Pai New Favourite Place in SE Asia

Finn and I boarded a minibus from Chiang Mai in the morning. The driver handed each passenger a bag as we got in and I wondered why, but it was a short lived mystery. The 762 curves along mountain roads made me more ill than any other ride on this trip. At least the scenery was nice, and after a few hours of testing my intestinal fortitude we arrived in the centre of Pai, nothern Thailand.

We had a reservation at Pai Circus School Resort, so we walked along the main road and out of the town centre to find it. Along the way I was excited to see restaurants were selling avocado, brown rice and creative smoothies. We stopped to get some delicious ice cream in waffle cones and after following signs and walking along a path for about 10 minutes found the circus school across the river on a hill.
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The view from the circus school was spectacular. Beyond the infinity pool you could see the hilly landscape far into the distance. There was a pool table and a gazebo with hammocks and a wide open space for playing with hula hoops, poi, or whatever toy you prefer. Young people were lounging everywhere, soaking up the sun. Our $15 triangular hut was tiny and contained only the minimum furnishings: a mattress on the ground, a lamp and a mosquito net. The blankets were flimsy and thin so we were freezing at night. There were big holes in the floor, which made be worry I would clumsily fall through one or accidentally drop my valuables out. We wanted to stay there anyway because the circus school and pool were fantastic.
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Most of the people who stayed at the circus school weren’t interested in circus, but stayed at the school because of the beautiful view and chilled out atmosphere. Most days there was a beginner poi lesson from 3pm – 6pm for $20, but I didn’t take one because I’m not particularly interested in poi. The best thing about the circus school was making friends over the course of the week. A small group of us who were passionate about hula hooping, poi, other hippy props and circus found each other and become good friends quickly. Three new Americans friends told me about a flow toy festival called Pacific Fire that happens in Oregon in September. I definitely want to go to that. It was great to be around passionate people because it reawakened my and Finn’s interest in hula hooping. I also learned to juggle a bit and Finn learned some contact staff.
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Every morning in Pai I went for a run and then to breakfast with Finn and our new circus friends. A place called The Good Life served delicious, healthy, natural foods, so we ate there every morning until we found a place that was even better called Om Café. All the food was healthy, affordable and unbelievably delicious. They had lots of vegetarian options like quesadillas, hummus, poached eggs, avocado and grain salad. They had a smoothie that was nothing but blended avocado and coconut milk for $2. It was hard to choose between getting a cappuccino or a smoothie, so sometimes I got both. It felt indulgent, but necessary, to top the meal off with fresh carrot cake with perfect cream cheese icing.

In the evenings we usually walked into town and strolled through the night market. The stores stayed open after dark and stands selling food, jewellery or clothing popped up. A stand called Juice Queen had fantastic healthy smoothies with generous helpings of fresh fruits and vegetables, real cocoa, avocado, homemade peanut butter and no added sugar. I was floored by the healthy deliciousness. All of it was amazingly cheap too. A high protein vegetable smoothie cost $2 and a strawberry banana smoothie cost $1.

After a few days we forgot to extend our room reservation at the circus school so it was sold to someone else. Initially we were disappointed to move out, but then we found a place called Family Huts that was nearby, which was half the price of circus school and the bungalows were a lot nicer, so it turned out that our eviction from the circus school was actually a good thing. We still spent a lot of time hanging out at the circus school and they were happy to have us because we contributed to the circus atmosphere.

Pai is surrounded by lovely wilderness, but aside from my morning runs I only went out to visit it once. Finn, our new friend Melissa and I rented motorbikes for a few dollars for the day and went to relax by a waterfall. The water was cold but refreshing when I jumped in for a short swim. We met a few people at the waterfall and chatted a while before moving on to another tourist attraction called the Land Split, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a tourist attraction created around a split in the ground that I would barely have noted if I walked by it on a nature hike. I was glad we went anyway because at the entrance is a little stand with snacks and drinks by donation. We sat down on hammocks and juice, wine, peanuts, chips and fruit, all made on the property, were brought over to us. We relaxed and then dropped a few dollars in the donation bin on our way out.

After that we rode the windy road up to a huge canyon. I walked and climbed along the dusty, narrow path that would never be open to people walking in Canada. It was extremely high and looked dangerous, but it provided a beautiful view and fun negotiating the way along the uneven terrain. I ventured out on my own and met some lovely Americans who invited me to hang out with them along the path. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Another afternoon Finn and I went to a fermentation and kombucha making workshop that was advertised all over town by the Good Life restaurant, which is also the primary kombucha producer and distributer in Pai. The workshop was a short walk out of town on a small farm. We were offered bottles of kombucha to drink as soon as we got there and were told to help ourselves to more whenever we wanted. I wasn’t the biggest fan of kombucha but I wanted to give it a chance because it supposedly has wonderful health benefits. Also, I can’t resist things that are free. I drank a bottle and didn’t mind it. Throughout the workshop I drank more and more of it, largely because it was something to entertain myself with.
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A man named Lance, a large aging hippy from northern Saskatchewan, ran the first part of the workshop about fermentation. “The only things that don’t ferment are our spirits, our souls,” he said. He went on about the magic of fermentation for over half an hour before getting into the process of it. He talked about people’s misguided fear of bacteria, “If you step into the flow of nature at the appropriate point, you have nothing to fear. Fermentation is observing that part of nature.” Lance told us that processed food is ‘dead’ because all the bacteria is killed, so it doesn’t give our digestive systems necessary bacteria, which is why we should eat fermented foods, yoghurts and foods with active bacteria.
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Lance pickles and ferments anything and everything. He showed us the freezer bags of random vegetables that he threw together to ferment the night before. He had also packed a bag of kimchi vegetables and fermented it for a day for our class to work with. We wrapped the freshly fermented, spiced kimchi in bok choi and into freezer bags to ferment further and kept some fresh for our class to eat at the end of the day.

