Friday, 21 August 2015

My Introduction to Bangkok City

The day I was due to leave the meditation house the girls were also preparing to go to the temple. As it was a religious holiday a large group of people were going to spend the days in worship, meditation and contemplation. Had I been staying I would have loved to have gone with them as I believe the peace and tranquillity would have helped me improve my meditation. However I had my own plans. My friend wasn’t due in to Bangkok until the evening but I left the house as soon as I was ready. Though we weren’t due to check in until later I was sure I could leave my stuff there and start my exploration of the city, I had plans....

A short taxi then train ride and I was soon only a 15 minute walk from my hostel. On arrival the owner was surprised to see me but happy to let me check in early as our room was ready and waiting for us. I happily made myself at home and made my plans for the day. Like many a tourist before me I had assumed that finding a salon for waxing would be cheap and easy and I was definitely interested in getting one of the famous Thai massages, the not dodgy kind of course! It turns out finding a salon was harder than I thought. I read a lot online about reused wax and lack of privacy so decided to pay over the odds to go to a nice place that guaranteed new wax and complete privacy.

It was expensive and it was vain but I was very glad I splashed out as the place I ended up at took great care of me and I felt much better afterwards. I was slightly worried that my eyebrows looked rather red but was assured (correctly) that this would calm down within the hour. The other thing on my list was to book my train to Koh Tao, after my last minute rearrange plans at Penang I wanted to book it well in advance. I was glad I did as the Monday train was full so I ended up booking for the Tuesday. I was happy with this as though I was looking forward to exploring with my friend I also thought it would be nice to have a day in Bangkok on my own as there are always thing one person likes to do that the other doesn’t. Booking the train was surprisingly easy; I ended up letting the tour people book my train as well as the bus and ferry. I soon realised that I had been directed to a company not a ticket office but I was feeling lazy so the idea of letting them book it all for me was appealing. Since it took less time than expected I decided I just about had time for a quick foot massage before meeting my friend. As in Hat Yai it was wonderful and the feet seemed to include my legs, shoulders arms and head, not bad for 250 Bhat. I felt very relaxed, it’s no wonder the Thai people are so laid back if they get these on a regular basis. I wasn’t sure how I could bring myself to hurry to meet my friend but a quick text revealed she was running late so I could take my time getting to our designated meeting place.

I hadn’t seen my friend in over a year and she was looking great. She had been in Thailand for months so when we spied a western style cafe near the train station she was delighted to have some pasta. I love Thai food but I was happy to have a taste of home and though I had my reservations it turned out to be very good.  It had not been a typical tourist day but it had been a good one and going by the information my friend had gathered the next few would be very touristy indeed.

We spent the evening catching up and being glad to be inside out of the heavy rain pouring down. Our joy was slightly dampened when we discovered a puddle at the far side of the room. It turned out that there was a crack in our window sill and my friends bed had also sustained a soaking. I went in search of a bucket and easily found a mop and some helpful hostel guests. One of them found the owner by the cunning tactic of calling her name up the stairwell. She appeared and was suitably horrified not only by the leak but by the fact I had gone ahead and cleaned most of it up. She fetched us some towels and clean bedding for my friend and soon we were all fixed. She couldn’t apologise enough but we were happy that she fixed everything so quickly. She left us some towels as a barrier against the rain in case anymore came in but the worst of the storm had passed and when we woke up the next day we were perfectly dry and ready to explore.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Life at the Meditation House

Tuesday morning was spent tidying up the house in readiness for everyone return. Soon the girls had the place looking fabulous and I tried not to get in the way though I did manage to do some mopping so as not to feel too useless. Soon people started to return and the house started to feel like it had on my arrival.

The following week followed much the same pattern as my first few days. I had adopted the chore of sweeping the garden and tried to do this soon after our morning mediation before the temperature became too high. I also managed to practice my Spanish and some of my stretches on a daily basis as technically the mornings were our own. Most mornings I ended up having interesting discussions with my host. Primarily these were centred on the basic precepts of Buddhism but there was one morning where she was asking me about some physics and my brain really had to do some work!

