A Travellerspoint blog


Bangkok best bits

Kids, 5 continents in one day and jazzzzz


My final 4 days in Thailand were spent in Bangkok; a city which I'd used as a base before heading north to Chiang Mai and west to the monastery, and had drown increasingly fond of. I had to put 4 days aside here to apply and collect my Chinese Visa; a laborious and tedious process which took 3 days and involved plenty of ferrying around the city for documents and waiting in many a queue. Oh well, I got it, so here I come China.
VISA Hell (Thanks to http://migrationology.com for piccy)

The rest of my time in Bangkok involved some really great experiences though, so here are some of them, together with some tips for you that are heading to the city.

Heading back to Bangkok

After a completely different and calm week spent at Wat Sunan Buddhist forest monastery (see below for blog), the time eventually came to head back to the bustle of the city. I'd grown increasingly fond of Bangkok; a truly hectic and electric city with amazing new and old, so I headed back with anticipation even though I knew I'd miss the forest monastery and its serenity.

Joe, a Thai man also staying at the monastery and was heading back to Bangkok the same day as me kindly offered to give Delphine (another European who had stayed) and I back to the city. After a 5 hour journey back south, stopping off at a few tourist spots including an elephant camp and the Bridge over the River Kwai, we eventually began to feel the friction of the rush-hour Bangkok traffic. As we became increasingly held in its grip, getting nowhere, Joe turned to me and asked me whether I'd like to come and stay with him and his family at their home in the outskirts of the city. After a week spent at the monastery learning to embrace the moment, I accepted, and we turned around and headed back out of town.

After a brief stop off to grab some street-food supper, we arrived at his home where his two sons were chilling out at the front. A lugged my bag inside, and by the time I came back out, the news of a visitor 'Farang' (westerner) had obviously spread, and a number of children from neighbouring homes had now joined Joe's sons. A really nice evening of being taught how to eat Thai style by the kids, as well as me teaching them some English and showing them piccies of my trip followed, and the whole experience was a lovely and genuine display of Thai hospitality; something which I had become increasingly exposed to.

Joe and Family - such lovely hosts

Jim Thompson's house

The following day, after a hectic morning at The Chinese Embassy, I seeked some respite and headed to Jim Thompson's house; a collection of Thai homes imported from various areas of Thailand into the centre of Bangkok by American Major Jim Thompson during the 50's.

Accessed by a quiet street running off one of the busiest in Bangkok, the site consisting of beautiful and quiet gardens and six houses of various shapes and sizes, was for me my favourite experiences in Bangkok and is a must see for anyone in town.




Terminal 21

Terminal 21 is an absolutely mammoth shopping centre complex, complete with 9 floors each representing a different city, all dressed with appropriate monuments, signs and staff. Great (and loud!) cinema on the top floor (a film costs 70baht, or one pound forty) and the lower level basement is home to some of the yummiest and cheapest food I found in Bangkok. I'm not usually a fan of shopping centres, but this one is FUN! (The London Underground themed toilets also gave me flashbacks...)





A nice surprise during my time in Bangkok was that Greg, an old friend from Suffolk was in town at the same time as me as he's now moved over to Thailand to teach English. Besides having some great nights out sampling all of the local foodie and liquid delicacies, we also put our music hats back on and decided to re-live our famed days in a band together by renting out a rehearsal room for a morning. Something you can do before you're 40, before it looks more like two friends attempting to cure for their mid-life crises.

Equipped with a drum kit, 2 guitars, a bass and some amps big enough to sink a ship, we blasted our way through 3 hours of tunes, and I blasted my way through 2 pairs of the flimsiest drumsticks I've ever used. Certainly a personal record.

Jazz Club

I decided to sample Thai jazz, and after doing a bit of research into the best jazz spot in Bangkok, I headed to Saxophone Jazz Club, Victory Monument. I wasn't disappointed. I watched the 'Small Big Big Band'; consisting of all Thai jazz musicians, as well as a few special guests from abroad including one chap from Chicago. The sound was great, as was the atmosphere and food, and for me it certainly rivalled any of the jazz clubs I'd been to in New York.



