Tam Wua monastery sits at the end of a narrow valley beneath mountainous limestone karsts in far north-west Thailand, near the Myanmar border between Pai and Mae Hon Song on the long and winding road from Chiang Mai.

I stepped into Tam Wua for a mindfulness side-trip while touring the Mae Hon Song loop on a Honda step-through scoot.

Apparently, 1,864 twists and turns meander the loop, and many ride it for that reason. Not me – the Honda 125 isn’t really suited to tearing up mountains for starters. I was just chugging along enjoying the view limited though it was by agricultural burn-off here and in neighbouring countries. It was late February, so best to avoid the smoky-skies of this time of year in these realms if sightseeing is your main aim. On the other hand, if you want evidence of how a little human activity has a large environmental impact you’ll find it. Perfectly okay for a monastery stay, though.

I heard about Tam Wua from Kate, an Australian I met in Trat, at the opposite end of Thailand, in the far south-eastern corner, near the Cambodian border. A monastery stay in Thailand had long been on my itinerary, but you know …forgetfulness. No excuses now with Tam Wua – I was going right past.

At the turn-off from Highway 1095, a sign in English welcomed visitors, reinforcing Kate’s report. I dismounted to take a photo of karsts standing sentinel over harvested rice paddies, and turned to see two female backpackers, who seemingly materialised from nowhere (man), travelling pilgrims making their way along the one and a half kilometre track to the monastery; a passing parade that would prove characteristic.

Tam Wua

It was early afternoon and I had missed the last monastery meal for the day, so I detoured to the other side of a creek to a roadside stall for a noodle soup (25 baht). I expected Tam Wua to be occupied by Thai’s with a smattering of Europeans, but the woman running the stall revealed seventy foreigners were there. This was a little off-putting. She also reminded me it was Chinese New Year, and invited me to attend the village celebrations, offering another distraction, but I didn’t think I could do both, though it sounded like something authentic I’d probably not get another chance to experience. A young Thai turned up on a motorbike with his mate and a machine gun strapped to his back for the celebrations. The woman assured me the weapon was fake.

I continued on to Tam Wua and its spectacular, natural cul-de-sac…

Tam Wua

And made my way to the main hall, a large open-air building of timber posts and tiled floors. A Singaporean woman pointed me to the register, but I wanted a bit of info. The motorbike gave me flexibility and part of me was thinking the busyness might be temporary – maybe I could check out Chinese New Year celebrations and return in a few days. But Sue, the Thai woman looking after visitors was busy with the two backpackers, so at the Singaporean’s prompting I registered for a speculative five-day stay. Then Sue was free to give a brief induction. The list of rules, depicted below, seem more onerous than they are in practice.  

Tam Wua

I hoped to avoid a dorm, but with the numbers staying Sue didn’t think there were any spare kuti (huts), though would get the abbot to check.

As Murphy’s Law has it she asked if I was hungry – they had food leftover from lunch. I also found out later there’s a shop on the perimeter of the monastery grounds. In true Thai spirit fasting has optional elements.

I met the abbot – “No kuti”, he said, “sorry”. He asked if I was from Sydney. He had spent some time there.

I was issued with temple clothes, sleeping mats, blankets and pillows and escorted to a dorm; a large two-story building with a long room on both levels that had bamboo mats running down each side. At one end were toilet and shower.

Tam Wua
The building to the right is a dorm, behind it are huts

There were only three others sharing the room initially; Paul from Denmark, a Canadian called Mark and Andreas, from Germany.

I settled in, showered and familiarised myself with the surroundings. I spoke to the Singaporean woman’s daughter – she lived and worked in Sydney, but was considering a career change – the meditation was helping her with chronic back pain.               

Tam Wua
The main hall. To the left is the altar and meditation area, to the right is the dining room

I took photos and strolled the temple grounds.

Tam Wua

One limestone outcrop towered two hundred meters above the monastery reflecting in a lilied pond surrounded by lawns and flowering gardens.

Tam Wua

Instant nirvana!

Tam WuaTam Wua

At 6pm, the gong sounded for evening meditation at the Dhamma Hall, which is near the monk’s quarters at the base of a cave. There’s a small lake with fish in it. I was nearby to make sure I heard the call. It was getting dark by this and cooling down, but still mild.

Inside, square mats were laid out on the floor, and on top of each one was a book of chants/prayers.

