by JARUNEE TAEMSAMRAN, Bangkok Post, March 3, 2005
A visit to Chiang Mai can be an education and an adventure
Chiang Mai, Thailand -- Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai is one of the many places of interest for tourists visiting the area. Dating back to the 14th century, the monastery has abundant historical significance and admirable architecture.
<< Dozens of chedi, containing the remains of the royal family of Chiang Mai, and a Buddha relic
And for those visitors less enthusiastic about history, the glossy travel brochures also point out that it is probably the best place to see the most beautiful sunset in Chiang Mai.
But that's not all this temple can offer. Today, visitors to Wat Suan Dok can do more than just watching the sunset, learning of its long history and admiring the temple's architecture.
For more than four years, the temple, by the Chiang Mai Campus of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, has provided an activity that appeals to tourists curious about the life of Buddhist monks and the concept of Buddhism.
Called the ``Monk chat'' programme, it's an informal question-and-answer session with monks for anyone interested in learning more about Buddhism, meditation and the monk's lives.
``It all began with tourists who visited the temple and were curious to find out more about the monks, so they came and asked us many things about our lives,'' said Phra Phanuwat Rungson.
``As the numbers of curious tourists grew we thought we should probably provide an informal session where they could come and discuss the monk's lives and the concepts of Buddhism,'' Phra Phanuwat explained.
Since then, the ``Monk chat'' programme has become a session for monks and foreign tourists to exchange ideas between each other.
Anyone interested can attend the programme which is held regularly on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings from 5:00 to 7:00pm. Participants can discuss any matters of general interests and anything about Buddhism-related issues.
The evening ``Monk chat'' session is conducted entirely in English and it provides an opportunity for both the monks to practice their English and for tourists to learn about Buddhism and the culture of Buddhist monks.
The programme has been quite popular among tourists interested in Buddhism. It's also recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook, perhaps the most popular guidebook among budget travellers.
In addition to the evening session, Wat Suan Dok also offers a two-day course for those who want to practice meditation.
The ``Experiencing Thai Buddhist Culture and Meditation Training'' programme is an extension of the ``Monk Chat'' sessions that provides opportunities for foreigners to learn more about Thai culture as well as learning about meditation techniques.
The two-day course usually starts every Sunday afternoon and lasts until Monday afternoon. Included in the programme are sessions teaching about Buddhist concepts, meditation practice, yoga practice, alms offering to the monks, chanting and praying, and a session on Thai cooking.
The programme is free of charge, but each course is limited to only 15 to 20 people.
According to Phra Phanuwat, both programmes have been so successful that each year about 5,000 foreigners take part in the dharma discussion and meditation courses.
Both programmes are designed to help visitors to Thailand better understand Thai culture and Buddhism. They are also designed to help participants apply Buddhist ideas and the benefits of meditation to their daily lives.
``Some of them are so obsessed with meditation practice that they go home and decide to come back here again, inviting their friends and relatives to join them,'' he said.
And as well as any benefits that tourists can enjoy from the programmes, it is a great way for any tourist to get a better understanding of Thailand and Thai culture.
For those interested in joining Wat Suan Dok's Monk Chat programme or interested in information about the meditation course, visit www.monkchat.net or call the temple's office on 05-327-8967 ext 111, or fax the office on 05-327-0452.