Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Dalai and I

Dalai and I

The moment we crossed the border from Cambodia to Thailand we realised 2 things: the first, from now on and for the rest of this leg we’ll be driving on the left side. Finally, Boudicca is on the correct side of the road.

Yes dear Americans, Z Jermans, froggies and any other anti-natural national drivers: you can argue as much as you’d like that driving on the right is the correct way. But you’re wrong. Save your words as it will never change the fact that keeping your right hand on the steering wheel while the left hand is busy with the other necessary activities while driving is just a lot safer. And we Overlanders want you to be safe.

Face it, unless you’re lefty (which, without discriminating, puts you in a very small group), you have more control on your vehicle when your right hand is holding the steering wheel while your left hand is busy changing a gear, a song, picking your nose, fishing the tea bag out or just showing your middle finger to that idiot in the Toyota Land Cruiser who just merged from the right without looking.

The reason some of you still drive on the right is only a colonial slip-up. Keep your strong hand on the wheel – drive on the left.

Anyway, the first thing we realised when we crossed the border is that we are going to drive on the left side again (and therefore that Thai people have more control on their vehicle but really, let’s drop it now).

The second thing is that we’re now back to ‘modernisation’: highways, facilities, 24/7 services and road signs. A welcome change, we must admit, after long weeks of dirt roads, dust and potholes.

We’re heading to Ko Chang, a resort island south of Bangkok. It’s a small detour that we’re happy to take to spend our last few days with Lady D, our wonderful companion  since... well,  forever.

There’s not much to say about Ko Chang, only that this is where Jen got ill with Dengue fever and that one needs a lot of imagination to see that the island was once a beautiful piece of earth. Now it’s an over-touristy place where one can shop for dead crocodiles’ skin, take pictures with exotic but chained sad-looking animals and party with lady boys. Not our cup of tea, so we’re moving on.

Thailand is not exactly a ‘travelling’ destination. Everything is just too easy here. It is, however, a great country for holidays, chilling out, culture and history activities and for what westerners call ‘Thai Food’. Our next destination, we agree, should combine it all.

chilling out

At this point we decided to continue with our motto: to have a number of dynamic options instead of a firm plan. We love this motto; it keeps us open to any changes, moods and improvisations on the road – I like to simply call it ‘freedom’.

One of our options was to drive north, towards Ayutthaya. So we did.

The Thai roads would have been excellent if they weren’t underwater. But they are. Another set of floods hit Thailand a few weeks ago and large sections of the country are still a huge bog.

These recently-more-than-occasional floods are not a great surprise for a country that used to be completely covered by a thick rainforest. Nowadays less and less sections of the country are still forested and with no trees to take the monsoon rain... you get the picture: the locals do.
The signs of flooded plains are quite surreal: murky water all around, islands of debris and rivers running through houses and abandoned shops. People with their few belongings are crowded in improvised shelters on the side of the highway or on roofs, sitting anywhere that is still above the water level – for weeks. 

We’re counting another Environment Disaster, # 4391 on this journey alone.     

Floods in Thailand

Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, is still a marshland. The local government thought it’s better to keep this World Heritage Site swamped as part of their strategy to save the industrial district of Bangkok. Money talks – the rest sinks. So we take a tour in a World Heritage Site underwater and actually, were quite enjoying it.

We’re the first tourists in town since the flooding and locals are happy to have us. We get special treatment everywhere, Lady D is spending her last Bahts on massages and Jen is recovering well from the fever. With high moral and wet feet we kiss D for goodbye for now and continue north, to Chiang Mai.

It’s great to be in Chiang Mai again. It’s a city of contradictions: street stalls next to healthy food restaurant, ugly local girls hung around with fat old Europeans, Yoga studios located above polluted noisy streets and golden temples are a safe home for a pack of bad looking dogs. It’s a city where the old market, selling traditional hill tribes artefacts, attracts more human traffic than the air conned, shiny shopping malls with its fashionable items from London and Rome. I like Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai

But I feel like it’s time to do something different – something with a distinctive character, low paced but high well being. Low key but high note. Maybe feed my spiritualism a little.
I’m turning to my old dear buddy – Google. Quick search. Finding a Buddhist temple in the forest up on the mountain – just outside the city. Reading. Monks came down from the remote mountains of Burma are now teaching how to meditate. 

