Tag Archives: monks

Meditating With Monks

After giving our bodies a good workout with the morning bike ride on Saturday, Megan and I gave our minds a good workout with an afternoon meditation at Wat Sokpaluang.

Although I can barely maneuver the motorbike with just me on it, I nervously drove the two of us the short distance to the temple. We walked around the shady grounds and sat on a bench for a while to listen to the monks chanting.

At 4 p.m., we climbed the steps to the covered deck of a small chapel, where three monks greeted us, and rows of cushions were laid out for visitors to sit facing the little Buddha shrine. About 20 people showed up for the meditation. The leader (a man from India, maybe?) noted that the temple started offering free weekly meditation sessions about 12 years ago for the local expats, but after a mention in the Lonely Planet guidebook, it now serves mostly tourists.

He explained that we would be practicing Vipassana (insight) Meditation. He gave us a silent mantra for the sitting meditation: “Bhu” on the inhale, “dho” on the exhale. We sat for about 20 minutes until he rang a bell, signaling the start of a walking meditation. At that point, we all got up and walked slowly around the chapel building for about 20 minutes, following his instructions for focusing our minds. At the signal, we returned to our cushions for another 20 minutes of seated meditation.

I was surprisingly successful at first. I stuck with the mantra and kept my focus on my breath. Every time a thought popped in to my head, I put it in a little boat and sailed it away. During the walking meditation, I also managed to stay in the moment and only needed a couple little boats to ferry away my invasive thoughts. Then it all fell apart during the final seated meditation. My back hurt from sitting up straight, and my mind wandered incessantly: Where would we go for dinner? I don’t want Megan to leave tomorrow! Don’t judge the two girls wearing next to nothing at the temple meditation. Boy, that coffee gave me the jitters. Ooooh, I can hear some monks chanting in a different temple building. Cool, now they’re banging some gongs. Ha! Every time, they bang the gongs, the neighborhood dogs bark their heads off. Shut up, brain!

So I spent 20 minutes in physical agony while a whole armada played bumper boats in my mind.

Still, I enjoyed the experience and told the leader I hoped to be back.

Here, Megan is relieved to have survived the motorbike ride and is ready to meditate at Sokpaluang Temple.

Luang Prabang Neighborhood

My sister and I have spent the last few days exploring Luang Prabang, Laos.


I keep thinking to myself, “Dorothy, you’re not in Vientiane anymore.” Where is the omnipresent dust? Where are the deafening motorbikes and tuktuks? Where is the hustle and bustle? OK, there’s really not much “hustle and bustle” in Vientiane, but there’s even less here.

Our hotel is located in the Historic Temple Area, near the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. So peaceful.
Here are some shots from our street. At times, it feels like we’re in Europe!



Last night, we went to a restaurant recommended by several friends (and websites) – Tamarind. As I sipped a ginger and lemon cocktail, and Megan nursed a lime-lemongrass concoction, we listened to the monks chanting at the temple across the road. Here’s a little sample (don’t know why I was so shaky…). That bimbo you see coming out of the temple is a foreigner who had the brilliant idea of wearing her shorts to go watch the monks chant. Geez.

We ordered some appetizers and then … darkness. The electricity went out AGAIN. Seriously, the power has been off more than it’s been on since we got here. The locals just roll with it, so that’s all you can do. The restaurant staff melted the ends of small candles and stuck them directly on the tables and on the top of overturned glasses. We ate our delicious selection of Lao dips with sticky rice and roasted seaweed and chatted with a kind New Zealander who was traveling alone. Eventually, the lights came back on, but the tiny restaurant was packed with a couple large parties and we were having trouble getting the attention of the wait staff. We decided to move on.

Meg and I wandered through the quiet alleys of our neighborhood, perusing the dessert menus at several cafes. Like moths to a flame, we were drawn down a side street to a restaurant draped in twinkly lights with a small Lao band performing traditional music. The only patrons, we received a lot of attention at our outdoor table. The head waiter, in a starched coat two sizes too big, asked if we had already eaten and then encouraged us to come back some time for dinner. We ordered drinks, which were delivered by two more waiters. When Megan asked for another mug to share her tea with me, the confused waiter nodded and said, “cup” and then summoned two other waiters. They rushed over to hear our request and then scurried off to get the cup.

Before too long … the twinkly lights went dark. Yet another power outage!

Despite the lack of customers, the restaurant was soon ablaze in candles, and the band didn’t miss a beat. We enjoyed lingering with the marimba-ish melody wafting on the cool breeze. It would have been very romantic to be there with someone who wasn’t my sister. Walking back to our hotel, we stared up into the inky sky. Without city lights for competition, the stars glittered brightly and the moon lit our path.

