The 2014 version of the Thailand Healing Study Adventure has begun. The 11 students from Chicago, New York and Las Vegas arrived in Bangkok on Thursday night and walked out into the warm, humid air of Southeast Asia. Such a relief from a very difficult winter in Chicago and elsewhere. On Friday morning we had a nice breakfast at our hotel and jumped on a Tuk tuk to go to the Grand Palace.
The Grand Palace
The Grand Palace, home to Thai kings since 1782 (though only used for ceremonial purposes now), is one of the largest tourist attractions in Thailand and a good place to start the trip. Here we see the longest mural in the world as it plays out the Ramakien, the national epic of Thailand. We see the most revered Buddha statue in the country, the Emerald Buddha. We see the sacred Chedi that houses a relic of the Buddha. We see Queen Sirikit’s dresses and see how through them, she has taken a nearly lost art of Thai textiles and turned them into a national treasure.
As you enter the Grand Palace grounds, you are greeted by a statue of a Ruesi, or a Hermit Doctor. Ruesi’s still live in Thailand to this day, dispensing herbal healing medicine, spells, and shamanic healing. People pray to this statue wishing for health and long life.
After we went to the Grand Palace and ate some Tom Yum (spicy hot and sour soup) on the street, we ambled over to the amulet market. This market is the opposite of the Grand Palace in that it is not a tourist site at all. It’s a place where people come to inspect, haggle over, and talk about amulets. These amulets are for good luck, to ward off evil, for health and for love. There are countless stands and shops that line the road leading to the market, all small sellers selling various amulets and statues of monks and other icons in the Buddhist and Hindu pantheon. Students bought some Buddha statues as well as some Jivaka statues (Jivaka is the patron saint or father doctor of Thai medicine and holds the energy of the healer) for their home altar.
On day two in Bangkok, we were up early in the morning to head to Wat Pho (pronounced Po) for a massage and to tour the famous temple. Wat Pho is the home of the first formal school of Thai massage in Thailand and is still one of the most well-known schools in the teaching of Thai massage. There are famous engravings that were commissioned by the king in the mid-19th century showing various energy points in the body as described by practitioners throughout the country at that time. There are also a lot of statues that show various Thai Yoga positions (Ruesi Dat Ton) as well as one Thai massage position. It is the home of the largest Buddha in the country and the final resting place of the first four kings in the current dynasty (the Charkri line of kings). There are over a thousand Buddha statues on the large temple complex.
The last thing we did in Bangkok before taking the night train to Chiang Mai was to check out Wat Arun, translated as the Temple of Dawn. The central “prang” is nearly 300 feet tall and can be climbed part way up a series of very steep stairs. From the highest level we could climb, we could get an eagle eye view of the Chao Phraya river and a good view of the city as it straddles the river.
Random Bangkok Photos
Train From Bangkok to Chiang Mai
After two days in Bangkok, we take the night train to Chiang Mai. The train leaves around 10 at night and arrives in Chiang Mai around 2 pm the next day. As they change the seats into beds, we sleep as the train rocks and rolls through the dark Thai countryside. Then we wake up in the mountains and fields of central and northern Thailand. We get a sense of the great beauty of the country and also a sense of the space between the two largest cities in Thailand (Bangkok and Chiang Mai – though CM has less than 200,000 people while BKK has over 6 million). Hanging out on the train is a good opportunity to rest, read, or just talk and get to know your fellow travelers.
We arrive in Chiang Mai around 2 and head to our guesthouse. This year, we are staying in a placed called Baan Nam Sai in the “old” city. The old city is a part of Chiang Mai that is within a moat / canal / ancient walls. It is packed with massage shops and massage schools, temples, restaurants, food markets, and coffee shops (northern Thailand used to grow poppies but when the government cracked down, they now grow coffee beans instead). There is never a shortage of things to do in the old city of Chiang Mai!
Soup For Breakfast
Early Monday morning, we are up and out of the guesthouse at 7am. This gives us time to eat breakfast at our favorite vegetarian Chinese noodle soup place near the Chiang Mai gate market. The mushrooms that they add to the soup are like nothing we’ve ever tasted before and makes this place very, very special.
Procuring Offerings on the First Day of Class
Each Monday before class, whether it be at Pichest’s or at SVG (the two schools that our students go to while here – Pichest’s for people with experience and SVG for beginners), we bring offerings to class. This is a Thai Buddhist ritual where offerings are made to honor the teacher and request his teachings, to thank our parents (our first teachers and those who gave us life) and the triple gem (Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha). We purchase incense, candles, flowers and fruit as is customary at a morning market that is teeming with life.
