Podcast: Meditation retreat with Wat Suan Dok

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Tina and I have just returned from the meditation retreat organised by the Wat Suan Dok Monk Chat program in Chiang Mai. The retreat groups depart from Wat Suan Dok at about 2pm every Tuesday.

You can listen to the ‘Meditation Podcast’ Tina and I made on the retreat by clicking the play button above.

Meditation retreat - Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai

This meditation retreat is intended purely as an introduction to various Buddhist meditation techniques, as well as an overview of Thai Buddhism and culture – and it’s facilitated by the Chiang Mai Campus of the MCU Buddhist University.

Having just returned from our retreat, we’d both thoroughly recommend you do the course during your time in Chiang Mai. Although we have spent several years in Thailand, we still found that we learned a lot from the informative presentations and discussions we had with the monks. Plus we’re feeling pretty chilled out and mindful which is always a bonus.

Further information

Normally the meditation retreat lasts approximately 24 hours – from Tuesday lunch time until Wednesday lunch time, although during the last week of every month the course lasts from Tuesday lunch time until Thursday lunch time.

Full details of the Meditation retreat workshop program are available from the Monk Chat Meditation Retreat website.

The Meditation Retreat program is funded purely through donations, and as a guideline we suggest you leave a donation of somewhere between 200THB and 1000THB per day that you attend the program – depending of course on how wealthy/generous you are.

Map to Wat Suan Dok

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Sound file: Our cat going into labour

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Listen to the extraordinary sounds of our Thai cat Pudsey going into labour.

Cat sounds Chiang Mai

A night at the Orphanage with Cyclone Nargis

This post is an account of a night spent at Safe Haven Orphanage on the Thailand Burma border as Cyclone Nargis passed by North West of us. If you would like to make a donation to the victims of the Cyclone inside Burma – please do so at Givetoburma.org.

Last week I headed to Mae Sot for a few days to conduct a training course and catch up with some friends. On Saturday, five of us decided to hire a pick-up truck and head 150KM North up the Thailand/Burma border to Safe Haven Orphanage.

It had poured down in Mae Sot at about 2am on Saturday morning, and the rain showed no sign of abating. We arrived at Safe Haven at about 3pm on Saturday, and dashed between muddy puddles for the nearest house to avoid another soaking.

Tasanee and the children from Safe Haven Orphanage moved onto their new land shortly before Christmas. The land is located next to the river marking the border between Thailand and Burma, and when I made the trip there with my sister during our motorbike epic last December, Tasanee was frantically directing the assembly of the first wooden house so that the children could move in by Christmas.

This time, there were 4 or 5 mainly wooden Karen-style structures in various stages of completion – the beginning of a new settlement. All the buildings were raised on wooden stilts, with leaf & bamboo roofs.

Cyclone Nargis path map - Thailand & Burma

At about 4pm on Saturday afternoon the rain really started hammering down, and seemed to be flying past the valley sides with an almost horizontal trajectory. We didn’t think too much of it at this point – it was more of an inconvenience because it meant we couldn’t play with the children outside. Looking for something to do, we decided to head into the neighbouring village to buy some sweets for the children, and 15 minutes later discovered the road we had entered the village by had been blocked by a falling tree and power lines it had brought down.

Read moreA night at the Orphanage with Cyclone Nargis

Sound file: Rain storm in Chiang Mai

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It is coming to the end of the dry season, and Chiang Mai has just been subjected to several weeks of intense heat, hardly relieved at all this year by Songkran (the water festival). It has been so hot that I have started to find it quite difficult living here. A good night’s sleep has become a thing of the past, and you find yourself sweating around the clock – you wake up damp, and go to bed damp. Not very pleasant at all!

Last night the weather finally broke, and the sounds you hear in this audio file are the sounds of the first storm following this build up. I’m happy to say it’s now gray with temperatures probably back around 30 degrees again! Bring on the rains!

Songkran 2008 Chiang Mai – The water festival

Once again that time of year has arrived where Chiang Mai is as hot as an oven, and people start hysterically throwing water at each other. Accompanying the water climax is the Thai tradition of drinking as much whiskey as possible and driving around blind drunk in pick-ups laden with water tanks and ‘armed’ revelers. Welcome to Songkran festival – the Thai New Year and one of the biggest, hottest & wettest parties on the planet!

Songkran is celebrated in Thailand every year between 13 April to 15 April and is not for the faint hearted. This year marks my fourth Songkran festival in Thailand. My inaugural experience was as an 18 year old backpacker arriving with two friends in a small town in South East Thailand. As we stepped out of a taxi in the bus station, it was as if someone had ‘paused’ the locals. They all slowly turned towards us, grinned and then charged us. We were utterly mobbed and probably had about 10 gallons of water poured & thrown all over us, as well as copious quantities of white powder (plaster?) pasted all over our faces.

Lots of the long term, older ex-pats actually escape Thailand at this time of year as it can all get rather intense. Being a white skinned foreigner tends to have the same effect as pasting a target onto your forehead. You either love it or hate it!

The throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by gently pouring a small amount of water on other people’s hands or over a shoulder as a sign of respect. Among young people the holiday evolved to include dousing strangers with water to relieve the heat, since April is the hottest month in Thailand (temperatures can rise to over 100 °F or 40 °C on some days). This has further evolved into water fights and splashing water over people riding in vehicles.

Nowadays, the emphasis is on fun and water-throwing rather than on the festival’s spiritual aspects. In recent years there have been calls to moderate the festival due to the many alcohol-related road accidents as well as injuries attributed to extreme behavior such as water being thrown in the faces of traveling motorcyclists. Last year I received a bucket of water in the chest whilst doing 60KM an hour down the highway on my motorbike and it was an absolute miracle I didn’t crash. Sadly, this year there have already been more than 180 deaths over Songkran and there’s still the last day of the festival to come.

Despite the sometimes out of control behaviour, it’s all in extremely good spirit, and Songkran is a great time to visit Thailand, join in the fun and see the locals at their craziest & best!

Sound file: Chiang Mai street sounds 1

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This was recorded in our street in Chiang Mai, Thailand at about 6pm on a weekday night – in early April. Every night the cicadas start screeching at about the same time, and in the background (if you listen carefully) you can hear the sounds of the local community ‘announcer’ chatting away through the loud-speakers strategically positioned on lamp posts at the end of our road.

Podcast: Pai – heaven or hell?

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I’ve been putting off writing this post and editing the associated podcast for a while now, because I have such mixed feelings about Pai I simply didn’t know where to begin! You can hear the podcast by clicking the play button above.

Musicians in Pai, Thailand

Pai (pronounced ‘Bai’) is a small town in northern Thailand about 140KM north of Chiang Mai on the main Chiang Mai – Mae Hong Son route. Years ago Pai was a quiet market village, mainly inhabited by Shan people, but nowadays it thrives on tourism thanks to its arrival on the ‘backpacker map’ of Northern Thailand. Nowadays both Thai and foreign tourists are making their way to Pai in droves – the numbers of Thai tourists has increased dramatically since 2006 after Pai featured in two popular, Thai-made romantic movies. There are also frequent music festivals held in Pai – including the Pai Reggae Festival that also features briefly on this podcast.

The drive from Chiang Mai to Pai is undoubtedly a very beautiful one, taking you across a stunning mountain range through some very winding roads, until you descend into the picturesque Pai valley. I have driven it four times on my motorbike now and always feel incredibly exhilarated upon arriving in Pai.

The first time I went to Pai with a group of friends, in June 2007 we had a rather negative incident that has perhaps tainted my view of the place. To cut a long story short, a group of six of us were quietly and soberly walking home at about midnight after a late dinner, and a Thai man drove past on his bike – obviously drunk out of his mind, and with his hand permanently on the horn, almost ran us down. He then proceeded to get off his bike, square up to us for a fight, get back on his bike, and then repeatedly try and run us down for the remaining ten minute walk back to our guest house. It was a frightening experience.

To put it into perspective, this kind of aggressive behaviour is almost unheard of in Thailand, and in my two and a half years here, the only other place I can say I have encountered any kind of aggressive vibe has been Koh Phangan. What’s the obvious parallel between these two places? The short answer is that nowadays they are both on the backpacker drink & drugs party circuit, and this has for some reason contributed towards the tension between the locals and foreigners, perhaps through the sheer numbers of inebriated foreigners invading the town.

What’s more, there are some serious questions being asked over the conduct of the Thai police in the Pai area. In January 2008 an off-duty and reportedly very drunk police officer fatally shot Canadian tourist John Leo Del Pinto, and shot and injured a second woman Canadian tourist. Both the foreigners were also reportedly drunk. This particular officer was alleged to have taken his gun out on a number of occasions (whilst off-duty and drinking), and start firing it randomly in the air.

The changing vibe in Pai was summed up very well in an anonymous letter to the Chiang Mai CityLife magazine – some of which is quoted below:

One Saturday in particular remains in my memory, where several police officers decided to inspect a party at a bar in town. I believe that they were looking for drugs. I along with many other tourists was especially shocked to see that one officer was carrying a machine gun…This kind of behaviour is likely to scare tourists and leave very negative impressions on them with regards to Pai town as a holiday destination…The police are also actively confiscating other vehicles, testing individuals at random for drugs and alcohol abuse, detaining owners of restaurants and bars for remaining open past the agreed time, and generally making a lot of noise in a relatively quiet town that did not appear to have many problems beforehand….The increased police presence is clearly visible and does not, in my opinion, make Pai town look like a place one would like to visit. There is also a general feeling of unrest here and I feel that it is quite obvious to the tourist travelling through. The police are unapproachable and menacing. This has a strong negative impact on the atmosphere here in Pai town. The previously friendly and welcoming town appears to have changed into a place where everyone is afraid to even walk down the street in case they are accused of doing something wrong.

I would still recommend visiting Pai, for the drive there, and the beautiful surrounding countryside and villages, but if you’re going there to party, be careful – it seems to have an increasingly lawless underbelly that perhaps most tourists remain oblivious to. I encourage you to read the section on the Wikipedia Pai entry – Controversy over Police Conduct.

For a very comprehensive guide to Pai with some great photos, check out Chris Pirazzi’s ‘All About Pai‘.