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Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery opens its gates to all who wish to come.
As long as you can be in Thailand legally and get yourself to the monastery, you are welcome. And as long as you follow the rules, you’re welcome to stay for as long as you wish.
But before I dive into the hows and whats, a word of admonition: please do not go to Tam Wua Forest Monastery “to be a monk for a day” or something similarly superficial such as to get amazing Instagram shots. Go with honest intentions. Whether they are for religious learnings, meditation practice, opening yourself to new experiences, or otherwise, go with the dignity and respect that Tam Wua deserves.
How to Get to Tam Wua Forest Monastery
Tam Wua Forest Monastery is located roughly 8 miles from northern Thailand’s border with Burma (though unless you cut through the forest, the actual Burmese border is a bit further).
It is on the road between Pai and Mae Hong Son, and most people arrive at the monastery via the Prempracha van running the Chiang Mai – Pai – Soppong – Mae Hong Son route. You simply tell the driver you need to go to Tam Wua and he’ll drop you off at the side of road 1095 at the front gate, after which you’ll follow the trail into the monastery.
If, however, you happen to be around during busy season and find yourself ticketless as I did, there is also a yellow songthaew between Pai and Mae Hong Son that typically ferries locals.
From Pai it leaves at the intersection next to the bus station at 7 and 11 a.m. and costs 100 baht. While the songthaew will soon get crowded with locals and all their cargo, the open-air ride is perhaps a more refreshing way to go up all those curvy roads.
This is also the songthaew you’ll take when leaving the monastery (whether to Pai or Mae Hong Son), unless you choose to pre-book a Prepumcha pickup, which is generally unnecessary unless you want to be on a specific van back to Chiang Mai.
Taxis are of course an option, though a very costly one. (I was quoted 1800 baht for Pai to Tam Wua.) You can also go by motorbike if you have one.
While they will not reject you, the monastery volunteers ask that everyone show up before 4 p.m. each day.
What to Bring to Tam Wua Forest Monastery
You may go to Tam Wua Forest Monastery with just your honest intentions and personal necessities.
It would also help to have 2-3 sets of vipassana meditation clothes, though the monastery does have ones you can borrow.
You can buy these white clothes at any local Thai market for approximately $10 per outfit. Try to look for less transparent ones if possible; white underclothes are also helpful. Plain white clothes you already have will also work, provided that they’re loose fitting and modest.
How Much Does It Cost to Practice Meditation at Tam Wua Forest Monastery?
Nothing. Tam Wua Forest Monastery does not charge anything of visitors.
There is a donation box that you can drop donations into before you leave. It is by no means compulsory, but here’s how I thought about it: you’re getting free lodging, two meals a day, and meditation guidance that costs thousands in retreats elsewhere.
Plus, if you have the means to make it all the way to Tam Wua, you probably have the means to leave a donation.
How much is up to you.
Do I Have to Be Silent Like You Were?
I chose to be silent the entire duration of my 8-day stay, but you can choose to be silent for any period of time or forgo it altogether.
I found it to be an amazing chance to reflect, and it wasn’t that hard. There’s a “Silent and Happy” name tag you can attach to your clothes that makes it easier as well since people will respect that and not initiate conversations with you.
The abbot told me that he was silent for 7 years, 7 months, and 7 days.
That’s probably beyond my capacity for silence.
Do I Have to Go Off the Grid at Tam Wua?
There is actually cell service at Tam Wua and the monastery does not prohibit you from going online as long as it is not in the dhamma hall during rice offerings and meditation sessions. The mini-mart near the front gate also appeared to have Wi-Fi for a 30 baht fee.
However, I think it is difficult to truly enjoy the nature and peace you’re surrounded by and take in the meditation and overall experience if you’re constantly texting friends, on Facebook, reading the news, etc.
I texted my parents and boyfriend just so they knew I was okay (and for the occasional panic-driven medical googling), but otherwise avoided any info from the outside world. And I found it incredibly refreshing to go off the grid. (When I left and read some news for the first time, I realized I’d forgotten that we had Trump as president. Ah, what bliss it had been.)
What If I’ve Never Meditated Before?
That’s fine too. The monks provide teachings each day to help you, and the second section of the chanting book has information about the goals and hows of meditation.
There’s also an incredibly easy-to-read and helpful book in the monastery library’s English section. It’s Don’t Look Down on the Defilements, They Will Laugh at You by Ashin Tejaniya, and I would highly recommend picking it up on your second or third day. (It is a gift of Dhamma and not for sale nor permissible to reproduce on the Internet, or I’d link to where you can get it.)
That said, it’s probably helpful if you do have some exposure to meditation ahead of time. This is especially true if you don’t have much time to spend at the monastery; you don’t want to be completely lost during your stay. Apps such as Headspace and Whil are helpful in getting you started.
What’s the Daily Schedule at Tam Wua Forest Monastery?
Here’s a photo of the daily schedule.
There’s really no one checking whether you’re doing the personal meditation and chanting sessions in the a.m. and p.m., and the abbot will even joke about “sleeping meditation” in the mornings, but you must attend all other sessions.
The morning and afternoon meditation practice are two hours each, while the evening chanting and meditation session is 90 minutes. The monastery cleaning can occur at any hour between 3-6 p.m.
It’s a good idea to arrive at all sessions 10-15 minutes before the scheduled start time so you can settle in (and as they’ll often start a little early). Plus, you’ll get to witness Pui the monastery dog do his ritual howling when the bells ring.
Wait, I Only See Two Meals on the Schedule. Where’s Dinner?
Following the eight precepts of Buddhism, the monks only eat before noon and visitors follow suit.
I honestly thought this was going to be the most difficult part for me, but it wasn’t difficult at all. You’re eating a lot more at breakfast and lunch than you likely would usually, and there’s not much physical activity.
That said, there is a mini mart near the front gate and no one will yell at you should you decide to indulge on ramen or cookies in the evening. The only time I broke the precept was on New Year’s Eve when the monks kept us up past midnight and the volunteers left out Oreos for us. Otherwise, I had no issue with not eating past noon, and this is from someone who constantly eats!
A note about the food: rice is the main staple and all protein is made from soy. The prepared food is typically vegan, though at times desserts offered by the locals do contain milk and eggs.
So, It’s in a Forest in Thailand. What’s the Mosquito Situation Like?
When I was there in late December and early January, the mosquitoes weren’t too bad except after the rain. Your best bet is to cover up and wear adequate repellent. For me, citronella spray was not enough and DEET was required to keep the mosquitoes off me.
At night, there’s not really a need for mosquito nets nor a way to put them up in the kutis.
As Tam Wua Forest Monastery is rather close to the Burmese border, there is a risk of malaria according to the CDC. I chose to take a Malarone generic but I know many people did not. Please ask your doctor for medical advice.
There are also a lot of fire ants and spiders, among many other insects that I’d prefer not to be friends with nor share living quarters with.
You Have All These Photos of the Monastery. Isn’t That Rude?
When I was first looking into Tam Wua Forest Monastery, I also wasn’t sure what to make of all the photos I saw online. But the monastery will actually explicitly tell you that taking photos is okay, including during rice offerings and meditation, as long as you put your phone/camera away immediately after.
If you have other questions about Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments.
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