I am sharing the full experience of my time at Wat Chom Tong (sometimes Thong). This was in 2014 and there have been some new buildings installed and a few minor changes, like different maechees (nuns) and Ajahns (Monk teachers). But all-in-all it is still a very similar experience. Of course I met so many wonderful meditators and monks – and that’s just luck of the draw!
Find My Way Around
So, I didn’t actually know how to get to Wat Chom Thong until the day before I left and all I knew at that point in time was to go to a general location and look for a blue bus. I didn’t have a time, but was told that there should be a blue bus every hour or so. I woke up early, had an amazing breakfast (huge wheat germ, honey, and banana pancake with some kambucha for drink), made my way to the mysterious blue bus. I wasn’t even sure where to go once I got to Chom Tong (the city that the Wat is named after and located in). But I did write down the name in English and Thai so someone could point me in the right direction. I walked around a morning market chockfull of street vendors, motorbikes, tuk tuks (i.e. South East Asia taxis), cars, and pedestrians. In the distance I could make out a rusty, faded in color, blue bus. I crossed my fingers and made my way over. I asked “Chom Thong?” and received a head nod. “Hell Yeah!” Then, “How much?” – “34 baht”. Again…”HELL YEAH!” That is so cheap. Only $1.15 for a 1.5hr bus ride.
I get dropped off at Chom Tong in a huge parking lot and directly next to me is a gigantic pagoda. If this isn’t the temple I’m looking for I’ll be right lost 🙂 However before I go to the temple, I’d like one last taste of freedom…and I do mean “taste”. I walk down the street looking for some wifi to access so I can get my last words out to friends & family and maybe a little snack, I mean I’m already there, “why not?” I find a western style café in this small one street town. Find myself a seat and order a banoffee (which is strangely not a banana flavored coffee or a coffee flavored banana dessert but a whipped cream, caramel, banana, and chocolate cake parfait kind of dessert). Regardless of the name it is something you should try; I enjoyed mine very much :p
Finally, I made my way back to the temple and confirmed it was the correct one. I wandered confusedly around looking for whatever office or person I should speak with. I was aided by several random kind non-English speaking Thai people and eventually made my way to the correct office. I was shown to Maechee Joy, my point-of-contact for help and my translator. I was given some white Layperson clothing, my “mattress”, my meditation pad, and a pillow. Then shown to my kuti (hut) and left to figure out the rest as I went 🙂
Beautiful Temple Grounds
A forest temple, high in the mountains, surrounded by Thai jungles. The sounds of birds to wake you in the morning and to put you to sleep at night. The beauty of a sunset in the distant valley. Wellllll…you won’t find much of any of that here. This is quite an urban temple found in the center of the city of Chom Tong. It’s a great one street town filled with locals and temple tourists. At one end of the parking lot is a pocket of street vendors selling hot sweetened soy milk and chocolate milk (yum!). At the other is a cute little convenience store selling all sorts of snacks, soy milk, soap, coffee, candy, etc. at a cheap price for monks and laypeople.
The grounds also have a large lake that looks lovely at sunrise and sunset and it’s always nice to take a break to walk around. There are 6 designated meditation areas laypeople are allowed to use. I generally used 3: my room, the 4th floor of the main building, and first floor of another building (what I call The Blue Room) – all of which you can see below.
Then there’s the main temple room. I believe it to be the prettiest temple I’ve been to. It may not be the biggest, but the interior is incredible. Interesting art, very pretty gold decorations, the ceiling is marvelous, and the stupa seems more intricate than others. This temple is the most popular in Northern Thailand, being visited by many Thai tourists. And it even has a relic of Buddha himself…a special peace…a small section from the right side of Buddha’s skull. Yep…Buddha’s skull. They bring it out once a year when someone special comes to the temple or for one special occasion or another. It just so happened that the relic was brought out for the public while I was there for 14 days. WHAT LUCK!!! However…I needed more luck because I didn’t know it was happening and I was too busy meditating. I missed it 🙁 But still pretty sweet 🙂
Fully ordained monks commit to practicing 227 precepts. Us laypersons only commit to 8 precepts whilst at the temple and we commit to 5 precepts when away from the temple. Here are the 8 precepts I committed to following during my 14 days (the first 5 are practiced outside as well):
- I will refrain from destroying living creatures
This means no killing mosquitos in your room, ants on the floor, or people who’ve done you wrong. However, most monks there ate meat. I found this surprising and asked my Ajahn about it. He said that as long as the monk didn’t kill the animal himself, that it is ok. Sometimes a farmer has a pet pig and then the pig dies; that pig is ok to eat. I say this is like giving a soldier a gun and then shrugging your shoulders saying “I don’t know if he’s going to kill anyone or not.” Hmmmm.
