Here are some of my favorite misspellings I've encountered in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Really, how hard is it to open Microsoft Word and hit spell check? Apparently a lot harder than I thought...
Any time you're looking for a true taste of local flavor, I would recommend taking a ride on the local bus. I must warn you, it's not for the faint of heart, and the results are either elating or steam coming from the ears maddening, but nonetheless, I guarantee it will be a memorable experience.
The buses of Bangkok are a species all of their own, coming in all shapes sizes and colors, melding together into a secret sort of code which indicates the cost and destination of the bus. Once you get past the secret code business, each bus is assigned to two numbers (the specific meanings of which still remain a mystery) placed strategically along the front or side of the vehicle, making it a bit of a scavenger hunt to find the correct bus. This just made the challenge of navigating through the city even more exciting.
My misadventures on public transport started as a youngster, at the age of five to be precise. I rode the school bus to kindergarten each day. Eventually the route got overloaded and being the last stop, I was frequently re-routed, shuffled onto an alternate bus, or-worst case scenario-picked up in a sketchy brown striped suburban owned by the school district and transported to school. It wasn't uncommon for me to accidently board the wrong bus or for the driver to forget about my stop altogether, forcing me running to the front yelling at him to let me off. I hated the school bus. It was hot, the kids were loud and I somehow always got the worst seat next to the fattest, smelliest kid.
When I got over my traumatic Lil' Tyke bus misfortunes, and before my driving days, I began riding the city bus to my job. It had a tendency for being late or straight up not showing up at all and I had a track record of catching the wrong bus, or missing my stop; a fatal combination. One day I got so lost on the bus, that I had to call my mom to leave work and come rescue me. That was the end of me and the bus.
On my very first day in Bangkok I was feeling particularly savvy and decided to take my chances on the local bus directions my guesthouse had provided from the airport. I caught a bus filled with fellow Thai travelers and airline employees-this was much too far from the beaten Western backpacker route-and was transported to the local bus station. There I boarded bus 252, as instructed by my online directions with a slew of locals who didn't speak a lick of English.
"Get off at 89/56 Sukhumvit Road, after about 45 minutes on the bus," read the directions. I reread the sentence. What was 89/56 supposed to mean? Was it 89 or 56? Make up your mind people! I wasn't about to take my chances guessing on one or the other and spending the rest of the day intimately getting to know Bangkok and the other 36 numbers between. I showed the address to the bus driver, who looked clueless, responding that the bus didn't go there. Luckily, I was still at the bus station, so I flirted with the idea of getting off the bus and searching for one that could guarantee me a stop at 89/56 Sukhumvit Road. But, once again remembering no one spoke English, I decided to take my chances with 252.
As the bus departed the terminal, I started timing the ride. Just as promised, 40 minutes into the journey I saw the Sukhumvit Road sign, and increasing numbers every block. Perfect! I screeched with joy motioning for the driver to stop as we approached 89. I happily departed the bus, and saw number 56 on the opposite side of the road; there was a method to their madness after all. Within a few blocks I was inside my guesthouse, thoroughly impressed with my local bus navigational skills.
Map Reading Gone Wrong
During my second visit to Bangkok, I was feeling restless for an adventure and set out to find the Vietnamese Embassy via local bus. The route appeared pretty simple on Google Maps and I could get there without having to transfer buses. I scribbled down the address along with a quickly drawn map of the bus stop and set out on my adventure. The bus came just as I arrived at the stop, and I boarded it confidently as if I had been riding these busses my whole life. I was soon on a journey meandering through the side streets of Chinatown. I was trying to follow the route outlined on the Google Maps page I had saved, but nothing seemed to match up.
I strained my eyes to catch street names as we whizzed by swerving tuk tuks and vendors pushing carts of fried rice, traveling further and further away from the center of Bangkok. I knew I was lost, but I didn't want to admit it to myself or my fellow Thai passengers. I shyly asked the ticket collector about a specific street we were meant to cross and she along with five other eavesdropping passengers exclaimed, "ooohhhh" in their best we feel sorry for this tourist tone of voice, "wrong way, get off GET OFF!"