Wat ‘O’ the Week – Wat Sithan Neua

I’m cheating a little bit with this Wat ‘O’ the Week post. I actually visited this temple on the same day I went to Wat Phia Wat with Catherine.
We had hoped to visit with a monk she knew here, but unfortunately, we were told that he had gone to the States to study for a year.
Wat Sithan Neua is tucked in a back alley just a block from the Mekong River. The monks were hard at work landscaping the temple grounds.

Sithan Neua Monks Working

We found a monk who spoke a little English and asked him about the temple’s “sim” (ordination hall). He said it was about 70 years old, but he refused to indulge our request to unlock it.

Wat Sithan Neua's Sim

The small sim featured muted colors and delicate designs, but the building was in serious disrepair. A peek through the crack in the ornate front door revealed restoration work underway inside.

Sithan Neua Sim Detail

Sithan Neua Sim Detail

Sithan Neua Sim Door

A flashier new addition to the temple stood nearby with rickety scaffolding rising out of piles of sand and up to bright red and gold paintings. The old sim literally paled in comparison.


And It’s All Small Stuff

If I smell a little ripe today, it’s because:
(a) we can’t seem to figure out our bedroom A/C unit, so we wake up repeatedly during the night either in a pool of sweat or frozen solid, and
(b) we had no water this morning. Our helpful new night guard, Beng, fixed the water pump before he left, but by then I only had time for a quick prostitute bath with a packet of lemongrass wet wipes.
As Tony stared at the bathtub faucet and waited in vain for it to do something, he muttered, “This is a nightmare.”
In typical sympathetic fashion, I responded, “It’s not really a nightmare, is it? But it is frustrating.”
We both stomped out of the house, cranky and stinky.
My friend, Carine, lent me her car for a few days while she went out of town, but I had to return it this morning. On the way to work, I made a quick detour to the gas station and used my last few kip to put a couple liters of gas in the car. My empty wallet contributed further to my funk. (See the previous post, “A Fool and Her Money …” for background.) Grumpily, I put the car into gear and headed to school.
In that 10-minute trip, I witnessed several groups of Lao people waiting by the side of the road with their offerings of food for the village monks. The image of one little girl keeps popping into my head. She wore a public school uniform: a traditional dark blue sinh – a straight skirt woven of cotton or silk – and a button-down blouse. She must have been about 9 years old, so she had probably witnessed the morning collection of alms on nearly every one of her 3,000-some days on earth. Still, she knelt with her hands in prayer position and a smile stretched across her face as the monks chanted a blessing over her family.
The barefoot monks draped in orange are a common sight each morning here in Vientiane. But today, that little girl’s connection with the monks somehow soothed my frazzled nerves and served as a gentle reminder not to sweat the small stuff.

Farewell China Tour (Day 9)

Samye Monastery
In order for a monastery to be a monastery, it must have three things: holy statues, scriptures and monks. The Samye Monastery, founded in 775, was the first in Tibet to have all three. Located across the Brahmaputra River from the city, the monastery was a little tricky to find. We checked out of our hotel early, hoping to catch the first ferry. What Chum Zhun didn’t tell us was that the “ferry” was really just a rickety boat that didn’t run on a regular schedule at all. Rather, it left when full of passengers.

We drove the short distance to the dock around 9 a.m. As we sat on the concrete steps by the water, a group of monks in ruby red robes arrived, chatted with the boat pilot for a few minutes and then left. Around 9:30, some Chinese tourists showed up, took a few pictures and took off again. At 10, Chum Zhun inquired about the delay. We were waiting for the monks, they said, who were enjoying a bowl of noodles for breakfast, so we would leave when they returned. Dejected, we returned to our posts on the concrete steps and watched another ferry approaching the dock. It struck a sandbar, and everyone climbed out of the boat and into the knee-deep water, straining to push the boat clear. We couldn’t help but worry that our boat would meet the same fate.

Finally, the monks appeared, ready for the journey with full bellies. They joined an eclectic collection of passengers and cargo: a motorcycle, several large stuffed bags (maybe grain?), lots of local Tibetans, a group of Chinese tourists (including one portly guy decked out head to toe in Beijing Olympics gear), an iron I-beam the length of the whole boat, and us (the only foreigners). As our boat pulled away from the dock, another Chinese family came running from the parking area. I thought for sure they’d just catch the next boat, but NO! We actually turned back to get them.

