westerners can appreciate. We even met an Irish guy who had used meditation to cure himself of cancer and renal failure. After retesting and being sent to many specialists, his Irish medical team concluded that it was ‘a miracle’ (not the meditation) that cured him. So, one can see it may take a while for mainstream to catch on, at least in certain parts of the world!
For us doing the mediation retreat (or boot camp) was a way to improve our technique and gain a deeper understanding of the practice. Both of us gained so much from it. For me it was a deeper sense of peace and joy, a much improved ability to sit and concentrate on my breathing and an even greater appreciation and lust for life. And I was pretty happy with life before! It also really cemented for me that I am on the right path in life, in terms of this journey and the choices I have made in life. But I am jumping ahead! We met up with Marita and then walked down the highway to a place that had wifi and cake, to indulge and wish our families a happy new year and goodbye for 10 days (no contact to the outside world permitted while at the retreat).
The next morning we packed up and moved from the main monastery to the Suan Mokh International Dharma Hermitage, about 2 km away. This is where we registered, paid ($68 AUD for 10 days) settled into our rooms (cells) and got given a tour. Talking was still allowed at this stage and it was clear that there were people here from all over the globe. It was weird making friends and chatting, knowing that soon we would all be living in silence. The grounds were beautiful and the entire place radiated a sense of peace and calm. The buildings were very simple and the women and men lived separately in compounds, with communal toilets and bucket shower area. Our rooms were cell like, with concrete beds, a straw mat and wooden pillow. The living conditions did not bother us at all as when camping we often don’t have toilets or water to wash. Plus here we had natural hot springs, a short walk from our compound. Bonus. Essentially, the idea was to live like monks or nuns over the next 10 days. Phones, computers, books were encouraged to be handed over. Of course, there was no way they could police everyone but I decided to get as much as I could out of it and handed over my technology. Marita and I went on a last minute chocolate cake and wifi binge in the afternoon and then at 7pm on the 31st of December the silence started. Happy New Year.
I will now describe our typical schedule for the next 10 days and some of my impressions.
4am – The monastery bell goes and wakes us up. I usually dressed by candlelight, washed my face, brushed teeth and headed out. It’s actually quite a magical part of the day to be up. Most of us carried candle lanterns and this added to the atmosphere. We went and sat in a big, open mediation hall, lit by candles. Everyone had their seat for the 10 days and it was interesting observing the people sitting around you as most of them I had not talked to before the silence began.
4.30am – Morning reading by one of the participants. They targeted native English speakers and both Marita and I did a reading. It was a little scary.
4.45am – Mediation.
5.15 Yoga. This was taught in an open hall by one of the participants who was a yoga teacher. She was brilliant and it solidified a love of yoga for me. Both Astrid and I have been doing yoga nearly everyday since the retreat. It was during yoga that it began to get light, the birds went nuts all around us and you could watch the mist rising over the ponds.
7am – Dharma talk. Usually a Thai monk. I often found them a bit difficult to understand.
7.30am – Meditation.
8am – Breakfast. Rice soup and greens with warm water instead of coffee (!). It was okay but I hated rice soup in the end.
8.30ish – Chores. I mopped, Astrid swept. I chose a shit job as it took forever and the lady I was mopping with was rather annoying and I ended up doing most of the work. See I am not all ‘om’ yet!
9am – to about 9.45am – free time. Astrid often went to the hot springs. I usually rested or occasionally washed some clothes or cleaned my cell. It was crazy how much washing went on! It seemed like all the women were constantly washing their clothes. I only washed them about twice (other than undies) and was wondering if I was being a bit of a grot. I mean we were only sitting around for most of the day.
10am – Dharma talk for the first few days, then just meditation (sitting).
10.30 – Walking, standing or sitting meditation.
11.45 More meditation. Basically after the first few days it was a pretty loose schedule of meditating to your own rhythm. Mostly back pain limited how long I could sit. I would get up, walk around, stretch and go again.
12.30 LUNCH!! We ate all our meals in big dinning hall together. Lunch was always amazing. Brown rice and a mix of delicious vegetarian dishes as well as great bean dessert.
12.30-2.30pm – free time! To be honest I mainly had afternoon naps during this time. I was pretty tired, especially on the first few days.
2.30pm – Dharma talk from the British monk. He is a really great dude. The first few days I thought he was a bit of an arrogant twat but very interesting. I kind of wanted to take him for a beer and pick his brain. Later on I got a real appreciation for him. He is very wise and quite funny. My only issue with the Dharma talks and Buddhism in general were that a lot of the time I had difficulty in how I could incorporate meaningful meditation into my life, without living like a monk. I don’t want to give up love, art, literature, music, travel, wine or delicious food or any of the good things that make up the human existence. I think life is complex and beautiful and I don’t want to lose that. The picture some of the monks painted of being a real meditator was very bland and rather depressing to me. It certainly gave me a lot to consider, even though I won’t be taking on everything I learnt.
3.30pm – Meditation – standing/sitting/walking.
5pm – Chanting and loving kindness. Hmmm. Not my favorite. I like organised religion even less than I thought. I found the chants a little or a lot annoying. Often I just stayed at the hall and meditated.
6pm – BEST PART OF THE DAY. Delicious hot chocolate!! Marita and I would smile secretly at each other as we both loved this part of the day best. We always had 2 cups. Sometimes even 3.
6pm – 7.30pm – free time. A beautiful part of the day as the light was fading and the heat gone. Hot springs time. A great relief for an aching back.
7.30pm – Meditation.
8pm – Group walking meditation around the candle lit ponds. Very peaceful when the locals weren’t setting off fireworks.
8.30pm – Meditation.
9pm – Finish! Bedtime.
That was basically our schedule for the 10 days. Day 9 we had only one meal with intense meditation all day and day 10 we did some gardening chores to help out the monastery. I certainly had ups and downs. Many women left before the end and although it was psychologically quite challenging, I never considered quitting, although at times I found myself watching ants instead of meditating and counting the days till it was over. When the silence ended I think we all felt a great sense of achievement. It had been tough but worth it and it was so great to finish. There was a lot of talking and catching up and being very excited. As I said before, not all of what I learnt I will incorporate into my life (in fact they certainly don’t want you to blindly take on everything that is said at Suan Mokh) but I have certainly gained a lot and am incredibly grateful for the experience. I am sure we will do another retreat at some point in the future.
As the retreat finished early on the 11th day, plans were made to cycle 40km to Surat Thani to meet Marita and Spela (a Slovenian girl Marita had met on the bus before the retreat). Astrid and I cycled the back roads, talking basically the whole 40km. I had missed her a lot as we had not been sharing a room, or even had much eye contact, as both of us were trying to get the most out of the experience. It was wonderful to talk to her again and I felt incredibly happy to be sharing this adventure with her.
We reached Surat Thani in the early afternoon and after advice from an Austrian guy who we met at the retreat who lives in Thailand, we decided to take the night boat to Koh Samui, where Astrid’s dad was flying into the next day. Spela and Marita had booked into a very cute 70’s hotel that reminded us of La Trobe Uni. So we went and met them and then sneakily used their wifi and shower. The night market beckoned and all four of us were overwhelmed by the choice and amount of food after 10 days of minimal eating. Just before 11pm the ladies were heaved onto another boat and secured on the roof. We got mattresses on the floor (slightly grotty, happy to have our own pillows and sheets) and settled in for the night. The boat appeared to be full of backpackers, some locals and a whole lot of cargo. Some time after 11pm the boat began it’s journey down the river and out to sea, rocking us gently to sleep as it went.