Wat Pa Tam Wua (or what it takes to get me to shut up for 4 days)
During my last days in Thailand I decided to get my Zen on and visit a monastery in order to live with Buddhist monks and practice meditation for a couple of days. During my time in the monastery I did a silent pledge and ate nothing after 12 o’clock. In this blog post I am going to describe what a typical day in a monastery looks like and how it feels not to talk to anyone for four days.
Getting to Wat Pa Tam Wua
After traveling Thailand for about three weeks I find myself in Chiang Mai, a town in the North of Thailand. Having not made any plans I check TripAdvisor and find the “Women’s Correctional Institute” where I get a traditional Thai massage by a prisoner. Afterwards, I decide that I’ve done enough sightseeing and mainstream tourist stuff for a while and that it is time for some off-the-path experience. Going to a monastery was the one thing I had on my list before going to Thailand, so I search online and find a monastery not too far away that you can go to at anytime and stay as long as you want – for free (you can make a donation in the end, but you are not expected to). The only thing you have to bring are some white clothes, so in the evening I go to the night market with Darren, a guy from Ireland I met in my hostel. After a successful two hour hunt for clothes that actually fit me, we decide to reward ourselves with “one beer only and a round of pool” in an Irish pub.
I wake up the following morning at 10:30 am. My head hurts, I have no idea where Darren is and I have to check out in 30 minutes. After a cold shower, I get some breakfast and take a taxi to the bus station. It has been my general experience while traveling Thailand that no matter where you want to go, there is always a bus heading in that direction about ten minutes after you show up at a bus station.
In order to get to Wat Pa Tam Wua, you first have to pass Pai, a beautiful town North of Chiang Mai. The road between Chiang Mai and Pai is pretty famous as it consists of about 762 curves. However, I am way too tall to comfortably sit in a mini van and the fact that I am hungover does not help to increase my comfort level. To further punish me for last night’s escapades, an old Thai lady sitting behind me starts hurling like a velociraptor about half an hour later. Every 30 minutes we have to stop to throw out her vomit bag and give her some time to breathe. During each of these breaks, the driver gulps down another M-150 energy drink – his driving style adjusts accordingly, which in turn only leads to even more increased velociraptor sounds from the poor old lady. After a terrifying six-hour drive, I finally arrive in Wat Pa Tam Wua.
A typical day in Wat Pa Tam Wua
In order to give you an idea of how it feels to stay in a Buddhist monastery, I am going to describe a typical day the way I experienced it. Generally, you don’t have to worry about anything, just follow the lead of the others. Important activities like the food offering or the beginning of meditation are also announced by a giant bell that can be heard on the entire property.
5:00 am – Getting up
The day in Wat Pa Tam Wua starts at 5:00 am in the morning. Usually you wake up and immediately start practicing meditation for about 1.5 hours. As I am neither into getting up at 5:00 am (especially after the foregoing days) nor into meditating at this time of day, I must admit that I saw this as kind of optional. Seeing that everyone else in my dorm slept in as well, I didn’t feel too bad about it.
6:30 am – Giving rice to the monks
Buddhist monks usually go out in the streets in the morning to collect alms in order to have something to eat. As there is no village close to Wat Pa Tam Wua, the monks collect the alms from you. At 6:30 am in the morning, everyone staying at Wat Pa Tam Wua is given a bowl of rice and has to line up in the Dhamma Hall in order to give food to the monks. Afterwards, everyone receives a blessing from the monks and the abbot greets all newcomers and wishes a pleasant stay and a nice breakfast (“Happy enjoy Thaifood”). Looking into his ever-smiling round face each morning makes you forget the trouble of getting up that early.
7:00 am – Breakfast
After the monks have received their food, it’s time for your breakfast. Breakfast consists of rice and vegetables, as all the food in the monastery is strictly vegetarian (monks are not supposed to eat meat).
8:00 am – Meditation
After breakfast, it’s time for the first round of meditation (or second if you’ve been a good boy and did your morning meditation). It always starts with walking meditation where everyone walks in line through the beautiful garden of Wat Pa Tam Wua. During this, you are supposed to practice Samadhi meditation in order to calm your mind and prepare yourself for the next step: the sitting meditation. During sitting, you shift to Vipassana meditation, also known as the training of mindfulness. After 40 minutes, you change from sitting to lying down. The first time it might be hard not to fall asleep while lying down – some people drift into sleep only to be woken up by their own snoring (happened to “a friend of mine”).
