Kopan Monastery

This will be the view I remember from Kopan.  It’s another monastery, which we could see from the dining hall at Kopan.  Since we had most of our meals and breaks in silence, I spent a lot of time sipping tea and staring out at this beautiful building with the mountain views behind it.

We stayed at Kopan Monastery for ten days to attend a Tibetan Buddhism and Mediation Course.  Living at a monastery was a completely new experience for the both of us, and a pretty fascinating one.  Though we stayed in separate buildings from the monks and nuns, we could still hear them chant at all hours of the day, watch them debate one another in the courtyard, and see the young monks playing at the school just down the hill.

The grounds of the monastery are beautiful, with two beautiful stupas and some lovely gardens, two huge gompas (meditation halls), and many buildings for the 360 or so monks that live there.  The views from the hill are quite stunning (especially on the days when the sky is clear, which wasn’t many.)
For the first eight days our daily schedule looked like this:

  • 5:45am     Wake up
  • 6:00am     Tea
  • 6:30am     Meditation
  • 7:30am     Breakfast
  • 8:00am     Break (I usually did yoga during this break)
  • 9:00am     Teachings
  • 11:30am    Lunch
  • 12:00pm   Break (I think most people napped during this break)
  • 2:00pm     Discussion Group
  • 3:00pm     Teachings
  • 5:00pm     Tea
  • 6:00pm     Meditation
  • 6:45pm     Dinner
  • 7:45pm     Meditation
  • 9:00pm    End of day

The days felt long – it’s amazing how exhausting it can be to sit all day long for meditation and teachings.  We kept silence from 9pm until after lunch each day.  The last two days were a “retreat”, meaning we kept full silence and swapped in more meditation for the teachings and discussion groups.

While I believe the course was well run, I was a bit disappointed in the content.  I had hoped for a bit more meditation and a little less….well, religion.  Everything I’ve read about Buddhism in the past has seemed very practical and logical, and on the first day of teachings the nun running our course explained that Buddhism was more like psychology than religion.  I have to disagree with her statement, however, as over the next several days we were taught most of the Buddhist beliefs and many of them seemed less logical and more religious than I expected.

I wasn’t alone in this expectation, either – many of the other attendees had anticipated a more meditation based course as well.  We spent many hours meditating, it’s true.  However, most of the meditation practices were exercises in thinking about Buddhist concepts rather than clearing the mind and attempting single pointed concentration, which was more what I was looking for.

Regardless, I still got a lot out of our ten days here.  I have a much more thorough understanding of Tibetan Buddhism (and I know now for certain that I do not want to be a Buddhist practitioner, not that I ever really thought I would be.)  In the future, I will undoubtedly draw upon some of the more practical and helpful Buddhist principles and ideas, and perhaps some of the meditation techniques.  We also met some really top notch people at the retreat.  Apparently only high caliber interesting individuals sign up for this type of experience, because everyone was a tier above most travelers we meet on the road.  I learned much about the world just from dinner conversations with this diverse group.

Unfortunately, at the end of the retreat I succumbed to the cold I’d been fighting for days.  We’ve headed back to Kathmandu for a few days to recover and eat some delicious Nepali food (monastery food is quite bland and basic, as you can imagine.)  Hopefully I’ll be feeling good again soon and we can head out to explore this amazing country a little further.

The Temples at Angkor Wat

While other ruins often take just a few hours to explore (for example Machu Picchu was just over half a day, and Tikal took us about four hours), the temples of Angkor Wat take days to explore.  They actually sell three, seven and 10 day passes to view the ruins because a one day pass simply isn’t enough.  We bought a three day pass and still only managed to see the main temples during our stay.We spent several hours at the main temple of Angkor Wat, seen above.  It’s the largest and most well restored temple in the area.  The hallway that surrounds the temple is covered with intricate carvings, as you can see below.  The photo just shows one side of the temple – there are four equally huge hallways covered in carvings.
Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to climb to the top of the inner temple because I was wearing shorts.  (Women have to cover knees and shoulders to enter the temple, and wrapping a sarong around your waist isn’t enough to get past the picky staff.)  Poor planning on my part.  John was able to go up (even with his knees showing) and said the views were pretty great.  I think he downplayed it a little so I wouldn’t be sad about missing out.Self portrait evidence that we were there…

Our favorite temple in the complex was Bayon, where dozens of faces of the king peer out at each cardinal direction.
Still full of rubble, this temple felt really authentic and had an interesting energy to it.  Even though the place was crawling with tourists it still felt somehow like we were discovering the temple for the first time.
I could not stop photographing the faces.  There are so many of them, and they’re both eerie and calming at the same time.Of course the temple was also once full of intricate carvings.  Some of them still remain fairly well intact, but this place must have been incredible when all of them were still fresh.The inside of these pillars is dark and creepy, with just a few stones covering the roof and letting in a little light.  It almost feels like they could collapse at any time.  Almost.Us again…We now interrupt the endless photos of temples for a shot of an adorable puppy playing with a massive centipede.  Yeah, that happened.Ok – back to temples!  There are several other huge temples in the area, many of which you can climb to the top of via some very small stairs.  We climbed a few, but once the heat of the day really set in (over 100 degrees and humid) we couldn’t muster the effort anymore.  Most of the views were just of trees anyhow.