Konstantin, who goes by Kay or Mr K, a small, good-natured Ukrainian man with a goatee, ran the second part of the workshop. Before getting into kombucha, he showed us that you can put certain little mushrooms in milk, soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk or any kind of milk-like product and turn it into yoghurt or kefir overnight. He told us about bacteria with a long winded metaphor about good people stopping bad people in human communities. I was amazed to learn that the process of making yoghurt is so simple. I found the prospect of making my own granola and yoghurt once I have a stable living situation again exciting.

Kay taught us about the history, health benefits and process of kombucha in long-winded, if passionate, explanations. I could hardly believe these men ran this workshop daily with this much enthusiasm. I was drinking bottle after bottle of kombucha the whole time and developing a taste for it.

Kay brought us into the cellar and showed us big jars of kombucha at various stages of fermentation and had us taste some. Along the wall were shelves of mysterious looking-jars with liquids of different dark colours. We were told that one jar contacted a pickled tiger penis. Kay passed around a bottle for us to smell, but Finn and I weren’t listening when he told us what it was. I thought it was for tasting, but I didn’t want any. Finn put a little in his glass and drank it, but it tasted terrible. He asked what it was and Kay said it was fermented beaver kidney. We weren’t supposed to drink it.

I was getting really hungry by 430, but the workshop was supposed to end at 5 with a communal meal. Kay wasn’t finished at 5 and kept up the tangential ramblings and silly jokes for what felt to my rumbling stomach like forever. I had enjoyed the workshop, but had completely lost my ability to concentrate. Kay slowly handed out starter mushrooms to participants who wanted to make kombucha at home or on the road and made them name each one. “I’ll call mine Clementine,” said one participant. When it was my turn to receive my mushroom I almost wanted to refuse to name the silly little thing, but I didn’t want to ruin the mood with my hunger-induced grumpiness, so I said it’s name was Comet. I don’t know why I would name it Comet, but it’s all that came to mind.

At 5:30 Kay asked if we had discussed everything and I couldn’t resist but answer, “yep!” which I hoped didn’t come off as rude. Still he talked for another fifteen minutes and then we were free to go to the table where a spread of kimchi, bagels, cream cheese and pickled vegetables, all produced on the property, was laid out for us. I impatiently waited for others to sit down at the table before I started hungrily shovelling lots of food in my mouth.

After the workshop, Finn and I went to the circus school where we could watch and participate in a fire show most nights. Finn had tried the fire hoop for the first time that week and was hooked on it. The circus school had already asked him to perform for one of their parties.

That night after the workshop I was trying to have fun, but my stomach started to turn and I was nauseated. That afternoon I had drank about five bottles of fermented tea and then ate a huge spread of pickled vegetables for dinner. It was far too much for my bacteria-unaccustomed stomach to handle, so it suddenly emptied itself onto the grass of the circus school before I could make it to the toilet. I read later that you’re supposed to introduce kombucha to your diet slowly, starting with half a bottle. It was unfortunate, because I had finally developed a taste for the healthy, hippy drink, but now just the thought of it makes my stomach turn.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia Finn and hadn’t met many people who we really connected with. The party scene in most tourist areas attracts a lot of superficial people, but in Pai there was a community of people who were into having fun, but not only getting wasted and shopping. Pai isn’t very exotic since it’s built for tourism and full of westerners, but it was great to be around open-minded people who enjoy the same things as us.

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Chiang Mai Favourite Place in Southeast Asia So Far

The trip from Luang Probang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand took a lot longer than it should have. When Finn and I crossed the border into Thailand our connecting bus had already left without us, so we had to spend the day in a tiny border town. I was pretty annoyed at first, but couldn’t complain too much because the travel company that sold us the bus tickets took us to a little resort to spend the day by the pool to wait for the next bus in the evening. We ate lunch in town at a little vegetarian restaurant that had fantastic Thai curry.
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We arrived in Chiang Mai at 11pm and since it was high season for tourism in Thailand most of the hotels were completely full. We walked all around the centre of town and eventually found a little guesthouse called Baan Na Na in the old city which had a single dorm bed available. Thankfully they let Finn and I share it for $8 and I fell asleep right away. It had been days since I’d slept in a bed and I was still recovering from being sick, so that tiny dorm bed felt like the most comfortable place in the world.

The best thing about Chiang Mai was the food. I had been craving healthy food for months so it was fantastic to find delicious fresh food, brown rice, avocados, all kinds of tasty, nutritious meals. There were vegetarian restaurants everywhere. The food in Laos was really oily and bland so the Thai food tasted spectacular in comparison. Finn and I spent hours sampling different food. The night market was cheap and offered dozens of stalls selling fresh fruit, pad thai, curries and a variety of other food.
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We decided to splurge on a Thai cooking class, which cost about $40 each. There were lots of cooking classes offered in Chiang Mai and they all look similar so it was hard to choose. I looked through the half a dozen brochures at our guesthouse and picked one called The Best Thai Cooking Class. I sent them an email to sign up and they and responded right away that they would pick us up for the class in the morning.

At 9am the next morning we clambered into a 15-seater van full of other tourists. The man running the cooking class, named Permpoon, was gregarious, middle aged and Thai. He spoke great English and was always smiling. The first stop was the fresh food market, where we each chose 6 dishes that we wanted to make from 20 options. I felt silly standing around in a big group of tourists while Thai people did their shopping. Cooking class helpers bought the ingredients for all the food we would make while Permpoon walked us around the market and taught us about the food. I learned that morning glory is called that because the flowers only bloom in the morning.

