Tag Archives: thailand

Injury

A fundamental question has been asked of me on this trip. What do you do when you can’t do. What happens when you are physically incapable of acting in the way you would like. How to practice when your body is in pain stretching and even to sit comfortably is difficult?

It is an exercise in vulnerability as I recognise I’m not as young as I was and that my physical body is not as solid as I maybe believed.

 

 

I was hiking from the town of Yuksom in West Sikkim, the starting point of many high altitude treks to the Goecha La pass at 5000 metres. I wasn’t attempting anything so difficult though, I just decided a one day hike between monasteries to the village of Tashiding would be a suitable trip for me.  It’s 19Km of supposedly straightforward trails via 4 different monasteries. I did my due diligence and chatted to a local guide about it rather than just accepting the instructions in the Lonely Planet and he confirmed it is a simple route. Things aren’t always predictable, however.

The steep but clear path to Dubdi gompa just 40 minutes outside of Yuksom was simple enough and I reached there after a breathless climb, exhilarated. The valley views and peaceful gompa were reward for my efforts but I knew this was just the first stage of my journey.

 

The next path was not so obvious, leading out the back of the monastery and downhill to the road. At first I took a path into the forest due to a fallen sign but soon turned around and found the right way. I didn’t expect walking along the road though, so was a bit unsure if it was the right path. It was stunning scenery so I didn’t mind too much and I couldn’t see another way to get around the valley.  It wasn’t until a local doing the same route pointed me in the right direction that I was really sure.

We passed through Tsong village and I was looking for a path to the small Hongri gompa. A turn off to take me above the road through cardamom fields and up to the outcrop of the monastery. Instead I reached the end of the road with a marker for the village of Dubdi 0KM the only indicator that this was some sort of destination. I retraced my steps a hundred metres or so up the road to a nearby house up a set of steep steps hewn from the earth. There an old man in a felt hat greeted me with enthusiasm. He pointed out where I needed to go, what I could see on the distant ridges and explained that he spoke Hindi, Nepali and another local language but not English. He led me up an ever steeper path with the gait of an ambling goat, leaving me puffing and panting in his wake and grateful for the pauses where he shouted “Pelling, Namchi, Tashiding!” at me, in reference to the local towns on the horizon. I made my way up the last section alone, wondering why these monasteries are always at the end of steep walks…

 

Hongri Gompa is small, remote, unpainted and it seems one of its walls collapsed some time ago. Despite this, it is a delightful spot. Stunning views, a small homestay with one of the monks and the young locals practising their mantras in the little school room.  The place charmed me even in the short time I had there but I felt the need to press on. This is where my difficulties started. The path from here was almost immediately unclear, branching in several different ways. I don’t know if I took the correct route but I found the trail through forest getting smaller, slippery and not maintained. I didn’t pass a single person on this section to ask if I was on the right path and visions started creeping into my head. What would I do if I happened to twist my ankle, would I turn around to make it back to Hongri or continue onwards?

Trying to put these negative thoughts from my mind I forged ahead. Until, at some point, my right foot slipped underneath me. I had a vision of my hat staying where it was in mid-air for a second and then the next thing I knew I was falling to my right. Down until… boom! I landed on my back, on the right side I think, padded somewhat by my small backpack. Thankful that I had two jumpers in there which broke the initial fall a little but possibly also meant that I bounced and then found myself tumbling head-over-heels down the side of the mountain. I grabbed hold of whatever I could, branches, bushes, the undergrowth, scratching and bruising up my right arm in the process and eventually came to a stop, tangled in weeds.

My right hiking shoe was almost off, my back was aching, I was winded and stunned wondering if I could walk and if there might be someone who could rescue me. I lay there for several minutes, attempting to shout “help”, “hello”, “namaste” anything to attract attention, but there was no-one nearby whose attention I could attract. It wasn’t long before I realised that I didn’t have much choice but to scramble back up the hill I had fallen down and attempt to carry on walking. I did up my shoe, cautious not to lose my grip and fall further but also not looking down to see how much further I could potentially fall. It was difficult to pull myself up to the spot where I fell but I managed.  My hat was neatly sat on the path as if waiting for me to retrieve it. I couldn’t say the same for my glasses though, it was only at this point that I realised they had been dislodged and lost somewhere down the mountain. Luckily I had a pair of prescription sunglasses with me.

I faced the prospect of an unknown distance to get to Tashiding, or at least the next place of civilisation, or quite a tricky walk back to Hongri. I decided to continue ahead, thinking I must be near the next village and maybe I could get a lift if I was closer to the road. Each step was painful and ironically going down became more difficult on my lower back than going upwards. All summer I had been complaining about walking uphill and enjoying downward steps but here I was cursing every descent as it triggered another twinge.

The first place I came to was a little farm on the edge of a village but not near a road. The family there didn’t speak much English but made me tea, gave me some muscle rub oil and tried to help me find somewhere to stay in the village. That wasn’t possible so I didn’t have much choice but to move on again.

I stopped at various villages but no-one was able to give me a lift and tiredness and stubbornness kicked in against the pain. I decided I would keep on going until I reached the famous Sanu Homestay in Tashiding where I figured they would be able to look after me.