Amidst all the temples there are terraces full of carved figurines and loads of ruins that haven’t been reconstructed yet.

There are also several smaller side temples that we stopped at just quickly on our way through the area.  If one of these was plopped down in the middle of nowhere it would be massively impressive, but it they get a bit out shined by the scores of other larger temples.Other temples being those like Ta Phrom (also called the Tomb Raider Temple because they filmed part of the movie here.)  The trees have overrun this temple and are growing all over the place.Much of the temple is still rubble, but some of it has been reconstructed and restored.These trees are enormous.  This is just one section of a root system that has to be supported so that it doesn’t collapse.For a sense of scale, note that in the photo below if John was standing on the rubble there his head reaches to about the spot where the hole is above the pillar.  This tree is big.

During our short time in Cambodia we also visited the War Museum, where a civil war veteran toured us through a yard full of old tanks and weapons while recounting tales from the war and showing off his various scars and schrapnel injuries.  It was an eye opening experience to learn about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and learn about how Cambodia is still picking up the pieces today.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we also saw the circus.  Phare is an NGO that trains Cambodian kids in the arts (including painting, music, acrobatics and performing arts) in order to restore some of the culture that was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.  They put on shows around Cambodia to raise money for their school, and we saw a fantastic performance in the vien of Cirque de Soleil.  The performers were wildly talented and so incredibly joyful – it made both of us absurdly happy.  Such a great thing to see.

With delicious food, interesting culture and endless temples, we thoroughly enjoyed Siem Reap.  I wish we had swapped some of our excess time in Thailand for more time in Cambodia.  Alas, we only had five days before it was time to leave Southeast Asia and go to Nepal.  After one last overnight stop in Bangkok we said goodbye to the tropics and headed for the Himalayas.

[...] Temple at Angkor Wat.  This was my favorite of the temples – I nearly got chills when we first saw it.  Such an [...]

Thai Massage School

My body felt fatigued, my mind was swimming with all of the information I’d taken in, I’d already learned enough different positions and stretches to give an hour long massage – and it was only day three.

I have to admit, after the first few days of my two week beginners course at the Sunshine Massage School in Chiang Mai I felt overwhelmed.  Fortunately, by day 5 or 6 I was starting to get the hang of things.  Our highly knowledgeable teacher, Yan, taught my class of 10 students over 125 different stretches and positions, and provided a wealth of information about pressure points, energy lines, anatomy, working with injuries, alternative healing techniques, and relaxation exercises.  Given my background in yoga and reiki, I found all of the information completely fascinating – I just hope I can remember a fraction of it.

After 60 hours of instruction and practice, I can now confidently give a full 2 hour massage – and a longer one if I’m working with someone who is a bit more flexible.  I’ll be practicing on John pretty regularly over the next few months to be sure I maintain my skills until we get home.  He’s more than happy to oblige, as you can imagine.

This course was the main reason we came to Chiang Mai, and the only thing keeping us here after we decided that Thailand wasn’t resonating with us.  I’m so happy to report that I got so much out of this course – enough to make our month here in Chaing Mai well worth it (even if you don’t add in the cooking course and ziplining adventure we enjoyed here.)  As my brain processes all the information over the next few weeks I’ll probably only have more good things to say about my time spent studying at Sunshine.

Now that I’ve finished my course, however, it’s time to move on.  Yesterday I passed my final exam (giving a 2.5 hour massage to a classmate – the middle image above is of the epically long sequence I used), and today we’re hopping the overnight train down to Bangkok.  Onward we go!

Shama Kern - May 19, 2013 - 8:31 pm

125 techniques in 60 hours does sound like a pretty overwhelming amount of material. But if you have done a 2.5 hour session, you must have retained it pretty well.

Month Twelve Recap

That’s right, we’ve officially been homeless for an entire year.

Where We’ve Been

Thailand.

The Highs

  • The food at our  Three Day Thai Cooking Course was superb.  Such amazing flavors (and views!)
  • Finally going ziplining.  We’ve skipped this tourist activity through all of Central America and Southeast Asia, but Thailand is the last tropical location where we could zipline through the rainforest so we finally decided to go for it.  I’m glad we waited – the place we went was impressive.  It took us a full 90 minutes to make it through the entire course, and we got to see a whole family of gibbons.  Much cooler than the ziplining I did in Costa Rica years ago.
  • Songkran.  Simply hilarious.
  • Thai Yoga Massage School.  I’m going to leave the two week course I’m currently taking with a slew of new massage and yoga moves and a whole host of information about anatomy, working with injuries, and alternative healing techniques.  Win.

