Finding the spiritual in me in Chiang Mai with Buddhist monks

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.

Meditating in Chiang Mai with Buddhist Monks

Buddha in Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai

As you might have gathered from my previous article, 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.

Meditating in Chiang Mai with Buddhist Monks

My tofu salad from Aum Vegetarian Restaurant in Chiang Mai

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.

After getting a little lost wandering the city center, my first spiritual experience was the lunch that introduced me to the world of vegan Chiang Mai. 100% plant-based, 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.

Check out 12GO Asia booking website for the different options to travel from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, from Chiang Mai to Phuket or to any other destination in Thailand and other Asian countries.
Meditating in Chiang Mai with Buddhist Monks

Monks crossing the street in Chiang Mai

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, the 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 subjects, from math to economy to philosophy to, obviously, Buddhist teachings.

Meditating in Chiang Mai with Buddhist Monks

Chinnaraj Buddha Temple in Chiang Mai

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 pieces of advice. 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.

Meditating in Chiang Mai with Buddhist Monks

People praying at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai with Buddhist monks

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.

Meditating in Chiang Mai with Buddhist Monks

Ceremony at Wat Chedi Luang 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 be taught how to meditate.

Meditating in Chiang Mai with Buddhist Monks

The silver shrine at Wat Sri Suphan

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 for 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 chit-chatting, offer spiritual advice and teach the basics of meditation practice.

Where to stay, best hotels in Chiang Mai

High-end. Some of the best options for luxury hotels in Chiang Mai are Chala Number6 for luxurious rooms, swimming pool, fitness center, and a great on-site restaurant, Akyra Manor Chiang Mai, a luxurious all-suite hotel that features an infinity swimming pool on the rooftop and two on-site restaurants, and Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel And Spa, set in a colonial-style building and offering a lobby bar, an outdoor pool, an on-site restaurant, and luxurious rooms and spa services.

Mid-range. Good options for mid-range hotels in Chiang Mai include Mini Boutique House with spacious and nice rooms featuring a kettle, private bathroom, a desk, flat-screen TV, and located close to the main landmarks, At Phra Sing Retro, located in Chiang Mai city centre and offering simple rooms equipped with the necessary facilities, helpful staff, and on-site dining options, and Jomkitti Boutique Hotel, a little more expensive but worth the price. This boutique hotel in Chiang Mai city center offers free WiFi and bikes, a fitness centre, a small swimming pool, and rooms with a desk, private bathroom, air conditioning, TV, kettle, some rooms with a balcony and a minibar.

Cheap stays. Among the cheap hotels in Chiang Mai, some of the best are Bruuns Guesthouse, conveniently located near important landmarks such as Wat Chiang Man and featuring simple rooms with air conditioning and flat-screen TV, Wayside Guesthouse, another guesthouse with all the necessary facilities and free WiFi for a really cheap price, and Green Sleep Hostel, a cheap hostel in Chiang Mai city center that features free WiFi, air-conditioned rooms, and free bikes.

For more reviews and prices, check Hotels Combined comparison website.

If you liked this post, you might enjoy also —>>

Doi Inthanon National Park, the day trip from Chiang Mai anyone would want to experience

Cooking Thai style at Da’s organic farm in Chiang Mai

Monks’ Market among the best things to do in Chiang Mai

Tags:

35 Comments
  1. buddhism is peace and way of life, you don’t just follow buddhism you leave buddhism.. Ashoka the king of India spread the buddhism all over the Asia in 250 BCE…

  2. Nice one! keep up the good work! have u started yoga?

  3. Bello il testo, interessante, coinvolgente. Bellissime le foto!

  4. Les photos sont très belles, le texte est absolument à lire! Une expérience que tous devrions faire, y compris devenir moine une période de notre vie!

  5. Reply
    Lauren @ AllThingsGo.co.uk February 10, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    ‘Monk Chat’ is exactly what I’m looking for when I go to Thailand. I can’t wait to seek out the monks and ask them about life, the universe and everything. Great post!

  6. This sounds like a much more interesting experience of Thailand than the usual beach holiday.

  7. Cool experience. I find many Buddhist principles intriguing, and some of them fit with my lifestyle choices. It is something I want to learn more about.

  8. What a great experience…Anything that helps you come closer to yourself, be it spiritual or in some other way, is definitely cool in my book.

  9. Hi Angela, I have been to Chiang Mai three times but apart from the usual temple tours, I never had the time to dive deeper into Buddhist spirituality. Your post inspired me to do more inner journeys. Definitely better than just bumming around in Phuket.

    • Next time you are around a temple go and ask a monk for advices on how to meditate, they’ll be happy to help. If you go back to Chiang Mai do go to the Monk Chat and meditation session afterwards, you won’t regret it!

  10. I wouldn’t call it a failure because you followed the impulse to talk to the monks, a decision that led to the meditation practise. At least, you gave it a shot!

  11. I need some of this in my life right now!

    • I know what you mean, Abby. I’ve been meditating every day since and even started yoga, and I do feel the benefits. Start some yoga session and meditate, it can only do good to you and you will feel much more energy.

  12. You’ve got it wrong ! Buddhism is not a way of life but a religion.

    It talks about reincarnation and the various realms that you can be reborn into.

    Email me if you want to know more.

  13. You should try visiting a forest monastery too… they have a little bit more intense practice and their monasteries are quite inspiring since is out in the nature.

    • That’s very interesting, can you tell me some forest monasteries I can visit?

      • Wat Pah Nanachat is really good for english speakers since is a International Monastery founded by Ajahn Chah (well-known Thai Teacher), you can stay a few days and experience the monastic life if you wish… another great forest monastery is Wat Marp Jan, this one is half Thai/ half English, the founder is an disciple of Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Anan Akiñcano is a very respectable Buddhist teacher, some of the Thai people believe he is an Arahant,an enlightened person.

        More info for both places you can find it here:

        – Location: Ubon Ratchathani
        http://www.watmarpjan.org/en/index.php – Location: Rayong

  14. Hi there! I love this post and know you wrote it awhile back but I am planning on going to Wat Sri Suphan this Saturday but know that women aren’t allowed inside the main temple. Since you participated in the meditation courses and monk chat, I wanted to make sure that women can still do these on a regular basis. (And they are not inside of this temple)

    Thank you so much!

  15. Hi Angela! Great write-up! I didn’t fall in love with Phuket either…it was a little too hectic for my taste but I went there when I was a child, and it was the most heavenly place. Glad you were able to escape to Chiang Mai – my boyfriend and I held chats with the monks too when we were there – very memorable experiences! Definitely more enriching :) If you’re interested in quality photos, videos and storytelling on top of traditional travel tips: http://www.ooaworld.com

  16. Thank you for sharing your travels. Your writings are very articulate and your phuket/phi phi post has saved me from EXACTLY what I do NOT want although it still saddens me to read that about such a beautiful place :(

  17. Reply
    Surender @ Thailand Trip January 23, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Great experience!!! Chiang Mai is the prime destination for travelers looking to experience Buddhism & real Thai culture.

  18. Thanks for this article. There are lot of Buddha Monasteries in India. They are famous for their architectural beauty.

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.