Dipabhavan Meditation Retreat, Koh Samui, Thailand


Back in 2000, when I first went travelling in Southeast Asia, I remember meeting these spaced-out people who had just finished a silent meditation retreat. At that time, the idea didn’t appeal to me at all, but as I got older and became more interested in practices such as meditation, I found I was curious about what such a retreat would entail. While travelling in Flores in 2011 I met a fellow traveller who had attended a ten-day retreat in Thailand, although she only made it through to day eight. Then curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give it a try.

Through an internet search I found the Dipabhavan Hermitage on Koh Samui island which is run by the same people as run the larger retreats at Suan Mokkh monastery on Thailand’s mainland. At Dipabhavan there is a monthly three-day retreat, running from the 7th to the 10th of the month, which seemed perfect for someone like me who had never done meditation before, let alone been silent for even a day! I booked a place, and a few weeks later found myself in a pick-up being driven to the Dipabhavan or “Development of Light” Hermitage which is up in the mountains of Samui island. As we left civilisation behind, the scenery became more and more beautiful. The tropical forest plants, massive hills and spectacular views out to sea made it worthwhile to visit this peaceful place.

Dipabhavan hermitage signWe were allowed to talk to one another at first, as we registered and deposited our valuables. We also signed up for our daily chores – I was to sweep the meditation hall every morning after breakfast. I got to know some of the other participants as we chatted over our first meal of noodles. There were thirteen of us, from a range of nationalities including Canadian, German, Dutch, British and Australian, but the hermitage could hold at least twice as many people, and I heard it gets full during peak season.

women's dormitory

The women’s dorm

We were shown to our dormitories, separate buildings for women and men. The women’s dormitory is a self-contained block with showers and toilets on the ground floor. There is only cold water and the concrete showers were very basic. The “beds” were wooden boards, with boards on three sides to offer some privacy, and a wooden pillow. Luxury it was not, but adequate and bearable for a few days.

Wooden sleeping platform

This was my bed during the retreat.

wooden pillow

And this was my wooden pillow!

Then we processed up a steep hill to the meditation hall, where a British guy called Nigel gave an introductory talk about the retreat. I have to admit I was surprised to be in Thailand doing meditation and the retreat being run by a British man – I had expected it to be run by Thai people, or even by monks. But it turned out not to matter once we got started. This introduction turned out to be our only opportunity to ask questions before the silence began. We were not to speak at all, to anyone, until the end of the silence on Monday morning.

I found the silence by far the most difficult aspect of the retreat. Never before have I been so aware of two things: firstly, most of what we say to others is insignificant and can remain unspoken without any consequence, but secondly, all those little gestures we make with insignificant words do help to keep us social, to oil the wheels of our relationships with others, not only our friends and family but the neutral people we meet in our daily lives. To not be able to speak meant to not communicate with others, but at a group retreat, we still had to sit, walk and eat together, in limited space, while not communicating. This was the weirdest aspect for me – put me alone and I’ll happily be silent, but put me close to other people and the social animal in me wants to communicate.

Meditation hall

The meditation hall

Every day we were woken at 4.30am by the bell in the meditation hall. We would quickly get up, get dressed and walk up the hill in the dark to the meditation hall. Then there would be a morning reading, teaching us something about meditation, before half an hour of meditation. Then there was yoga before breakfast. Every meditation session lasted for thirty minutes, and we learnt sitting meditation, walking meditation and loving kindness meditation. There were also sessions with damma speakers, monks based at the retreat, where we were taught some of the skills and practices of meditation. We each had a space on the floor of the meditation hall, and a cushion to sit on during sitting meditation. For walking meditation we were encouraged to find a space outside in the large grounds of the hermitage to walk in meditation.

Nature

The retreat grounds were a great place for walking meditation.

We were taught sitting meditation using breathing, where you focus on your breathing in different ways: long breathing, short breathing and normal breathing, focusing closely on the way the air hits your nose and enters your body. If any thoughts or feelings enter your mind, you are supposed to observe them without manipulating them. It was surprisingly difficult to keep this up for thirty minutes, but at least I tried. Since then I heard that thirty minutes is indeed considered long for a beginner to try to meditate.

