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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Sulawesi Travel: A Brief Guide


Sulawesi, the world’s eleventh largest island, sprawls across the sea in its unique “K” shape. Part of the Indonesian archipelago, much of the island remains off the mainstream tourist trail, but visitors are attracted to its coasts and islands for diving and snorkelling and these elements have made Sulawesi travel increasingly popular.

Pantai Bira, soft white sandWith a land mass of 174,600 square kilometres, undeveloped in parts and with narrow roads in poor condition, it would take a long time to explore all of Sulawesi. I travelled to South Sulawesi and visited three areas over ten days: Makassar, Tana Toraja and Pantai Bira. It would have been easy to spend longer exploring each area, and equally, there are many regions between my destinations that I only saw through a bus window.

Getting Around in Sulawesi

There are no trains on the island so all travel is by road, sea or air. The roads are in poor condition in many places, so prepare yourself for some long journeys. Air-conditioned buses are available on certain routes, such as Makassar to Tana Toraja, but for other journeys public cars and minibuses can be the only way to go.

Traditional Torajan housesI travelled from Pantai Bira to Makassar by public car (also called “kijang” from the make of car often used) and I was one of eleven people squeezed in – three in front, four in the middle and four in the back. It felt like a very long few hours. In Tana Toraja on a shorter journey I was one of twelve people in a car, the formation as above but with one person in the boot, lying on his side.

Hiring a motorbike is a great way to travel around within an area, but with the roads often in disrepair, it can be tiring. Automatic motorcycles won’t make it up very steep hills with broken asphalt, especially with two people, and less experienced riders should avoid some areas.

Cycle rickshaws are a fun way to tour around and in some areas motorcycle rickshaws called sitor can take you on longer, hillier journeys.

Sitor motorcycle rickshaws line the street in RantepaoTravelling a long distance? It may work out more sensible to fly between destinations that are further afield, rather than spending days on a bus, especially if your time is limited. Boats can take you to the small islands around Sulawesi, and even between different parts of the main island.

Explore Sulawesi

As well as being a haven for divers, Sulawesi offers fascinating cultural tourism in Tana Toraja and stunning white sand beaches for sun-lovers. National parks and lakes provide opportunities for trekking. Regional culinary delights await visitors, in particular delicious fish and seafood. Sulawesi is waiting to be explored, with many areas completely off the beaten track, but familiar tourist comforts available at places dotted across the island.

Seraya Island Bungalows: Basic Accommodation with Limited Electricity and Fresh Water


I stayed one night on Seraya Island, at the only accommodation available, Seraya Island Bungalows, operated by the owner of Gardena Hotel in Labuan Bajo. The cost of boat transport from the mainland to Seraya is included in the price of the bungalow, at Rp. 160,000 per night. The journey took about an hour, though our boat departed very late from Labuan Bajo. The amazing ride took us past many islands of all shapes and sizes, and in places the sea was crystal clear.

Seraya Island BungalowsArriving at Seraya with jumping fish leading the way through the water, I could see the bungalows lined up along the beach. There is a small fishing village on the other side of the island but no other visitor accommodation in this peaceful, undisturbed idyll.

My wooden bungalow had a double bed with a sponge mattress and a mosquito net, a private bathroom, with a sit-down toilet and a tap to fill the water buckets, and a veranda right on the beach.

Inside my bungalowWhen I say this is basic accommodation, the water only runs from 6pm to 8pm every day. Guests are encouraged to use sea water to flush the toilet and to use fresh water sparingly. Staying on Seraya certainly teaches you about water conservation! Electricity is also rationed; it is run from a generator and available for only a few hours every evening. Mobile phone signal is only available in certain areas of the island, and not in the bungalows.

Beside the bungalows was a restaurant where all meals were served; this is the only place to eat on the island and it is dependent on ingredients brought from the mainland. Fresh water is also brought from Labuan Bajo because there is no fresh water on the island. The menu was varied enough, but if you were staying for more than a couple of nights you’d quickly get bored. Breakfast was a banana pancake and tea or coffee.

Basic bathroomThe boat back to Labuan Bajo was running on a very relaxed schedule, so if you stay on Seraya and have other transport to catch you should get back to the mainland the day before.

You can find out more about Seraya Island Bungalows here.