The pilot used a long pole to push us out of shallow water, deftly avoiding the sandbar, and then turned on the motor for our slow peaceful trip across the river. Cath and I introduced ourselves to a shy Tibetan girl named Minma, who had been staring at us and smiling. Although children are required to learn Mandarin in school, she didn’t understand me (obviously her poor country school hadn’t taught her enough Mandarin; I’m sure I spoke it perfectly!). One of the monks translated but then quietly turned away with his pink umbrella blocking the sun. Otherwise, our river cruise was uneventful.

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Once we reached land, we all piled in to the covered bed of a pick-up truck and sat on wobbly benches for the bone-jarring ride to the monastery. We toured the three main floors, each with a different style of architecture: Tibetan, Chinese and Indian. The Indian level should have come with a parent advisory, such as: “This floor is rated R for sexual content.” However, the sex was purely of a religious nature as depicted by a king getting it on with one of his two consorts in his attempt to reach enlightenment.

Cath and I decided to turn the prayer wheels that lined the monastery’s perimeter. We had just started when a monk came sprinting over to remind us that we were going the wrong way. He laughed and gestured, reminding us that Tibetans always walk clockwise at holy places. Everyone we encountered smiled, put their hands together in prayer and greeted us with an ebullient “tashi dele!” Deeply proud of this historic place, they seemed honored that we went to so much trouble to see it.

I didn’t want to ruin the spirit of hospitality by snapping too many photos, so instead I just tried to remember all the meaningful moments. One highlight that nearly brought tears to my eyes: We saw two adorable Tibetan toddlers giggling and chasing each other near some holy statues. Chum Zhun said Tibetan mothers routinely take their babies to temples and monasteries to teach them Buddhist rituals early on. One little guy waddled over to me with a crumpled jiao note (about a penny) in his tiny hand. He held up his money, cocked his head, looked at me imploringly with beautiful big brown eyes, and squeaked something that sounded like “Blah blah blah Buddha.” I just smiled at him, shrugged my shoulders to indicate I didn’t understand, and looked at Chum Zhun for help. She translated, “He wants you to give his money to Buddha.” By then the boy had skipped off to find a smarter adult tall enough to toss his money over the railing at the Buddha statue.

Cath, Chum Zhun and I dined on yak meat and potatoes at a humble little restaurant on the monastery grounds. A jovial group of monks ate at a nearby table.

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The pick-up truck/bus driver had told us to meet at 2:30 for the ride back to the boat. Punctual as always, that’s what we did. Within the next 30 minutes, we were joined by a group of Tibetan teen-aged girls, the Chinese tourists (including the Beijing Olympics fan), and some of the Tibetan villagers who were on the morning boat. And we waited … and waited … and waited.

Chum Zhun got off the bus to investigate and was gone a long time. Around 3:30, she returned, flustered. The bus driver told her that, once again, the monks were the cause of the delay, so she stomped off to the restaurant where they were eating lunch and sternly reminded them of the departure schedule. Although frustrated with the seemingly inconsiderate monks, she also felt guilty for being so rude to them. She noted the obvious: It’s really bad karma to scold a monk. She decided she could make up for it by offering her seat to one of the monks, but first she let him stand for about 10 minutes of the bumpy ride as punishment for his tardiness.

When the bus reached the boat dock, the three of us quickly boarded the boat. We were the only ones who did. Some people gleefully waded in the river; some stood in the shadow of the bus to light up their cigarettes; some made the ubiquitous peace-sign as they posed for snapshots; and some dipped their umbrellas in the water and opened them up in the quest for cool shade in the blazing heat. Chum Zhun sighed and said she had annoyed enough people today, so she asked me to say something to the boat pilot. “Zou ba!” I shouted in Mandarin. “Let’s go!” The pilot nicely explained that we were waiting for another group. “Five minutes,” he said. Finally, a bus pulled up with the same tourists who had arrived at the monastery for their tour when we were waiting to leave. In the time we waited, they toured the whole monastery and drove back to the boat dock.

The boat ride back was much livelier than our morning cruise. A Swiss tourist struck up a conversation with one of the monks, who was very friendly and eager to share information about the region. The Tibetan teens chatted with us in Mandarin. They had just finished their university entrance exams and had gone to the monastery to pray for good marks. They were gorgeous and giggly and took photos with a film camera.

We drove a few hours back to Lhasa and attended a dinner show with both traditional and modern Tibetan dancing. The buffet included sheep lung, sausage made from sheep intestines, several yak meat dishes, barley cakes, butter tea and barley beer. The only thing that made me gag a little was a yak-cheese cake that tasted like the smell of a cow barn.

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