- I will refrain from taking that which is not given
You can take this to several levels. It can be knowingly stealing, as in you are fully aware that a particular item belongs to someone, but you take it anyway. Or it can be more subtle; for instance in the set of kutis (single rooms we lived in) there is detergent and water. One can presume pretty safely that these are here for people to use freely, but if you don’t ask first to make sure it is ok that can be considered stealing. One level would be knowing that you’re stealing, the other spectrum is knowing that you’re not stealing.
- I will refrain from incorrect sexual activity
This can be understood in different ways when you are not living in a temple. Clearly within the temple grounds it should be interpreted to the strictest understanding: no sex, no masturbation. But in daily life outside of the temple I’ve heard Monks and Nuns share different opinions on it. Some say, no masturbation and no sex outside of marriage. Others say any mutually agreed upon sex between people is accepted under the precept. As well as non-disruptive masturbation. Like any philosophy or religion, the reader can interpret to their own convenience.
- I will refrain from incorrect speech
Don’t lie or speak falsehoods.
- I will refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness
Again, this can be interpreted differently. There is the clear strict version of no alcohol, no coffee, no drugs of any kind. Then there is the other view, you can do these things in moderation as long as you maintain mindfulness, awareness, and control. Some say, any alteration to your normal state, pre-intoxicant, lessens your ability to be mindful and therefore breaks the precept. Up to you 🙂
- I will refrain from eating at the forbidden time (i.e., after noon)
No eating after noon while staying at a temple
- I will refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics
This is the hardest one for me. I love singing and dancing and YouTube and Podcasts and Games. But technically these are not allowed while staying at the temple. To some degree I may have broken this precept, as I disagree that it alters my ability to be mindful while singing or dancing.
- I will refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place
Hence the wooden beds, or hard mats that are often supplied at these retreats.
On your first full day there is an opening ceremony where you chant some prayers with a monk and all other first dayers, committing to practicing the 8 precepts. The closing ceremony is on your last full day, and you’re committing to continue to practice the 5 precepts.
Oh my goodness! Great people tend to come to this temple and probably meditation retreats in general. I was expecting a non-interpersonal experience here (with the silence and all, ha!), but I I meet some wonderful people.
The Ajahns that I met were great. I would have been with an English speaking Monk from the get-go, but he was on holiday for 2 weeks. So my first 9 days were with a Monk that only spoke Thai. Therefore I also had a translator, Maechee Joyce (aka. Maggie Joy). I was told her name was Maggie Joy until a week after calling her by that name, I find out her name is actually Joyce and “Maggie” was meant to be “Maechee” meaning Nun at a temple or a Woman Layperson. She is a very sweet woman, but a bit stern and strict when it comes to the rules. A bit short-tempered as well. During my closing ceremony a woman was wearing earrings…no jewelry is allowed to be worn. Maechee Joy told her to remove them, but the girl did not. During the 5 minute walk to the closing ceremony room Maechee Joy complained to me with a bit of fury: “This temple is not strict enough. In Burma they wouldn’t allow this. If I came to your house, I’d respect the rules in that house.” Maybe she needs to practice more metta in her meditations ;P
My second Ajahn spoke English very well. I was able to have complete conversations with him, no problem. This is so much more enriching than the back-and-forth with a translator. I learned a great deal because of our conversations. He also made me feel more welcomed to ask questions and he provided me with a great deal of knowledge and understanding. Ajahns are different everywhere you go the same as teachers practicing different styles. Here’s the very Respectable Ajahn Chai:
I also met some great people: Dom, Luv, Israeli Monk Idan, Gemma, Dennis. All of them are amazing, as are so many other people I met at Wat Chom Thong. Dom is a traveled Malaysian who has spent 10 to 11 years becoming a yoga master, but when this didn’t provide him with peace and happiness he turned to meditation. Generous, Huge Heart, Loves Dogs, Friendly, Ladies on the Brain 🙂 Luv is a 27 year-old Indian who has spent most of his life in Dubai. Came to meditation to find peace and happiness. Very generous, Intellectual & Knowledgeable, Sweet & Innocent & a bit Naïve Idan is an Israeli psychologist who spent 10 years practicing a breathing meditation that did not provide him with happiness, so he moved to vipassana and has found great results (hence the becoming a Monk ;). Israeli, Intelligent, Philosopher, Business Ideas Galore Gemma is a friend of Idan’s from Spain. She is a super cool traveler/backpacker spending some time at a mediation retreat. Adventurous, Independent, Stubborn, Caring.