Seraya Island: Simply Paradise


Arriving in Labuan Bajo at the end of my Flores adventure, I was ready for a spot of relaxation. Seraya Island Bungalows, operated by Labuan Bajo-based Gardena Hotel was just what I needed. Walking to the pier and boarding our boat for the one hour journey, I met other guests travelling to Seraya – the island has only one set of bungalows so we would be neighbours for the night.

Journey to SerayaJourney into Paradise

The loud roar of the boat’s engines drowned out conversation as the one hour journey took us zipping across the turquoise waters, passing many islands or all shapes and sizes, some rocky, others covered in grass with trees sticking up on their hills, which reminded me of a child’s drawing. Arriving in Seraya the boat pulled up on the white sand and we leapt off, on to paradise island.

Visitors from Germany, Australia, the US, Belgium and domestic Indonesian tourists, of all ages, in couples, groups of friends and solo travellers like me, had chosen to spend a night or a few on idyllic Seraya island, and we were greeted by the current guests in a friendly way, knowing that we were all having a shared experience of this beautiful place.

Looking at my phone I realised that there was no phone signal. Finally, the first place in Flores free from mobile phones! I would be forced to get away from Twitter and Facebook for a night. Later I found out that you can find a weak phone signal by standing in a particular spot or climbing to the top of a hill, but it’s not strong enough for using the internet.

On the Island

This white sand beach backed by rolling grassy hills, set in a calm bay, would be my home for the night. With just a few wooden bungalows on the beach and a single restaurant building, this was basic accommodation at its best. Settling into my bungalow with its perfect view from the veranda out to sea, I chilled out in the shade while the sun was at its hottest, and caught up on my holiday reading.

StarfishAs the brightest part of the day drew to an end I headed out for a swim. The crystal clear water was nice and warm and swimming directly in front of my bungalow, I saw two giant red starfish, as well as shoals of fish in the shallow waters. A little further out to sea, but still in very shallow waters, the seabed was lined with seaweed and an even greater abundance of sea life.

Back on the beach and I saw tiny crabs scuttling back and forth, and many shells. Enormous shells have been found in the past and collected up on the beach.

Since I was only staying one night on Seraya, I was content with chilling out on the beach and in the sea. However, there are other possible activities. There is a single fishing village on Seraya about a 20 minute walk from the bungalows, and a number of hills to ascend and admire the view.

Large ShellSeraya Island Bungalows Facilities

Seraya Island Bungalows hires out snorkels, canoes and even a boat to guests who want to further explore the coral reef around the island. Prices are very reasonable, for example hiring a snorkel costs only Rp. 10,000 or around US$1. For those in search of total relaxation, hammocks are also available for rent and they have a library of books for guests to borrow or swap.

Since fresh water and electricity are both only available for several hours of the day, I learnt to value these resources, taking a traditional-style shower from a bucket, but using much less water than usual. The island itself has no fresh water so it is brought in from Labuan Bajo, and in the village rain water is collected. A generator provides electricity between 6pm and 10pm only. Fresh water is available 6pm to 8pm and 6am to 8am.

The only restaurant on the island is part of Seraya Bungalows, and there is really no other option for eating. I tried the grilled fish and it was delicious, very fresh of course. Other dishes were enjoyed by guests, including those who staying for two nights or more. Service is famously slow at the restaurant, taking at least an hour.

A Beautiful Night

Since the beach at Seraya faces northeast, sunset is unremarkable; to see a spectacular sunset you’d have to walk to another part of the island. However, I have never seen so many stars as I saw on Seraya island that night. Large and small, bright and dull, the sky was full of them.

There is nobody nearby apart from the bungalow residents and staff, and no roads, so the island is totally quiet at night. The waves are very small and a gentle lapping sound lulled me to sleep. However, due to the lack of wind, it was very hot, even at night.

DawnDawn was a treat. Fortunately I was up early and watched the sun slowly rising over the sea, as hues of orange and red lit up the hills behind me. After dipping my toes in the sea and a little stroll along the beach, it was breakfast time. Banana pancakes were the only option today, with tea or coffee.

Return to the Mainland

A leisurely departure time meant that our 8am boat finally left at 8.45am. Don’t make this journey if you have a plane to catch later in the day! It’s wiser to return to Labuan Bajo a day earlier just to be safe. Whizzing past many islands again, we saw flying fish jumping across the water’s surface, as if to bid us good bye.

