Both Wat Chom Tong and Wat Doi Suthep teach the same Northern Thai Vipassana style. Ajonthong is the head teacher at Chom Tong and was designated the #1 Vipassana Teacher of Thailand. Your teachers at both centers have been taught by him or one of his students.
Chom Tong Meditation Center Review
The Location of Chom Tong
Located about 2 hours outside of Chiang Mai in a small, but crowded and polluted city, Wat Chom Tong is located on a sprawling strip of land with few trees to shade either monsoon rain or boiling summer sun. The rooms are quite new and provide enough space to sleep and meditate comfortably, but at the time of writing this, they only had fans and most likely will not upgrade to ACs. That means that for several hours a day, your room may feel like an oven. Fortunately, you can spend this time meditating in the air conditioned meditation hall (if there is space), or walking along the lake, where there are some trees for shade.
In the month of March the locals around the temple burn their crops, leaving a toxic smoke in the air that may leave you coughing the whole day. This made it very difficult for me to stay, but I ultimately determined that the longer term benefit in spiritual health outweighed the temporary sacrifice to physical health. However, if I had more control over my travel plans or if Doi Suthep had space, I would definitely not choose to complete the retreat in March.
As for sounds, there are moderate car sounds and construction sounds as well as barking dogs, but it isn’t like being in the center of a city. I really needed to work on my aversion to loud, mechanical noises and the noises around helped. Had I been at Doi Suthep, I wouldn’t have had practice being at peace with city sounds.
Food at Chom Tong Meditation Center
There is the option to eat vegetarian food or meat. I found eating meat quite strange at a Buddhist temple but many Thais
meditate here as well and as they tend to be the meat eaters, I suppose they perhaps require this to meditate. Whatever the case, balanced vegetarian meals are available every day and you simply donate what you think is appropriate at the end of the course for them. Much of the food is spicy, however there are always some non-spicy options. I found this a bit irritating as after lunch is the hottest time of day. Eating spicy food and then boiling in midday heat made meditating difficult, although the challenge was perhaps useful. Buddha recommended against spicy food, especially as Nirvana translates as “cooling down” but that recommendation seems to be overlooked at Chom Tong.
There is a large market right outside the temple where you can by fruit, snacks, and toiletries. There is no market by Doi Suthep, but there is a shop in the center where you can by these types of products albeit the selection is smaller and doesn’t include fruit. Keep in mind that only food without solids (like chocolate, yoghurt, or juice) is permitted after noon.
Meditation Instruction at Chom Tong
The instruction at Chom Tong is very thorough. When I was there, instruction was by one of two Westerners, both of whom had several assistants who could answer questions any time of day. The instruction was much stronger than Doi Suthep. You really learn how to meditate and how not to (which can be even more important). I found it helpful to have instructors who were Western and could therefore understand the Western mind.
You can complete the full foundation course (usually 3-weeks long) in 14 days. However, it is still recommended that you complete as much as you can up to 3 weeks. This option is not available at Doi Suthep. With both centers, you are not required to complete the full course, but you are free to extend your practice past the initial planned stay if space is available.
What is Offered at Chom Tong
All that is offered is instruction and chanting on Buddha days (once per week), where as Doi Suthep has fantastic daily dharma talks and daily chanting, both of which I think Chom Tong would benefit from integrating, but which they show little interest in. They believe that time is better spent meditating, but having once had dharma talks and chanting, I find the Dharma Talks provide very useful guidance that benefits the meditation and life after the meditation and chanting allows a sort of energetic rebalancing after a potentially long day of intense mental fluctuations. The two work the left and the right brain, which in itself is a balancing act that could take a long time to master if only meditating.
Culture at Chom Tong Northern Thai Vipassana Center
Chom Tong is a bit laid back. While talking isn’t allowed, many people do talk and it is common to smile at one another. You can come to the assistants and even the teachers with any questions, concerns, or emotional breakdowns any time of day, which isn’t the case at Doi Suthep. Plus, you can go out to the market whenever you like, which also isn’t possible at Doi Suthep.
Wat Doi Suthep – Vipassana Center
Location of Wat Doi Suthep
Located about 30 minutes from the Old City in Chiang Mai and actually apart of Chiang Mai itself, Wat Doi Suthep is located on Doi Suthep mountain. Clean air, moderate temperature, and tranquil nature sounds abound. A lush forest surrounds and shades you and giant butterflies (as well as peaceful spiders) are common sites. Like Chom Tong, there are many dogs, but they interact with humans less than at Chom Tong. Ultimately, Wat Doi Suthep feels like another world. While it is the perfect environment to go within, it is more difficult to readjust to city life than the slightly urban Wat Chom Tong.
