Thailand

Lonely in Pai - Part two

Pai, Thailand

Last week I talked about how I combat feeling a little lonesome on the road. This week I'm trying a new strategy cheerily entitled "letting the loneliness in!"

KK Hut (situated up in the hills of Pai, Thailand near the circus school) is run by quite possibly the nicest two people you could ever hope to meet. Kwan and Kon are a husband and wife team who are accompanied by their psychotic rooster Shalong at all times (warning - do not wear black flip flops*.) They offer a mosquito net suspended over a mattress in a bamboo bungalow with hammock and the three quid price includes a fab breakfast of fresh fried eggs with toast and jam. It’s the cheapest place to stay in Pai and also one of the friendliest.

First thing in the morning I brush my teeth at an outdoor sink in front of the toilets in the breeze block shelter and feel like I’m at Glastonbury. It’s amazing how far I’ve come from the Champagne and Chanel of my London corporate life. If some of my city friends back home could see me now they’d hold an intervention. After travelling the world for a year I’ve spent the last 6 months in Thailand working on what’s next and now the rainy season is upon us.

It’s Forrest Gump kind of rain. You know the type:

"Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath"

The corn fields opposite are lit up from the thunderheads. I spend the rest of the day lying in my hammock watching the broad leaves of the banana trees drip and glimmer in the drizzle and reading "Remains of the Day" with a steaming mug of hot tea. It’s all making me feel very homesick for Britain. A central tenet of Buddhism is trying to accept things the way they are - because it is our craving for our present situation to be different that creates "dukkha" or suffering. But I am not being very good at accepting things the way they are! Right now I don’t want to be in Thailand. I miss roast lamb dinners, a crisp glass of Chablis and cups of PROPER English breakfast tea! I want to see fine art and wear mohair jumpers and hear the crunch of autumn leaves under my boots. I miss dancing the night away with girlfriends or snuggling up on the couch with a boyfriend and the latest HBO dvd box set. How can you accept something when you don’t want to be here?

Recognising Resistance

I come to realise that recognising my resistance is the first step. There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely and perhaps loneliness is actually my resistance to being on my own. Eventually after tiring myself out with feeling miserable I gradually come to realise why most spiritual practices harp on about acceptance and letting go - its actually rather practical advice. If all we do is stay in the negative mind set of not wanting to be where we are - how can we find the perspective and clarity needed to find a way out of it. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Rinpoche gives this example: Buddhist travellers used to have to take an isolated path in Tibet high up in the hills and invariably those crossing it would get attacked by bandits but they had no choice but to make the voyage. The clever ones made friends with the bandits, and offered them money to escort them safely to the other side thus warding off other bandits and allowing the robbers to make more money as well.

The lesson he says – is to become aware of our problems and then let them in:

"Once you've made your enemies your friend there is nothing left to fight anymore..."

Understanding Impermanence

I'm helped in moving to a state of acceptance by remembering another tenet of Buddhism, Vipassana meditation. This technique encourages us to focus on listening and reflecting on the impermanence of the world around us and in ourselves. Listening to, for example, the sudden whirring into life of a cicada's wings or noticing the sensation of a flaring up of pain in one of our joints and then also noticing when the sound subsides or the pain dimishes. Right now because I’m alone I’m able to do exactly what I want and when I want. I spend long lazy days, swimming and writing and reading and eating amazing Mango Pie (found at Art in Chai.)

Who knows when I’ll get the chance to do this again or even where i'll be this time next year. Soon I may be married with a couple of kids in tow or living abroad with an exotic argentinian lover (here’s hoping!) Maybe i'll be ensconced in another capital city working on my own business. The times in our life where we really get to pare everything away and be by ourself are few and far between and I may not have the beauty of this alone time again for a very long time.

Appreciation through Mindfulness

Pai Chan Cottage, Pai, Thailand

I move to a beautiful place in Pai called Pai Chan Cottage. For just four quid a night I get a little wooden bungalow with big ensuite hot shower and they have a great chill out area with hammocks, a swimming pool and restaurant that does some seriously good breakfast bagels. Now that I’ve become conscious of how temporary this state is I know I can truly begin to appreciate it.

Mindfulness is a non spiritual form of meditation that encourages us to let go of thoughts and just concentrate on what we are experiencing in any given present moment. When I wake up in the morning I try noticing the intense luminous green of the sun light filtered through the melon tree outside my bungalow, how the crisp water of the pool envelopes my skin as I go for my early morning dip and the ripples on the water left by the dragon flies that skate the surface. In the distance the rice fields are filled with bright yellow butterflies. I feel truly blessed and lucky to be here.

The Pain of Being Human

As I've got older I've come to believe in the Jungian concept of the collective consciousness. Somehow, somewhere - I believe that on a spiritual level we are all connected. Or to put it in a more poetic way - No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. As written by the 17th century poet John Donne. Yet the very nature of taking earthly form in a human body and becoming an individual means that from the beginning of our life we bear the pain of our separateness from the whole. It is this pain that we feel - I’ve come to realise - when we are truly alone with out any distractions. it’s easier to work a 50 hour week, read a newspaper, jam our ears with our ipod , row with lovers, watch mindless tv,or drink the night away than face the fact that - as Rilke said:

We are all unutterably alone.

When we peel all of that away and just connect into silence and being alone we also connect into that deep emptiness and pain of isolation that is a natural part of the human condition, that is both exquisite, and terrifying in equal measure. And then something else happens too. With no job, no lover and no family around to make demands on me and having stripped my life of all external influences I’m able also for the first time to see clearly the internal obstacles I create all by myself. Who would have thought that it would be my perfectionism or my need for recognition or a million other little insecurities that have probably been so much more expert, insidious and skilled at holding me back from achieving what I want all this time than anything the external world threw at me. And yet up until a couple of years ago – it was so easy just to blame the shitty job or the wrong lover. How much more insightful and valuable to know that its actually me that's my own worst enemy! And scary too - but at least once you see that part of your self you can take responsibility for it, own it and change it - see the darkness and shine a light into it.

