I am so embarrassed. This is my second wat orientated post since I said I wasn’t going to do any more! My excuse is that this is a story more about a day travelling around the countryside with a van full of monks than the wats themselves so I hope you forgive me and keep reading.

Just before we start on the main topic here’s a photo I wanted to share.

Our garden early morning. That is fog not smoke. The cooler damp weather producing some unexpected results.

Our garden this early morning. That is fog not smoke. The cooler damp weather producing some unexpected results.

Gaun and I have been attending regular evening chanting and meditation sessions at a wat about ten minutes down the road from us at one of the many Buddhist forest temples scattered throughout Thailand and beyond. A week ago the Abbot (meaning father) invited us to join a group of laypeople and his monks in a day trip visiting four local temples and their Abbots.

I love things like this. You are either going to sit in your house and exclude yourself from Thai life or jump in when the opportunity is offered. Either is fine and it’s not up to me to be judgemental but I prefer the latter option. If nothing else the blog would die otherwise.

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A clue to picking a forest wat are the trees 🙂

If you just want to read about the day then skip this next bit. As always I try to provide as much background to my stories as I can for those who are interested in learning more about this culture:

The Thai Forest tradition is the branch of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand that most strictly holds the original monastic rules of discipline laid down by the Buddha. The Forest tradition also most strongly emphasizes meditative practice and the realization of enlightenment as the focus of monastic life. Forest monasteries are primarily oriented around practicing the Buddha’s path of contemplative insight, including living a life of discipline, renunciation, and meditation in order to fully realize the inner truth and peace taught by the Buddha. Living a life of austerity allows forest monastics to simplify and refine the mind. This refinement allows them to clearly and directly explore the fundamental causes of suffering within their heart and to inwardly cultivate the path leading toward freedom from suffering and supreme happiness. Living frugally, with few possessions fosters for forest monastics the joy of an unburdened life and assists them in subduing greed, pride, and other taints in their minds.

Our local forest temple.

Our local forest temple. The name is only in Thai so this is Gaun’s translation. Phar/Pha/Pa (sounds like Ba) means a forest.

Forest monastics live in daily interaction with and dependence upon the lay community. While laypeople provide the material supports for their renunciant life, such as almsfood and cloth for robes, the monks provide the laity with teachings and spiritual inspiration. Forest monks follow an extensive 227 rules of conduct. They are required to be celibate, to eat only between dawn and noon, and not to handle money. They also commonly engage in a practice known as “tudong” in which they wander on foot through the countryside either on pilgrimage or in search of solitary retreat places in nature. During such wanderings, monks sleep wherever is available and eat only what is offered by laypeople along the way. (My thanks to these words from the following Site HERE) Another useful resource can be found HERE.

The start of the day was set at 7.00 am today and the abbot was concerned whether I could get up at this early hour (I think their day starts around 4.00am!) Well I made a special effort, set the alarm and we arrived at the wat pretty well on time. The monks were keen for us to join in on the day. One of them is the brother of the lady who owns the land next to ours. The day before he phoned his sister, who phoned Yuan, my sister-in-law, who phoned Peng, my step daughter, because Gauin wasn’t answering her phone to remind us! The advantages of living in a small Isaan village.

I have been awake occasionally at a time to photo the daily rounds of the monks early morning to collect their food for the day donated by the villagers. I have never thought about the process after the food has been donated. Read on.

Not my photo.

Not my photo (can’t find my version- true I have been awake this early)

The forest wat we go to called something like Wat Pha Silawa, which I can’t find on the internet but it is out of the way so maybe not surprising or my phonetic spelling of the Thai is out – Google map photo above. I like the place because of its treed, peaceful location and the fact the abbot has it well maintained unlike so many Thai temples. Everything is spotless and the roads and paths swept of leaves every day. The monks have a two hour chanting and meditation session twice a day, which is open for anyone to join.

The small Ubosot building.

The small Ubosot building. Many of the forest wats I have visited don’t have a formal structure like this one.