Next stop...

So that concluded my time in Thailand; a fantastic and diverse few weeks ranging from amazing serenity and going back into uni mode at the Buddhist monastery, to the electric bustle and heat of Bangkok.

Bangkok for me became one of my favourite cities I came across on my trip, not only because of the culture and food which I loved, but there is an energy which was like nothing I'd experienced anywhere else. (No, it doesn't beat NYC!). One thing which did hit me was the amazing youth culture in the city; which I think gave the city it's energetic backbone. This culture seems predominantly controlled by fashion and technology (You could bet on what trends the youngsters would be sporting, as well as what phone they had), and this was something I hadn't seen anywhere else.

See you again, Bangkok.

Chinese Visa in hand ... next stop: Hong Kong and three weeks travelling up through China from Hong Kong to Beijing! A great finale to my trip.

Home in 22 days!

Posted by tom_e_free 00:25 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

One week living in a Buddhist monastery

Buddhist university meets boot camp. Wat Sunantawanaram, Thailand


The adventure to find the monastery... Third time lucky

Dressed all in white like a ghost (required attire for lay people in meditation centres), I hailed down a taxi to take me to Thonburi train station on the outskirts of Bangkok. As the city began to wake up and warm up, I said goodbye to the bustle; I knew where I was going would be very different. As the taxi pulled up to the train station, I bought my ticket for the 5 hour journey north and raided a few local food stalls for some treats as I had no idea what my diet would consist of for the following week.

Me in my meditation gear

The train journey was beautiful - pulling out through the outskirts of Bangkok, and eventually into the Thai countryside consisting of sprawling fields and hills. A popular tourist route; the train also passed over the Bridge On the River Kwai and Wampo Viaduct.

(Thanks to seat61.com)

(Thanks to seat61.com)

(Thanks to seat61.com)


But eventually after 5 hours of feeding and reading (I'd heard no reading for entertainment was allowed in the monastery), I eventually arrived at my destination; Maha Monkol train station (well, just a platform); home to Daen Maha Mongkol Meditation Centre. As some other ghostly dressed passengers disembarked the train, we began our short walk to the centre. It was stunning; surrounded by climbing hills on which a local monastery could be silhouetted and accessed by crossing a towering and dominant white bridge lined with flags. After crossing the bridge, I set about finding my hosts for the stay and was immediately hit by the serenity of the place (partly helped by the floating about of other visitors, also dressed in white). Eventually I stumbled upon the centre 'HQ', inhabited by Nuns who welcomed me in and sat me down on the marble floor. As the centre had no internet or phone number, all I could do was turn up and hope they could fit me in, but this is where I stumbled upon a little problem.

'Our english teacher not here, please come back next year' the nun broke to me abruptly. S#*t I thought. This didn't go to plan, and it was a long way to come for that news.

(Thanks to cari-lee.com for the use of this photo.

I asked her if there were any other centres in the vicinity, but her English didn't span that far, so after wondering around the centre for another five minutes to see what I was missing, I hit the bridge again and headed back towards the train shack. As no one else was around, I consulted my train timetable for options; the last train south left in 30 minutes, as I didn't really want to stay here in the middle of nowhere. I didn't want to give up either as I'd come so far and looked forward to staying there so much.

I decided to try and find anyone else who I could ask about finding another centre close by, and eventually luckily stumbled upon some Thai visitors who were helping one of the nuns operate a little cable car which ferried supplies from one side of the river to the meditation centre. I asked my query in slow English, which got a welcome reply from one of the Thai tourists in English; 'There is another centre 15km from here, and I think they speak English'. The adventure wasn't over, and they kindly offered to drive me the said monastery. The amazing Thai hospitality was very welcome to this one farang (westerner), who was by now drowning in his own sweat.

