Saturday, 10 March 2012

Don Sak to Kanchanaburi. Silent meditation retreat.


Six years ago I was completing my MSc at Newcastle University. Five years ago I was contemplating the sunrise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Four years ago I was the only Westerner residing in rural southern Taiwan. Three years ago I was deciding between jobs in China or Thailand. Two years ago I was moving from Trang to Phuket. One year ago I was teaching GCSE maths in an international school in Phuket while finishing a PGCE. Now I am sitting by the river Kwai in Kanchanaburi enjoying a coffee while composing this drivel and contemplating retirement. I haven't been home to the UK in 6 years!

My last night in Penang was spent in Jaya Indian restaurant having a feast with Chloe. We could barely walk home giving the quantity of food consumed. £8 all in for two people eating three chiken tikka with naan breads, Tosais, chapatis, roti canais and tea tareks was a steal. My weight has hovered around 65kg for years (technically underweight), however, after five nights in Penang I managed to reach 72kg.

I've also been smober for 21 days. No nicotine and alcohol for three weeks. Not drinking or smoking increases one's appetite which helps to gain weight. I also haven't had a shave in 2 weeks which I will address today as I am beginning to look like Stig of the dump.

I left Penang and returned to Thailand on a 60 day tourist visa. A minivan conveyed us from Penang to Hat Yai whereby a bus then takes you from Hat Yai to Trang. I went to see Irish Tom to collect my belongings which he'd kindly let me keep at his house. I shared a coffee with my Celtic friend before packing up the bike and heading to Russel's newly built and long-talked-about house in Don Sak.

Russel's hoose

Old Aussie Russel (or Rusty Balls as Mike calls him) has been banging on about building his dream house since I have known him (3 years). Most people were beginning to believe this undertaking was never going to come to fruition. However, it did get finished and he moved in last October. I stayed in his spare room for 2 nights where I discovered he does in fact have a dream house in a dream location. The house is surrounded by mountains on three sides and a beach on the other. You can see Samui Island from his porch and watch the ferries sailing back and forth.

It is located in a tiny peaceful village and sitting on the porch each evening is a real treat which I'm sure Russel will relish during his retirement.

This was the view from my bedroom window. What a way to wake up!

Just about to embark on a trip up mountains and to beaches. We went to see his local watering hole on Khanom beach 30km away.

My bedroom is on the right.

There he is, looking like a cross between ZZ Top and Satan.

This was a steep rode down to a desolate beach not far from his house.

We drove 8km up a mountain in Nakkon Si Tammarat province. This was a view west about half way up.

His house is very close to the sea. Touch wood, I hope there aren't any tsunamis.

End of the road. This was the old pier to Ko Samui.

Some palm trees on Rusty's beach. I'd like to know why they bend over like that? The sun?

Russel bought this ridiculous Chinese-built motorbike/truck contraption. No idea why? He's currently getting a roof, neon lights and sound system installed to pimp it up somewhat. Now he has a car, a motorbike and this thing - I'm certain all his transport needs are being satisfied.

Here he is feeding the stray dogs nearby.

Trying to get arty. Is this art? This particular palm tree was very tall. If one of the coconuts falls and hits you on the head you'll certainly die.

For some reason this reminds me of my time on SSBN submarines. As you change depth the planes man shouts "Passing 50m". I always think "Passing 35000km" as the tachometer passes landmark distances. This happened on the way to Surat Thani. Since I'm off the lash I stopped for a celebratory coffee.

Temple of doom

After two great days with Russel I jumped on the bike and headed to Suon Mok Buddhist temple in Surat Thani province.

I have done some fantastic things in my life but this experience ranks among the most bizarre. I was about to embark on a 10 day silent meditation retreat at the International Dharma Hermitage.

However, rather ominously, I passed this sign on the way. 666km to Bangkok? Number of the beast? Couldn't they have waited another 1km?

Is Surat Thani the palm tree capital of Thailand? There are millions of them on the banks of the many rivers in this province.

I arrived at the hermitage (marked by this inauspicious sign) in the middle of the jungle.

On arrival I saw this massive spider in the middle of a huge web. It was the size of my spread out hand! Poisonous? No idea.

My first night was on a wooden bed in a wooden dorm.

We then moved to these more salubrious rooms. That concrete circle is the communal shower where you throw pales of water over yourself.

This was my room for 10 nights. Room 254. I will never forget it.

I had to sleep on a concrete slab with a wooden pillow! There was no light or fan. Living true monk style!

This was the outside toilet shared with snakes, scorpions and spiders. A nightmare in the pitch black middle of night.

The rules of the 10 day silent retreat were pretty simple:

No booze, No smoking, No coffee, No wanking, No talking, No cell phones, No tinternet, No extra food, No books/reading/writing, No exercise.

Only two vegetarian meals per day at 0800 and 1230 (on the final two days you only get one veggie meal per day (at 0830) as a bonus to live like a real monk).

Up at 0400. Bed at 2100.

Maintain absolute silence at all times.

Each day goes something like this:

0400 - up for morning dharma lecture.
0500 - 0700 yoga
0700 - 0800 meditation
0800 - 1000 breakfast (veg), chores (I had to sweep a big hall), relax in hot springs in silence
1000 - 1230 lecture and meditation
1230 - 1430 dinner(veg) chores
1430 - 1800 Teaching by an English monk, meditation, chanting (in Pali)
1800 - 1930 hot drink, hot springs
1930 - 2100 group walk + meditation
2100 - concrete slab and wooden pillow bed.

The 10 days were an interesting insight into the Buddhist spiritual life. There were 120 people started the retreat with 90 lasting the course. The conditions were too much for some. I found the silence oppressive at times. It was strange to not hear your own voice for so long. The whole thing reminded me of my Royal Navy basic training with people continuously failing the course.

