Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Thailand Adventure: Ko Samet and Bangkok

A Mahabodhidham Monastery volunteer brought me back to Bangkok from the monastery on Monday, May 19. Julie welcomed me back to her apartment, and then brought out her Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, determined to get me to another Thai island before I had to leave on May 23. It was so sweet of her.

Julie and Danielle's apartment building, Ban Waree.
I left the apartment early the following morning for the minivan “bus” station near the Victory Monument Skytrain station, beginning my 5 hour trip to Ko Samet. The island is in the Gulf of Thailand, southeast of Bangkok, in the direction of Cambodia and Vietnam.

I first took a minivan, a form of public transportation similar to a bus, from Bangkok to the coastal city of Ban Phe. Our minivan was full of young Thais also headed to Ko Samet’s beaches. The driver had a 5x7 sized photo of a well known, revered Theravada Buddhist monk taped to the inside of the minivan, above the front windshield.

We reached Ban Phe 4 hours after leaving Bangkok. There are many piers in Ban Phe with brightly colored wood ferries that shuttle passengers from the Thai mainland to Ko Samet for about $1.50 per ride. I walked to what I thought might be the main pier, and took a 50 minute ferry ride from Ban Phe to the main pier on Ko Samet, Na Dan Pier.

Welcome to Ko Samet.
When we pulled into Na Dan Pier, we were greeted by a big banner strung across the pier that read “Welcome to the Paradise of Tourist”. There’s a reason for that. The Lonely Planet Thailand guide says that Ko Samet is one of the country’s most beautiful islands. My Let’s Go Thailand book describes it as “gorgeous white-sand beaches” and “one of Thailand’s national parks-turned-tourist meccas.”

Since the island is only 17 km long but has more than 10 beaches, I decided to spend the afternoon walking down the island’s east coast so that I could see some of the other islands before reaching my final destination, beach Ao Thian.

The island’s commercial area lies just beyond the “Welcome to the Paradise of Tourist” sign. I walked down the commercial district’s main street, passing tourist-oriented coffee shops, restaurants that look like they turn into bars at night, gift shops selling things made out of seashells, Thai massage and beauty spas, corner markets with large bottles of liquor and water for sale on their shelves, and many, many hotel signs advertising rooms available.

Ko Samet commercial district. I liked the sign advertising "visa runs to Cambodia".
I bypassed all of these, heading for the entrance to the national park and the string of beaches that lie beyond the ranger station. After paying 200 baht (approximately $6.50) to enter the national park I took a detour from the main road to visit the island’s 14 km high Buddha. After stopping off to view the beach closest to the pier, Hat Sai Kaew I picked up the road heading south. The road I was following runs through the interior of the island, instead of hugging the coast as I had envisioned. I got tired of turning off of the main road to view the island’s other beaches, and headed directly to Ao Thian.

I passed Naga Bar on my way south. It has live Thai  boxing every weekend night.
And a neon wall painting activity. Note "I love New Jersey" on the black pole.
Julie has visited Ko Samet more than once and highly recommended the beach Ao Thian, also known as Candlelight Beach. More than halfway down the island from Na Dan Pier and the island’s party spots, Ao Thian is a remote, peaceful beach. Ao Thian’s rocky coastline prevents speed boats from docking off of the coast at Ao Thian, like the boats do on many of the island’s other beaches.

One of the beaches further north, closer to Na Dan Pier.
When I reached Ao Thian about an hour into my walk, I was so happy Julie had told me to go to Ao Thian, and that I hadn’t allowed myself to get distracted by some of the other  pretty, tranquil, turquoise water and white sand beaches closer to the pier. Ao Thian is a beach environment set in a cove. Even from the water off of the coast, you cannot see beyond Ao Thian to any of the other beaches.

Looking south from Ao Thian.
My first task was to find a place to spend the night. While camping on the beach is permissible, there are plenty of other options. The coast is lined by sets of slightly variant beach front bungalows. These bungalows are gathered into groups, with each group managed by a different resort. I went from resort reception office to reception office, inquiring about a bungalow for the night.

