Staying at a Thai monastery

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First published 18th October, 2009

Dawn breaks in Thailand. A wave of orange sweeps over the entire country as monks from all over leave their monasteries and depart for their daily alms round. This scene has attracted more and more Westerners towards a closer glimpse of the lifestyle of a Thai Buddhist monk. Spending time in a monastery during your visit to Thailand can allow such an experience, and in fact was for me one of the greatest times I had in the country. Walking into any monastery for the first time means leaving your old world behind in exchange for new, far different one. No cell phone... No laptop... No iPod. This is a good thing.


Day to day distractions are exchanged for quiet meditation and experiencing a side of Thailand little seen by visitors. With 97% of the population in the kingdom being Buddhist, and a great majority of men ordaining for a period in their life, this is an important aspect of Thai culture. Whether you're at home looking for a place to spend a long period continuing your meditation practice, or are already in Thailand looking to add an unforgettable experience to your trip, there's a monastery more than willing to have you.

Arriving at Wat Pah Nanachat for the first time, walking down the long cleanly swept paths leading to the monastery grounds, I couldn't help but feel in awe. The vast forests, the sounds of nature's animals pervading throughout. But more important was what I couldn't hear: cars, tuk-tuks... a welcome change. Approaching the monastery, I was met by a guest monk who had the responsibility of greeting new arrivals. Having written a few months ago, I was expected. Monastery etiquette was described to me first, but I was told that the first few days I should not worry too much about it, as no one would be offended if I got anything wrong. What a relief! After being shown to where I'd be sleeping for the next few days, the guest dormitory, I laid my bag down on the floor. Inside were merely a few toiletries, a couple of books and a flashlight. I was given a set of white clothes to change into and left to my own devices.

Walking the monastery grounds, I passed monks walking calmly and tried very awkwardly to wai to them. One even let out a small gentle smile at my slightly nervous behaviour, which put me at ease. I noticed small cabins on stilts scattered throughout the grounds, the dwelling places of long term guests and monastics. Looking no larger than a small bathroom, the reality of the simplicity of life here struck home. I made my way to the outside sala deep in the northern part of the forest, and sat for nam pana, a daily break where tea is served and formalities are relaxed. I took this time to talk to a monk from Germany who told a few lighthearted jokes, making me feel very comfortable and shattering a few preconceived notions I had about monastics.

Returning to the main hall later in the day for the evening chanting, I found my place on a mat towards the back, being the newest member of the community. Looking up at the dimly lit hall, I saw the monks, about two dozen or so, seated according to seniority at the foot of a silhouetted Buddha statue, a sight that's still with me today. As the chanting begun, I picked up a book placed near my seat to help new guests, and managed to not only be off tone, but pretty much miss every single word. Luckily there were enough other voices to drown out mine.

The routine went on the same day to day, and I found one day simply melting into the next. With no clocks or calenders, losing a sense of time is not only possible, it's almost inevitable. My usual daily worries -- What am I going to eat? What time am I going to do this or that? -- were replaced by a solid routine that brought about a peace of mind I had not felt before. The routine was drastically changed however when after three days, checking the daily schedule posted in the main hall, I learned a funeral was to be held. With my Western mindset, I made the grave mistake of picturing everyone standing over a casket, saying their piece and that being the end of it. Boy was I wrong! That afternoon, the community met at a part of the forest in the women's section, where about 100 people from the village of Bung Wai were gathered for the ceremony. Mats were rolled out for the guests about 50 feet from the funeral pyre. The casket was a few feet off the ground, with stacks of wood underneath. Seeing this, I realized with quite a shock that this was to be a cremation. The monks gave a talk about dying to try to ease some of the pain of the family, and we are instructed to use this time to acknowledge that all who are born must pass away: The way of life.


Forest wat cremation

Waking on my fourth day at the usual time of 4am, I gathered myself and walked outside to sweep some of the paths covered by fallen leaves and did some other chores before the morning alms round, the daily dawn walk to gather food offered by the villagers. I was told I would be going along, and would walk behind two monks and carry the bowls once full. Approaching the village of Bung Wai, the laypeople got to their knees as the monks approached, each grabbing a small handful of sticky rice to put into the monks' bowls. I was awestruck at the acts of generosity, as a women with only a single sandal and torn shirt came to give her gift of a small lump of rice. It's at this moment I truly began to feel comfortable and at home here, and hoped to stay for many days to come.

