Reunion

A funny thing about traveling in Southeast Asia is how frequently you will bump in to familiar faces. I woke up one morning and decided it was time to try Bagel House, the only reputable option for bagels in Chiang Mai. I knew there was no way it could rival a NYC bagel but it seemed like they could at least pull one that would satisfy if I kept my expectations low. I had just started on my food when I heard my name. I looked up in confusion only to see Ayca from EASTanbul smiling at me.

Ayca had just arrived the day before from Laos where she had been tubing. Laos is a popular destination for tubing, although the operations were recently curtailed due to pressure from the Australian government. The copius amounts of alcohol consumed while tubing increases the risk factor, Australians have kind of a bad reputation amongst travelers for getting wasted to the point of causing injury and death. I haven’t been myself, but word is that most of the bars were shut down and now there are only four left. Ayca had not emerged unscathed, but more on that later.

We hugged and she told me that she was about to transfer hostels but we should definitely meet up afterword. I was supposed to meet Shin from EASTanbul later that day to resell my meditation clothes, so bringing Ayca along for a reunion seemed like the perfect arrangement. I messaged her my guesthouse details and we made arrangements to meet there when she finished her move.

When Ayca and I finally made our way to the coffee house, Shin was there with her friend Grace. Shin and Grace had met while travelingin Vietnam, and ended up hitchhiking across Cambodia and Thailand. When I met Shin they had temporarily parted ways to do their own thing for a bit, such as Shin’s volunteering stint at an English school. It was fun to catch up and hear about their adventures, and I was a little envious that I hadn’t the courage to try hitchhiking myself. It undoubtably increased their opportunities to meet with regular people in a way that is difficult when you stick to the typical tourist destinations.

After the coffee shop, we grabbed dinner at Chiang Mai Gate and then Ayca and I took off to see the Night Bazaar. I am not a big shopper (except online) but I figured I should at least visit it once. I was in need of a dress to wear for an upcoming wedding, and lingered just a little too long in front of Hong Kong tailor. The propieter sitting outside saw his chance, and asked if I’d like to come inside and look at more designs. I thought he meant finished dresses, so I took his bait, only to be disappointed when he handed me the typical outdated fashion catalogs.

Poor Ayca getting dragged along in to the tailor! He kept pulling more out of me, until I’d shown him the dress and gave him an idea what I wanted to spend. His quote was well out of what I was comfortable with but it was an expensive dress. Eventually he wore me down with his confidence and his promise that I didn’t have to take it if I didn’t like it. I caved and paid the deposit so Ayca and I could leave.

We made our way back to the old market with only a few stops to look at bracelets for Ayca. We passed the seedy looking bars with the Thai hostess girls waiting out front, hoping to charm men in to spending their money. It’s nowhere near as bad as the disgusting Pattaya scene, but I can’t help but feel a little gross when I see them. Our last stop was a pharmacy to get some fresh bandages for Ayca’s gashes from the Laos incident, and when we reached Ratchaphakinai we parted ways.

Dinner Party For Thirty

I mentioned before that Couchsurfing is a wonderful way to meet people while traveling, and the easiest way to take advantage of it is simply to show up at a meet-up. It’s a safe bet that any city that is accessible to travelers has at least one weekly Couchsurfing event that is open to anyone who is interested. It’s usually a mix of locals, ex-pats, and travelers, and they are invariable friendly and excited to meet new people.

Chiang Mai boasts two weekly events, the typical Friday meet-up at a rather inconveniently located bar and the Thursday dinner meet-up in the Old City. Naturally, I was interested in the option that included eating.

The dinner meet-up is organized by an ex-pat named Dino, who is a Canadian ex-pat with excessive energy and an overwhelming personality. When I first met him, he immediately went in for a bear hug before realizing that we had not in fact met before. His greeting to more familiar faces could be described as “jumping” them. He literally jumped on them. Dino has been organizing the Couchsurfing dinner for 9 months, which means choosing a different restaurant each week within the price of 50-60 baht (less than $2) that is willing to accommodate an unpredictably sized crowd of 20-50 people.

I arrived right on time, as is my nature, and was a little nervous as I crossed the street towards the vacant meeting place. A man fell in step beside me, we made eye contact, and simultaneously asked each other “Couchsurfing?” I learned that his name is Matt and he is a travel blogger from the states, most recently Utah. As we chatted, more people continued to arrive and we drew some of them in to our conversation. We seemed to attract disproportionately Americans, while the ex-pats gathered nearby.

