Nestled in a jungle(ish) suburb about an hour north of Bangkok off the road to Ayutthya lies a tranquil meditation retreat run by Dharmakaya monks from the nearby famous (and UFO looking) Dharmakaya temple.
… yes it also looks like a nipple
Pop House, describe what they do as ‘feel good meditation’, and their abode as a place where you can make yourself at home, receive kindness, and learn ‘The Middle Way’ a style of buddhist meditation that is about taking yourself to your centre, or core if you will. All with the intention of finding inner peace, and that ultimate destination ‘happiness’. Their website is worth a look, and there are some nice photos on there. We actually stayed at a neighbouring site, and were the first group to experience the new house.
After a week spent island hopping in the south, I was ready for a week of relaxation and meditation. I flew from Chumphon to Bangkok with Happy Air on a small but perfectly formed plane for 1 hour that cost me around 2800 baht (around £52). It was either that or get a much cheaper but 8 hour overnight bus. One of things i’ve learned on this trip is that i’m the sort of traveller that likes to mix up my travel styles, and when I am not in the mood for cheap road travel then its perfectly acceptable to splash out on a plane. Sometimes those random plane journeys on aptly titled airlines can produce a happy face!
Then Bangkok Suvanabumi to Pop House was an additional (but cheap) cab ride, which took a good hour and several phone calls to Pop House to find the place. The cab driver used up all his credit so I tipped him a bit extra to cover it.
Finding peace in a frantic world
Pop House provides 4 day retreats that calm the mind, relax the body and teach you the basic principles of buddhism and meditation.
You live by the 5 precepts, which are:
1. To refrain from killing any living creature
The thought of the destruction of any life, even as small as a mosquito, can give rise to negative attitude which will adversely affect your meditation experiences.
2. To refrain from taking things without permission
This encourages us to be satisfied with what we have. We will be content and would like to share belongings or helping in communal activities; i.e. washing dishes and preparing meals, etc. Sharing your kindness will create a very harmonious atmosphere. Generosity softens our mind, and peaceful thoughts are very conducive to meditation.
3. To refrain from all mental, verbal, or physical/sexual misconduct
When we meditate, your mind is supposed to be with you. If you are stimulated in a sexual manner, your mind will be affected from such distraction. A wandering mind or a mind preoccupied with attachments is impossible to settle down to a station of stillness.
4. To refrain from false speech
False speech includes the telling of lies, harsh speech, divisive speech, and idle chatter. Endearing speech, truthfulness and honesty bring the community happiness. Words that encourage or inspire others to find inner peace are the most wonderful words in the world. By being mindful and refraining from false speech, your meditation practice will progress.
5. To refrain from the use of intoxicants
There is no doubt that intoxicants weaken both physical and mental health, including spurring lapses in consciousness. These substances could be a major hindrance to your progress in meditation. To learn meditation together in a group, it is necessary to cultivate and preserve peace, a real sense of well-being and joy.
I immediately failed on day one when I killed two mosquitos.
But it was really nice being in an environment without gossip, celebrity talk, or negative vibes in any way.
I had to ignore the fact that one of the visiting monks from India was incredibly attractive, topped off with a daily flash of shoulder flesh. And to know he’s so incredibly unavailable made that a ridiculously challenging temptation at times. Distracting was an understatement.
And then I couldn’t even share my thoughts with any of the other residents.
Not drinking alcohol was easy though. Until my visit to Sri Lanka I had barely been drinking anyway.
No food after midday.
This rule helped prepare me for my week-long detox in Koh Chang.
We’d get up at 7am every day, then have breakfast at 7:30 which was a bountiful feast of curries, soups, fried rice, cereal, eggs, toast and fruit and yoghurt. With tea, lots of tea.
Then we’d meditate around 9am, always led by a teaching session by one of the teaching monks.
After that would be yoga, and some personal time before lunch at around 11:30/12. This would be our last meal of the day, and would include a buffet style array of deliciously prepared rice, noodles, soups, salads and curries.
We learned quite quicklyk that eating rice throughout the day was a meditation no-go… it only served to send us all to sleep! The swaying and nodding whilst meditating was very often in full effect after a big rice meal. I found it quite amusing to open my eyes (when I was struggling to get in the zone) and look behind me during a session.
It’s easy to sometimes write a meditation session off a bit, when you’re doing it 4 or 5 times a day. Meditation isn’t always that easy, thoughts swilling round your head dominating air space. Trying to stop them, block them, ignore them or not indulge them when you’re sat still for 90 minutes is a mastered art. But it’s really worth the effort. I would find that in every four meditations I probably fell asleep during two, struggled to stop thinking on one, and totally lost myself in another – achieving that state of ‘middle-ness’ where you lose connection to your central nervous system and have a sort of out of body experience.
Ultimately, meditation for me is a way to calm a frantic mind.
So those precious moments of stillness bring sanity and perspective.
See that white chair? Yup, that was mine.
A few times I also tripped into this conscious dream slipstream and saw things like the Iffel Tower blowing up, someone paddle boarding, the buddah flying towards me, and a picture of my own face morphing into the Mona Lisa. It was a weird sensation being awake but having all these random visuals appearing behind my eyelids. I have to admit I did wander what it all meant, if anything. I secretly checked the news the next day in case there’d been any explosions in Paris.
My group was a small one that included a Dutch 19 year old who looked uncannily like Nicholas Cage (so much so that everyone started calling him Nicholas after a few days). Plus there were two 24 year old South African girls, who didn’t know each other but discovered they mixed in the same circles back home and had mutual friends. We also had two volunteers – a wacky hippy character from Texas called Mark, plus a British girl called Louise – both lovely, and without them the experience wouldn’t have been the same.
We were looked after by a lovely Thai lady (who’s name unfortunately escapes me now, which I feel bad about). She was awesome – extremely kind, funny, caring and worked so hard to please everyone. Including letting us eat yoghurts and sweets in the evening to keep us going. Just don’t tell the monks, she said with a gleam in her eye.
By the end of the 4th day we were privileged to be invited to stay a bit longer – at no additional cost to us – meaning we could go and watch the celebrated ‘monk walk’ which involved 2,000 monks from the temple walking bear foot across Thailand, with nothing but a portable toilet, plate and bowl, and a mosquito net – carried on their back. The ‘lay people’ (that’s normal folk to you and me) were making their walk more comfortable by laying yellow petals on the floor in front of them, showing kindness and respect.
The night before our visit to see them walking, we went to the temple’s campus, which is massive. Just one building was about the size of 20 football pitches – and inside there we helped cut the flowers, whilst being brought cups of hot cocoa. It was a highly organised affair, we were provided with gloves, two crates (one with flower heads, one empty one to hold the newly plucked petals), and a bin for the plant remnants. It seemed like the whole community had come out to help prepare for the monk walk. There must have been a couple of hundred people there, including loads of younger monks.
Once my crate was full, the de-flowered petals then got whisked off to another ‘department’ who put the petals into clear bags ready for the next day, where they would be distributed by hundreds of lay people (including us!) as the monks walked:
After an awesome day seeing something truly unique and taking lots of photos, I was offered a lift to Ayutthya by one of the monks and I went to meet my Croatian friend that l I’d travelled with across the islands. When I arrived at my guest house I was treated like royalty. The owner was really impressed i’d brought a monk into her home. Her face beamed with excitement. Drinks on the house, all round.
I felt very calm, very at peace and ready to take on whatever challenge life might throw at me when I return.