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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Haw Par Villa, Singapore


Haw Par Villa, a Chinese sculpture park, is one of Singapore’s more unusual tourist attractions. Created by the producer of Tiger Balm, it features brightly coloured sculptures depicting many Chinese myths and legends, as well as other seemingly random sculptures, such as a mini Statue of Liberty and some sumo wrestlers. There is a lake with a pagoda, giant memorials to the siblings of the man who built it, and the most popular attraction, the Ten Courts of Hell, a cave of dioramas showing people being punished (gruesomely) for their sins before being reincarnated.

Haw Par Villa is free entry and open every day, so this is a great attraction if you’re visiting Singapore on a tight budget. A little off the usual tourist trail, Haw Par Villa is definitely one of Singapore’s weirder places to visit! Simply get off the Circle Line MRT at Haw Par Villa and the gardens are right next to the station.

 

Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia


We found ourselves in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia for a few days and spent a few hours at Batu Caves. These caves have become a Hindu temple complex and cultural centre.

Murugan statue at Batu Caves

Upon arrival the spectacular golden statue of Murugan, the largest in the world, greeted us. It was absolutely enormous, and behind were tall cliffs and a staircase of 270 steps (so we were told, we didn’t count them). Climbing the steep steps and avoiding the monkeys hanging around, we entered the main cavern area. It was easily the most spacious cave I have ever been in. Walking through were several temples, and statues of Hindu gods and goddesses dotted around. The temples are still very much in use; many Hindus were visiting, bringing offerings such as flower wreaths and milk to the shrines of gods.
We looked around and made donations (it’s free entry) and check out the souvenirs on sale. Fortunately there were no pushy sellers.

Returning to the bottom of the staircase, we paid the small entrance fee to visit Cave Villa, an Indian arts and cultural centre. We crossed a walkway over a koi pond and watched a short performance of Indian Bollywood-style dance, performed every hour on the hour while we were there.

There was a reptile house in one of the caves which made us wish we hadn’t come to Cave Villa. The reptiles were kept in inhumane conditions and cramped tanks and the staff persisted in asking us to have our photo taken with a reptile (for MYR10) even after we had refused several times. Back outside we walked past the aviary where a variety of birds (and, oddly a skunk) were kept. After we had said clearly that we didn’t want our photos taken with a bird, the staff member just dumped a bird on my husband’s shoulder, as if he would want it if it happened to him. He continued to ask for the bird to be removed repeatedly, while I avoided taking any photos so as not to get asked for a MYR10 fee. Finally when the staff member realised that my husband really didn’t like having a bird put on his shoulder, he removed it, and we went on our way.

The redeeming feature of Cave Villa was the art gallery, which is also in a cave. It features statues and dioramas of many Hindu characters, showing scenes from epic tales. This was lit very effectively to make the scenes come to life.

But overall, Cave Villa, which smelt of monkey and bird excrement, was a poorly maintained disappointment. There was a dirty fish spa pool that I would never have dreamed of putting my feet into! The rest of Batu Caves was a fascinating combination of nature, religion and culture, worth a visit if you are in the area.

Outside Cave Villa, back near the base of the Murugan statue, there are several Indian restaurants. We chose the on with the most Indian people eating there, and had a tasty thali plate for MYR8 each.

Worth noting when you are trying to leave Batu Caves by taxi – a driver tried to get us to pay fixed price at double the price of our journey. We went outside the caves complex and within a few minutes hailed a cab that went by the meter.

Churches, Temples and Mosques of Malacca, Malaysia


Malacca has many religious buildings, including some of the oldest ones in Malaysia. Due to being Islamicized, then colonised by Christians, and having a large Chinese community, there is a good mixture of churches, temples and mosques.

Here are five that we found interesting:

1) Mesjid Kampung Hulu

Mesjid Kampung Hulu

The oldest functioning mosque in Malaysia, Mesjid Kampung Hulu was commissioned by the Dutch (who were keen to appease those who wished to practise Islam) in 1728. It has predominantly Javanese architecture, and we were surprised by how small it actually looks.

 

2) Kampung Kling Mosque

Kampung Kling Mosque

This mosque features a high tower, which was apparently inspired by the design of Hindu temples.

 

3) Christ Church

Christ Church

Part of the Stadhuys complex in the centre of the old town (a good focal point, and bus 17 from Melaka Sentral will drop you off here), this church features grave stones from 1800. While we were there a Chinese-language service was taking place, so we couldn’t walk around inside.

 

4) St Paul’s Church

St Paul's Church

This much older church sits on a hilltop over the town. Now in ruins, with no roof, it features graves from the 1600s, and spectacular views out to sea. The former tomb of St Francis Xavier is here (his body was moved to Goa, India).

Graveyard tourist

Some unusual tourism – photo with a gravestone, anyone?

5) Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

This is Malaysia’s oldest traditional Chinese temple (dating from 1646). Its striking black and gold carved wood was totally different to the décor of other temples I have seen, which tend to be more colourful.

