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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

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

Phong Nha Farmstay, Vietnam

13 Nov

Lunch with a Vietnamese Family

11 Nov

During the few days we spent in Hue, Vietnam, we met a local Vietnamese man called Binh and his young son on the Trang Tien Bridge. After going for drinks with him at one of the riverside cafes, we were invited to his home just outside of Hue, for lunch the following day with his wife and 2 sons.

Naturally, we hesitated to accept the offer as Vietnam has made a bit of a name for itself in the scamming department over the years. However, my gut instinct said we should go; he appeared honest, kind and had smiling eyes. We were foreigners in his home town and it seemed that he simply wanted to welcome us.

The next day we told the receptionist in our hotel our plans and coincidentally, she recognized Binh when he arrived with his wife, Huong to pick us up on their mopeds which put me at ease.

After about 15 minutes of driving, we arrived at the small village where Binh and Huong’s home was. The house next door was in the process of being built and Binh explained that it’s common in Vietnam for people to build their own houses.

Once inside, we gave the couple some fresh flowers we’d bought for them and asked Houng if she needed any help preparing the food. She happily delegated tasks to us all and we sat in a circle in the middle of the kitchen floor spooning homemade shrimp paste onto thin sheets of rice paper, which were then rolled up and cooked.

The food looked and smelt incredible once it was finished. Houng had prepared a delicious feast of fresh fish, fried prawns, white noodles and shrimp rolls with chill, all arranged in different bowls on the large table in the living room. We could then spoon various ingredients onto rice paper making small food parcels which could be eaten with our hands.

After dinner we drank beer and Binh told us that Houng was a make-up artist. He said, “She shapes eyebrows and does colour for lips.” He was referring to the permanent make-up tattoos people sometimes have done to make it look like they’re always wearing make-up.

Several minutes later, Houng reappeared with her eyebrow tool kit and began plucking, trimming and even shaving away at my eyebrows- apparently they were uneven. Luckily, in the end she did a pretty good job and didn’t even want money for it.

The afternoon continued to pleasantly unfold; we had more beer, chatted in English to the older son and played cards. Then, just as we were about to leave, we heard a man shouting in Vietnamese outside the house.

I had no idea what he was saying, but as the voice became louder, the younger son burst into tears, and the cries of the boy soon became as loud as the drunken, outraged rambling of the man. Binh and Huong seemed unfazed by the situation as if it had happened many times before.

When we wandered outside, we saw the man pacing around the unfinished building site of a house next door, bare foot, wearing only shorts. He was still yelling aggressively at us in Vietnamese.

On the journey back to Hue, Binh explained that the man had thought we were American and had been yelling, “You friends with the American people. They make many people die.” When Binh had told him we weren’t American, he’d got even angrier, yelling that he hated all foreigners. Binh then shook his head, smiled and said, “The war was 30 years ago, but every country has its crazy people, not just Vietnam. ”

Once back in Hue, Binh told us to forget about the man, which will be hard now as I’ve written about him in this post, but I hope that one day he’ll find peace, finish building his house if that was his house, and give his neighbours a rest from all the yelling.

As we said goodbye to Binh and Huong, we thanked them for a lovely afternoon and I left feeling happy to have met them and pleased that the cynics in us hadn’t said no from the start. And keeping my promise to Huong, I will no longer neglect my eyebrows anymore whilst travelling.