So our first night in Chiang Mai was a Sunday, which is lucky for us because every Sunday the area around our guesthouse turns into an amazing market and stretches along loads of streets and inside the city walls. The stuff they sell on the stalls is all great - traditional and modern clothes, souvenirs, massages, but best of all - dirt cheap foot stalls where you can sample all the local food along with an Indian curry and kebab or two!
On our second night we went to watch a Muay Thai boxing match... they are renowned for being pretty brutal, and this one was no exception... the first few rounds were fairly tame - they were kids and young women fighters. I really didn't like seeing the kids fighting, but they seemed pretty pleased to be in the ring... then the big boys came on and it got serious. We got there early so we were within spitting distance of the ring... which isn't necessarily a good thing for Muay Thai, but still!! When the match was finished the ring was taken over by lady boys (for anyone that doesn't know... it's not rude, that's what they're called!!) miming to terrible songs... so we went out for a few drinks and went to Spicy - a club that had been recommended - I have no idea why, it was absolutely rank - bursting with Thai hookers and lady boys and old man westerners circling like vultures... then us dancing in the middle... we didn't stay long...!!
Soon after that we headed off to Pai (see my last blog
) but then came back to Chiang Mai on a Sunday again, so were able to enjoy the Sunday market and cheap eats again :) This time, though, we had to shop for white clothes, because we were booked in to attend a meditation retreat at the International Buddhism Centre
at Wat Doi Suthep
, the famous temple on the hill - they say you haven't really been to Chiang Mai until you've visited it!
So, fully armed with our white clothes, Tom, Mike and I set off for our retreat... Here are the rules in no particular order:
- Wear nothing but white
- No talking, particularly about your meditation practices
- No reading, writing, phones, e-mail, etc.
- No food after 12 noon
- No more than 6 hours sleep
We signed up for a week here... the idea is that you clear your mind of all distractions and learn Vipassana mediation, which is insight meditation, to bring you back to your centre and make you more aware of what's going on with you right now - no past, no future, only now.
On a typical day, I got up between 4 and 5 a.m., meditated and made my way for breakfast at 7 a.m. Then we had the Dhamma Talk at 8 a.m. where our teacher would tell us little stories with a moral and techniques for coping with the stresses of modern life. Our teacher was brilliant and really funny... He became a monk when he was in his twenties and ended up walking from the north of Thailand to the south with another monk... Amazing!
From 9 a.m. we were free to meditate and break as we pleased, until lunch at 11 a.m. Then we were free again until 2.30 when we had our Report time, a one-on-one session with our teacher where we could tell him how we were doing with our meditation and ask any questions. Then he would give us new techniques or allow us to extend the time that we meditated for.
We practiced two kinds of meditation - walking and sitting - I won't go into the details, but if you want to know, just ask! :) - basically for walking you focus on the foot that is moving, and for sitting you start with focusing on the front of your belly (which I think is a little bit cruel when you've been starved all day!!). We started with 15 minutes of each, walking then sitting, and by the end were up to 25 minutes of each. I usually did walking, sitting and then break for the same amount of time I had meditated for... and in my breaks I started stretching (because sitting in the lotus position all the time makes your back ache!), walking around the grounds (and getting VERY funny looks from tourists visiting) and playing with the puppies that lived there, who I named Maddie and Max... they were gorgeous and I totally fell in love with them!
After report time we were free to meditate or break as we pleased. I split my time between my room, the meditation hall and the garden, where if you happened to glance in you would see what looked like a scene from a mental asylum - lots of people dressed in white moving very, very slowly! I usually went to the temple at 6 p.m. to listen to the monks chanting, and started joining in. It was really interesting to get involved with the Buddhist customs and learn about the etiquette, as I never knew what to do when I visited a temple and now I do! I also found the chanting really soothing (and difficult!) and there was a chance near the end to meditate with the monks too.
I found the whole experience really refreshing... it was hard for a day or two because it's very frustrating when you can't focus on the meditation - your mind plays tricks with you and things you haven't thought of for years will pop into your head - for example I remembered a car journey I took when I was 10 - really, really random stuff... and it can also get quite distressing... and I kept imagining the things I was saying in my head in different voices - often that of a Dalek, which was most distracting!! But as the week went on it got easier and easier and actually pleasurable, to the point where I was jumping out of bed to meditate... I don't think that level of enthusiasm will last forever, but I do hope it stays with me and I can use the things I learned every day, because I came out of it a much happier person :)
On one of the days we were taken out to buy some food for the monks, and the next day we lined up at 6.45 a.m. to present them with the alms food. They came past us one by one and let us drop our offerings into their baskets - as a woman I am not allowed to pass anything directly to a monk or touch them or their clothing... I had no idea it was going to be a line-up situation, I thought it would be more like a 'monk buffet' and had two big packs of biscuits, so I had to carefully select which monks I gave my goodies to... haha... :)
The grounds of the temple are absolutely beautiful and even though we weren't supposed to talk very much, Tom, Mike and I would usually meet at the look out point at night to soak in the view of the city by night, watch the planes coming in and drink hot chocolate (which amounted to our dinner!). It really was one of the most spectacular city views I've ever seen.
On one of the nights I went looking around the temple when it was really quiet and took some photos... It really is a beautiful temple with so much gold. Our rooms were set back from the temple near the monk's living area. The rooms were pretty big but sparse, with a foam mattress on a white tile floor and not much else... I assumed all the things we had to distract us would be locked away - like books, phones, etc. but I was wrong - they sat in the corner tempting me for a week... but I'm pleased to say that I didn't give in!!
I had plenty of visitors to my room as well - one night I was sitting down to meditate when out of the corner of my eye I saw a gigantic (about the size of my palm) spider lower itself down from the curtain onto the floor... I grabbed a cup, trapped him, slid card under and was making my way to the door when he got through a little gap and ran across the card, causing me to throw the cup (which fortunately was plastic) and the card and scream a little... not ideal at a silent retreat... Tom came running out all worried... I interrupted his meditation... oops! I also found two spiders on my first night in the corridor - one above the door to the outside - Harry - and one above my door - Henry - and these two spiders moved no more than 2 inches the whole time we were there!! Then one night I discovered a third - Howard - who every now and again lowered himself from the ceiling right in the middle of the corridor, just to catch me out!
After our week was up we said a big thank you to the monks that had looked after us and made our way back down to Chiang Mai, where Tom and I spent a LOT of time on the internet and booked ourselves in for the Elephant Nature Park... tune in next time to read all about it!! More of my photos Tom's photos
And for a different perspective - check out Tom's blog
Chiang Mai is a town absolutely bursting with things to do... you name it, it's here - Thai boxing, temples, hiking, hill tribes, cooking, language courses, yoga, meditation, quad biking, elephant trekking, tigers... and me and Tom being the get-up-and-go types we are want to do ALL of it... but we've had to pick and choose... here's part one of the Chiang Mai diary :)