Unearth your spiritual journey and connect with the local culture by engaging in conversation with Buddhist monks.
Are you interested in trying to understand the purpose of life a little deeper? With all of the uncertainties in the world, you can only control your inner peace. In Chiang Mai and a few other cities in Thailand, you can learn what it’s like to be a monk and how a monastic life plays a big part in Thailand’s overall sociology through monk chats and meditation retreats. Buddha’s teachings through monk chats is the reason why Thai people always smile, even through difficult times. By chatting with monks, you will learn how to face and endure challenges you may encounter in your life.
While the origin of the monk chat in Thailand isn’t known, meditation programs are common in monasteries all across the country. Most of them offer mindfulness retreats suitable for locals, while other monasteries and meditation centers provide programs more convenient for non-Thai speakers.
A monk chat is a casual conversation you have with monks in their monasteries. You don’t have to be Buddhist to participate in a monk chat. It’s open to all religions, all races, and all nationalities. In most cases, monk chat activity takes place in a small corner with a table and some chairs. Some temples have a meditation center and arrange their monk chat program more systematically, including a regular schedule and online pre-registration.
Chiang Mai has been the epitome of the monk chat movement. Some of the frequently visited temples kept their monk chat program unchanged. In contrast, others put their efforts into promoting meditation retreats in Thailand to visitors who wish to experience Vipassana, which is mental training.
While a monk chat is a casual experience, meditation retreats, varying in lengths from a one-day practice to a ten-day session, requires you to have a concerted effort and abide by some rules and regulations. You might find it easier to enroll in a meditation course while traveling in Thailand than being able to get to experience a monk chat.
While you will learn a mix of seated and walking meditations at monasteries, you may have to take turns doing some daily chores and join Pali scripture chanting sessions that are usually organized in early morning and afternoon. Paying homage to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, collectively referred to as the Triratna or the Triple Gem of Buddhism, through bowing is compulsory in some premises. Most meditation centers may go easy on the Pali scripture chanting and bowing.
Importantly, meditation practitioners in any course will be served only vegetarian food twice daily without dinner, while some temples follow the forest monastery tradition and serve one meal alone. They will have to be committed to 5 moral precepts or 8 precepts for those taking longer courses and require everyone to observe the noble silence rule, which means you cannot speak to one another for the whole period.
If you are planning to attend meditation retreats in Thailand and courses organized at popular monasteries and centers, it is recommended that you pre-register months in advance if possible. Some courses require you to pay a small amount for expenses while others are free of charge, but donations are welcome.
Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai
A prominent monastery drawing international visitors daily, Wat Chedi Luang on Phra Pokklao Road is outstanding with its massive chedi built between 1385 and 1402. Back then, the chedi measured 60 meters across at the square base and 80 meters tall, becoming a distinctive feature of the province’s skyline. The temple’s chedi once housed the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred Buddha image, but its height was reduced to nearly half of its original size due to the earthquake in 1545. It’s still an impressive structure.
Other vital structures on the temple’s premise include the vihara housing, the principal Buddha image, and ‘intakhin’ or the city pillar, which was erected at the epicenter of the city marking the center of the universe according to ancient Lanna belief. The towering gum tree, one of the three in the compound that is close to the entrance, is picturesque and worth taking some photos with.
Besides being a popular temple, Wat Chedi Luang has played an essential role in spreading the teachings of Buddha through the monk chat program established in 1996 as part of language training for students of Mahamakut Buddhist University, Lanna Campus located within the monastery.
The program provides an excellent opportunity for English language practice and offers a forum for Buddhist monks and foreigners to engage in conversations to exchange beliefs, thoughts, and experiences.
The Monk Chat Club has a sheltered area set aside on the right side as you walk past the temple entrance, with chairs and tables provided for foreigners and monks to sit and chat with one another. Foreigners assist the monks in improving their English skills while monks help broaden visitors’ perspectives about life philosophy related to Buddhism.
The club has both monastic and lay students as members (200+ in total). The program encourages volunteers from abroad to assist with the English teaching program, so feel free to check the website and take part in the program.
Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai
Wat Suan Dok on Suthep Road was founded in 1371 by King Kue Na of Lanna for a highly revered monk, Sumana Thera of the Sukhothai Kingdom. He had a vision about discovering a relic of the Buddha, which had to be housed on Chiang Mai’s soil.
One of the most important monasteries in Chiang Mai’s history, Wat Suan Dok is known for its high bell-shaped chedi built in a Sri Lankan style containing the relic of the Buddha and a group of white mausoleums housing the cremated remains of members of the province’s royal family including Dara Rasmi, the Princess Consort of King Rama V.
