Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Lovely South of Thailand

Greetings from the Southern Islands of Thailand!
The warm weather is everything I dreamed it would be, and it feels overdue by a long shot. Since hitting Northern Vietnam in December I have barely broken a weather-induced sweat once. Was I crazy to think that my 6 months in SE Asia would all be warm and sunny? Apparently.
However, now everything is as it should be.

I bussed down to Bangkok on February 8 to meet my dear friend Rishelle, who was flying in to spend 2 weeks of her vacation with me! We made our way South to Hua Hin, a nice seaside town, intent upon visiting The Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand, an animal rescue sanctuary reccommended to me by some fellow travelers who had spent some time volunteering there.

It was very cool to visit and see all the different animals there, from lizards, to birds, to monkeys, to bears...and elephants! The animals have each been rescued from different sad scenarios within Thailand. Exotic animals are an effective money-making strategy here. Tourists dont think twice about going to the tiger temple for a selfie with a drugged up wildcat, or riding an elephant that has been abused its whole life. It is really sad, and hearing the stories of the individual rescued aniamls is pretty heartbreaking. It was encouraging that WFFT is really working hard to educate locals and tourists on how damaging this industry is to the wildlife of Thailand (and other imported creatures). Often it is just a matter of not realizing how much the animals suffer.

WFFT works to rehabilitiate and release every animal for whom this is realistic possibility, but others are very human dependent and/or incapable of living in the wild. These animals will spend the rest of their lives in enclosures at the sanctuary, as close to a "normal" life as possible.

Our full-day tour of the center was very enjoyable and a highlight of our to weeks together. I would definitely recommend it to anyone, especially those wanting to get up close to the amazing creatures of Thailand without supporting the sketchy, abusive animal tourism industry.

After Hua Hin, we jetted our way to Koh Phangan for some serious beach time. We stayed on the North end of the island for the first few days in an amazing jungle bungalow just on the end of Thong Nai Pan Yai- super peaceful and quiet, and at a surprisingly reasonable price!

We spent one night in Haad Rin to get a teensy taste of what the Full Moon Party might be like, and then quickly scooted over to Sanctuary; a super hippie resort on a remote stretch of beach along the East coast of the island. The breezy establishment was wreathed in a haze of incense, and populated by tanned, toned, and tattooed waifs either meditating or detoxing (or both), bright green fresh veggie juices in hand. The dress code followed something like, "wear as little as possible, but if you must wear something, make sure it floats in the breeze, and throw some flowers in your hair".  The cheapest accommodation available to us was in the dorm room located above the restraunt, where we camped out on thin mattresses and fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing on the short just outside our window. Naturally I loved it there, and we both enjoyed some yoga, vegetarian food, and of course some top-notch people watching!

After a few days we felt sufficiently zen to move on to face the big island of Koh Samui, staying in the center close to the Chaweng beach. Here we took a moto taxi to see a waterfall (3 of us on one tiny moped!), rented paddleboards (so fun!), and were intiiated into our first Thai massage! I am now addicted. Paying less than $15/hr for a massage is such a good deal, and they really dont go easy on you. It is almost half chiropractic adjustment haha!

Unfortuantely, that was the end of our vacation together, and Rishelle had to head back to Bangkok from Samui. I stuck around another day or two to see Ang Thong National park, and then had a very long day of travel to the other side of the mainland, arrving at Koh Lanta.

Now I am enjoying the soft sandy beaches and roasting hot sunshine for a few more days before I head south again, and enter Malaysia! Im not sure what I will find there, but Im excited to find out! I can feel the end of my journey creepiing up on me. I'm working on a few things for when I return "home", and Im trying to wrap my mind around not being on the road anymore. I still have a little over a month though, so it might be a bit early to mourn the end ;-) 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

February is the new New Year

Let's be honest, no one is prepared for New Years when it bursts in right after the chaos of Christmas. After a frenzy of festivities, we havent even had time to process what our goals for the New Year will be.

Hence, I propose that February is the new New Year. Maybe this is convenient for me, because I spent most of December and January eating things I shouldnt and generally being lazy, and I knew that I needed to make a change...but I also needed a little help.

Feeling in a bit of slump post-holidays, I was out for dinner with a friend from my hostel in Chiang Mai, and spotted a flyer for yoga in Pai, my next destination (or so I thought, until my Myanmar visa went through). Knowing Pai to be a bit of a hippie place, I thought it might be fun to do some yoga there, because I like yoga and have really missed it while I have been traveling.

As it turns out, the flyer was for a yoga retreat, which is something I have never done before, and frankly never expcted that I would ever do. I was too late to sign up for the retreat that week, but there was an opening beginning of February, and as I did more research on it and read some reviews, I felt very strongly that this was something I wanted to do! I needed some kind of jumpstart, and the retreat seemed to fit the bill, as well as being a cool new travel experience. Because isnt that what travel is all about? Seeing and trying new things?

Upon arrival I discovered that the theme of the week was "purification". Essentially, we were about to begin a week of detox! It was exactly what I needed, and I couldnt have been more excited about it.

