At first glance, Chiang Mai doesn’t exactly leap to mind as an exciting Asian hub, especially if compared to the vibrant Thai capital, Bangkok, barely an hour plane away. The best way I found to start experiencing the city? Learning how to meditating in Chiang Mai with Buddhist monks.
As you might have gathered from my previous post, I’m not a fan of Phuket area, and although I had booked almost a week between the town and smaller Phi Phi islands, after a few days I literally ran away from what I would define degrading tourism, and sought refuge in Chiang Mai, where I immediately got the vibe that the atmosphere (and the kind of tourists) was completely different from the South of the country.
Lively town in northern Thailand, with its 700 temples Chiang Mai is quickly imposing itself as the spiritual heart of the country, so after a couple of days spent witnessing sinful behaviors and perdition from other fellow humans (I’m so good at overstating it, ain’t I?), I decided it was time to redeem myself and started adding temples over temples to my to-do list.
The sight of groups of monks impatiently waiting for the green light to cross the hectic roads, or darting up and down the streets either walking or on board of rickety motorbikes and local tuk-tuks is not a rare one in Chiang Mai and gives a good vibe of what you can find here.
I’m not a religious person, in the most common meaning of the term, I usually prefer to stick to my own rules and keep my homemade spirituality private rather than showing it off, but visiting temples and witnessing monks at work was pretty enjoyable. Plus, lately I’ve been developing an interest in all things yoga, so in Chiang Mai I really wanted to find a way to kick off my meditation practice.
A vegan lunch before meditating in Chiang Mai with Buddhist monks.
On our very first day here, after getting a little lost wandering the city center, I had my first spiritual experience: lunch. Totally vegan, for 50 Baht (about 1€) I ordered a delicious tofu salad, made with tofu, onion, tomato, mint leaves, soy sauce and green curry, at Aum Vegetarian Restaurant, 65 Moonmuang Rd, just past Tha Phae Gate, washed with an appropriate lime juice. Just beside was a travel company offering many types of trips, among which a cooking class at an organic farm so, inspired by my launch, I booked one for the day after, almost feeling that that very day was to be devoted to my mind rather than my stomach, even if I do believe that body and soul are strictly connected. I guess that probably that meal was the perfect passageway towards how the day would have evolved spiritually.
After lunch, temple-hunt kicked off, starting from Chinnaraj Buddha Temple, carrying on with Wat Phra Singh, Wat Phantao and the nearby Wat Chedi Luang. Here we saw a group of monks performing a ceremony for what seemed a family, and later we learned families come to temples in special occasions such as weddings, births, or to commemorate a dead loved one.
Gorgeous buildings, Buddhist worship places blissfully intertwine simplicity and elaborate patterns, combining bright colorful decoration with stark areas where Buddha’s teachings are shared and explained.
Temples in Thailand are usually part of a larger complex, almost always incorporating the residential premises for monks, always a pagoda, often a cafeteria, making it easier for us to explore their religion in Chiang Mai with Buddhist Monks.
Wat Chedi Luang had a cafeteria, and only after visiting the temple, we noticed a sign stating “Monk Chat”, apparently one of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai. Moment of bedazzlement. A chat with monks? Just like this? Looking a little bit with more attention beyond the green leafy branches of the trees clothing the temple’s garden I spotted some saffron-hued shadows sitting and chitchatting with tourist-looking people. I had been wanting to talk with monks for ages, the first thing I said I wanted to do in Chiang Mai was to approach a monk and ask him about his monkhood, and here I was, monks were basically inviting me to chat with them. Could I waste the occasion? I didn’t even wonder, a couple of seconds after the sign burst before my eyes I was sitting in front of two Vietnam-born monks barraging them with questions. Literally.
For an hour we asked them how their life was, how they organized their typical day, where they came from, whether they would like to go back to their country (one was from Cambodia and one from Vietnam) or stay in Thailand. All sort of questions to which they replied with the patience only a truly committed, meditation-practicing Buddhist monk can have. They get up early, about 4-5 am, first thing they go meditate and chant, then they clean up the temple to make it ready to receive the public, then they go to uni. Most monks attend uni, at least the younger ones, where they study all kinds of subject, from math to economy to philosophy to, obviously, Buddhist teachings.
