Leaving Thailand, Journey to the Middle of Nowhere, An Unexpected Monastery

I wake up a little bit earlier and start to return things from my kuti. It’s supposed to be totally empty except for the Buddha statue, but when I got here there were all kinds of candles and mosquito net and other things, so I want to return all those as well. This morning we have the long chanting and meditation in the hall and then the lay people leave afterward. Some of them stay to help with the chores and food in the morning. I tell Paet it’s my last day and tell some other of the lay guests that I’ll be leaving after the meal. I already talked with the guest monk and arranged everything. After talking with the guest monk I saw Steven from Philly and we wished each other luck. I may have sounded like I was bitter the whole time, which I probably was for a lot of it, but I certainly will miss this place, with the quiet atmosphere, some of the good people I met, and of course all the wonderful food. I help offer the food one last time and talk with the monk again who I had a long discussion with. He told me that he plans to disrobe in the beginning of May when the abbot gets back to the monastery. He also gave me his email and told me to stay in touch. I told him there’s no way in hell I remembering his Pasadeko Lamaleko Flasheko name in Pali, so I found out his name is Luis. One of the lay guests asks how it feels to leave and I say honestly that I’m excited and ready. After the meal I clean my bowl and I’m headed over to get my stuff from one of the monk’s offices, but turn around because I have the beginnings of having to poop and figure that’ll be the last thing I do before leaving here. Not only will I not have to worry about it when I travel, but it’s also a symbolic releasing of weight and moving on. I’m getting rid of some weight here, not carrying it with me, and making room for more adventure. Sorry, that’s probably the grosses metaphor I’ve used, but I couldn’t help myself. Literally though, I really had to go.

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I took a few selfies on my way out of the monastery to give an idea of the kuti I stayed in and the forest around. Yup, I really took a selfie in a monastery. I think there’s a Buddhist hell for that. That’s me almost 2 weeks after I shaved my head. My eye brows and head hair is still only just starting to come back in.

I get my bag out of the room and start my next journey on the long road out of here. It feels very strange to be leaving. It feel surreal and at the same time it feels so right. I’m now just bubbling with excitement for this next adventure. I get to the main road and plan to walk down to the hotel where I met that guy before heading to the monastery. I’ll ask him about the best way to get to the bus station. Before I even get half way there I see a car pull up off the side of the road in front of me. It’s right in front of a shop so I half think they’re going there and half think they’re stopping to give me a ride. I’ll probably just deny the ride and keep going to the hotel because I want to see my friend again and won’t know these random people here. As I get much closer, two women, one young and one much older get out of the car, dressed in all white. They must be some of the lay people who were just helping out at the monastery. The younger woman speaks good enough English, so I explain where I’m going as they move stuff around for me to have a seat in the back. I tell them to just drop me off at the hotel, but then they keep going, so I figure it’s no problem. Then I ask them to drop me off at the gas station at the corner of the street. Instead the young woman says that her mom said she knows this area well and that I should come into town with them. I tell them I’ll go with them. I speak some Lao and they are giddy in excitement, especially the older woman who knows no English. We get out in what seems like the downtown area and they tell me to wait here to take the public red truck transportation cars for 10 bhat to the bus station. 10 bhat is about 30 cents. They ask a shop owner next to us and the shop owner tells us we’re in the wrong area. The old woman grabs my hand very gently and we go back to the car together to find a new location. Right when she grabs my hand I get a strong feeling of grandmotherly love. A wave of gratitude washes over me and I feel like there’s nothing I have to do to figure this out, instead I just relax and enjoy their help and presence. Next, we go to the old woman’s shop and they take me inside where they pull up a chair and give me a glass of cold water as they call another car. One pulls up and they go to tell the driver where to take me and the woman in the front passenger seat, which I think is the driver seat at first because it’s all opposite here, is also from the lay people group who helps out at the kitchen. We recognize each other and burst out laughing. At this point this all feels staged or something. I certainly don’t feel like this is the real situation of traveling through a city I’ve never seen before. Instead it feels more like home already. I suppose this is one of those feelings that keeps pulling people back to the big religious institutions every week or month. It’s a wonderful feeling to join such a big network of people so quickly and feel like they all really love and want to support me from the get go, even though we don’t really know each other. I’ve heard of that, but never really felt that part of group religion until now. It’s nice. I get into the back of the red truck thing, awkwardly am too big to be standing in the aisle between the seats. After the first stop, I get out of the aisle and stand on a metal platform for people to take a half step up on before getting into the actual bed of the truck. That’s basically all this is, a transformed truck with a big bed into a multi person taxi. Now I’m literally hanging out of the back of the truck on the metal bars. The woman from the front gets out and makes a big motion telling me to take the car straight. I don’t know how long I should take it straight based on that motion though. If I were to guess, the motions means to never get out, but that’s a bit counter intuitive. Another 10 minutes and we’re pulling into the big bus station where everyone gets out. Ooh, straight all the way to the end, okay that motion makes much more sense to me now.

