WHY would anyone choose to spend ten days of getting up at 4 am, eating only two meatless meals per day, abstaining from caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and any form of entertainment, in absolute silence? As a carnivorous smoker, who can take or leave a drink, but likes a coffee, the disciplines of a 10-day meditation retreat in southern Thailand presented a challenge. Previous participants of the course at Wat Suan Mokh spoke highly of the complete peace of mind that they had achieved there. A chance was being offered not only to cleanse my body and mind, but perhaps also to learn a counter-balance to the strains of urban life. If the situation was to become a hideous ordeal, I would surely take my leave; if not, there seemed a lot to be gained. Set in lush grounds of coconut palms, banana trees and steaming springs, Wat Suan Mokh's surroundings provide an atmosphere conducive to losing oneself in nature, rather than fulfilling the cliche of ''finding oneself.'' Established in 1983, the meditation centre conducts monthly courses in Anapanasiti, the Thai Buddhist method. The course organisers are a mixture of ordained and novice monks and nuns, and an assortment of nationalities, both Thai and Western. They made it clear from the outset that this is not a religious forum; it is the exposition of an ancient way of achieving attentiveness, calmness and clarity of mind. When the bell sounded at four o'clock on the first few mornings, I am sure that I was not the only person on a rattan mat, in a spartan room, questioning my own sanity at being there. But like any routine, it became more natural with time. So too did sitting in a candle-lit hall with 80 strangers, whose flickering faces grew more familiar by the day, but with whom no words would be exchanged for 10 days. Our hours were full, allowing time for some instruction during sitting meditations, which were alternated with walking meditations. Walking meditation encourages some encounters with the local fauna. A colourful array of butterflies abound. Retreating snakes can be glimpsed or heard rustling in foliage. Stinging sensations around the ankles turn out to be large red ants. At harvesting times, trained monkeys on long leashes send coconuts crashing down to their masters. Each day was punctuated by 90 minutes of yoga before dawn, two meals (the last one being at noon), an evening dip in the hot springs and short talks about Thai Buddhist philosophy before bedtime. We were advised to sign up for chores, which we should attend to mindfully. I became immersed in bell-ringing three times a day. After the second meal there is an opportunity for individuals to discuss meditation with a monk or nun for 15 minutes. These few moments of counsel are the only exception to the rule of silence. There were several glorious moments when the combination of healthy routine and environment fused with our meditation instruction, to produce a natural and blissful calmness. Wat Suan Mokh is located near the town of Chaiya, in the southern province of Surat Thani. The easiest way to reach it is to take a bus to Chaiya from the province's capital - also called Surat Thani. Ask for the monastery by name, the bus will stop outside its gates. The retreat is held on the first 10 days of every month. It is advisable to arrive a day or two early to enrol and acclimatise.