After driving for twenty or so minutes, and after asking for directions at several points along the route, we pulled up at a Police station to try and get some more information. We were again greeted by some disappointing news; the Police informed us that the monastery we had in mind didn't have any English speaking teachers or helpers, but luckily instead there was a large monastery 40km away where I could stay and had English teachers. Hooray, and third time lucky I hoped.

This final leg of my journey would involve a bus to the monastery, so after waiting for another hour, spent teaching some locals English and the meaning of 'psychologist', it eventually turned up. I noticed a monk sitting on the floor; a welcome sight as I was going in the right direction.
As the bus dropped me off, I looked up at the long path leading up to the monastery and set about tackling this final part of a day's travelling.
Soon after setting off however, I was greeted by a young man on a moped, offering to take me up the hill to the monastery. Weighed down by my backpack and with the sun setting on the surrounding hills, I gladly accepted.

My new home for a week

My destination was Wat Sunantawanaram, a 500 acre forest monastery in Kanchanaburi, headed by Japanese Monk the Venerable Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako.

As I disembarked the back of the moped clumsily, I was met on the road and welcomed in by one of the Nun's from the monastery who didn't seem too surprised by my unexpected arrival. She escorted me over to the monastery 'HQ' where I gave some personal details and was informed of the rules and customs of the monastery (based on Buddhist principles, or precepts, available from the following link).


Next stop was the male dorm; accessed through a short walk through a small patch of forest and presented in the form of an un-walled, raised wooden building set in the middle of the silent forest. The Nun left me to settle in and unpack and informed me that meditation would start in half an hour. I made my bed consisting of a blanket on the floor (again in line with Buddhist precepts) and simplified by belongings to exclude clothes which didn't fit the dress code or any cosmetic products used for 'personal adornment'. I surrendered my bag, and felt excited to see how this even simpler form of living would come.



Next, I set off to get my first taste of daily life at the monastery; walking meditation and chanting. Led by my flashlight, I navigated my way back through the forest to find the meditation area and monastery. As I discarded my flip flops at the entrance (something which becomes habit after a while), I was greeted by one of the residents; a middle-aged Thai woman who was helping and staying at the monastery for a week residence. She spoke good English, and offered to introduce me to walking meditation which was practiced for one hour before evening chanting and sitting meditation. She explained the principles of walking meditation (basically, giving focus to the act of walking and one's breathing), which in practice was difficult, especially because of the abundance of mosquito's which put my practice of the 'do not kill any living being' precept to the test.


The next part of the evening schedule involved 45 minutes of chanting in Pali (traditional Buddhist language) which I attempted to follow from an English translation book given to me. This was a beautiful experience as us lay people sat in the middle of the monastery, which was headed at the front by a large copper Buddha, and 10-12 monks sat at his feet.
Lastly, the chanting was followed by 30 minutes of sitting meditation which I attempted after another short crash course from the Thai woman. As I'd tried this before, it was great trying it in this incredible setting, even though I was not used to sitting in the 'half lotus' position for all this time. All in all, I think my knees aged about 20 years during my week at the monastery.

(Thanks to Wat Sunan Facebook page)

The ringing of a small, high pitched bell signified the end of meditation, so myself and the about fifteen other people staying at the monastery headed off into the pitch-black forest to our living quarters to get some sleep before the first scheduled activity of the day; chanting and meditation again at 3am.


I settled into my hard bed, and surrounded by the dark forest and all of its sounds, I fell asleep pretty quickly following a long day of travelling and adventures.

I was woken at 0245am by the sound of the monastery bell which rang through the forest repeatedly for a minute to wake all inhabitants in preparation for morning chanting. It was still completely dark, and the clear starry night was still shining through the forest canopy.

Monastery Schedule (Uni meets boot camp)

0300 - Morning chanting and meditation

0600 - Binthabart - more on this after

0730 - Chores (cleaning)

0800 - Breakfast - The one meal of the day involved a huge buffet style banquet consisting of really tasty Thai food, biscuits and milkshakes. The process involved first sitting by the Monks as they blessed their food, and then eating communally on the floor with the workers and visitors to the monastery.