At the bus station I go over to the information area and ask about my options to get to the final destination. I want to cut some corners and take a bus straight there. It will also be much cheaper if I could find that option. The woman starts to ask me some questions and then another one comes up and looks like she’s trying to help. Next thing I know they’ve stopped talking to me and are both looking up ahead of us. I look up to and realize they’re posing on either side of me as their third friend is taking a picture of us. Haha I haven’t had that feeling of being a celebrity since being in Ghana. That kind of thing happened all the time, especially then after the picture, insisting on taking my number. They don’t ask for my number here, which still probably explains why I haven’t memorized it yet. I think I had it memorized after the first few weeks in Ghana after so many people asked. After the picture they take me over to the correct bus and I wait for 45 minutes for them to collect people before we leave. At the boarder people try to get me to buy their extra transportation to the boarder and I laugh as I say I’m happy to walk. They laugh too and call me a crazy foreigner. I can literally see the office about a half mile away, but that would be preposterous for people to consider here. Same thing in Ghana, that’s strange to me. If I don’t get enough exercise then my legs try to vibrate off my body when I get sleepy at night. It was a 10 minute walk and I’d much rather do that than try to negotiate with all them while they’re in a big group. I’m slightly worried about getting the extended visa and them seeing that I came over on land and that I shouldn’t have gotten that, but everything goes very smoothly. I get over to the Lao side and the guy at the immigration gives me his number, his sisters lodge place, and asks for me to call him and give him an American woman. Wait… Am I in Ghana? The people’s skin looks so light, but I’m confused because they’re acting more like Ghanaians then any experience I’ve had since leaving Ghana. If after I leave here someone hisses loudly at me to get my attention, then I’m going to call my boss to apologize that the immigration room was actually a portal back to West Africa that I wasn’t aware of.

I walk down to the public transportation section to get a ride to my first destination, into the town of Pakse. My final destination is much smaller town called Pak Song. After about 30 minutes in the van I start to get feelings that I don’t want to go to the monastery anymore. It feels like I’ve used so much time and it’s already around 1:00 PM. I start to justify why I wouldn’t go there and then I hear a quick ring that is cut off and sounds awfully like my phone. I look at the number and look at the contact paper I have, to find that the Ajahn I’m going to visit just called me. Wait a minute here… I haven’t called him yet and when we called him at the monastery in Thailand, we used someone else’s phone, I didn’t even have mine with me and since I don’t know my own number without checking, I didn’t give the Ajahn my number. Okay, maybe he called the monastery in Thailand and asked for my number, which I did put on a form when I first got there. That’s still strange how he called right now also, when I’m thinking about not going. I can hear the twilight zone music starting to play softly in the back of my head now… I get out of the van to call the Ajahn, but there’s no answer. He calls me back soon after I get back in the van, but the door  is stuck so I take the call in the packed van. He tells me that I should still come and gives me directions for which stop to get out and that he will send someone to collect me and take me to his monastery. Apparently it’s a 15 Km ride on a motorbike, which is what the Ajahn with the glasses told me. Okay, I’m back set on going to this place. Especially after I warn him that it might be a bit later in the after noon or early in the evening.