Walking meditation was more my thing and I enjoyed and looked forward to practising it. We were taught to focus on our steps and the movements we make with our feet, using one of two rhythms: lift-go-place, or raise-lift-go-lower-place. In the natural surroundings of the hermitage it was wonderful to just be able to be there, walking slowly. On two evenings we did group walking meditation, which was a particularly powerful experience with us all processing slowly in a large circle around this Buddha statue.

BuddhaWe were also taught loving kindness meditation, where we were encouraged to imagine we were a warm afternoon sun, spreading loving kindness to a range of people, starting from oneself and ending with all people and nature. Although we couldn’t say it out loud, we were encouraged to think this verse:

                May you be happy and well,
                May your mind be peaceful and calm,
                May you be free from all suffering,
                May you be protected from all danger,
                May you be free from hatred, anger, greed and fear,
                May you find peace of mind.

The retreats at Dipabhavan are not aimed at Buddhists, but some Buddhist philosophy was imparted to us, in particular the three principles common to humans and all nature: (1) The impermanence of everything, (2) All creatures suffer, (3) The non-self, that we do not own ourselves, we belong to nature. Although I am not Buddhist, I did find it interesting to consider these points.

Every day we rose at 4.30am, did sessions of meditation, yoga, teachings, had breakfast, lunch and small afternoon snack, and slept at 9.30pm. The breakfast and lunch breaks were plenty long enough to shower and even have a rest, and I also spent time wandering around the grounds of the hermitage, enjoying nature. The food was cooked for us by the nuns who live there, and it was designed to be healthy, with plenty of vegetables. Mealtimes were the only time we spoke and only to read a short prayer giving thanks for the food. The meal was then eaten together in silence.

dining room

The dining room

So, would I go to this retreat again? I’m not sure. I enjoyed learning about meditation and Dipabhavan is the perfect place to practise it, and I have heard that if you go on a longer retreat, after the first few days, the silence is no longer burdensome. But I wished I had the opportunity to ask questions, such as about the meditation practice, and I found it difficult to be around others without communicating with them. The wooden board beds were adequate, but I couldn’t help wondering if my meditation would have been more effective after a decent sleep!

Overall, I am pleased I took the opportunity to experience a silent meditation retreat. Although I’m not rushing to attend another one, I have become more interested in meditation since then, and learnt techniques which I have practised elsewhere.

Trees

 

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Java Bali Tour: Visit Indonesia


If you’re inspired by reading about the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali but haven’t visited these amazing islands, this Java Bali tour could be just right for you.

Lynda Bransbury is offering very reasonably priced places on her Java Bali Heritage Tour in December 2012-January 2013. I met Lynda while I was studying Javanese gamelan music and she was studying puppetry in Solo, Central Java. You can read more about her tours in this interview or head straight to her own website.

MountainsHere are the juicy details:

JUST TWO PLACES LEFT ON OUR XMAS TOUR

27 December – 12 January 2012

17 nights in Java & Bali £770 single room; £612 if 2 people share

13 nights in Java £481 single room; £373 if 2 people share

7 night tour of Central Java £270;

Come and experience the wonders and beauty of Java and Bali for 17 nights. Vibrant tropical vegetation, lush rice fields, impressive volcanoes, sacred and ancient sites, dating back to Hindu Buddhist times.

BorobudurEach country has its own rich, cultural heritage. Traditional performing arts and rituals remain a vibrant and valued part of daily life. The 17 night study tour (13 nights in Java and 4 nights in Bali) combines visits to the major historical sites from the Hindu Buddhist past, including the World Heritage Site of Borobudur Temple, with opportunities to see traditional dance, ritual and performance. You can also take part in workshops led by internationally recognized Javanese artists in sound, movement, meditation, traditional dance or shadow puppets.

We visit Javanese mountain villages where the traditional way of life has hardly changed in generations, and stay overnight in village houses. You get to see traditions, performance and farming practices that tourists rarely see.

CONTACT

Lynda Bransbury at lyndabransbury@yahoo.com or telephone (+44) 873 812 664 for more information or to book a place. See www.javabaliheritage.co.uk

Balinese dance

Karimunjawa: Holiday Fail


Karimunjawa is a group of 27 islands off the north coast of Java, 22 of which remain uninhabited. Due to its abundance of coral and marine life, the area has been designated as a national park. Famous for its pristine white sand beaches and relatively unharmed by the tourist industry, but accessible by sea from mainland Java, this seemed the perfect destination for a relaxing beach holiday.

