Seclusion in the Wild
January 12, 2015
I have just returned to Wat Nanachat after over three weeks in Kanchanaburi Province in western Thailand. Most of the time was spent at the remote branch hermitage Dao Dtum (Black Turtle – after the stream which runs through the area).
It is quite an amazing place. A former tin mine in Sai Yoke National Park, it was offered as a Sangha residence many years ago, and more recently has been accepted as a Sangha residence by the Forestry Department through their project to allow the Sangha to remain in the National Park boundary, subject to restrictions on building permanent structures. (A similar arrangement exists for Poo Jom Gom hermitage in Pah Daem National Park on the Mekong River.)
The monastery off-road vehicle.
This was my first visit, so it was quite an interesting adventure. I had heard of the remoteness of the place, but no one had warned me of its ruggedness. The journey there in a four-wheel drive, off-road vehicle was the most unbelievable travel experience I have had. We turned off the main highway and crossed the infamous River Kwai of 'Bridge on the River Kwai' fame, and proceeded down increasingly worsening country roads until the pavement ended. We then began two hours of bumping along bone-wrenching, teeth-rattling, brain-shaking tracks. Houses became less frequent and more basic, the fields were less organized and the trees larger and more abundant. We stopped for a break at the Border Patrol Station, and when we started again the Thai Ajahn accompanying me casually mentioned, 'And now the road gets really bad.' 'What', I said, 'worse than before?' 'Oh, yes, much worse.' And so it was. On a number of occasions I was sure the driver was going to stop and tell us to get out and walk as the boulders got bigger, the inclines steeper and the ruts deeper. However, he just kept bumping and rattling along with the engine howling, shifting gears every few seconds as the track conditions changed.
Other than two passes over hillsides, the track mostly follows along the valley floors, crossing various streams. In total we forded streams some 60 times, often bouncing down one rock-strewn bank, shifting to low gear and teetering up the other bank. Fortunately this was over a month after the monsoon ended, so the streams were easily passable. During the height of the monsoon the road is often impassable due to flooding or washed out from run-off, not to mention the occasional tree falling across the road, which happened the day we were travelling out. Seemingly an elephant passing along the road had toppled a tree and the incoming car had to carve a detour through the bamboo, causing a two-hour delay.
The hermitage comprises three specific areas. The main entrance area has the kitchen, main hall, workers' lodgings, guest lodgings and public toilets, and bathing facilities. One hour's walk up the valley and onto a ridge is the 'Outer Sala' and three monk's huts where the Sangha resides.
Part-way up the valley another route branches off to the 'Inner Forest', where the main stream winds through a thickly-wooded valley which stretches to the Burmese border. In this area many teing (raised bamboo platforms) have been built to accommodate Wat Nanachat Sangha members, who spend two months of the Hot Season camped out in the forest.
Several of the largest trees grow here, and the stream used for drinking and bathing gently meanders through the lush vegetation. A simple hall has been erected near the entrance, replacing one destroyed by an elephant some years before. This year approximately 20 monks, novices and anagarikas will be staying after a two-week tudong (walking tour) in the nearby forests along the Burmese border. Two paths lead up to this area. One consists of the 'arahant steps', 350 large, irregular steps winding up the steep slope to a broad path beside an old water channel from the mine.
The other path, the 'Waterfall Path' weaves up through a series of ten waterfalls ranging in height from several to twelve meters. This path has not been much developed; it crosses the stream half a dozen times and in several places one has to resort to use of hands and creative footwork. However, with many inviting pools along the way, it is very likely much used in the hot season.
I was very pleasingly surprised to find the forest in this area either undisturbed or verdantly returning to its pristine nature. My previous travels in the mountains of north and north-east Thailand had been quite depressing, as every year more and more forest has been felled, burned off or turned into agriculture. In this area, perhaps due to its remoteness and maybe its proximity to the Burmese border, it seems the destruction has halted, at least for now.
The added bonus of the lush, undisturbed forest is the variety and abundance of wildlife. There have been sightings or evidence of wild tiger, elephant, gaur (the largest bovine), boar and bear, as well as various wild cats (including leopards), deer, monkeys and a profusion of bird life, from the chirpy little flycatcher to the loudly loquacious Black Drongoes to the Great Hornbill, whose distinctive flapping could be mistaken for a stuttering jet engine. It was not uncommon for a troop of macaque monkeys to wander through the canopy along the monks' hut ridge, or for a flock of Variegated Hornbill to roost in a fruit tree over-head and twitter to each other as they feed.