There is a great interview on Conan with the stand up comic Louis C.K on what it means to face up to the deeply exquisite pain of what it means to be human. I highly recommend a quick look here if you haven’t seen it :) The truth is this year has been difficult at times, for all those travel blogs out there who witter on about how easy it is to make friends on the road and how you’ll never be lonely the truth is however many new friends you make there will always be times when you find yourself alone and if you end up doing some long term travel there may well be points where you find yourself feeling lonely. But that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Let the loneliness in. Because what better opportunity do we have than when we are off travelling the world and have left behind all of our relationships, work, friends, family and the bombardment of media that assaults our senses on a daily basis to take the space and time needed to live with ourselves and see ourselves just as we really are.

Have you had a similar experience on the road or off? - I'd love to hear your stories in the comments below.

 

  • PS Shalong the Rooster thinks black flip flops are other roosters and tries to engage in a cock fight by racing at your legs, flapping his wings and pecking you on your feet (the little b****d.)

 

 

Beauty, botox and blowdrys in Chiang Mai

And now to address the burning issues of the day, where to get a decent hair cut on the road? 

 

Hair that  needs help

The great thing about South East Asia is how cheap everything is, but cheap doesn’t always mean good right? Chiang Mai is rammed full of dental whitening studios, plastic surgeons and all the obligatory spa and massage places. But sometimes paying 3 quid for a manicure means you get…well…a three quid manicure. Forking out just a small amount extra at a decent place means you can avoid paying sky high city prices from the west and still maintain fabulousness on the road.

Here are my top 3 beauty bargain hideaways in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Blowdrys…

Vera at Icon Hollywood in Nimmanhemin (the posh, boutiquey part of town,) is a long willowy Thai with fashionably cropped and bleach blonde hair. She honed her trade in San Francisco and New York before coming back and setting up shop in her home town. She picks up my hair like its a piece of drift wood or old straw (actually it is) and asks: Riiiiggght what are we doing with this then?? After a year on the road with only one other pitstop to see a hairdresser my roots and highlights have transformed into a two tone head with more contrast than a walnut and mahognay table top. My roots to my ears are my natural dark brown, the rest are the remains of blonde highlights that a year under Asian sun have turned bright yellow. “Which colour did you want to go for?” she asks hesitantly.. Oh god. The blonde the blonde!

She manages to tame the birds nest and rehydrate the straw and cuts it so that the layers nicely frame my face and the ends are left chunky and dare I say it…almost healthy looking. Then she tackles the roots and gives me perfect, sun kissed, fresh from the beach highlights. She is officially my new favourite person in the world. I think she might be the one. You know -the hairdresser you spend your life searching for. I’m worrying about how I’m going to fly all the way back to Chiang mai just for a hair cut after I leave Thailand - a 700 quid flight price seems excessive from the Uk but then I have been searching for someone who does my layers like this my whole life! The best news is, the cut and blow dry itself only sets me back 500 baht - or a tenner. I have two colours on my hair for highlights on long hair which costs around 40 - 50 quid. Still a good twenty to thirty pounds cheaper than back home and as good a quality too.

Beauty

So having sorted out the mane its on to nails. You can get a manicure anywhere in Thailand, most of the massage and spa places offer it, and charge around 100 - 150 baht (or three pounds.) My advice? It’s worth finding a nail salon that specialises in manis and pedis and paying a bit extra. For a fiver (so lets face it still not breaking the bank) the girls at Thai Nails over the other side of the Ping River - agonise over my colour. They buff and they scrape and they massage. It’s a little embarrassing… traipsing around the world in flip flops has left my feet with more than its fair share of hard skin, callouses and brittle nails. How attractive.

Botox and other Skin Care Essentials.

 Forget Argentina. Chiang Mai is fast becoming the go to place for cheap cosmetics.I have been monitoring the line developing between my brows for about 15 years now - I’m nothing if not obsessive. It still has yet - in my humble opinion - to reach the critical stage. However I’m dismayed to see what a year under Asian sun has done to my upper arm and decolletage skin. I’ve been applying the factor 50 religiously and since I stopped travelling I’ve bought an umbrella and when that didn’t help given in and covered up with long sleeved tops and hippy pants. This didn’t however, un do the great swathes of the previous year where I dressed like a 20 year old back packer in cut offs and vest top - because - well quite frankly -because I could.

Or correction, thought I could. Turns out you really can’t get away with using coconut oil and a string bikini and excessive arm exposure and not pay the price at our age. I feel like such an idiot. There is something about us British. The old Noel Coward song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” is so true. It doesn’t matter that everyone knows all the sensible advice about covering up, and not sunbathing between 11 and 3 etc as soon as I get anywhere near a beach and the sunshine comes out I feel compelled to strip off and lay myself prostrate on the sand. So as an aside - prevention of sun damage is much cheaper and more effective than anything the beauty industry has come up with to combat ageing. Keep the tops of your arms and chest covered in strong sun as well as wearing a high factor and high quality UV sun cream (some of the sun tan lotion sold in Asia is actually fake and not that effective.) In more traditional areas such as Chiang Mai and the North you should be keeping your legs and arms covered anyway so invest in long sleeved cotton tops and trousers and an umbrella - which comes in handy in the temperamental rainy season.

Dr Danai is married to Miss Thailand and is a preternaturally young 49 year old who looks 25 if he is a day. He cheerfully has a look at my skin, peers dubiously at my cleavage and then the tops of my  arms.