Their urgent cries startled me out of my seat and I was ready to jump off the bus, belongings in hand, as if it were a ticking bomb about to blow. The driver slowed down just enough for me to jump from the moving vehicle before speeding off again. I was left in a cloud of dust and bus exhaust as locals leaned from the bus window pointing and yelling for me to cross the street and catch the opposite direction bus.
I waited at the stop recovering from local bus gone wrong. Ten minutes, thirty minutes, no bus. Was I at the right place? Had I misunderstood the locals? Frustrated and anxious to get to the embassy, I began to walk in the direction my local bus had come from. I soon found myself wandering through the same circular streets in Chinatown and knew it was time to ask for help.
I approached the friendliest looking man on the street and was soon surrounded by four Thais chattering and offering me their best local bus advice. Before I knew it, I was on the correct local bus, headed the correct direction and was at my stop, the embassy. Success never felt so sweet after a day of navigational strife. I eventually re-read the Google Map depicting the local bus route I was meant to take, and to my amazement realized I had forgotten a minor detail; Thais drive on the left. Silly me, I had caught the bus on the wrong side of the road. Looks like I won't be repeating that mistake any time soon.
Backpacker vs. Bus: The Ultimate Showdown
After a voluminous victory and major mishap, I was ready to go all or nothing with this bus game. This time the target seemed simple but Google as I may, I could not find an address, website or location description for the mysterious place I was headed. Sai Tai Mai-the bus station for long distance buses was off the tech radar. Google aside, this challenge was strictly between me and my information gathering skills from the locals, and I was determined to win. I armed myself with a photograph of the alleged Sai Tai Mai, a phonetic spelling and was off.
Luckily, the first lady I spoke to gave me everything I needed; the bus number, the location of the stop and Sai Tai Mai written in Thai. I waited at the bus stop with 20 Thais. Soon their busses came and 20 new Thais appeared. Locals and bus drivers alike had assured me I was at the correct bus stop, but bus 740 was nowhere to be seen.
As this cycle continued my anxiety grew. I was always the last one standing, surely someone else had to be waiting for 740, right? Another woman waited at the stop with me for 20 minutes and eventually ran into the street, flagging down a cab to take her to wherever she was going. Maybe I should follow suit. Maybe I had been too rash with my bus skills and was stubbornly waiting for a phantom ride. My mind ran through the taxi vs. bus scenario, then, there it was. A seven faintly emerging from the throng of traffic, a four, and a zero! I ran to the door, anxiously boarding the vehicle and shouting, "Sai Tai Mai," to be confirmed with a hurrah of "chais, yes" from the passengers. Triumph was mine. I had come full circle from my elementary days and defeated the ominous local bus system of Bangkok. Maybe the tables had finally turned and the bus gods were looking favorably upon me, or maybe I had just finally become bus smart. Either way, I ended up with a few funny experiences and I'm sure the locals got a good laugh at the tourist trying to ride the local bus.
I'm on the bus to Bangkok quietly scanning the passengers around me, when the lady across the isle reaches into her pocket and removes a small object. I predict with unmistakable clarity what is going to happen next. She raises the object to her face, and...bingo! the moment I have been waiting for.
I have been conducing a curious experiment during the past week regarding this particular action and the Thai's obsession with this small object. I find it humorous that this object we as Westerners rarely use and is only available at drug stores has become an addiction in Thailand, fanagling its way into every checkout stand, convenience store and street vendor shelf in the country. I silently chuckle to myself and recall that I've seen this particular action accomplished by different people at least three times in the past hour. The seemingly Vicks VapoRub obsession is in full swing, and I am convinced that good ol Vick can thank Thailand for singlehandedly attributing to a large portion of his profit margin.
That's right...cold ridden or not, I guarantee there is a Vicks sniff stick present in every wallet, purse or pocket of each pedestrian I pass. They're sold for $.50 a pop and stocked at convenience stores if they were Wrigley's chewing gum and going out of season.
I'm inspired. I pull out my Vick's stick-which I was obliged to buy for research purposes-and shyly take a sniff. Arctic chill rushes through my lungs and I am jolted awake. Im not going to lie, it feels good, and I can see how the Thais have become so easily addicted. The lady sitting next to me is obviously also inspired, and she removes her stick of VapoRub and follows suit. A Vicks scented cloud drifts my way, the urge returns, but I resist. I have limited myself to one sniff a day. Surely sniffing Vicks can't be healthy and I don't need to become addicted.