Dao Dtum is a very physical place. Each day we trek 45 minutes down from the ridge to the main hall, crossing three bamboo bridges and two rocky walkways, for our daily three-minute 'alms-round' to the kitchen. Since the nearest habitation is seven km over a rugged track, the monastics are dependent upon food brought in by supporters and prepared by a paid cook. Fortunately the cook is quite creative and so is able to provide some slight variations on the staples of canned fish and vegetables, noodles, dried soya, peas, grains, crackers and biscuits. He has recently started a garden, so there are always some fresh greens and mushrooms, and sometimes banana and papaya. On occasions a generous supporter may journey in to drop off a supply of fresh vegetables or durable fruit.
Following the meal at the main hall we trek one hour back up the hill to our individual huts, and may not see anyone until the next morning. The first week I was quite tired most of the time from all the walking, even with frequent stops on the way up to catch my breath. However, by the second week I had gained much strength and even ventured a lengthier walk over the nearby fire-break. Ajahn Buddhisaro was concerned about the difficulty, since it had not been cleared for a year, so he had the monastery workers spend several days clearing fallen bamboo and under-brush, and sweeping away the accumulation of fallen leaves which make the steep ascent and descent especially treacherous. Thus one afternoon all four of us trekked up the very steep 200-meter elevation difference to the top of the local mountain (approximately 800 meters elevation) and even more steeply down to the Inner Forest. Although they were heavily obstructed by the thick tree-cover, we were able to glimpse some of the heavily-forested hills and valleys stretching off in all directions.
Fortunately elephants had previously travelled on the same route, leaving well-trampled imprints which provided us with very useful steps in the steeply-sloped hillside. Since it was still daylight when we reached the Inner Forest, we made an excursion into the furthest reaches of the valley, which is only two kilometres from the Burmese border. Here we saw what looked like leopard claw-marks on a tree, while across the stream a bear passes each night.
Having now 'gained my walking legs', before departing I was interested in venturing on the other end of the fire-break, which rises up to approximately 1,000 meters. One section of this fire-break had not been cleared in three years, so two workers were sent ahead to help clear the way and guide us to the farther end. Since this trip was estimated to take between four and five hours (at my relaxed, sight-seeing pace), we left after the meal. The workers had done an excellent job, even sweeping up the dead leaves, as parts of the path were exceptionally steep. However, their progress was even slower than my walking pace and we caught them up several times. As we reached the higher levels the bamboo forest gave way to spacious glades of towering 'yang' trees soaring over our heads, with panoramic views on both sides of the narrow ridge. As we crossed the summit and turned towards the downward path to the Inner Forest, the way became exceptionally steep and thickly overgrown. The workers were now directly in front of us, clearing a way through the entanglement of tall grass, vines and bush, while we half slid, half clambered down the increasingly steep slope. The way dropped straight downwards at nearly sixty degrees to a trickling stream in a lush, dark valley, suddenly eerily silent after our noisy descent along the windy ridge. We filled our water containers and then headed steeply up the further slope into a thickening bamboo grove.
The first sign of complications soon manifested when one of the workers came back down the slope towards us, saying they had gone the wrong way. He zigzagged through the bamboo thicket before heading off towards the left and called to the other worker to clear a path for us. It seems a clump of bamboo had died and fallen across the main track, entirely obstructing it. About every ten years bamboo goes to seed (it is in the grass family) and then the entire clump dies off and collapses; and in this area the bamboo is huge. However, we could still find markings on the bigger trees, so we weren't too far off course. We soon came up to a ridge and the way once more became heavily obstructed, the workers having to hack a passage through the undergrowth with their machetes. Now there was no obvious fire-break, and one of the workers said that in the three years since it was last made the bamboo had grown up extensively. We continued to wander along the ridge, in some places following the trail made by the workers and in other places weaving around trees and clumps of bamboo. As the ridge began to slope downwards we heard the sound of waterfalls. We all came to a stop as the workers looked perplexed: there shouldn't be any waterfalls or streams on this part of the fire-break! We were told to wait while they scouted down the valley ahead.
The Thailand-Burmese border crosses the top of this 1,125m mountain.