After fifteen minutes passed we were up to thirty people, and Dino led the way to a friendly but generic Thai restaurant. They have a system where each person writes their name and order on a sheet of paper and gives them to Dino, and it’s a bit of a rush since dishes are prepared in the order the sheets of paper were received. I ordered a nice Phad See Ew with chicken and a Singha.

It was hectic and loud, but everyone was friendly. I was across from Matt and his friend Steven (another travel blogger), and an entrepreneurially-minded Californian who runs his e-commerce businesses out of Chiang Mai. I told him about one of my business ideas, and he gave me a quick run-down of how to make it happen. If only I was a little more excited about the prospect.

After dinner it was time to migrate to The Bus Bar near the night market. I tried really hard to get out of it, but Dino found a spot for me on the back of a motorbike and Matt offered to split the cost of a Tuk Tuk back to the city. I hopped up behind a previously unmet American named Jason who had been living in Chiang Mai for some time and we chattered away about the city and motorbikes.

The Bus Bar is a pretty cool outside location that is essentially picnic tables, a bus that serves as the bar, and another bus that houses the DJs and serves as a stage for performing bands. It neighbors a bridge that is beautifully lit with a constantly changing rainbow of colors, which does a lot for the atmosphere. I bought in to a share of the “whiskey” pool for 100 baht ($3 dollars) which got self-serve cheap liquor and mixers. Calling this Thai liquor”whiskey” is a bit of a stretch, and I am of the opinion that it’s pretty gross– the kind of stuff you drink before you have disposable income and taste.

I stayed until the whiskey bottles were emptied, and mingled a bit more, but I wasn’t really feeling a long night and fortunately Matt had to get up in the morning. We said our goodbyes, exchanged some contact info, and easily found a Tuk Tuk for the trip back.

A Rough Patch

Meditation can be a bit of a rollercoaster. After a few days I hit a groove and was feeling great about the whole experience, but on Wednesday I hit a rough patch. I was meditating up in the hall like usual when I got hit with a minor panic attack. It suddenly became incredibly important that if something happened to my family they would have no way to contact me. In a moment I went from a peaceful state to being absolutely sure that something bad would happen.

It was a brief incident, but it shook me up a bit and affected my peace for the rest of the day. And then, on the following night, my back was bothering me so much that I decided to turn on my phone briefly to Google “meditation back pain” and see if I could find any advice that would help me continue my meditation. Immediately a text notification came through, and what I could see was enough that I knew ignoring it was not an option. I sent my love and support to a family member and shut my phone off for awhile but when I turned it on again for updates another bomb came through. My uncle had passed away from his cancer.

I was not close and held little affection for my uncle but I do love and care for my mother and cousin. Being in another country and unable to support them was not a great feeling. I had a brief text conversation with my mom and then shut my service off again but mentally it was pretty much over for me. For my last full day of meditation it was almost impossible for me to focus and I struggled as much as I had my first day. I didn’t regret breaking the rules though, instead I was grateful that I could be a little more present while my family was going through so much, even if it was limited to a few text messages and promises that I would get them on Skype as soon as possible.

Technique Time

Many people are under the assumption that during meditation practice it is necessary to prevent yourself from thinking. This may be possible for advanced practitioners but for most of us this isn’t a realistic goal. Pema Chodron teaches to acknowledge thoughts as they come back, label them as thinking, and then let them go. For me it was a real breakthrough to understand that even if I couldn’t banish my thoughts it didn’t mean my practice was futile.

At Doi Suthep Meditation Center, if a thought began to form in our mind we were asked to chant to ourselves “Thinking, thinking thinking” and then continue our meditation. At first it seems like all you are doing is chanting those words over and over but as the days pass your mind slows a bit. Fifteen minutes starts to feel like a very reasonable length of time to sit still, and reaching the end seems like less of an impossibility at times.

Along with the increase in time assignments, the Dhamma also added more steps as the week went on. For the first day of sitting meditation you just focused on “rising” and “falling,” then “sitting” was added in to the mix, and then you had to rotate through mentally “touching” a series of points on your body. Focusing my awareness on my lower back or the backs of my knees was something I never even got close to mastering.

I found walking meditation much easier, even as the steps became more segmented and deliberate. It began with “lifting” your foot of the ground and “putting” it back down. The next step was a pause in the air, and then you added a heel raise before the pause. Each iteration was a tiny bit slower than the previous one as you focused on the most minuscule movements possible. I was a little too aware of my pace; I knew for that it took me a little more than two laps along my meditation rug to kill twenty minutes and felt relief after I passed the half way point. Someday I’d like to progress past the point of counting down since I’m pretty sure it goes against the intentions of meditation.

