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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.

Skin Lightening in Thailand

16 Sep

Like tooth whitening adverts but with skin.

Before arriving in Thailand, I had no idea how obsessed some Thai people are with the colour of their skin or how accidentally racist the beauty industry is out here.

There are adverts everywhere showing Thai women with bleached out, flawless faces, advertising some sort of skin lightening product with captions reading, ‘We make you beautiful.’

As a teenager I worked at the Body Shop for a while and sometimes when I’d apply make-up on Asian women they’d ask me to make their skin lighter. This always struck me as odd but it’s pretty obvious why now.

Not only are there excessive amounts of skin lightening advertising everywhere here but all the Thai models, actors and actresses are incredibly white, and in every shopping centre there are skin whitening beauty salons, often several in a row.

It’s also not uncommon to see people who aren’t out to rob, wearing black balaclavas in the midday sun- fearful of their skin becoming darker.

Whilst in Chiang Rai I asked a Thai man who worked in the hostel we were staying at why people are so eager to lighten their skin. He said, “a lot of people don’t want to be confused with  labourers or rice field workers who have darker skin which is seen as a sign of poverty.”

He went on to say that many Thai people are heavily influenced by Japan, Korea and western countries. And in Bangkok it’s popular for women to get nose jobs “to make their noses less flat like western people and skin lightening injections.”

I started to realize that if I needed to buy moisturiser in Thailand, it’d be a mission to find products that don’t contain lightening ingredients. In a way I find this more disturbing; It’s assumed that everyone would prefer lighter skin whether they want it or not.

And finally, the lightening obsession doesn’t just end with skin. Yesterday I discovered that even the biscuit sections in shops only seem to stock white Oreo’s. I couldn’t even spot any of the original kind. Things have clearly gone too far.

Mokshadharma, a house by the river, and Cheeky Monkey Yoga in Chiang Khong

13 Sep

A few days ago we were cycling along the Mekong River path when Dom pointed out a small sign attached to the side of a building on stilts which read, ‘Yoga’.  Curious, we climbed the wooden steps leading to an entrance, only to be greeted by a Thai lady who pointed under the building and said, “That way”.

The space underneath felt like walking through someone’s cluttered garage with lots of doors on the right hand side, and hammocks hanging from beams in the ceiling. The garage then opened out onto an overgrown garden area, and a series of steps with metal bottle tops embedded into the concrete like a mosaic.

Once at the bottom, we finally came to a sign attached to a door which read, ‘Cheeky Monkey Yoga- This is it’. After several knocks and an overly excited greeting from 2 dogs with big ears, a smiling lady in her late 50’s/ early 60’s opened the door,  introduced herself as Diane (or Mokshadharma – her Yogi name)  and invited us in.

Di-Mokshadharma’s home/ yoga studio was a beautiful, airy, open plan space which looked out onto the whole of the Mekong River and Laos. She explained that her and her husband had moved from Australia 5 years ago to live in Chiang Khong, and she’d been teaching yoga for 20 years, but now offered 1-1 classes for travellers.

We visited again yesterday to do a class in the evening. Bamboo mats and embroidered cushions had been placed out by the large open window overlooking the river at sunset, and  candles flickered around the rest of the room. The yoga was incredibly relaxing and one of the best classes I’ve had. However, equally as interesting was how Di-Mokshadharma and her husband came to live there.

I had no idea that it wasn’t possible for non-Thai residents to own property in Thailand. Di-Mokshadharma and her husband’s home did not technically belong to them. The garage like room we walked through on the way there was actually part of a hostel, and 5 years ago the space that is now their home had been neglected and was pretty uninhabitable.

With permission from the hostel owners, they then did up the neglected section which is now not only their home and yoga studio, but also a space where they voluntarily teach local kids in the area English. In return, they only pay the relevant bills for their section of the property, and are involved with other developmental work in the community.

I’m not really sure what you’d call this- Perhaps just a friendly agreement? I’ve certainly never heard of anything quite like it, but I love the idea.

Condoms, coffee beans, bottle tops and tyre bins

11 Sep

Being a lover of art made from junk it pleased me to see how resourceful the Thai are with their rubbish.

The condom man was taken in Pattaya in a restaurant called Cabbages & Condoms where the food is ‘guaranteed not to cause pregnancy’. The man who owns the place aimed to make condoms the same price as cabbages in Thailand and fund social development in the surrounding area.

Despite not being a huge fan of the coffee bean faces, it’s nice to see there’s a lack of flower photographs printed on canvases and ‘Ikea Art’  in cafes in Thailand. Also liked the idea of the beer bottle wall. The whole outside wall of a cafe in Chiang Khong was covered in bottles- perhaps the kind of thing a teenage boy might make in his room on a grander scale.

When we arrived in Chinag Khong I kept seeing all these huge pot/ cauldron things outside each house. I thought, how lovely, perhaps everyone in this town cooks together outside and they eat huge feasts on the street together. Dom pointed out that they were actually bins made from old tyres.

