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.)

 

 

Lonely in Pai (part one) or "How to make friends for travelling introverts"

Pai, Thailand

Just ask any traveller you bump into what the best thing about solo travel is and you can bet your bottom baht that at least one bright - eyed buddy will pipe up:

"Ooooohh you’ll never have a moment alone if you travel by yourself - You’ll meet more people than you ever would with friends!"

So it was I came to be sipping a fresh brew of crystallized ginger tea in a bookshop cum cafe aptly named - Lonely in Pai - pondering this most common of travel platitudes in hippy hang out Pai - Northern Thailand and coming to the conclusion that…well for me at any rate… it ain’t necessarily so.

Now before you throw your hands up in despair and say you thought this site would encourage and inspire solo female travel let me just say this - OF COURSE its easier to meet people on the road. Whereas smiling, making eye contact and inviting someone out for dinner may have had me pegged as a nutter in London - its practically de rigeur once on the road. If you are a natural extrovert: gregarious, charming and full of the joys of spring and being around people is what charges your batteries - then you can easily manage your travels to make sure you are never alone.

But I’m an introvert. I prefer to build a few, deep friendships rather than hit the 1000 friend mark on facebook and I need plenty of time and space alone to recharge. This has had some distinct advantages for solo travel. I like to think its my independent, pioneering spirit that has had me confidently tackle 15 strange new countries in 19 months, got me through 3 days of mountain trekking in Southern China and survived 7 days of silent meditation in Thailand.

But I’ve also realised that its my need to "vant to be alone" that can become my own worst enemy when constantly travelling to and settling in new places. I’ve found it all too easy to use the comfort of being in my own company as "my go to" default setting. How much easier it is to sit and read a book than strike up a conversation with someone new, so much more hassle free to organise the days activities by myself than compromise with a group, so much less work than having to answer "and where have you travelled to so far" for the umpteenth time that day. And because its so damn easy to have dinner by myself that is what I will then do for 5 days on the trot with nothing but a voice in my head for company until suddenly I realise I’m feeling not just alone but…lonely.

And the realisation strikes that what is most easy for us isn’t always what’s best for us. I find when I’m by myself for long periods of time that it gives that voice in the head free reign to rear its ugly head. That’s the problem with us innies (introverts) we have a tendency to ruminate - and before you know it my harmless analysis has turned to anxiety and wondering to worrying.

If, like me, you don’t always find it the most natural thing in the world to make five new best friends an hour ;) then here are 7 ways I’ve found useful in getting myself out of the loneliness trap and out there connecting with people on the road.

1) Just Say YES 

It was Guatemala - Antigua, he was a tall, gorgeous, twenty something German with a goatee. I was wearing a strangely ok looking long black vest dress. They were all going off road quad biking and they’d invited me to join them… "I can’t ride a bike" I stammer… eyes locked onto his chocolate browns. "It’s ok, you can ride on the back of mine" he answers. So of course I said…………. "Er no thanks," Whhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? Perhaps it was not being able to think that quickly off the top of my head or because I was still mooning after my last romance . More likely than not it’s because I was afraid. Afraid of saying yes to the unknown connection. So make a decision to just SAY YES and be spontaneous to whatever offer comes along and not just if the asker is a tall, gorgeous German dude with a goatee. 

2) Get Out there and Do Something less Boring Instead!

Even if no one else has made you an offer - make a decision to get out there and do an activity anyway. One of the best ways of taking my mind of …well my mind… and meeting new people is to do a day excursion or an activity. If you’ve been travelling or living somewhere a while on the road you may have decided that your adventure is oh so much more authentic than the hordes of other tourists and holiday makers passing through and heaving themselves up to the temple on the hill or the cooking class - BUT it’s still a great way to meet a bunch of new people and just get yourself out in the (hopefully) fresh air…

3) Have an Impromptu Art Lesson in Hoi An.

hoi an, Vietnam

Or rather say Hello to someone you’d never normally meet. I ended up having an impromptu art lesson in Central Vietnam when I wandered into an artist’s back room by mistake and asked him where I could buy some drawing paper. He cleared out his own beautiful ink drawings, got out some scraps of rice paper and handed over the brushes to me patiently watching my own half assed attempts at minimalist art with the instructions "no wrong only right." :) Try to cast judgements aside on the road, you may not be sure the strangely bearded man in the bob marley tee and the luminous board shorts is going to be your next best friend, but you never know. Part of the fun of travelling is meeting people you wouldn’t normally ever meet and they could at least end up making a very interesting dinner companion.

4) Slum It in Shared 

can be tempting as an older traveller - to go for a private room but staying in a dorm for at least the first night of your arrival somewhere new makes it so much easier to meet people. If the thought of "getting down with the kids" makes you come out in a cold sweat then take heart that not all dormitories are created equal. Some - notably the IHA branches - seem to deliberately cater to teens on their first trip abroad but many are suitable for older travellers as well as being cheaper than a guesthouse. They’ll often have communal hang out areas as well as organising group activities and entertainment.

5) Put down the shield and smile

Portland, Oregon

I read once that if you are attending a networking function you should never eat the canapes because in group situations we retreat back to our primate days and animal behaviour dictates that we leave each other alone when we nosh.(Just think how growly and riled dogs get when you try and get near their dinner bowl while they are eating!)So if you are dining alone be sensitive to that and strike up a conversation before the food arrives. Likewise if people see you glued to a computer screen or engrossed in a book then they are unlikely to start chatting. It can be tempting to take some reading material along for company but its easier to make new friends without the shield of glowing screen or spine of book to hide behind.

