My 15 Spiritual Days at Wat Kow Tahm, Phangan Island

Today marks the 40th day of my travel. I’m now typing this entry in Surat Thani, a day after coming back from Koh Phangan, where I had spent 18 wonderful days making some awesome friends, hitting the beaches with clear blue sea water, and gaining some invaluable exposure to the silent vipassana meditation taught at a beautiful Theravada monastery sitting on top of a cave mountain.

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Known as Wat Kow Tahm, I was introduced this rather reputable monastery by Ann, who co-runs with her husband the amazing Bigbossa Hostel I was staying at for several days upon my arrival at Koh Phangan. The hostel is located near the pier and offers very afforable accommodations and motorcycle rental service, so it’s a great convenience for budget travellers like myself.

I was quite surprised to find out that Ann, despite being my introducer to Wat Kow Tahm, had never set her foot in the monastery. The irony is that she had been living in Koh Phangan for a number of years!

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So for a total of 15 days, I had committed myself to some activities and chores at Wat Kow Tahm. I began by doing some volunteer work there, such as sweeping up leaves in the wat’s compound and driving the wat’s director Khun Tookata around to do errands. Eventually I would move in to participate in a silent vipassana meditation retreat with 70 other farangs (westerners) at the wat’s Insight Meditation Centre.

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You can read more from Wat Kow Tahm’s official website about how the centre was established and how its very experienced resident teachers have been farangs since 1988, so I won’t be delving into that.

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The silent vipassana meditation retreat is held every month from the 10th to 20th. Though the retreat is only for 7 days, retreatants are encouraged to stay at the wat for 10 days in order to familiarise themselves with the monastery and facilities, collect and prepare their beddings, as well as to get to know one another.

Dorm accommodation and food are provided free of charge, but donation is welcome at the end of the retreat.

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I posted my experience after the end of the retreat on Facebook, and I’ll include it here:

The past 7 days of this meditation retreat at Wat Kao Tahm have been some mentally-challenging ones I’ve lived through. After 42 sessions of sitting meditation and 28 sessions of walking meditation – each one lasting for 45 mins; waking up at 4am everyday upon ringing of the morning bell and sleeping at 9pm; abstinence from food after noon and before dawn, and from music and other forms of entertainment; as well as an observation of silence for a week, I’m back to my daily routine, now sitting at a restaurant by the beach and having just enjoyed a bowl of Tom Yum Guung I’ve thought about every night. Lots of feelings had arisen in the past few days. There was frustration; there was anger; there were lots and lots of name-calling at the back of my mind. There was this hairy farang with really bad body odour. And the girl with a weird hairstyle just kept appearing before me every time. It was impossible not to sweat right after taking a shower because we had to climb uphill to get to our dorm. And the snake that roamed outside the meditation hall – we just had no idea when or if it was ever goIng creep inside! On day 5, my roomate Andrea found a scorpion inside my room. Every day there was no music. There was no Internet. It was just not something we had expected. But it was also a lesson for us to learn. Our ajahn Anothony Markwell said meditation is not about expecting or getting something in the first place. It is about letting go. The negative feelings that had come about – he asked us to observe them, but not identify with them. “Know them, note them, and let them go,” he would say. These feelings come and cease. They are impermanent.

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During the retreat week when we undertook the training rule to remain silent and refrain from speech with anyone, I actually took some time in between activities to pen down my thoughts and feelings (though this wasn’t encouraged) in the form of an incomplete diary.

Here they are:

14 May 2015

I was both surprised and happy to see Ann at the back of the meditation hall this afternoon. I turned my head over my shoulder and there she was, sitting there like everyone else while enthusiastically waving her hand at me. Totally unexpected. She was here to perform some volunteer work in order to fulfil part of the requirement of her university. For the past three days I’ve felt extremely lonely and mentally tired, not because I don’t have any friend here, but because we’re required to observe a week of silence as one of the training rules of the meditation retreat. I miss the Internet. I miss my smart phone. I miss Whatsapping my father. I miss talking to and hanging out with current best friend and new-found Thai brother Max (who is also Ann’s brother), to whom I’ve grown really close over the first week since my arrival at the Phangan island and before I moved in to Wat Kow Tahm for this retreat. Seeing someone whom I can relate to during the loneliest time does make me the happiest person in the meditation hall.

15 May 2015

Unfortunately today would be the last day for Ann to help out at the wat. She could not come to terms with Khun Tookata, the director of Wat Kow Tahm International Meditation Centre. Yet at the same time I was not able to be to help much. Both are really good people I’ve known in Phangan. Khun Tookata has been treating me really well and she’s like my own mother at the wat. Ann, on the other hand, is the one who introduced to me this beautiful wat. Without her it would not have been possible for me to come and volunteer before the commencement of the meditation retreat. Upon leaving Ann handed to me a plastic bag containing a bottle of mosquito repellent lotion and a note that read,

“Don’t give up easily on this game called ‘life’.”

That would probably be the last time I saw Ann.

17 May 2015

Today is a busy day for the management of Wat Kow Tahm. Ajahn Poh, who is the spiritual father of Wat Kow Tahm, came to visit with groups of monks and lay people. I saw the 93-year-old Mae Chee (Nun) Ahmon Pun who came out from her kuti for the first time during the period I’ve been here. She looked healthy and sharp at her age. On one occasion I had the chance to enter her kuti (hut) and spoke to her. But being already in her 90’s she has developed some hearing problem according to Khun Tookata. Her eyesight, however, was still wonderful. Two days ago she responded very quickly when I gave her a wai (a Thai greeting) from outside her kuti.