Men are supposed sit in front of the women, resulting in my first fax pas. I was yet to be mindful.

The abbot played a new-age CD that had seemed a little too aimed at westerners, but once everyone was settled he handed proceedings over to the teacher who led the chanting, which took about an hour, with each passage read in Pali, Thai and English. The meaning lost a bit in translation and from having been passed down the ages, but it’s more about paying homage, about the sound and rhythm of the words and their repetition, and your attitude to it than literal understanding.

Then the lights were switched off and a meditation session began after a brief lead-in by the teacher (…relax body, pay attention to breath, but breathe normally etc).

Outside a passing stream burbled, crickets chirped like birds, and other animal noises attracted attention, but didn’t distract, if you know what I mean.

At the end the abbot addressed us in what would be revealed as his trademark playful manner: “Thanks everyone to come to our monastery. This is your home. Return to room now – meditate. Wake up five am, more meditation. Offer rice to monk. Then breakfast. Big party. Enjoy Thai food. Happy, happy.”

Of course, he didn’t say it like that without pauses.

He played another track from the CD and continued the friendly chatter while we stacked our mats and books, and returned to our rooms via the monastery gardens; ghostly figures in the cool of night underneath starry skies winking across the universe.

The chanting echoed in my mind and carried over into sleep interspersed by the boom and fizz of fireworks from the village as locals geared up for Chinese New Year.


A typical day goes like this:

Unless you’re lucky, start with a cold shower. The dorms, as opposed to a kuti, theoretically have the advantage of hot water, but these systems won’t work if water pressure is too low (as a Russian guest informed me). The sleeping mats are thin and, even with extra ones, resulted in a hard day’s night, at least to begin with, but the dorms are reasonably warm.

Tam Wua

The first gong sounds at 6.30am, when everyone proceeds to the main hall to offer rice to the monks. Men position themselves on mats lining one side of the hall, women on the other side. We divide the rice on our plates into portions corresponding to the number of monks and spoon it into their bowl as they pass.

After that the monks say a prayer of thanks to us in Thai. Then the abbot invites us to enjoy the Thai breakfast. The food is okay, some mornings are better than others, but you can eat as much as you like. There is also instant coffee with powdered milk, and tea etc.

Tam Wua

The early morning is a great time to enjoy the monastery surrounds.

Tam Wua

Instant nirvana’s gunna get you.

Tam Wua

There are three meditation sessions daily, each lasting around two hours. The type of meditation practiced at Tam Wua (and in most of Thailand) is mindfulness and insight (Vipassana).

Tam Wua

Morning meditation is at 8am in the main hall; in the afternoon it is at 1pm, and the evening one is at 6pm in the Dhamma Hall (as previously described). Apart from an hour of chores at 4pm, you can do what you like in between – return to your room, meditate, walk around the grounds etc.  …take photos …go to the shop (though hunger wasn’t an issue – I quickly adjusted to the meal schedule).

Tam Wua

The morning and afternoon sessions both consisted of meditation while walking, sitting and laying down. The latter not typical to other monasteries according to one Thai friend I spoke to, but the abbot did tell us a story once about a monk who achieved enlightenment in this position. In reality, mindfulness can be incorporated into any activity. It’s about being in the moment.

Instruction usually involved something specific for the session as well as general philosophy. Essentially, being mindful is about clearing the mind of distracting thoughts, that ‘thinking’ is separate from the mind or knowing, that the thoughts are not you. Furthermore, thoughts are associated with emotions that inhibit insight. ‘Monkey mind’ is a common expression used to describe the distracting, rambling thoughts that take feelings off into all directions, happy, sad, excited, worried etc.

Depending on the session, the teacher will say to be aware of your steps while walking, or your breath, your body or your surroundings, to say to yourself “left – right” as you step, or “Bhu -dho”. Always calmly drawing your mind back to the present when it wanders, and reinforcing to yourself by saying something like, ‘mind thinking’.

Lunch is at 11am, and is similar to the breakfast ritual, except, at the abbot’s request, either the men or women offer bowls or trays of food to the monks, who sit at the altar and serve themselves before passing the dishes to the other group, who then carry it to the communal table. Lunch is more substantial than breakfast, and again you can eat as much as you like.

The weather was generally pleasant, though hot in the afternoon.