Walking to Pichest’s
Here we are, on the first day of class, after a 20 minute songtao (bus) ride, walking past the rice field to Pichest’s home and school.
SVG – Our School for Beginning Students of Thai Massage
This was the first year that we went to SVG. The last two years, beginning students studied with Homprang Chaleekanha whom we love. She has an amazing place outside the city and the students lived there for two weeks. It was amazing for them, very relaxing and nurturing. However, our two groups – the Pichest group and the Homprang group – were separated for the first two weeks of the trip. We wanted to avoid that feeling of separation so we searched for a school that was closer and allowed all our students to stay together. I met Master PP a number of years ago in Pichest’s class. We worked together for a bit and had a nice connection. Master PP is connected by family to the Old Medicine Hospital, the first Thai massage school in Chiang Mai. Master PP, a number of years ago, decided that he wanted to create a school based on the methods of the Old Medicine Hospital but with a smaller, more intimate class setting. He likes getting to know the students and working with them one on one. He has a number of great teachers at the school and his wife, Air, teaches there too. She is the woman in the second picture below.
Even when nothing is going on, there is something going on in Pichest’s classroom. His classroom is across the driveway from the house that he grew up in. Sometimes it’s packed with people and sometimes it’s not. It just depends on who decides to show up that day. A day at Pichest’s is fairly unpredictable. That being said, it often begins with Pichest talking animatedly about the dharma. You might even get hit over the head with the pok pok stick. At some point, the talk ends and the chanting begins. After the chanting, Pichest may talk some more or he may look around the room and pick out a body to work on that he finds particularly interesting. He then may work on the person or he may just talk to the class about this person. Sometimes people who have been in the class a lot will drift off to work on someone or get worked on. If Pichest is demonstrating most people will stick around to see it. If not, people will partner up and practice. Often, an experienced practitioner will pair off with an inexperienced practitioner. I always tell my students that when they are in Pichest’s classroom, to rely on the experience of the long time therapists in the room. That way, if Pichest doesn’t teach much that day, they will still learn a lot.
On the weekend after our first week of training, we let off a little steam at a cooking class. We go to a market and learn about the different produce, then we take a train out to the countryside. Then we get on some bikes and ride to a farm where we pick some Thai holy basil for the meals that we are about to cook. Then we cook and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat.
Chiang Dao is a town about an hour or so north of Chiang Mai. It is nestled in the hills of northern Thailand and it is a powerful energy center that has an important cave temple, a famous temple on the mountain top and an herbal village. We hadn’t planned on going this year but Master PP offered to take us there on the Sunday after the first week of classes. Who were we to say no to such a generous offer! We got up at 6am and were on the road by 7. It turned into a wonderful day that included a walk through the cave, a silent walk up the many steps to the mountain temple built into another cave and with an amazing view, a white water rafting trip, a stop by to see elephants and some even got to see a hill tribe village. Amazing. Thank you Master PP!!!
Graduation from SVG
After two intensive weeks of study, the newbies at SVG gave massages at the Silver Temple. This temple is unique in all of Thailand in that it houses a school for silver crafts. They are in the process of covering all the temples with silver frescos. It’s really amazing. We gave massages to the public inside one of the temple buildings and then the head monk blessed the students on their successful completion of the basic SVG program.
Getting Massages at IDI
On Saturday, after the second and final week with Pichest and SVG, we all got to relax by getting massages at a Thai massage school called IDI. As is often the case, Thai massage is done in a large room with many people giving and receiving massage at the same time. We got a two hour herbal compress massage, tok sen (a form of energy line tapping done with a hammer and chisel like thing), traditional Thai massage and oil massage.
Herbal Compress Class
On Sunday we spent a really fun and educational afternoon with Marike as she taught us the art of herbal compress massage. Herbs are wrapped in muslin cloth and then steamed. They are then used as massage tools to warm the muscles and compress the muscles. The juice from the herbs as they soak into the skin can bring down inflammation and relieve pain, depending on what herbs are used. Marike has an interesting perspective because she has lived in Thailand for many years and is able to marry her western perspective with the Thai approach. She has a company called Arun Thai Natural and she makes high quality, organic oils, balms and compresses. She contracts the growing of the herbs herself and oversees every aspect of the process to ensure it’s quality. Her experience working with Thai people, her knowledge of import / export issues that come up in shipping herbs, and her extensive knowledge of the herbs themselves helped to give us a very educated overview of the practice of applying hot herbs to the skin. If you are interested in what she does, you can check out her facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ArunThaiNatural
Visit to Mor Ta
On the third week of the trip, we get a nice variety of experiences from visiting local healers to a two day overnight meditation retreat to a class on sen lines. Mor Ta (Mor means Doctor) is a traditional doctor who lives about 45 minutes north of Chiang Mai. He lives in a rural area, across from a large rice field. On his property he has a farm for medicinal herbs, has an herbal steam sauna, and does a Burmese-style massage practice. He has a number of students and fellow practitioners who do massage when there are a number of people who need the service on any particular day. We spent a very relaxing day there. Pretty much everyone in our group received a massage there. We also got a steam in the herbal sauna. We also got a chance to ask him questions. Ji, our translator, was with us that day, since Mor Ta doesn’t speak any English.