Interesting –reading on.

The programme: 7 days, all inclusive – meditation lessons, introduction to Buddhism, accommodation, breakfast, lunch. ...And dinner? No. Buddhist monks don’t eat after midday. No dinner, no teatime, no afternoon snack, no supper and definitely no midnight munch. Mmm... a problem. I have superfast metabolism, so I must feed the monster every 4 hours. ...At least. Will I survive?

I’m thinking about this again:  a chance for starvation - but - a temple on the mountain with Monks meditating all day; definitely low paced, surely some potential to increase my well being and no question about feeding my spiritualism there. So I’m booking the meditation. Que Serra.     

Pack a rucksack, down 7 breakfasts, put on pure white clothes and head up to the mountain and the temple. Driving to a meditation retreat in a Land Rover Discovery – irony. 

I’m in the temple. Tropical greenery. Birds’ song in the air. Incense aroma. I like. And here’s a young woman, down the footpath, sitting, relaxed, eyes close, focused. So this is meditation. Right. I could do this.

Welcome ceremony. I’m meeting my teacher monk. He looks like a slightly younger Dalai Lama. Smiling, he’s telling me about the principle of meditation, the technique and the timetable for the next week.

Outline of the principle: generally, to reach nirvana. More practically, to reach inner peace, mindfulness and silence the mind. Important things indeed.

The technique: Stop the ‘thinking-thinking’ action and focus on breathing only; raising-falling. 15 minutes walking meditation, 15 minutes sitting meditation, 15 minutes break and repeat. Cool, so when’s food time here..?

Timetable: wakeup at 5am and the rest I didn’t hear. 5am?! Ok... I really need to kill Que Serra one day. There are also Dhamma lessons, chanting, monks chat, lots of meditation and absolutely confirmed and double-checked: no dinner. 5am...

First lesson: sitting in the lotus posture. Stopping the ‘thinking-thinking’ action. Focusing on breath. Raising-falling....

I’m failing immediately. Millions of thoughts are running through my head. Starting again. Sitting. Stopping ‘thinking-thinking’
... thinking about the Land Rover, pizza and that lady on the footpath. Not good. Trying again. And again. I am now discovering how difficult it is to stop thinking. Impossible. Where’s that Dalai Lama chap, I need to figure out how it’s done.

I can’t turn my brain off – I tell him. He’s laughing. You cannot turn the brain off on your first day of meditation. Meditation takes a long time and plenty of determination. You should start by first ‘acknowledging’ the thought when it comes in and then ‘put it away’.
Ok, thanks Dalai.

Back to my pillow. Sitting. Practicing. Again and again. I skip the other activities. Concentrating. Raising-falling.

Evening. I’m entering my room, sitting on the bed. Raising-falling. Thought. Acknowledge, Put aside. Raising-falling.


Night. Exhausted. Hungry. Closing my eyes and without thinking on a thing – I’m falling asleep.
Early morning. Sleepy. Starving. Breakfast. A plate of rice. Not enough for me. I’m sneaking into the kitchen, spotting the pot and loading 3 more plates of rice. Much better. Back on the pillow again, raising-falling. Thought. Acknowledge, put aside. Raising-falling.
Raising-falling... Raising-falling...

Dalai in Dhama (5am...)


The days are passing by. Fewer thoughts slip in. Dalai is teaching me a few more stages. I get to like it. Mindfulness. Balance. Build the centre. Avoid building the inner fire – don’t get upset if something pissy happens. Instead, acknowledge, put aside and carry on – mindful. Good stuff. I keep on practicing again and again.  


All of a sudden it’s the last day of the retreat. I jump out of bed. I’m awake and relaxed. I’m eating my single plate of rice slowly and peacefully. Finally – quiet. I’m saying goodbye to my teacher monk. Don’t forget the balance, the centre and stay mindful – he’s advising as I leave the temple. I won’t forget.

I’m driving down the mountain and back to the valley. In Chiang Mai again. Hordes of tourists, crowded streets, busy traffic, street stalls... I acknowledge, put aside and stay mindful. Raising-falling. Haaa...And it’s all quiet again.

Thank you, Dalai.

Jen & Noam
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