07/29/2013 11:19 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2013

On a Budget in Thailand? Consider a Meditation Retreat

In Thailand, on a budget, and looking to explore your spiritual side?

It's time to consider signing up for one of the ubiquitous seven-to-ten-day (generally silent) meditation retreats held all across the country. Buddhism is particularly widespread and thriving in Thailand, and many organizations offer retreats to help both Thai citizens and foreign travelers learn more about the philosophy. No meditation experience is necessary, and although the concepts are Buddhist, these retreats (usually) present the material in a very pragmatic, pluralistic way.

Think ten days of guided meditation, no distractions, with delicious food prepared for you and a peaceful environment in which to reflect about life. You will "sit" for three or more meditation sessions per day, of an hour or more, with plenty of free time in between to rest and reflect. Retreat centers are generally set in peaceful, natural locales. A staff (usually volunteers) will prepare you nutritious meals to keep you going. The best part? Since they usually operate on a donation basis, these retreats are free.

I went to one in the beginning of June, in part to dig a little deeper into my Berkeley hippie roots, and in part to stretch my budget a little further. I kept my expectations low, bracing myself for something shallow, easy, and new-agey. But I was pleasantly surprised--the retreat surpassed all my expectations. Honestly, I'm ready to call it profound.

It was a serious, challenging ten days that pushed me far out of my comfort zone and into new and unexplored mental territory. Over the course of seemingly endless meditation sessions, I began to observe myself and my motivations with more clarity than I ever had before, and was able to let go of a number of the compulsions which (I realized) had been driving me. My ability to focus and concentrate shot way up, and when I returned to my normal traveling routine, I found that I was harder to upset and frustrate.

This might sound too good to be true, but it isn't magic. Anyone can do what I did--thousands do, after all--but few seek the opportunity. Outside of a "retreat" setting it can be very difficult to find the structure and support (food, housing, guidance and reinforcement) to help you to let go of your anxieties and to reflect intensely on yourself and how you approach others and the world. This was my first time through it, and it was, apologies for the cliche, a life changing experience. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Being a budget traveler, of course, a week-plus of free food and accommodation is the delicious icing on a very nourishing cake.

These are offered all over the country by many groups. The organization I went through has one of the biggest networks, which you can see here. Other organizations can be found here and here. Retreats can fill up far in advance, so try to book ahead.

If you go looking for a "fun" or "relaxing" vacation-from-your-vacation, you'll probably be disappointed--these retreats will push you in ways you might not be ready to handle. But if you go in with an open mind and a willingness to change and grow, it might just be the best ten days you ever spend.