Re: Eating insects in Chiang Mai (video)

10 Sep

Since I bought a cheapy netbook, I have now had the time to upload a video (leaving it on over night). Here it is:

On the top of Thailand in Mae Sai

9 Sep

Mae Sai, Thailand’s northernmost market town on the Burma border feels a bit forgotten about. I think there are only 5 tourists including us in the whole place. Despite the fact that there isn’t much to do here, the surrounding countryside is beautiful and the town is quite intriguing.

We were walking down one of the side streets one evening, and all the houses seemed to have shutters like the fronts of shops. They were all open and you could see right into people’s living rooms. It felt like I was walking past lots of intricately designed theatre sets showing snippets of everyday family life in Thailand.

On the subject of houses, whilst driving along on a hired moped to explore some caves a bit outside of Mae Sai, we  passed a bizarre clone like housing estate with identical red houses on one side of the road and blue on the other. They just didn’t look real and certainly not what I was expecting in the middle of the Thai countryside.

However, the main attraction of Mae Sai is not its houses, but its position on the Burma border, but we didn’t venture over. One day passes are no longer available, and tourists who do choose to cross over the bridge are not allowed to stray outside of the immediate border town without paying extra money and being closely watched.

Instead, we found some rickety metal steps which lead up from the Mai Sai market and through what looked like a small block of higgledy-piggledy flats which opened out onto a flat roof. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a designated viewing point or not, but it was a good one.

Once on top we had a pretty good view of both Burma, Thailand, the surrounding hilltops, temples, and the tiny slither of the Mae Sai River which acts as the natural divide between the 2 countries. As we left a family on the Burma side waved and blew kisses at us from their house across the river.

Jungle Trekking

8 Sep
Clare tests out a bamboo bridge

This Is A Bridge?

After a bumpy hour long ride standing in the back of a pick-up truck we arrived at Akha Hill House. It felt like a tree house built on to the side of a mountainous jungle. The place was a little run down and after some really terrible noodles (think supernoodles with way to much soy and pretty awful veg) and over priced beer we hit the hay. The rooms were as basic as they come (a bed with a mosquito net, one light, four walls, roof and floor) but it was actually pretty comfortable and cool to sleep in.

There were a few jungle treks you could pay for, but as most of the starting prices were around 2000 Baht a person, we decided just to get a little advice and do it ourselves. The nearest ‘attractions’ around were a waterfall and hot springs, being that we hadn’t seen the waterfall yet (as we saw the hot springs on our previous cycle) we set off for that.

The path that one of the guides had told us about took us up higher and away from the village. It was hard work in the sun but the view was pretty stunning. Eventually the path narrowed as we left the hills village and slowly entered the jungle. With bamboo thickets on one side, sheer drops on the other and mystic plants growing over the path it felt pretty adventurous. We pass only one other person;  an old man carrying a huge sack of rice (of course).

Soon we could hear the rush of water and eventually could see bits of waterfall. We reached a path off the main track that lead to a large pool of water just before one part of the falls (it was more like many smaller falls rather than one huge drop). I could see that the only way further down the falls was to first cross the river, the only obvious way to do this was across 2 sections of bamboo that had been laid down. Edging along the 2 beams of bamboo no more than 20cm wide we crossed. After trekking down we reached another bigger pool which had a slightly weathered bamboo bridge (with a bamboo woven floor and bamboo railings) leading from the edge so you could access the pool.

This pool was great to swim in and although it wasn’t deep the ‘exit’ was protected by a huge rock, which meant there was no chance of being swept downstream or over the edge. The spray from the falls and the huge trees that surrounded the area meant it actually felt quite cool in the area, so returning to the hill house after this meant it felt even hotter than before. After some lunch we somehow reached the conclusion that the walk to the hot springs in the midday sun would be a good idea.

Clare stands in extremely tall grass

Child Height Grass

We pushed through the jungle once again; this time it opened out into a strange grass like field. The grass was so tall here that it felt like being a child again, playing in the fields next to my home. This path then sidled up to a bamboo fence, which took us past paddy fields and around a little village.

After passing through a village (where everyone gave us the look of “why… why are you here? HOW even!?”) and running low on water, we finally got to the point where we admitted we were horribly lost. Then from the road in front came one of the guests from the hostels.  He asked (without prompt) if we were looking for the hot springs, we nodded and he told us to follow the road for another 2km or so and we’d get there.

The hot springs were more than a welcome sight, it was an accomplishment. We soaked our aching bodies in the bath water warmth, to the point where the return journey seemed like it would be hell.

The return journey along the road was a lot less pretty and less interesting, save for the fact it was rapidly getting dark and we had no torch (except Clare had pointed out at the time “I have my mobile and part of my sandal glows in the dark”, though to what effect these would have been on a jungle mountain road is anyone’s guess). We made it back to the hill house through some tea plantations just as the daylight gave out.