Inside Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

Jonker Walk Night Market, Malacca, Malaysia


If you’re in Malacca on a Friday or Saturday night, you’ll almost certainly visit Jonker Walk Night Market. Is it just another tourist market? Perhaps. But there is plenty to see, and a great atmosphere for browsing.

Jonker Walk Market

Both sides of the street, which is actually called Jalan Hang Jebat, are lined with stalls selling everything from tasty dim sum and chocolate-dipped fruit to mobile phone covers and flip-flops. Browse your way down and eat on the way back up the street, or stop at one of the cafes that puts chairs and tables outside and enjoy the a bowl of noodles or icy cendol. Despite being crowded we found it was still possible to browse comfortably, so go there at dinner time and taste some of the street food.

Jonker walk stall

Top marks for originality go to this stall!

The market is only open on Friday and Saturday nights; on other evenings it’s just a normal street, so plan your trip accordingly.

 

Malaysia: Malacca Museums


For a fairly compact city, Malacca is full of museums! I have never seen so many museums in such a small place. You won’t have time to visit all of them on a short trip, especially since there is so much else to do. So read on and take your pick of the Malacca museums.

We visited the Governor’s House Museum, the Sultan’s Palace Museum, the Independence Monument Museum, and Villa Sentosa Malay Living Museum.

We did not visit the History and Ethnography Museum, which is closed for renovation until February 2014. We also passed on the Democracy Museum, the Baba-Nyonya Museumm the Cheng Ho Cultural Museum and the Islam Museum.  As you can see there are so many to choose from!

Governor’s House Museum

Governor's House Museum

The living room area

Having been previously used by Dutch and British governors, the house continued its role as a home for Malaysian governors after independence. It was actually in use as the governor’s house until 1996. We paid RM 5 each to enter the grounds and we had the museum to ourselves. A spacious white house on the hillside, the museum displays possessions of previous governors, with many gifts given to them by overseas dignitaries.

 

We saw the upstairs living room, with sofas, and a barrier to stop visitors entering. There is also an inspiration room where the governor would apparently engage in hobbies and recreational activities, and a dining room set up as if for a big dinner. Strangely, however, we were unable to find the bedroom. Usually a centrepiece in house-style museums, there was no room done up as the bedroom. Perhaps the governor wanted to take his bed with him.

 

Sultan’s Palace Museum

Sultan's Palace Museum

This museum, which costs RM 2 per person, is built in a replica Malay-style wooden palace and traces the history of the Melaka sultanate which lasted from the 1400s until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1511. The building is impressive and reminded me of the Minangkabau Museum in Bukittinggi, Sumatra, Indonesia, another museum in a replica traditional building. Apparently the Melaka Sultan’s Palace Museum was designed according to accounts in the Malay chronicles, and they don’t actually know what it looked like exactly.

Diorama at Sultan's Palace Museum

The museum features models and pictures of other palaces around Malaysia, traditional costumes, and a bedroom area upstairs which was considered private – apparently even the Sultan’s wife had to ask permission to enter. There is also a lifesize diorama of the Sultan in session with his courtiers receiving guests from elsewhere. Models of traders from Java, China, Gujarat and Siam remind us that the Melaka Sultanate played an important role in international trade, before colonisation of the area.

 

Independence Monument Museum Independence Monument Museum

At the Independence Monument Museum (free entry) we learnt about the struggle for Malaysian independence, and the development of the nation, presented in a to-be-expected nationalistic style. The displays contained so much detail that it was somewhat overwhelming. However, I didn’t know before visiting this museum that independence was actually announced in Malacca first, before being declared in Kuala Lumpur. We enjoyed watching an original film of the independence celebrations.

 

Villa Sentosa Malay Living Museum Villa Sentosa

The Malay Living Museum at Villa Sentosa (donation after the tour) was another kind of museum altogether. Located in a 1920s wooden Malay stilt-house, which is still inhabited, the aim of the museum is to preserve Malay heritage in a rapidly developing area. Kampung Sentosa is a whole neighbourhood of old-style Malay houses, outside the old city area of Malacca, with a backdrop of building sites and new blocks of condominiums. Many of the houses operate homestays, and if it wasn’t for the construction noise it would be a pleasant place to stay, right by the river.

Malay marriage chairs

Malay marriage chairs

The elderly owners and their relatives showed us around Villa Sentosa, where they display all sorts of objects collected by their family over the years. My husband and I were encouraged to try out the Malay marriage chairs, and another guest was shown how to hit a gong. They have china tea sets from England and Japan, and gifts from various important guests who’ve visited them. The décor is, for course, very much Malay style, with a great 1960s three-piece suite in the living room. We enjoyed looking round the house-cum-museum, but it did feel like nosing around someone’s home!

Kitchen at Villa Sentosa

The kitchen at Villa Sentosa