Tam Wua relies on donations (and the support of local villagers) for its survival. The abbot neglected his usual friendly spiel at the end of one night session, which may or may not have indicated his disapproval about a donation drought. Then the coffee ran out and likewise the sugar etc, and that could’ve been because of insufficient funds, or been a pointed reminder, or none of the above. He mentioned donations in subsequent talks, even revealing how generous one man was after a three-month stay. But he always countered by adding, “If you have no money okay, no problem, no need to give”. It’s not the Thai way to confront so you kind of have to read between the lines.

So what to give? ‘Up to you’, as they say in Siam. I decided to rationalise it by calculating what similar accommodation outside would cost, adding something for the teaching and a little extra to compensate for those that probably weren’t giving anything.

In the end I stayed six nights, though in two visits separated by a few days. While I had to return the motorbike to Chiang Mai eventually, I might’ve stayed longer if it wasn’t for the never-ending parade of backpackers as the dorm became more crowded. Though most are respectful, to some it appears like Tam Wua is just another stop on the backpacker route.

Despite those qualifications, however, there are many positives about Tam Wua – a serene, picturesque location, good teaching, it is easy-going, and foreigner-friendly (which explains the popularity). As the abbot said, “This is your home”. It has an important place among Thai monasteries by giving exposure to Buddhism and meditation in an accessible way.

Even after a few days I noticed benefits – a calmer mind, more aware of wandering, potentially dangerous thoughts as I left behind little-Shangri-La-among-towering-karsts and motored along the curvy road to Mae Hon Song. Only 999 odd bends to go!

Of more immediate desire once outside, though, was black nectar from the gods, and just before the turn-off to Ban Rak Thai I found this delightful cafe.

Real coffee.

Tam Wua

Instant nirvana.

Tam WuaAnd a landscape to be mindful of.


Hiring a motorbike from Chiang Mai or Pai is a good way to get around. If a monastery stay is a main objective it might be best to hire one in Pai as you’ll likely approach from that direction anyway. Otherwise there are buses and minivans doing the route that can drop you off at the turn-off, which is how most arrive.

The mediation practice is ongoing, not a course, so it doesn’t matter when you arrive at or leave the monastery. I seem to recall they recommended a stay of a week to gain something out of it, but I noticed one site now says three days, which could be further evidence of aiming at travellers. There’s no need to book or call in advance.

Three days is enough to get an introduction. Ultimately meditation, like many things, is not so much about the lessons, but about the doing of it, and after a while the instruction becomes a variation of a theme anyway; a reinforcement. It’s easier to find commitment among others, though.

Sitting cross-legged for prolonged periods was the major discomfort, but changing postures is allowed, as is adding cushions or using a chair if needed.

The teacher’s English is also good and the instruction common-sense. He suffers from a terminal heart condition that was diagnosed early in his life, which he welcomed because it made him focus on what is important.

There is no Q & A session as such, but clarification can be sought from the teacher after the meditation sessions. Though with one teacher and so many participants there wasn’t much opportunity to do so, and he was already devoting a lot of his day to us anyway. To a certain extent you have to find your own way – the teacher even says not to believe him, and that Buddha had said similar. That’s also part of the contradiction – don’t follow the rules, but follow the rules, Buddhism is a philosophy with religious ritual etc.

While attendance at meditations sessions is appreciated, there’s no one watching over you to make sure you do.

Sue didn’t mention donations during her introduction and that could contribute to people forgetting or not feeling it was important. There’s no reason why those that don’t have money now can’t send it later. I’m sure some justify it like that to themselves, but don’t follow up. The donation box is out of sight so, again, there’s no one watching over you to make judgements about your generosity.

Normally people are encouraged to bring their own temple clothes or hire them, but here they have spares left by other travellers for no charge.

The numbers of males and females attending Tam Wua were roughly equal, but there are more male dorms, so you’re more likely to get a kuti if you’re female. But if you’re planning a long stay they will probably find you a hut if you keep reminding them, regardless of gender. Apparently they’re not necessarily more comfortable though, and sometimes colder – but they offer privacy. The Russian I referred to earlier moved to a kuti and said there was a cold breeze coming up from the creek and through the floorboards at night. A Chinese girl though, was happy with hers and said it had a good hot shower.

The Russian was among a few sharing my dorm who had stayed at Tam Wua in the past and commented on how busy it was now by comparison.