On one of my last days on the retreat there came a great idea to have an outing. “Let’s go out tomorrow. Let’s go to a waterfall!” I thought this a great idea. We tried to get a few people to go, but only a few of us went; to be fair, it was something against regulations (but I live by the notion, “if it isn’t hurting someone then it’s a-ok”). No one in their first 21 day program is allowed to leave the temple grounds, but I kind of had had enough by this point and looked forward to this opportunity to break. We went to a gorgeous spot, had lunch, dunked our feet in a river. Had a great time.
So Much Time
So, they recommended 8 to 10 hours of meditation a day. I found this to be incredibly difficult! The first few days I only did 3 hours and then I worked myself up to 6 and then I mostly did 6-8 hours everyday, only hitting 8 hours on one occasion. I was completely happy with this effort. Do what you’re comfortable doing, but also be sure to do enough to learn from the experience, push yourself a little, and take something with you. The schedule goes like this: sleep at 10pm, wake at 4am. That’s 18 waking hours for those of you counting. If I meditated for, say, 6 of those hours, what in the heck was I doing for the other 12? No internet, no reading, minimal talking, no radio, no music, no singing, no television, no movies. Well… We can chalk one hour on the board for breakfast and one hour for lunch. Then we have 1 to 3 hours of waiting for and talking with my Ajahn. Then we can say 1 to 2 hours of conversing with temple friends. 30 minutes of writing everyday 30 minutes of exercise everyday, 1 to 2 hours of stretching on the daily, throw in 30-60min of napping, don’t forget simple walking around the venue for 1 to 3 hours, 30-60min hand washing my clothes, 30-60min showering 3 times a day (1 with soap and 2 rinses). Let’s add that up:
24.0 Hours in a day
– 06 Sleeping
– 06 Meditating
– 02 Eating
– 02 Ajahn
– 02 Conversing
– 01 Writing & Exercising
– 02 Stretching
– 01 Napping
– 01 Walking for Fun
– 01 Washing my clothes & showering
And there you have it. The average day for me at this retreat.
The Small Things in Life
I noticed a few things that I thought were interesting or different from my expectations. Really enlightening to remember to be skeptical of everything until you experience it first-hand.
- Monks with headphones, I-Phones, and tablets. I find this a bit stranger, but then stranger still when they are using these things while walking. Meant to be mindful of walking.
- Teenage Monks playing computer games in the main lobby. They were playing Call of Duty and other first-person shooters. I would walk past and just smirk/giggle to myself. A teenage boy is a teenage boy…we all love video games.
- Dogs everywhere! 50 to 60 dogs all around the temple. They have their different friend circles (i.e. gangs). So many pups as well. It seemed as though all of the females were breast feeding or in heat.
UPDATE: Maechee Joy created a dog shelter off of the temple property so now all of these dogs have their own space where they aren’t a constant (though happy) distraction.
- Nice clean room. I found it very comfortable and great for meditation.
- The screen door to the room closes via metal and a magnet! No need to lock a screen door so why not make it easy to keep closed and keep bugs out using simple magnets 😀
- No deodorant here…armpits smell 100% of everyday. You can shower all you want; still smells even as you’re applying soap to your pits. What’s interesting is that it only really becomes noticeable when you raise your arms, otherwise I never smelled myself or anyone else.
- The food is so beyond expectations! You get so much of it and it’s so tasty.
- I didn’t sneeze for the entire 15 days I was there. I’m not sure how often I sneeze normally, but I know I sneezed once today (12 days after the retreat).
- I didn’t cough or choke for the entire 15 days I was there. This happens all the time with food…so I think this is cool.
- People come and go so often at this temple. It’s a lot of fun to see someone wandering around with a big backpack just looking completely lost. Then going over to them and offering to show them to the correct office. You get to share a bit about the place and what’s going on here from a similar perspective as them.
- I take way longer to eat meals at the temple. I take a solid 30 minutes for breakfast and then a solid 45-60 minutes for lunch. I’m usually one of the first ones in and last ones out.
There you have it! One man’s experience at a meditation retreat for 15 days 🙂 If you enjoyed that subscribe to my news letter to find out more great stories and new posts. If you have any questions leave a comment!