After the market visit we went to the a farm outside of town where the cooking class was held. We picked a few hot peppers and eggplants from the garden and walked through the picturesque grounds to the instruction area. The large building had high ceilings and no walls and twelve cooking stations with stoves, cutting areas, pots and woks for each of us were set up in a semi circle around Permpoon’s station. We helped ourselves to coffee, tea and water before getting started.

The other people in the class were from all over the world and most of them were under 30 years old. Everyone was in a great mood, which helped Permpoon’s jokes land exceptionally well, even when repeated. He asked someone to help him cook, but give him a massage first. Everyone laughed, even me. He asked someone to keep their eye on the time and let him know when the food is ready in 10 minutes. If the food burns it’s their fault! The crowd was in hysterics. The laughs were just as big or maybe even bigger the second time.

Permpoon led us through how to make curries, pad thai, coconut milk soup, tom yam soup and stir fried vegetables and we made papaya salad, mango sticky rice and spring rolls as a group.

At the end of the class we ate the food together and everything tasted amazing. We were given the ingredients measured out in advance and told precisely when and how to cook everything, so making the food didn’t give me a huge sense of accomplishment, but we were all given a certification for having completed the course.
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Other than the cooking course, Finn and I spent lots of time walking around the city. There were cute little shops, great cafés and art spaces everywhere. We had foot and Thai massages for $6 per hour and they were fantastic. Chiang Mai was great because it’s a real city, not like the phoney tourist towns we had been visiting. There were lots of tourists, but the place wasn’t built only to service tourism like Vang Vieng and 4,000 Islands in Laos seemed to be. Many people told me before this trip that I would love Chiang Mai and they were right.
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Making Frustrating Mistakes – Lessons Learned

After the meditation retreat, I spent 12 hours on a sleeper train to Bangkok. I met Finn at the airport because he has come to travel with me. Before getting to Bangkok we booked the cheapest room we could find online. We’re not picky at all, so we figured we wanted the cheapest place possible. We’re fine with just a simple bed and hopefully not too many insects. At Rainbow Khaosan Hostel it cost about $14 for a private room and the reviews on hostelbookers were decent. However, our room was horrible. The ceiling was completely covered in mould. How did this place have a 73% approval rating? We felt like being in the room was damaging our health and it smelled horrible. In the bathroom, the ceiling dripped a little bit. I should have asked to see the room before I paid. It was a shame to not want to go back to our room especially since Bangkok was hot and smelly and we were tired after walking so much. At least we were only staying there 2 nights. If we have to go through Bangkok again we want to try to find a host on Couchsurfing. It would be way more fun to know someone who lives there so they can show us where the cool spots are. The tourist area, Khao San, is so boring.

After a couple days in Bangkok, we took the train to Siam Reap in Cambodia. There is a train that goes the 6 hours to the Cambodian border for under $2, but it only leaves twice a day. We got up super early to catch the 6am train and were happy to be leaving Bangkok. Then we made a really annoying mistake. We bought train tickets, then looked around for some friends we made who were going to be on the same train. We took our time wandering around a little, filled our water, got a coffee and had a look for our friends, then figured we should find out where the train will arrive. I’m really embarrassed to admit that we made this mistake, because Finn and I have taken many trains before and know how they work. When we went up to the information booth and asked which platform we have to go to they told us it had already left. The next train wasn’t for seven hours, until 1pm. We spent the long wait playing with hula hoops on the platform, reading books, having lunch and then we finally boarded the train.

The train ride was mostly uneventful, with one big exception. We heard a huge bang and didn’t know if it was an engine problem or if we hit something. It felt like something came in the window. The train stopped and we couldn’t really see what was going on and the train was packed with people. Some people were wiping their faces, disgusted. We asked the Thai woman sitting across from us what had happened. She translated a couple words on her phone and told us that we hit a cow! It was guts or blood that people were wiping from their faces. After a couple minutes, the train started going again. No big deal, apparently.

We got to the border kind of late so got a hotel room in the border town for $8. It was a nice room, with a balcony. I forgot to note the name of it. The town was cute and had a market with legit Thai food that we ordered blind because no one spoke English. They liked that we could speak a tiny bit of Thai. We really wished we could understand more Thai because it seemed like they are always saying funny things. The Thai people laugh so much. Especially the older women seem awesome. It seems like they’re always making cheeky comments with a half smile.

We went to the Cambodian border early the next morning. We were wary of getting scammed because I’ve heard that a lot of tourists get taken to a fake border crossing and are asked to pay a bunch of money that they are told is for a visa, but then they go to the actual border and have to pay again. We missed the whole scam because we took a truck with a few benches in the back instead of a tuk tuk (scooter cab), so there was no driver trying to rip us off.

When we got through the border into Cambodia we had to figure out how to get to Siam Reap, which was a couple hours away. I read that the best way to get there was to take a share taxi for about $15 each. As soon as we got through the border, some men wearing tour guide hats were trying to usher us into a free shuttle to the bus station, which made me nervous because I didn’t know if that was where we wanted to go. We decided to take the shuttle along with a couple from Brisbane, Australia. One half of the couple was a 65ish year old white dude and the other was a 40ish year old Philippina.

At the bus station information booth they told us the bus to Siam Reap was $9, but there wasn’t another one until the afternoon, and it was only 9am, but we could split a cab with the Australian couple for $12 each. I wanted to take the cab because that’s what I had read about. The male half of the Aussie couple thought the share taxi was a scam and that they were lying about their not being a bus until the afternoon. He ran around yelling at different people, saying “Where is the bus!? This is a scam!”. He was being a total jerk about it. I told him that I read in lonely planet and on a website that a share cab is the best way to get to Siam Reap, but he didn’t believe it. Finn and I were embarrassed that the bus station people probably thought we were from the same country as him. The Aussie finally gave in and took the cab with us, but maintained that it was a scam. I did not enjoy the cab ride with that man. He spoke on behalf of his partner and said he was taking her to temples to “educate her”. I think he may have been paying her to go on the trip with him. He made fun of Finn for trying to learn Kmer (the language of Cambodia). He was so not my kind of person.

