What's the next logical step after eleven days at Circus School? It's almost definitely not a stay at a Buddhist Meditation Retreat in the forest, but since when have I ever been logical anyway?
Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery is nestled among the mountains in Northern Thailand - an International Buddhist Practice Centre, where absolutely anybody is welcome to come and practice Vipassana or mindfulness on breathing. Intrigued by the whole concept, I decided to run away from the circus and spend some time there.
There's a 'Tam Wua' songthaew which leaves from Pai and takes you directly to the front door of the retreat for just 100 baht. Unbeknown to me, there's just one songthaew a day, leaving at 11am sharp. I walked into town with my bags, popped into the 7/11 to purchase a new set of headphones (so I could listen to All Saints on repeat for the whole journey to the monastery,) and at precisely 11:01am, I emerged from the blissful coolness of the store, back onto the street, just in time to see the back end of the yellow truck disappear over the horizon.
Luckily for me, there are hourly minibuses heading to Mae Hong Son, and if you hop on one of those and tell the driver that you're going to Tam Wua, he'll drop you on the side of the road so you can lug your bags up the long winding path that leads to the monastery.
I would say that the journey was alright, but I was seated in the back row, inbetween a mother with her baby on one side, and a small boy of about seven on the other. The boy fell asleep on my shoulder almost instantly, which would have been cute had it not been about 400 degrees inside the bus. The baby decided to spend the whole journey grabbing fistfuls of my hair to suck on. I considered telling it off, but I figured it probably didn't speak English, and at least it wasn't screaming. I was pretty happy when we pulled over to my stop.
Slobbery hair drying in the sun, I started the trek up to the monastery. I was greeted by a cute and chubby monk who showed me where to register. He was excited that I was from England because he'd been to London once before. He started telling me the story of his visit, and had just mentioned something about Madame Tussauds when he got called away by another monk. I signed in at reception, was given some white clothes to change into and shown to my room.
I had somehow managed to acquire my own private hut with beautiful views of the mountains. I was pretty excited about having a room to myself after spending so long in hostels - I couldn't wait to sink into bed and have a nap - I had two hours of free time before I was to meet in the main hall for evening chanting and meditation.
I can hardly say I was expecting a memory foam mattress and feather pillows, but a solid wooden 'bed' with an extremely thin mat placed on top of it wasn't exactly what I'd been dreaming of! I did my goddamn best to try and have a nap, but in the end, I found myself heading towards the evening chanting session sore and sleepy after tossing and turning for the duration of my free time.
I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from the evening chant, but at the same time it was exactly what I had expected - a roomful of people - all dressed in white, sat cross legged and chanting passages from a book. I actually thoroughly enjoyed it, even if it was in another language and I wasn't entirely sure what I was chanting. The 'sing song' was followed by an hour or so of meditation, which I struggled with hugely - unless something is music or travel related I can't focus for one minute, let alone one hour - but somehow I made it through my first session and then it was time to spend an entire night trying to get comfortable in my rock solid bed.
I will openly hold my hands up and admit that I was a little bit naughty with regards to the daily schedule (see above...) It took me approximately 0.02 seconds to clock that although the first activity of each day (practicing meditation and chanting in your own hut) started at 5am, the first monitored activity (rice offerings to the monks) wasn't until 6:30am. Which gave me an entire extra hour and fifteen minutes of lying on my block of wood, trying my best to force sleep to come.
Nor surprisingly, the rice offering turned out to be exactly what it says on the tin - we would all line up and spoon bits of rice into big pots that the monks were holding - the monks are only allowed to eat each day if they have food offerings made to them. Once the offerings were done, it was time for a quick breakfast and then two hours of meditation.
It was right about meditation time that I discovered I'd been bitten alive by some creature or another. Yes - right about the time I was due to try and focus my mind for two hours straight, my whole body started itching like crazy. Perfect timing... Luckily for me, the first half of the meditation was a walking one, which although still impossible for me to focus, managed to take my mind off of the itching slightly, mainly because I was trying to stop myself laughing at the thought of my mum being horrified at so many people walking completely barefoot in the forest. Hearing her voice in my head, "Don't come running to me when you get a sore throat because you weren't wearing shoes!" forced me to stifle many a giggle, and I can safely say that I didn't manage to successfully get the hang of walking meditation...
Then came some lying down meditation, in which I promptly fell asleep, only awakening at the sound of the bell to signify the end of the session. Feeling ever so slightly refreshed, it was time for more rice offerings to the monks before we sat down to have our final meal of the day, lunch.
In the monastery, there is no eating past midday - a rule which I thought would kill me off. People are also actively encouraged to take a vow of silence if they so wish. Before I'd actually managed to keep my own vow of silence for a short period of time, the very thought of one made me want to explode. In the end, neither of these things tipped me over the edge as predicted - the hardest thing for me was actually to sit with my legs crossed for long periods of time, (it caused me to feel about ninety years old when pure agony struck my knees after only fifteen to twenty minutes,) and of course the trying to focus my mind for eight hours a day did nothing short of drive my busy mind insane. Every time the monks informed us that we were about to practice meditation and breathing for an hour, time would significantly slow down for me, whilst my brain would try to suddenly rethink every single thought it had ever had.
My favourite part of Tam Wua was one of the monks himself. There were several monks at the monastery and they would take it in turns to give lessons. It seems that the majority of monks dealt with these lessons in a serious manner, but my favourite monk, the one who greeted me upon arrival, he always blabbered on for ages longer than the others, making jokes about how once we'd finished meditation we were going to have a big party, with a big BBQ and lots of food. (Even though none of us were allowed to eat past midday...)
During one of his lessons, I finally got to hear the end of his story about London. It seems that he paid a visit to the city, went to Madame Tussauds and as he was leaving, a random Londoner came up to him and asked him if he was part of the skinhead movement. To which he replied "Not me sir, I am just a Buddhist monk from Thailand!" He laughed with joy at his own story for a fair amount of time, and I couldn't help but laugh too, especially at the face of another rather stern looking monk, who had quite possibly heard the same story a thousand times before (and definitely didn't even enjoy it the first time...)
I was supposed to stay at Tam Wua for seven days and seven nights. In the end, I managed four. The hard bed, itchy insect bites and terrible pain from sitting cross legged got a little too much for me - I know I could have lasted the entire week, but each meditation session was becoming more unbearable. My time at the retreat was actually full of laughter though - from the monastery dog who howled enthusiastically every time the bells rang (five or six times a day,) to the secret stashing and stuffing faces full of cookies and red bull from the little shop, past midday. The man who told us we were sweeping the leaves wrong, but then walked off with no explanation as to why, and the Asian lady who actually ordered a parcel to the monastery, forcing a postman to interrupt a meditation session so he could get the monk to sign for it - we had some great laughs!
Tam Wua is completely free to stay at - food and accommodation included. There are donation boxes at the monastery, and I think it's only fair that people should donate a reasonable amount of money for their stay.
I honestly tried to adhere to every single rule whilst I was there, but it's definitely pretty tough going. Some people had been living at the monastery for months - they are certainly made of harder stuff than I am!!