This is a well maintained and disciplined wat. This place has been repainted since being built, an unusual occurrence in Thailand.

This is a well maintained and disciplined wat. This place has been repainted since being built, an unusual occurrence in Thailand.

Four of the Sema stones, which have been placed above the Luk Nimit globes as I have discussed in too much detail in the last couple of posts.

Four of the Sema stones, which have been placed above the buried Luk Nimit globes as I have discussed in too much detail in the last couple of posts. Go HERE for more information.

A small basically open structure for chanting and meditation. Used in the dry season.

A small basically open structure for chanting and meditation. The monks sit on the raised area and the laypeople in front. Used in the dry season.

A larger meditation hall, which we are using in the wet season.

A larger meditation hall, which we are using in the wet season.

Inside the larger sala building.

Inside the larger sala building.

Burial markers set in the forest. You won't get Gaun anywhere near these!

Burial markers set in the forest. You won’t get Gaun anywhere near these!

Sleeping quarters for female visitors.

Sleeping quarters for female visitors.

Lots of paths leading off into the trees. The monks have small houses scattered throughout the site.

Lots of paths leading off into the trees. The monks have small houses scattered throughout the site.

The raised community hall used for larger events and gatherings. Most forest temple wats have one of these usually built largely from timber.

The raised community hall used for larger events and gatherings. Most forest temple wats have one of these usually built largely from timber.

It is this third building that was being used on this day and when we arrived the distribution of the morning’s food collection was underway. All of the contributions were collected in tin trays from which the four monks present were selecting what went into their individual pots.

I haven't seen this aspect of the morning ritual for all Thai monks.

I haven’t seen this aspect of the morning ritual for all Thai monks. There are a total of seven monks living here but the other three were elsewhere this morning.

Selection done they wait for the abbot to finish his bit.

The monk on the left still adding to his bowl the one on the right finished and bowl covered.

Selection done they wait for the abbot to finish his bit.

Selection done they wait for the abbot to finish his bit. The monk on the right is the brother of our nextdoor neighbour.

Once the monks have chosen their food the rest is distributed for visitors. Sticky rice being handed out here by the abbot.

Once the monks have chosen their food the rest is distributed for visitors. Sticky rice (that ball looking thing) being handed out by the abbot and he is working out what goes in each tray for visitors.

That would last me a week. A little snack for an Isaan monk.

That would last me a week. A little snack for an Isaan monk.

This was given to us for our breakfast.

This was given to us for our breakfast. Enough for the week!

Seeing my normal first meal of the day consists of cornflakes, toast and a couple of coffees this looked a bit overwhelming. Luckily we had some help from a couple of the other visitors who had slept in the temple overnight.

Gaun and this lady who we found out lives in our village.

Gaun and this lady who we found out lives in our village.

Just as we were about the leave Gaun spotted this mushroom in the trees and the hunt was on.

Hidden forest treasure.

Hidden forest treasure.

Gaun on the search.

Gaun on the search.

These type of trees and the rain evidently make an ideal mushroom breeding ground. Everywhere in the local area is selling mushrooms. Roadside stalls have sprung up wherever you drive and you are never far from a source of freshly picked mushrooms.

These formalities took a couple of hours and we were then really to load up with three of the participants for the day and follow the other cars on the day’s round of four temples. I wrote a couple of sentences in my post on the Ubon Ratchathani candle festival HERE, which read “These days monks are more likely to be seen being transported around in pick-up trucks and chatting on their mobile phones but the tradition still carries on. The candles were provided to encourage the monks to stay inside and study the scriptures.”

I don’t want to be negative about the way things are done in the Thai Buddhist world so I won’t make any comment on the transport purchased the day before for use by our temple. It is something I could get hung up on and I don’t have the time left to clutter my life with unnecessary stuff. However (!) I do wonder where the renunciation part of this quote applies to the photo below “Forest monasteries are primarily oriented around practicing the Buddha’s path of contemplative insight, including living a life of discipline, renunciation, and meditation in order to fully realize the inner truth and peace taught by the Buddha.”