Horizons Resort reception office.
I finally settled upon a bungalow slightly off of the beach managed by Horizons Resort. My bungalow had a front porch with a bright blue wood picnic table on it, a very nice bathroom, 2 beds, screened in windows, air conditioning, a floor fan, and a TV. Since I visited mid-week during low season and did not need them to turn on the air conditioning, I got a special rate of 600 baht ($25). I don’t know if the TV worked because I never turned it on. Check out was 11am the following morning, but the manager let me keep my bag in the office, giving me the freedom to swim even after checking out of my bungalow.

My bungalow.

I highly recommend Horizons Resort at beach Ao Thian on Ko Samet. The manager told me in high season they are often full with guests who are staying for a month or more, and that in low season they are likely to have a bungalow available for walkups, but you could call and inquire about availability in advance of your visit. Their numbers are 038-652525, 087-1302128, and 086-1516960. They do not have an online presence or email.

After receiving my key I put my bag down in the bungalow, put on my bathing suit, and walked down to the water completely unencumbered, without even flip flops or a towel. The water was turquoise, the sand off white, the sun warm even at nearly 6pm, and the water even more comfortable. The Bay of Thailand seemed to undulate only slightly, making floating on your back a comfortable way to pass the time.

Ao Thian.
Since it was mid-week during low-season, there were maybe a total of 10 other guests staying in the resorts on Ao Thian while I was there. Other than waving to my next door neighbor, the only people I interacted with while at Ao Thian were a few bungalow property managers. It was so quiet and peaceful.

I spent that first night on Ao Thian in the water, watching the sun set and the stars come out. I was the only person in the water for most of those hours. The experience was incredible, and one of the highlights of my trip. I got out of the water after the stars had come out and explored the quiet, peaceful coastline. 

Ao Thian.
The fanciest resort on Ao Thian – Sangthian Beach Resort – had 3 young Thai men dancing with fire on the beach, to the sound of techno music. A small group of Thai tourists stood in front of the young men, filming the scene with their smart phones. That was the most partying I did on Ao Thian.

Fire dancers on Ao Thian.
I woke up at 5:30am the next morning, threw on my bathing suit, and rushed down to and into the water to watch the sunrise. I brought my camera into the water with me and took photos, all the while marveling at the fact that this beautiful sight happens every single morning at Ao Thian.

Looking north from Ao Thian.
Looking south.
I checked out of the bungalow afterwards, at 7:30am so that I wouldn’t have to get out of the water again before leaving Ao Thian at 1pm. When the sun got bright overhead I got out to put on some sunscreen, and spent about 30 minutes walking along the coast barefoot in just my bathing suit, taking photos, before getting back into the water.

Ao Thian.
Ao Thian.
I spent about 15 minutes relaxing on a resort-style lawn chair, underneath a woven roofed pavilion, just next to the water before grabbing my bag and departing Ao Thian for the pier. I walked along the coast for a while, visiting a few more beaches before reaching Na Dan Pier.  I then boarded the 3pm ferry, arriving back at Ban Phe less than an hour later. 

Na Dan Pier. Plastic and styrafoam waste underneath the pier.
 I bought a minivan ticket from one of the many tourism vendors who run their businesses from folding-style tables on the piers, and boarded a nice, new minivan headed to Victory Monument at 4:15pm.

Taken from my seat in the minivan.
We were back in Bangkok and in the heart of a night street market 3 hours later. The lights, noise, and crowds of people were overwhelming at first. I explored the market, marveling once again at Bangkok’s infrastructure that is so like the US and yet so Thai style. I then took Skytrain back to Julie and Danielle’s apartment, slightly sunburned and tired, but smiling at a great 24 trip to Ko Samet.

Victory Monument night market.
The next morning, Thursday May 22 I walked through Southeast Asia’s most popular medical tourism hospital, Bumrungrad International Hospital. It looked more like a 5 star hotel than a hospital – it was so fancy. I saw people from all over the world exiting and entering taxis and walking around the campus.
Bumrungrad International Hospital.
 I spent the next few hours wandering around the city, before returning to my favorite vegetarian roadside eatery, Banana near Julie and Danielle’s apartment for lunch.