We were dropped off in Siam Reap in a random place outside of town where tuk tuks were waiting to take us to our accommodation. This was obviously a cash grab because the taxi should have dropped us off in downtown, but Finn and I didn’t want to argue. The Australian couple started arguing, but we wanted to get away from them. A nice man who spoke great English told us he could take us to a place with nice rooms for $10, so we agreed to go with him. He explained that the ride into town would be free, but that he wanted to be our driver for the Temples of Angkor for $10 each. His name was Teddy. He was charming, and he grinned as he looked in our eyes. He told us that when he was a kid, during the war in Cambodia, he and his brother had to run away from men shooting at them and leave their animals behind. He showed us a map of the temples and explained where we would take us. We’re not crazy about seeing temples, but figured we may as well go to Angkor because people say they’re spectacular and we were passing through anyway, so we said we would be happy for him to take us to the temples for sunrise the following morning.

He took us to a great hotel, called Bun Seda Angkor Villa, with a pool, that was $10 as promised. He said he had a relationship with the hotel so he could get us a special deal. Whether or not it was a “special deal”, we were happy with the room. Teddy told us he would book our tickets for the temple in advance so we wouldn’t have to wait in line. I gave him our names and we paid him $10 each. If we wanted, he would take us to the floating market the following day. He reminded us that we have to wear long pants to the temples and said he would be at the hotel to get us at 5am. We had a nice day in Siam Reap, exploring the markets, eating food and relaxing by the hotel pool. We went to bed early because we were tired from all the traveling and we were going to get up early to go to the temples the next morning. We were excited to hang out with the charismatic Teddy.

In the morning we got up at 430am to pack up our things and check out before we went to the temples. We planned to take a night bus to the beaches in the south that night. We were all ready to go to the temples at 505am and waited for Teddy, but he didn’t show up. A different driver showed up and asked us to pay him, but we explained we had already paid, and where was Teddy? The driver called some people and said that he was actually there to pick up someone else. The question of Teddy’s whereabouts remained. Then it dawned on us that Teddy was not coming. We got swept up with Teddy’s charm and never questioned whether he would show up. He seemed like such an honest, nice guy. It never occurred to me that we were paying him in advance, leaving no incentive for him to work. Finn and I felt like idiots. We had no contact information for him, no receipt. He said he had a relationship with the hotel, so I asked the person at the desk if they had a contact information for him, but he said he had never heard of him and his name wasn’t in the books. My feelings were hurt, because I really liked Teddy. It was a crappy feeling to realize I can’t trust people. I like trusting people, but I can’t always trust people I don’t know. I don’t really blame Teddy. He could probably use the money and Finn and I were dumb enough to give him cash, no questions asked. We were really disappointed, but we learned a lesson.

10 Days of Silent Self-Torture

I had never really meditated before, but I like yoga and I am kind of a hippie, so after many people told me that doing a 10 silent meditation retreat is a transformative, amazing experience I decided to try it if ever I had the chance. It sounded like a great challenge: no talking, technology, stimulation, only meditation. Nothing but being left alone with your thoughts. Who knows what could come of that? Now that I’m in Asia with no limits on time, I thought this would be the perfect time to try it. In Thailand, a monastery called Suan Mokk holds a retreat for foreigners at a retreat centre across from the monastery. I decided to choose this retreat as opposed to the many others in the region because there was 90 minutes of yoga in the daily schedule, whereas most retreats do not have any yoga. Also, you don’t need to register for this one, whereas for others you must register months in advance. You can find the daily schedule, rules and other info about the retreat on their website.

I arrived at Suan Mokk a day and a half before the retreat started. Laura and Brenden were leaving Ranong to go back to Canada so I decided to leave when they leave. I was also concerned about having trouble finding this little place in the jungle and didn’t want any possibility of missing the registration. The travel agents and bus station workers had never heard of Chaiya, the nearest town to Suan Mokk, and that made me a bit nervous, but I found the monastery without too much trouble. I walked through the gates and the lush, perfectly manicured nature of the religious space and to the monastery information booth. It said on the Suan Mokk website that we could stay at the monastery for free before or after retreats.

I walked up to the tall desk at the information hut after filling up my water bottle from a big steel container labelled “rain water – for drinking only”. I felt kind of intimidated by the monk behind the desk, with his sassy orange robe thrown casually over one shoulder, as monks’ robes typically are. I didn’t want to be presumptive so I asked if he knew where I could stay in advance of the retreat. “You can stay here,” he said with an implied “duh”. He asked me to fill out a form and give him my passport as collateral and he gave me a key to the women’s dorm along with directions on how to get there. I was so relieved that I found the place and had a free room in this beautiful natural place.

I walked across the beautiful monastery grounds filled with many roosters and a few hens, to the women’s dorm. It was easy to tell I was in the right place because of the hand painted WOMAN ONLY sign nailed to a tree. I wandered around trying to find my room and a woman came over and quietly showed me where it was. This dorm was meant only for the foreigners who were coming for a meditation retreat. There were about 30 rooms. 15 were around the outside, facing the little courtyard, and 15 were on the inside, facing a creepy, poorly lit hallway. That inner hallway looked like a prison to me. Luckily my room was on the outside. The windows on all windows had bars on them. The rooms had nothing in them but a wooden bed (no mattress) and a wooden pillow. We could collect a straw sleeping mat, mosquito net, blanket and conventional, non-wooden pillow to use from the storage area. There was a big open space without walls above the rooms for meditation or yoga. I was the first one to arrive and totally alone in the dormitory. It was just about evening when I got there, so after getting a coffee and using wifi at the western style “espresso bar” across the street and doing an hour of yoga in the upstairs dorm space I went to bed early.