This decongestant turned amusement is like a fifth appendage here; always perched between two fingers and ready to entertain when bored. Everywhere I go I see people sniffing the stuff and I've lost track of my running mental count. I've even seen a mom smearing her infant's face with pure Vicks before bed. It looks like the addiction starts young.
The land of Smiles surely must have a secret to its abundant happiness. I'm convinced it falls somewhere between the massive amounts of heavenly Thai food and Vicks Sticks...I'll let you decide where.
Disclaimer: Before reading any further, you must first watch the following video as a precaution to dislodge any thoughts that I’ve gone totally insane. Cheers!
Traveling has done wonders from my imagination. Insert rational realist-->send traveling for six months--> receive an imaginative genius. The pre-travel Ember dreaded Disney movies, they are so unrealistic and animation is intended for the sole purpose of entertaining children and small minded adults, come on people grow up. Now, I kinda dig them. The pre-travel Ember got annoyed with people always entertaining the what ifs of life, especially the ridiculous ones that would never, ever come true. One night in Morocco, as Sam and I lay in our tent in the Sahara shivering and dreaming of sleep, he asked, “how much do you think it would cost to get a monkey that would warm my feet every night?” I was entertained at the preposterity of his inquiry, but knew a question like that would never pop into my head out of the blue. Now, I’m the one asking the questions.
My newly found overzealous imagination prooved itsself on a five day liveaboard dive trip in the Similan Islands, Thailand. Floating through the water with hundreds of funky colored bug-eyed fish staring at me, it was impossible not to go mental. I started entertaining the ideas…
What if fish had human identification charts?
“Hmmm…that one is kind of short, dark skin, black hair, ok Flounder, what is it?”
“This one is a white male, blonde, six foot…listen to his bubbles, he has a funny accent. I think they call them Sc-an-da-naveen!”
Then, the BBC Wildside videos came to mind. All of these fishies were going about their fishy lives and it was my duty to narrate! Here are a few of my favorite scaly friends I met:
Parrot Fish: Hellloooo, HELLO! Jonas, can you hear me? Shoot, my Face Time app keeps disconnecting. Anyway, I need your honest opinion, do you think I went overboard? I know they said business casual, but this suit was on sale at Men’s Warehouse, and well, just so flashy…I couldn’t resist. I don’t look like a clown, do I?
Trigger Fish: Hey Marlis, how ya doing girlfriend? I just got my lips botoxed again, can you tell? I’m going for the Angelina Joele look. Oh, and I just started this new diet, I’ll have to tell you all about it. I’m totally going to surprise Bruce with my new beach body just in time for swimsuit season.
To sum things up, I had an AMAZING time living on a boat for five days, hitting up the Similan Island beaches and diving around the clock. I saw sharks, turtles, octupus, snakes, eels and heaps of funky fishes, and had a lot of fun talking to the critters. Maybe it's time I make a Wildside viedo of my own...
Thailand was an absolute dream and if it weren't for my expiring visa, I might have said there forever, or at least abandoned my remaining travel plans and stuck around as long as the bank account would permit. I had now crossed paths with enough seasoned travelers that I was beginning to acquire a rather lengthy mental file on my next destination, Laos. It was notorious for lazy people, horrible roads and the mandatory activity for all backpackers; tubing down the Mekong River and partying in riverbank bars.
I would soon discover that traveling to Laos was no easy feat and definitely not for the weary, or weak stomached. Traveling in Thailand came with its fair share of ups and downs, and I quickly learned that the letters "VIP" in front of any form of transportation meant absolutely nothing, and "air conditioned" could be anything from what you may currently be conjuring up to riding in the back of a truck down the freeway with wind blowing my sweat away. Bottom line: you never know what you'll get.