This was the first (and last) time I have ever bought a package trip. Having met a friend of a friend who took groups to Karimunjawa on trips, we were convinced by him to buy a package at a cost of Rp. 475,000 per person (or about £35), which would include the following:

1. Economy return tickets on KMP Muria
2. Transportation to accommodation for duration of stay
3. Cost of homestay accommodation for 4 days 3 nights
4. 8 meals
5. Grilled fish 2x
6. Visitor ticket 2 days
7. Boat hire 2 days
8. Upwater and underwater documentation (copy of file, please bring 4GB flashdisk)
9. Drinking water and snacks for duration of stay
10. First aid equipment
11. Local guide fee
12. Karimunjawa Holiday guide fee
13. Coconut drink

It is important to point out that this is all we were told; we were not shown the company’s website and did not even know the name of the company until we arrived at Jepara harbour and paid in full. At the time, however, this seemed like a good deal and we happily paid a deposit. We arrived at Jepara harbour in plenty of time, met the people from the tour company and paid the remainder of the money. The dock area was already busy. We were given economy class tickets for the ferry, KMP Muria, and an information sheet about the trip. To my horror this sheet contained a detailed schedule from morning until night every day, whizzing participants to lots of different places with only one to two hours at each one, with breakfast at 6am every morning. This was not what we had paid for. Nobody had told us there was a timetable, let alone one like this. We wanted to relax on our short holiday, to spend time lying on the beach, swimming in the sea and soaking up the atmosphere, to sleep in as late as we wanted and not to be controlled by someone else’s schedule.

We boarded the ship, which was already getting crowded. Horror moment number two: we didn’t actually have the right to a seat with our tickets. All the seats were full. We walked past the door to the air conditioned VIP section and I regretted not getting a VIP ticket. We went upstairs onto the outside upper deck where people were sitting cross-legged on the dirty floor in small groups. The sun beat down upon us. We found a small piece of floor on the right hand side of the deck and sat down. Apparently conditions are always like this on KMP Muria. People rigged up sarongs and pieces of tarpaulin to provide shade during the six hour journey. I sat there sheltering under a sarong, hoping that the journey would go smoothly; on a ship this full there would be little chance of survival if anything went wrong. I suddenly understood why reports of ships sinking are not infrequent here in Indonesia. A man near me threw up into a plastic bag. Then his son threw up on the floor. They sat in the pool of vomit for the rest of the journey.

Cramped conditions on board KMP Muria

Cramped conditions on board KMP Muria

We sat and sat and sat. There was nowhere to go; you couldn’t walk around because there were people sitting or lying everywhere, filling all decks, in the corridors, on the stairs and even in the car park area. So we just sat there, sheltering from the sun, trying not to look at people vomiting, sometimes watching the horizon, and above all hoping the voyage would pass quickly.

At last the island of Karimun was visible. Then it felt like an age as we slowly approached it. Docking the ship took even longer and then we waited as various cargos that had spilt or toppled over during the journey were picked up. We disembarked; it felt good to walk on land again, and we quickly met our tour company representatives. Then we drank cold refreshing coconut drinks while waiting to be taken to our accommodation. We had specifically asked to be placed in a homestay near to a nice beach.

We were collected by pick-up truck and taken to a woman’s house. She said that since there were two girls and two boys, and two rooms, we would sleep girls in one room and the boys in the other. Ahem, we said, we’re husband and wife. Since our initial contact with the tour company we had been clear that we were a married couple. Oh, she said, sounding unhappy, and reluctantly put us in a room together. Later I heard her sounding suspicious about our marital status “Apparently they’re married.” This alone was enough to make us feel uncomfortable there. We weren’t made to feel at all welcome. She didn’t show us where the bathroom was or anything like that; we just got shown to our room, a plain affair, with a Javanese-style kapok mattress, a window looking out directly onto a grey wall, and the bangs and crashes of someone shaping metal outside. The sea was not visible from any part of the house, which was in a normal Javanese neighbourhood; it reminded me of my mother-in-law’s house, and I wondered what I was paying for. There was certainly no beach nearby.

