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In search of nirvana: 10 days of silent retreat in Thailand

20 July, 2015 — by Andrew Dempsey1

Say the word ‘Nirvana’ and most right-minded people would think of the grunge band from the 90s, but the true Buddhist meaning of the word is the complete ending of suffering and the beginning of peace, happiness and contentment. After a few years of bad Karma, illness, injury, heartbreak and loss, I decided I fancied a bit of that.

I took planes, trains, automobiles and boats to the Wat Kow Tham monastery on Ko Phangan, Thailand. I was one of the last to register and stood out like a saw thumb, sweltering in my shirt, jeans and brand new K Swiss runners. I could see in everyone’s eyes I was the favourite to drop out first and I imagined them taking bets like in The Shawshank Redemption on me cracking first.

wat khao tham buddhist retreat road sign

I had an interview with the top man, Antony, a former monk from Australia who was the main teacher. I wondered if that was his real name or if when he had his interview to become a monk he had a giant ant on his knee and when the Grand Wizard Monk saw this he named him ‘Ant on Knee’.

He asked me what I knew about Vipassana Meditation? The Nobel Truths? Buddhism? I answered them all with a blank look. All I could offer was, “My buddy Albert did it last year and said it was mint” Antony warned me it was not a beginner course but to stick with it. “No Problem” I arrogantly replied.

Next thing was to collect my bedding, find my room and meet my room mate and a few other lads. My attempt at humour, “Anyone know where the Ikea is? I’m going to buy a thicker mattress” didn’t go down particularly well.

We had the afternoon free, so I wandered down the hill to have a few beers in the sun, and found a little beach bar run by the sweetest older Thai lady in her late 60s. When she found out I was there to meditate and learn about Buddhism she really warmed to me. As the sun went down I said goodbye to the lady and said I would be back in the morning. She wouldn’t be there, so she would hide a few beers in an ice box in the bushes.

wat khao tham buddhist retreat

I made my way up the hill and went to bed. Apparently in the middle of the night I screamed at the top of my voice “You fucking cunt!”. My American room mate thought I was screaming at him and was quite rightly terrified. For years I have only had bad dreams, another manifestation of the bad Karma I have accumulated.

In the morning I headed back to the beach bar, found my secret stash of beers and enjoyed the last few hours before the retreat began. On returning to the monastery I met a Scouse lad who said he had family in Wrexham and before I could ask him who they were, we entered the meditation hall and began the silence. I thought I have to see this through to the end just so I can ask him more about his upbringing.

The meditation has one aim, to focus the mind on the present moment, allowing all thoughts of past and future to leave your mind along with any feelings your senses conjure up. On paper an easy task, in reality seemingly impossible.

wat khao tham buddhist retreat

My first meditation session was absolute agony, as my knees cause me pain at the best of times, and attempting to kneel down in total stillness for an hour was not going to happen, I was wriggling around all over the gaff, but by day two I was still in crippling agony.

Day three I made the breakthrough and was able to see that even though there was pain, I could just let it go… easy! When I completed my first hour on my knees without moving I felt like getting up and breakdancing. Giving high fives to everyone, including the Thai monk at the front who looked a lot like Bolo Yeung from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.

The first few days were not only physically painful but also mentally frustrating, because we were up at 4am then pretty much meditating until 9pm and I couldn’t do it or see whatever it was I was supposed to see. I had thought previously that a week without going to the Casino or drinking might be hard, and as my roulette table couldn’t fit in my case, a bottle of Whisky did comfortably and was smuggled into my room. I thought within a couple of days I would be so thirsty I would have drunk the bottle in one through a straw, but no such thoughts entered my head.

On the first night of the silence I had a beautiful dream, the first good dream in years, so good I didn’t want to wake up, and left me with the thought, “Something good is happening to me here, stick with it.”

Other deeply emotional things happened during my time there: bursting into tears when we were told to think about our parents, the thought of the suffering they have been through made me lose control, then at meal time a tiny fly fell into my food and got stuck, I got him out and tried to blow on him to get him back to life and when I failed I welled up again.

They are very strict on the retreat, no talking and no disturbing others, you get one warning, then you are out. My warning came when I saw a distressed kitten on the roof of a building. Just as I readied myself to climb onto the roof to be the hero, a petite lady half my size volunteered to go up instead if I lifted her. Up she went and as she put her weight on the roof there was a crack, leaving me thinking had I climbed up I would have gone clean through, broken my spine and left the retreat unceremoniously in an ambulance. We were told in no uncertain terms, any more of those shenanigans and we are out.

When I read about the monastery, I became aware of the animals you can expect to encounter, spiders, scorpions, millipedes and one that alarmed me… a King Cobra snake. I wondered how I would react if I ever opened the toilet door to be confronted by him standing high on his tail, neck flared spitting poison into my face. Luckily I only saw him the one time, while I was doing some walking meditation. The camp dogs were going berserk, so much so I had to break from my meditation to have a look, and saw the King Cobra spitting at the dogs, then lurking off into the dining hall. I was gutted not to see any chameleons… I had expected a Buddhist monastery to be riddled with Karma Chameleons. Sorry.

wat khao tham buddhist retreat

The first few days were killing me, quite possibly the hardest thing for me was to let go of the feelings associated with sensual pleasures, I could just think of one person in this regard and it wasn’t possible to get her out of my head. I craved so much for the moment the retreat ended so I could get back in touch.

By the fifth day I was beginning to see the little glimpses of the peace, happiness and contentment meditation is supposed to bring, but whenever I felt it, I tried to grab hold of it, then just like a fist full of sand, it was gone and I had to start looking again. These small glimpses were enough to make me want more.

The food was some of the tastiest grub I’ve ever had. Normally I will eat in front of the telly, or with tunes on, or eat a butty while I am driving, but at the retreat there are no such distractions so every mouthful exploded with taste.

We did yoga for one hour each day, which was welcome exercise, but proved very challenging – not the exercises themselves, just trying not to identify with the sensual pleasures offered by the beautiful and mysterious woman opposite me in the Amnesia Ibiza t-shirt.

The more I could do the meditation and the more I let go, the less I wanted the retreat to end. Days six and seven were magical and I really enjoyed being there in this little paradise.

wat khao tham buddhist retreat

When we came out of the silence, the first thing I did was steam straight over to Scouse to ask him who his family in Wrexham were. Of course it turns out I didn’t know them anyway. Then there were lots of hugs and congratulations along with non-stop chatting. I popped down the hill to see the older Thai Lady, who put on a huge feast for me, which she refused to accept any money for, as she was so happy I had embraced Buddhism and especially as I could recite the Buddhist chanting in Thai.

The lady left for Bangkok that afternoon and so we arranged to meet the following day when I myself flew into Bangkok. I wanted to treat her to lunch for looking after me so well.

The rest of the evening was spent getting to know all these people I had spent a week with without saying a word to. We went swimming then went to the market for dinner, like a big family.

The following morning I packed my case and made my way to Bangkok. In Bangkok I met with the lady, who gave me presents of some statues of The Buddha and a bracelet and told me she is my Thai mum there to look after me.

andrew and thai lady

We spent the afternoon walking hand in hand around the Asiatique area of Bangkok, going on the big wheel and having lunch. We said our goodbyes, I promised to continue down the spiritual path and to return next year, then I left to meet my old friend from Sunderland who has lived in Bangkok for three years and who promised me a no-holds barred wild weekend. But that my friends is another story.

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One comment

  • Wayne Lloyd

    22 July, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    Fucking brilliant mate!! Well done Demps, you never cease to amaze me dude

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