The Lows

  • Failure to connect with Chiang Mai.  Despite the above mentioned highs, we really haven’t much liked Thailand.  I know people all over the world rave about this place, but we just aren’t feeling it.  Time to move on.
  • Homesickness.  As you can imagine, failing to connect with the city you live in makes it easy for homesickness to creep in.  Add in a 13 hour time difference that makes it difficult to connect with people back home and it’s not surprising that I visited the Denver apartment listing section of Craigslist this month…just to see what was out there…

Things I’ve Learned

Good Thai food cannot be taken for granted.  There is a (shockingly) high percent of Thai food that is not tasty.  I would not have thought that possible before visiting here.

Also, I do not thrive in 104 degree heat.  As such, I’m ready to get out of the tropics.  John, who claims to love all hot weather, is also suffering.  It appears we have reached our limits – I hope Nepal can provide some much needed cooler temperatures.

What’s Up Next

Cambodia and Nepal.

Three Day Thai Cooking Course

Yumazing.  I invented this word to describe the food at the three day organic and vegetarian Thai cooking course we just completed.  It’s the only one that really fits.

I’ve wanted to take a cooking course in Thailand since well before World Tour, and its something I’ve been looking forward to for months.  I’m not alone in this desire, and thus Chiang Mai is practically bursting at the seams with restaurants and cooking schools willing to provide foreigners with an “authentic Thai cooking experience.”  Of course, all of these experiences look identical – they tour the same market, teach the same bland dishes, and offer relatively few vegetarian options.  With our experience with the sub-par cooking class in Vietnam, which aimed to entertain more than educate, fresh in my mind I felt weary about taking a cooking course in Thailand.    After viewing brochures and websites ad nauseum I was tempted to scrap the whole idea of learning to cook Thai food at all.

Fortunately, I am the queen of internet research these days, and persistently kept searching for a class that would suit our desires and needs.  My persistence paid off when I located this vegetarian cooking course.  Though I believe the program used to be offered fairly often, the woman who teaches the course now runs a restaurant in Chiang Mai and is writing a cookbook, so it has become much less frequent. After many emails, restaurant visits, and a few phone calls I managed to secure two spots for John and I just a day before it began.

The course took place at the Pun Pun Center for Self Reliance, an organic farm and sustainable living center about 30 miles outside of Chiang Mai.  Pun Pun has an amazing setting, with gorgeous mountain views and some of the most stunning sunsets we’ve seen in a while.
We arrived at Pun Pun in the afternoon of our first day.  After settling into our rooms at a farmstay down the road (think beautifully constructed adobe huts with outdoor showers where the water pours out of a hollowed out tree branch), we were toured around the facilities at Pun Pun.  A community of people live at the farm year-round, living, eating and working together.  They all live in adobe buildings they have constructed themselves, many of which are far more impressive than I expected.During our tour we learned about the sustainable projects and seed saving program at the farm.  John and I later visited the neighboring Panya Project, another sustainable community focused on permaculture.  While I don’t think I’ll be moving to one of these communities anytime soon, I did learn a lot about what they are capable of doing with sustainable resources and earned a healthy respect for their passion for innovation and education.

The chickens at Pun Pun are definitely free range – they have the run of an enormous pen and could not be happier.  They produce heaps of delicious fresh eggs to feed the community.After touring around the facilities and gardens, we plucked some fresh organic produce for our dinner.  I always love seeing how food grows (we are so sheltered from our food system in the US.)  The farm grows a huge variety of plants during the wet season, but even in the dry season we could see things like okra, lemongrass, huge radishes, plenty of fresh herbs and greens, onions, mangoes and pineapples.  You know the food will be incredible when the ingredients are picked just hours before dinner.
Rather than cooking for ourselves on the first night, we were treated to a meal cooked by our talented teacher, Yao.  While she and her team whipped up several tantalizing dishes for our dinner, we wandered to the local reservoir to take a swim with the other 10 students in our group.  The sunset and views along the way were truly exceptional. Mountains and papayas in the same space…if it wasn’t so darn hot I might call it paradise.
After our sunset visit to the reservoir (below), we practically inhaled the amazing meal Yao served us, stoked that we’d be learning to make food that delicious on our own the next day.  While Thai food in the US usually has several vegetarian options, it’s been difficult for me to find good vegetarian Thai food in Chiang Mai.  Yao’s cooking exceeded my expectations for vegetarian Thai food.Over the next two full days, we did some serious cooking.  Each morning we’d have a yoga class followed by a substantial breakfast of fresh fruits and culinary creations made by other community members.  The rest of the day was filled with cooking and eating (with a few breaks for digestion, thankfully.)