After some more navigating, I make it to the bus station in Pakse and get pointed to the bus to take me to Pak Song. I buy the ticket for 25,000 Geep, which is about $3 for an hour bus ride. Not a bad price. The bus looks packed with things already. There are tons of motorbikes strapped to the top and a lot of other people with packages waiting for them to be strapped to some part of the bus. I get on and the middle aisle is already filled with giant sacks of what feels like some kind of densely packed grain. I’m thinking rice or maybe even sugar. I step up on the sacks and walk back but have to be in a low crouched position not to hit my head on the ceiling. An old woman is sitting in the middle of the row and I wait for a few seconds for her to move. She looks at me and doesn’t budge. I finally tell her excuse me in Lao and then try to squeeze by her. I want to sit somewhat close to the front so I can talk with the bus driver about where I’m supposed to go and so I can easily tell him to stop. The closest seat I find is about in the middle. There’s trash all over and some half eaten food. I find a bag in the seat next to me, but stupidly ignore it. I want to be toward the front, so I just stay. The engine turns on and a man comes to sit next to me. Then right before we back up and leave two women come and tell us we’re in their seats, duh there was a bag and food you idiot. They have a small child, so we immediately pop up out of the seats into a crouch in the aisle. I look around and see people two rows up and down lining the middle of the rows, sitting on the bags. I guess they oversold the tickets. I take a seat on the sacks in the middle and put my bad in front of me. I can’t quite sit with my legs relaxed because they will shoot off into the seats next to me so I hold onto the edge of the seat I was just in for support. Then the woman uses that part of the seat, so I nestle my knees into part of the people’s seat around me. I get into the meditation posture or Indian style or just the regular crossed leg thing people do when they sit. The people to my left are a young couple with a kid who is directly behind me. I think they will be good targets if I need help with a part of this journey. That’s a strategy in Ghana I picked up, to ask women or people with children to help me because I figure they will have more compassion for me than most other groups of people. Hey, it’s worked well for me so far. I sit up straight and try to have a good posture, so I don’t destroy my back before I get to this place. After about 10 minutes of driving we get to a steep hill, which is throwing the upper part of my body backward, which is what the very tight tendons in my hips have been fighting for this whole time. I try to bare it for a little bit, but the hill doesn’t seem to end, so I get a good grip of the lower part of my shins to use my arms to support my back as well. I focus on getting in the best posture possible. I ask the young couple if they could help me figure out where to stop. I’m asking them in Lao and speaking very slowly, so they are extra nice and patient when they wait for me to finish and say they will help. I call the Ajahn back and ask him to explain where to stop to these people. They tell me they know exactly where it is and they will help me get out. I go back to sitting and concentrate on supporting my back with my arms. We’re still going up hill. It’s been 30 minutes and we’re still going up this damn hill. I thought I was further away from mount Everest, but I suppose that’s where we’re going because another few minutes and we’ll have been going up hill long enough to summit. Then as if I needed any more conditions against me, the guy in front of me falls asleep and is leaning on my backpack with is right in front of me, so he’s basically leaning on me and adding to the force of my hip tendons and the uphill gravity trying to move my torso backward, away from being in a good posture. When I thought the conditions couldn’t get worse the kid behind me starts to get restless and keeps bumping and kicking me. I guess that’s not all that bad because at least that’s sending me in the other direction. I take the deepest breath I can take, dig real deep into my shins to get the best grip possible, and close my eyes to meditate. I try to get so deeply focused on my breath and just let everything be where it is without thinking it’s bad or all against me… which it totally is. Someone clearly set this up and is laughing really hard right now. I wouldn’t have survived for 5 minutes if I hadn’t had so much practice the past 17 days at the monastery. I really calm down and feel like everything is no problem at all. I don’t know if I would put a label of being peaceful or happy, but I do know I just became okay with everything right here and now and eventually opened my eyes to watch the scenery go by outside. I actually feel like I’m now in on the joke and start to find the situation hilariously funny, but resist laughing because I don’t want the people to think I’m crazy and then not help me.

