Meditation

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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The Soul of a Nation

Like many parts of the world, Indonesia is a melting pot of opposing faiths.  Occasionally, and very sadly, there exists conflict generated by extremist groups, and the world’s media has – perhaps understandably – largely focused its attention on the tragic bombings of this nation’s recent history.  But in doing so I believe it has overlooked something remarkable: that in pockets of this vast country there are communities breaking down the religious barriers, climbing inside each other’s contrasting ideologies and meditating together, as one, in the hope that by better understanding each other’s differing spiritual approaches they can live side by side in harmony, and without discord.  Borobudur is one such place.

Sitting serenely on a plane of rice paddies amidst soaring volcanic peaks, Borobudur is a town in search of Nirvana – via a multitude of spiritual routes. Buddhist monasteries, Islamic mosques and Hindu temples share the surrounding land amicably; whatever your religion or belief system, here you are accepted.

Arriving late afternoon on a laughably over-crowded public bus, we were at once smitten.  Transferring onto rickshaws and meandering through the town’s bumpy back roads we found the air to be clean and undisturbed by traffic; a welcome change from the mayhem of noisy, suffocating cities.  The countryside was instantly breath taking, and the pace of life pleasingly slow.  We settled into a palatial guest house – the perfect antidote to the stuffy, windowless, back alley rooms we had become accustomed to – with a four-poster bed, a stone bathroom fit for a sultan and majestic views from our private balcony overhanging some spectacular flooded rice paddies.

What draws most visitors to this part of Java is Borobudur’s colossal Buddhist temple, a 1200 year old monument which has survived the wrath of Mother Nature in several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the wrath of man in a 1985 terrorist attack.  Having risen at 4am and journeyed up into the hills for sunrise overlooking this famous stone structure, we couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed when the wet season’s finest rain clouds engulfed us, preventing even the briefest glimpse of the temple, or of the sun’s ascent.  What we should have seen from our mountainous look-out was a sweeping vista of sun-tinted beauty, and what we in fact saw were half a dozen trees shrouded in mist.   We descended for breakfast, muddy and disappointed.

Our next attempt to connect with the famous monument saw us traipsing around the site itself in punishing midday heat, clad in ridiculous sarongs which I’m positive are only compulsory attire for foreigners in order to satisfy the local people’s amusement.  Up close, the large stone Buddha heads and narrative carvings embedded in the walls of the structure were certainly impressive, and the views across the region from the temple’s hill top position were definitely worth the steep climb, but it was hard to appreciate the enigma of this World Heritage Site when every Asian tourist present was queuing up for a photo with us white folk.  Posing awkwardly before their lenses was becoming something of a daily occurrence for us and whilst it was amusing, I’m pleased to report this little town had something more authentic up its spiritual sleeve for us.

Nestled in the centre of town is Mendut temple; small and insignificant in comparison to its mighty neighbour, but hiding within its walls lives a truly striking statue of the Buddha, towering overhead and sitting unconventionally in a Western-style posture, with both feet on the ground.  Visiting after dusk, we were grateful to be the temple’s only visitors.  As we climbed up the steps towards the narrow door, gold light flooded out from within the internal chamber, projecting an enchanting glow into the night’s encroaching darkness, and drawing our eyes immediately to three immense statues within.  The interior was exquisite, its high walls and ceiling adorned with Hindu-Javanese carvings, mesmerising to the eye.  Amidst the beauty there was also a tranquillity I haven’t experienced in other temples, mostly due to crowds.  It would be an easy place to lose oneself in prayer or quiet reflection.

But for our own inward-focus that evening we were especially privileged: for a small back-hander the guards allowed us into the neighbouring monastery where we sat in a vast, empty room behind a single chanting monk, and meditated to the sound of his voice and the insects outside.  Once the monk’s incantations had finished, we walked the grounds.  A number of simple buildings were dotted around a lovingly designed garden of lotus flowers, trickling water features, Buddha statues and benches for quiet contemplation.  The monastery was gently lit, and beautifully still, but I took no photos.  A feeling of complete serenity will be my only souvenir.

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