I found the classes where the precepts were discussed in more depth to be interesting and appreciated that my host was open to discussions when I had questions and concerns about any of the teachings. I discovered that mediation was very difficult and my attempts to try on my own were never as successful as those when I had someone transferring for me. Every time I was successful though, even slightly, I felt a great sense of peace and very relaxed post mediation. I knew that this was something I very much wanted to continue practicing though I was concerned about how I would manage living in hostels where a quiet place is often hard to find. Ironically this was often one of the thoughts that made my lone attempts at meditation unsuccessful.

Whilst the days followed a familiar pattern every day was different with something new to learn; not just about Buddhism and meditation but also about myself. I did keep a record of my experiences but as it takes up 12 pages I have decided not to expand on my every revelation here! Suffice to say I was starting to appreciate the importance of mindfulness where it is important to be actively aware of the reasons behind our thoughts and actions. I have always believed there is more to this world than we understand and this belief was strengthened by my time at the house. Whilst I am still not sure that Buddhism has the answers it is by far the most logical religion I have yet come across and I know I would like to investigate it further at a later date.

The days passed too quickly and before I knew it Monday arrived again and once more three of us had the house to ourselves. This time my friend had work to do so I happily spent the day writing and editing some of my many photos. It was a very different day off from the previous week but it was nice to be on familiar territory. I did manage to make time to do my washing as I wanted to clean the clothes that had been lent to me. Sadly I had decided to leave my fabulous yellow trousers behind as they were too bulky for my already too full backpack but I knew that they might be of use to future guests at the house.

Tuesday was my last day at the house as I was meeting a friend in the city on Wednesday. It turned out to be a very quiet day as most people were preparing for the long weekend. My hosts had organised a trip to the temple for the long weekend and there was much preparation to be done. This resulted in a very relaxed final day though I did manage to get in all my mediation practice taking advantage of the chance to have transference one last time before I truly was on my own.

Monday, 17 August 2015

My First Almost Week at the Meditation House

My first full day at the house set the pattern for the rest of the week. There were four of us sharing a room and we all got up early for our morning chanting and mediation. First we put away our mats and bedding turning our bedroom to a meditation area. Given the choice I elected to have breakfast between chanting and meditation and one of the girls kindly waited for me so she could transfer for me.

Post meditation the girls set about their daily tasks of sweeping, mopping and preparing food. I was told to relax so I read the translation of the evening and morning chants and tried to stay out of the way.  Later in the morning my host went over some of the basic words used in the Buddhist teachings and in the afternoon I was invited to join the class with my host translating. We watched a video of an autopsy with the message being that no matter what our eyes may see on the inside we are all the same. As well as teaching us to see beyond someone’s looks we were also instructed to keep this video in mind when we saw handsome men as it would remind us that inside we are disgusting and thus help us to not give in to our desire for them.

I’m not sure about the last bit but I did remember the video during my meditation and it did help me concentrate on the here and now. I imagined my breath entering my lungs and the oxygen passing throughout my body organ by organ. I know that’s not how it works but it was a good tool to help me keep my concentration. During meditation we are taught to concentrate on our breathing using the word Bud-dho to help us focus. On the first syllable we breathe in and imagine our breath and the path it follows. On the second we breathe out again following the path the breath takes. Initially this is a conscious and controlled movement but as the mind calms breathing becomes more natural and we become still. Since I had been doing rather well in the sitting still department I thought I would try to meditate on my own. This is how I found out just how powerful the transference was. I managed all of 30 minutes on my own. I was told this wasn’t actually too bad for the first time on my own so determined that I would try again soon.

Whilst I was keen to learn that evening I had someone transfer for me and again and once more was able to sit for longer than I had on my own that afternoon. Post mediation we discussed the importance of practice. Though in reference to meditation I immediately resolved to download the app my friends had told me about so I could practice the Spanish I had taken such pains to learn the previous two months. As well as this development we discussed what I was hoping to learn and gain from my meditation.

The next two days followed a similar pattern. The differences were that I downloaded the Duolingo app on my phone and started practicing my Spanish in the mornings as well as reading my book Also despite the fact anyone who has lived with me will tell you I’m terrible when it come to housework but with no job I found myself in need of activity so took to sweeping the garden.