Along with other temples in Chiang Mai, it was registered as a national historic site in 1935. The best time to visit Wat Suan Dok is late afternoon. Visitors and photographers often wait until twilight when natural lights make the bell-shaped chedi more picturesque. Photos are more captivating with an airplane from the nearby Chiang Mai International Airport ascending after the take-off.
The temple is home to the Buddhist Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University’s Chiang Mai Campus. Hence some programs that help laypersons, local and international, understand more about how they can gain spiritual progression within the Thai Buddhist framework.
The monastery’s Monk Chat & Meditation Retreat programs are systematically organized and have received a positive response from tourists who seek to travel inside. Walk into the monk chat office here, and you’ll encounter staff or even monks who speak perfect English. Some are foreign volunteers, while some English-speaking monks were originally from Myanmar and elsewhere to attend higher education at the campus.
The monk chat is arranged from Monday to Friday from 4 PM – 7 PM. You can visit the office to get more information and feel free to talk to the monks if they are available. A private group monk chat can be organized too.
The Meditation Retreat program varies in length, from one day to four days. Register and check out details via www.mrlearnning.com and www.monkchat.net.
Wat Umong Suanbuddhadhamma, Chiang Mai
Located at the foothills of Doi Suthep, Wat Umong is one of the most outstanding temples in Chiang Mai and is worth visiting. The 13th-century forest monastery is unique with its system of tunnels and oozes of Buddhism-like peace, as its name translates to the ‘Temple of the tunnels and Buddha Dhamma garden.’
Founded by King Mengrai, the first King of the Lanna Kingdom and founder of Chiang Mai, the temple was abandoned during the 15th century and later was restored in 1948. However, most of the mural paintings in the renovated ancient tunnels had disappeared. It was reopened one year later as a center for meditation and Buddhist teachings.
Widely recognized for its tunnels housing Buddha images of different sizes, the temple has a large circular bell-shaped chedi on top of a mound. Visit the site late afternoon, and you will find a few locals and tourists practicing meditation in the quiet compound.
Thanks to the serene surroundings and vast space, Wat Umong is one of the meditation retreats in Thailand where local and foreign visitors come to find some peace of mind. The temple’s meditation center offers a retreat program that ranges from 3 to 15 days. The center was founded for the propagation of theoretical and practical Buddhism, promoting peace and happiness among all human beings. Set in a forest monastery environment, the temple allows meditators to indulge and focus on their meditation retreat peacefully to fully benefit from the practice.
Contact the center by checking out their website for more details.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
One of the most visited monasteries in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep runs a meditation center where one can walk in and join the session daily. Different courses for longer meditation retreats are provided. Visit their website for more information.
Wat Ram Poeng
Located in the Muang district, Wat Ram Poeng is a meditation center that is popular amongst locals and international visitors. Someone who is committed to training their mind should join their 10-day meditation course. Visit their website for more details.
Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong Voravihara, Doi Inthanon
The international meditation center of this temple in Chom Thong district offers 10-day courses and three-week retreats for those who want to go the extra mile. Visit their website for more information.
Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon Ratchathani
The International Forest Monastery in Bahn Bung Wai, Warin Chamrab, was established by Ajahn Chah as a branch monastery close Wat Nong Pah Pong, with Venerable Ajahn Sumedho, his American disciple, as the first abbot, and currently with international residing monks.
Aimed to provide English speaking laypersons with the opportunity to practice the peaceful lifestyle adopted by Buddhist monks, the monastery is an ideal place for visitors who want to challenge themselves. The traditional forest monastery meditation is an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience. Visit their website for more information.
Thai Plum Village, Nakhon Ratchasima
Co-founded by Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, the local branch of the Plum Village Tradition in Vietnam encourages the practice of mindfulness. They organize varied activities and retreat programs different from what Thai forest monasteries usually offer. Visit their website for more details.
Wat Mahathat Yuwaratrangsarit Rajaworamahavihara
Located on the same island as popular monasteries like the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho, Wat Mahathat is often overlooked. However, this temple on Maha Rat Road is where you should go if you’re looking to delve deeper into Buddhist philosophy.
Built during the Ayutthaya period, the temple used to be known as Wat Salak. When Bangkok was established as the capital of Siam, it became strategically located between the newly built Grand Palace and the Front Palace, which was the residence of the vice-king. The temple was used for royal ceremonies and funerals.
