Koh Samui (part 2)- meditation retreat in a tropical forest

We knew right from the beginning that we’re going to do a meditation course in Thailand. It’s a perfect destination since some monasteries offer free meditation courses designed specifically for foreigners.

Meditation courses in southern Thailand

There are just two places in southern Thailand which offer meditation courses for free (or, to be more precise, for a voluntary donation). Both are run by the same Theravada Buddhism monastery.

The first one is the Suan Mokh monastery itself, located near Chaiya on the east coast. They offer 10-day courses starting on the 1st of each month. You cannot register online for this course- you have to arrive the day before and sign up in person (see their website).The second one is its branch on Koh Samui where shorter, 7-day long courses (basic and advance) start on the 3rd and 20th of each month (see more). That was the one we chose as it was more compatible with our travel plans.

Just as a note: there are many more free courses offered in other parts of Thailand. Most of them are held by Vipassana centres of S.N. Goenka. His centres teach very tough, 10-day intense courses which I certainly wouldn’t recommend if you’re a complete meditation newbie looking for a new experience.  You can see the list of their Thai locations here .
There are more Vipassana meditation courses ran by monks in northern Thailand. And of course you can find commercial meditation retreats throughout the country.

Why did I sign up for a meditation course?

One of the things I was really looking forward to do during my travel in South East Asia was a meditation retreat. It wasn’t going to be my first long meditation course. I was attending Vipassana courses as taught by S.N. Goenka regularly since 2011. Goenka teachings are non-sectarian but based on Buddhist meditation techniques. As Thailand is predominantly a Theravada Buddhist country, I was very curious of the courses ran by Buddhist monks.

A stupa-shaped building containing meditation cells at the Vipassana centre in Kolkata (India)
A stupa-shaped building containing meditation cells at the Vipassana centre in Kolkata (India) where I completed my first meditation course

I chose an Anapanasati (breath awareness) meditation course on Ko Samui for three reasons: it was donation based, it was just 7 days long and- as it was on an island- I could combine it with some beach time. This retreat was quite special because for the first time I managed to convince Sayak to accompany me.

7-day meditation course on Koh Samui

The Centre

The Dipabhavan Meditation Centre was located up in the mountains, just above Lamai beach, far away from the hustle and bustle of the busy seaside resort.  The centre was a huge area covered with lush tropical forest. There was a dining hall, a female dorm, a meditation hall with a spartan male dorm in its basement and a yoga platform within the premises. The view from the meditation hall at the verdant green hills and blue sea far below was spectacular.

sea can be seen through the jungle from our meditation hall situated at top of the hill in Koh Samui
The view from the meditation hall

All the girls were sleeping in a dorm which could accommodate around 100 people. Each bed (or rather a wooden bed frame) had a mosquito net (mine with holes), a thin straw mat, a blanket and a wooden headrest (calling it a pillow would be an overstatement). The sleeping arrangements were so basic because sleeping on luxurious beds would mean breaking eight Buddhist precepts we had to follow during the course. I must say that sleeping directly on the plywood was the hardest part of the course. I kept on waking up with my arms numb. Apparently snoring and a visiting snake were two biggest challenges the guys had to cope with in their dorm.

The female dorm bed with straw mat instead of a mattress and a wooden headrest instead of pillow
The female dorm with straw mat instead of a mattress and a wooden headrest

As I mentioned before we really stayed in a jungle and there were plenty of creatures which could scare faint hearted, including lizards, snakes, big spiders, centipedes and bats. Personally, I found those animals fascinating rather than scary. I freaked out only once: when a gecko started climbing my leg during my individual yoga practice. By far the most troublesome creatures were the mosquitoes. As the first precept we took is ‘do not kill’ (ANY living being), I had to endure their bites with equanimity.

The people

The course was designed specifically for foreign tourists, however two Thai nationals attended as well. The participants’ age ranged between 17 and 77 but the vast majority was in their early 20s (which is unsurprising, considering this is average backpacker’s age). There were 45 people in our group out of which the vast majority were women. To my utter amazement, most of the people had never even meditated before. Luckily for them, the course was perfectly suitable for beginners.

Weronika and Sayak with their meditation teacher dressed in white at the retreat centre
With our meditation teacher

A nun Benjawan Wongshookaew- or simply Ben -was our amazing teacher. She taught us in a clear, simple and non-sectarian way. There wasn’t even a slightest hint about embracing Buddhism at any point. Over the period of seven days, we learned the basic meditation technique: anapana, or breath awareness.

The itinerary

As usual with such meditation courses, a set of rules had to be strictly observed. Those rules included noble silence (no communication over the entire duration of the course), separation of males and females, staying within the centre’s grounds, commitment to simple life and following basic ethic principles. You have to be ready to follow this rules if you decide to enroll.

I just loved the program which was like holidays compared to Vipassana courses I took in the past. Yes, we still had to wake up at 4.30 am but all the meditation sessions were only 30 minutes long and there were just 6 seated session in a day. The rest of the program was divided between walking meditation, chanting and dharma talks. We were served two main meals a day (at 7.30 am and 11.30 am) and tea with snacks at 5.30 pm. The schedule allowed plenty of free time after each meal although a bit of karma yoga (selfless service in the form of cleaning common areas) was obligatory.

I quite enjoyed formal walking meditation which I had never done before. It was a welcome, mindful break between the seated meditation sessions. Ben was giving us a lot of freedom regarding where, how long and how (sitting, walking or standing) would we like to meditate and I highly appreciated her flexibility.

Weronika is doing a walking meditation in outside green area where every steps marked with a round stone
Walking meditation area

The Yoga

Before the start of the course, I anticipated that one of the highlights would be one hour long morning yoga. Alas, participating in the classes wasn’t my fate. Ben asked us on the first day if one of many yoga teachers present at the course would like to volunteer to teach. As I couldn’t see any hand raised, I took the challenge.

My task was to teach silent yoga to a group consisting in 80% of young, flexible and seasoned yoga practitioners and in 20% of mostly middle aged men who had never done yoga before. I was glad for my previous experience with teaching silent yin yoga: it gave me confidence that teaching yoga with no verbal instructions (just a bit of sign language) was possible.

The vibe

The atmosphere during the whole retreat was quite light and friendly.  Despite the fact we had to take vows of silence, people didn’t stop smiling and looking at each others faces. The teacher smiled and joked a lot, too, often entertaining us with her life stories. The separation of men and women wasn’t complete either. Although we had separate dorms and sat at different places during the meals and meditation, we could still mingle in the common areas, during the tea time and in the meditation hall between the sessions. I actually found this a bit distracting since I kept on bumping into Sayak.

We spent the last evening sharing the experience and disclosing what had brought us to this place. It was actually very interesting and touching to hear and proved that meditation really was for everyone. It turned out we had among our course mates a drug dealer who wanted to break with his criminal past and start his life anew, a middle aged men who spent whole his life in aggressive and competitive finance sector and was craving for a spiritual experience, a girl who was hoping to gain some strength caring for her ailing father and another young girl who was only recovering from depression.

Hanging out with few other course mates with a drink in a restaurant at Lamai beach
Hanging out with some course mates at Lamai beach

Overall, I would whole-heartedly recommend this particular meditation course and actually taking a meditation course in general. It might turn out to be quite challenging – in fact 5 people dropped out during our course- but definitely worth the effort.

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