On Saturday evening one of the girls took me to the local market. Here I was able to buy some tops more suitable for mediation and some long yellow trousers which as well as being suitably modest also looked different to my usual attire but in a good way. I also bought some fruit for the house and my new friend bought me a herbal drink which tasted a little like grass and was surprisingly enjoyable. As much as I love the food here I constantly find myself at a complete loss as to how to describe the different flavours. Suffice to say so far everything I tasted was good!

Monday was a day of rest and the house felt very empty as most people had returned to their families for the day leaving only three of us in the house. One of the girls prepared some soup for us so we didn’t even have to cook. (And yes of course it was good!) Since it was quiet I took the time to practice some stretches and exercises I had been shown the previous afternoon by a lovely Thai lady who also used to have problems with her flexibility. One of the girls had her own plans for the day but the other offered to take me to a park she thought I would enjoy. My day off was shaping up to be something different yet again.

The park was very peaceful. There was a building at its entrance which my friend informed me was place people could go to learn about and research Buddhism. As calm and peaceful as it was I decided I preferred the methods used at the meditation house. I was however very impressed with their mediation room and my friend said we could return later for our afternoon mediation. For the moment though we went to the market over the road from the park. We weren’t too hungry which was fortunate as the market was very busy and quite a shock after the peacefulness of the park. Instead we decided to walk through the park where we stopped at a small store to top up my phone and indulge in some cooling ice-cream, well it was a very warm day and it was technically our weekend.

We then headed back to the market which was winding down and therefore much quieter. I was proud that I managed to eat a fair amount of spicy salad which was unsurprisingly tasty and happy to try the friend banana and sweet potato my friend bought to accompany it. By the time we were done we were ready for our afternoon meditation. Beside the mediation room there was a small garden with a smooth pebbled path around it. Here I was introduced to walking mediation where the emphasis is on feeling the ground beneath your feet as you walk. Instead of thinking Bud-dho in rhythm with the breathing it was as each foot was placed on the ground. So the heel was Bud and the soul of the foot dho as the rest of the foot made contact with the ground. Before we started we stood very still and slowed our breathing then walked slowly round the path. It was a very different sensation from the sitting meditation yet relaxing in the same way. Once we had walked around the path we went straight to the mediation room keeping our movements slow. Once in the room we settled down and very soon I was in a familiar calm place.

By the time we were finished my friend suggested we head back towards the house as traffic would become increasingly bad the longer we waited. I was happy to comply. After a fairly short ride though Bangkok’s idea of light traffic we met up with the other girl and their Buddhist master. They took me to a noodle house where I was introduced to more tasty food. By now I should have known better than to ask what might be in it but no I asked and was told chicken blood. The soup itself tasted good and was pleasantly filling but the lumps of congealed blood I decided I could do without. I did try them but they didn’t taste very nice, finally I had found something in Thailand I didn’t like the taste of. Back at the house I was on more familiar territory as I opened up my laptop and tried to remember everything I had experienced in the last few days. I couldn’t believe I had only been there five days. I already felt at home and was looking forward to everyone coming back the next day.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Arriving in Bangkok and the Meditation House

I am fortunate in that I quite like flying. I’m not one to get worried at take off or as we land and turbulence doesn’t bother me. However I will admit that I did find it somewhat disconcerting landing in Bangkok during a thunder storm. I kept thinking, lightening plus big metal tube is not good. However I trusted that the pilots knew what they were doing and right enough we soon landed safely.
Once at the airport I used my phone to check out the best way to get to my hostel. The internet seemed to suggest that it would be 800 Bhat for a taxi so I decided to take the longer cheaper route of bus plus train. As confusing as this seemed to be for the locals they were as friendly and helpful as I have come to expect and 60 Bhat and a long time later I was at the street my hostel was supposedly on. I was a bit disturbed to see that it seemed to be a party district but it turned out my hostel was down a quieter side street and with some help from the hostel owner I was soon in a nice air-conditioned hostel. Thankfully most of the people in my 12 bed dorm were out (I assume partying) so I could sort myself out in peace. I settled myself into yet another comfortable bed by plugging in all my gadgets to charge. This done it was time to lock away my valuables in my assigned locker before hitting the showers and finally bed time!