Every morning I woke up at 6:45am to bundle up in thick sweater, hat, and scarf (here in the mountains it can be quite chilly before the sun comes out. And just to prove that I am not completely off my rocker, it is cold enough that you can see your breath- so there!), and trundle down to the kitchen for a mug of hot lemon ginger tea, followed by a mug of vegan chai tea. Did I mention that from the moment we woke up until lunch time at 12pm, we are all in a "silence session"? No one except our instructor spoke during that time, and although the first morning I had to swallow my habitual morning greetings, I actually appreciated the silence. Its amazing how much pressure it takes off when you can just sit with a group without feeling the need to make conversation. It also allows time for introspection and reflection.

Tea time was followed by nasal cleansing- that's right, we used a personal neti pot every morning, and unclogged whatever might be obstructing our breath that morning! After that we moved straight into breathing exercises, which I had done before, but never for so long at a time, and then silent meditation.

I'll confess right now that I suck at meditation. There are WAY too many thoughts going through my head, and I have real trouble trying to slow them down. I struggled through each meditation session, but I did try, and that's the important thing right? The flies and misquitos landing on my face didnt help matters.
I still think the most meditative state I have ever been in was while I was driving my motorbike through Vietnam. There's definitely something wrong with me.

When we finished our meditation, we would eat breakfast, which was usually a scrumptious pureed vegetable soup or bowl of noodles, chased by a vegetable juice. While this was not to everyone's liking, I adored it, and may even consider this an alternative to my usual yogurt and granola when I get home.

A short break for digestion followed breakfast. This was usually spent lolling about in the blissfully warm pools of morning sunshine, until 10am. Then the real work began.

The two hour session of Hatha yoga was always challenging, but I loved it! This was our chance to feel the burn and get the heart rate up. It never took long before we started peeling off the layers we piled on in the morning. Every session would end in at least 15 minutes of shavasana, which is basically a fancy way of saying that you lay down and get so relaxed that you almost fall asleep. It feels SO good after working hard!

At 12pm we ate lunch, which was the largest meal of the day. Everything we ate all week was vegetarian and dairy-free, but I never missed meat or dairy. The food was absolutely fantastic, gourmet stuff. Everything was portioned out for us, so if we were still hungry there was always a basket of fruit and veggies to snack on, and plenty of herbal tea available at all times.

Maybe this is overshare, but I knew the detox was working by the second day! I was visiting the toilet every 5 minutes and had a huge headache. My gut was loudly protesting the abundance of nearly-raw vegetables, complaining that it actually had to work to digest things, rather than quickly absorbing the sugar-laden and greasy foods that unfortunately had become my normal diet. However, my skin began to clear and I was starting to feel more energetic.

At 3pm, after the heat of the day, we would gather in the studio for a Q&A period, followed by a short lecture of yoga philosphy. We could ask any question at all- whether about a certain yoga pose, a question regarding the previous day's talk, something we had experienced during one of the sessions, or about life in general. I was a little hesitant about the yoga philosphy talks, as I am decidedly not into Buddhism. Our teacher assured us it was not "religious" in that sense,  though she spoke on the Yama and Niyama teachings, which I believe are derived from Buddhism. It was basically universally recognized values. Simple in concept, difficult in practice. Nothing earth-shattering, but good reminders. Maybe I'm too cynical :P

Afterwards we started our Yin yoga session. Yin yoga requires holding a pose for a long period of time. We usually worked in 3-5 minute intervals. Something as simple as laying on your back with a bolster underneath you and your arms overhead can honestly become torture after a minute or two. By five minutes, you want to scream. The point is to work at breathing into and relaxing the tension, but this is very difficult. The very worst pose required sitting in a crouch, balancing with only your toes. For. Five. Minutes.
I wanted to die.
Apparently only walking in flip-flops for 4 months can be detrimental to the foot muscles.
While Yin yoga looks easier than Hatha, I much preferred the fast-paced morning session!

Dinner offered welcome warmth as temperatures began to drop when the sun went down, and the sweaters and scarves began to return. This was the time of day when the group began to get chatty, discussing just how painful a certain pose was, or how delicious the food was, or asking get-to-know-you questions. Tea was guzzled, and friendships forged.

In the evening we would gather for a second session of meditation, and once we did an excursion to the hot springs, which was fantastic!

I was usually in bed by 10pm, and never had any trouble falling asleep! I have to say, that this was the first time in 4 months that I have had a regular routine, access to a hot shower, and slept in the same bed for a week. It was a really nice change!

Having completed the retreat yesterday, I have been evaluating how I feel.
For one thing, my stomach feels MUCH happier. I need less sleep, as I have naturally been waking up early and not struggling to get out of bed. My body is not as sore as i thought it would be after 4 hours of intense exercise for 6 days in a row. In fact, its not very sore at all. I think my mind is clearer, and I'm more aware of how I'm feeling and how that affects my body.

Overall it was a restful and rejuvenating week! It was definitely worth the time and money, and I would do another yoga retreat without hesitation, and reccomend it to anyone.

Now I'm headed to Bangkok to meet a very dear friend who is flying in from Canada, and then we will spend 2 weeks in the Southern Islands together! I couldnt be more excited! Koh Phangan, here we come! (No, we will not be there during Full Moon...and I dont think I could throw away my newly-detoxed state on a party anyway!)