"Weeeell"  he says

"You should wear sunscreen."

 Yeah great thanks for that. He puts one of those scary mirrors in front of me (the kind that magnifies your face so you can see every single open pore on your nose) and then draws imaginary lines across my face horizontally dividing it into three sections, eyes and forehead, cheeks, nose and jowel and chin and mouth. Botox he explains - is his forte. He goes into a long winded reason about the fact that it's a  preventative measure as it is repeated frowning and pulling our faces into these shapes that eventually leaves the lines - however the more I look at my face the less I want to have I done.

I quite like my laughter lines.  There, controversial - i've said it. 

I know that men find youth and beauty attractive but I think they make my face warmer and more interesting than the blandness I had in my twenties. I ‘d like better quality skin and some facial exercises to stop the jowels would be good but overall I dont think I look to bad for pushig forty. Dr Danai is very disappointed. But cheerfully sells me a micro peel and microdermabrasion for around 30 pounds (half of what I would have paid in London) He leans over and confides: 

"Before your menopause the best way to stay young? Eat anti oxidants and exercise. "

So there you have it and from the horse's mouth. Do exercise and eat lots vegetables. It really isn't rocket science after all.

His  clinic is clean, hygienic and the staff sweet and attentive. The treatment I have is good value, they pummel and use diamond tone microdermabrasion. And then a face cream. 

But if the needle’s your thing then this is the place to go. And as an aside, the only skin cream sworn to work by beauty therapists is Retinol A - and the only percentages you can buy high enough to do any good won’t be found over the counteri n the west.

 You need to buy Stevia A or Retin A 0.05% and in Thailand its available over the counter at Boots for a fiver. That’s what I call a result.

 

The Silver Temple and other Chiang Mai Secrets...

Chiang Mai, Thailand

OK - I spent around 3 months in total in Chiang Mai - and let’s get something straight.

1) I do not (Mr Tuk Tuk driver) want to visit some zoo on the outskirts of town and lie my weary traveller’s body against the flank of a Tiger and get it’s whiskers all up in my grill

2) Ok I’m still on point 1 - but really? People want to do this? Sensible, intelligent friends I met did this. Am I the only one that thinks this is crazy? Not just distressing for the animal - but logically speaking - the tigers have either been drugged which is why they are docile enough to have hordes of idiot back packers having their photos taken with them. Or they have not been drugged - which means they could - if they so desired - snap (their jaws) at any minute. Either way - I’d rather see majestic wild animals in the wild - not in captivity.

3) It’s not a Butterfly and Orchid farm without butterflies in it. It’s just an orchid farm.

4) When a 60 year old man tells you he loves Thailand because the barriers don’t exist between ages and he enjoys partying with his 21 year old Thai twins who are just “friends” it’s time to move to another venue.

Rant over.

So where do you go and what do you do in Chiang Mai - if, as a slightly more discerning traveller you don’t want to rest your head against the chops of a tiger; traipse up the top of Doi Suthep with 900 other people; cram yourself onto the streets of its night market to look at hawkers selling rip off tat or chug back the cheap cocktails at backpacker haven Zoe’s in the centre of town with the rest of the 21 year olds, Thai teenagers and sexpats?


I based myself in the less touristy part of town - at a place called Life in Town (a clean a/c room with smart ensuite and cable tv - plus secure gated access) by Suan Pung Gate (south gate) for around 150 quid for the month - and spent the next couple of months discovering places off a little more off the beaten track.

Wats Up? The Silver Temple.

If you have been travelling around Thailand for any amount of time you may well reach a point where you feel “all Watted Out.” It’s not that these beautiful temples or Wats with their peaceful courtyards, intricate and bejwelled exteriors, and glowing golden rooves aren’t fascinating but even the sight of a monk with a bright orange strimmer the same colour as his robes - trimming his hedge - wasn’t enough to tempt me inside after the 100th on the journey so far. Until I discovered Thailand’s only silver temple - practically on my doorstep. The temple was built in the 16th century and is situated down Wualai road -the traditional silver making district of Chiang Mai. It really is a view to behold. On the day I’m there it sits shimmering like a steel pan behind the deep blue of the October sky.

The entire temple and roof is clad in silver panels and the grounds are also home to a silver making school as well as a Monk Chat programme where you can pop along and chat with a monk about Buddhism, meditation or anything else that takes your fancy!

The main ordination hall is called the Usobot and women are not allowed to enter unfortunately due to ancient Lanna tradition. Ah well. It’s also very close to the Saturday (Wualai) walking street which offers a slightly less hectic version of the Night market - filled with colourful little stalls and street food.

An Art Lesson with Nonnie.

I have been vowing to take up drawing again since I hit the road. I’ve met a couple of painters on my travels and thought it would be lovely to keep not just a written and photographic record of my journey around the world - but a painted one as well. Oh the best laid plans etc - it never came to anything. But I did manage to go to one art class! Nonnie runs a studio of the main touristy road - MoonMuang. She’s a slightly intimidating and non smiling - self taught artist who works out of a studio rammed with half finished oils, charcoals and other offerings from her students. Rin - my friend and I are first given a box of postcards - to find a picture we wnat to copy, and then we are set up at an easel. Nonnie brings us a ginger tea and clucks at her demented pussy cat that’s making a strange howling noise (i didn’t think my artistic skills were that bad.)When it looks like I’m perilously close to cocking the whole thing up, she deftly takes my paintbrush off me and with a few sharp and confident strokes sorts the whole thing out. I’m not a terrible artist - it was always one of my favourite subjects at school no thanks to the villainous Ms Sage who - unfamiliar with the concept of positive praise - hissed every vitriolic comment out of her mouth through an aggressively snarled lip. However I’m sorely out of practise. It’s a little bit painting by numbers - for the very artistic this class doesn’t offer much creativity and I expect those far more talented than me may resent someone else stepping in and taking over with their masterpiece every once in a while. But I’m grateful for all the help I can get. It’s a calming and satisfying way to while away a morning with the brusque but kindly Nonnie, her ginger tea and her unhappy pussy.

