Chiangmai-Mae Hong Son trip

I am so glad we made it to the Chiangmai-Mae Hong Son trip. I suppose we were meant to make this journey to Dhammagiri Orphanage and participate in the Kathina. Theresa had asked if we would like to join her and, in her usual calm way, answered all our queries - “You’re sure? But, we don’t know what we should do. What are we getting into?” – encouraging us to go with the flow. We would be amongst two busloads of Buddhists, 65 pax in all. Some had been practising Buddhism since university days, some were pretty young. Amongst my dance buddies, except for Theresa, none of us had been on such a trip.

From Theresa’s sharing of her experience at Dhammagiri, we had an inkling of what to expect. I must say Dhammagiri had been built with much love! Our sleeping quarters was wonderfully airy. I loved the windows made of dried leaves, the natural light seeping in from the roof, and there were mirrors, sinks, toilet bowls and hot water showers! Apparently, much development had taken place the last two years.

We thought we had strong knees and should sleep upstairs and let the elderly ones sleep below. But we weren’t exactly treading like angels on the wooden floor nor speaking gently, and our poor sisters below had to come up to investigate what the matter could be.  

I found in Dhammagiri a place to meditate, practise and be with nature. Like many who came, I felt the peace and tranquility. The cement floor was cool beneath our feet; no air-conditioners, no carpets and no need for vacuums, robot cleaners, maids …ahhh…the sheer luxury of simplicity. The canteen, the sleeping quarters, the surroundings of padi fields, papaya trees, banana trees, chilli plants; I experienced the wholesome goodness of self-sustainability. And food was soothing to the stomach: clear soupy lunch, organic vegetables and fruits grown at the orphanage - we couldn’t have asked for more.

But above all, I loved the stories by Ajahn Cagino. Even though I couldn’t fully understand what he said (he spoke mostly in Mandarin), I understood the reason he is there. I realised why forest monasteries exist, the challenges they face, the real work they do, the tremendous potential to help villagers with daily issues. I used to wonder why monks hide in the forest instead of facing the challenges of the city head on. There in Chiangmai, I saw for myself there is much a monk can do for villagers in this century. Another awakening experience was walking to the village. It is one thing to read that monks eat only what they receive, one meal a day. It is another to walk barefoot with monks at 5am to homes in the nearby village to receive their meal.

The most touching moment for me was when Ajahn Cagino stood with the headmaster before a school gathering and announced the building of a water tank and toilets. The school has 120 pupils but only two toilets with no water. I cannot describe the gratitude I felt to be there, to have an opportunity to donate. And I knew my contribution would be put to good use. Even if you were new to Ajahn Cagino, you just knew....

We were a varied group. I saw mother-daughter pairs, like Lillian with her daughter, Azalea, preparing for bed in their tent. I thought that would be lovely for me and my daughter, who is 22. Azalea is blessed to be exposed to the Buddhist way of life at this tender age.

There was Dr Liew's dad, looking so smart in his new white shirt! When asked "how much?", he just smiled and said " I don’t know, my daughter bought it for me!". I could tell he was proud of her. And I don’t know where Elaine draws her positiveness from. She just exudes it, and she is so funny. I suppose that’s why bringing her elderly in-laws along seemed like a breeze. Then there was a pair of elderly sisters from Penang with their young chaperon, many couples, families, aunties, uncles and the seven of us.

I got a chance to really know my roommate and her spiritual journey, and I enjoyed shopping with her! I loved the sing-along with my buddies in the van. Thank god Evan didn’t think we were too noisy. She sang along and took many photos for us. Another photographer, Lillian, was great at directing the shots. Best of all, she accepted us, despite us being - to put nicely - kind of boisterous. She captured our energy, aura and happy spirits. Thank you, Evan and Lillian, for your kindness and being such dears. We could be a little less noisy, but alas it’s challenging when one is with such good friends.

In dance competitions, there are various categories like newcomer, novice, beginner, intermediate, advanced, superstar. On this trip, I have seen a Luang Por, an Ajahn, monks and lay Buddhists. In the same vein, I believe we all have varying degrees of practice, and it’s amazing how the BUBs Mae Hong Son trip committee managed to hold us together, with much patience for sure! One of my mates said it’s a journey of tolerance for her. Another said she had decided to focus a bit more on practice, and that's why she was there.

What have I taken home? Dried organic longan, assam jawa sweets, nuts, souvenirs, Dhammagiri’s vegetarian recipes - the century egg sambal is amazing! - and a new appetite to discover more about the Buddhist way of life. In particular, I am not so negative towards meditation anymore. There was an opportunity to meditate, and I managed to go with the flow! I feel rather liberated.

I am thankful for our love of dance, its musicality and rhythm, and I am thankful for this journey of love, friendship and gratitude. From now on, I wouldn’t go on my own – I have learned the value of sharing. I understand now why Theresa invited us. Wouldn’t it be lovely if I could come with my husband, my family, my two sisters, my aunt, my friends one day.…