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.

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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.

11Treasure & The Blue House

My home in Chiang Mai was going to be Mah’s guesthouse 11Treasure in the Old City. I knew her address and that she was near Wat Chedi Luang and the Giant 2 Guesthouse, and I figured that was enough information for any cab driver to find his way. It turned out to be much more difficult than I expected.

Chiang Mai is a popular city for foreigners, and a lot of local Thai people speak excellent English. For some reason, even though cab drivers cater almost exclusively to travelers most have not cared to learn very much. This would be fine on its own, but they also have no idea how to read maps. This is an awful introduction to the city when you are tired and exhausted by traveling.

I was staying on one of the major roads in the city, and had a street number. You would think that worst case scenario they could start at one end and drive to the other and I could read the street numbers. It’s only about a 10 minute drive from end to end. But no, I sat in the car for five minutes while he grumbled and finally I said he could just leave me at Wat Chedi Luang.

After he let me off it took quite a bit of wandering, but eventually I lucked out when I spotted the Giant 2 Guesthouse. It’s the kind of place where you would expect all stoners to lodge at, and it happens to be covered in large graffiti art so it’s easy to find. With a little more effort I found my guesthouse across the street.

I was already an hour later than expected and Mah was waiting for me. She is a fashion designer/boutique shop proprieter turned guesthouse manager. She closed up her shop and only does custom designs now, but she rents out three rooms in the shop location and two in a little house just outside of the Old City. The merchandise is still out, so it’s pretty entertaining to sit in the living room and have people constantly peering in on you.

She settled me in to my cozy room upstairs but had to leave and grab dinner. My plan was to eat first and then I wanted to drink some whiskey in memory of my friend. I was awkwardly trying to figure out the lock on the front door, and noticed a man sitting on a bench in front chuckling at me. After a brief exchange I was about to leave when a motorbike – scooters count as motorbikes in the rest of the world – pulled up.

It turned out to be Mah’s long term tenant Isaias and his girlfriend Joanna who lives in Singapore. The man sitting on the bench was Bassil, whom they had met at the market that day, except for the coincidence that he had also stayed at Mah’s guesthouse before. They asked where I was off to, and I told them I needed a drink. Just my luck, they were having a vodka party at the Blue House and I was invited. I hopped on the back of Bassil’s motorbike and we were off.

The rest of the little party at The Blue House consisted of an Italian guest Matteo, his current lady-friend Anna (this lasted until the next day when she became “crazy”), Mah, and her good friend whose name I can’t spell. There was plenty of vodka and mixers, but unfortunately no whiskey. I poured myself some Hendricks and called it good enough.– at least it was a quality gin.

It felt good to immediately acquire some new acquaintances, but I didn’t want to stay out too late. Bassil gave me a ride back to the guesthouse and I went to bed feeling that Chiang Mai was off to a great start.

Moving On

The night before I left Siem Reap, I went to bed early so I could watch the World Cup game at 3am. I made it to the end of the regular game time, but when the US was clearly losing I decided to just let myself get a little extra sleep.

I woke up a few hours later, packed my things, and went downstairs to check with Su about my ride. I found him asleep on the couch. He had forgotten to arrange a tuk tuk for me, so instead I got a ride on the back of his motorcycle. It was my first time riding a motorcycle without a helmet and not the most comfortable experience but it felt good to ride on two wheels again.

There was no direct flight to Chiang Mai so I had a five hour layover in Bangkok. I was hoping I could find a nice comfy cafe and chill out but the dining options were abysmal, McDonalds, KFC, Burger King. I ended up at a pretty nasty coffee shop, but they did offer WiFi for customers so I settled in the cafeteria-like space for a few hours.

I was doing little more than entertaining myself on Reddit when a Facebook update appeared that shook me up badly. A friend back home in Seattle had passed away suddenly. At first I hoped that it might be a twisted joke, but I couldn’t believe that of the friend who announced the news. I started checking the Facebook pages of every mutual friend, and found many vague updates that now had more serious meaning.

I sat there in the restaurant and just let the tears fall silently. It felt very lonely to process on my own, and I briefly contemplated flying back to Seattle for the wake. I hadn’t seen this friend in a year, and for the year before that he had held some resentment towards, blaming me for some changes in his life. I was torn between feeling bad for not visiting him my last two trips out, and relief that we had the opportunity to patch up our friendship before this happened.

And then there was the gift he had given me, his cast iron pan. It was a very meaningfully bestowed gift, yet I had succumbed to exhaustion from moving and let my roommate keep it. I knew that I had to get it back, and emailed her the request.

It was very late in Seattle by then, and the action on Facebook had dwindled. I cleaned up a bit and went to the gate to board. I had picked an aisle seat because I like to hydrate while flying, but after waiting patiently for my row-mates I realized that there would not be any. This was a perfect situation because I love sitting by the window and watching the ground fall away.

As the plane taxied down the runway I sat with my gaze fixed on the skyline and then I saw it– a rainbow. I generally try not to attribute happenstance with meaning, but it was impossible not to feel touched. I decided to take it as a sign that if there is a higher power, they are benevolent enough to care more about providing comfort than what or whom we believe in.

Angkor Wat

On my fourth day in Siem Reap, I finally made it to Angkor Wat. I was biding my time for new people to show up at the hostel so I wouldn’t have to go alone. True to form, Su kept me updated on the situation and gave me an intro as soon as the guests arrived.