In the morning a bunch of people arrived. The dorm became quite full of women from all over the world, mostly Europe. I hung out with an awesome British woman for most of the day. We walked around the little area getting food and coffee. The following day was registration day. Everyone at the dorm got up at 7am to head across the road to the retreat centre. At the retreat centre I noticed most of the participants were around my age, mostly white, backpackers. There were a few middle aged people and a group of four friends who looked about 18 years old. I wondered why the 18 year olds decided to do this. Perhaps their school encouraged it, or some other group or team that they were involved with. I noticed later in the retreat that they each had a matching bright yellow shirt. I met a volunteer for the Peace Corps who was on vacation from her placement in rural Thailand and a former hotel manager who just quit his job in Bangkok to explore other parts of Asia.

The registration process involved filling forms, reading information about the retreat, doing a 2 minute interview, choosing our chore for the week (I chose sweeping the path around the women’s dorm) handing over our passports and paying our $80 fee. We were fed breakfast and then put our things in our rooms (cement bed, wooden pillow, not much else), took a couple cushions and placed them in the meditation hall to stake our spot for the retreat and then had free time until the festivities began at 4pm. It was really happening. Starting that night I would fall silent and be cut off from the world.

After spending the day with some other women from the retreat eating and hanging out in the little town, Chaiya, and getting my last fill of wifi technology at the espresso bar, I was back at the retreat centre, excited to get my silence on. I really was excited. I had high hopes that over these 10 days I would mellow out, become ready to accept any adversity with a clear head and never get overtaken by emotion, anxiety or insecurity again.

We took a tour of the grounds and were allowed to ask all the questions we wanted before the silence began. On the tour we were instructed how to capture an insect and put it outside in case we find one in our room. We aren’t allowed to kill anything during the retreat. We hoped we would not have to try the procedure on a scorpion. At 7:15pm, everyone gathered in the mediation hall. There were about 80 of us, a few more men than women. A monk rang a tiny bell, signifying the beginning of the silence.

There were a lot more rules than just no talking at the retreat. These are the most important rules, as described on the website:

– Keep complete silence throughout the retreat
(exceptions: personal interviews from Day 3 to Day 6 and emergencies).
– Stay within the boundaries of the retreat center.

Keep the Eight Precepts, which are:
– Intend not to take away any breath(abstain from killing).
– Intend not to take away what is not given (abstain from stealing).
– Intend to keep one’s mind and one’s body free from any sexual activity.
– Intend not to harm others by speech.
– Intend not to harm one’s consciousness with substances that intoxicate
and lead to carelessness (no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking etc).
– Intend not to eat between after noon and before dawn.
– Intend not to dance, sing, play or listen to music, watch shows, wear
garlands, ornaments and beautify oneself with perfumes and cosmetics.
Intend not to sleep or sit on luxurious beds and seats.

Also, it was explained upon arrival: no jogging, no wearing revealing clothing, no yoga in public except during yoga class, no ‘sexual misconduct’ (ie nothing sexual at all), no facing your feet towards the front of the meditation hall, no laying down in public, no reading and no writing. I’ve never been constrained by so many rules, but that’s kind of the point of the retreat. It was announced that we must not send love notes. A monk told us that twice men have sent love notes to women and were kicked out for doing so.

Males and females were strictly kept apart. The assumption was that there were no gender or sexuality variations, I suppose. We had separate dorms and yoga classes, we ate on different sides of the dining hall, scooped our food out of separate pots, we sat on opposite sides of the meditation hall, everything was separate. I almost forgot the men were there.

There was no need for a watch at the retreat because someone banged on the big bell in the bell tower whenever it was time to be somewhere. The first bell was at 4am(!). It rang for about 15 minutes, just to be sure no one could sleep through it. You could hear the ring clearly anywhere on the grounds, and loudly in the dorms. We had to be at the meditation hall and ready to get mindful at 430. I had never woken up that early more than one day in a row. I have consistently gone to bed after 4, however, when I was working at the bar, Vol de Nuit, my shifts ended at 330. This early rising thing was a whole new world. I was exhausted the first day, but, surprisingly, got used to it by the third day. I appreciated seeing the sunrise and sunset every day.

My favourite thing about the retreat was the hot springs. There were separate hot springs for men and women on the grounds that we could use whenever we had free time, particularly at sunset during the ‘tea and hot springs’ time on the schedule. We had to go in wearing a sarong, even though it was a women only space. The sarong resulted in more nudity for me as mine kept floating up to my waist as I swam around. You weren’t expected to wear anything under the sarong. The hot springs were left natural, with simple cement steps leading down to them. Palm and other kinds of trees hung over them and they were surrounded by other foliage. At sunset there were usually about 7 women in the hot springs, silently, calmly hanging out together. It felt nice to swim through the hot water and float on it. I went in every night.