A Haven of Tranquility

For a small city, Chiang Mai can feel suprisingly hot, polluted and crowded at times. For some sweet sanctuary away from the madding crowd - why not try a class in one of the healing arts or wellness centres that the town is known for. Tucked away down a little side street around the back of Chiang Mai Gate Market is Wild Rose Yoga - a beautiful little oasis in the city with brightly coloured wooden parasols in the garden area and an intimate little yoga room. I tried the Vinyasa flow class there in one of Thailand’s hottest months (kind of like getting a bit Bikram thrown in for free. ) http://www.wildroseyoga.org/


YogaTree studio, Chiang Mai

The Yoga Tree studio on the west side of the moat also offers free meditation classes and yoga as well as Bio Danza (a joyful and liberating type of dance class where the emphasis is on non verbal communication and reaching a state of Vivencia - pure joy!) I took part in a 2 day dance festival earlier this year - and found myself dancing along to Flashdance with 40 other women (and one slightly scared looking man) at 11 o clock n the morning - which was, quite frankly, a brilliant way to start the day. The studios are set far away from the main road in lush green gardens.


 An’ All that Jazz*

Hipsters, ChiangMai, Thailand


If you want to avoid the tourist trail and coffee shop mecca of Thapae Gate, and can give the central backpacker night club Zoe’s then hie thee to a couple more out the way establishments for a classier evening. The Gossip Gallery and Bar is situated on Wichayanon Road just outside the the north east side of the old town. It’s a very small and cosy venue with some large leather comfy seating and lamps. It features live jazz from local musicians thursday through to sunday and there’s an art gallery upstairs with regular exhibitions. For a more scenic view - cross the Ping River and make your way to The Good View for a meal and live music overlooking the water. I visited Windy’s - another intimate live music venue - filled with trendy young Thai’s drinking whiskey and a Thai hipster duo on acoustic guitar. It was a bit like being in Shoreditch - except of course the G&Ts were 70p instead of 7 quid ;)

Any secret places you’ve found in Chiang Mai that you want to share? Let me know in the comments below :)

*Please note that I was in Chiang Mai between April and October 2013- and that many bars and restaurants seem to change owners, close and reinvent on a regular basis in this city!


Lonely on the road, laughter meditation and Flash Dance in Chiang Mai Thailand.

 

I feel a little low suddenly. My time in Thailand has flown by and now my year of travelling is almost up. What to do? Aside from the fact that I have no return ticket to the UK – I refuse to go back and just get a job with another company. I intend to work for myself – and Asia is nice and cheap while I work out how to do that... But suddenly the reality of being far from home and in a new city where I don't know anyone sets in. Nico – the Argentinian guy I met in B.A has been a constant (albeit online) companion since I left South American in May – we had always made tentative plans to see each other again when my travelling was over – but I can't commit to when exactly that will be yet and so he tells me he has “lost the energy for waiting.” It's all so depressingly inevitable but i'm a hopeless romantic so...well...I hadn't lost the energy. It doesn't help my sad case of the blues. 

I decide the best thing for it is to get out there and meet some people! An Aussie 

 

girl my age called Deb who did the yoga at Agama in January with me is just finishing a teacher training course in Chiang Mai, so we meet for lunch at Blue Diamond – a lovely healthy veggie place in the Old town. Deb and some friends of hers from her course are going to a little music festival at the weekend so I join them on friday night. 

It has been organised by a short, dumpy, American guy with a pony tail and baseball cap who suprises the crowd later by taking to the mic and letting rip with a song in a gravelly, soulful voice reminiscent of Van Morrison. He's organised the whole thing impeccably. There are rows of tents serving Thai food – everything from deep fried crabs and mango and sticky rice to huge cauldrons of tom yum and lashings of Pad Thai. The programme over the weekend is mainly world music but tonight its focus on traditional Thai music and dancing. Although later in the evening there is a rather random belly dancer who thrusts some moves to some heavy metal. The Thai crowd are an impassive lot. They sit and eat dinner in companionable silence politely clapping at the end of each act – cleaners and bar maids regularly swoop the tables attentively. There is not a spot of rubbish to be seen and no one is drunk – even sharing the enormous giraffes of beer that they have. Glastonbury it ain't – its incredibly peaceful and civilised. The final act are The Gumbo brothers – a jazz/soul funk fusion band frm New Orleans. They try and whir the crowd into a frenzy but I wonder what they think of performing to such a polite and quiet group of people. 

Alice – a bright, bubbly Mancunian who looks like her namesake Alice in Wonderland with billows of long blonde hair and porcealin skin says: 

“We are going to Zoe's... its really horrible but you are welcome to join us!” 

I really feel like a G&T so Deb and I agree to join her, and the other two guys – on their course. Eli is a Jewish American frat boy with wide friendly smile and curly dark hair and Larry is a wry thirty year old New Yorker, with gray eyes, dry humour and a smile that seems to happen through clenched teeth. 

“That is NOT attractive” says Larry at the belly dancer up on stage. Its become his catchphrase – something he trots out when he's trawling the bars and clubs late night on the prowl and ends up with a woman he feels doesn't quite make the grade. The belly dancer has a belly (shock...horror.) 

Eli shrugs complacently: 

“I like her... oh and hey you know what they say – more cushion for the pushing..." 

“Do all men talk like that about women – or is it something they grow out of??” I interrogate Deb. 