After about an hour on the bus, the couple and their son get off and I walk up to the front with them. They tell the bus driver where to drop me off and after another minute of driving they stop and dump me off. I call the Ajahn and tell him I’m here and he seems like he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore after all the times I’ve called him already. He tells me to wait there and someone will pick me up… or he tells me to that I missed the time and I’m not welcome anymore, I didn’t quite make out what he said. Either way, I wait in that spot. I’m so far off into the country side now that everyone who passes on the road stares at me the entire time.

A guy pulls up on a motorcycle staring at me. He doesn’t say anything, so I figure I’ll initiate the conversation. I ask him if the Ajahn sent him for me and he just grunts and nods. I’m really on a role with these translations so far; his grunt either means yes I’ll take you there or yes, I’ll take you to the woods and feed you to my pigs. Either way I’m in for an adventure so I jump on and we set off away from the main road and civilization, toward the countryside. Before long, we go off the paved road, onto just dirt road. The further we go the worse the road gets. He seems to know it well though because he tears down the good patches and then slams on the break, almost to a stop, right before we go over a big pot hole. Okay, I hope he knows it well and isn’t just seeing it at the last second because going over a giant pot hole at 30 mph would feel really bad. As we get further down the dirt path, the houses start to get less dense and the yards around the houses start to get much bigger. The smells become much more of freshness. I think it rained recently so there is that wet grass smell mixed with all kinds of wonderful countryside smells. Even though we’ve been away from the big city for a while now, this is the first time all my sense really take it in. There are clouds looming over head, so the breeze is really cool and the sun setting makes everything look stunningly beautiful. I don’t know if it’s from the meditation, the scenery, or making it through the hard part of the journey here, but I feel a deep sense of relaxation and appreciation for everything right now.

Not much longer we get to a point where the houses disappear and we’re just driving through countryside mixed with foresty areas. Yup, I’m definitely going to be a pigs breakfast… Well, I had a good time at least. Now the road gets much worse and starts going up and down steep hills. The foot thing slips and I kick it back into the bike. I can’t get it out again and I can feel that my attempts are knocking him off balance a little bit. I stop and just stick my food anywhere I can on the side. We go down a steep hill where he slams on the brakes and my body is now squashed up against his. He has to put his feet down and we almost fall down. I can feel him using his full strength to steer the bike and keep us up. I don’t think he’s used to driving with people as large as I am. Lao people are juuust a bit smaller. We make it through the hill without falling somehow and then we come to the end of the dirt road and enter under a big wooden sign that says something in English that just mixes a bunch of big words that don’t make sense together. I think we’re in some kind of reserve. The sky is much more threatening now and we’ve changed scenery to now driving through an open forest. It’s much less dense than the one in Thailand, more like the ones I’m used to in California. I can feel it sprinkling and I’m slightly worried about having to stop somewhere to wait out the rain.