6) Surf Couches, Meet UP

Couchsurfing was a godsend when a 3 week trip around Colombia was canceled at short notice and I found myself with an unexpected month to hang out in Buenos Aires. I joined and posted a notice saying I was soon to be arriving in Argentina and got a flood of 30 or so invites out. Yes - if you are a solo female traveller - you may need to pick through the dodgy romantic offers but it’s worth it and when I decided to settle in Chiang Mai for a little while I made a couple of close female friends through the site who helped me discover the eclectic and jazzy nightlife of the little city.

Pai, Thailand

7) Find the Communal in your Community.

There are some places both on and off the backpacker trail that become legendary in traveler circles as natural hang outs where communities form. Pai in Northern Thailand is one such place. Here - as Otto (a long haired, beared Thai hippy and owner of Art in Chai)explains: "It doesn’t matter who you are…what you look like, where you from. In Pai no one judge you. If you love Pai…Pai love you." Perhaps that’s why travellers who visit this village nestling in a valley of Northern Thailand intend to stay for a few days and find themselves here days, weeks and even months later.

It isn’t just the attitude of the cheery Thai Hippies with their skinny tie dye clad frames and long hair that makes this place so relaxed and welcoming, there are some great communal hang outs where you can meet other travellers too. "Art in Chai" that Otto owns is a great place for coming and chilling for an hour or three. They make fresh chai latte with delicious soy, vanilla or coconut milk and grind up the spices in front of you. There are bookshelves for reading material, art (designed by Otto) to browse and its also a place where local and travelling musicians are welcome to turn up and jam. As one long term expat Mike said:

"This is the kind of place where its easy to make new friends."

It stays open late though most regulars move on to the live acoustic music sessions at Edible Jazz off the main walking street once the sun goes down. Another great communal hang out. So there you have it - that’s 7 ways to deal with loneliness on the hoof but the truth is however many friends you make there are inevitably going to be parts of your trip where you find yourself alone.

In Part 2  I'll be looking at how to embrace and accept those moments of down time on the road. 




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.

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!”

Christmas day on the beach and a hammock made for two, Koh Phangan Thailand

 

Its Christmas Day! Hooray Hooray, I get up in rather a good mood. Well, it is Christmas! I never had any expectations as to how I would spend it once I knew I was abroad., I figured that I would probably just spend it with myself and that would be cool. But when I surface and make my way to the restaurant for breakfast – Talon the Canadian is there. He asks if I want to hang out, go check out a beach he's heard about somewhere else on the island? and in the absence of anything else to do – I think why not?! 

When we get there its perfect. The most beautiful little secluded private Christmas day beach ever. Like it was built just for two. Talon lives “to ride” which is snow board apparently and another sport that I know absolutely nothing about. I guess snowboarding culture must be a bit like surfing as he keeps saying things like “sick” and “sweet.” Still we seem to get on. His hair is strawberry blondish and he has large hazel eyes and I can't help but notice once we are in the water, an awesome body. 
 


He's also a photographer who is building a buisness photographing women in a kind of make/over lifestyley way so part of the afternoon is spent snapping me for practise. 

We leave and go to another “secret” beach where the water crashes up against the rocks and they have enormous hammocks for two and spend a happy hour getting to know each other a bit more. He was studying the Agama yoga in British Columbia and completed Level 1 (the course i'm set to do in January) and then he did a retreat in India. He came back to Koh Phangan for a few more weeks to recover in the sunshine and balmy breezes of this gorgeous tropical island before heading back for snow season in B.C 


After a pitstop back home to freshen up we head out again in the evening. 

“Hey i've heard about a couple of dinners going on, want to check it out?” 

So we head off and find a beach in Had Salad, another part of the island. There, we bump into an Australian couple and walk along the beach together. For 500b (about 10 pounds) they are doing an all you can eatBBQ and...well it is Christmas Day! So we stop and choose some fresh fish – he has an enormous hunk of mackerel, I have a variety of steaks and cuts and it comes with salad and fries. I have a beer but everyone else is on soft drinks. Such is the yogic way. Kambucha is a lemony tasting drink nicknamed “yogi beer” made out of fermented mushrooms and served in brown glass bottles. 

After dinner we walk along the beach and then get back on his bike. 

“Wanna explore the island a little bit” he asks. 

“Sure” I say. 

The moon is hanging in the sky, the air is balmy and warm – 6 months in to travelling around Asia and I still love the feeling of warm air on my skin. And i'm finally getting used to being on the back of a motor bike too although it doesn't stop me squealing when we hit a bump in the road. 

We head off in one direction with the sea a strip of silver on our left, the palm tree fronds darken and fringe the sky above us peppered with stars. The breeze picks up,its chilly in this valley, so I put my arms around him. You know...to warm myself up a bit.... 

A truck pulls out and swings round the corner in front of us,the back is full of Thai men hanging onto the sides, they are all in santa hats! 

“Wanna head back home now, or take the left?” 

“Lets go left” I say. 

“I was hoping you'd say that...” 

After riding around some more he pulls the bike over to the side of the road, leans and around and kisses me. And then we head home. 

Speak to most Brits and Northern Europeans and I expect they'll tell you that spending Christmas on the other side of the world in brilliant sunshine, eating BBQ on the beach just doesn't feel...well very christmassy. There's no Dickens, and snow capped rooves, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. 

But instead this year I got a special private Christmas day beach and a hammock made for two. And it worked out pretty fine for me...