Meditation down the Mekong: Spa Junkie at... Phou Vao

In a lush corner of Laos, Spa Junkie learns the art of Vipassana, one of the most ancient and challenging meditation techniques

The Belmond’s open‑sided wooden vessel, complete with a bar and a double bed for afternoon “nappings”, cruises along the Mekong’s calm waters
The Belmond’s open‑sided wooden vessel, complete with a bar and a double bed for afternoon “nappings”, cruises along the Mekong’s calm waters

I am tempted to fill these pages with tales of how I lost my heart to Luang Prabang, the Paris of the east. I could write about the morning bike rides into town for sunrise Vinyasa yoga on the Nam Kahn river and bathing with elephants in the Mekong. But as a wise monk taught me on this trip to Laos, sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya – nothing whatsoever should be clung to, not even your memories. So instead I’m going to focus my mind on the matter in hand: meditation.

Day 1 

7.30am I am greeted by Mr Souk, an esteemed local monk-turned-head of guest relations and meditation maestro at Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao. Together with Michele, a local wellness consultant, he facilitates everything from beginners’ introduction to stillness in Luang Prabang’s temples to sessions with a master meditation monk.

Guests enjoy a meditation session with a monk
Guests enjoy a meditation session with a monk

9am We sit in Belmond’s lily pond-flanked spa pavilion and set out our three-day plan. The view is spectacular: below us Luang Prabang’s heart beats to the slow and steady flow of the Mekong, its dense and luscious vegetation shrouded in mist. Here they practise Vipassana meditation – one of India’s most ancient and challenging meditation techniques – in four key postures: sitting, standing, walking and lying down.

10am We begin our first hour of stillness and start exploring the breath and how our bodies are feeling. According to Michele, the mind has a natural attention span of up to 20 minutes, but with the onslaught of technology and social media’s “snackable content” this is getting shorter and shorter. I adapt quickly to this slower pace as I align my breath, but after 30 minutes I find it impossible to prevent my thoughts from crowding in.

5pm Tired and jet-lagged, we meet to agree our meditation technique. Mr Souk explains the tools we can call upon, from a mantra to meditation beads and chanting; for the best-in-class, just the breath is enough. I opt to stick with my transcendental meditation mantra and we slip gently into evening with another 60 minutes of stillness. 

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6pm I take a quick twirl in the spa and have a massage followed by some light soup. Tomorrow the detox starts. 

Day 2 

7am Lemongrass tea and a watermelon and mint infusion kick off our detox fasting day. Although not a prerequisite for enlightenment, avoiding meat, alcohol and stimulants like coffee helps to slow you down and make you lighter.

The hotel’s award-winning Mekong Spa
The hotel’s award-winning Mekong Spa

8am We have our first guided meditation session led by Michele. Her slow dulcet tones tell us to focus on the breath and I begin my mantra. What feels like an age goes by and I’m unable to “drop into blackness”; everything is beginning to itch. When I finally give up and open my eyes, I notice the meditation novice next to me dribbling, mouth agog as if catching flies. “Gone, I was totally gone into the darkness of the breath.” It seems some people just get it, while others need to work a little harder.

9am The cloud has dissipated with the heat of the sun and Luang Prabang reveals her 30 glimmering temples. It’s a gorgeous backdrop to our light hybrid yoga. It’s already 28 degrees and we are sweating buckets.

10.30am I head to the pool for some much-needed refreshment, cucumber-infused water and more pots of lemongrass and ginger tea. We are fasting until supper and by midday I am starving.

Spa Junkie practises yoga by the outdoor pavilion flanked by lily pads
Spa Junkie practises yoga by the outdoor pavilion flanked by lily pads

2pm I am scrubbed with Laos coffee grounds, doused in water and then coated in a mask of turmeric, papaya, lime and coconut milk. I smell like a Thai curry and it takes every fibre of my being not to lick my hands. After a quick shower, I am pummelled and massaged by a therapist using traditional Laotian techniques that incorporate squeezing my pressure points with her feet, elbows and knees. The effect is powerful: I feel incredibly relaxed and my hunger has dissipated.

6pm Supper is very light – some clear broth and a simple salad of minced chicken and lots of fresh mint and coriander.

8pm It is time for our crystal meditation, which is conducted lying down. Michele’s beautiful giant pink crystal towers over us as she gives us a new instruction. We are told to observe the pause between when our breath starts and when it ends. It lasts for just a nanosecond but this is where, she tells us, infinity lies. The breath symbolises the circle of life – of birth, death and the space between. This space is where Michele tells us to focus our attention. Frankly, I find it a little baffling and start thinking about cheese on toast.

Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao’s candlelit gardens at night
Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao’s candlelit gardens at night

DAY 3 

9am Breakfast is sticky rice and freshly prepared coconut cakes. I eat as many as I can.

10am Today we are taking a deep dive into meditation while sailing down the Mekong on our own private boat, a stunning open-sided wooden vessel (pictured on previous pages) with a bar and a double bed for afternoon “nappings”. We cruise along the calm waters, palm trees clinging to the shore, and pass small villages where fishermen cast nets over the side of skiffs and young, saffron-robed monks play on the river banks. Sadly, the freshwater dolphins stay away, but we see a herd of water buffalo wandering languidly down the sandy beach to drink at the water’s edge. A lack of birdsong makes the Mekong eerily quiet as we head down river to its hidden jungle temples.

A young elephant grazes along the banks of the Mekong river
A young elephant grazes along the banks of the Mekong river

11am We arrive at Vat Ban Muang, a simple village temple where we are to practise moving meditation. Michele instructs us to stand and hold a hand up as if being sworn in at court. She asks us to close our eyes, use our mantras and forget about our arms, moving through the pain; using our breath to lean into the discomfort and go beyond. Within five minutes my arm is shaking. Michele suggests I try the pose lying down. This works better, and although it takes all my strength not to think about my raised arm, I don’t for a second think about work or life.

1pm The Belmond team sets up lunch on a white-clothed table on a sandy island beach. It’s magic. 

3pm Deep into the lush green folds of the hill, we climb up steep stone stairs flanked with frangipani trees to Vat Kok Bap, a gorgeous temple built more than a thousand years ago. It is time for our walking meditation, the last of Vipassana meditation’s four “postures”. Inside there’s a “walking cell”, a dark narrow room with a candle lit at either end. We are asked to carefully lift up one foot and place it down in front of the other as if walking on an invisible tightrope. I look down and try to walk in a straight line. At first I feel like I’m taking a sobriety test, but the movement becomes unconscious as I focus on the breath and I find remarkable peace of mind.

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The Bottom Line 

Meditation is a multibillion-pound business with countless courses, apps and at-work programmes. But if you are looking for a very purist practice, and an excuse to go somewhere the WiFi is weak, this offers an absolute emotional and digital detox. For those new to meditation it’s a wonderful way to parachute into the practice and discover the true roots of Buddhism. If you are already on this journey and struggling to take your practice deeper, a few sessions with the master meditation monk may be the key you have been looking for.

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