I've dated some sleaze in my time and i'm always surprised and disappointed by the casual and vicious misogyny that is supposedly acceptable under the guise of “a laugh” But there are some men out there that don't find it a hilarious national pastime to bad mouth a woman for her appearance or size? Aren't there????????? 

Zoe's is backpacker central. A little courtyard with picnic tables and fairy lights and a selection of bars and dodgy night clubs set around it in a square. The place is rammed and heaving with young backpackers, young Thai girls and not so young at all Western man. Yup this place is catnip for the Sexpat. 

We join a table and one older gentleman takes great lengths to explain to Alice and I how he enjoys the fact that there are no layers or boundaries in Asian society. These are my friends – he says gesturing to two nubile young Thai twenty somethings next to him, my daughter back home would never be seen dead with her Dad dancing in a club, but here no one cares. I'm torn. On the one hand i'm 37 and enjoying being out and dancing with Alice – a 20 year old, am I being hypocritical for begrudging him the same thing. What about when i'm in my fifties if I still feel like dancing the night away? 

Then again as I say to Alice under my breath “Do you think he's justifying being a sexpat to us?” 

“Er yeah – I should say so” says Alice matter of factly. 

Deb bows out so its left to me, Larry and Alice to down the G&Ts and throw a few shapes on the dance floor. 

The next evening i meet up with a friend I made in Hanoi, Vietnam. Yoanne is a Parisian photographer. I go out for a BBQ with him and his Spanish friends - one of whom is celebrating a birthday and then we take to the moat for a drink. We prop ourselves up by the old wall next to the water where we are able to hear the strains of jazz funk from the bar opposite. Someone gets out a bottle of vodka and some ice so then we drink that...neat... 

My hang overs seem to be getting more common again in Chiang Mai! To take it easy i've found a lovely little guesthouse run by a Thai woman called Orr and a South African man. They have a huge TV that shows cable British and American shows and films (i don't watch a lot of TV but i have missed the odd night in in front of the box on my travels) and large comfy sofas. I go and join them and several other travellers who aren't even staying there, but like me, want to hang out. Orr's friend has brought some fresh oysters up from Koh Samui. They are large and plump and deliciously sweet - unlike any i've tasted before. 

Suddenly i'm not feeling so alone any more. 

I've found two yoga studios in Chiang Mai – Wild Rose studio is a lovely little hidden oasis near Chiang Mai Gate and The Yoga Tree Studio is another little place close by that is holding “The Small Dance Festival” over two days for an entry fee of just 400 baht. 

Deb takes a break from her studying to join me. The studio is set back off the main roads in a quiet enclave filled with trees. On the first morning we get a warm up yoga session followed by a Dance Mandala class. Dance Mandala is a moving meditation that the teacher – a long, willowy Thai woman with impeccable English – has invented herself. It often focuses on one element such as the physical body, the heart, emotions etc. and is done alone. 

Bio danza is another type of dance class that is done without speaking and consists of exercises done alone; in pairs or in groups. We are looking to experience “vivencia” - a feeling of aliveness in the present moment that supercedes the rational mind. When people go regularly to classes, a supportive tribe of the same people form that harks back to a time in our evolution where there was a community of people that we could go to for love and support – rather than the isolated individuals we've become today. 

The next day starts with Laughing Meditation. We are asked to squeeze imaginary "laughter cream" all over ourselves then flap around the room pretending to be birds who brush our wings against each other and burst into “bird laughter” By the end of the session we are lying in a circle with our heads touching, creating a “laughter waterfall” It sounds ridiculous and its supposed to be on the theory that life is supposed to be light and fun! Most of the room are genuinely cracking up and can't stop giggling away. Except me that is. I'm faking it the whole way through. I just assumed the whole “contagious effect” would work on me too but....alas no. Maybe i'm just too stuck in my blues this week. 

To change up the energy in the room again before the next series of classes the teacher says: 

“OK I'm going to put a track on now and I want you to just dance your heart out.... The music should help.” 

The opening chords come on and everyone squeals with delight and starts prancing manically. 

And so it is that I find myself; at 11am in the morning; stone cold sober; in a room full of women – hip wiggling, stag leaping and whirling to the theme tune from Flashdance. 

And that really does put a smile on my face.

Sensational Songkran, Thai New Year Water Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This time last year I was living in Chiang Mai creating some of my most magical travel memories ever. Why? Sensational Songkran that's why. Read on. 

The skies are a scorching bright blue and the “hair dryer” effect hot hair is all engulfing from 8am til sun down. The water of the moat is running low and all along the waters edge, the blackened branches of the blossom trees droop with firebursts of bright orange flowers - as if the very tips of the twigs have burst into flames. The pavements are cracked, and the grasses dry. We are now entering the very hottest months in Thailand. All around Chiang Mai – the hillsides that ring the city are concealed in a dusty, smog. This is crop burning season and farmers are slashing and burning their fields which sends a thick low level blanket drifting into the city. Even the Thai people are fanning themselves and gesturing: "very very hot!" to me although of course, they still seem to manage step out in full length jeans and sweatshirts... Thank goodness its time for SongKran – Thai New Year wherein the entire city of Chiang Mai shuts down from 12th April to the 16th and the Thais embark on what can only be described as an enormous and brilliant water fight.

Water was used traditionally to purify the Buddhas that are found in temples and carried through the streets in procession. Then Thais would take the same water (seen as blessed) and gently cleanse each other with it. The processions still take place but the offering of a light scattering of water in the direction of one's neighbour has transformed into open backed jeeps crammed with Thai teenagers menacing water guns and barrels of iced water - and if they don't get you then the pavements flanked with cafe and restaurant owners wielding hosepipes and plastic buckets will. You simply cannot go out doors and hope to stay dry – particularly, it seems, if you are a game looking falang woman. There is only one thing to be done -and that is join in!