Doi Suthep is significantly smaller than Chom Tong and Western and Thai meditators are totally separated unlike at Chom Tong.
Food at Wat Doi Suthep
Food at Wat Doi Suthep is all vegetarian. Chili powder is available but all of the food is made without spice. A few snacks as well as toiletries are available at a convenience store in the meditation center, but they are just cheap processed snacks. If you expect you will want snacks, as food is only served until 11 in both centers, bring them with you. However, keep in mind that only liquids should be consumed after noon.
Meditation Instruction at Wat Doi Suthep
Like at Chom Tong, you have a daily check-in with a teacher. However, at Doi Suthep, the teacher is not a Westerner who has been practicing for less than a decade but an old monk who has been practicing for a lifetime. While the monk in my opinion is wiser and more inspiring, he does perhaps miss some instruction points that would be caught at Chom Tong. For example, I was following subtle sensations that I learned in Chom Tong I should not have been following. In Doi Suthep, it wasn’t stressed that I should not follow those sensations. Ultimately, after completing 12 days at Doi Suthep, I walked away thinking Vipassana was something quite different than what I later learned it actually is. However, if you know that the point is only to observe and NOT to follow sensations or conditions you might experience (such as lights, vibrations, sounds, etc) then you should be fine to practice at Doi Suthep.
The full course is 21 days, but you are not required to stay this long. I originally signed up for 5 days, then extended it to 8, then to 12. I wanted to extend longer, but space was full.
What is Offered at Wat Doi Suthep
Along with daily individual instruction given by the head monk, there are daily dharma talks and chanting. I personally find this enough of a reason to choose Doi Suthep over Chom Tong. The dharma talks explain a lot of the science behind Buddhism and teach Buddhist concepts that help you in meditation and in life after the course. My life was totally transformed after meditating here and had it not been for the dharma talks, I doubt I would have experienced nearly as much growth and much meditation practice would have taken much longer to progress. The chanting in the Pali language also takes advantage of sound vibrations to balance the mind and open the spirit. Many of my Ah-Ha moments came in these chantings.
Culture at Wat Doi Suthep Vipassana Meditation Center
Doi Suthep is quite strict. People do not talk to each other. They usually don’t even look at each other. The temptation to break rules or leave early is far less. Overall, the culture is more conducive to going deep within and the dharma talks and chanting make the experience much more wholesome, giving you a more complete foundation to stand upon after leaving the retreat.
Recommendation: Where to Practice Vipassana in Northern Thailand
Listen to some dharma talks via podcast before you go. I’ll provide a list of my favorite podcasts below.
Then do your first course at Chom Tong as it is important to master the technique and Chom Tong instruction is far better for this. You can also contact Chom Tong with questions afterwards with questions and they are answered better and faster than Doi Suthep.
For your second course, go to Doi Suthep and enjoy the depth accessible with the dharma talks and chanting. Also the natural mountain environment is more conductive to deep meditation.
What to be Prepared for when doing a Vipassana Meditation Course
Book your meditation retreat in advance.
Especially for Doi Suthep. They seem to be fully booked year round and you likely need to reserve space months in advance. Chom Tong can fill, but it is rare during the low season (Mar-Oct).
Vipassana retreats are silent.
Of course you can find ways to talk and people who are too polite to tell you they don’t want to listen to you, but this is really so rude. Even if someone is nodding their head to you talking at them, it doesn’t mean that they think what you are saying is more important than taking advantage of the rare opportunity to go so deep into their inner world. It is really rude and selfish to talk to people during the retreat, especially strangers, even if you talked to them the first day. Similarly, it is really better for you not to talk to people for your own sake. Many of us, myself definitely included, are quite attached to talking and that attachment can bring us a lot of suffering and restlessness. When you talk, you are bringing yourself back to square 1 so for your own inner tranquility, don’t talk (or text).
You might want to leave Vipassana after the first few days.
We habitually run away from our problems, usually subconsciously. But doing this is why we often feel like we aren’t in control of our lives or ourselves – because we let our ego rather than our higher mind run the show. Know that it is totally normal to want to leave after a few days, but don’t do it. The impulse to leave will disappear and you will be glad you gave yourself the time to stay.
A Vipassana retreat is totally worth it.
I have met so many people through the last few years who have completed Vipassanas and every single person has only had positive things to say about practicing this ancient and powerful technique. It truly is transformational. I entered my first Vipassana retreat jaded, cynical, and tired after a lifetime of pursuing pointless endeavors and chasing illusions. I left light, alive, and inspired. The happiness and peace I have known since my first Vipassana is unmatched to anything I knew before. While it may be rough at times, know that the payoff is worth it and that you will get out of it exactly what you put into it.