More Walking & Sitting

Every afternoon, we were required to meet up with the Dhamma and report on our progress. Each day he asked how our walking was going, and how was the sitting. As I mentioned before I was seriously struggling with the sitting meditation. At our first meeting, his advice was just to give it time. At the second meeting he asked if I had been trying to control my breath. Whoops, that was exactly what I was doing! Our instructions were to say “Rising” as we breathed in and “Falling” as we breathed out and I was having trouble hitting a natural rhythm with those words. My new assignment was to add five minutes and increase the complexity of my walking meditation, and keep working on my sitting.

After the short meeting with my teacher, I returned to my newly staked out territory in the meditation hall. It’s a massive room with about a dozen long meditation mats, the perfect length for ten paces of walking meditation. Every morning I headed up to the hall straight after breakfast and claimed a mat with my pillow stack. I refused to meditate outside because I didn’t want to step on the massive creepy insects that were found everywhere and I make for delicious mosquito bait. Meditators were in and out of the hall all day, and I often entertained myself by trying to identify meditators by their pillow stack.

Anyway, I was right back to meditating. I did my twenty minutes of walking and transitioned to sitting, except this time instead of adjusting my breath to the cadence of my words I drew out the words to match my breath. This wasn’t the first time he’d mentioned that we shouldn’t control our breathing but this time it clicked. It still wasn’t easy but it felt more manageable, and thank goodness because the next day I was up to twenty minute sessions.

On my first full day of meditation I managed to accumulate 5h 40m of individual meditation, but by the second I’d hit my stride with 6h 40m. Every day I would try to reach for 7h, but each time I would hit a mental and physical block at 6h 40m. It’s surprisingly easy to motivate yourself to put in the hours. The truth is, when you’re at a meditation retreat you have nothing better to do. I would occasionally give in to the temptation of brushing my teeth again or taking an extra shower, and Katy admitted to doing lots of laundry, but it was difficult to convince myself that extreme hygiene was a better use of my time than meditation.

Unfortunately as my sessions increased in length I discovered that in one significant aspect I was woefully unprepared. While not total shit, my posture needs a lot of work. The back pain started getting noticeable as soon as I reached twenty minute sessions and almost unbearable as I progressed to twenty-five minute sessions. This is actually the number one reason I think that a week retreat was the right length for me: I would have been physically incapable of finishing a longer one.

Deviance

I’m going to admit to you guys straight off that I followed the rules imperfectly. I slipped in a few areas, primarily a few furtive conversations and one quite open chat with other meditators. It may have had some effect on my results but it didn’t make the experience much easier.

It wasn’t that I found it difficult to avoid speaking to people. I found it much more challenging to stop talking to myself. I’ve been told by friends that I have no internal voice; I tend to narrate my activities and thoughts out loud. I will ask myself questions, ruminate over them, and respond. It was incredibly hard to curb because it’s unconscious and happens even before I’ve solidified my thoughts.

I broke my silence because I was so intrigued by the people around me, and I couldn’t bear the idea of not knowing who they were. On my second or third night, the two women who had peaked my curiosity invited me to join them up at the temple after chanting. I didn’t exactly understand what was going on from the gestures and whispers, but I followed them to collect some meditation cushions and on to the dark trail that leads up to Wat Phra That.

It was already past normal visiting hours when we arrived, but there were still some straggling tourists. We wandered towards the viewpoint and Katy turned to me and said “Don’t feel any pressure to break your silence, but I just have to talk.” I took a quick moment to evaluate my feelings and decided that it was more important for me to have the chance to connect with these women than to be overly strict.

Katy and Autumn had arrived separately about a week prior, and lasted about four days before giving in to the urge to speak. I’m not sure how their friendship sprung up, but Katy said she’d tried really hard to keep quiet but it just drove her crazy. She is a Brit who had been living in Bangkok for the last year and was getting in some travel before returning to London. Autumn is an American, on a self discovery trip to make up for a old plans to travel with an ex-boyfriend that fell through.

After our little get-to-know-you chat, we slipped off our shoes and entered the temple itself. This was my first visit and the grounds were almost completely empty. The Chedi is a beautiful golden structure standing in open air in the middle of a plaza. At night it shines under spotlights and seeing its brilliance under the starry sky took my breath away. While the other women set up for their meditation, I basked in my feelings of awe and wished vehemently that I hadn’t left my phone behind.