They literally live out of donation, eating, studying, what they wear, anything in their life comes out of the donations from local Buddhism followers. Monks rarely travel, and when they do it’s mainly from the temple where they live to another one. They have a very curious mind, so although they are happy with their monkhood life, I’m sure they would love to travel and see other countries. Usually, Disavath told us, they travel through the tales of their guests, thousands of foreigners who go and ask them for any kind of advice, be it for their married life, their job or any kind of personal experience. Given their continuous meditation exercising and exploration of the human mind, they possibly are the aptest people to give such advices. So through our mundane problems and needs, the monks travel, empathize, put themselves in our shoes and help us. I like to believe that by helping us overcome our worldly troubles we are also helping them take a look at the world out there.
The decision to be a monk is very flexible, they can start monkhood at the age they want and either be one for life or leave whenever they want, meaning they can choose to be a monk for five, ten, fifteen years and so on. They said that sometimes young boys decide to have the monkhood experience for ten years then leave and create a family, albeit always following Buddhist principles, which makes sense, as Buddhism is not a religion but a “way of life”, as Mony, one of the monks we were chatting to, told us.
Probably less bored and definitely more intrigued than I thought, the monks invited us to an evening meeting, to continue our chat and attend a meditation course afterward. This took place at the beautiful Wat Srisuphan or, as they like to advertise it, “the world’s first silver shrine”. Dating back to 1502, the temple was founded during the Phaya Kaew (Mengrai dynasty) kingdom, and in 1509 the site was consecrated and Buddha relics enshrined. The decoration of the temple combines two styles, Wualai and Rattanakosin, and the artwork is entirely made by local Lanna artists, who use silver only for the holy images. Wat Srisuphan is also the place where the Ancient Lanna Arts Study Center is hosted, where artists teach young monks and anyone interested in being a silversmith this ancient silverware art. Here we were to start our meditation experience in Chiang Mai with Buddhist monks.
Disavath, who was soon promoted as my spiritual guide, probably sensing my hardship in understanding how meditation worked and what I should do to “clear my mind”, suggested an alternative solution: “You know,” he told me patiently “as a matter of fact, you are meditating even right now. Whenever you strongly focus on something, whether this is work, yoga, or whatever, that’s already meditation”. After all my efforts to clear my mind of mundane daily chores, this inevitably made me feel relieved.
After this enlightening and thoroughly educational afternoon, we were ready to been taught how to meditate.
Off we were inside the temple, barefoot, cross-legged, in a sort of lotus position, and focusing on our breath, breathe in/breathe out. Easy? Take another guess. After the explanation, it was our turn to give it a try, with two ten-minute sessions. I managed to stay concentrated for about 30 seconds before my mind started wandering like “”This is SO cool! I should do it all the time!” or “So tomorrow afternoon I have the cooking class, what shall I do in the morning?” and finally “Oh come on! I have the unique occasion to meditate in Chiang Mai with Buddhist monks and the best I can do is to schedule my time for tomorrow?? Shame on me!” And then the first session was gone, not that the second one went much better. Probably worse, since we changed position, standing, obviously not lying on the floor as the monk wisely assumed we would have fallen asleep. For the whole second ten minutes I concentrated on standing still without losing balance, all trying to meditate, easier said than done.
Nevertheless, despite my overall failure during this first attempt towards a deeper spiritual awareness, I’ve been exercising from time to time since, and although I can’t really say I’ve seen the Nirvana, I do feel more motivated to start my day. Plus, I’ve decided not to drop this habit, with the aim to start a yoga course and eventually go to India to explore this practice further, in the quest of the spiritual in me.
Meditating with Buddhist monks in Chiang Mai
Where: 100 Wualai Rd, Chiang Mai.
When: Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 5.30 pm to 9 pm
What: Buddhist monks indulge in chitchatting, offer spiritual advice and teach the basics of meditation practice.