A cyclist in South East Asia can avoid costly hostels or sweating it out in a tent by staying at the Buddhist temples that are ubiquitous in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. I availed myself of the generous hospitality of the monks numerous times on a recent ride through the region. Each night provided me with different experiences ranging from amusing to just plain weird.
I was usually ushered into a spacious prayer hall and shown where the bathroom was before being kindly left to my own devices in the peaceful surroundings of the wat (temple or pagoda). The calm was always a pleasure after a long day pedalling on the busy roads. Often I was also invited to eat with the monks in the mornings. I have many fond memories of these visits but the stay that lives strongest in my memory is, without a doubt, a surreal night in southern Thailand.
I arrived at Wat Tham Tu Khao Tong after dark and was immediately surrounded by six vociferous dogs. All was dark and it took me a couple of minutes to spot a doorway illuminated from within by the dim flicker of candlelight. As I peered into the darkness, 60 silent monks came into view, all sat in the lotus position and facing a large, gold-gilded Buddha. An old woman in white robes and a shaven head, bent with age, took me by the wrist and led me to the front, gesturing I should sit down and meditate along with the rest. It was not a request but an order so, with difficulty, I folded my legs under me, feeling them swell with lactic acid. The calm was unnerving at first. Three minutes earlier I had been cycling along at 20mph and now I sat before an orange-robed sea of tranquility with sweat beading on my skin and my heart thumping almost audibly.
I soon grew uncomfortable and restless. I had no idea how long I would be here but didn’t want to disturb anyone so I didn’t even turn my head for sidelong glances. My busy mind began darting around and leap-frogging over itself while I imagined 60 enlightened ‘third-eyes’ burning a hole in the back of my still-sweating head. After a short while I decided to count down from 300, one count with each exhalation, and to creep out after I reached zero. 300, 299, 298, 297... I impatiently busied my eyes with a gently-swaying candle flame two yards in front of me. 274, 273, 272... My breath steadied and the count slowed accordingly. 237, 236... The candle continued to dance mesmerisingly, my eyes began to glaze and the crawling count required all my concentration. The orange sea’s tranquil tide swept over me.
I don’t remember reaching 200 but the next thing I knew, a hand settled softly on my shoulder. I looked into the deeply-lined face of the woman who had showed me in. She was smiling knowingly; the monks behind me were stretching out and chatting quietly. I was wide awake with my back bolt upright and my eyes wide open when she touched me, but my mind was utterly without thought. I was happy. I checked the time; over an hour had passed. Through coercion and the self-imposed social pressure not to disturb, I had successfully meditated. A first-time fluke. I was given a large plate of rice and a glass of mango juice before sleeping in the still-flickering candle light.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.
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