Wat Chom Thong, Wat Ram Poeng and Wat Doi Suthep are the three well-known temples offering intensive meditation retreats in the style of Ajarn Thong, a student of who could be called the founder of the modern vipassana movement, Mahasi Sayadaw. They are all situated in or near to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.
The temples all offer 10-day courses in insight meditation and longer courses, sometimes 21 days and sometimes 26 days. The precise meditation technique varies according to the teacher. Wat Chom Tong and Wat Ram Poeng teach students to practice ‘touching points’ around the body as they observe the rising and falling of the breath at the stomach, as well as the arising and falling of mental phenomena. When I was there seven years ago, Ajarn Noah Yutidhammo skipped the touching points and asked students to focus on the breath, or whatever they felt most comfortable with. Ajarn Noah is no longer the teacher at Wat Doi Suthep however. The courses involve very intensive meditation practice, sometimes encouraging up to 16 hours a day. There is often a focus on accepting unpleasant sensations – ‘pain is your friend,’ as I was once told. There are many drop-outs. The longer courses end with a ‘determination’ in which students are asked to stay in their rooms for three days, without bathing or sleeping. People who return to do a ‘review’ course will also be asked to do a determination.
In the end, as far as the meditation goes, these three centres are basically the same. Perhaps it is not very Buddhisty to ‘review’ these different temples which give meditation instruction for free, but I understand how it’s nice to have as much information as you can before committing. So, here I will answer the somewhat un-Buddhist question: Which one is the best one for ME?
Wat Ram Poeng
Ajarn Samphan is now quite famous in local circles as a meditation teacher of very high spiritual attainment. The small city temple is packed with monks and lay people from all over the world. Many Chinese monks are finding their way there in particular. Guest yogis are given simple accommodation in concrete huts with electricity and cold water. I haven’t been there in almost ten years, but at that time the food was not pleasant.
Wat Doi Suthep
This is one of Thailand’s most famous tourist temples. It is built on a high mountain from which you can see the flattened sprawl of Chiang Mai blend into miles of misty green rice fields. When I stayed there seven years ago, the meditation centre was located about the salvageable corners of a derelict school. That building has since been abandoned and the meditation centre has sprouted into a large complex of shiny white concrete buildings. It is also now very popular. While I can no longer speak for the teachings, the surroundings are ideal. Tourists never venture into the meditation centre grounds, but you can venture into the temple complex at night and have it all to yourself. It is cool at night, even in the hot season. A meditation retreat here is a nice memory to give yourself. Looking back, it seems as though my time at the meditation centre was spent in a floating city, above the world, above the years, above my own self.
Wat Chom Thong
The international meditation center at Wat Chom Thong is, technically speaking, not part of Wat Chom Thong. It is run separately and meditation is taught by laypeople rather than monks. The twice daily meals are served at the temple itself however and yogis are taken along to the temple celebrations, such as the weekly Holy Day (wan phra) proceedings. You have a chance to witness or even to meet Ajarn Thong himself, who will be 90 this year and is rumoured to be an Arahant.
This is the cushiest meditation centre I have ever been to. Yogis get hot showers, their own amply-sized room. If you want creature-comforts and wish to stay as much as possible away from the ‘religious’ side of Buddhism, then this is centre is certainly recommended. The teacher are very professional regarding meditation instruction. They always tell students to be not so ‘serious’. If you wish to stay on and learn how to be a meditation teacher, this is also possible.