Mahamongkol Meditation Centre, Thailand

12 Jan

When I was in Thailand I had a bit of a Harry Potter moment whilst visiting a Buddhist Meditation Centre. Perhaps it’s bad taste to compare a spiritual site to Harry Potter, but being there made me feel like I really had ventured into the magical world.

After a two hour train journey to Mahamongkol and then a short walk over a wooden planked bridge I came to a small open plan building with a smooth marble floor and shelves containing different sized, neatly folded white robes. I asked if I could spend one night at the centre and seconds later I was wearing what felt like luxury pajamas and Harry’s Invisibility Cloak.

After handing over my possessions for a thick gold and white book containing words of wisdom from Buddha I was free to meditate and wander the grounds. A Thai girl called Izabella, who had been staying at the centre for two weeks, kindly gave me a tour.

Walking bare foot over soft golf course like grass I was shown decking areas for meditation by the river and intricately sculpted Buddha statues and shrines inside buildings made from wood, marble and cream coloured stone. Close to the middle of the site was a small manmade, grassy hill, like a half sunken green globe, with a tree on top. Izabella explained, “The tree is special and from India. You can walk around it and pray for something.”

Later that evening everyone meditated together outside on the grass as the sun was setting. Just before I closed my eyes, I looked up and saw a golden glowing temple surrounded by trees on top of a nearby mountain. My first thought was, ‘It looks just like Hogwarts.’ Izabella suggested, “Tomorrow we can visit the temple if you like.” Intrigued, I said, “Yes, I’d love to see it.”

The following day we made the journey up two thousand steps which zig-zagged through mountainside jungle and staggered ponds filled with lotus flowers and exotic plants. When I looked up, there were hundreds of monkeys swinging freely from tree to tree. I was overwhelmed by how stunningly beautiful this place was and it really surprised me to see no other tourists despite it being peak season.

After twenty four hours I returned to the spot outside the meditation centre to catch the train. Close by I overheard a Thai tour guide talking to some tourists. He pointed in the direction of the meditation centre and said, shaking his head “and this is where the nuns spend the rest of their lives.” One of the tourists laughed and said pityingly, “Poor, poor nuns.”

In reality, most Thai people stay for about four weeks and for me, the site was a must see place in Thailand – acres of unspoilt paradise that cost nothing. Perhaps I should have said something, but instead I found myself thinking, “They’re Muggles; they’re not supposed to know.”

Mahamongkol Meditation Centre- To visit the centre for 1 day, white robes are given free of a charge, but robes must be bought for a small fee if staying overnight. Meals and accommodation are provided free of charge and in return, everyone staying at the centre does an hour or so of work each day to maintain the grounds. The food is excellent.

Living Things from South East Asia

27 Dec

Cycling around Kep

22 Dec

After a “I hear Kep is supposed to be nice” comment from  fellow traveller Raf, we were on a bus to the little coastal town, not far from Kampot in Cambodia (where loads of pepper is grown).

Once we arrived we secured a bamboo hut on the hill side (they were pretty comfortable, though electricity only came on from about 5pm), with a beautiful view of the bay. We rented a couple of bikes and along with our friend Raf we scouted out the local area.

Kep, once a popular resort area until the Khmer Rouge came along and forced everyone out, it now had an air of abandonment; but not it a trashy way, just reclaimed by nature and time. The old fancy broad-walks along the coast, now cracked and grown over in some places, coastal homes lay gutted. Though next to all this decay there were also a few wonderful local restaurants and newer resorts (like our own).

We stopped to try the local crab (which the area is known for), and did not regret it. We ate peppered crab with pepper from down the road and crab not more that 30M from where we sat and ate on the shore.

The next day, feeling energetic we set off with our bicycles once more in an attempt to find more old abandoned houses whilst we circled the hill which a part of Kep sat on. We cycled for miles through the most beautiful countryside. Passing locals retrieving mud from the river (not sure either…) and field after field of rice. Stopping here and there to say hello to the local children of picking up playing cards (once again not sure either… ask Clare). As we doubled back to round the other side of the hill, we happened upon a mosque almost in the middle of nowhere. It looked pretty incredible against the swirling skies of an ominous looking storm.

 

2 Minutes up the road we ploughed into the nearest restaurant/cafe/shop/thingy at the side of the road, rain just on our heels. As we propped our bikes up and ran under the tarp that was the front of the shop thing, the heavens opened. I know! I know! Its a massive cliché, but there really was no other way to describe it. SO MUCH WATER FROM SKY! We sat and ate some chewy fried things and nibbled on some hard cinnamon baked things whilst we waited, watching the road become a river.

After a surprisingly short time the rains just stopped and on we went.

We cycled only a short distance and discovered an amazingly blackened building in the middle of a luscious green field of rice. We all stopped to take pictures and after a minute we realised how quiet and peaceful it was around there. Well, not entirely.

“What’s that sound?” Raf asked.

“What sound?” I replied

“That sorta whooshing rushing sound? Sounds like TV Static? Oh my god is that rain?!”

“Shit, CLARE RAINS COMING, Run!”

We grabbed our bikes and peddled as fast as we could in the direction of the nearest building, which happened to be a farm house with a pig-sty next to it. Not seeing anyone in the house we ran for the iron lean-to that was the sty. And then the rain fell, heavy as before, soaking Clare to the bone as she was a little way behind us (she had gone up to explore the building).