Visit Seraya Island Now

With accommodation on Seraya costing Rp. 160,000 per night including the return boat ride from Labuan Bajo, this was a great way to get out to the islands without spending lots of money on a day boat tour. The restaurant served tasty food that was not much more expensive than at tourist places on the mainland. The friendly atmosphere among fellow guests, as we shared our tropical white sand beach, was second to none, and the seclusion and tranquillity of the beautiful island made me feel like I was in a simple paradise.

Seraya from BoatIf you want to visit Seraya island before it becomes overrun with tourists, check out www.serayaisland.com.

Flores Travel Times and Prices


If you’re planning to see a lot in a short time, it can be a good idea to find out how long each journey will take. Knowing the approximate price for each leg of your trip can help with budgeting. Here are the journey durations and prices for each leg of my Flores trip.

These journey times are accurate for my trip, however, the trans-Flores highway is a two-lane narrow road that twists and turns through the mountains. Journey times can be affected by many factors, including broken-down vehicles in the road, landslides, rain, damaged road surface and cows wandering into the middle of the road.

Travel on the Flores roadI travelled by minibus and public taxi, which meant I was collected from my hotel and taken directly to my next hotel at the destination, thus cutting out the hassle of bus terminals and local transport to and from them. Public buses, where you can travel alongside chickens and pigs, will be cheaper. Hiring a private car with a driver will set you back at least Rp. 500,000 per day.

Journey Duration Price (Rupiahs)
Maumere airport to town (by airport taxi) 15 minutes Rp. 50,000
Maumere to Moni 3.5 hours Rp. 50,000
Moni to Ende 3 to 4 hours Rp. 35,000
Ende to Bajawa 3.5 hours Rp. 50,000
Bajawa to Ruteng 4 to 5 hours Rp. 70,000
Ruteng to Labuan Bajo 4 hours Rp. 60,000
Labuan Bajo town to airport (by motorcycle) 15 minutes Rp. 10,000

All prices are in Indonesian Rupiahs. I use http://www.xe.com for currency conversions, though there are many websites providing this service. At the time of my trip in April 2012, US$ 1 was approximately Rp. 9,000 and £1 was around Rp. 14,000.

 

Moni, Flores: A Brief Guide to the Kelimutu Gateway


Moni is one destination most visitors to Flores are bound to spend a night, as the departure point for visiting Kelimutu volcanic crater lakes, the most famous tourist attraction on the island. So here’s a brief guide based on my own two-night stay.

Views out to sea from MoniIn the Village

Moni is not right next to Kelimutu—it’s still a 13km journey away—but it has become the main hub for visitors, probably due to its location on the main trans-Flores road, and a large number of accommodation options and other tourist facilities have sprung up.

The village lines both sides of the main road, and has a church and a field area, which is used for the local market on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday mornings. From the upper parts of the village you can look out to a fantastic view across the hills, all the way to the ocean.

You won’t get woken up by the call to prayer in Moni, because there is no mosque. Like the rest of Flores, Moni has a Catholic majority. Walking through the village is pleasant and the local people were friendly. I met three little girls, who took me to see the Mary statue and shrine beside the church. The local language is called Lio, which sounds very different to Indonesian, though the majority of people also speak Indonesian.

Moni churchFacilities for Visitors

Many homestays line the main road offering reasonably priced rooms for travellers. I stayed at Bintang Bungalows, which is apparently a popular option. It was full for one of the nights I was there, and this is outside the main tourist season. I paid Rp. 100,000 (after haggling from Rp. 120,000) for a room with bathroom and cold water only, and it was quite cold for showering. Moni is not a hot place though the high altitude means it gets strong sunlight in the middle of the day.

Eating cheaply is difficult in Moni, where most eateries are restaurants aimed at foreign tourists. Local people tend to cook at home rather than eating out. However, down the road I found a cheap bakso (meatball soup) place, run by an East Javanese man. I ate at Bintang Restaurant, run by Tobias, the brother-in-law of Sinta who owns Bintang Bungalows, and the portions were on the large side, which may justify the extra expense.

Transport and guides are available in Moni. Motorbikes can be hired for Rp. 100,000 or more per day, and I hired a guide, called Udin, and motorbike for a whole day for Rp. 130,000. Sinta of Bintang Bungalows has a car and a minibus (bemo) that she rents out. It is easy to organise onward transport from Moni to your next destination, because it is located on the main trans-Flores road, so buses, minibuses and public cars all pass through.

Forested Hills