Something that I really wanted to do while Jess and I were backpacking in Southeast Asia was a temple stay. I had become interested in Buddhism ever since moving to Korea a year earlier and I felt that spending some time learning about it directly from Buddhist monks was probably the way to go.
Jess did a bunch of research and established that Northern Thailand was going to be the best place for us to go on a meditation retreat, and we eventually settled on Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery. We could not have made a better choice.
**While you're in the area be sure to check out the Elephant Nature Sanctuary just outside of Chaing Mai. They are doing some amazing working helping the elephant population of Thailand.
Why We Picked Wat Tam Wau
We picked Wat Tam Wua for several reasons. First off it is not a set course, it is an ongoing learning center. This means that there are no set start and end dates, and so your planning is infinitely easier. While it is probably best that you stay at least a week to best understand the concepts of Vipassana Mediation that the monks are teaching, in reality, you can come and go whenever you want. If you try it for a few days and decide that mediation is not for you, that’s okay
The monks teach classes daily and what’s even better they teach in English. Broken English, but English nonetheless. This was a huge point for Jess and me, as our English is better than our Thai.
At the time that we visited there were three monks and two nuns at the wat with somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 or so laypeople such as ourselves. Everyone (including the monks) was very friendly and to my surprise, the monks were actually really funny. They were always the first to crack a joke, or reassure anyone that you don’t need to be a “pro level Buddhist” or even a Buddhist at all, to be at Wat Tam Wua. It’s a learning center and an absolutely no experience necessary situation.
You Do Not Need to Call Ahead
When you come to visit, you can just show up. Everything you need will be provided for free for you. There are some private one person “Kutis” which is similar to a little bungalow, available but I would not count on that, there is no way to reserve/ask for one specifically. The Kutis are typically full up with people who are staying at the wat long term. Jess and I ended up staying in dorms. They are very nice buildings, however, they are strictly separated between men and women (yes even if you are married). The dorm buildings do have showers but be warned it’s cold water only. You will also be sleeping on the floor with a mat and a small pillow that you will be given when you arrive. Men and women are not allowed to go into each other’s dorms, or even approach the porch for that matter.
All laypeople (none monks and nuns) at the monastery wear loose non-form fitting white clothes with long sleeves and long pants. Jess and I bought some beforehand but found out upon arrival that there are some available for you to borrow if you do not have any.
It’s worth noting at this point that none of this is intended to be oppressive in any way. Because this is not just a learning center, but an actual function Buddhist Wat you are expected to follow the 8 precepts for the duration of your stay.
The 8 Precepts
1) Do not kill any living creature
-All food provided is vegetarian
2) Do not take that which is not given
3) Do not undertake sexual activity
4) Refrain from incorrect speech
-Don’t lie, idol gossip, yell and so on
5) Do not take intoxicating drinks or drugs
-Sorry no beers or smoking of any kind at the wat
6) Do not eat after noon (12:00pm)
-Water and tea in the afternoon is okay
7) Do not dance, sing, wear flashy clothes or cosmetics
-This is where the white clothes come in
8) Do not sleep in luxurious places
-This is why you have a mat on the floor
I could go into greater detail about why Buddhists believe in following the 8 precepts while staying at a temple, but that’s a whole other article altogether. For now, just be prepared to be respectful and follow these for however long you chose to stay.
The daily routine of the wat is not too bad, and honestly really soothing once you get into the rhythm of it.
The Daily Routine
5:00am – Wake up and private meditation
-Nobody is really going to know if you don’t wake up this early
7:00am – Breakfast. Offering food to the monks followed by everyone else eating together
8:30am – Morning mediation including walking, sitting and laying down mediation for a total of just under two hours
10:30am – Lunch. Again, offering food to the monks followed by everyone else eating. All food is vegetarian, locally grown and VERY good!
1:00pm – Afternoon lesson followed by a second round of walking, sitting and laying down mediation
4:00pm – Chores. Very simple little things around the wat. Technically optional, but please lend a helping hand if you are physically able
5:00pm – Relaxation and afternoon tea. Clean drinking water and tea are always available
6:00pm – Chanting followed by sitting meditation
8:30pm – Lights out, everyone goes to their Kuti or dorm.
10:00pm – Sleep
Because everything at Wat Tam Wua is provided for you for free the one thing that they ask in return is that you take your visit seriously. Participation in the daily schedule is not optional. But as I said it is not overbearing in any way. I found the schedule very relaxing once I get used to it. You will also know when it is time to do something by the ringing of the giant bonsha (a really big bell or gong)
The Wat Runs Entirely Based on Donations.
When you first arrive you will be shown the box where you can donate. The box is not right in front of everyone, and there is absolutely no pressure associated with it. Jess and I gave the money that we would have budgeted to spend on food and accommodations for the same amount of time had we been anywhere else. But the amount you chose to give is entirely up to you.
If the forest monastery sounds like a place you would like to go then the only thing left for me to tell you is how to get there. If you are coming from Pai or Chang Mai then you will want to book a ticket to Mae Hong Son or a ticket to Pai if you are coming from Mae Hong Son. The actual address is:
How to Get There
Wat Pah Tam Wua,
Baan Mae Suya,
Huay pha, Mae Hong Son
When you get on your bus or minivan be sure to tell the driver you are going to Wat Tam Wua and they will know where to let you off. The monastery is about 35 km outside of Mae Hong Son, so you don’t want to go all the way to the city.
The driver will drop you off alongside the road in front of the Wat Tam Wua sign and get you pointed in the right direction, but you will still have about a 1 ½ km walk to actually get to the monastery, so pack light if you can.
The day before you would like to leave talk to the coordinator and she will give you a list of transportation times so that you can walk back out to the main road and catch a ride to either Mae Hong Son or Pai.
I would absolutely recommend Wat Tam Wua to anyone looking to do a meditation retreat. If for no other reason than the simple fact that it is an ongoing learning center so it is far easier to fit into your travel schedule. 10 days 100 hour Vipassana meditation courses are great, and honestly, you will probably learn a lot more, but they also force you into start and end dates. Often times they also strictly observe the no talking rule, while at Wat Tam Wua it is optional.
Either way, give mediation a try. You do not need to be a Buddhist person to experience all of the wonderful things that meditation has to offer.
Do you have a question that we didn't answer? Leave a comment below and let us know!