10-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Thailand

Buddhist-_nun_chedi_wat_ram-poengFor many people, a 10-day long silent Vipassana meditation retreat is a life-changing and eye-opening experience. I had done a lot of different types of meditation before I joined a 10-day Vipassana course in Thailand, so it wasn’t all totally new to me. But it was still quite challenging, and the methods of sitting and walking meditation taught were something I wanted to learn and try out.

I chose to do the retreat at Wat Ram Poeng in Chiang Mai because the program had a good reputation. This is also a very authentic Buddhist style Vipassana course, which is what I was looking for. If you would feel uncomfortable bowing to a senior monk or taking temporary vows of moral conduct then this retreat would not be for you. However, I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for a long time, so I was much more interested in a retreat where the tradition would be honored properly and not watered down.

If you are new to Vipassana meditation, you may be wondering what is meant by the term “Vipassana“. It is a word of Indian origin which means “seeing clearly”, and it’s often translated as “insight”. All the meditation systems in the world can be categorized into two types: Samatha and Vipassana. Many different spiritual traditions and religions practice Samatha meditation in various forms. Samatha can be translated as “calm abiding”. It is a meditation that uses single-pointed focus to calm down the body and the mind. The point of focus can be on the breath, an object, or a mental image. It is said that the power of concentration from Samatha meditation can be so strong that the meditator can develop extra-ordinary powers as a side effect.


Vipassana meditation, however, is unique to Buddhism. Rather than completely shutting out the outside world, a yogi practicing Vipassana seeks to see the true nature of all phenomena. This is done by maintaining mindfulness and contemplating one or more of four areas, which are also called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness:

  • Body (including any movement such as breathing)
  • Feelings or Sensations
  • Mind or Consciousness
  • Objects of Thought (dharmas)

With respect to these objects of contemplation, there are three characteristics which will be seen in each:

  • Impermanence
  • Suffering
  • Non-self

Seeing that these three characteristics are present in every object of mindfulness is what is meant by insight, or Vipasanna.

stone_buddha_with_naga_wat_ram_poeng

Can you sit for an hour as still as a stone Buddha?

Vipassana is taught in various different methods or traditions. The style of Vipassana taught at Wat Ram Poeng is based on the type made famous by the 20th century Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw. It uses alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation. In the beginning you start doing each for short periods of just 10 or 15 minutes, but by the end of the 10 days you are sitting and then walking for up to an hour at a time. The instructions start very simple and then build. Each evening you go and report to the abbot of the temple, who asks you about your experience and gives you fresh instructions for the next 24 hour period.

For example, in the sitting meditation for the first day we were told to simply focus on “rising” and “falling” of the abdomen as one breathes. When you notice that you have been thinking about something else, you just make a note “thinking, thinking”. This helps you to realize that all of your internal dialogue is simple made up of temporary thoughts that come up and disappear again. The internal dialogue is just “thinking”. It is not “me”, “mine” or “myself”.

Wat Ram Poeng is a very good place to go if you want a serious, well-structured meditation retreat. You will have to follow the Ten Buddhist Precepts for laypersons, which include no eating solid foods after noon. I thought this would be difficult, but it wasn’t really that hard to do. You can eat as much as you want for breakfast and lunch. Then in the early evening there was usually some type of thick liquid refreshment available, such as pumpkin juice or soy milk. Still, I think I lost about 2 kilograms over the 10 days, so if you’re looking to lose some weight I definitely recommend trying t eliminate or cut back on carbs in the evening.

It is not necessarily beneficial to discuss meditation experiences because they can differ widely between individuals. If I told you everything that I felt in meditation it could give you unnecessary hopes or fears going into your own meditation retreat. I will just mention two things though, that I thought were notable. First one is I had some pain during the sitting meditation that I needed to overcome. From my understanding it is common for people to have some discomfort during sitting meditation. It could be pain in your legs, or in your back or shoulders from less than perfect posture. In my case, I was having a strange type of chest pain. It seemed to come from trying so hard to focus on my breathing that I wasn’t allowing my body to just breathe naturally. The lesson here is don’t try to control your breath. Simply pay attention to it.

The second thing that happened was after a few days I started to have a light, kind of euphoric feeling. I felt calm, and at peace. The world seemed beautiful. As I was walking across the temple grounds, I happened to pass by the monk in charge of training foreign meditators. I greeted him with a warm smile, which he rebuked me for. “Eyes down. You are meditator,” he said sternly. It hurt ever so slightly at the time, but he was correct that I had lost some of my mindfulness.

