Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Living with Monks

As I said in my last post, John and I heard about a Monastery we could stay at. So knowing nothing more than it's name (and an incorrect pronunciation at that) we boarded the local bus and went bouncing through the mountains to Wat Tam Wua. I was expecting a small gathering of huts around a temple and some stoic monks who grudgingly allow westerners to live at the monastery. It was just about the opposite.
First of all, the property was amazing. I think there may only be a handful of more beautiful monasteries in the world. When we were riding the bus and came into its valley, I thought, "Wow, this is the prettiest valley I've seen in all of Thailand." And then the bus came to a stop, and the driver yelled, "Wat Tam Wua." One of the other westerners staying there said that it seemed more like a Buddhist spa rather than a Buddhist Monastery. Though a monastery it surely was, and for four days, we followed the rules. The structure wasn't as intense as some retreats, but there was still almost five hours of daily meditation, only two meals a day, and an hour of chore work on the property. There were three resident monks, and they were so happy and easy going that it would have been hard to get annoyed at anything in their presence. Staying there, it was good to experience some structure--something my life has been utterly lacking for the last three months. It wasn't so structured that it felt like a prison, but it was structured enough to give the sense of free time. It actually gave an interesting perspective on free time. Usually free time is between periods of work when you can do nothing. At the monastery, free time was between periods of doing nothing when you could do something.

Walking in

The property

Sunrise in the valley

Meditation cave


The main meditation room

Where I did yoga

Where we slept

The morning we left

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bharma Dums

Miles said that our lifestyle here reminds him of contemporary versions of Jack Kerouac's characters in The Dharma Bums. I have to agree with him. We wake up each morning with yoga, chi gong, and meditation, then have breakfast of oatmeal and oolong tea. During the day we take dips in the river, visit local temples, or sit around and read anything from science fiction to eastern philosophy. In the evening we play the card game hearts where the winner wins a free beer from the three losers. We eat out mostly, but we've managed to cook a few meals using market ingredients and our electric kettle to boil potatoes.
The night life here is interesting. If you visit the main walking street anytime up to 10 p.m. it's filled with hundreds of strolling Thais and Westerners, but go out at 10:30 and everyone has somehow vanished. Most go home, but the few that stay out go to two places: first, a dive bar called Bee Bop that has live music until closing time at 1 a.m., at which point everyone migrates to a open air bar called Bamboo that's complete with fire pits to gather 'round. Bamboo Bar is somehow exempt from closing time laws and lets people mingle 'till the roosters are crowing (which isn't actually a valid indication of time, because I've heard roosters cock-a-doodle-doing at every hour of the day and night.)

Consistent with our Bharma Dum lifestyle, John and I both got tattoos of Buddhist symbols. Mine is the knot of eternity on my wrist; his is the syllable "hum" on his chest. I won't presume to know John's full explanation for his tattoo, but I do know mine: The knot of eternity means several things in different cultures, but it commonly represents the cycle of birth death and change, and also the karmic connectedness of the world. I had the idea for this tattoo tucked safely away in my mind back when I got my first tattoo "timshel" on my right wrist. Getting the knot on my left completes the concept of the reminder that I wanted to keep in plain sight all the time. "Timshel" means that my path is open--my choices and perceptions are up to me--but the knot reminds me that my path is also intertwined with countless others and that change is inevitable. After getting two tattoos now, I can see how people become addicted to them and just want more, but as far as I'm concerned right now, I'm done... but hey, Timshel.


John's (He's not angry, he's just chewing a cracker)

In other news, the fellowship of me and Miles has been broken. For two and a half months we haven't spent a night in separate rooms or spent more than a few hours apart, but today, we parted ways. He hitched a ride to a farm a few kilometers out of town to work and live for the next week. Mine and John's plan is to take the bus up to a monastery we heard foreigners can stay at for days at a time. Today's parting wasn't too emotional, because we have plans to meet back up in Pai in five days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Once upon a time in Pai

Yes, we got a guitar!

Since the turn of the month, we've been traveling as a five-some: Miles, John, Tom (John's brother), Ben (Tom's friend), and me. WE stayed a few days in Bangkok, a few days in Lampang, a few days in Chiang Mai, and now we're in Pai. Five is a big number to travel with, but it's working out great so far. Miles and I needed the extra company. Our conversations were getting short from so much familiarity, and we were tiring of our two-person card game.
After 10 days of hopping from place to place, we were all ready to settle down somewhere, and our place of settlement is a mountain town called Pai that is just a short drive away from the Burmese border. It's a touristy place, but instead western tourists, it's a vacation mecca for Thai and other Asians. In this way we feel exempt from the guilt a tourist may feel for invading a foreign place. It's the perfect place to take it slow in, and I was ready to take things slower.
It seems counterintuitive, but traveling is my least favorite part of traveling. Whenever we move from place to place, whatever peace I may have established in one place has to be regathered in another. I'm reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance right now, and at one point he says, "To travel is better than to arrive." I only agree sometimes. I've been on the move for nearly three months now, and now whenever I get into a vehicle of some kind I just stare our the window as my mind becomes a vast thoughtscape covering all points in space and time. I think about things done and things to do over the span of years, but when I was settled in an area all I would think about was what to do in a given day. Some regular readers may notice the hypocrisy between this post and the last. In the last post I was harping on how I had never felt "out" of a moment and how calm my mind is. I'll qualify the last post if it wasn't clear: I do feel calm here, but that's not to say that my mind doesn't have times where it's a blizzard of activity. Somehow though, even when I'm staring out a car window with my mind a million miles away, I still feel "in" whatever I'm doing--all the thoughts are somehow necessary parts of that moment. Even so, it's nice to settle down with our five-some.
But wait, I almost forget to mention our sixth companion: an electric water kettle. We bought a kettle in Lampang for Chad's apartment to brew tea and such, but we decided to take it with us when we traveled on. We're probably the only backpackers in Asia carrying our own electric kettle. It's a cumbersome thing to carry, but it probably gets used more than any other single item. We make tea two to three times a day, make oatmeal, boil eggs, make saline water for sinus flushes, and we're even thinking of cooking potatoes in it. Bringing it from place to place is like bringing a little piece of home along with you.

In the hills above Pai

He's stoked to be here.

Our sixth companion

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Within or Without

For several years I've been aware of a phenomenon where I feel either "in" a moment or scene or not. The best example I can think of is sometimes I'll be driving through beautiful country, but it doesn't feel like I'm experiencing the view enough by just sitting in a car. I feel as though I need to frolic or stroll through the scene to truly be "in" it. I think it's the "going somewhere" that taints the experience. Going somewhere implies starting and end points and reasons for going between the two. But this feeling isn't exclusive to riding in cars. I can be sitting atop a rock with a meadow stretching before me with nowhere else I need to be, and sometimes that still isn't enough. I think that withdrawn feeling comes from extraneous thoughts about destinations or obligations. I would think that while traveling I would constantly be worried about such things, but to my own surprise, when I thought about this feeling that I know so well, it occurred to me that I haven't had it once on this trip. I think it takes a calm mind to have that "in" feeling, and though it hasn't been apparent to me until now, my mind must be stiller than normal to not have this problem. I'm glad I realized this, but I'm not going to dwell on it anymore, lest it pull me out of something.