Eventually the rain slowed enough (the owners of the farm house had seen us standing in the sty) and we we’re invited into the farm house. It was an incredibly humble home, with dirt floors wooden beds with no mattress only mats and a barrel in a back room for washing. We spent quite some time in there, waiting for the rain, in the warmth of the simple home. We made the time pass by trying to bridge the language barrier; playing with the children  (Clare teaching them yoga and getting them to play ‘Simon Says’ which was more like ‘Copy Clare’), drawing pictures in a little note book, teaching the kids to count in English and showing photos from our camera’s. I don’t think I have felt that welcomed by strangers in a long time, though there was no common language and we had nothing to give to them in the way of thanks, we really did feel so welcomed.

Eventually the rain let up and we left, waving and shouting “Ar Kun” (thank you). After a short ride we finished the circle, to climb the guest houses hill once more, arriving exhausted and sweaty.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

14 Dec

The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

29 Nov

"Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake." Pol Pot

A few days ago, we visited the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The site was one of many throughout the country where millions of people were brutally executed by the Khmer Rouge during the years 1976-1979 when Pol Pot was in power.

The Khmer Rouge had a vision of everyone living in the countryside, working on the land, farming and doing other physically demanding jobs. Those opposed to this were killed, including teachers, doctors, children, and even members of Pol Pots own family.

When we arrived at the Killing Fields, I was surprised by how calm and peaceful the place was; birds were singing; there was a gentle breeze in the air and leaves rustled in the trees dotted about on the dappled sunlit lawns. Until I turned my audio guide on, it would have been difficult at first glance to imagine the horror that took place just over 3 decades ago.

As I walked slowly around the grounds, listening intently to information, case studies and music, my attention was directed to physical reminders of the Khmer Rouge’s sickening regime, including bones, teeth and clothes worn by those who were killed. Even today, remnants from the past still find their way unsettlingly to the surface of the pits where thousands of bodies were once thrown into.

30 minutes into the tour, I stood next to a tree which was used as a base to smash babies and children’s heads, and the razor sharp edges of thick palm leaves were used to cut throats. Quite often whole families would be wiped out as the Khmer Rouge grew increasingly paranoid. Towards the end of the tour I listened to the music that was used to hide the screams of those being killed. It brought tears to my eyes as I tried to imagine the fear people must have felt.

Afterwards, whilst looking around the on-site Museum I discovered that Pol Pot was once a geography teacher and many other members of the Khmer Rouge were also once teachers or lecturers. I wondered when the opinions of these individuals started to change and I left wanting to know exactly what influenced the Khmer Rouge to form their extreme vision for Cambodia, why they believed it to be the way forward and how such a minority managed to inflict such suffering on their own people.

The Vietnamese Coast and The Sand Dunes of Mui Ne

20 Nov

Mue Ni and the Sand Dunes

17 Nov

Arriving in monsoon rain at Mue Ni beach, we walked the 3km in the rain and with the absence of a real umbrella or any kind of water-proof we fell into our room thoroughly soaked.

The next day was a different story, though it was not completely clear, it was warm and more importantly, not raining by the barrel full. We booked a Jeep tour of the nearby sand dunes for $8. This would be our first tour experience since we started backpacking. Our tour began at 2pm so we had a few hours to spend bobbing up and down in the waves (which was quite fun and we also bumped into the other people that would be joining the tour)

Hopping in an old white Chinese 4×4 we raced off towards the dunes with the 4 other people +driver, stopping along the way at a local fishing port (which stunk, but strangely not as much as the roads leading out of the village, mainly due to the two lanes of drying fish on either side of the road).

After longer than we thought and further in land than I would have guessed, we arrived at the white sand dunes. Sadly the 4×4 seemed purely for show and couldn’t be taken on the dunes (which made the ‘guide’ with his added lack of English, more of a driver than anything else).
We hired two sheets of plastic for 30,000 Dong each (£1, sneaky) and made our way up one of the steeper looking dunes. The incredible thing about the place was its surroundings. In one direction you looked and saw miles of desert dunes, look to your left and you would see a large lake with green plants growing on top, to the right fir type trees on sandy and grassy hills.

We decided to use our bit of plastics to sand sledge down the hill, after a few failed attempts we got quite some speed up. The only problem was steering and breaking. Steering was impossible, and breaking involved falling off sideways and rolling a bit. Clare decided to try it from one of the highest points and got up some amazing speed (video to come). I decided to try it with an air of cockiness (“That looks like fun, I’m SURE I could do that” I thought). I went about 40 meters, hit top speed, one foot went to the ground the other in-between the rope attached to the plastic sledge and then I was in the dune. Hair lolling around in the sand, grit in my teeth and in my shorts.

After spending around 1 hour 1/2 of our allocated 40 minutes we returned late to the 4×4 (people waiting unhappily for us, sorry!). The rest of the tour consisted of a dune of red sand that was covered in locals/tourists/litter and the incredible “fairy spring” (hums a tune from Zelda).

The fairy spring is a small river running to the sea, but its only about 2 inches deep but around 7ft wide, which makes you feel as if you are walking on water up stream. Its also surrounded by cliffs of red sand and calcium deposits, giving it a very ‘other world’ feel. We were also follow by a couple of children (one in his late teens) which tried to act as our guide (much to our annoyance “NO we WANT to go in the deeper water, I’m wearing swimming shorts!”) and then tried to ask us for money once we had started our way back (the younger of the two’s face turned from smiles to ‘poor me’)