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January 27, 2013 / A Mindful Traveler

A Southeast Asian Summary

I wish I could say my last month’s silence on this blog reflects my spending that period in the noble silence, but that actually only accounted for a few day’s worth of my absence from this blog.  It’s been an interesting month for reasons both related and unrelated to the dharma.  I’ll briefly summarize my experiences here and explore them in future posts.  In addition, I’ve written articles about my experiences in Thailand and Laos for an expat magazine here in Korea.  I’ll post links once the issue is published.

Stupa at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

Stupa at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

My experience at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep outside Chiang Mai was all that I could have hoped and my only regret was that I did not stay longer.  In particular, the instruction I received with respect to walking has helped me to better integrate it into my daily practice.  The five days I spent there were enough for the temple to consider me to have completed the “short stay course” (four is actually sufficient).  With that being said, my body was only just starting to get into the flow of daily practice when it was time for me to leave, although fortunately the fact that I’d need to do so didn’t occur to me until the night before I left.  I’m reminded of Ajaan Chah’s statement “Relax a little, know a little peace.  Relax completely, know complete peace.”

View From Meditation Center at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

View From Meditation Center at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

I proceeded to Luang Prabang.  It’s the ancient royal capital of Laos and the contemporary touristic one, due in no small part to its 33 monasteries.  This combination has resulted in one of the better-known daily alms rounds in the region, in which I participated.  I was disheartened, however, to experience local people trying to scam visitors by overcharging for low-quality food that I later learned monks do not dare eat or share with humans as it makes them ill.

Mornings Alms Round in Luang Prabang

Mornings Alms Round in Luang Prabang

The source of this information was a wonderful novice (monk in training) named Chanh who introduced himself after he saw me meditating at a temple, with whom I spoke daily afterwards.  I learned from him that meditation is not as integral to monastic life in Laos as it is in Thailand, to the extent that he had to enlist a younger fellow novice to give me guidance.  His friend’s powers of concentration were impressive.  We sat together for an hour and he seemed somewhat disappointed that I had to leave after a further hour’s barefoot walking on rocky ground.  It’s worth noting that vipassana meditation has recently undergone a revival in Laos, which the author and photographer Hans Georg Berger has documented beautifully.

Sunrise Over Luang Prabang

Sunrise Over Luang Prabang

My final stop in Southeast Asia was Siem Reap, the gateway to the ruins of Angkor Wat.  People’s frequent reference to the whole area as Angkor Wat is a misnomer, since Angkor Wat is but one of the impressive temple/palace complexes built by the Angkorian rulers, who styled themselves god-kings.  It’s every bit as impressive as advertised and while the major ruins are as full of visitors now as they once were of people, I enjoyed a surprising amount of solitude at many of the temples.  Sadly, meditation practice is not particularly strong in Cambodia, largely because of the horrific events of the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge tried to murder every monk in the country.  I did, however, have the pleasure of staying at the lovely Bunlinda Hostel, owned by Mr. Bun Toeung, a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation. My stay there happened to intersect with that of a pair of North American Transcendental Meditation teachers who were volunteering in Cambodia before sitting a longer retreat in Thailand.

Having reached the English teacher’s proverbial five paragraphs, I’ll close here, with the promise of more detailed information to follow.  Thanks to a suggestion from my friend Won, I’ve added photographs to this post. You can click on them to see the full size image. As always, I welcome your suggestions, both as comments that anyone can read, or directed personally to me at olipsett [AT] gmail [DOT] com

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10 Comments

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  1. farbolino / Feb 21 2013 3:24 am

    It’s nice to see that some people visiting SE Asia aren’t going simply to party, which seems to be the case with a lot of tourists. It’s also nice that you truely made a point of talking to the locals rather then just ‘sightseeing’. Sounds like it was a great trip.

    • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 21 2013 4:21 am

      Thank you very much for your kind words. I did have a wonderful time and I’m eager to go back. Although I initially traveled because I wanted to see things, I’ve found that it’s more important to me to interact with people there and learn about the culture.

      You might also like this post from my blog that I wrote about this idea: https://amindfultraveler.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/places-to-be-and-places-to-see/

      Thank you again for your kind words and for reading!

  2. Dave Bergen / Feb 21 2013 6:05 am

    We recently visited Thailand and our impressions were somewhat different. Our goal was to establish residence near a forest Wat and engage as lay members of the Buddhist community. I am too old to ordain, but I spent the majority of my adult life as a monk in a Vedic tradition. Anyway, the monks could not relate to us as anything but retreat tourists. We were welcome to visit for a few days and in the tourist retreats, but there was really no opportunity for deeper involvement.

    There were some organizations in Bangkok, but who wants to live there? Even though we dressed in white and wore beads, most Thais automatically took us for sex tourists, and their attitude of disdain was obvious. A trip south to the islands was similarly discouraging. We could practically see the Thai culture disappearing before our eyes and being replaced with Western materialism. A disappointing journey, although I got in lots of sitting and had great experiences, they were all internal.

    • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 21 2013 6:27 am

      Thank you very much for sharing your comment and experiences. I am sorry to hear they were so disappointing, especially with the forest wats. I actually met a number of Westerners who had moved to Thailand to pursue the dharma who have gone to Myanmar or China to practice. After what you have written, I understand why that may be the case, although they didn’t say what you did in as many words.

      • Dave Bergen / Feb 21 2013 11:23 am

        We moved to Sri Lanka, and found a similar degeneration with the monks here being co-opted by the political machine. I’m afraid they are heading toward another civil war, this time with the Muslims.

      • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 21 2013 11:28 am

        I’m extremely sorry to hear that as well. A friend who visited recently mentioned the Sri Lankan monks have been highly politicized. I don’t think he was aware they’d been coopted.

        Security aside, would you recommend spending time in the country for someone interested in following the dharma and deepening vipassana practice?

      • Dave Bergen / Feb 22 2013 5:00 am

        I don’t think so. We’ve met some very nice and simple people, sincere but hardly advanced in meditation. If you just want to live at a temple, those kind of situations are available, but as far as we can tell the monastic system has been just about completely politicized.

      • A Mindful Traveler / Feb 22 2013 5:23 am

        Thank you for telling me. That is such a pity. Where do you foresee yourself living long term?

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