As an important monastery during the reign of King Rama I, Wat Mahathat (the Temple of the Great Relic) houses Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, one of the most important sites of Buddhist learning in Thailand. This monastery is also a well-known meditation center that welcomes foreigners who wish to learn more about Buddhist teachings and to cultivate the mind through meditation practice. The phrase ‘Rajaworamahavihara’ means it’s a royal temple of the highest class, like Wat Ratchabopit.
You can take part in the meditation session organized daily. It runs from 4:30 AM to 9:30 PM. The practice reflects the teachings of Buddhism, which encourages followers to have mindfulness seen as a critical tool to lead one’s life to the cessation of suffering. You probably won’t reach the road to nirvana in one practice session, but you’ll at least benefit from mental development and a sense of peace.
To join the meditation session, make sure you have the intention to practice and are willing to follow the course as planned by the instructor.
You can opt to participate in the overnight-stay program as well. Check out their website for details.
Apart from the meditation session, the temple also provides a golden opportunity for foreign visitors to engage in English conversation with monks regarding Buddhism and its teachings.
The monk chat here is an initiative that allows monks to partially interact with foreign visitors and guide them to give them insight into Buddhism. The session held in the central part of the temple will be a great learning experience for those who want to understand how rich religious traditions form the foundations of Thailand’s society.
This temple on Sukhumvit Road (Sukhumvit 101) runs the VRY Meditation Center, which is widely known among devout Buddhists as a place to practice meditation. They organize an English-speaking course regularly as well. For more information visit their website.
Wat Prayong International Meditation Center
The meditation center at this temple in Bangkok’s Nong Chok district offers Vipassana retreats from November to February for beginners and advanced practitioners in Thai, English, and German. These retreats are conducted by Brigitte Schrottenbacher, an English-speaking German nun. For more information visit their website or Facebook page.
Wat Marp Jan, Rayong
Established in 1983 as the 73rd branch monastery of the renowned Wat Nong Pah Pong, Wat Marp Jan follows the forest meditation of Ajahn Chah and provides meditation retreats conducted by English speaking abbot Ajahn Anan and other foriegn monks. The founder, the Venerable Ajahn Chah, was instrumental in establishing Theravada Buddhism in the west. For more information visit their website.
Boonkanjanaram Meditation Center, Pattaya
Located in Pattaya, the Boonkanjanaram Meditation Center provides an ideal place for those who want to learn the way to liberation through the practice of Vipassana meditation. If you are interested, you are required to stay here for a minimum of three nights with a small charge for accommodation. For more information visit their Facebook page.
Dipabhavan Meditation Center, Ko Samui
The Dipabhavan Meditation Center reinforces Samui Island as an international destination with retreat programs conducted in English.
Established in 2005, Dipabhavan, meaning the development of light hermitage, uses dhamma as the refuge of the troubled mind and welcomes everyone from all walks of life who wish to fulfil their life by benefiting from dhamma practice.
They organize a 7-day retreat two times a month and you can book your trip 6 months in advance. No fee is required. For more information visit their website.
Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage, Surat Thani
Founded by the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa in 1989, Suan Mokkh in Chaiya district, Surat Thani has long been a place where meditation enthusiasts, local and international, yearn to visit and long to return.
Thousands of meditators of all walks of life have participated in the monthly retreats here. The meditation retreat, with mindfulness and breathing being taught, is 10 days long and starts on the 1st day of each month. You are required to be there in person on the last day of the previous month to register. The retreat ends on the 11th day of the month. Booking isn’t possible, however everyone is welcome to visit the main monastery at Suan Mokkh between retreats to practice on their own. For more information visit their website.
Elsewhere in Thailand
While monasteries around Thailand offer meditation retreats in which international travelers can participate, not all locations are suitable for non-Thai speaking beginners. The latter need to adapt themselves to all regulations imposed, including Pali scripture chanting sessions. SN Goenka Vipassana centers are ideal options.
Meditation courses at each SN Goenka center are taught in English. The centers also offer that with Thai translation, which is provided by the late SN Goenka. He was an Indian-Burmese who learned meditation techniques with Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who was known as a meditation master in Myanmar. The latter became an internationally well-respected instructor with a network covering 203 meditation centers on four continents.
With their headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand’s SN Goenka network operates another eight centers in Lamphun, Phitsanulok, Kon Kaen, Udon Thani, Kanchanaburi, Chantaburi, Prachin Buri, and Nakhon Si Thammarat. Each center provides the same teachings by SN Goenka with one or two instructors to accommodate each course. They collect no fee, but each center operates using donations from former participants, so feel free to contribute as you deem fit at the end of the retreat.
For more information, click here.