Two Day Meditation
On Tuesday and Wednesday of our third week, we went on a two day journey to study Vipassana meditation as it is practiced in Thailand. Wat Suan Dok (Suan Dok Temple) in Chiang Mai has a really nice program where we take a van to a temple out in the country that is specifically for this sort of training. We are accompanied by a couple of monks who are our guides for the two days of silent contemplation. They taught us walking, seated, standing and lying down meditation. They taught us how to give offerings to the monks in the morning. We learned eating meditation and chanting. We got to ask many questions about Buddhism as it is practiced in Thailand and about the lives of the monks. Some of the students found this experience one of the highlights of the trip.
On Thursday, we went to see our good friend Mor Noi, or Doctor Noi. She is another traditional doctor who lives outside of Chiang Mai on a large property that feels like it is in the jungle. Her place that she calls Sweet Herbal Garden and Clinic http://www.mornoi-clinic.com/ is a refuge for locals and foreigners alike. Whether you come by just to get a session of Mor Noi’s gentle, healing touch, need herbs from the Chinese doctor who is also there, or want to stay for a week, getting sessions every day and indulging in Mor Noi’s amazing cooking, wisdom and motherly love, then you have come to the right place. Mor Noi has plenty to say about the nature of touch, healing and love and she shares her wisdom freely with the Blue Lotus students. We all got to receive her touch, we all got a pulse diagnosis from the Chinese doctor which Mor Noi and her assistant used to treat each person, and we all got to eat an amazing spread of food cooked up by Mor Noi and her amazing assistants. It was an amazing day, topped off by some hula hooping and music playing with our friends who were living, learning and resting at the Sweet Herbal Garden. Oh, yeah, and Noi’s husband Bud spun a few yarns for us to chew on.
Sunrise at Doi Sutep
The most well-known temple in Northern Thailand is Doi Sutep. It’s 3/4 way up the mountain that borders Chiang Mai to the west. You can see the lights from Doi Sutep every evening. It is a windy, steep ride up the side of the mountain, but intrepid travelers that we were, we hired our trusty red songtao and made our way up the side of the mountain in the predawn hours. While there we got to see the glowing orange sun coming up over the city and we met some monks who were about to go on their morning begging round for their meal for the day.
Since Natasha’s birthday was on Friday, she decided to celebrate. In the evening we went to a Khantoke dinner. This is a Lanna (northern Thai) tradition where finger foods are served up for special events. The special event in this case is the view of traditional Thai dancing and music. We sat on the floor, ate amazing food with our hands, and watched the gentle movements of traditional Thai dancing. After that, we went outside to see traditional dances of many of the hill tribes who live in Northern Thailand. If you want to learn more about Khantoke, check out this link http://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g293917-c59709/Chiang-Mai:Thailand:Traditional.Khantoke.Dinner.html
After the dinner we went to a hotel rooftop bar, along the Ping river – the big river that flows through Chiang Mai – and launched a bunch of lanterns into the night sky. It took us a few scary misses, near burns and near catching the entire hotel on fire before one of the hotel staff jumped in and taught us how to do it. The secret – light the wax and then put the lantern on the ground so that the air can heat up to a super high temperature so it can lift off. Don’t hold it over your head while it is heating up. Ok, lesson learned!
On Saturday, our final day, we went to see our friend Felicity Joy to learn about Sen Meridian lines. We loved her so much that we invited her to Chicago to teach abdominal massage to the Blue Lotus community. She will be here at the end of August!
Alas, on the Saturday night, the final night of the trip, we all sat down for a feast of northern Thai food at a local place called Sudsanan. Even though it is in the city, it is hidden in the jungle. The food is great and the live music is great as well. Everyone had a good meal together, bittersweet though it was, and then splintered off to celebrate their final evening at their favorite places around town. The next day, everyone packed up to prepare for their flight out in the evening. Though some people decided to extend their plane flight to get a bit more traveling or studying in before they left southeast Asia.
Miscellaneous Pictures of Miscellaneous Places and Miscellaneous People