Anyone who has travelled in Indonesia knows what a homestay is here; someone’s house that they have made into a mini-hostel, by addition of rooms and bathrooms, often in a separate block from the main house. This was no homestay; it was a home, and it felt deeply awkward to be told to sleep in someone’s home when that person clearly does not want you there.

We sat down in “our room” and pondered our situation for a while, before texting the tour company representative to ask for better accommodation. A group from the company came to the woman’s house and asked what the problem was. We were forced to talk to them about the issues right at the house, with the woman listening in. This was extremely embarrassing for us, but at least they agreed to find us alternative accommodation. We were told that all the hotels were full (it was holiday season), and that none of the hotels had beaches except for one expensive resort, but we were offered a room at Wisma Apung. This is a hostel out in the sea on stilts where you have to take a boat to the mainland. We went out to a jetty to look at the hostel from afar. It looked like a rickety structure, and having to pay every time you wanted to go to the main island did not appeal to us. Thankfully, we have internet on our phones, and using this, we found some phone numbers for other hotels. By phoning these hotels, we were told to check out Dewa Daru, a hotel very near the dock. We told the tour company reps to take us there, and were eventually able to negotiate to stay in a room where the air conditioning had broken at a cheaper rate. Nevertheless, we had to pay for this room on our own; it was not covered by the “package” at all. I was relieved that I had thought to bring some emergency money and that it was enough to cover this extra Rp.225,000 per night for accommodation.

Dewa Daru accommodation

Dewa Daru accommodation

By this time, it was nearly dark. We were given some food in boxes as our dinner, the kind of food that is given to musicians at performances in Solo because it is cheap: rice and a tiny amount of vegetables, a tiny piece of something else (in this case squid), and a small banana. I had been hoping to enjoy a range of Karimun food, particularly seafood, during my trip, but this was not to be the case, as over the next few days we would receive these food boxes every lunch and dinner (we got breakfast with our hotel room), with little variation.

Contrary to the information we had been given that the hotels do not have beaches, Dewa Daru is right next to a beach. Throughout our stay, tour company reps continued to assert that there is no beach there, even when we were sitting about twenty metres away from it. There is sand and then the sea. You can paddle in it, and if it wasn’t so shallow it’d be nice for swimming. If this isn’t a beach I don’t know what is. We were allowed to sleep for one night in a downstairs air conditioned room, because the people who had reserved that room, also through our tour company, had missed the ferry. After the unpleasant journey and the accommodation fiasco we were exhausted. We decided not to join the 6am breakfast timetable the following day, instead planning to relax and recover. Texting the tour company rep, we were assured that we would still receive lunch even if we didn’t follow the timetable.

The next day we had a delicious breakfast at the hotel, where the staff were extremely kind and helpful. Then we moved to the upstairs room with the broken air conditioning. Actually this room appeared nicer than the downstairs one, with great sea views. We put on our swimming gear and headed down to the beach. Relaxing for a while, going for a paddle, finding shells or reading books, it was nice to chill out and we had no regrets about not getting up at 5am and being whizzed around on a gruelling schedule. We took a stroll along the beach, heading away from the dock, and saw a man making a large boat.

The beach near Dewa Daru

The beach near Dewa Daru

Coming up to 1pm we decided to find out about lunch; we weren’t sure if it would be provided by the tour company or the hotel. Enquiring at the hotel, we found out that the tour company should provide it. According to our timetable it should have arrived at noon. The hotel staff told us how, the night before, a group had waited until 10pm to receive dinner from the tour company. We sat in the hotel lobby area and waited. It was 2pm when lunch finally arrived, a full two hours late. We ate hungrily, a meal almost identical to that the previous night, except that the squid was cooked differently.

Then we rested for a while, before heading to the beach to watch the sun set. We were so fed up by this time, and the thought of going on a gruelling tour the next day did not appeal to us. If we could have done half a day or just gone to one other island that would have been enjoyable, but a 6am to 6pm timetable with a maximum of two hours in one place, and very often less than that, was not what we wanted on holiday. We were not given the option of half days or anything else. It was either everything or nothing. We didn’t want to spend yet more money hiring ourselves a boat or a motorbike and the cash we had left wasn’t much after paying for the accommodation (there are no ATMs on the island). The thought of the six hour ferry trip back was deeply unappealing. So we decided to ask at the hotel if there was a way we could leave the following day. There was, it turned out, a fast boat. Why we had not been given this option for our outbound journey I have no idea. We asked hotel staff to get us tickets.