It was a very picturesque place to wait; surrounded by peaceful forest, a steep, heavily-forested hill with towering trees lay off to the right and the sound of waterfalls floating up from a deep valley on the far right. After about 20 minutes the workers returned with the news that they could not find the way ahead; perhaps we had taken a wrong turn further back. It was decided that we should go back up the ridge and look for the correct turning. We retraced our steps up the ridge without any sign of another turning. Meanwhile it was now after 3 pm, with not a lot of time to go exploring before dark. The workers made another attempt to scout around and one of them disappeared up the ridge. After another 15 minutes we decided that the best plan would be to return the way we had come, even though it would be longer, since we now had only a couple of hours of daylight remaining – lost on a ridge, in a thick bamboo forest 10 kilometres from the nearest habitation did not sound like an attractive option with wild tigers hunting at night! However, one of the workers had now disappeared and did not even answer the shouting of the other worker – where was he? The lost worker could very likely look after himself, but when we asked the remaining worker which way we had come, he was not sure. With thoughts of looking for a camp site for the night arising in my mind, we waited in limbo for what seemed like a long time. Finally, we heard the answering shout of the other worker far up the ridge. Within 10 minutes he was back, and when asked for the way back easily led us back down the ridge and onto the original trail. We were soon back at the trickling stream, quenching our thirst and preparing for the very steep clamber back up to the top. Fortunately the track was well-made during our descent, even swept of leaves, so the ascent was quite smooth and easy, if somewhat sweaty. Once again we were rewarded with expansive views over the mountains as we descended from the mountain top past the towering trees, and then steeply down through the bamboo. We were quickly back at the main hall from which we had departed some 8 hours previously. Now we only had another hour's climb back to our huts on the further ridge! Admittedly the last 15-minute trek from the Outer Sala to my hut at the far end of the ridge was somewhat of a strain, but the thought of a hot bath and warm drink drove me on.
One of the limitations of such dense forest as Dao Dtum is the difficulty of wandering off the tracks. Combined with the steep and in some places rocky terrain, there are not too many routes to wander on. Also, in the monsoon season the forest is crawling with leeches and malarial mosquitoes, while in the dry season it is infested with ticks. Fortunately the numerous trails already created usually provide enough exercise for most people. Also, the diversity of flora and fauna not only attracts ever-renewed attention, but keeps one constantly alert and vigilant.
Dao Dtum is probably the most remote of all the branch monasteries. This provides an environment with minimal external distraction. During my three weeks' stay no monks came and no monks left. We did now hear any news or receive any post or emails. I made several phone calls to arrange my travel to Ubon and several of the other monks phoned family during the Christmas/New Year holidays. Otherwise, the weather was pleasantly cool and almost nothing happened!
Personally I found that with so little information to process I had many more memories arising. Some of this was re-processing my travels over the last months, some just images of memorable experiences. I think some of this was due to the increased vigilance and awareness one cultivates when in a new, unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environment. (I started every time I heard a rustling in the dried leaves lining the path, expecting to see a snake, yet every time it was merely a harmless skink scurrying to safety. I never did see a snake the whole time.) The lesson here is that it is important what we expose our mind to, since it may come back to us later.
Just before departing Kanchanaburi Province we paid a visit to Wat Sununtaram, the monastery founded by the very well-known and popular Ajahn Mitsuo Gavesako, whom I had spent time with in the early years of Wat Nanachat. The monastery is in a secluded area covering 200 acres surrounded by wooded, limestone hills and in 25 years of development has expanded to include various large buildings for holding sessions of meditation training for several hundred people at a time. At present the buildings are mostly empty with the 9 resident monks and some lay supporters keeping a quieter life-style as the leaves accumulate on the acres of park and walkways.
I will soon be returning to Poo Jom Gom until the end of February, then to Bangkok for a few days to give a talk in English at BIA and one in Thai at Ban Aree. On 25 February I begin my travels to the southern hemisphere:
February 28-March 1: Teachings at Bandar Utara Buddhist Society (BUBS), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia;
March 3-16: Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wiseman's Ferry (Sydney), NSW, Australia;
March 16-25: Wat Buddha Bodhivana, East Warburton (Melbourne), VIC, Australia;
March 26-28: Teaching at Well-Aware-Ness Psychology, 14 Ridge St., North Sydney;
March 31-May19: Wat Buddha Dhamma, Wiseman's Ferry (Sydney), NSW, Australia;
May 20-29: Bodhinyanarama Monastery, Wellington, NZ;
May 29-June 30: Dhammagiri Monastery, Brisbane, Australia;
July 1 – August 18: Vancouver, Canada;
July 18-19: Teaching at Victoria Insight Group, Victoria, Canada.