Backpacking

A Balancing Act

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Sunday 16th February 2014, 9.59am, Koh Phangan, Thailand:

My backpack is locked in my beach bungalow. What a ridiculous problem to have on departure day. My own attempts to open the little wooden door have, obviously, failed miserably and now a small army of local boys (loosely imitating staff) have turned up with a box of a hundred unmarked keys which one of them is unsystematically trying the jammed lock with, whilst another is breaking in through the window, taking entire panes of glass out as he goes. He looks at me as if to say, “This shit happens all the time around here” and I smile, because it’s unequivocally true. He then tries to charge me 200 Baht for fixing a problem that was quite clearly there before my arrival, which is something else that happens all the time around here. Because this is Thailand, and this chaotic, corrupt, disorganised and wildly beautiful land is the place I chose to be during this one-month escape of a cruel annual joke in England we call winter.

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Last year, as my 30th birthday drew closer it intrigued me that I had never properly ventured solo into the world. All my life I’ve been seeking, discovering and exploring the planet within the safety of great and trusted company. Why had I never gone alone? Was it through fear? Complacency? Habit? It was time to find out. One passenger, one ticket, one bag. Destination: Koh Phangan.

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My other reason for this trip was the simple need to pause and process the mayhem of life. As a friend so perfectly put it, I just needed to go somewhere beautiful for a while and clear my head. What followed was a month of auspicious encounters, surprise adventures and a healthy dose of introspection. The clearest way for me to describe the past month is by dividing it into lunar phases, representing not only some key moments during my journey, but also the moon that is so hedonistically celebrated on this island.

Part 1: Solitude (aka Waning Gibbous Moon)

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Bangkok was its usual polluted self: a blend of intense heat, pandemonium-inducing traffic, neon lights, cheap clothes, persistent hawkers, street food, rats, throbbing club beats and political protests. My room was a typical windowless box above an Indian restaurant which doubled as a noisy all-night karaoke bar. The bed crawled with insects, the walls were adorned with unidentifiable stains and, outside in the soul-less concrete corridor, strands of electrical cables hung from the ceiling, dripping with water and sparking frequently. The end of the corridor was blocked by prison bars (to prevent travellers making a desperate escape by leaping off the roof?) and I would not have been surprised to see Robert Carlisle’s paranoid head emerge from within darkened corners. It was your typical Bangkok dive, costing a total of £3.50. Most people fit neatly into either the Love or Loathe category where Thailand’s capital is concerned, and I’m never quite sure to which I belong. On past experience I have to reluctantly conclude it’s the latter, but I’m prepared to believe that could yet change. In any case, 24 hours after arrival I beat a hasty retreat south.

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My first few days of island life were spent in relative solitude. Beyond ordering food and haggling songthaew taxi fares I barely engaged in conversation. During those days I mostly worked, albeit from the beach with a beer in hand, chipping away at the word count for an approaching deadline. Convincing myself that each hour of work should be rewarded with equal time at the hands of a Thai masseuse, I would break frequently because, really, what’s the point of being a freelance writer if you can’t choose your “office hours”? The more days that passed, the fewer words I spoke, which generally felt soothing, until a need for meaningful human interaction kicked in. I submitted my article, bid my masseuse farewell and switched locations on a whim.

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Part 2: Liberation (aka Half Moon)

A whim, it turns out, can be quite the gem if you act upon it… Enter Camille, the wise and funny Zimbabwe-born Australian resident who I affectionately call Blondie. Two travellers, one available beachside bungalow and an unexpected invitation to share. We became friends instantly, bonding over our shared interests and curiosities about the world. Island life with Blondie on Koh Phangan was a series of spontaneous and fun events, like the enticing trailer of a summer movie: neon-painted bodies dancing carefree at the Half Moon Party; sun-kissed skin and salty hair; the wind-whipped exhilaration of motorbike rides over tropical terrain; beach-hopping island exploration; new friends, cold beers and old songs; sunsets and uncontrollable laughter.

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It was a liberating time. The cobwebs of winter were blown away and I felt vibrant again. We shared a mutual understanding of each other that belied our short friendship and gave us confidence in its longevity. Seven days later, with farewell tears at the jetty (pathetic or what?) we went our separate ways. Some people’s paths are destined to cross, and meeting Blondie brought me back to myself again. As she departed, the next chapter beckoned: The Sanctuary, a holistic retreat where I would spend a week cleansing my system and clearing my mind.

Part 3: Rehabilitation (aka New Moon)

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Arriving via a rough but mercifully short longtail boat ride, I was plunged straight into The Sanctuary’s hub and it felt a little overwhelming. The place was packed with hardcore hippies; dread-locked, tattooed and deep in stoned conversations about progressive ideas for rejecting the modern world. Even as someone who is perfectly at home with New Age living, I had to admit it was an intense environment. There was so much colour, texture and eye-catching detail coming from the artwork in the wood-carved space and from its inhabitants that I found myself in a bewildered trance. Very soon, of course, what had seemed intimidating felt perfectly normal, and I relaxed into a nourishing routine.