The daily routine was as follows:

  • 4 AM – Wake up, perform mindful prostrations, then walking meditation, followed by sitting meditation in even intervals.
  • 6 AM – Breakfast bell. There are some Buddhist prayers before the meal starts around 6:30
  • After eating, wash your dishes, then you are expected to sweep up the ground around by the dormitory.
  • Walking and sitting meditation until lunch
  • 10:30 AM lunch bell. You must finish eating solid food before noon.
  • Walking and sitting meditation until reporting.
  • Reporting can be at different times in the afternoon. It depends on the abbot’s schedule.
  • More walking and sitting meditation until 10 PM.
dorms_for_foreign_meditators_wat_ram_poeng

Dorm rooms for foreign yogis

bodhi_tree_moss_stone_walkway

Moss covered stone looks lovely, but not so good for walking barefoot on.

For accommodations, they had simple fan cooled rooms. Foreign meditators (or “yogis” as they are called at the temple) are housed in a different area than the Thai yogis. You have your own room, so there is little distraction. Each room had a convenient covered walkway as part of the balcony (or below the balcony for rooms on the ground floor.) You are allowed to practice sitting and walking pretty much anywhere on the temple grounds: Under a tree, in the assembly hall, in the large library building, etc. I usually chose to do my walking and sitting at my dorm room because it was less distracting and more comfortable. Sitting under a tree to meditate sounds nice until you get ants crawling over your legs. The library building was cool and had plenty of room, but when I went there I found that it is too easy to get distracted by seeing a bunch of other people walking in super slow motion.

shady_walkway_outside_dorm_room_wat_ram_poeng

My shady balcony perfect for walking meditation

Some other things to note about staying at the temple:

  • You must wear all white clothing, which can easily be purchased in town.
  • You need to have an electric timer. You can’t use a timer app on a smart phone.
  • Talking is strongly discouraged. Some people sit and talk while having coffee after breakfast, but they really are not supposed to.
  • Vegetarian food is available, and so is food with meat. So you have a choice.
  • Payment for the course is by donation. When you leave the temple after finishing your retreat please give a donation at the temple office for whatever amount you feel appropriate.

One final interesting thing I noticed about Wat Ram Poeng was that they had a number of female monks staying there. In Thailand, one often sees nuns, or mae-chii, who wear white and hold the 10 precepts. It is very rare to see fully-ordained female monks, or bhikkhuni, who wear yellow or brown robes. In the days of the Buddha, there was a community of bhikkhuni, however, their ordination lineage in the Theravada countries was broken. And so the reintroduction of the bhikkhuni lineage from the Mahayana countries into the Theravada countries such as Thailand is a slow and somewhat controversial process.

Information on Retreats in Chiang Mai

Many people have written asking for dates of retreats and how to sign up for one. I do NOT work for the temple, so I don’t know their exact schedule, but from my experience, they have people starting new retreats all the time on a weekly basis or even more frequently. For more information about the Vipassana meditation courses offered at Wat Ram Poeng, please see the temple’s website. If you have specific questions, it would be better to contact the temple directly. If you’re coming to Chiang Mai, it is easy enough to get a tuk-tuk to take you directly to the temple. Then you can pay a visit to the Foreign Meditation Office located near the back of the temple grounds, where the monk in charge of registering foreign meditators will be glad to help you out.

And if you’d like to read a good book to learn more about Vipassana meditation, I highly recommend In This Very Life : The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha by Sayadaw U. Pandita.

Best of luck to all who are planning to join a Vipassana retreat. I hope you all have a very rewarding experience and can gain some insight to benefit both yourself and all others you come in contact with in your life.

 


Comments

10-Day Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Thailand — 39 Comments

  1. Thanks Ryan this was so helpful! I did a vipassana registered with dhamma.org but it sounded quite different. we were only allowed to walk before or after mediation hours, we weren’t allowed to eat meat (I thought it was one of the precepts?), and we met with the teacher at lunch hour. were females taking the course with you? I’d be very interested to try another course, especially one that allowed walking meditation! Chok dee,

    • Yes, men and women were both taking the course together, but they had separate dormitories. As for meat eating, it’s not one of the precepts, and the Buddha never forbade eating meat. Buddhist vegetarian traditions later developed in China and Japan, but vegetarianism was never really much a part of Buddhist practice in Tibet and the Southeast Asian countries. I think it’s starting to become a little more popular now, but it remains strictly a personal choice.

      The walking meditation is quite a nice change of pace after you’ve been sitting for an hour straight. It’s amazing how long it can take you to walk 20 feet when you really try.