Choosing a monastery

So you're interested in becoming a monk? What do you need to do? Your interests are key to when it comes to choosing the best place for you to visit. Ask yourself how long you plan to stay and what you want to gain from your experience.

You do not need to be a Buddhist to spend long stays or even ordain. Monasteries are open to anyone willing to open their minds to Buddhism. The cost of ordaining ranges from nothing at all to a few hundred dollars. Those looking for temporary ordination in Bangkok may find that it differs from monastery to monastery, with the larger royal wats requesting a hefty donation. You should and can almost always ordain for free. Even at the larger wats in Bangkok, lay supporters are usually more than willing to pay for you in order to get the merit from helping a foreigner ordain. If having someone pay doesn't sit well with you, you can also ask to be fitted into a group ceremony with five or six other Thai monks and the cost will already be covered, with the abbot simply fitting you in. Nearly all forest monasteries have a tradition of accepting donations only, so there are no specific costs to ordain.

In Bangkok, you can be temporarily ordained quickly, with little notice and no knowledge of Buddhism required. Simple respect will go a long way. You will not offend anyone if you disrobe a few days later, as the abbot will be aware of your intentions ahead of time. A tourist visa is all that is needed, as long as your stay doesn't outlast it. Your main focus will be light meditation, some scripture reading, and aside from following monastery etiquette, most of your time will be free to do as you please.


alms giving

Don't feel like doing it on your own?

Just book a tour! No really. Although ordaining on your own is recommended, Monk-for-a-month offers those looking for an all-inclusive experience, with packages ranging from just a few days to three months. Packages start from around $18/day which will cover everything you need to live, study, practise and ordain as a monastic. Meals and accommodation for 600 baht a day? This makes ordaining and staying here actually cheaper than most backpacker daily budgets. Tourist visa is required. Any and all questions are walked through with you upon arrival, and your ordination is guided from start to finish. Guests also have the opportunity to teach English to young novice monks. Profits are donated to their partner charity, the Blood Foundation

Long-term stays

For those interested in longer-term meditation retreats or with a serious thought of long term or lifetime ordination, the centre of training is in Thailand's Isaan region. There you will find many monasteries not only willing but very happy to train native-English speakers. Although you can leave at any time, some commitment is required if ordination is your goal.

Entering on a non-immigrant type O visa is the ideal visa to have if staying for longer than six months. This can be obtained by writing in advance and getting a letter of acceptance from a monastery. The letter you receive from the monastery will advise you of their particular procedures for long term guests. Trying to get the visa inside, although technically easy when done by monks, can be quite complicated due the fact that you will need to get the signatures of the chief monks of the district and province, as well as the abbot of your temple. For less than six months, a dual entry tourist visa will suffice. Most monasteries will handle the paperwork for your non-immigrant type O visa after your visa expires and you are ordained. However some will not, and it's important for you to know what's needed in case you are required to do it on your own.

More information

Wat Pah Nanachat
Wat Pah Nanachat is located on a small forest of about 40 acres in the village of Bung Wai and is a truly unique forest monastic experience. Almost all of the monks here are foreign. While there is no limit on the time one can stay and no limit on how long one can stay without ordaining, all guests will be asked to shave their heads and move to a cabin after three days. Ordaining here is a year long process, however all paperwork and visas are handled by the monastery. There is no cost associated with staying here, but guests are responsible for taking care of visa costs if not obtained in advance.

Train is the easiest way to get here from Bangkok. A tuk-tuk will take you directly to the monastery from Ubon Ratchathani's train station for about 100 baht.

Writing in advance is required:
Wat Pah Nanachat
www.watpahnanachat.org
Bahn Bung Wai
Ampher Warin Chamrab
Ubon Rachathani 34310
Thailand

The following video contains excerpts from the BBC documentary 'The Mindful Way' which show Luang Por Chah, briefly featuring the young Ajahn Liam who was later nominated by Luang Por Chah to lead Wat Pah Pong and continues to do so.



Wat Marp Jan
A hidden gem of the forest tradition, Wat Marp Jan is located near the town of Ban Phe in Rayong and sits on a massive 500 acres of lush forests, offering unequalled seclusion. The abbot is a Western-educated, English-speaking monk very keen on helping foreign practitioners.

From Bangkok's Eastern (Ekachai) Bus Terminal regular services run to Bahn Phe throughout the day, taking about four hours. From the pier in Ban Phe it is about 20 minutes by taxi. When crossing the main road, watch out for signs to Wat Marp Jun.