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Opting out of a strict detox programme, I took the middle road which permitted a few beers at night and didn’t involve voluntary starvation – the thought of fasting made me practically weep when I saw the veggie menu. I spent the week engrossed in yoga, meditation and a host of holistic healings from which I drew deep benefits and learned some potentially life-changing things about myself. I slept in a 10-bed dorm overlooking the sea, devoured daily spirulina juices and treated myself to herbal steam and cold plunge sessions at dusk. I rose with the sun, read in hammocks and floated on my back letting the sea carry my weight. As each day passed, my mind felt less cluttered.

IMG_1405A close ally at The Sanctuary made an astute observation one day, commenting that it felt a little like rehab in the sense that you checked in with your own issues and by the time you checked out you’d take on everyone else’s too, which was both amusing and true. The hub of the restaurant was like an obstacle course of social encounters – it was imperative you chose your seat carefully or you might end up with a side order of Group Therapy to go with your curry. It became commonplace to tell intimate secrets to someone you met moments ago. Strange as it may sound, it felt completely normal, perhaps even cathartic, in that environment.

Within that social bubble I met a fascinating cast of characters: The sexy photographer/yogi from Sydney whose humour and easy company instilled in me a sense of peace; the esoteric Canadian with the intense stare who spoke freely about his depression and had no concept of personal space; the bubbly Camden girl with the beautiful eyes who was learning the art of letting go; the kind-hearted but wild pensioner trying to kick the habit of a lifetime; the unfulfilled surf instructor moving from one meaningless fling to another; the Italian farmer who hiked miles through the jungle each day in preparation for a Nepal trek; the quiet girl who engaged with nobody and slept around the clock; the tattooed German heavyweight fighter with the surprisingly gentle character; and last but never least, my good friend and close confidant, the kind-hearted nurse with the enviable zeal for life who needed time out from caring for others to nurture herself. Then there was me: how would others have defined me in one sentence, I wonder?

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The retreat’s setting was lovely, tumbling down a thick jungle mountainside to a small bay, but it was also isolated and after 7 days a feeling of claustrophobia was growing within me. I had gained so much from my experiences – The Sanctuary possesses a mysterious and special kind of magic – but I needed to escape the bubble and get back to the “real world”. Plus, all the soul-searching in the world won’t quench a woman’s thirst for shopping…

IMG_1561Part 4: Contemplation (aka Full Moon)

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During the final phase of my trip I wanted to marinade in all that I had experienced, somewhere with sunsets and broad horizons. I intended to be alone but remain open to company should I meet the right people, thus striking the balance I’m so conscious of maintaining in life. I found a small wooden beach bungalow on the opposite side of the island, a few metres from the water, with a hammock on the verandah and plenty of palm trees for shade. It was basic, but I made this hut my home, unpacking my few belongings and burning incense and candles for atmosphere.

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Nearby were daily yoga and meditation classes, fantastic home-cooked food courtesy of a smiley woman called Pim, and a charming community of long-stay travellers who invited me in without hesitation, sharing esoteric conversation, joints and astronomy lessons around the bonfire. It was exactly where I needed to be, and as I surrounded myself with people who were so firmly on my wavelength, something was unlocked within me. I noticed that life was starting to flow more fluidly, more creatively. I’m certain it’s the same whatever your walk of life; medical students feed their appreciation and understanding of the workings of the human body when in the company of an award-winning surgeon, just as fashion students might buzz with excitement during an encounter with an accomplished catwalk designer. When you accept that every encounter or experience we have in life can teach us something, all sorts of windows and doors start appearing where previously you only saw walls.

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After this month of travelling alone, what is my verdict? Decidedly positive. Once my initial nerves subsided I found that it felt completely natural, and discovered that it not only suits but excites me. The possibilities are endless and the choices are my own. Solo travel tests my fondness of time spent alone, gives me space to be myself and meet strangers with a clean slate, and the chance to ponder such mind-boggling questions as what makes me happy in life, and why tropical sea lice don’t sting your tongue when you open your mouth in the water (the latter question could be put down to an excess of sun and coconut water). Most crucially, my experiences have given me a deeper understanding of living through my heart rather than my head, they’ve taught me to trust my instincts and shown me how to focus on my passions. In short, this has been a blessing.

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And so, as the whole island prepares to celebrate the Full Moon, I prepare for departure. It’s not exactly a celebration for me – because who in their right mind would want to leave such an idyllic haven? – but I can feel proud of what I have accomplished on a personal level, and rather than returning home with a heavy heart and a cluttered mind, I feel relaxed, inspired, creative and centred. Now if only I could retrieve my backpack from that locked bungalow…

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Searching for The Place with No Name

There’s a common perception that in paradise all is perfect.  DSCF2377Yet many fail to appreciate that to find utopia, and furthermore deserve it, you must often overcome great obstacles.  It can be a test of endurance, tolerance and desire.  Never was this more impeccably illustrated than during our exploration of the Gili Islands. These three tiny droplets of white sand are nestled amongst some of Indonesia’s finest living coral reef, and are so remote they barely register on the map.  Each famously promises a plethora of exotic experiences, but can be stubbornly unyielding with their treasures until you have earned them.