Initially I made plans with two women each traveling solo, but another guy who called himself “Silly” told me he was planning to go for sunrise. It would mean leaving the guesthouse at 5:00am but when it occurred to me that I could avoid the hottest part of the day I was sold. Luckily the others didn’t seem to mind that I bailed on them.

The tuk tuk arrived right on time and whisked us off to procure tickets and and take us to Angkor Wat temple. We were some of the first people to buy our tickets, but I forgot to consider that many others would have multiple day passes or would have purchased their tickets the night before. The shockingly large number of people had beaten us to the reflecting pools but we still got a pretty good spot. And then we got to wait.

We totally lucked out on the weather, it was the first clear morning in days. When we arrived at the temple our iPhone torch feature was needed to navigate but soon the sky was turning pink. I had managed to snag a spot in the front row and for awhile managed to wait patiently for about twenty minutes, but then I noticed that Silly had disappeared. I got anxious about finding him again and abandoned my seat to look around.

And now we arrive to the danger of waking up at 4:30am: I am as dumb as rocks when I am not well rested. When I couldn’t find him immediately I told myself “Well, it’s pretty light and I already got some pictures with the pink. It’s not like there is much else to see.” I decided to head back to the tuk tuk in case he was there.

That’s right, I missed the sunrise itself because I forgot that the sun actually rising in to view was a crucial part of the experience. Luckily I realized my mistake before I had walked all the way back. I returned to position before the sun had gained too much height and Silly was there looking for me.

Over the next five or six hours we explored Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm and I got to know Silly better. He is British and I believe his name is Sunil, and he is so committed to his nickname that he has it tattooed on the inside of his lip. He was in the middle of four months of traveling before heading to New Zealand to play in a Rugby Club Team. He is in his mid twenties and had undergone heart surgery a few years back.

This led to a discussion about how we both believed that travel isn’t something that should be put off until later in life. His father had disapproved of his plan to travel the world until they had a serious talk post-surgery. Experiencing a life threatening health issue so early in life really brought home his point that you can never be sure that the opportunity will still be around.

Additionally, many of the most exciting destinations for travel require good physical fitness to get the most out of them. The vertigo-inducing selfies with Machu Picchu in the background are hard-earned after an hour or more hiking up stairs. The best Great Wall experiences involve hiking at least 5 miles under the hot sun. And Angkor Wat Park is a hell of a lot more fun if you have the stamina and mobility to explore it properly.

After hours of walking and scrambling and climbing, we were both exhausted. Each temple is a stunning feat of architecture and design, and you would need at least a week to do them all justice. Alternatively, you can hit up the main ones and just tell yourself that nothing can beat Angkor Wat so surely you aren’t missing out. That’s the path we chose and I do not regret the ensuing nap one bit.

For A Better Cambodia

Out of all the places I’ve visited, in Cambodia I felt the strongest need to be conscientious about how I spend my time and money. While everyone is in need of a living wage there are some wonderful organizations that are working to educate people with valuable life skills. Without marketable skills, children can get sucked in to truly undesirable work at a very young age.
There is a common scam in Cambodia where a child will approach you on the street or while you are seated. Often, you will be seated at a street side restaurant minding your own business. They plead at you, “Please, I don’t want money. I just want milk.” If you bite, they lead you to a shop except rather than a carton of milk they choose a bottle of expensive baby formula. If you make the purchase, they will later return to the shop and get a refund for the milk powder.I was in Siem Reap for a week, and was approached three times by the same young girl carrying a baby. The first incident was rather shocking. I was eating breakfast with Ayca at Le Grand Café when she approached Ayca, who immediately turned her down. She kept at it, and then I jumped in with a louder and firmer denial. She glared at me and said “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to her.” and went back to working at Ayca.

After several more attempts to tell her we weren’t interested, she got pissed at me. She picked up a salt shaker menacingly and glared at me. “Fuck you. You watch out or I do this. You come outside and I show you. You come outside.” Woah, I definitely have a size advantage but I did not want to get in to an altercation with this kid. She continued to threaten me for a bit and then reached over and pinched my arm as hard as she could and left.

It may be tempting to just give in, because what are a few dollars to an underprivileged kid, but supporting these children is not in their best interest at all. These harsh tactics are rarely the child’s idea, and if they weren’t lucrative the parent might choose instead to send the child to school or have them work on more tangible skills.

A better option is to support the many NGOs that are working hard to provide support, education, and work skills to street kids, orphans, and other underprivileged youth. Eat at HAVEN which not only serves some of the best food in Siem Reap, but provides housing, food, shelter, and service industry training for participants. Watch the Phare Cambodian Circus, which provides free education plus specialized schools for visual and applied arts, music, theater, and circus performance under the banner of PPS.

If you are inclined to donate or volunteer, do your research first. Schools that use Khmer teachers are much more effective at teaching English than those that use an ever-changing selection of foreign volunteers. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t volunteer, but try not to do it in ways that displace locals who are trying to make a wage.

Finally, if you are ever in Cambodia please donate blood! I went to theAngkor Hospital for Children and it was easy and safe. They have a serious shortage of blood and you have a good chance of saving a child’s life for your minimal effort. You will even walk away with a free shirt.

If you are headed to Cambodia and wish to help, ConCERT is a wonderful resource for maximizing your impact. They also run an amazing little cafe that has green smoothies.