Banana cafe.
I took a break from the heat in Julie and Danielle's apartment, before heading out to the Skytrain Jazz Club near Victory Monument for the start of the Lehigh Happy Hour I had organized for Bangkok Lehigh alums. 
View of Victory Monument from Skytrain Jazz Club's rooftop deck.
A Thai alum from the class of 1964, Pongol Adireksarn arrived. He let me know about the coup that had just happened. We got sodas at a nearby Mister Donuts (Dunkin Donuts). I had fun learning about his work as a producer and host of a world heritage documentary TV program, world traveler, and wildlife photographer. He made sure we both caught the Skytrain before it stopped running in advance of the 10pm city curfew.

I stopped off at the 7 Eleven near Julie and Danielle’s apartment on my way back to their place, in order to stock up on bottled water and food, not knowing what the following day would bring. There had been a recent run on 7 Eleven – they were out of basics like bread.

Fortunately I woke up to find a familiar Bangkok the following morning, Friday, May 23. I packed my luggage for the last time in Thailand, went to lunch with Julie, Danielle, Rob, and some of their fellow English language teachers, and then ran some errands before heading to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport.

Suvarnabhumi Airport.
My nearly 6 month trip to India and Thailand was coming to a close. My flight for Abu Dhabi departed on time. From there, I traveled to Berlin, and from there to the US. It was a long 30+ hour trip, my 6th such journey in the past 1.5 years. 

Stay tuned for 1-2 blog posts about what to pack if you plan to travel to India and/or Thailand. Thanks for following along and sharing this journey with me.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Thailand Adventure: Mahabodhidham Monastery

Mahabodhidham Monastery gate.
While in India, I received an invitation to visit Mahabodhidham Monastery in Thailand. I took Damrongdham and Oat up on their invitation, traveling to the monastery with them on Wednesday, May 7.

One of the monastery's buildings. Oat and Patrick are pictured.
Damrongdham founded Mahabodhidham Monastery in 2007, when he was 35. (For background on how this came about, read the transcript of my interview with Damrongdham.) The monastery is in the mountains, surrounded by fruit plantations. It is a 2 hour drive from Bangkok to the monastery.

During our ride to the monastery I learned that Damrongdham was in need of some communications assistance, including an updated website. I was happy to spend the next 12 days brainstorming ideas to bring Damrongdham’s vision for Theravada Buddhism to life along with Damrongdham, Oat, and Patrick, the monastery’s volunteer English teacher.

Brainstorming with Damrongdham, Oat, and Patrick.
I also created a communications strategy for Damrongdham, and set up a communications toolkit. Check out his Facebook fan page, called "Damrongdham" and YouTube channel. (Beautiful videos coming very soon – I just need to upload them when I have faster wifi.)

Monastery office.
I spent a lot of time sitting in the monastery’s office, in front of a computer. Due to the office’s central location on the monastery’s campus, many of Damrongdham’s young students would regularly pass by the office doorway. As a result I got to regularly interact with the students, and help them with their English. We worked on their responses to these questions: “How are you?” “What is your name?” “How old are you?” and “Where are you from?” I was amazed at how well the boys could mimic my American accent and pronunciation.

One of my students and I, picking fruit.
In addition to all of the ongoing maintenance projects, the boys were busy with some big construction projects. It was amazing to see the novices (boys under age 20 studying to become monks) driving tractors and operating heavy machinery while wearing their orange robes. It will be exciting to see the finished products next time I am in Thailand. Damrongdham and Oat kindly invited me to come back any time.

Construction site.
I also got to know some of the monastery’s regular volunteers, through preparing for and celebrating two of the monastery’s big annual events – the Buddhist holiday Visakha, and Damrongdham’s Birthday. 

Volunteers from Bangkok arrived several days prior to the two consecutive events to create flower arrangements and set up for the events. They worked through the night, with the help of the novices, to make beautiful decorations out of flowers and leaves.

Naga, made out of flowers and leaves.
The core is made from styrafoam. The flowers and leaves are held together using sewing pins.
Monastery supporters from Bangkok began arriving by the carload on May 12, all dressed in white clothing, the appropriate attire for Visakha celebrations. The event began in the afternoon, with a dharma talk given by Damrongdham.

