Tracing the trail of the teachers

STORY & PictureS BY FOONG THIM LENG, The Star (Malaysia), December 25, 2004

Isan, Thailand -- THE north-eastern region of Thailand isn?t a favoured holiday destination as it does not have the regular attractions like beach resorts, exotic hill tribes and grand ancient ruins. 

<< The Buddha image in Ajahn Maha Boowa's Wat Ban Thad in Udorn Thani is surrounded by photographs of some of the great teachers from the Thai forest tradition.

The region known as Isan (?north-east? in Thai), and inhabited by a people who are closely related to Laotians, is characterised by a hilly landscape, hot weather and poor soil. Poverty has led many to seek jobs in Bangkok, leaving the children and older folk behind. 

Isan is, however, noted for monks who, in the Thai forest tradition, retreat deep into the jungle, mountains and caves to pursue meditation and enlightenment. This Thai forest monk tradition started in the 1800s and has produced great teachers like Ajahn Sao, Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Fan, whose relics can today be seen in the chedis and temples that are scattered around the region.

During a brief visit to Isan recently, we traced the trail of some of these teachers and visited monasteries set up by their disciples. One such monastery we dropped in on was Wat Tam Pra Poo Voie (Temple on Cattle Mountain) in Nong Khai, 615km from Bangkok. 

The wat has a main temple at the foot of the hill and another in a cave up the hill. There are huts where the monks live and walking paths meant for meditation on the move. The view from the hill is beautiful as you look out on the dense forest and the Mekong River below. The sandstone plateau with its colourful wild flowers, small waterfalls and cool air makes you want to linger for hours.

We found the rock where Ajahn Fan used to sit and give sermons to villagers who brought him food. The Buddha image he once built with grass, mud and elephant dung has today been replaced with a concrete statue.

Later we visited Wat Phu Tok or the Buddha?s Cliff, located 140km east of Nong Khai. The temple here, established by Ajahn Juen in 1968, is a seven-level monastery carved out of the mountain with meditation grottos, monk huts and a sala (hall) spread out in honeycomb fashion amidst small waterfalls and wild flowers. 

Rocks and plank staircases take you up to the various levels. It can be an exhausting climb but the view is spectacular. Certainly, the climb is not for the faint-hearted, because you will notice half-way up the 1.8m-wide staircase that it?s a dizzying drop of several hundred metres down. 

As you near the top, there is a sheer rock face between you and level seven. You?ll need the help of a rope to climb all the way to the summit. Ajahn Juen?s hut, built under a rock on an adjacent hill, can be glimpsed from level six. Ajahn Juen died in 1980 in a plane crash whilst on his way to Bangkok to celebrate Queen Sirikit?s birthday. His relics and belongings are on display in a chedi at the foot of the hill.

We also stopped briefly at Wat Pa Suthawat nearby to view another teacher?s ? Ajahn Mun ? relics, and the possessions he had during his lifetime. We then visited Ajahn Fan?s Tam Khahm Cave (Tamarind Cave) in Phannah Nikom, Sakhon Nakorn, about 200km away. There are many monkeys around the place, and if disturbed, they will attack. So be careful.

We had to climb 300m using a flight of concrete steps to reach the sala which has a commanding view of the surroundings. The monks told us that Ajahn Tate, a prominent teacher there, died in one of the chambers at the temple in 1999 at the age of 92. They related how once while Ajahn Tate was meditating in his chamber, a tigress and two cubs took up shelter at a nearby chamber but the creatures never did him any harm.

The chedi dedicated to the great teacher was built at a site below the cave. To pay our respects, we had to take off our shoes and, in the sizzling midday sun, climb all the way up the hot concrete steps to the chedi. 

After that we travelled 90km to Nakorn Phanon to visit the exotic Wat That Phanom, which stands near the great Mekong River. Wat That Phanom is the most revered temple in the region. The temple is dominated by an impressive 52m, white-and-gold, Lao-styled chedi. 

Legends have it that it was first built in 535BC to house the breastbone of the Buddha eight years after his death, and has been restored no less than eight times, the most recent being in 1977, following the chedi?s collapse during a storm in 1975. 

The chedi is known as a popular wish-fulfiling place.

Our journey in Isan also took us to a night?s stay at Wat Doi Dhamma Chedi, or ?The Hill Monastery of the Dhamma Chedi? in Tambol Tong Khob, about 30km southeast of Sakhon Nakhon. We slept in the quarters for visitors, while the monks and novices retreated to their huts built around rocky outcrops in the central area and in the surrounding woods. 

Our trip ended with a visit to Ajahn Maha Boowa?s temple, Wat Ban Thad in Udon Thani, 160km from Sakhon Nakhon. A high concrete wall surrounds his 25ha monastery, and visitors have to leave their vehicles outside. We offered food to the monks outside the temple?s gate in the morning before joining Ajahn Maha Boowa and the other monks for a meal at a wooden sala. 

We wrapped up our trip by visiting three more forest monasteries and also a cave which Ajahn Maha Boowa had chosen for his parinibbana (release from endless cycles of birth and rebirth) in Udon Thani.

Little-known Isan facts

The north-eastern region of Thailand or Isan is isolated from the rest of the country by the mountains on the south and west.
The inhabitants of the area are culturally closer to Laotians as the region was originally part of the Khmer empire until the Thais captured it in the 12th century.

Isan people are known for eating ?sticky rice? (glutinous rice). They also love to eat chillies and catfish caught from the Mekong River. 

There is no night life in the region.

Nong Khai is a riverside town with a population of 32,200, who are mostly farmers. Most of the villagers are elderly people left behind to take care of the children of those who have gone to work in Bangkok. Nong Khai is linked to Vientiane in Laos by a 1.2km-long Friendship Bridge at the lower reaches of the Mekong.

For the trip, we took an Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Udon Thani and then chartered an air-conditioned double-decker bus.

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