My friend Kat, a blonde 'n' bubbly (is there any other kind) Essex girl from back home is travelling Asia and is joining me to celebrate. I find a family by the moat who sell my a blue and yellow water pistol for 200B along with a little plastic waterproof purse to put my valuables in. I'm already drenched of course. The fact that I've been unarmed and completely bone armed and loadeddry has been to much temptation for the truck loads of Thais roving the streets.

“Sorreeee ladyyyyyy” smiles one Thai as he tips a bucket of ice water over my head.

Welcome to Songkran.

 

I meet up with Kat and although we try and hold our own with our pistols we are being fired at from all sides from men, woman, children and even grannies armed with make shift mop handles transformed into squirting guns; we've even had a hosepipe turned on us. There are stages set up with blaring music and falangs line the streets drinking beer in the midday sunshine and joining in the mayhem. We take to a side street and find a little bar filled with gnarly old western men and Thai women. It's a tad dubious, the women have teeth missing and are already three sheets to the wind – I have a feeling they are prostitutes. We grab a beer and one man grins at us ruddily:

“Byron bay has the most women per men in the world” he informs us – that's where he hails from...

“but there...i'm too old for them...”

Then he cheers up and with winking bloodshot eyes, leers... “But not here...”

Hmmm. Gross.

Never mind – the bar is playing Rhianna and the prostitutes seem delighted to see us, anointing us with chalky white face paint and garlands of flowers. They are drinking a cloudy white liquid from a bucket and let us try some. It has a tangy lemony flavour. Apparently its rice whiskey made from sticky rice. We want to buy some – but I think it may be the equivalent of moonshine as someone i think of as "Mummy Prostitute" says she is not allowed to sell it. Eventually we talk her round and she sells us some for 70 Baht concealed in a beer bottle.

We stand on the kerb shooting water at the people that have the misfortune to wander down the road in front of us. Overall the etiquette seems to be that if you are from the same bar you are all on the same side – and just shoot at people across the road. Unless of course the action dies down a bit ...then, I discover, as I watch the prostitutes  stuff one of the girls in a big box of ice water - you are fully within your rights to turn on your fellow man for entertainment value.

It's interesting watching peoples water gun technique. According to Kat I shoot at people with a deeply satisfied and smug grin on my face. One gangly guy slopes past then casually cocks his gun behind him and squirts someone on the top of the head – execution style. Men particularly seem to be taking this whole thing very very seriously!

We've both agreed we would rather drink this “purer” form of alchohol than some of the dodgy cheap Sangsom they sell in the shops. Problem is we have absolutely no idea what it is we are drinking. It tastes dangerously good though. I genuinely can't remember when I've ever had so much fun. I'm soaking wet, absolutely drunk, dancing on the streets and shooting at people with toy guns. Its fantastic. There is a brilliant atmosphere too. Every one is welcome to join in the entertainment and although people are eating and drinking throughout the day there never seems to be any violence or aggression – unlike an average night out in any British town.

Just before it gets dark, the skies cloud over and a wind picks up. Suddenly after days, even months of bone dry and roasting heat, the heavens open. Everyone screams and throws themselves out of the bars and onto the street . It's almost as if the Gods have been listening in; watching all the festivities; regarded all the processions and offerings made to them – and have finally answered our prayers. The shooting of water continues as we rush out and onto the road to stomp about and dance in the pouring rain. It's an incredible, magical moment. I'm taking part in one of the biggest, most totally impromptu, ecstatic, rain dances of all time.


Happy Thai New Year Everyone.


Vomiting to Jean Michel Jarre, magic cake and bad yogi.com

There now follows an intensive month long period of 150 hours of yoga! Everyone has forewarned me about how intense it will be, hell the course is even called the First Level Intensive. You'd think that would be a clue! I get up at 7 to 7.30am most days, if I don't i'm awoken by the “sneezing woman.” I run to Agama (this had always been the plan when I booked in September) It only takes 20 mins but seeing all the yoga bunnies arriving cool and showered in their floaty white trousers with me all red and hot and sweaty in my adidas is not the most positive start to every day. Then the schedule is 830 – 1030 yoga. I then walk back or buy brekkie on the way which normally gets me back by 11.30 then I leave again at 3.30 for more yoga from 4pm - 6pm followed by a lecture from from 6pm to 8pm which focuses on a yogic related topic then home (another half an hour walk or if i'm lucky and wearing my very short shorts – someone offers me a lift.) Then it starts all again the next day. Its exhausting! 

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Agama yoga is certainly the most comprehensive course i've come across. Many classes taught in the West that I've attended have foresaken the spirituality in favour of a good workout. My aim – coming here – was to get into a regular yoga practice and I think if this doesn't do it nothing will! 

The course covers every aspect of yoga – not just the physical postures (Asanas) but purification techniques, meditation and ayurveda – the Indian diet/ nutrition for health that the yogis devised some 2000 years ago. The postures that are taught here are Hatha yoga, but whereas other schools and teach that the postures are simply to improve flexibilty so that meditation can be held for long periods of time, at this school they believe that the postures are meant to be the meditation themselves. Each asana works on a physical level but also at an emotional and mental level by clearing/cleansing one of the seven chakras (energy centres) and bringing telluric (from the ground) or cosmic (from the sky) energy into the body. In order for this process to happen the posture must be held to get the benefit – upwards of 4 minutes but gradually 7 minutes and longer; and ones attention to focus and eventually meditate on the relevant chakras. 



I've been taught meditation, done energy work through being attuned to Reiki levels 1 and 11 and also found myself diagnosing my dosha and trying to eat an ayurvedic diet after a particularly stressful time at work but I've never done a course where its all introduced holistically and tied together at the same time. Its great for me although I can imagine it would be a bit of a headfuck for a complete beginner who had never encountered any of these topics before. 