  2. Thank you for propagation a Thai culture. I feel grateful that you understand. and see the value for our culture. I was one of a small Thai people’s voices in Thailand. I want to tell you that. Thank you very much.
    How do I view your YouTube. “Vegetarian” It is very good. You speak Thai same Thai people. “keng mak mak ka” ^_^

    Jan

    • There are many places to do 10 day retreats that have ongoing or regularly scheduled retreats. At Wat Ram Poeng, I think you can usually begin a retreat any Monday. They’re always taking new people.

      Another option might be Wat Suan Mokh in Southern Thailand. The have retreats starting the 1st of each month. http://www.suanmokkh-idh.org/index.html

  3. I was introduced to Vipassana 3 years ago in Dalifornia. Over the past 4 months I have become more and more interested and recently practice tonglen. I plan to come to Chiang Mai in last 2015 and visit my cousin who lives there. I am interested in the 10-day retreat at Wat Ram Poeng that you describe. I also want to study Thai massage in Chiang Mai area.
    I am unaccustomed to very hot, humid climate and wonder when would be the most comfortable time of year for being there about 3 months. Any suggestions you may have for me?

    • Sorry for the late reply. The most comfortable 3 month period would be Nov-Jan in my opinion. November will start out quite warm still, and may possibly be a bit rainy. But by the end of the month, it should be cooler and dry. In Dec and Jan, you can probably wear jeans and a T-shirt in the daytime, but you’ll need a jacket at night. Last year we had overnight lows around 50 F for some part of early January.

      • Nov-Jan sounds very comfortable weather-wise. Thank you for your beautiful web presence and sharing your experience globally.

  4. Very informative account, thank you. A few questions. Is it possible to have your own room rather than dormitory accommodation? In the 1990’s I did a number of 10 day courses in the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Kin and also went to the center in Burma (I think his teacher was Sayadaw). I am coming to Thail;and on 17 September. Do courses still start on each Monday? Finally how far is the center from town, or is it in Chiang Mai?

    • The dormitories for foreigners are individual rooms, so you’d have a room to yourself.
      I believe courses still start every Monday, or at least weekly. It’s best to contact the temple directly, I think they are somewhat flexible of the timing for beginning a retreat.
      The temple is maybe 5 km from the center of town.

      • Thanks Ryan. I contacted Doi Suthep and they replied immediately, and booked me in for 7 days from 22/9. It was a great course but hard on the body as I hadn’t done a course for about 10 years. A little bit different from the vipassana courses I had done in Ausralia, India and Burma. My son did a course at Suan Mok some years ago but bailed as he found it too strict for westerners. This would have been better as it was very middle way.

        • Thanks for sharing. Wat Doi Suthep gets so many visitors during the day that I’ve wondered how peaceful and quiet the section for meditators is.

  5. You need to have an electric timer. You can’t use a timer app on a smart phone.
    Why not, and what is an electric timer Ryan? And where to get one in Chiang Mai?

    • I think they don’t want you to use a timer app on a smart phone because then it’s too easy to start playing with your phone. You are not even supposed to read any books. The whole point is to maintain complete awareness of the present moment, so you have to take away anything that can cause distractions.

      I believe they sell timers at the temple office. But you can also find them at most electronic shops or office supply shops. Teachers often use these little digital timers that have a magnetic back so they’ll stick to the board in front of the classroom. That’s the kind I got. I think I bought it at a clock shop on Thaphae road.

  6. Hey Ryan,

    Thanks for the detailed info. I am very interested in doing a 10 day retreat. Yet on the temple’s website it says that the basic course is for 26 days.
    How did you arrange this?

    • Just go to the temple. The 26 day course is the full course that would have you progress through more steps and detailed instructions. But I think the majority of people go for 10 days. They want foreign meditators to commit to a minimum of 10 days. Nobody will criticize you if you aren’t able to stay for 26 days. Thai meditators often stay for much shorter periods, such as 3-7 days.

  7. Your comments are very interesting. I’ll be doing my first 10 days Vipassana in Quebec in november. I would be in Thailand for three months starting in January 2016. I would like to go to the temple Wat Ram Poeng. What is the distance from Banckok? Which transportation do you suggest? I have to count how many times to go to the temple? Can I stay at the temple more than 10 days?
    Thank you very much Ryan.
    Rosy, from Québec, Canada

    • Wat Ram Poeng is in Chiang Mai. It’s about 1 hour plane ride from Bangkok. I’d recommend flying since the discount carriers are so inexpensive, unless of course you want to sight-see along the way. It is certainly possible to stay at the temple longer than 10 days. In fact, the complete course is 24 days long if I’m not mistaken, although I think not so many people are able to stick it out that long. Best of luck to you!

  8. I am grateful for your blog. Will be in Thailand tomorrow. This is my holiday week… so I do want to have some adventures, some spiritual experience but also take beautiful nature pictures. Am I allowed to use my phone camera?