In Thailand I had gotten shamed out of a bed on the overnight ferry (aka tourist slave ship) with the ticket collector pulling the "I don't speak enough English" card and looking at me wide-eyed pointing out the obvious; my ticket did not have a bed number, even though I had paid extra for one. I decided to take matters into my own hands, boarded the boat, picked an empty mattress and pretended to sleep. I was soon greeted by the most obese man possibly in all of Thailand lying down next to me on a mattress no larger than half the size of a twin bed. Sleep was scarce that night. Between the wide open windows, ship rocking wildly on large waves and trying not to get squished by fat man each time he rolled over, I may have been better off on the floor.
Now I was faced with another crucial decision concerning my travel means in southeast Asia. From where I would cross the border in Laos there was only one town to get to: Luang Prabang. I had three options. Option one: 24-36 hour bus ride along the infamously terrible Laos roads-sleep is tough and the locals usually get carsick and start puking mid journey-is what I was told. Option two: one day jetting down the Mekong river in a bone rattling and highly unsafe speed boat, or option three: two days floating down the Mekong on the slow boat, a favorite among backpackers. I opted for the latter.
On the bus to the Thai border I met three Irish girls and Rachel from Hawaii who would subsequently become my travel buddy through Laos. We stayed the night at a small hotel on the border. The owner was a vibrant Thai woman who appeared nothing less than crazy. She insisted on taking our passports along with $36 to the border that night to pick up advance Laos visas for us. With my knack for third world travel I have become pro at sniffing out scams and this one definitely smelled fishy. Through much protest she finally accepted our objection and we went to bed.
The next morning, a longtail boat shuttled us across the Mekong and we were in Laos! We were instructed to wait at the travel agency selling the slow boat tickets until the boat was ready. The owner was an old grandpa-like Lao man whose English was impressive. He asked for our passports so he could check the stamps and take them to the boat to get our tickets. The already buzzing tension exploded and the poor man was bombarded with questions and complaints from 20 travelers demanding why we had to hand over our passports, where we could get Laos currency (Kip) and when the boat would leave.
As he explained the whole process once more, he offered to take our remaining Thai Baht and exchange it for Kip on his way to get the boat tickets. The ATM nearby didn't always work and being it was Sunday, the currency exchange was closed, he explained. On top of all that he assured us that since we bought the tickets from him he would only charge 1% commission. We just had to put the money in our passport and he would finish the transaction.
There would be no ATM for the two days traveling on the boat and everyone was in a tizzy trying to find their leftover money from Thailand and debating whether to trust the old man. Rachel's voice came above all others, "Are you crazy?! You want me to give you my passport and all my money so you can run off to the exchange office with it? Why can't I just go myself to exchange my money? This sounds shady. I don't trust you," she fervently exclaimed.
Traveling in southeast Asia is a bit sketchier than traveling other places and you've got to take a lot of wagers; that's what makes it exhilarating. At home I would have never handed money over for someone to change, but I figured this was part of the normal protocol for traveling in Laos. Not to mention, I felt sorry for the man, getting yelled at by a group of Westerners. I patted him on the back, apologizing and assured Rachel that this innocent grandpa man would do nothing with her money. After all, he couldn't steal $300...and certainly not from 20 people, could he?
Let's back up for a minute. If I were to write a travel book, Ember's number one rule for travel would be never ever use the currency exchange. It is without a doubt the best way to get ripped off. Always use the ATM. Do your research, find a card that doesn't have a fee (and believe me, there are plenty out there) and withdrawal cash to your heart's content, commission-free and with the best going market rate.
We all piled into the bed of a pickup truck and were dropped off at a cafe where we would wait to board the boat. Just as the gate to the boat opened, a Lao twenty-something pulled up in a beater van and distributed our passports along with envelopes full of crisp Laos bills. Most people rushed onto the boat merely pocketing their goods, but Rachel and the Irish girls hung around counting their money. "Wait! I'm missing $58!" exclaimed Rachel. "I'm missing $40," yelled one of the Irish girls.
The boy stared at them dumbfounded. "Oh don't play this game with me, I know you understand every word I'm saying," declared Rachel, the anger grew with each word, a string of profanity. "I want my money back, NOW!"