We were fed two meals each day. The first meal was a bland rice soup and mini bananas served at 8am. Since we woke up at 4am, I found myself starving by breakfast time. I started smuggling an extra banana out of the dining hall at breakfast to eat the following morning at dawn so that I would feel comfortable waiting for breakfast at 8. By lunch time at 1230 I was so hungry I couldn’t think of anything else. Lunch was always delicious, a coconut milk curry, brown rice, marinated tofu, green beans, stuff like that. There was always dessert of a jelly, tapioca, soy milky type thing that was wonderful. I was looking forward to lunch at all times. By the time lunch came I wanted to eat ALL THE FOOD. I was kind of hoping I would lose weight by only eating two meals a day, but I more than made up for the lack of dinner by doubling down on lunch. It was pretty much the only pleasurable stimulation in the day, other than the hot springs. But we weren’t supposed to view the food this way. According to Buddhist philosophy, pleasure of food should be avoided because it is impermanent, it has no spiritual value. Before we could eat any meal, we had to wait for everyone to fill their bowl and take a seat and then read aloud together the ‘food reflection’, which goes something like this:
—-
With wise reflection, I eat this food. Not for play, not for intoxication. Not for fattening, not for beautification. Only to maintain this body. To remain alive and healthy. To support the spiritual way of life.

Thus, I let go of unpleasant feelings, and do not stir up new ones. Thereby, the process of life goes on. Blameless, at ease and in peace.
—-
I read it with the group, but was thinking the opposite. Eating is not a spiritual endeavour, but it’s enjoyable. If I become attached to the eating of tasty food I may be sad if in future I don’t have any tasty food, but I still want to enjoy food when I have it. I love food. I was meditating on how amazing that food was going to taste and how I was going to love it. I wasn’t pushing the joy of eating out of my mind so that I could enjoy the purity of spiritual thoughts.

I enjoyed the first few days of the retreat. I was getting better at meditating and had fun trying different ways to focus my mind. There were a couple hours of talks every day explaining how to meditate, so I tried different tips and tricks all the time. I was getting better at focusing. However, things started going downhill for me on the 4th day. My focus was gone. I started counting down the days until I could leave. I started hating it.

I got so bored. I started feeling like meditation was a cage and I wanted to think my thoughts, not push them away. It felt pointless and I realized I kind of hate meditating. I wanted to lie on a bed with a mattress and have a shower. I wanted to talk to a friend, read my book and write in my journal. As the retreat progressed, the talks started becoming a lot more specific and not useful or interesting to me. They played a recording of an American monk translating the work of another monk, which included long translations of lists of Pali (the dead language of Buddhism) words that were irrelevant to me. The talks were not only boring, they became irritating to the point that I considered walking away just to think my own thoughts and not hear that yammering on. I learned to pull my knees up to my chest, wrap my arms around my shins and sleep like that. I wasn’t the only one sleeping. The monks got annoyed a few times and gave suggestions on things we could do to not fall asleep. We could focus on our breathing, we could take notes (I guess we can only write if it’s directly related to what we’re learning). The group was scolded for playing with the sand or moving around a lot when we should sit still and listen.

In addition to being boring, I didn’t like the talks because I disagreed with them. I’m not sure how much variance there is between different perspectives on Buddhism, but I did not agree with what was said at the retreat. I agree that attachment to endless materialism will leave people unhappy, but I not agree that people should never attach to anything. We were instructed not to attach to people, to love, to any pleasures at all, because they are impermanent. Because they can go away. I am okay with the pain I feel when I lose something or someone I love because it feels so good to love. Feeling happy and sad is part of life and I don’t want to shield myself from that. I’m happy to enjoy the little pleasures in life, even though they are ‘void of all meaning’. I take immense pleasure in flipping over a pillow and feeling the cold side, for example. I’m okay with that and I’m going to keep enjoying it.

Half way through the retreat almost half the participants had left. On the 6th day a friend I made before the retreat left. She came up to me and broke the silence to tell me she would rather go to the beach than meditate more. I didn’t blame her. On the 7th day another friend left, I didn’t see her leave though. I wanted to leave so badly, but I wanted to stick it out because I had already started it. My food and accommodation were already paid for, though they were really cheap, and I already made plans for afterward. I stayed until the 10th day.

I thought I would like the meditation retreat because I like yoga and challenging myself. Many people told me it’s a great thing to do. I learned that it wasn’t for me. I like to think my thoughts freely, not push them out of my mind. I already knew that taking deep breaths calms me down, I didn’t need to do it for 10 days. I don’t regret doing the retreat, however, even though I kind of hated it. I learned a lot about meditation and Buddhism (and that neither are for me). I challenged myself and got a new experience. I was curious about what the retreat would be like, and now I know.
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Vegetarian Festival in Ranong

There are many Buddhists in Ranong who take their religion seriously. In front of most homes are little shrines that look like fancy birdhouses resembling tiny temples. I was told that these are meant to house the ancestors of the people who live in the homes. People leave food offerings for their ancestors beside the shrines. It seems that Fanta is a popular drink for ancestors as an opened bottle of it with a straw is often left out for them.

Buddhists recognize that being vegetarian is a good thing, though few refrain from meat all through the year. However, many Buddhists in Thailand eat vegetarian for the 10 day vegetarian festival. That is why temporary vegetarian restaurants pop up and many existing restaurants become vegetarian for the festival. The vegetarian festival is celebrated in many countries, but celebrations vary by region.

In Ranong, there were events every night of the festival in the big multipurpose festival grounds, at temples and in the streets. Participants wore white to all festival events. Laura, Brenden, Cory and I stopped by the festival grounds one night and saw a Chinese dragon show. The two dragon costumes were worn by kids who moved in them expertly. People crowded around to watch the dragons move to the beat of drums like shiny, colourful, happy dogs, wagging their tails and bobbing their heads. One of the dragons got on a dangerous looking stairway-like structure. Instead of complete steps, there were tall, narrow posts of different heights. The dragon started climbing and we were thrilled and nervous to watch. It moved smoothly and danced on the posts. The kid in the front part of the costume would jump and be thrown up so that he was standing on the shoulders of the kid in the back. This gave the appearance that the dragon is on it’s hind legs, standing on shaky tall posts. This tricky manoeuvre was executed accurately, but twice when walking on the posts the dragon fell, prompting the crowd to scream. But they were okay! They got back on! Whew.