We pull up to a knocked over tree and the guy stops. That’s funny, I don’t see any pigs… He tells me to keep going. I guess now I have to finish the rest on foot. On foot! Okay, I’d rather voluntarily offer myself to the pigs. Does he even know what kind of a bus ride I’ve just been through!? Oh yeah, he lives with this. I’m about 50 yards from the entrance and then at about 30 yards the sprinkling turns to rain. With about 10 steps left it starts to pour. I can see people coming over to the edge of the tin roof and calling me to come faster. Instead of running, I stay in stride and only get a little bit damp before getting under an enclave to this big rock formation. I take off my shoes and wash my feet and then enter a dinky made structure under the lip at the base of this giant mountain. There are a few Buddha statues surrounded by candles and a monk sitting directly in front meditating. He looks up as I pass and gives me a big smile. Then I follow two other guys dressed in all white, like I am, and they set up a mat for me to sit on. The pouring now gets even worse and is deafening as it hits the tin roof we’re under. I suppose this is their sala/meditation hall thing. It’s certainly less extravagant then the one in Thailand. I sit down with the two pakows and they bring me a water and soda. We just smile at each other at first and then one of them breaks the silence, so we get to know each other a bit. They don’t know how to speak English, so we do everything in Lao. It’s really strange how perfectly everything went on the trip over here. The Ajahn called me right when I was thinking about not going and then the pouring rain started when I was 10 steps away from getting into their monastery. No one could plan timing like that more perfectly, especially a place like Laos, which doesn’t run on time schedules.

After some time we go and sit on a mat in front of the Buddha statues. I don’t see any cushions in sight. At the other monastery, we had one square pad to cushion the floor and then a thicker and softer pad to put directly under our butt. This place is filled with people who’ve been sitting on the floor their whole lives, so it probably didn’t occur to them as a big deal. I’m slightly worried, but more ready to accept the challenge. Ajahn Chah told a story once about a guy who would sit in his meditation hall and support his back when he got tired. Chah pointed him out to everyone and used him as an example that if we don’t use ourselves as our own support, we’ll never be strong enough to go deeper into our meditation and practice. At some point we will go deep enough where the cushion won’t be there to help us and all we will have is the resilience we’ve built in our hearts and minds. That story really stood out to me and the many other related ones to that I’ve heard have only strengthened my conviction to build my resilience as my foundation.

They say the Ajahn is coming as I see a man come down from where I entered. He goes behind the statues and fixes his robe, but looks more like he’s a vampire putting on a cape. Cool, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a vampire. I imagined it more with a hot woman version of Dracula, but I guess I can’t be too picky. Then, he comes over to sit down and face the Buddha. He doesn’t say anything to me. Everyone is in the chanting posture, so I guess that’s what we’re doing, but the rain is making it impossible to hear. I sit the same way and look at the Buddha statue just barely illuminated by the candles. It gives a really interesting atmosphere I didn’t get at the other place. I feel more like I’m off in a cave, under a mountain, in the middle of the countryside somewhere…

After sometime of chanting the Ajahn and the monk turn around and face us. I look at him, but because of the candles behind his head I can’t make out his features. He’s not saying anything, so I cast my eyes down a bit, to make sure that I’m not being disrespectful, but it’s so natural for me to look right at someone, especially when I’m expecting them to address me, and then realize that everyone is meditating. We’re all so close it gives me a very intimate atmosphere I never felt at the other place. I feel more accountable as well. I start to scan my body for tension and relax those areas as best as I can. Slowly my knees start to come down to their level when I had the cushion. Even though they’ve dropped significantly, I can still feel the tension and the pain is probably worse now than ever. However, it’s not in my knees and it doesn’t feel like I’m going to hurt myself, so I keep pursuing the meditation. The weight is making the outside of my anklebones hurt. I think about what one of the monks told me at Nanachat (place in Thailand) about walking barefoot. He said it’s not very important to have tough feet past a certain point. He said that it could actually damage your feet if the callouses get too thick. He was telling me this as he was rubbing some course rock on his foot to file away the callouses. Then he said that the most important thing is the balance of your weight. He said it’s important to divide the weight into the whole foot and when there’s a lot of pressure in one spot, the fine tuned muscles in the leg should shift the weight slightly to relieve that spot and then will even everything out again. I think about that here with my ankles. I concentrate on how my weight is divided and try to put more weight into other areas with a bit more natural cushion. To my surprise it actually works this time and the pain in my ankles has reduced enough to continue with my relaxation meditation. Or sorry, with my relaxation, I’m still trying to get to the actual mediation part. I think I spend most of my meditations trying to talk my body into doing something. When the pain reduces in my ankles I also feel a surge of confidence and my resilience building, just like Chah said would happen. I can feel quite a few ants crawling over me now, to the point where I think I’m sitting right in the middle of their line. This is another thing that I dealt with the whole time while being in the forest at Nanachat, so I just let it go and keep going deeper into relaxation. I can feel my back relaxing a lot and it feels like I’m not sitting up straight, but I can open my eyes and see that I am. I guess I’m just used to sitting in the tense up right position I thought I always had to be in for the good posture. I’m still not good at that part. Maybe my back isn’t perfect, but I can certainly now feel there’s no tension, so I stick with it. I concentrate on getting rid of the tension everywhere else in my body and then focus on where it’s still being held in my legs. I start from the easy places to relax and then move closer and closer to the stubborn part of my legs. Finally I get to the middle of my legs and after a few long exhales, I let go completely of the tension.