They do push the boundaries of good taste and plausability even with me though, hippy that I am. When I ask one of the teachers what I could do to cure my sensitive stomach that is prone to getting upset without resorting to harsh antibiotics, she fixes me with a steely eye and exclaims zealously: 

“Urine Therapy! Drink your own pee!” 

Er no thanks love, I think i'll carry on looking. 

After the lecture on “Vamata Dhauti” or should that be "vomitty dhauti" an ancient purification technique endorsed by the yogis that basically consists of making yourself throw up a litre of water every morning; I am awoken not just by “sneezing woman” but a full symphony of regurgitation noises coming from all directions, and rather bizarrely accompanied by the sound of Jean Michel Jarre. I discover later that this is my neighbour Nick's attempt to disguise the sounds. It doesn't work... however as a conversation on the subject reveals that he also heard me making noises of a different kind (whilst with Talon) I sheepishly bow my head and decide not to give him too much stick. It might also explain why the little italian “sneezing woman” has refused to look me in the eye all month. *cringe* 



The first of the evening lectures is given by Swami himself. He's a large, white , middle aged (to nearing sixties) man with twinkling grey eyes and a beard streaked with white and an enormous stomach that pushes at his bright orange robes. He's actually Romanian so every word has a slight vamipiric edge to it. He doesn't look like the picture of health for a yogi but maybe he's transcended all that. 

Yoga is all about a path of spiritual development to question “why we are here” and then follow our true path in life. 

Outside reception there is a sign: You are not here to change Agama, Agama is here to change you. 

And then their strapline – Choose Evolution. 

And in the toilet a sign that asks the reader to question: “Who am I?” Its a better place than some to question the important issues of the day I guess! 

I've cut out red meat, coffee and alcohol while I do the yoga so that it provides a bit of a full body detox at the same time and i'm eating loads of fresh fruit and vegetables so for a while at least i'm a picture of health. 

On friday night there is a heart chakra meditation led by one of the teachers – Andrea, a very nice Italian man who all of the girl students seem to be in love with for some reason. 

In the soft darkness of the hall candles have been lit and shaped in a spiral leading to a velvet cushion surrounded by green fairy lights in its centre. We all sit in a circle around the throne and for the next half an hour will meditate on our heart chakra. Each person takes it in turns to sit in the centre, while sitting on the outside we focus on giving love to the person in the centre, when it is our turn to sit in the centre we focus on receiving love from everyone else. Music meditation is a big part of the teachings at Agama, vibrationally different music (i'm sensing not Marilyn Manson) can heal and vibrate /cleanse with a certain chakra. Heart chakra music seems to be piano music and soft choral music such as Ave Maria. I find myself crying but Ave Maria always makes me well up. 



On the final day we have a ceremony where we get a certificate from Swami saying that we've completed our first level along with a piece of magic string (white and wrapped around the left wrist to protect us) and some magic cake as well as a flower garland around the neck. The cake is my favourite bit! Afterwards I head for a celebration meal with Nick -a forty something ex army lieutenant turned actor from Britain and Mark – an ex army Californian.


Nick has decided to start “Bad Yogi” . Com. He's gone cold turkey as well, starting the yoga course with a 7 day detox at ananada (Which involves vomiting, colonics and starvation for a week) followed by no meat, coffee or alcohol and fags. As a result I think we've all gone off the rails a bit. 

I had thought after a month of clean living it would be difficult to get back into bad habits. How wrong I am. We eat pizza and drink red wine (this is my health concession instead of white!) Nick gets back on the fags and beer. 

Mark is a softly spoken Californina with wild corkscrew curls, goatee and tats. He doesn't smile much, I wonder if he has a severe attitude or its just shyness. He spent a long time in the U.S Military – and starts to say: 

“you know the first time you do it....they try and prepare you...but after. Nothing is the same again.” He won't say what “it” is but we know it means he's killed a man. 

Tomorrow Nick, myself and Fleur, a maypole thin, supermodel tall blonde girl from Holland with shiny blue eyes and gentle smile who i've become friendly with, are all starting Level 2. 

As Swami says cheerfully to us with a twinkle in his eye: 

“Well! You must have got something out of it then!”

When guys go weird and girls go after, mountain climbing and turkish telepathy in Koh Pangan, Thailand

I wake up on January 2nd still feeling sick. The White Russians on NYE probably didn't help but hey... Talon's been trying to get us to climb the big wooded mountain in the middle of the island for a while now (Canadians!) and today is the very last day I feel like doing it. But maybe sweating and a bit of aerobic exercise will help. He thinks its about a 6 hour round trip. Great. 

We drive to the base of the hill and start walking. I tell him I need to take it at my own pace and he says: 

“Oh anytime you want to we can start heading down just let me know” and then he disappears off up the mountain taking long strides. 

I'm beginning to regret my loose tee shirt dress outfit – and i've just conveniently remembered my vow that I would do no more treks or hikes in jungle tundra. I am sweet meat for mosquitos – I just prefer the calm , cool still beauty of the mountains. 

After about an hour i'm knackered and stopping for a quick breather more often. The legs are not enjoying their first proper work out since the running routine stopped sometime mid Laos. Plus, having been fighting a stomach bug all of December I don't think I have any natural reserves of energy either. 

“We can head down if you want to …? But hey I think we are nearly at the top” Talon says. 

I can tell the last thing he wants to do is head down and to be honest its not really my idea of a motivating day out either, giving up now, so I say: 

“No we'll keep going I just need to take my time is all.” 