The following morning only four days later than originally planned I was on my way to the meditation house my friend had told me about. The lady that runs it had sent me instructions and her number so I could call her to speak to a taxi driver if necessary. In the end the lovely hostel owner translated her address to Thai and came with me to flag down a taxi. It took a couple of goes but we found one who knew where I was going and only needed directions right at the end of our journey. I had arrived!

My host and soon to be teacher was much younger than I had expected but every bit as welcoming and lovely as my friend had described her to be. We discussed me a little and my interest in Buddhism and meditation. My friend had stayed at the temple with the monks for 10 days but I elected to learn at the meditation house. As well as teaching me about Buddha and meditation I was kindly offered a place to stay which I gratefully took up.

I was introduced to a lot of people. Since I struggle to remember names at the best of times the unfamiliar sounds coupled with my being slightly overwhelmed by everything meant they were soon forgotten. I was allowed to settle in over the afternoon whilst the other students attended a classs. I thought I was excused because I don’t speak Thai but it later transpired it was because I had just arrived. One of the girls lent me a book written in English by a monk, Venerable Ajahn Chah, who I soon discovered had a way of describing Buddhist concepts that made them very easy to relate to. I thought I would spend most of my time reading but I ended up chatting with people who could speak English and a few who couldn’t but had help. Once again I was overwhelmed by the easy acceptance of me in to their community.

At this point it might be a good idea to explain exactly why I am interested in learning about Buddhism. I am aware that there are concepts within this religion which conflict with some of my fundamental beliefs, however much of what I have learned aligns quite well with my world view. I am also aware that mediation can be extremely beneficial. I say much of what I have learned but most of my learning has been hear say and assumption. Therefore when I had the chance to truly learn what Buddhism is as well as learn how to meditate and better understand my mind I felt like this was an opportunity I would regret not taking up.

During the afternoon my host showed me the correct way to sit for meditation and I had my first attempt at sitting still. I was told initially someone experienced would transfer the power of concentration to me. This involved them sitting behind me placing one finger on my back. I later learned this was so they could feel my pulse. In this way they could easily tell when my mind went wandering and give me a boost of concentration to help bring me back. Believe what you will about why this works but it does. I sat for almost an hour and even managed to clear my mind occasionally, though mostly my thoughts were quite distracting.

It wasn’t all study and practice though. One of the girls kindly took me to the supermarket so I could buy some necessities. I am glad she was with me as I didn’t see a single person as obviously foreign as I was. She helped me find my way around and translated for me when I was confronted with Thai. I do feel ignorant being in a country where I don’t speak the language but since Spanish is hard enough for me to learn I think it would take more than a few weeks for me to grasp even the basics of Thai. With that in mind I tried not to feel too bad and instead was grateful for my guide and translator!

Later that evening we chanted in preparation for our evening meditation. We chanted in Pali and I was given a booklet with the Pali written in latin letters and with accompanying English translations. Once again I was given a quick tutorial on how to sit and how to bow as well as the pronunciation of some of the trickier words. There was much stumbling and I tried to keep my voice down so as not to disturb the other chanters but in my way I got through it. It was obvious though that before my next chanting I would have to go through the booklet more carefully. Post chanting and it was time for my second meditation. I had been told I could move if I was in pain and shown the best way to go about it but I found when I tried to move it disturbed my concentration and I gave up in under an hour this time.

During the evening we discussed the mediation and the Buddhist master talked to anyone who had questions for him or was seeking advice. I was questioned on my preference for being a night or morning person. I said night but could be morning if necessary. After two years of 5 am starts I figured if getting up early for two more weeks would allow me to learn more I was all for it. It had been a very full first day but in a good way and I was looking forward to my time at the house more than ever.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Hat Yai

I woke up to the sound of rain and was thankful I had looked out my lightweight, quick drying clothes. I made sure I had everything and as quietly as I could made my way downstairs where the hostel owners greeted me. As if helping me get to Bangkok and running a fabulously welcoming hostel wasn’t enough they offered me the usual tea and toast for breakfast then one of them announced she would drive me to the van pick up point. At this point she became my hero.

