Location: Northern suburbs of Yangon, not far from the downtown, and between the city and the airport.
Tradition: Mahasi Sayadaw Vipassana, also known as the noting technique.
Practice intensity: 8 out of 10. There is a schedule of meditation from 4am to 9pm, and monks check around to ensure you’re not lurking. But sometimes it’s not very strict and you can take breaks. People generally don’t move slowly around the centre as is sometimes the case with this method.
Accommodation: Individual rooms, some with own bathroom.
Food: Everything. At most meals there are plenty of good vegetable options. Can ask at the office to have vegetarian options provided.
Min/Max stay: From 10 days up to 6 months. Quite flexible. Will arrange extension for religious visa, but 28-day tourist visa cannot be extended. See blog post on Myanmar religious visas.
Clothing: Expected to wear longyi (tube skirt) and white shirt, and women also wear a brown sash. All clothing items available cheaply in the store on-site. Note that the foreign men seem to get away with wearing anything.
Transport: A taxi from downtown is only a few dollars. Install the Grab app (a SE Asian Uber) for cheap local taxi fares when booking.
Visas: See the post on Myanmar visas here.
This is the home of arguably the most famous meditation method around, named after Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982) (Sayadaw means teacher, and Mahasi means big drum, the name of the monastery he was from), pictured above in 3 phases of his life. He settled here in 1947 to begin teaching the method he’d developed only a few years earlier based on a technique learned from a master in the north of the country, and supported by his prodigious scriptural knowledge. He remained based here until his death in 1982.
This technique must be distinguished from the other Vipassana method often called the Goenka method, after the Burmese-born Indian teacher Mr SN Goenka. In the west, the Mahasi method is often labelled ‘insight meditation,’ the English translation of the word Vipassana. The method involves noting and observing every act and sense experience the entire day from when you awake to when you fall asleep. If done properly, there are no breaks in mindfulness, except for occasional periods of thinking and daydreaming, which are also to be labelled. One uses labelling words in the mind for each thing observed, such as rising, falling, for the abdominal breath movements, and lifting, moving, placing for the walking movements. Speaking of which, the method concerns both sitting and walking meditation sessions, and I’ve noticed that people from other traditions tend not to pay much attention to the walking, thinking it’s ineffective or unnecessary. Wrong! Anyway, I won’t go into detail. If you’re not familiar with the technique, there are plenty of online resources explaining it.
The centre is large and has the feel of a university campus or small town. There’s even a supermarket with bookstore, and a medical clinic.
Something to note right off is that foreigners are segregated from the Burmese, and there is no contact except if you approach each other in the public areas. Foreign men are housed and practice in buildings at the far end of the compound, while the foreign women stay and train closer to their local counterparts but still separately.
Ordination (becoming a monk or nun) is available while staying here. And there seems always to be a few males and females partaking of this opportunity. There also seems to be monkhood training for foreign monks.
From here on I can only speak about the men’s experience as I didn’t get to the foreign women’s accommodation or meditation buildings. The buildings are old, 1960s or thereabouts, but generally well-maintained. In one block, there are small cell-style rooms with a fan, desk, and chair, as well as larger corner rooms with windows. This block has quite new toilets, showers, and washing areas out the back. All very civilised. The other block, which also houses the meditation hall, has larger rooms with bathroom attached, but has aged badly and is run-down.
The meditation hall is upstairs in this second building, and has air-conditioning – much-needed in the hotter months! Stepping out either side of the hall brings you to large walking lanes. There are mats, mosquito nets, and such equipment.
The dining hall is enormous as everyone eats together, including child monks and nuns, so it can be busy, although quiet and orderly. Queuing for meals is at 5:30am and 10am. We sit on the floor around low tables crammed with bowls of a variety of dishes, as well as fruit and desserts sometimes. The food is all Burmese style, and features a lot of meat and fish options, and generally numerous vegetable dishes. As mentioned, you can let the office know you want vegetarian and they’ll set up a table with loads of veges.
There is some noise from time to time. The centre sprawls over an area of high land, and a nearby construction site sometimes makes noise. There are also nightclubs nearby, and there are the usual Burmese monastery mangy dogs that have random barking fits throughout the night. All of these noise sources were usually random and intermittent. I brought earplugs and managed fine, and the construction sites will some day end up being finished. So I wouldn’t suggest not going because most centres have some degree of noise.
One more feature important to note is the teacher-student challenges. Interviews are held twice a week as a group, which is awkward as you have to describe your practice in front of several or even a couple dozen strangers. There are translators for Japanese, Korean, and Chinese languages. Everyone else is expected to use English. The teacher’s English pronunciation is a bit difficult to understand, and unless you use specific terminology, he may have trouble understanding you as well. A frequent feature of interviews was getting stuck on a word that he couldn’t get across or understand us saying. Having said all that, when communication ran well, his advice was solid, which is rare for this tradition where teachers often say little or just offer very basic reminders.
And finally, it’s amazing to observe how an alarmingly high proportion of foreign yogis behave oddly on retreat in Myanmar both here and at other places. ‘Dark Night’ dramas, or else slacking off, or going without certain clothing items outdoors, etc. Probably all quite disturbing in local people’s eyes.
The centre is very popular with Koreans, and secondly, Japanese.
A strange new feature of the centre is a large and just-completed luxury retreat centre in the middle of the compound. It looks like a dozen 4-apartment buildings surrounding a quite fancy meditation hall that is actually surrounded by a beautiful moat. It all looks like an upscale resort. I was told this centre is to be used twice a year for retreats for ‘advanced’ practitioners, after which I was told ‘no foreigners allowed.’ Welcome to Myanmar!
In summary, I’d recommend this place only for yogis who have some experience in the technique and want a solid place to practice in relative peace and affordability. Not recommended for beginners who might wish to have close and detailed advice and guidance.
UPDATE early 2020: the foreign men’s meditation facilities have been renovated and are in much better condition than depicted below.