0900 - 1445 - Reading, classes and meditation

1445 - 1545 - Chores (cleaning, gardening)

1600 - 1800 - Shower time, reading, classes.

1800 - 1900 - Walking meditation

1900 - 2030 - Evening chanting and meditation


Favourite Bits

Learning about meditation

During my time at the monastery I learnt and practiced two forms of Buddhist meditation; shamatha and vipassana meditation. Shamatha meditation involves the focusing of attention single-pointedly (on the breath, or a task such as sweeping) and vipassana is a more in-depth form which examines the true nature of reality through the processes of our thoughts and actions (the deep stuff). I won't go into my personal experience of meditation here, but I had plenty of time to practice during my stay!

The process of learning and practicing meditation is a personal one, but I found it very valuable to learn this powerful tool; which is becoming increasingly used and understood in the West, from Monks and others for whom it is a central part of their lives and routines. A good understanding and patience are both crucial, and it is something I'm keen to keep practicing.


Schoolin' with Monks

Delphine; a young woman from Belgium and fellow western 'visitor' to the monastery and I were lucky enough to be taken under the wing by one of the monks during our stay. Tan Thien, a Vietnamese-American monk who obviously spoke good English and had been a monk for three years offered us 'lessons' on Buddhism and meditation most days, which like being back at uni involved discussions; namely the big questions of Buddhism and how Buddhist philosophy fitted with the idea of me buying an iPhone 4S. It was strange going from the backpacker life to sitting down for two hours at a time going through handouts, but it was exactly what I wanted from my stay, and was invaluable in learning about the backbones of Buddhism and meditation.

Useful webpage here: http://www.tuaw.com/2010/07/28/5-apps-for-the-buddhist/


Tan Thien's blog can be found at: http://tasteofliberation.wordpress.com/

It was also a fantastic experience to ask monks about their lifestyle, and we felt truly lucky that we were able to ask open questions about this and Buddhism to 'our' monk as we called him, as he spoke the best English of all the Monks.

I was also very lucky in that I was taken under the wing of an older, Japanese Monk who also gave me daily classes on meditation and yoga (a true work out for body and mind).

Our experiences with both Monks was truly inspirational as they both had such a genuinely kind and approachable nature, as did all of the other Monks, Nuns and helping staff at the monastery. We were soon welcomed into their community, which was a rich one as Buddhist principles and the nature of reciprocity were central (helping out around the monastery site for example). Another thing I learnt was that most of the Monks looked considerably younger than they were, which led me to lose many age-guessing games. I'm not sure if it's down to their lack of hair and eyebrows, or stress-free lifestyle.

Binthabart - The Almsround

My favourite schedule-based experience of the whole week. Binthabart is the process of alms-giving from local families and businesses to the Monks of various monasteries. As one of the Buddhist precepts concerns the nature of giving and stealing, traditional forms of Buddhist lifestyle rely on Monks being given food.

The experience started at 630am as a Thai man staying at the monastery and I would head to the kitchen to collect several cotton bags to carry the offerings, and then pile into the back of a truck which would take us down the road to a main road on which shops and homes were situated. As we headed out along the road, we were gradually joined by Monks from our monastery who would be carrying large metal bowls covered in orange cloth, used to carry rice and other foods offered to them by the lay people.

(Thank you bangkokgirllife.blogspot.com)

As we reached our first stop; a local shop or home, we all jumped out of the back of the pick-up and starting walking along the road. The five or six Monks would walk in line along the side of the road, with myself and the other lay people following. As we approached the person or persons with offerings (rice, curries, drinks, eggs, fruit, flowers) they would place some rice into the Monk's bowl, and any other offerings on a small metal plate. As taking any items from lay people directly may be seen as stealing, the Monks were unable to touch the offerings, so I would wai (bow) to the offerings and place them in my bags. I got away with only a few leakages, leaving me covered in curry or egg.