The van was late which was a bit of a worry but not much as I suspect Malaysians don’t take time keeping very seriously. It turned up only 15 minutes after expected and I was on my way to Thailand. The hostel owners had advised a later plane to give me time to get to the airport so I booked one at 8pm not realising my ride was so early. By 9am I was in Hat Yai and since I felt it was way too early to go to the airport I decided to run some errands. I was to be in Thailand for 2-3 weeks maybe more if I found some good diving so I wanted to get a Thai SIM card. I had some Thai money but felt now would be a good opportunity to take out some more. Since I was in an unfamiliar city I found a nice cafe for breakfast that conveniently had free wifi. This allowed me to find the nearest bank and find the best place to buy my SIM card.  

Once I had run my errands I was left with time to kill and a new city to explore. With all my positions on my back I felt it wise not to venture too far and decided this would be an excellent opportunity o get a much overdue haircut. I stopped at the first friendly place and the ladies running it were lovely. They spoke very little English but we managed to communicate very well despite my complete lack of Thai. The haircut was a brilliant idea. The hairdresser insisted I sit and brought me a cold cloth. Post haircut my head felt much lighter and cooler and I felt very relaxed. With many hours until my flight I thought I might as well indulge in a foot massage as well, after all my poor feet were much abused and it was only going to get worse for them. It was bliss. As well as my feet the legs, arms and shoulders also got worked over. I was a puddle by the end of it. The salon also had free wifi and they were happy for me to sit and surf the net on my phone with a cup of tea whilst I de-puddlefied.

By lunch time I decided it was time to venture back out to the city. I did my usual point and look confused at a nearby cafe and ended up with crispy pork and cabbage with rice. It was much tastier than I make it sound. It looked to be an interesting city but as I was walking about with all my luggage I decided I should head to the airport sooner rather than later. Once there it was the usual waiting game until I was able to check in and only three days later than originally planned I was on my way to Bangkok!

Monday, 3 August 2015


I had hoped to be in the city early afternoon but once I found the hostel, checked in etc it was early evening. By the time I was settled it was too late to try book anything so I extended my stay to two nights. Thus would allow me to book my train the next day and give me a day exploring before moving on to Thailand. I was in a 5 person dorm but one of the beds was a double so as we had all checked in separately it turned in to a 4 person dorm and as the lucky last to check in I got the double bed! One of my dorm mates was in the room when I arrived and she was very friendly. A student from the Netherlands she was taking advantage of her summer break to explore Malaysia for three and a half weeks. She had some great tips about places to visit so I wrote them all down as I already knew I hoped to return to Malaysia before returning home if at all possible. As well as tips about places to visit she invited me to go get some food with her and one of our other roommates. He turned out to be French Canadian and was not as gregarious as his friend but was friendly enough. We headed straight to Little India where the choice of street food was everything I had come to expect and more. We were searching for Laksa as it is a local speciality. I was curious as we served a westernised version of it in the mountains in Thredbo where I had worked many years before. As expected it was something quite different but my newest acquaintance seemed to like it. I tried the fried oysters and was not disappointed. They came in some fried scrambled eggs and were full of flavour.

The next day I spoke with the owners of the hostel about booking the train I had heard so much about. They kindly offered to look in to it for me and so I was free to spend the day exploring the city.  I started my exploring by getting the bus out to Lok Kek Si temple. It is said to be the largest Buddist temple in South East Asia and it was easy to see why it was a popular tourist attraction. As always the statues were beautifully colourful and despite being a tourist attraction there was the feeling of peace I have come to expect from holy places. Even a non-believer can appreciate tranquillity y’know. As well as the beautiful places of worship it has the advantage of being on a hill so the views from outside were equally spectacular. As usual my camera got a good workout and I found the walk around the temple both interesting and soothing. I was there for about two hours before I decided it was time to move on.


