Thailand is the ultimate destination for sun, sea, shopping, relaxing and enlightenment? That’s right, Thailand isn’t just great for holidays, it is also the perfect destination for spiritual development.
Thailand is one of the strongest Buddhist countries in South East Asia and everywhere you look there is a beautiful, golden temple offering a refuge of peace and quiet from an otherwise loud street scene. Across the country you will see monks in their bright orange robes walking carefully barefoot around the streets, and if you are awake before 8am chances are that you will see them on their morning alms (collecting food donations). It is even very prestigious for a family if one of their sons becomes a monk. Many young men don the robes and shave their heads for two weeks to bring merit to their families, but not all of them take it seriously which is why you can see young monks using mobile phones, smoking or occasionally flirting with pretty tourists!
Often when visiting a temple monks will approach foreigners to talk with them, ask them about where they are from and offer some explanations about Buddhism and the meaning of the temple. For many years visitors have been interested in Thai Buddhism, which follows the Theravada tradition and many of the influential books written by Thai monks have been translated into English. Thai monks are also offering their time and knowledge to those who wish to learn more about Buddhism, the traditions, meditation and the way to enlightenment. There are many places across the country where tourists and travellers can learn a little about the religion and these golden nuggets of information may be the most valuable thing you take away from your holiday.
Chiang Mai is home to many influential temples in Thailand and the first city to offer ‘Monk chats’ to tourists on a regular basis. At Wat Suan Dok temple you can sit with a monk for 30-60 minutes twice a week and ask them any questions you may have about Buddhism. For the monks it is a good way of practising their English and also learning about different cultures so don’t be surprised if the monk has as many questions as you do. These exchanges offer insight to everything from a monks daily life, to who was Buddha and how does Buddhism work in Thailand. It is an introduction to everything you want to know and will likely leave you wanting to know more.
Many of the monasteries across Thailand also offer meditation courses in English. From beginner to advanced levels the monks help guide you through the steps towards inner peace (enlightenment might be too unrealistic). The courses can be taken from 3 days to 21 days but most monasteries recommend that 10 days is the minimum amount of time you should stay, with important gains being made around day 5 and day 9 for beginners. Be warned though as you advance through the steps you are challenged more and more – on day 21 you are required to meditate all night and go without sleep!
While many foreigners now take mediation courses it is important to know that the conditions are basic and the rules many. Accommodation is usually in single, private rooms with a bed on the floor and a blanket – consider yourself lucky if they supply a pillow. They also request not to use make up or mirrors, to dress in white and to stay in silence for the duration of your stay. For Western cultures who are used to communication through words this is possibly the biggest challenge, well that and silencing your mind. One of the strictest places is Wat Suan Mokh near Surat Thani in the south of Thailand. Here your comfort levels are really pushed but after 10 days you are rewarded with greater knowledge of yourself and your inner workings.
Thailand is the perfect place to take a meditation course as in exchange for your silence and concentration you are rewarded with beautiful surrounding nature and may even appreciate your holiday more. Who knows, maybe you will even decide to enrol as a monk. Many foreigners come back year after year and eventually take the next step and don the orange robes. Thai monks are always welcoming to those who are interested in learning, as they have a wealth of information to offer those who are willing to sit in silence.