Free food was served at the temple during the vegetarian festival so we went to have some one evening. The food was delicious. All day a big cauldron of herbal massage oil had been brewing in the foyer of the temple. During the festival, certain men and women (mostly men) believe that they are possessed by spirits. These people are called the sorcerers. There were about 18 sorcerers at the temple in Ranong. They shook their heads and moved their bodies in an unnatural way so you could tell they were possessed. At certain moments they freaked out and started jumping and hitting things, prompting someone to pull their shirt off and replace it with a colourful apron. When the massage oil was ready, much of it was poured into bottles for anyone to take home with them. Some of it was used by the sorcerers who gave foot and leg massages to anyone who wanted one, particularly those who had an illness or injury recently.

Only in the south of Thailand, not in most other places where the vegetarian festival takes place, do the sorcerers perform self mutilation and self flagellation. I found it hard to understand why they do this, and many local people did not exactly know. What I gathered is that the sorcerers are proving that they are possessed, which causes them to not feel the pain of self-injury. At the Saturday morning procession, some sorcerers pierced their cheeks with 10 – 15 thin skewers. A group of them walked together and whenever the procession stopped they would get in a circle, hit the ground with an ax or sword and swing it up to strike themselves on the back repeatedly. They started bleeding after repeating this many times.

It seemed strange that the vegetarian festival involved self-mutilation as well as a meat-free diet. I wonder if those sorcerers truly believe that they are possessed and cannot feel the pain of what they are doing. I wonder if they have doubts as they are waiting for the wounds to heal over the next few weeks or months. Maybe not, since the same sorcerers repeat the self-mutilation year after year.

Quiet Life on the River

I took the night bus from Bangkok to Ranong on September 18, Friday night. My friend, Laura, has been living in Ranong teaching English for the past year, so I wanted to go visit her and see where she has been living for the past year. At the bus station I bought my ticket to Ranong and searched for platform 12 as the ticket vendor instructed me. I found a big sign that said ’12’ and waited there for the bus until a man asked me where I was going and I showed him my ticket. He shouted at me in Thai and told me to wait inside the building, away from the buses. I was confused because how would I see my bus if I was inside? It was almost the time of departure. I wondered around a little bit and then returned to the big ’12’ sign. It was almost 745 and my bus was supposed to leave at 730. The man saw me again and this time really yelled and walked me inside the building, realizing I had no idea what he was instructing me to do. He took me to the other side of the building where a bus was waiting for me. I felt embarrassed and quietly got on the bus, thanking him. I was very grateful that the bus waited 15 minutes for me! The bus pulled away as soon as I was seated and the man who walked me to the correct bus was laughing as I waved to him from the window.

The night air outside was hot and humid, but as seems common wherever there is air conditioning in Thailand, the bus was freezing cold. Luckily, they had blankets for passengers and I helped myself to two more after a staff member handed me one. The bus wasn’t full so I laid across two seats. With three blankets, podcasts, an audio book and electronic music, I slept most of the way to Ranong. The only notable interruption was when three young members of the Thai military came aboard and randomly checked ID. I handed them my passport and told them I was going to Ranong. One of the officers grabbed a man’s necklace out of interest and examined it, and it looked like an invasion of personal space to me, but the man was smiling and didn’t seem to bothered. I guess this is Marshall Law?

I arrived in Ranong at 5am and Laura generously picked me up on her moped. I was impressed with her ability to take me and my huge bag on her little bike and grateful that she came to get me so early in the morning. She took me back to her little suite where her and her partner Brenden live and left me to relax and nap when they went to work.

Ranong has spectacular nature. There was a river running right behind Laura’s home, big trees bordering most streets, and tree-covered mountains surrounding the town. I was in awe of the beauty my first night here when Laura, Brendan, Laura’s brother Cory and I sat on a nearby suspension bridge over the river for sunset. The ferns, palm trees and big leafed plants looked otherworldly lining the river. We stood up, surprised, a couple times to let people whip by us as they bravely crossed the rickety bridge on mopeds.

The next day, Laura, Brendan, Cory and I went kayaking on the river, which was turquoise and great for swimming. We took one of the neighbourhood dogs kayaking with us. Most of the dogs in Ranong are sort of communal dogs that no one and everyone is responsible for. Sometimes this means the dogs are wonderfully spoiled and other times sadly neglected. Kenya, the dog we took kayaking, seems to be benefitting from the situation and has more than enough love and attention. It was funny to have a dog aboard the kayak and she loved it.

After kayaking we went to a beautiful restaurant outside of town beside the big water reservoir. The reservoir looked like a big lake and the restaurant was wide open beside it. Afterward we went to a place on the other side of the reservoir where there was a long straight road with few cars so I could try to drive a moped. Cory let me use his his bike and after explaining how it worked I was riding down the road on my own. I went slow to get used to the bike. The only part that made me nervous was turning the bike around and going in the opposite direction. Mopeds are a popular way to get around in Asia so I’m glad I got some instruction from friends early in my trip.

We had drinks with some of Cory’s Thai friends that evening. Cory’s friend’s mom runs a little restaurant so she hosted us there. At the table there were 6 foreigners and 4 Thai girls as well as the mom and another person working there. One of the Thai girls was wearing a shirt that said ‘yolo’. We were the only people at the restaurant at the time. It worked out that the Thai people sat together and the foreigners sat together at the table, but we made an effort to learn each other’s names and we all talked together as much as we could despite the language barrier. It was nice to meet some Thai people and get to know them a little bit.