"Boat leaving, get on boat!" was the only response, and suddenly we were left in an empty cafe, on the side of a dirt road somewhere in Laos. I was taken aback. He couldn't have. The cute little grandpa man who I felt so sorry for, I had sided with him and even patted him on the back! He couldn't have stolen tens of dollars from each person on the boat. A slide of confused emotions passed through my mind, but all I could think was Buddha surely wouldn't approve of this behavior and the old man must have a boatload of bad karma headed his way.
We peevishly boarded the boat only to discover another surprise in today's series of unfortunate events; there weren't enough seats for everyone. Silly me, who was I kidding to actually believe that there would be enough seats or beds for all the passengers on any form of transportation in Southeast Asia?
I quickly seized the first idle seat I spotted, while the others wandered to the back of the boat hoping for better luck. It looked like someone had gone on a spree dismantling backseats from mini vans, buses, you name it, and collectively pasted them into the hull of a boat arranging them whichever way they would fit. Some merely balanced with nothing behind, save the passenger's keenness to not lean back too far, and others wobbled on three legs or were perched against the boat railing for support. Every time the person in front of me moved, I was sure to retract my feet just as a precaution.
The back of the boat was even worse. It was a seat-less pit full of cargo, Laotians lying on the floor and a roaring engine spewing black diesel soot. We spent the entirety of that day's eight hour boat ride playing a messed up version of musical chairs-alternating between seat, floor and sitting on the railing of the boat. Two things were for sure: we were about to grow overwhelmingly close (literally and figuratively) with our fellow travelers and we were in for an unforgettable two days on the slow boat.
On the last day of the retreat, I was so happy to leave that I could hardly meditate. My last two sessions weren't the best, but I was confident in what I had learned and eager to implement some of the concepts such as living intentionally, spreading love and kindness and a meditation session into my daily routine.
As the taxis pulled away a bomb of relief and chatter exploded among us. For the first time, I was able to meet the people I had spent the past four days with. Part of me felt like I already knew them really well, then I realized I just knew what they looked like really well; I didn't even know which countries they were from!
That night we all went out for dinner and spent hours discussing the retreat, our travels, our daily lives and how the experience had changed us. I soon discovered there was an artificial intelligence Phd, a yoga and meditation teacher, an advertising executive from New York, a medium and a psychiatrist among the group. And despite our many differences in age and walks of life, we had all come to the retreat for the same reasons; to learn more about ourselves and calm our monkey minds.
With my first few steps back into society, everything seemed different. I felt happier and I noticed all the people selling fruit and drinks in the street and smiled at them and silently wished them love and kindness, but most of all I felt submerged in the moment. Colors were brighter, sounds clearer and I was so much more thankful for all the goodness in my life.
Looking back on the past four days, there were a lot of times when I wanted to quit, but I always had enough strength inside of me to pull myself from those ruts. I am beginning to realize just how powerful the mind is and the importance of being able to turn off the monkey mind and truly know oneself. Although I am still very imperfect and have a bit of a jumping monkey mind, all I can do from here on out is recognize these realities and live imperfectly but with great delight, and intentionally with great purpose.
Dong, dong, dong, the sound grew more intense with each clash of the stick against the metal gong. I remembered Joelee's threat that if our room light wasn't on by five A.M. he would ring the gong outside of our door, and I immediately flicked the light switch. I had tossed on the thin mattress supported by a built in concrete bed frame all night and was in no state to think about meditation or personal enlightenment at this hour. I reluctantly lifted myself out of bed and my day proceeded as such:
5:30 chanting meditation
8:00 discussion group-my favorite hour of the day where we were allowed to talk and ask Joelee any questions about Buddhism or meditation.
10:00 walking meditation, sitting meditation
1:00 walking meditation, sitting meditation
7:00 walking meditation, sitting meditation
8:30 chanting meditation
9:00 lying meditation, bed
It seemed like there was a routine for everything. Before we meditated we had to chant, before breakfast we had to offer food to the monk and before any meal we had to contemplate on our food before eating it.
In Buddhist culture, the monks wander the streets and markets each morning in search of food. They walk with their empty bowls and patiently wait outside each door depending on the goodness of the locals to provide their daily nourishment. Later, they eat however little or much food was given to them for breakfast and lunch. They don't eat after noon, as to not suffer from desiring food and to remember the use of it as a means for living, not a luxury.
