The simple cottages, facilities and religious buildings at Wat Kow Tahm are spread over a tree-lined piece of land that tumbles down to wide boulders affording views across much of Pha Ngan’s south coast and beyond. While the vista is worth a quick trip up here, the temple is primarily a venue for meditation retreats conducted by English-language instructors.
Also spelt Wat Khao Tham (“Mountain Cave Monastery”), the small Thai Forest Tradition monastery found its way on to the foreign traveller map in 1988. A resident nun, Mae Chee Amorn Pun, requested that an Australian couple, Steve and Rosemary Weissman, stick around long-term to help teach the few foreign travellers who passed through with an interest in meditation and Buddhist teachings.
Aged 93 as of 2016, Mae Chee Amorn Pun remains the “spiritual head” of Wat Kow Tahm, while Steve and Rosemary left in 2013 to teach meditation in Australia and many other parts of the world. Retreats are now led by Anthony Markwell, an Australian who spent 11 years practicing and studying the Dharma as a Theravada Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma, India and Sri Lanka. Clearly, the guy knows what he’s doing.
Retreats include various Theravada meditation tactics, such as Satipatthana (the basis for vipassana, or “insight” meditation) and Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), with both the seated and walking postures employed. Hours are spent in a simple fan-cooled meditation hall, and floor cushions are provided. Retreats are conducted most months from the 10th to 20th, with the occasional 21-day retreat offered for more experienced meditators. Check out the Wat Kow Tahm website (link below) for info on registering.
Meditators follow a strict daily routine beginning with a 04:00 wake up. In addition to the meditation sessions, the days include Dharma talks, interviews with the instructor, yoga exercises, chores, chanting and two meals eaten before noon, in the Theravada tradition. Meditators are expected to observe “noble silence” and Buddhist precepts, such as not killing even insects, not having sex and not taking drugs. Accommodation is very basic, relying on shared bathrooms with bucket-flush squat toilets and cold water.
Of the meditation retreat venues that we’ve visited in Thailand (others include Wat Suan Mokkh, Wat Pah Nanachat, Wat Doi Suthep and Wat Sanghathan), we found the atmosphere at Wat Kow Tahm to be best suited to a week of calm and insight. A breeze usually rustles the leaves of abundant trees, and the boulders with fantastic views are ideal for inner-reflection.
While the peaceful feel of Wat Kow Tahm is its primary draw, you’ll also find a shrine with a Buddha footprint cast and some interesting murals at one of the viewpoints. Check out the depiction of a previous incarnation of the Buddha being carried to safety by the goddess Manimekhala as his fellow sailors perish after a shipwreck, as told in the Mahajanaka Jataka. Further up the hill, the ordination hall features a roughly four-metre-long reclining Buddha image.
It’s worth a trip up here even if you’re not into meditation; just be careful to dress appropriately and not to disturb the meditators. Around a dozen Thai monks and nuns reside at the monastery year-round.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 27th October, 2016.