The next day we visited a big waterfall and swam in the pool below it. In the water were those fish that are kept in tanks for people to put their feet in as a spa treatment. The fish, which range in size from about 2 – 6 inches, came up and nibbled on our feet if we stood in one place. It was a funny feeling when 15 of them crowded around me and chowed down and it startled me at first. It didn’t hurt, but it tickled a little bit.

The food here is delicious. There are some great permanent vegetarian restaurants and it’s lucky that I got here at the beginning of the Buddhist Vegetarian festival because lots of temporary vegetarian restaurants are popping up all over town. Also, the temple will be giving away free food for the duration of the festival. The festival officially starts today, September 23.

Landing in Bangkok

My flight took off to Manila, Philippines at 1:50am on Monday morning, September 15. I was really tired and slept most of the trip, between watching a couple movies and listening to the audiobook version of How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. I started feeling a bit nervous on the flight. I was going far away all by myself and I worried that I would feel lonely or not no what to do. Being on that flight meant it was all really happening.

During my 4 hour layover in Manila, Philippines, I chatted a little bit with the person who was sitting beside me on the plane and we realized we were both going on the same plane to Bangkok and happen to have a reservation at the same hostel in Bangkok. He was a friendly tree planter from Toronto who recently graduated from Trent University. I mentioned that my uncle, Steve Bocking, teaches there, but he didn’t recognize his name. He did recognize the name Bocking from election signs in Toronto though. I suggested he probably saw my cousin Paul Bocking’s city council election signs. The second flight went by with little incident and before I knew it I was walking off the plane in Bangkok.

It was nice that I meant the tree planter because it meant we could go search for the hostel together and I had someone to talk to on the train into town. On the skytrain (yes there is also a skytrain in Bangkok) I noticed that the majority of the people appeared to be Thai, but most of the messages over the speakers were in English only. We got in a taxi from the last train stop and the driver tried to pull the “flat rate” scam. He quoted the price of 150 baht ($5.15) when we got in the cab and didn’t want to turn on the meter, but we firmly insisted. He argued a bit, then conceded, and when we arrived the meter read 70 baht ($2.40), so that’s what we paid. It’s only a couple dollars less than the price he wanted to charge when we got in the cab, and I don’t blame him for trying. It’s probably hard to make enough money as a cab driver in Bangkok, but the farther I can stretch my money the longer I can travel.

It’s very hot and humid in Bangkok. It took a bit of time walking around to find the hostel and by the time we found it I was soaked in sweat. Carrying a big pack on my back probably didn’t help. NapPark Hostel is really nice. I’m staying in a big dorm-style room with about 20 other people. Instead of a key they give all guests an electronic bracelet that you hold up to a sensor at each door to open it. Everything seems clean, the bathrooms are nice with hot showers (though a cold shower is more comfortable in this weather). I took a nap and then went out to find some food.

I found some spring rolls and pad thai for $2 that was created with western tastes in mind but delicious nonetheless. I’m staying in the backpacker area called Kao San and everything here is very touristic. The benefit of being in this area is that most shop owners speak English and it’s comforting to be around a lot of westerners in this foreign place. The downside is that things are more expensive and it would be more interesting to see Thai culture and know that it’s real, not created for tourists. While I was waiting for my pad thai, a German tourist said he prefers the old part of Bangkok to Kao San. I asked him how you get there and he said he doesn’t recommend going there alone, that it’s not safe. He said he only went there because he has Thai friends.

After dinner I was tired and decided I would go to bed early at about 8pm. When I woke up I thought it was morning. I got up, had a shower and went downstairs to go find breakfast or something when I realized it was pitch dark out. I was very confused and slowly realized it was not morning, I had only been sleeping a few hours. It was 11pm and people around the hostel were gearing up to explore the nightlife. That was a very confusing realization. I was ready to start the day, but it was still night.

Some other guests were going to find a local bar so I went along with them. I was already up, after all. We went to a bar that loudly played horrible top 40 from the 80s – early 2000s. There was a crowd of western tourists on the dance floor happily dancing to Shot Through the Heart by Bon Jovi, something by the Spice Girls and We Will Rock You by Queen. I wasn’t really feeling it. Everyone I met was really nice though, and I was happy to hear about their travel experiences and get recommendations of places to go. I have a feeling I will quickly get tired of having the same conversation with everyone I meet. I should make a recording of my name, where I’m from, how long I have been traveling, the next place I’m going and when I’m going home. Just make eye contact, press play and hold it to the person’s ear.

I really liked two of the women in our group so when one of them suggested we leave the others at that bar and go for a walk I went with them. We walked past lots of people selling laughing gas. We saw a woman selling insects as food. There was a sign above the food advertising the price 10 baht to take a picture. The other women considered eating an insect, maybe a tarantula or a scorpion, I didn’t want to eat that though. There are vegetarians who would eat insects, but an insect seems like meat to me. Maybe that’s just my excuse. It creeps me out. I would have been happy to watch the others indulge, however, but they didn’t have the nerve either.

There were men every few meters on the street asking if we want to see a Ping Pong Show. They make a pop noise with their mouths which sounds like a ping pong coming out of a body part. The three of us found it creepy. We were surprised they were so insistent, following us down the street trying to get us to the Ping Pong Show even though we are all women. We mentioned that to some other tourists, but they said that when they went to a Ping Pong Show the audience was about 70% women.

We found a cozy little bar that had a live performer singing. One of the Thai guys who worked at the bar encouraged us to sit with him and a German guy at a table. The Thai guy (I think his name was Mai) was really funny and seemed to be having a great time all evening. A good looking middle aged Italian couple came and sat down with us too. They seemed like

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