The simple outdoor kitchen provided an excellent setting for Yao’s teaching.  When it got too hot, we’d retreat to the indoor kitchen to prep more food.
Yao would demonstrate how to chop or crush each ingredient, then the 12 of us would get to work slicing and dicing mounds of produce and herbs.
We used soo many fresh ingredients, and I could not stop photographing them after we had chopped them all to perfection.  The vibrant colors of fresh food are irresistible.Below are some of the many components involved in Thai curry.  We learned to make four types of curry paste (and their resulting curry dishes and soups) from these and other raw ingredients – Massaman Curry, Green Curry, Penang Curry and Tom Yum.  The curry paste tastes exquisite on its own, but when you add coconut milk something amazing happens.  Coconut milk is magical.Since they cook for the entire community at every meal, the kitchen at Pun Pun is equipped to make enormous batches of food.  They are usually cooking for around 20 people at a time, though the numbers can swell up to almost 100 people when they are hosting certain workshops and classes.  Though I can’t imagine I’ll be cooking Thai food for groups any larger than 2-8 people, it was handy to learn some of the techniques for making these dishes en masse.

Throughout both days we were constantly tasting the dishes to learn what they should taste like and how to season them on the fly without precise recipes (though we have those, too.)  As you can see, this Tom Yum Soup was no exception.
One of the dishes we made was Banana Flower Salad.  Though we’ve seen them growing all over the world, I had no idea you could cook with banana flowers.  It probably won’t come in handy much in Colorado, but the salad would still be fantastic with cucumber or artichokes substituted in.

Below is the inside of the banana flower once you peel it.  It has to be soaked in salt water to remove the bitter sap before you eat it raw in the salad.During the course we learned how to make tofu and soymilk from scratch, how to ferment bananas into a delicious banana vinegar, how to make coconut milk, and how to make vegetarian oyster sauce from scratch.  None of these things would even be mentioned in your standard Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai.  Yao really packed a ton of information into our three days.
In addition to cooking, Yao also shared with us some of the traditions and history of Thai food, and discussed the different flavor profiles you’ll find in every dish.  Thai food always has a little sour, sweet and spicy as part of the flavor, which helps make it so complex and delicious.  Tamarind juice provides the sour flavor in many dishes.  Here Yao pours the juice into one of the giant woks to make Cashew Stir Fry with Tamarind Sauce.
Doesn’t this look amazing??  It was.  All of the food we ate at Pun Pun was easily the best Thai food I’ve ever had, and some of the best food we’ve had this whole trip.  Making everything from fresh organic produce certainly didn’t hurt.

In addition to all the curries and above dishes we also made Pad Thai, Pad Kaprow, Brown Rice Salad, and Spring Rolls (both fresh and fried) with homemade peanut tamarind sauce.  Most of the dishes we made were so delicious I couldn’t be bothered to photograph them before digging in.  I only have photos of a sample of the dishes we made – Banana Flower Salad, Papaya Salad, Fresh Spring Rolls, and Penang Curry (one of my all time favorites.)

The finale was an enormous dish of Mango Sticky Rice, which contained enough coconut milk and sugar to make you think twice about consuming it – until you tasted it.  Our group took spoons straight to the huge plate, only coming up for air once 80% of the dish was gone.

On our final day at Pun Pun our group returned to Chiang Mai just after breakfast, but not after having the opportunity to ask Yao every question we could think of.  She is an amazing resource of information.  We learned so much during the course of our three days at Pun Pun, I couldn’t possibly explain it all in one blog post.  We ate so well, and left with a cookbook full of recipes for twice as many dishes as we made.

And of course, more photos of the sunset than one could possibly need…here’s another for you in case you haven’t had enough.

Would you believe that this course (including transportation to and from Chiang Mai, three nights accommodation, all of our meals, yoga, and the endless stream of information and education) only cost US$112?  Yeah.  Oh Thailand, you may have finally won me over.  I cannot wait to cook some of these flavorful dishes at home.

Jules - January 7, 2016 - 1:19 pm

Such beautiful photos of your time. When we were in Chiang Mai we completed a one day cooking class and that was amazing. Would love to go back and do some more classes to try and perfect our skills. Will definitely keep an eye on Pun Pun for next time :)

Juth Vadhanapanich - December 19, 2014 - 5:51 pm

I really love your photos :)

yaowadee Chookong - December 6, 2013 - 3:50 am

Wow !!! Amazing photos beautifull writing make me want to have another cooking course again!! Yao

[...] a Tharo village, where indigenous people live pretty much exactly how all the kids at Panya, Pun Pun and other eco-friendly/stustainable/permaculture communities try to live, but more successfully. [...]

[...] food at our  Three Day Thai Cooking Course was superb.  Such amazing flavors (and [...]