Offering the monk food became our daily routine. We would gather small bowls of rice and stand side by side as the monk passed down the line allowing us to pile our rice into his bowl.
Afterwards, we enjoyed our own breakfast. We sat with our steaming bowls of rice and soup in front of us and chanted our contemplation on food in Sanskrit, later repeating the English translation in unison:
We must contemplate on the food before eating it
So that it is not eaten for pleasure or fun
So that it is not eaten for beauty or attraction
Only for the nourishment of this body
And to destroy the feeling of hunger for awhile
I appreciated the intentionality with which everything was done at the meditation center. I tend to find myself rushing through life, doing things absent-mindedly and rarely acknowledging people in passing. This purpousefulness was refreshing and an aspect of Buddhism that I wanted to bring into my own life.
Each day dripped by slow as honey and losing its sweetness by the end. The meditation was fine. I could concentrate my thoughts and reach a relaxed state during each session, it was the little bits of free time before and after each meal and between meditation sessions that eventually drove me crazy. There were so few distractions at the center that my mind resorted to what it already knew for entertainment. I felt as if I were stranded in the vastest desert on the hottest summer day with absolutely nothing or no one in sight for miles. I drove my thoughts in endless circles thriving on past memories and obsessing over the future, the images revolving like a broken record making me positively crazy. It was ironic that I had come on the retreat with hopes of living in the present moment and pushing my thoughts of the past or worries of the future aside, and here I was able to focus on everything but the present.
At one point I was so frustrated that all I could think about was home. I didn't want to meditate or even be in Thailand anymore. A home with my family, a warm house and nice conversation seemed like heaven and the only way out.
It was my mind that had brought me to this low point and now all I had was my mind to get me out of it. I decided to take a break from one of the sessions and go for a walk. Just at the perfect time I met Chang, the administrator at the center. He asked me how my meditation was going and I began telling him about my trip through Thailand and my home in Colorado. Honestly, I didn't care what we talked about, I was so happy to be talking that I asked question after question just to delay my return to reality. After a few minutes Joelee noticed us and told me to go back to meditating. I did, but with a new joy inside and enthusiasm that I would be able to finish the course.
That evening, my brain wandered off. As I sat contemplating the numbness rushing into my leg from sitting too long, colorful flashes of light and a slide reel of images flowed into my mind. I saw places known and unknown and people going about their daily lives. I was suddenly in he middle of a field below the bluest of blue skies, hovering above a Pixar-worthy rolling green landscape with perfectly shaped cotton ball clouds. I didn't feel my leg anymore and outside sounds were of no importance. When I tried to divert my mind from this dream state, I could focus on thoughts for only a brief second before they were destroyed by these new exciting images and blissful state. Suddenly the gong rang and it was time to wake up. I slowly returned back into the present, exhilarated that I had finally reached a true meditative state. I was ready to tackle day four with strong spirits, implementing all I had learned and preparing to take my new knowledge with me when I returned to reality.
"Your mind is like a monkey; jumping around out of control and really smelly. You wouldn't go a day without bathing would you? Why would you go a day without cleaning your mind?"
This was the best analogy Joelee could think of to explain meditation to a bunch of westerners. Somehow, watching a monk give a PowerPoint presentation didn't seem normal. PowerPoint was for corporate America, not orange-robed, bald-headed monks who spend years wandering trough the jungle seeking enlightenment. But, he assured us he did not suffer from technology, thus it was acceptable to use.
Joelee would be guiding us through our meditative journeys for the next four days. He had been a monk since the age of 16, got his masters degree in India and was now a professor at the Buddhist university in Chiang Mai. Before we left for the meditation center he gave us an overview of Buddhism and Thai culture. Contrary to popular belief, Buddhism isn't a religion but rather a way of life. They believe in karma and strive to constantly spread love and kindness to all living beings. The pain and suffering we experience in life is caused by attachment. When a loved one leaves us or harms us, or we lose a material item we have become dependent on, we experience this negative feeling. The only way to minimize pain and suffering is through detachment, achieved through meditation. Joelee told us that meditation can also be used to access the subconscious and even learn about your previous lives! The main focus of our retreat was to use meditation as a means to calm our monkey minds and gain mental clarity.