Writing in advance is recommended:
Wat Marp Jun
www.watmarpchan.org
Tambon Klaeng
Ampher Meuang
Jangwat Rayong 21160
Thailand

Further resources

Comprehensive list of all monasteries accepting foreigners for ordination (PDF).

Many thanks to Travelfish member think87 for penning his thoughts to put together this story on staying at a Thai monastery. Special thanks to the abbot at Wat Pah Nanachat for permission to use the photos included with the story.



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Read 29 comment(s)

  • this is an excellent - thank you for sharing

    Posted by idreamofdurian on 19th October, 2009


  • Thanks

    It was a pleasure sharing.

    Posted by think87 on 19th October, 2009

  • WHOA, cool.

    Posted by Ali on 19th October, 2009

  • Great report, thanks for sharing. I wasn't expecting to see Ajahn Chah teaching on Travelfish today - what a treat.

    I'm interested in the PDF list of all Thai monasteries that accept foreigners, but the site says it has "moved on." Any ideas how to move it back?

    Posted by DLuek on 21st October, 2009


  • Here is alternate place to download the file if the link isnt loading. Simply click the 'Retreats_in_Asia_Oct07.pdf' under the "Dear english speaking visitor" section

    http://www.retreat-infos.de/

    this is the direct link which should work though:

    http://www.retreat-infos.de/Download/Retreats_in_Asia_Oct07.pdf

    Posted by think87 on 21st October, 2009


  • Also if your interested, here is a similar list for Sri Lanka, although I myself have a much more limited knowledge for Sri Lanka the article spells everything for you:

    Ordaining

    http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/Sri-Lanka-monasteries.pdf

    Visiting

    http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/Sri-Lanka-laypeople-monasteries.pdf

    Posted by think87 on 21st October, 2009

  • What's the procedure on hair? I know you are supposed to shed all vanity, but I have dreadlocks and don't want to cut it. Is it still possible to spend time at these places... even if becoming ordained is not the ultimate goal or not?
    How easy is it to find one that doesn't require payment?
    I would love the cultural experience, but don't want to commit my life to it, if you understand.
    Regards,
    Matty

    Posted by Matty on 24th October, 2009


  • Anything longer than 2 - 3 days and you will be required to shave your head. If your not wanting to commit long term, literally any monastery in Asia will allow you to show up and stay overnight for a day or two, but longer than that you'll be required to shave hair and beard to fit in with the community.

    So basically: Yes you can stay, no you don't have to commit, no you dont have to pay, but yes the hair would have to go :-P

    Posted by think87 on 24th October, 2009

  • How about a Nunnery? I'm sure there must be a few in Thailand. Can a woman receive temporary ordination in a Nunnery? Thanks!

    Posted by Lorraine on 14th November, 2009

  • Interesting indeed! Would like to do similar thing.Although not organized, perhaps a more authentic and unique meditation/self-contemplative experience can be arranged in Bhutan. There are numerous ancient temples and monasteries that could hosts tourists that are looking for such therapy. As it is, the whole country provides that opportunity.promo deleted
    Lotay

    Posted by Lotrin on 14th November, 2009

  • important to note that it is preferred, encouraged and strongly recommended that you keep the precepts while at nanachat

    Posted by tom on 1st November, 2010

  • I'm sorry that the "Comprehensive list of all monasteries accepting foreigners for ordination (PDF)" is missing.

    Posted by CW Poole on 5th April, 2011

  • I noticed there were some people looking for the link to the list of monasteries accepting foreigners. The link has moved since I wrote this article and can be found here:

    http://www.retreat-infos.de/page15/page15.html

    Simply download the Retreats in Asia 2010 link, its 92 pages and extremely helpful!

    Hope this helps

    Posted by think87 on 5th April, 2011

  • Just a note that the Monk for a Month programme mentioned in your blog no longer exists as such.
    The stay at Wat Sri Boen Ruang is donation based only, a it was felt that the charging to stay goes against the teachings of Lord Buddha.
    People can still come and stay at the temple and novice ordination is still offered. Walking on alms rounds with the monks each morning, dhamma talks, vipassana meditation and evening chanting are all here to be experienced.
    People interested can contact me via the webpage.
    With metta, Phra Greg

    Posted by Phra Greg Chuntawongso on 8th April, 2011

  • I have been thinking about doing something like this for a really long time but I have been to frightened by the amount of change it requires from the way I live and the monk way of life. Have you seen a modern day american move to Thailand and live out the rest of their life there?