Since it was a short bus ride away from the temple I decided to also visit Penang Hill. This proved to be a little bit more difficult than anticipated as they had the common Malaysian rule of transactions less than 50 Ringgit had to be cash. As it was my last day I had been hesitant about taking out too much cash and I am so used to using my card I misjudged what I would need. This resulted in a walk from the bottom of the hill to the neatest bank to withdraw some cash so I could get the train up the hill. I had asked if it was possible to walk and was told yes but couldn’t see the path hence the walk into town. It was a walk I am glad I made at the train took me to over 700m above sea level. I had read the front carriage was the place to be and soon saw why. The track was steep and soon Penang was visible through the trees as we climbed higher and higher up the tracks. Once at the top we could see the clouds were moving in I am sure on a clear day the views are amazing but on a cloudy day there isn’t much to do there so it’s not the most interesting place. The map they had given me at the bottom of the hill suggested there might be some interesting walk about the place but the guide at the top of the hill suggested they were for bikes and as the weather wasn’t great I decided not to try exploring them. Instead I had a rather expensive cup of tea in the hope the cloud would clear allowing me to see beyond Penang. I wouldn’t have minded so much but their choice of music was terrible and they played it very loudly. The view did clear a little so I took some more photos then headed back down the hill.

At the bottom of the hill it was back on the bus and back to the hostel. Once there I found out that since it was the end of Ramadan the train was booked out for the next week! I was happy to fly but the hostel owners were horrified at the prices, which seemed fairly reasonable to me. Instead they organised for me to get a van to Hat Yai and then fly from there to Bangkok. Apparently Hat Yai is an up and coming Malaysian tourist destination and there are vans that go daily. The bad news was it left at 5am! I made sure my bags were more of less good to go then headed out to Penang to explore for the last time. This time I had some chicken biryani. Yes I know it sounds like something you would eat at any UK Indian restaurant but trust me it wasn’t. It was however very tasty. I had been told Penang was famous for its food and it certainly didn’t disappoint me. Since I had an early start it was back to the hostel for an early night. I did have a last conversation with the nice girl from the Netherlands. She was so enthusiastic about everything it was just lovely talking with her. It was a nice end to a quick but interesting visit. I can safely say that Malaysia is a country that is worth further exploration at a later time.

Kuala Besut Stop Over

I had decided to stay out of the sea as I wasn’t too keen on being all salty for the rest of the day since we had already checkout out of our hut so wouldn't be able to shower before catching the ferry. That evening I was staying in a very cheap and basic hostel and I wasn't to convinced I would want to shower there. However I needn't have bothered as our boat ride back made sure we got a last good bye form the ocean as we raced over the sea. It would seem that taxi drivers aren’t the only ones with Formula one aspirations.

Fortunately though not somewhere I would want to spend more than one night I decided the hostel shower was worth a go. I would have liked to have left that evening but the bus to Penang left at 8am the next day so I took comfort in the fact my private room was secure with a lock on the door and a bed inside. Of course I was less happy when halfway through the night the bed sagged alarmingly but a quick inspection confirmed I wasn’t in danger of going through it. I did however spend the rest of the night at the edge or the bed where I felt there was the most support, just in case. My friend was lucky to miss out on this excitement. She had decided to head to Malaka then Singapore which was an evening bus leaving me to continue my adventures on my own.

It was better than sleeping in the street but I was glad to leave the next morning especially on the discovery that I was at the front of the bus with plenty of leg room in a nice big seat. The bus was quiet and I had both seats to myself and even a plug socket to charge my various devices. It occurred to me at this point that I may have rather skewed priorities. I have a laptop, iPod, phone and 2 cameras not to mention back up batteries and hard drives yet I don’t own a comb. Still it meant I knew I would not be bored on the long journey to Penang. I took advantage of the bus wifi to have a last quick look at facebook and saw a friend praising the film, Silver Linings Playbook which reminded me I had the book on my kindle, yes I have one of those too, and decided this would be an excellent time to read it. I have no idea how it compares to the film but the book is excellent. There was more than one occasion I had to wipe away the odd tear and I really found myself rooting for the main character. In fact I was enjoying the book so much I was disappointed when I thought we had reached our destination. However it turned out we were having a mid way rest so I had plenty of time to finish it. Book done I was content to watch the scenery go past as we made our way north and finally into Penang.