He disappears off again and then I hear whooping, after only an hour and a half we get there. Thank god whoever said it was three hours either way got their facts wrong or walks slower than my dear departed grandmother. 

And its worth the wait. The air is calm and cool and you can see over the dense dark green wooded jungle down to the golden strips of coast and the dreamy blue sea beyond. Its so peaceful up here, I'm glad I made the effort. 

He gives me a perfunctory kiss and a squeeze. And then we head down . I watch has he disappears off into the undergrowth again. Every now and then he stops to wait for me, except one time where he goes: 

“Oh hahaha I forgot you were with me.” 

Quite. 
 


I don't feel very happy today, Talon is doing that thing “that guys do.” That weird, going all distant thing, that even at the age of 37 I haven't quite worked out. And in response i'm doing that weird thing that girls do... some kind of default mechanism I immediately whir into (I like to call Girl Crazy) that makes me start thinking - “What did I do?” “what did I say?” “Should I have done this better?”. And then trying extra hard. 

I think back to Martin, the lovely Argentinian boy I met in Vietnam. He would never have just left me to stumble down a mountain and disappeared off without reaching out his arm to help me down the tricky bits. Is it old fashioned to want a guy to do that? 

In the evening we go for a meal, I've said i'll treat him as he made all the effort for NYE. We head to Phangan Cove and share pizza to start, and fish amok – a Thai speciality of fish curry steamed in banana leaves. 

We've spent every day together since I've arrived and I think its been a bit much. He needs some space and so do I. I'm not sure all of this has quite filtered up into his conscious mind yet so he's just pulled away without realising it, and like a lot of girls, i'm pretty sensitive and notice and am feeling vulnerable as a result. Three glasses of wine and a more emotionally charged chat than I would have liked we part ways. 

I berate myself for getting involved too soon with someone without having to got to know them better but its tough when you are travelling because there isn't always a lot of time! I knotch it up as a lesson all the same, I need to take more time getting to know people because its oh so easy to to be be seduced in this gorgeous and seductive landscape... 

He comes round to clear the air the next day and return my laundry, and he's back in touch the following day asking if I want to grab a drink at sunset. So he comes over and then we head for the hills to the Yoga Resort. A lovely little place with steam room and yoga lessons. All the yogis here are really friendly and welcoming and there is a great Indian vegetarian all you can eat buffet for 150B but you have to be quick. We bow out when the winds pick up to try and make sure we miss any rain and part company at 8pm. 



Over the weekend Jo comes back and I'm glad i've got a girly friend to talk things through. She's put herself up in a nice place in town and I get to stay the night. We spend a little bit of time by her pool and then while she writes the Introduction notes to her new book about to be published - cue plug!!! Mindfulness for Dummies (available now on Amazon!) I head into to Thongsala for a little bit of retail therapy. A white crochet dress and a white denim mini skirt later and I feel a bit more purged. I've never been a tub of ice cream or half a cheesecake in the middle of the night girl - when guys make me feel crap I always headed straight for the shops. She's lured me over with talk of the great movie channel on her T.V so I'm expecting good things and i'm not disappointed – its Alvin and the Chipmunks. A highly annoying film which becomes slowly addictive, particularly as i'm reminded later – when they do the Single Ladies dance to Beyonce. 

On sunday we head back to Ananada and settle down in the restauarant with our computers. Talon comes over and joins us. 

“Well this is going to be awkward” I mutter to Jo who has been filled in on the whole story. Sure enough, I really don't know what to say. Is he even here to see me? Or just see the sunset? Does he want to just hang out as mates or something more? 

Subsequently I don't say anything to him. Then he leaves. I feel bad after – I didn't mean to freeze him out on purpose but I think i've hurt his feelings and when he posts a very public statement on facebook about what “sensitive creatures, we humans ” are.

That night its open mic night at Ananda again. Sure enough it always ends the same way with an old Japanese guy playing Ravel's Bolero on the guitar. Erol the mad, bald headed but brilliant Turkish guy finishes dancing his mad tribal dance to it and comes over and looks at me intently. 

“You are very sensitive. Very sensitive. With people,you need to make a decision quickly, take action and then don't think about it anymore.” 

And then he goes again. He's like a bloody mindreader ...how did he know EXACTLY what i was thinking about?? 

The next day, Level 1 yoga starts. 85 people are in the hall at Agama and the teacher, Adam, -a Californian with gentle voice, shoulder length black hair and piercing blue eyes, is addressing the group of 85 students or so gathered in front of him. 

Jo is having boy trouble of her own. She has gone out for a meal with Greg the nigh before and now as she poses herself on the mat next to me with our hands in bowed in namaste I think she's trying to tell me she has to leave: 

“What can go wrong in one evening??!” I ask bewildered. 

“I HAVE to leave the island!!” she exclaims. 

“You don't have to leave the whole island beause of some boy!” I retort without any idea of what is going on. 

Afterwards I decide to go round and see Talon and smooth things over. 

My hurt pride would never have let me go and try and patch things up with him before, but i've taken Erol's advice and made a decision to clear the air, I don't like the idea of anyone being unhappy because of me, and so i'm “changing my behaviour” and trying to behave like an adult about things. 

He's not in his hut but eventually I find him on the beach. 

“Yeah” he says “that was a bit weird hey, I just wanted some space...and you, you put up a wall.” 

Well, story of my life. Its hard for me to be vulerable with people and I still don't always get it right. There is a happier way, and i'm determined to find it. 



What becomes clear is that we still both want to spend some time together before he goes so we agree to meet up for lunch before my next yoga session. We go back to “Christmas Day Beach” and buy fresh shrimp and mackerel from the market. On the beach he makes a fire (again...Canadians!) and we grill it and eat it sitting up on a rock in the bright sunshine before he heads back home to the snows of British Colombia.