After our informational session we departed for the retreat center. Surprisingly, it was much more westernized than I had expected. We were provided with cushions for sitting on the floor, hot running water, three meals a day and an unlimited supply of coffee! We changed into our white outfits and the silence began. While calming the monkey mind, it is important to eliminate as many distractions as possible, thus the white clothes and no talking.
Joelee gave us a brief introduction on how to meditate and we began. I sat. My arm itched, the clock ticked, my leg fell asleep and thoughts rushed in every direction through my mind like a stampede. The five minutes passed like molasses. That was it, meditation was not for me. After the first short session, he gave us a few more tips and we did another. This time, I was able to block out all the distraction noises and substantially slow my thinking. Even though I didn't actually reach a meditative state, it felt really good.
Next, Joelee taught us walking meditation. We went through each movement so slowly and with emphasized intention chanting, "heel up, lifting, moving, lowering, toe down, treading" with each step. Everything we did-whether walking or sitting-had to be intentional and acknowledged. If we heard a sound or felt pain we were instructed to repeat, "hearing hearing, or pain pain" over and over as a way to recognize it and attempt to detach ourselves from it. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to control your mind so well you can separate it from the feelings of your physical body.
We spent the rest of the evening alternating between walking and sitting meditation. By the end of the night I could block out almost all distractions and focus on one idea or image for a substantial amount of time. Things were improving!
By now we had spent at least three hours meditating and I was exhausted! I was beginning to learn that this monkey taming business does not come easy. I couldn't have been happier for our nine P.M. bedtime. However, I was soon jolted out of bed at five A.M. by an unwelcomed gong ringing outside my window.
Four days ago, I had never meditated for a minute in my life. To be honest, I thought meditation was just a fancy word for sitting and thinking. Didn't I do enough of that already? In the past six months I've spent so much time on buses, trains and planes sitting alone and thinking that I probably could have written an Academy Award-worthy screenplay. Too bad I spent most of my thinking time pondering things like how to catch a baby koala and what life would be like if I had Cheetos for toes, instead of putting my mental effort towards a productive cause.
The fact of the matter is that I wanted to meet a monk. So I put my college degree-worthy research skills to use and started googling. Where do monks hang out? The temple. What do monks do? Meditate. Do monks talk to women? Rarely. Would a monk talk to me if I meditated? Maybe.Thus, I vowed to enter the world of meditation in hopes of meeting a somewhat westernized monk who might be willing to tell me a little bit about monk life and Buddhism.
Return to google: meditation retreat in Thailand with monks. Hmmm, all that seemed to pop up were ten day silent meditation retreats. Eight to ten hours a day of sitting on a hard floor, no eating past noon, no talking, daily chores, no eye contact, no running water, ten days. *gasp*
Returning to my habit of brainless decision making, I thought, "I could do that. Even though I've never meditated a day in my life and really believe its only for yogis, psychics and earth muffins (and I don't consider myself any of the above), it will be a good personal challenge and educational experience."
I had myself half convinced and was contemplating whether I should email the temple to register. I soon realized that there was a logistical issue with the dates of the retreat and the length of my Thai visa, so I wouldn't be able to attend. After a few more clicks on google, I found a fellow travel blog commenting on a four day meditation retreat she had attended in the north of Thailand. Perfect! I was headed north, the dates fit well with my visa and it seemed a little more realistic than ten days of silence.
Little did I know at the time, I would look back on the experience eternally grateful for my visa stars and ten day retreat stars not aligning. I was about to begin the longest four days of my life...the quest to tame what my monk instructor would later call the monkey mind.
The mystery of Pai runs deep through the ever-flowing stream, chatter of the locals at the nightly market and the veins of minerals in the highest mountains. On the surface it seems like a normal mountain town, well at least in the realm of normal. I can say for a fact that I have never before met lazier people or been greeted by a town boasting a slower pace of life. The town has adopted the tag line, "Slow life @ Pie" which is plastered all over tee shirts, magnets, postcards and random signs along the road. Cafe owners greet me with, "come, relax, enjoy the laid back life. If you eat here you will never die." And somehow, I got suckered into all of it.
