Day and night, the Petkasen Highway thunders with traffic, connecting the manic hub that is Bangkok to the southern provinces and lush national forests of Kanchanaburi. Although technically we are out of town, Bangkok is a city that feels like it never really ends and along this major thoroughfare, in the province of Nakhon Pathom there is little to distinguish it from the sprawling urban jungle that sits just 53 kilometres away. Yet it’s in this unlikely setting, behind a pair of large gold gates, that a small group of women gather in a quest for inner tranquility, peace and most importantly profound and lasting spiritual guidance from one of Thailand’s most eminent Buddhist teachers – the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. (The name Bhikkhuni being the title given to describe a female monk).
Whizzing around the compound on her motorised scooter, in bright orange monastic robes, Dhammananda is a commanding and compelling presence. At 70 years of age, her body might be prone to aches and pains, but her mind is taut and agile, her face open and clear, and her smile broad and infectious. In Thai circles, Dhammananda is something of a celebrity – “they all come and want their photograph with me”, Dhammananda sighs before graciously taking a seat under a tree to be interviewed by a local TV crew.