After indulging myself for a few minutes, I set up my cushions and started my walking meditation. The beauty and peacefulness of the temple made it easy to relax, but the temple was not without distractions. I felt self conscious as a foreignor wearing the uniform of a meditator in such a public place. At one point a group of young novice monks came through the temple in their robes. They were in absolute awe of us and started snapping photos of us on their mobiles as we walked. I came very close to losing my poise in a fit of giggles. Later a few older monks joined us in walking meditation, chanting quietly to themselves with each step.

After wrapping up a full session each of walking and sitting, I quietly slipped back to my room in the dormitories to prepare for bed. I fell asleep easily, pleased with the knowledge that I would start the next day with two new friends.

Walking & Sitting

I’ve practiced some meditation during more disciplined periods of my life but have never been very consistent. Sitting for more than five minutes had always been a challenge, yet here I was immediately expected to do fifteen minute sessions each of walking and sitting meditation. I’m sure the teacher was amused by the face I made at him when I received my assignment.

I decided to start out in my room where no one could see me struggle. The walking meditation felt slow but not unbearably difficult, since you have the movement to focus on. The room was only just big enough to take ten tiny steps so I had to be really careful to limit my stride but it didn’t throw my focus too much. The sitting meditation was torturous. I sat there wanting desperately to talk or scream or wiggle. Knowing that I would soon have to increase my sitting time definitely made me nervous.

Nevertheless, I powered through it and got in an hour before I had to show up for evening chanting. This was my first opportunity to get a peek at my fellow meditators and there were a few people who caught my interest immediately. There was tall, young man with wild hair with intense focus, a serious looking woman with a kind smile, and another woman with a mischievous playfulness about her. They were all the type to sit near the front and I could tell they had been there for awhile since they were some of the loudest chanters.

Chanting is not so different than singing, so it quickly became my favorite activity of the day. The words are all in Thai and I wasn’t able to figure out the phonetics but I’m pretty good at mimicking intonation. Every evening the chorus of voices would start out timidly, and rise and fall with the familiarity of the verses. Some of them were quite easy to pick up on, and that’s when it got really fun as we were able to reach our stride and I could lose myself in the sound.

By the time chanting ended, I was dying. Mathias was not kidding when he told me that the first few days are quite painful. I started with a typical lotus position, switched to my knees, sat on my side, and then back again, and my legs were still dying. Luckily, there were other people to model myself after. Everyone seemed to have developed their own pillow stack. The serious young man folded 3-5 pillows in half, laid them down the center of another pillow, and sat with them between his legs. Others stuck with lotus but used two folded pillows to support their hips.

Chanting and the mini Dhamma talk lasted exactly an hour, and afterward we had two hours to meditate and prepare for our 9pm bedtime. I knocked out another hour in my room and then decided to call it a night. I daydreamed in my room until bedtime, and as soon as I turned the lights off I was out.

Meditation 101

Three days after my arrival in Chiang Mai it was finally time for the part of my trip I was most nervous about. I would be spending seven days in silent meditation at the temple on Doi Suthep.

I was initially introduced to the concept of these meditation retreats six years earlier during my first visit to Thailand. I was Couchsurfing at a house in Bangkok with about twelve other guests and many of them had either completed or intended to complete a Vipassana meditation course in Thailand. At the time it hadn’t sounded appealing but the possibility stuck in the back of my mind.

Over the years my mother had gifted me with several books from a famous Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. I got rid of the paper copies but bought them on Kindle with the intention of reading them eventually. When my life went topsy-turvy it seemed like a good time to pick up When Things Fall Apart, and that in turn inspired me to start researching meditation retreats.

Vipassana meditation courses are available all over the world for free, and payment is strictly by donation. The ideal length of a meditation training course is 21 days, but 10 day courses seem to be most common. This is considered the minimum amount of time needed to grasp the concepts. There are also many temples across Thailand that will offer you a clean bed and a place to meditate at your own leisure. Some of them require you to help out with chores for a few hours a day.

I consulted with my friend Mathias who I met in Bangkok all those years ago, and had found his experience to be life-changing. His opinion was that 10 days was required to start getting the greater rewards. I think he was correct that 10 days is preferable, but I was worried that it would be too much for someone who could hardly sit still for five minutes. I saw that the meditation center at Doi Suthep offered a 7 day option and decided it was a good enough compromise.

When I arrived at the meditation center I wasn’t expecting very much from the lodgings, but it had actually been build recently and was quite nice. There were two women’s dorms and two men’s dorms, each with 10 private rooms and a generous 6 toilets and 4 showers. Each room was bare but clean, and included meditation cushions and a power outlet. This was a relief since I was dependent on using my phone for a meditation timer.