A far cry from wandering barefoot temple to temple.

A far cry from wandering barefoot temple to temple.

The four wats selected for our attention this day were all smallish, simple local temples and not the flash ooh ah type of structures like the amazing one I wrote about HERE. Photograph one of the wats, like “our” forest temple and you’ve pretty well got most of them covered. The highlight of the day for me was being invited to join this event, one of those things that happens in the background of this society that us farang would miss out on unless we get out and become more involved and open.

I had thought that all the temples would be very local but by the day’s end we had covered over 200km so it was quite a round trip. In the unlikely event someone wants to visit any of the wats I describe please write and I will give you the details.

Wat 1

This one was local. It is 4 km off the 228, the road that goes from Nong Bua Lamphu, our local larger town, to Si Bun Ruang, our home. It isn’t actually a forest wat but the abbot is a senior monk, more senior than our abbot, so our group called in.

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The Ubosot. A typical local moo baan (village) wat. Nothing “special”, although it has had a recent coat of paint, which is unusual!

A typical local moo baan (village) wat. Nothing "special", although it has had a recent coat of paint, which is unusual!

The open aired hall which will be used the most often for larger gatherings.

Inside the open hall area.

Inside the open hall area. That is a wax monk at the left if you thought otherwise.

A very simple "house" structure where we met the abbot. See what I mean about photogenic.

A very simple “house” structure where we met the abbot. See what I mean about photogenic.

The abbot.

The abbot.

"Our" abbot sitting at a lower level.

“Our” abbot sitting at a lower level.

All the monks.

All the monks.

Each visit followed a set procedure. The abbot of the wat being visited sat up front with his monks and our lot joined in. Laypeople obviously knew we were arriving by turning up and participating in the welcome ceremony. Some then joined our travelling group because as the day went along the party got larger and larger.

There was a welcome prayer and then our monks gave small gifts to the local abbot – candles, a couple of orange robes, bottles of water, a case of coke!, toilet paper and some bottles of vitamin liquid. A collection of money was made from the room and counted. A written note advising the money raised was included in the items given to the abbot and the money deposited into the safe all wats have for donations. I thought this was strange but having read my researched introduction at the beginning of this post “Forest monks follow an extensive 227 rules of conduct. They are required to be celibate, to eat only between dawn and noon, and not to handle money.” this now makes sense.

The abbot in three of the four situations gave a short talk, in Thai of course, so I can’t pass on any wisdoms. A wind-up chant from everyone and the formal part is over. Drinks were then usually made available and the whole visit was over in well under an hour.

Wat 2 – name below if you have a Thai person handy

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This one was on the 210 between Nong Bua Lamphu and Udon Thani. It is a huge piece of land of 1,000 lei (1 lei = 1,600 m2), which equals 1.6 sq km or 395 acres.

Set in forest of course although a lot of the land was cleared as far as I could see.

Set in forest of course although a lot of the land was cleared as far as I could see.

The odd one out.

The odd one out.

Meeting the abbot who drives around in an electric golf cart. Sensible if he's got 1,000 lei.

Meeting the abbot who drives around in an electric golf cart. Sensible if he’s got 1,000 lei to cover.

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The full group.

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This was a friendly group of Thais. We needed to get petrol and one of the cars came with us so we could follow them to the next temple.

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Wat 3 – Wat Tham Phra Thep Nimit

This one was set at the base of the hills closer to the border with Laos and took about an hour to drive there. “Tham” means cave in Thai and “Phra”, also spelt Pha or Pa, means forest. We didn’t get to see the cave but can vouch for the trees. When Gaun and I went to our local forest wat with my brother and sister-in-law during their visit to us in Isaan, one of the monks gave us a copy of a book, which had this cover. I thought the monk had a certain presence but because the publication is written in Thai I had no idea of who he was or where his wat might be.

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Well here he is in person.

Well here he is in person. Photo slightly out of focus so it isn’t your eyes! This is the real guy not a wax figure. You can get caught out in Thailand.