    • Sorry for such a late reply. You can take photos with your camera at the temple, but not during the time that you are officially “in retreat”.
      I took my photos on the last day after I already changed into normal attire.

  9. Hi there! Thank you for such a wonderful report! Choosing between Wat Poeng and Doi Suthep for 10 days course in January 2016. Found that the discipline in Doi Suthep is not really hard (someone heard their neighbors having sex….) Can I ask some questions concerning accommodation? You are allowed to take to your room only white clothes, timer and..(what else?)? Is there a storage for your luggage? If I have a full suitcase including laptop, smartphone, camera, money for forthcoming journey through Thailand with me – where can I leave them in safety?
    And another one – is there a practice to take pillows for meditation with you? Is it allowed to use repellents (not those which kill mosquitoes, but those which you put on yourself)? Is there a good sound isolation in rooms? Sorry for asking so much – I tried to ask monks, they are very modest in communication..

    • I think you can either keep your bag in your room or else there is a place at the temple office to keep it.
      They generally don’t encourage sitting on a thick cushion at Wat Ram Poeng.
      If you feel it’s more spine-friendly to have your bottom slightly elevated (as I do) you can get around it by doing most of your sitting meditations in your room and use your pillow.
      I don’t think repellent is a problem.
      I don’t remember the level of sound isolation because none of my neighbors were talking or making noise.So it should be OK.

  10. Hi Ryan,

    I am interested in attending the 10 day course at the Wat Ram Poeng in January 2016. I spoke to the monk who works for the foreign office earlier but was having difficulty in understanding him. He mentioned one of that start dates is Jan 24th which is a Sunday. Would you know if this means I have to move in to the temple from the 23rd or does the actual meditation start on Monday the 25th? I have to make travel arrangements from Canada and it would be great to get the details straight.

    Thanks,
    Cynthia

    • I think it means you’d move into the temple on the 24th and the meditation also starts on the 24th.
      When I did it, the first day was not a full day. We moved in, had some instruction in the afternoon, and did our first meditation then.

  11. Hi Ryan. Does the office speak good english? I was going to put credit on my skype to call them tomorrow but I thought maybe I could get an answer from you first. I emailed them with no response. For the 10 days, do you know if you can come anytime? Just show up? I am planning other activities/training in Bangkok and was thinking of coming up north to this after and just want to make sure I can just pop in and stay. I am planning on the first or 2nd week of May 2016. Thanks!

    • When I was there (this was a few years ago) the monk running the international meditator section spoke good English. You may or may not be able to just show up and start your stay that day. Sometimes I think they prefer to have several individuals all start on the same day to make instruction run more smoothly. If that is the case, then they may ask you to come back in a day or two.

  12. Hi Ryan

    I have a friend whom I’m waiting to return from this 10 day course.
    Can you tell me if the 10th day was a full day or not?
    And was it 10 days from date of arrival or did you leave in the 11th?

    Many thanks

  13. Hi Ryan,

    Your experience at this particular temple sounds quite good. However, as a beginner some of the research I’ve done suggests this may not be the best place for someone just starting out.

    Would you happen to know or be able to recommend any solid choices for an english-speaking westerner wanting to go through a 10 day retreat?

    Thanks!

    • This was the only 10 day retreat I’ve been to, so the only one I feel comfortable recommending.
      Actually, if you are a 100% beginner I would suggest you first try 15 minutes of meditation twice a day for a couple weeks before jumping into a 10 day course. Same as you’d want to feel comfortable running at least a mile before you try a marathon.

  14. Hi Ryan, my girlfriend has gone to a meditation retreat in Nakhon Ratchasima! Can you tell me reasons why people goto these places? I’m new to this and wanna learn and understand it. Many thanks p

    • Well, different people have different reasons. Is your girlfriend Thai? If so, she could be going for all sorts of reasons – part of a group activity, etc.
      Best to just ask her I think.
      For me, the main reason is to try to develop wisdom and realize what the Buddha taught.

  15. Hello Ryan,
    Glad to have someone here, who we can ask question to!
    Why are 10 days the average length for these retreats in general? Are there any longer ones available there? I have heard about 21 or even 55 days when the personality falls off on the 30th or 40th days and this is what I would be looking for but non like this can be found on-line. Why is that?
    Thank you!

    • I’m not sure why they average 10 days. Many Thai people stay for less time, 2-5 days or 1 week. You can stay longer at Wat Ram Poeng. I think 28 days is enough to take you through the entire meditation sequence they teach in the system they use. I don’t think there’s any timeline for “personality falling off”. Recognition of the non-self quality of internal toughts and feelings would come at different speeds for different people.

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