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.


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.




The National Orchid Garden at Singapore Botanic Gardens

winding pathAfter several visits to the main section of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, I finally got round to seeing the National Orchid Garden, and I wish I had gone there earlier. Unlike the small orchid house at Bogor Botanical Gardens in Indonesia, the Singapore National Orchid Garden occupies a large outdoor space, with an indoor cool house housing particular specimens. You need time to walk around the whole garden, and it is well worth it to see every section. But with entry at only S$5 for adults and S$1 for students (children get in free), a repeat visit is also a possibility.

Following the map, we set off around the well landscaped gardens, stopping every few metres to admire the beautiful plants. The orchids are surrounded by other species of plants and trees so there is plenty to see.

yellow and orange orchidsSections of the Orchid Garden

Advertised as “the largest display of tropical orchids in the world”, a plethora of colours and patterns can be found. The gardens are divided into sections, clearly marked on the map. We saw the VIP Orchid Garden and the Celebrity Orchid Garden, both of which feature orchids that have been bred for a particular famous person. Everyone from kings, queens and presidents to film stars has an orchid named after them. Vanda Miss Joaquim, Singapore’s national flower, can also be seen in its own section of the gardens.

The Yuen-Peng McNeice Bromeliad Collection, which is the pineapple plant family, offered a brief break from orchids, before we hit the cool house. This displayed the most stunning orchids, in amazing patterns and colours. We noticed that as well as looking beautiful, many have appealing scents. Orchids can smell very different to each other, however, and some of the aromas were more attractive than others.

white pink orchid

A Flowery Path

As well as the designated sections, orchids were planted along beside the path throughout the garden, with small labels, so we could recognise which were cross-breeds of the others. And all ready for the eager tourist, special photo-spots have been marked along the path, offering the perfect spot for a photo with a spectacular flower backdrop.

The orchid garden was large than I expected, and with stunning flowers blooming on every corner it took over an hour to walk around it. There is plenty to see here, for a fraction of the price of some of Singapore’s other attractions.

orchid fountainIn the Main Botanic Gardens

The National Orchid Garden is just one part of Singapore Botanic Gardens. The rest of the gardens have free entry, but you need multiple visits to see everything. Highlights for me include the Healing Garden, the Ginger Garden and the Rainforest. It’s a pleasant way to spend a day in Singapore.

Bukit Brown Cemetery, Singapore: Where Nature and Heritage Collide

It’s not every day I visit a cemetery for fun, but Bukit Brown Cemetery is not your average graveyard.

Graves in the Forest

Abandoned in the 1970s, this cemetery, the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, became overgrown and forested in places, migratory birds stopped over and the graveyard turned into a lush, green, nature-lovers’ paradise. Imagine Bukit Brown without the graves, and it could be a nature reserve. Add the old Chinese graves, many with intricate stone carvings or tiled walls, and you have a rich cultural treasure.

Why should I rush to Bukit Brown now?

Bukit Brown Cemetery is under threat. Singapore government plans will create a massive eight-lane highway cutting right through the middle of the cemetery, destroying the natural value of the landscape and removing many graves.

The planned road signs

The planned road is shown on signs around the cemetery with graves staked for exhumation behind.

Graves that are in the way of the road development plans have been marked with stakes for exhumation, and people with ancestors buried at Bukit Brown are already coming forward to claim the remains. Graves must be claimed by the end of December 2012 or they will be exhumed by the government starting next year.

After that, the bulldozers will roll in, and Bukit Brown will have a road to lower journey times by a few seconds as compared to the current existing road that runs around the cemetery. Future plans and proposals include further development of the area for expensive housing.

Guard statue

Statues like this guard some of the graves.

What can I see or do at Bukit Brown?

The threat of destruction has led to an increased interest in the cemetery by local people. All Things Bukit Brown offers tours of Bukit Brown, looking at the graves of some well-known figures, as well as their style and design. Don’t worry if you’re not a local. I attended a tour and learnt a lot about Chinese Singaporean culture and heritage. If you’re interested in finding out about the cemetery, I recommend going on a free tour to see a completely different side to Singapore from the usual tourist attractions.

Alternatively you can visit Bukit Brown alone and enjoy a pleasant wander across the five hills that form the cemetery. A small river runs through the middle of the valley, which contributes to the good feng shui. This was one of the reasons for the original selection of the site as a cemetery. A marshy area surrounds the river, and further up the hills on each side it becomes forested.

River and marshy areaYou can see graves that are still tended by relatives of the dead, with leftover offerings, as well as overgrown long-abandoned graves. Some feature photographs of the dead, and the different grave designs and inscriptions are interesting. Although most are in Chinese, there are graves with English writing as well.

Can I do anything to Stop the Road Development?

The SOS Bukit Brown website offers advice on how to get involved, from signing the petition to letter-writing and spreading awareness.