We would stop along the road at about 10 stops, each loading up my bags with goodies. The whole atmosphere was made even more beautiful as the sun would rise over the surrounding hills, creating amazingly red skies and slowly lighting up the misty fields. We would also occasionally pass other Monks doing their Binthabart, chanting in unison and giving thanks for their offerings which provided a beautiful soundtrack to the experience.

When our bags were full, we would jump back into the pick-up which had followed us along the road and head back to monastery base where the food would be used for breakfast. I was lucky enough to help with the Binthabart each morning of my stay, which I loved doing as it gave an insight into both Buddhist and Thai life, and was actually my only 'outing' from the monastery.

The whole experience

A lot of my time spent at the monastery involved repetitive, personal experiences such as reading and practicing meditation, and I learnt a lot from both. The transition from the backpacker lifestyle to living at the monastery was a very powerful one; eating one meal a day, rising and sleeping at unusual hours and doing cleaning. Unusually, these didn't seem difficult when I was at the monastery, even though I'm now experiencing the hangover as my body clock is getting used to outside life again and my stomach is slowly growing back to its normal size. Surprisingly, I didn't find the eating of only one meal a day too difficult, as I think my mind accepted that it would only get brekkie, and I'd have to meditate any hunger away. (We could have unlimited drinks throughout the day, so this helped, and we could cheat a bit by having some yummy aloe vera drink with bits in).


The whole experience of staying in the middle of the national park forest was an experience in itself, especially getting used to the sounds of geckos, howling wild dogs throughout the night, dramatic thunder storms and then complete silence. The site of the monastery was stunning, kept spotless by the team of us visitors who sweeped and gardened every day, and spotted with kuti (above), or the small hut homes for Monks.



I achieved exactly what I wanted from my stay; to learn about meditation and Buddhism as well as have a completely different change in routine and lifestyle, all surrounded by beautiful and stunning settings. I also took away some practical changes, especially concerning living more simply, which the Monks do in their tiny kuti's with only essential items. Physically, I also took away a three volume book set of Buddhist teachings on philosophy and meditation which was kindly gifted to me by one of the Monks. I fear all the good work from yoga may now be undone as I lug it through China over the next 3 weeks. A great souvenir though.

Overall, certainly a top three experience of my trip, and a really beneficial one for both body (muscles and liver...) and mind (even though my knees have aged 20 years).

Will I be shaving my head and eyebrows any time soon? I learnt many great things, but not yet... It was interesting to learn from the Monks that anyone can be ordained as a Buddhist Monk from anything to one day to a lifetime. I missed my music and bread (We had lots of rice) too much, so not yet.

P.s. Meditation update: Still haven't managed to levitate.

(Thanks to Wat Sunan Facebook page)

Posted by tom_e_free 05:54 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Heading norff (Thailand) - Chiang Mai

Trekking, elephants and cooking

all seasons in one day

Hello hello,

This is going to be a photo-blog-post as I just got back from a week of something I can't wait to write about, so i'll let the photos talk on all things Bangkok, Chiang Mai, trekking in some hills, riding elephants and bamboo rafts and learning how to cook Thai style

Floating markets at Ayutthaya


Catching Thai life ... elephant, biker, Buddhist



Getting to know the Bangkok night life...


Amazing meal on sleeper train heading north to Chiang Mai (puts UK public transport meals to shame)


Sleeper train blue land of nod


Trekking group - English, Dutch, Kiwi, Australian, Danish, South African ... all hitting the hills.


Steps up to Wat Phra Thart Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai


Baby Buddhist meditating


Many bazaar things at the night markets, Chiang Mai


Trekking in the hills


Hill tribe kitchen


Sunrise in the hills - warming up the rice fields


This elephant didn't want to take us for a ride, just kick back instead...


Learning to cook - 'Chilli is sexy' was the favourite saying


Thai green curryyyyyyyy!


Heading back south


Next blog ... one week staying at a Buddhist temple ... it might be a long one...


Posted by tom_e_free 08:24 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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