General tip: You can take as many cushions as you want in order to be comfortable while practicing sitting meditation. If you’re really uncomfortable while sitting cross-legged, get a chair and go sit on the side. It’s more polite to the monks than sitting in a weird pose.
11:00 am – Offering food to monks
Buddhist monks are not supposed to eat after 12 o’clock. Therefore, at 11:00 am everyone participates in offering lunch to the monks. After every monk has filled up his bowl with the food offered, everyone practices five minutes of mindful sitting.
11:30 am – Lunch
When I first saw that lunch was at 11:30 am and that there are no more meals after that, I was a little shocked. On the first day I stacked my bowl to the extent of making it nearly impossible to get it to a table without dropping anything. Again, lunch consists of rice and vegetables. You can choose between two different vegetable dishes and most of the times there’s even something for desert.
1:00 pm – Meditation
The second round of meditation starts at 1:00 pm. Before the actual meditation starts the monk teaches you about Buddhism and meditation practices. He also gives little exercises on what to do during today’s round of meditation. The actual meditation then follows the same order as the one in the morning. Afterwards you can ask the monk questions about meditation or Buddhism. This is also the only time in the day that you are allowed to talk if you made a silent pledge.
4:00 pm – Working
Wat Pa Tam Wua doesn’t clean itself. You’re staying there for free, so grab a broom and start cleaning. There’s also fish feeding, which involves cutting the leftovers from the kitchen and afterwards feeding the fish in the lakes on the property. Whatever you do, do it while being mindful!
5:00 pm – Free time
After working, you deserve some free time. Grab a book from the monastery’s own library, hike up to the cave in the mountains or just explore the property.
6:00 pm – Evening chanting and meditation
In the evening you’re in for another long round of sitting, so grab some extra cushions. At 6:00 pm the traditional chanting starts. The chanting is in Pali, just follow the English Phonetics in the chanting book and you will be fine. The official evening program ends with another round of sitting meditation.
8:00 pm – Practice meditation by yourself
From 8:00 pm on you’re supposed to practice meditation by yourself in your dorm or bungalow. However, after meditating the whole day, it can be really hard to concentrate in the evening. Again, this is up to you.
10:00 pm – Bedtime
At 10:00 pm all lights outside are switched off and you should go to sleep.
Generally, there are two types of accommodation at Wat Pa Tam Wua: you can either stay in a dorm or – if you’re lucky and not many people are currently staying at Wat Pa Tam Wua – you get your own private Kuti (bungalow). I was offered a Kuti on my second day. However, I decided to keep it simple and stay in a dorm. Luckily, I brought my own blow-up-mattress and my foldable travel-pillow, otherwise it could have been a little uncomfortable to sleep on the sheets provided by the monastery.
The Silent Pledge
First of all: The silent pledge is fully optional! This is not a requirement for staying at the monastery. However, visitors are generally advised to talk as little as possible in order to keep Wat Pa Tam Wua a quiet place and enable everyone to practice their mindfulness in a quiet environment. In case you want to intensify your experience, you can do a silent pledge. This is nothing official, meaning you are not bound to any rules and your tongue will not fall off in case you talk. You just clip a badge to your shirt to let other visitors know that they should not expect a reply from you if the try to engage you in a conversation.
Not talking is supposed to have a positive effect on your meditation progress. As you are not speaking to anyone your mind and your thoughts are not clogged with previous conversations, making it easier to concentrate on yourself and thereby improving your concentration. I took it one step further and also switched off my phone for the entire time of my stay (there is no Wi-Fi in Wat Pa Tam Wua anyway). Although I have done similar things before (like deactivating my Facebook account during intense studying phases), I have never isolated myself that much. I can’t tell whether it helped me to gain insight faster as I have no comparison. However, I found it to be a quite interesting experience. Hearing my voice for the first time after 4 days of saying nothing was a very strange feeling.
Although I was only there for four days, my stay in Wat Pa Tam Wua was definitely a very unique experience. I learned a lot about Buddhism, meditation and also about myself. If my visa hadn’t expired, I would have stayed longer. I can recommend staying at a monastery to everyone who travels Thailand and is fed up with the standard tourist attractions. There are several places all over Thailand where you can practice meditation. However, a lot of them are meditation retreats which are especially designed for tourists and they charge you accordingly. Monasteries, on the other hand, are (at least in principle) free of charge, meaning you can make a donation at the end of your stay (keep in mind that you are given a roof over your head and free food that you don’t even have to cook yourself).