At first, it all seemed normal and I actually appreciated a relaxing break from traveling. However, the more time I spent wandering the streets of Pai, and the more locals I met, I got a suspicion that something was out of order. The women have a sort of giddy middle schooler temperament and when life gets hard, the men seem to submiss to the women and return to their hammocks for a nap. I stayed at Darling Viewpoint Bungalows, named after the owner Darling who consequently called everyone else darling. Her German husband Peter would yell, "Darling! Darling is here to inquire about a room, can you send Darling to show it to her?" Peter seemed to be running the joint, but when I asked him about anything remotely related to renting a room he seemed almost annoyed and threw his hands up in defeat instructing me to ask Darling.
Every morning I was greeted by a zealous Darling excited about one thing or another. Her expressions were so animated that I sometimes felt like I was watching a four year old going on and on about her new pony she got for Christmas. She told me all about her morning on the zip line, then taught me some Thai words and insisted that I make my pronunciation sound sexier. This behavior was the same for all the women of the village. They were so full of energy and inching at the prospect to be your new best friend, while the men relaxed.
I was fine with all the craziness of Pai, until one evening when I noticed that I had just spent the whole day doing absolutely nothing. This was actually a pretty impressive feat for someone who goes crazy if her schedule isn't jam-packed. What had I done, and how did all that time pass without me noticing that the day was gone? The answers to these two questions slipped my mind and left me baffled. I guess doing nothing isn't too hard when you're surrounded by fellow nothing-doers. Eventually guilt from my Western-ness gnawed at me from the inside screaming that this was not alright, and I knew I had to do something differently. I met two fellow nothing-doer girls seeking to put an end to this nonsense and become something-doers. We rented mopeds and spent a day zipping around the hills and through canyons in search of a waterfall.
I rode off on my scooter warily, remembering that almost everyone I had met had crashed their bike. I was sure to dress in the most appropriate motorcycle riding gear I owned and purchased all the insurance available, which consequently bumped the rental price from $3 to $6. Everything seemed to be going well. The Thais proved to be courteous drivers, the roads were well maintained and I even did alright driving on the left. Eventually, however, I noticed that none of my instrument gauges were working. I filled my gas tank halfway and my new friends-Lisa and Holly agreed to keep an eye on their gas tank and tell me when it got low, so we could all fill up.
We spent the morning driving through the windy hills in search of a cave which was supposedly a 90 minute drive outside of Pai. Halfway through the trip, my scooter suddenly stopped while coming around a bend. Out of gas-I instantly knew it! I had been thinking for the last few kilometers that we needed to stop at the next station to refuel. I frantically honked my horn to signal to the girls to stop. They quickly turned backed and we agreed that they would drive ahead for 20 minutes in search of fuel while I wandered into the bushes and waited anxiously.
They eventually returned without good news. The nearest petrol station was ahead-uphill 20 km or behind-downhill 20 km. My only option was to turn around and cruise back down the windy road. Holly and Lisa got a pretty good laugh out of my running Flintstones style with one leg on either side of the scooter to make it up the hills. Lucky for me, the majority of the journey was downhill.
We finally found gas from a small food shack, combined general store along the road. By this time it was too late in the day to return to the cave, so we settled on exploring a waterfall instead.
The next day, we got up early to make sure we had enough time to actually make it to the cave. The drive was gorgeous except for all the small brush fires along the road. Here, they still use slash and burn techniques for the crops, and it seemed like 90% of the countryside was on fire. No one seemed to supervise the burns, so apparently out of control wildfires are not a big concern here. The air was so thick with smoke that I had to wear a bandanna over my nose and mouth while riding, and visibility was limited to only a few kilometers.
Once at the cave, we hired a bamboo raft to take us along the river through the cave. Our guide brought a lantern and stopped the boat intermittently for us to disembark and climb through the caverns to view the different stalagmite and stalactite formations. It all seemed so surreal, I felt like I was on a Disneyland ride where you venture through a dark cave and mysterious animals pop out at you. Although the cave was only 200 meters long, the ceiling and walls extended greatly and we spotted quite a few interesting rock formations and even an ancient coffin! Unfortunately, no mysterious animals.A
Afterward, we all agreed: boating through the cave was indeed worth the two trips it took to get there!