All meditators are asked to wear white garments which you can purchase at the center for $10 a set. These consist of massive white cotton shirts and fisherman pants. They are incredibly unflattering and make it difficult to use the toilet, but probably useful in keeping sexual urges at bay.

After changing in to my garments and settling in to my new room, it was just about time to go to the meditation demonstration. It took me awhile to figure out where I was supposed to be, up by the temple where I had not been before. I arrived to find a poor Chinese woman who had been waiting there for two hours. I promised to take her to the center if our instructor didn’t show, but fortunately he appeared about 10 minutes later.

The demonstration was a bit confusing, but he showed us the first level of walking and sitting meditation and explained that we wouldn’t be doing standing meditation at this time. He listed out the rules for us:

  • No talking (except with instructors and teacher)
  • No makeup
  • No eating past noon
  • No reading or writing
  • No music, dancing, or singing
  • No sex, drugs, or alcohol
  • No using electronics (using phones in airplane mode for timers was ok)
  • No stealing, and definitely no killing. This includes mosquitos.

And we received our schedule:

  • 05:00 – Wake
  • 05:30 – Dhamma talk
  • 07:00 – Breakfast
  • 08:00 – Individual meditation practice
  • 11:00 – Lunch
  • 12:00 – Individual meditation practice
  • 14:00 – Report to teacher
  • 18:00 – Evening chanting
  • 17:00 – Individual meditation practice
  • 21:00 – Sleep

He recommended that we shoot for 5-6 hours a day of individual meditation practice. The day was half over so we could aim for a lower time to start, but now that the demonstration had finished it was time to meditate.

CFCNX

One of the wonderful things about Crossfit is the incredibly welcoming community. Before I came to Chiang Mai I had already worked out at five different gyms and had great experiences at all of them. I discovered Crossfit Chiang Mai when I saw a fellow Brooklynite wearing a t-shirt at the gym, and at the reasonable Thai prices I was excited to get some fitness in.

Like most establishments catering primarily to locals and expats, CFCNX is located well outside of the old city. This meant a terrifying bike ride along a main road and highway, crossing lanes of traffic and dodging motorbikes. The first day was the worst but eventually I came up with a strategy where I didn’t feel like an accident was inevitable.

On my first day I gave myself extra time to find my way so I was almost thirty minutes early when I arrived. This gave me a chance to check out the gym and get to know the coach for my class, a bad-ass mother of three named Monica. She is at least in her mid-50s with hair as white as snow, and she clearly knew her shit.

We chatted for awhile and she explained to me that the gym I was standing in was actually brand new– they hadn’t even finished paving the floor yet. The space was created in converted tennis courts, with a huge covered area and even more uncovered space. This was a total treat after working out in New York City. I got to flip tires and hit them with sledgehammers, and prowlers were a much more regular part of their programming. This won’t mean much to most of you, but the programming style was very similar to CFSBK and I was very impressed. Definitely a quality outfit.

I expected most of the members to be foreigners and they were, but there were a surprising number of Thai women training with us. I asked one of them how long she had been Crossfitting and she explained that she was an instructor at the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute.  All instructors at ISDSI are trained as Crossfit coaches, and students participate in classes as part of their program. Boom, Tik and Pui were all very friendly and it was nice to have the opportunity to chat with some locals.

I was a little disappointed to see my numbers after such a long break but it felt so good to get some serious physical activity in. I was surprised by how much I missed the hard work and I’m a little nervous how I’m going to fit in exercise during the next few months of traveling.

Taking Care of Business

Since I was heading up to the temple soon, I didn’t want to commit myself to much for my first few days in Chiang Mai. I knew I wanted to visit a dentist, go to the Crossfit gym, and maybe meet up with some Couchsurfers.

The dentist was easy. Mah had a recommendation so I went to check out their prices for a new crown. It wasn’t going to be as cheap as Cambodia would have been but still a good deal compared to the U.S.  They aren’t booked full like American dentists so scheduling was a piece of cake– they weren’t even pissed when twice I managed to miss my appointment.

Dental and medical tourism has been huge in Thailand for years, and although prices have gone up with demand it’s still a great value for anyone needing serious dental work. My crown was going to cost me half what it would with insurance in the states. And spoiler alert, it turned out great.

Cambodia’s entry in to the scene was news to me, but my friend Shin from Shu’s guesthouse had done some research. Cambodia invested heavily in training up dentists once their war ended, and they were mostly trained in Thailand. The quality is high, and the prices are dirt cheap. I paid $8 for a tooth cleaning there and another woman was paying about $10 per filling. Crowns start at $100. I was very tempted to postpone Chiang Mai but it seemed too much hassle.