Every year at the end of December, Don Chao Poo Forest, Amphur Phana, Amnat Charoen Province, is host to a 10-day retreat for several hundred monks and lay men and women. The monks come from all over Isan and they camp in the forest. The local monks join them every day but return to their monasteries each evening. The local abbots and the monks together with the headmen and headwomen of the 34 villages that make up Phana District make all the arrangements and together with villagers they spend a week or so preparing the forest and the facilities that will be needed. And every day, villagers come into the forest to provide lunch for those who are making the preparations.
In the run-up to the start of the retreat, perhaps 30 or 40 people are eating in the forest at about 11 am each day. But once the retreat starts, villages will take it in turns to share the responsibility of feeding the monks and lay people who are taking part in the retreat; and when they have eaten, the villagers themselves will eat, breakfast and lunch. And that means that up to 600 people may be eating two meals in the forest every day.
Crockery has to be taken out of store and washed and this group of women seemed to enjoy doing that – or at least they enjoyed having their photo taken while doing it.
The forest itself is tidied up: the monks practise walking meditation so paths are swept clear of fallen leaves and some of the undergrowth cut back.
Toilet and washing facilities have to be cleaned and fresh water put into the tanks. There are several of these scattered around in the southern part of the forest, mostly out of sight and forgotten for the rest of the year.
One building is given over to the senior monks, who do their teaching here:
And the area where the monks sit for their breakfast and lunch and to listen to the teaching is made more comfortable by having straw laid out on the forest floor.
Monks are summoned to the teaching sessions by this bell:
Trees are festooned with electrical wiring and neon lights and here is the control centre:
And the lay women who will be joining the retreat are afforded some privacy for their camping area:
The Phana Monkey Project has been helping with the preparations, too. We painted the toilets that are provided for the people who organize food and do the washing up during the retreat. And more importantly we have been putting out 15 dustbins in the camping and eating areas and we will be emptying them daily during the 10-day retreat. We are expecting to clear a lot of litter and waste in the coming days!