Celebrating Visakha.
A six year old who has been a novice for one month also addressed the crowd from a spot next to Damrongdham’s throne. He was one of my English students. I was so amazed – and proud – when the first thing he spoke into the microphone was a self-introduction of himself, in English. I later heard him do the same when he was on a radio program, produced and aired by the monastery, and broadcast to the local community.

Six-year-old in the center.
We then had a candle lighting ceremony, followed by overnight chanting of a sutra. The chanting ended at about 6am the following morning, May 13. The novices and guests then briefly rested before Damrongdham’s Birthday celebration began.

The candles spell out "Happy Visakha" in Thai.
Overnight chanting inside of the monastery's temple.
Both Visakha and Damrongdham’s Birthday celebrations took place in an outdoor courtyard, at the base of a hill, surrounded by trees and mountains. The monastery’s largest Buddha statue was perched on the hilltop behind Damrongdham’s throne, which was surrounded by amazing flower arrangements. The whole thing was beautiful.

Damrongdham is seated on his throne, on the right.
I sat in the audience, the only foreigner there, and marveled at how fortunate I was to be present for these two big events. (In fact, I think I was the fourth foreigner to ever visit the monastery.) I think everyone there enjoyed that I had come, that I am from New York, and that I am Buddhist. Everyone was so welcoming and lovely. I had such a nice time. There are a lot of photos from both Visakha and Damrongdham’s Birthday celebrations on his Facebook fan page.

After making an offering to Damrongdham.
I also got to know the monastery’s supporters by spending a lot of time in the local community, located just outside of the monastery’s front gate. Some Thai families bring their boys to monasteries to keep them away from negative influences in society and to have them study the Dharma, Buddha’s teachings.

Families are still involved in their sons’ lives, though by volunteering at the monasteries where their sons live and study. At Mahabodhidham Monastery, these parent volunteers stay in the community outside of the monastery front gate when not at their homes elsewhere. They make food offerings to Damrongdham and Oat, cooking meals for them, and serving them at a home in the village. They included me in this ritual, cooking very elaborate and delicious breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for me each day. (I should point out that I was the only one eating dinner – Damrongdham and Oat do not eat after 12 noon.) My visits to the village were fun, and I definitely enjoyed my food.

Another highlight of the meals was getting to better know Damrongdham and Oat, and to receive answers to many of my questions about Theravada Buddhism. Oat would translate for Damrongdham and I – translating my questions into Thai, and then Damrongdham’s answers into English. Oat also taught me a lot. By spending so much time with Damrongdham, Oat, and the monastery volunteers, I also learned to speak a little bit of Thai.

Damrongdham, Oat, and one of the monastery's dogs.
Through walking back and forth between the monastery and the village for meals multiple times each day with Damrongdham and Oat, I got to know the many dogs and puppies living outside of the gate, and the monastery’s four dogs. Oat helped me contact the local government vet, who came out to assess the situation, and agreed to come back to spay/neuter, and vaccinate 14+ dogs, including the monastery’s four dogs against rabies. To date, two of the monastery’s dogs have been fixed. I am so happy to know I was able to be of benefit to these dogs and the community.

Vet vaccinating one of the dogs with the help of the dog's owner.
I left the monastery on Monday, May 13 with one of the volunteers, who was driving back to Bangkok. She reminded me that I am welcomed to return to the monastery any time. If you are in Thailand then contact the monastery to find out when they are holding their next monthly event, so that you can attend. They are open to the public. You are also welcomed to stop by the monastery any time – maybe just contact them first, to let them know you are coming, and consider bringing an offering of food, supplies like toothpaste, or money to support the monastery, which is run entirely on donations.

Patrons making a large donation of goods to the monastery.
If you are on Facebook then consider liking Damrongdham's fan page, so that you can stay up to date on his activities. He and Oat will be leading two Vipassana meditation retreats at Deer Park Institute in Tibetan Bir Colony this summer. There will be other opportunities to study with them in the future.