We learnt much about Pali (an extinct Indian language the Bhuddist scriptures are written in). We learnt about the 16 steps of the anapanasati method of meditation. As I understand it, if you complete all 16 steps you'll achieve enlightenment and end dukha (suffering). I got to step one which doesn't sound very good but gives you a tremendous sense of inner calm.

There were some strange characters involved in the whole process. Vernon was a German meditation teacher who spoke in a ridiculously slow German accent while constantly yawning. He was testing my newly found Buddhist patience! The head Thai monk, Ajahn Po, clothed in orange robes, spoke English a bit like Yoda. This gave me the feeling that perhaps I'd be able to levitate X-wings by the end of the retreat. I am aiming to do this by the end of April. I'll keep you posted.

The highlight for me was an English monk who has been in Thailand for 20 years. His lectures were well delivered, insightful, entertaining and inspiring. During one lecture he was talking about defilement which can hinder meditation. He mentioned sexual arousal and I proceeded to sit through the remaining talk with a hard on which completely attenuates one's ability to clear the mind.

On 7th March there was a full moon in a cloudless sky as Macha Bucha day was celebrated. Macha Bucha day marks four events, which happened nine months after the Enlightenment of the Buddha in Northern India 2555 years ago. As we silently meditated in the bright moonlight I couldn't help but think about the crazy full moon party that would be occurring simultaneously a mere 80km across the sea on Ko Pha Ngan. How different would things be there?

On the last night there was a thunderous down pour as we sat in the hot springs. It was great to feel the rain on the skin. It was the first time I saw retreat participants smiling! I suppose when you are denied things we take for granted in modern life, simple natural things can induce feelings of great joy.

Did I get much out of this experience? I learnt how to clear my mind of meaningless thoughts. I learnt how to control my mind better. I can meditate to induce feelings of inner calm and happiness. I understand the importance of not becoming attached to things. Am I glad I did it? Yes! Would I do it again? No!

Bike trip further North

I left the temple and continued to proceed North on the bike.

I last did this trip in Oct 2009. I was pleased to start seeing rice fields again as I approached Prachuap Khiri Khan.

I'm not sure exactly what this was but it was in the middle of nowhere and it was big.

15 minutes across Thailand

In Prachuap Khiri Khan province Thailand gets very skinny. It is only about 15km from the sea to the Burmese border. I decided to ride up to the border for a closer look.

This is the border checkpoint at DanSingKon

This is looking into Burma. The road quickly peters out into a dirt track in Tanintharyi Province
on the Burmese side.

There was a picture of a tied up woman warning of the perils of human trafficking. I was not allowed to pass freely over the border like the locals. The immigration staff told me locals can pass 1km either side of the border for market purposes. This is not a border crossing for foreigners. In fact I was viewed in a 'WTF are you doing here' kinda way.

Back on the road

This is southern Thailand's spaghetti junction near Chumpon. Heading south, the road splits into the 4 heading south and west, and the 41 heading south and east. They both meet again at Phattalung.

Near the floating market outside Bangkok my bag nearly fell off! No wonder I was getting funny looks and warning shouts.

It was with a heavy heart that I had to replace the grey helmet that once saved my life. The chin strap came off. I drove from Trang to Bangkok with the helmet simply resting on my head. I went to tesco and bought this new white mega-helmet for £9.20. I even bought a road map (£4) as I venture into unexplored territory.

Which way to go? Mmmmmmmm. These places are all so familiar. Near Bangkok you start to see things like flyovers. Backwards southern Thailand has nowt like this!


I finally made it to Kanchanaburi. A place I've wanted to come for a while. As I entered the town I stopped at the mass cemetery to commemorate the POWs who lost their lives building the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. It is beautifully tended to.

This was a very emotional place to be. There are thousands of headstones as you can see. 70 years have passed but words fail me in places like this. Such a waste of life. I had tears in my eyes as this lady sparked up a conversation with me. She asked why I was taking pictures of particular gravestones. I explained how I was from Northumberland and in the Royal Navy. She was from Red Row! She was researching casualties from the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

An Able Seaman from HMS Sultan. A place every matelot knows.

A young lad from Northumberland. Tragic.

With a heavy heart I headed to the actual bridge. If you can read Thai you'll notice the river is not actually called Kw-aye, but rather Kw-air. Not that the tourist industry will let this little anomaly get in the way of selling shite.
And here it is. There is even a little toy train that runs back and forth across it.
A riverside restaurant.

The bridge is smaller than I thought it would be. My white T-shirt is filthy from the long journey up here. You don't realise how filthy your clothes get on a bike until you wear white.

My £3/night riverside guesthouse.

I'm in room 10. Does that make me a Prime Minister?

£3 gets you this kind of luxury. The two beds reinforce my single status. Roll on Pattaya!

After living like a monk this is, in the words of Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen, 'luxury'.

A small boat towing a floating restaurant!


I'm staying here for a few days before possibly heading to Ayuddaya. I might then go to Bangkok. I have two job interviews to attend to next week. One in Pattaya and one in Rayong. I'll let you know how they go although I'm really enjoying being free and bumming around on the bike! I have a lass to meet (who used to live in Phuket) in Si Racha so I might break this year's duck! My ex-gf Ice called me last night saying she misses me?????

Meanwhile, let's hope Scotland grows a pair and votes for independence. Only then might they stop wingeing about the English and lose their chips on shoulders. I lived in Glasgow for 6 years and it did me heed in!

Since my escape from incarceration I got online and noticed that the Toon spawned a last minute equaliser against the Mackems!

I am surprised to see Greece is still functioning.

I might write an article for the Phuket Gazette about the meditation retreat!


Samatee - meditate

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