Immediately, I notice the pain disappears completely. There’s absolutely zero pain in my legs. Now, I’m finally ready to meditate and concentrate on what my mind is doing. There are a few times where I thought I’ve been totally relaxed in meditation, but this confirms that I hadn’t been. I now really know what it feels like to be totally relaxed and how most of my bodily pains come from my resistance and tension. It’s so backwards because my body stays tense in order to avoid hurting myself or being in more pain, but that’s actually the source of the pain itself. I’m able to stay with my breath for a bit, but the first time my concentration drifts away from my breath and relaxation, my legs spasm. My knees shoot up like the first fireworks to break the silence of the night before a big show. They go back to their normal level and the pain comes coursing right back. It’s almost like my body when back into it’s habitual state of operating and realized, “Wow! You can’t be that relaxed in your legs, you’ll hurt us!”

I try to get back to the same level of relaxation again, but it’s just never the same. I’m back to the level of relaxation when I thought I was fully there, but now I know I can be more relaxed, to the point of the abolishment of my leg pain. Then, I start to feel little sensations of pain firing in different parts of my body. I’m not sure if it’s twitching or what. Maybe I was hurting myself and now I’m feeling the affects. Then, I realize where the pain is coming from. The ants crawling all over me are now biting me. I sit there and endure through the meditation until I hear a bell telling us to stop. I wasn’t able to get back to that relaxed state, but I’ve reached a new frontier in my practice and now I really know what it feels like, beyond just the conventions of what the words “relaxed legs” means. This is a huge benchmark now for me and therefore something to strive for in the future.

After the meditation ends, the Ajahn addresses me in Lao and I put my hands to my chest in prayer position to show respect while someone senior is addressing me. It’s hard to understand him because I can’t see him speak, but I get what he’s saying after he points. He says that I’ll be staying the night in one of the rooms up stairs and we’re going there now. We drop off my bag at the room and the packow shows me what’s there for me to use. Then we keep walking along the dark rocky ground. The trees aren’t thick and the ground is all rock, so I figure we’re climbing a rock, duh, and going above the forest area. Then the Ajahn stops and tells one of the packows to take me somewhere. He hike up for a bit more and then come to a big Buddha statue. We go to the rock behind the statue and look out over what looks like a horizon. I can see all black below and then up to the horizon, which is more lit up than the land below it. We’re standing above the horizon, so we must be at some kind of tall look out point. Did I mention we’re on a rock yet? The night is a bit overcast, so there aren’t many stars to see. Then, he takes me back to my room and says he will see me in the morning at 3 in the sala.

In the room there’s a hard cushion and then the same thin mat we just meditated on, which is basically like sleep directly on the ground. I’m still tired from going to sleep a bit later last night after the Dharma talk, so I pass out right away.

I wake up in the middle of the night really cold, so I take the blanket in the room, but it’s not long enough to cover my body, so I curl up and fall back asleep. I wake up again with my body aching because of the hard floor and my bottom half that slipped out of the blanket cold. Then, I realize the blanket is long enough, I just had it sideways, so I turn it around and then get warm enough to sleep through the rest of the night.

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