But before I introduce you to him it was around lunchtime and the Thai world comes to a stop to eat. Warning – if you are visiting any government offices don’t do it between noon and 1.00pm. Everyone goes to lunch at the same time and many places are deserted during this hour.

Luckily we had plenty of food left over from the morning’s collection and the local people had cooked extra for people visiting the abbot that day. Our group had grown by quite a bit by then.

Spot the Aussie?

Spot the Aussie? Far back on the right. Just a light snack to top-up from breakfast.

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A search through the food available found a few things that wouldn’t destroy my taste buds. The kitchen also produced an egg omelet for the poor farang, which was very kind of them.

The meeting with the abbot was again held in a small open sala to the side of the main meeting hall. All very informal and friendly. This was a very happy monk. Instead of giving a talk he just chatted with everyone and there were obviously lots of jokes flying around, which he enjoyed immensely.

The small sala where the meeting was held. A sort of theme of simplicity in these forest wats.

The small sala where the meeting was held. A sort of theme of simplicity in these forest wats.

Sitting behind a stack of his books, most of which were handed out.

The abbot on the left sitting behind a stack of his books, most of which were handed out.

Enjoying a joke.

Enjoying a joke.

Wat 4

Another forest wat on the outskirts of Nong Bua Lamphu. Again nothing architecturally significant but a warm welcome from the abbot and his monks.

Very similar style to all the other forest wats.

Very similar style to all the other forest wats. Functional rather than spectacular and not ones idea of a Thai temple from the tourist brochures.

For regular readers of the blog do you remember our visit to Wat Pa Phu Kon HERE? You’d remember the photos for sure:

Wat Pa Phu Kon

Wat Pa Phu Kon. A little different in style from the forest wats.

After we called into this wat we popped into a forest wat (although at the time I wasn’t so clued up on them) called Wat Pa (I don’t need to tell you again that means a forest) Nakuamnoi. The main hall was almost identical in style to the ones we were visiting in this post.

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Although inside was a step up from our local versions:

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Back to the current story.

Gaun went to the toilets before the ceremony and I could hear all this chatter in the distance. It turns out that she had the Thai equivalent of the Australian redback spider on the toilet seat experience.

Can you spot the "redback"?

Can you spot the “redback”?

Hmmm.

Hmmm. I have looked and all the green snakes listed HERE are pretty harmless unlike the redback, which will make you ill. I wouldn’t be prepared to test the author’s knowledge with this example though. Still not something you expect at a moment of vulnerability!

The formal part of the visit got underway and followed the same schedule as the others.

The visiting monks were given coffee made by this novice monk on an espresso machine.

The visiting monks were given coffee made by this novice monk on an espresso machine.

As a bit of a coffee freak with an Italian espresso set-up at my place, I felt for the monks drinking the shot prepared by this guy. I could gain many Buddhist merit points by teaching him how to make a good coffee 🙂

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Preparing the gifts.

Got to like a monk who loves dogs.

Got to like a monk who loves dogs. It took the dog about 20 minutes to move through the crowd to get to that position.

Even the forest monks can’t help themselves in the endless Thai Buddhist building fever. One does wonder at the necessity for a water based sala but if the money is there to spend………………….

Lots of Buddhist merit being created here.

Lots of Buddhist merit being created here.

If you want to read about the forest tradition being lived much closer to its original intention then have a read of my post HERE about the day we visited a monk in the hills of Mae Rim behind Chiang Mai. He was an ex very senior monk trying to escape the materialism of modern Thai Buddhism. I will get back to see him one day and probably find a concrete wonderland.

The day finished we dropped our fellow travellers back at our temple and took the lady who lived in the next moo baan to our village home. Gaun was rewarded by being offered lots of cuttings for her garden. A happy Gaun indeed. All planted today as I write this post.

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A great day out at a time of the year when the countryside is looking especially Thai with new rice paddies looking picture perfect and all the vegetation thriving in the wetter climate. With temperatures in the high 20’s this is a very comfortable time to visit. Bring an umbrella for the afternoon rain.

Thanks for reading.