So many things were magical about Pai. It was a town that was waiting to be found, like a cosy oversized beanbag. Ready to mould around you as you collapsed into it, and comfortable enough for you to want to stay, and just be. Pai’s easy atmosphere and activity along the flourishing landscapes were endearing in its enchantment. I could have easily stayed for weeks, but there was a tugging in my soul to do a temple stay at the Forest Monastery outside of the town. Having heard about Wat Tam Wua from many travellers along the way, I couldn’t leave Northern Thailand until I experienced it myself. And so, after 4 blissful nights in Pai, I packed my things and made my way to the infamous temple in the forest.
Wat Tam Wua
Arriving at the temple
The Forest Monastery is located between Pai and Mae Hong Son, 70 km from Pai itself. Although the distance is not far, the roads are incredibly curved and tricky. Thus, whether you take a yellow songthaew or the Prempucha van, it takes a good few hours to get to the temple. The ride is definitely worth it though. I marvelled at the beautiful mountain road views and enjoyed observing the pockets of life in the towns that we passed through along the way.
Wat Tam Wua willingly opens its doors to anyone wanting to learn about vipassana meditation. There is no need to register before you get there; you can merely turn up respectfully and the managers will take you in. The van dropped us off inside the grounds, and a temple assistant immediately came to greet us. He showed us around the monastery and guided us to sign in with them. They prefer mediators to stay for at least 3 days in order to properly understand the Buddhist teachings and practices. Beyond that, the centre managers are happy to let you stay for as long as you wish.
There are a few things to keep in mind when taking part in a temple stay. You must be there first and foremost to learn, and thus bring with you an open heart and focused mind. These monasteries do not charge a fee and provide you with housing and food throughout your stay. It is thus vital that you follow and respect their rules while you are living in their quarters.
While at the temple you need to wear loose-fitted white clothing. I was lucky enough to get some appropriate items from my hostel host in Chiang Mai, as previous guests had been to the temple as well. You can purchase some of these outfits in the town, but you are also welcome to borrow from the monastery if you do not have any of your own.
While you are at the temple, your conduct is very important. Although you do not have to practice complete silence, many people do decide to take this vow during their stay. It is thus best to talk softly when in common areas, out of respect to those around you. You are allowed to use your cellphone, granted that it is away from the meditation hall. You can also read books (they have some informative ones on their bookshelf), and use writing material too.
Accommodation is cabin-style dormitories, with males and females staying in different cabins. Although there is a separation of the sexes when it comes to sleeping and meditating, you can definitely communicate and eat together respectfully. Try not to make physical contact with other mediators out of respect to the monks.
Wat Tam Wua runs on the same schedule each day. Mornings begin at 5 am, with rice offerings to the monks at 6:30 am. We would gather in a U-shaped formation around the periphery of the Dhamma Hall, wrapped in blankets and bathed in sleepy silence. The resident dog would bark excitedly at the sound of the bells, its routine beckoning for the rice offering to begin. The monks then file in and stop in front of each meditator to receive a scoop of rice into their bowls. As monks are not permitted to eat anything that has not been given to them, it is a meaningful ceremony to take part in. Once everyone has given their rice and the monks are satisfied, we line up for a vegetarian buffet style breakfast.
The first group meditation happens a little while after breakfast, around 8 am. Everyone gathers in the Dhamma Hall and is given some words of wisdom from one of the monks. It is then walking meditation time – my favourite part of the day. Each person walks in a slow single-file line behind each other. We trail reflectively through the dewy forest grounds. Despite the cold, I enjoyed walking barefoot. This brought my focus to the feeling of my feet, rhythmically and gently hugging the soil. The uniform formation of everybody weaving in steady silence, head to toe in white, felt incredibly reverent. With the crisp morning air flowing around us and through us, it was a wonderful way to greet the new day.
Afternoons and evenings
Sitting meditation starts once we arrive back at the hall from our walk. Lying down meditation follows after that. The meditations are guided, but what we take from them is always different. I found that reading about anapana and vipassana meditation techniques during our breaks were very helpful. It grounded me in focus and intention. By simply being more attentive to everything, the need for effort disappeared. Meditation simply happened, without expectation or judgement of the session. This basic awareness really heightened my experience of each moment, during and outside of the meditation time.
The second rice offering happens before lunch, which is served at 11 am. Lunch is the final meal of the day, but you are free to have tea and coffee at any point to fill the gaps. I honestly found that when I spent most of the time meditating, I did not feel the need to eat an evening meal. Even if it’s a bit tricky at first, your body will adjust to the meal schedule after a day or two.
Afternoon meditation is at 1 pm, followed by a few hours of free time. During one of the free time hours, you should help out with cleaning the monastery in some way. This may be cutting up food scraps and feeding it to the fish, sweeping, cleaning bathrooms, or anything else that needs tending to. You can also do your own washing during this break. Evening chanting then begins at 6 pm, and the final meditation of the day follows directly after that. Most nights you’ll be asleep by 10 pm.
Temple stay reflections
Time moved both quickly and slowly while at the monastery. I loved being able to learn through practice and theory at the same time. The early mornings and delicate days etched a sense of irrevocable calm inside me. Hours of meditation were immersive and aligning in its simple but demanding nature. The practice shook me alive and reminded me that I was the only one to blame when I stopped paying attention. And that by paying attention I was tapping into the true abundance of every moment – I was tapping into love. If you find yourself in or around Pai and are seeking a similar experience, you should definitely stay at Wat Tam Wua. I’m sure that, like me, you’ll leave feeling changed in many subtle and significant ways.