    Posted by Macken Bennett on 7th June, 2012

  • I have been thinking about doing something like this for a really long time but I have been to frightened by the amount of change it requires from the way I live and the monk way of life. Have you seen a modern day american move to Thailand and live out the rest of their life there?

    Posted by Macken Bennett on 7th June, 2012

  • I was surprised to see that Suan Mok Monastery (The Garden of Liberation) near Chaiya was not mentioned. It has been a while but it was a wonderful experience: no talking, vegetarian meals x 2 with banana in evening, chores, yoga, assigned duties, and plenty of all forms of meditation. When I was finished I felt lighter than air and more free than the freest spirit.
    Well worth the 600 baht for ten days!

    Posted by Patrick on 13th June, 2012

  • I should like do that!!! how can I make? can you help me?thank you

    Posted by Marcella on 30th July, 2012


  • If your interested in a stay at Wat Pah Nanachat your best bet is to write a letter addressed to the guest monk, the address is above. You will recieve a letter back within a couple weeks with all the info you need.

    if you are already in thailand you can stop by and speak in person and they will advise you whether or not they have any room. There is no charge for a stay.

    Posted by think87 on 30th July, 2012

  • Think 87, you have no idea how splendidly happy I am that I stumbled upon this. I got introduced to the Dharma a couple of years ago. The first book I ever read was The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield. He mentions his forest monastery in Thailand and his Master Ajahn Chah many times. Ever since that book my goal has been to go to a monastery in Thailand for a very long time.

    I was wondering if we could maybe talk a little more about Thailand and really your whole experience. I am quite naive about a lot of things and first hand experience from someone would be just awesome. I hope to hear from you. And I really really do appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this page together.

    Posted by Kelly on 19th September, 2012

  • Hi Kelly

    I'd be more than happy to help you with whatever questions you may have just drop me an email at cbennett87@gmail.com

    also if your looking at what life is like in the monastery this book is perfect. written by a man from england who was a monk there for years and lived with ajahn chah for some of those years. The entire book takes place at wat pah nanachat, highly recommended. The author actually translated some thai for another of jack kornfields books still forest pool.

    http://www.amazon.com/Venerable-Father-Life-Ajahn-Chah/dp/1931044813

    Anywho please do send me an email and ill try my best with your questions.

    Posted by think87 on 19th September, 2012

  • need to understand buddhism and meditation better.

    Posted by kc boey on 2nd April, 2013

  • Lovely way to spend the vacation! It truly enhances the mind... :)

    Posted by buddhismistheway on 10th July, 2013

  • This was awesome to read thank you very much. Im actually trying to plan a trip to a Monastery as well. Do you have any tips on how to find one to stay at other than monk for month ? thanks again.

    Posted by Stefan on 16th August, 2013

  • I found this really helpful and inspiring - thank you. I am a complete novice when it comes to the Buddist faith and was looking at a monastic stay of about a week in Thailand, where I was hoping to understand more about it, especially meditation - do the monasteries you mention cater for novices such as me? - thanks

    Posted by John on 23rd January, 2014

  • you are doing a great job, congratulation,well dan,
    with metta....juan.

    Posted by juan canete bueno on 2nd April, 2014

  • If one uses pen and paper, is writing permitted as a daily activity at the monasteries you mention?
    Thank you so much for such a wonderful article!

    Posted by Richard on 15th April, 2014

  • I am very interested in travelling to Thailand and living with buddhist monks for roughly 6-10 months. I am very interested in not only the peaceful meditation side of the living but also the martial art side of Thailand culture (Thai Fighting/Boxing and martial arts displayed by Buddhist monks)and wildlife. I am an athlete and an adventurer and this is a dream trip for me but I want to be sure im on a right path. I have read many 'programs' but most seem very structured and set in stone by time. I want to explore and discover thailand freely but also understandably safely.

    Can anyone help point me in the right direction? companies to go through? Temples that would welcome my stay and volunteering? who would offer me what im looking for? Has anyone already had a similar experience? how did you go about planning it? executing your plan?

    Many Thanks

    Gary

    Posted by Gary on 15th July, 2014

  • Think87, this sounds like exactly what I was looking for! I was wondering if it is possible for women to stay too provided i shaved my head and lived according to all the other rules?

    Posted by Alexandra on 13th August, 2014

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