That evening four of the tour company reps came to our hotel and sat in the lobby. They brought fast boat tickets for us and told us not to tell anyone who we had got them from. They then explained that a number of people who had tickets for the large ferry that morning had not been able to get on it; a limit on the number of passengers had been imposed, so even if you had a ticket it was not definite you could board. They were offering fast boat tickets to all their clients because otherwise there was a risk of having to wait two days for the next ferry. They told us that we’d be able to get some money back to compensate for the activities and food we would not receive the following day, because we would have already left. We accepted their offer and took the tickets, relieved that this nightmare trip was coming to an end, and they said the reimbursement would be made in the morning.

The next morning, bags packed, we waited in the hotel lobby, chatting to Shaiful from the hotel, who had been kind and helpful to us throughout our stay. He told us that people often have problems with these tour companies that are totally unprofessional, and he told us interesting tales of Karimun. Back in the 1970s he moved from Karimun to Jepara, and the voyage took two days and two nights by sailing boat. Now he’s back in Karimun at Dewa Daru. He even gave me a souvenir guide to the island as some kind of compensation for everything we had experienced.

We had been told to pay someone from the tour company, called Tidar, for our hotel room. He sat down with us, and received our money. Then he proceeded to tell us that we would get no reimbursement for the activities and food we would miss, using as an excuse, the fast boat tickets as compensation. As you can see in the table below this article, this does not equate. I suggested politely that he give us some reimbursement and he became angry. I picked up my bags, and began walking out to where the boat was waiting, keen to get away from this horrible man. He ran after me, swearing at me, as if he was going to attack me. My husband called him off, and we quickly walked straight on to the boat.

The fast boat took only two and a half hours to reach Jepara, though it was a stomach-turning journey. I was so happy to arrive back at Jepara, where we had enjoyed the first part of our holiday.

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If you are planning a trip to Karimunjawa, you may find my advice and information in this article helpful. Above all, don’t buy a package tour, even if it is from a friend of a friend, unless you really know what you are getting, and definitely don’t pay up front like we did.

The tour company we used, as it turns out, goes by various names, including hobiwisata.com, sukawisata.com, Karimun Jawa Meriah, Karimun Jawa Murah, Karimunjawa Holiday. People who “work” for them include: Ramone, Tidar Nech, Agus and many others. This company should be avoided unless you want a holiday fail like ours.

In fact, I would argue that package tours are damaging the tourism industry in Karimunjawa. Local businesses suffer. Hotels and resorts are forced to accept lower prices through tour companies. Restaurants cannot get off the ground because cheap meals are usually included in tour packages. And, ultimately, for every tour package, a share of the money is going to people outside Karimunjawa, the agents based around Java. Buying directly from the locals is much better than giving a portion of your money to a middleman.

Table of our tour

What the tour package offered: What we got:
1. Economy return tickets on KMP Muria One way on KMP Muria (Rp. 28,500 each) and return on Kartini (Rp. 84,000 each)
2. Transportation to accommodation for duration of stay Yes
3. Cost of homestay accommodation (room for 3 people) for 4 days 3 nights No. We had to pay for suitable accommodation ourselves at the cost of Rp. 225,000 per night (a total of Rp. 450,000 because we went home a day early).
4. 8 meals We got 3 small meals from the tour company. Breakfast was included in our room rate at the hotel.
5. Grilled fish 2x We got a small piece of grilled fish once.
6. Visitor ticket 2 days I think so though I never actually got given this.
7. Boat hire 2 days No, though it was our decision not to join a timetable that would have included boat use. At the time of booking, we were not told that there would be a timetable.
8. Upwater and underwater documentation (copy of file, please bring 4GB flashdisk) No.
9. Drinking water and snacks for duration of stay No.
10. First aid equipment No.
11. Local guide fee No.
12. Karimunjawa Holiday guide fee No.
13. Coconut drink Yes.