Staying at a Thai monastery
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Bahn Bung Wai
Ampher Warin Chamrab
Ubon Rachathani 34310
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
Jangwat Rayong 21160
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.
Story by Craig Bennett
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