Arriving in Gili, some ground work was required to manifest our shared vision of simple island life.  Suffering from bad guts and hindered by heavy backpacks we traipsed along miles of rough sand tracks, scouring the coastline for the perfect beach hut.  We viewed dozens of theoretically viable bamboo shacks but each presented deal-breakers (the dead animal mounted on the wall was a particular low point).  Our bodies ached and our patience thinned in the heat.  Misguided by sweaty exhaustion, we stopped at a shabby collection of huts called Lucky’s, and quickly regretted it. IMG_6850 But it brought to light an important issue of life on the road: hygiene.

As a traveller you become at one with dirt.  Daily, you contend with unwashed hair, sea salt, chlorine, sweat, road dust and other unidentified grime.  You pass an acceptable level of filth and simply stop caring.  The question “Do I stink?” is met with the response “To what degree?” and you wear rancid smelling clothes which under normal circumstances you would throw away.  Contrary to my reputation amongst friends as a neat-freak, as a backpacker I’m reasonably resilient to muck, but Lucky’s certainly tested my tolerance.  Forget the thick coating of dust on every surface, the gritty layer of sand covering the rotting floorboards, the stained sheets or the musty mosquito net suspended from the cobwebbed ceiling – what I most objected to was the stench of sewage.  As I cowered in the bathroom doorway with a sarong covering my airways, Ben located the source: a huge, festering crap blocking the toilet.   Human faeces: in abundance.  It also transpired there was no functioning plumbing, no running water to abate the problem.  What use was there in alerting the owner?  He was stoned, had been napping on our bed when we arrived and I suspected was also the perpetrator of the crime.  My skin crawled.

To escape, we wandered to the sea.  But low tide exposed a bed of razor-sharp coral thwarting any ideas of a cleansing swim, and we learned that on this southern tip swimming was only possible during a short window each morning. IMG_7090 Was this really what we had travelled 8,000 miles for?  We felt disheartened that having planned to spend a significant portion of our trip there, paradise had shown us such hostility.  Crestfallen, we killed some time in a dicey café where the food was coated in warm, salmonella-inducing mayonnaise, and where I helped some locals revive a woman who appeared to have died at her table (incidentally, she had merely drunk herself into a shallow coma, no doubt to numb the disappointment of her surroundings).

When we could avoid our festering hut no longer, we surrendered to Lucky’s and endured one night in that disgusting room, lying fully clothed, trying not to inhale too often, both promising that at first light we would bolt. IMG_6822

A few hours later we rose to watch the sun bleaching the full moon from sight against a backdrop of a magnificent volcano.

IMG_6834The rays of this new day cast a different light on the island as it awoke and opened its arms to us.  We had survived Gili’s ugly side.  We had passed the test.  Later that day, our search for seventh-heaven ended at The Place with No Name: a beautiful, hand-carved wooden hut overlooking azure, swimmable waters.  A large veranda hugged the exterior, housing a hammock and a day bed.  Relieved, we relaxed and became absorbed by an uncomplicated lifestyle.  We showered outdoors in a stone-walled bathroom under stars, or rain, or shine.  In the mornings, shards of sunlight seeped in and filtered softly through the mosquito drapes onto our four-poster bed.

IMG_6896Time slowed down, and the surrounding paradise gently unveiled all its promised joys.  Life became a string of simple pleasures, of sensations shared and savoured.  From life at The Place with No Name, here is what my senses recall:

The sliding, silky coolness of the sea against my sun-parched skin.  The itch of a mosquito bite.  The constant roughness of sand between my toes and sheets.  The breeze on my face as I slept.  The brightness of the moon and stars.  The daily shock of colours before my eyes: blood-orange sunsets, sapphire waters. IMG_7410Snippets of conversation and laughter from women transporting concrete blocks on their heads.  The squeals of joy from a boy, jumping from his father’s fishing boat.  The sweet scent of frangipani flowers, fallen from a tree.  The faint waft of diesel around the jetty, or pungent manure from clip-clopping horses.  The silvery sheen of an overcast day.  The sound of geckos late at night, of thunder and hammering rain.  The fiery shock of chilli hitting the back of my throat.  IMG_6930 The jagged edge of a distant volcano silhouetted against the sun’s morning display of colour.  The sticky feeling of aloe vera smoothed over burnt skin at dusk.  The peacefulness of an island with no cars.  The shimmer of a school of fish flying clear out of the water.  My head submerged in crystal waters, the buzz of a motorboat all around me.  Glimpsing sunrise through my open bedroom doors.  Never wanting to leave.

A palm-fringed island may be exquisite to the eye, but I have found its true beauty lies in the slowing of the clock, the calming of the mind and the peace that comes with simplicity.  Give it time and a small island can teach you so much.  It teaches you to pause, to breathe, to appreciate and to reflect.  It offers you the chance to daydream, the space to discover.  It permits you to be still, silent.  It encourages you to explore – the land around you, yourself and each other. IMG_7027

And it teaches you this: Sometimes paradise is a rough diamond, a jewel whose sparkle is hidden until earned.  But polish it gently and exercise patience, then you will see it shine like a thousand stars.