The homestay couldn’t have been much further into Tashiding and after about 3 or four hours walking after the fall I arrived to find the owner was away. The family did their best to help me but only the young daughter spoke English so it was a little difficult. I lay in bed that night in some pain, listening to the grandmother recite mantras in the room next door as I drifted off to sleep hoping that I hadn’t done any serious damage.

 

I called my friend Anna who was staying in Yuksom for advice, and really because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to move when I woke up in the morning. She very kindly offered to jump in a taxi to come and help me to the doctor’s in the morning and help me make some decisions on what to do since I was not thinking entirely clearly.

We went to the “Primary Health Centre” in Tashiding but all the nurse there could offer was ibuprofen and a suggestion to visit the doctor in Yuksom so we managed to find a vehicle (not as easy as you would think because most shared jeeps were cancelled due to “election counting day”)

When we arrived at the hospital in Yuksom the doctor took one look at me and after hearing we had come from Tashiding and, knowing the state of the road, she made a call that I had unlikely broken anything or I would be in a lot more pain. She gave me a pain killing shot, some tablets and recommended I take it easy and keep an eye on it for the next week or so.

Yuksom was cold at night and in the morning and I would wake so stiff that sometimes it was difficult to get out of bed and almost always it was agony to tie my shoelaces. I was doing some gentle yoga to wake my back and occasionally went for walks but generally I was hanging out in little Yuksom, enjoying the hospitality of Mama’s Homestay and the other restaurants and being probably one of the longest foreign residents in a place where normally people stop only long enough to arrange a trek.

After a week I wasn’t feeling much better, my symptoms had eased and then got worse again but I felt it was really time to leave. I set off in search of hot springs but stopped first at the town of Namchi where there was a bigger hospital and I could get checked out properly.

I had an x-ray done in the modern facility and then waited outside the orthopedic doctor’s office with a number, much like being at the butcher, or the Indian Visa office. About 8 of us were ushered into the room together and our consultations took place behind a small curtain with everyone else absent-mindedly looking on.

He took one look and told me, “you see, you have a small compression in your L2, L3, er L5. One, two, three, yes L2. You need to rest for 6 weeks. No jumping, no carrying heavy things”  I asked about yoga “No sport” and massage “you could end up making it worse” and I left feeling a bit bereft of options.

 

Thailand

It was after speaking to Anna that I had the idea to go to Thailand. I’d been planning on making a visit at some stage on this trip so why not now when I am invalided.

 

I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to be here on Ko Phangan. It is a  beautiful island with so many opportunities. Even so, I’m left thinking about the yoga that I have done here before, the friends that I have spent time with before and it can never really compare. I’m taking this time as one of reflection and hopefully from that creation will emerge, one day at a time. I have considered detoxes, tantra courses, and retreats to fill up my time but actually I see that it’s more important to embrace this boredom, embrace this freedom and see what emerges naturally.

I took a Reiki attunement a few days ago as part of the first course into using this energy healing technique. It has left me feeling quite sensitive with a lot of clearing of old energy and a need to be in my own space. I’m allowing this to channel through me and hopefully things will be clearer in a couple of weeks.

It’s really rainy here right now which further increases the sense of going inwards. So as I meditate and do breathing exercises there is a sense of calm, a recognition of just “being” but also that “doing” will grow out of this without needing to worry about it.

 

 

 

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10 mind expanding places to visit.

I’ve traveled quite a bit in my time and certain places have lived long in my memory. I’ve listed 10 here that I think are particularly mind expanding for a variety of reasons…

Travel is a mind-broadening, mouth-watering eye-opening and loin-moistening experience which if you’re not careful will grab you as a bug and not let go until you are looking at finding ways to make it into a lifestyle. For me it is best to treat travel  as a learning experience whether that be from taking courses and classes or just through interactions with locals and travelers from countries you may never have thought of visiting. Everyone is a teacher and every day can bring new challenges and experiences and travel allows you to open up to these if you let it. Gazing out at the sunset over a beautiful ocean or up at the multitude of stars on a clear night in the mountains the everyday drifts from your consciousness a little and you begin to realise the fundamental value of a life. Doing a long trip before starting a life of work can give you a better perspective I think and stop you getting stuck in a treadmill of unhappiness because you have the knowledge of something satisfying that isn’t reliant upon or judged by your performance in an office.
Embrace the difference, be amused by the difficulty, every long bus journey is a story and every arrival a new beginning. There will be hard times on a long trip, where you miss home and the simplicity of a life that you know but the benefit gained and the satisfaction you feel when you navigate those problems is worth the hardship.
I have traveled extensively in South East Asia, Europe, Australia and India.

Real de Catorce

In the North of Mexico this former silver mining outpost is only accessible through a 2.5km winding mine-shaft tunnel which necessitates moving to a smaller bus on arrival. Since the seam ran dry Real has become a ghost town with abandoned buildings in the valleys surrounding the town.

Taking a horse around the beautiful hillsides is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, discovering ruins of mansions and mine buildings. You will also find sacred Huichol sites where ceremonies sometimes take place. These hills are alive with Peyote, the cactus that shamans use to give a healing dose of mescaline and the Huichol tribe come here at least once a year to hold large ceremonies.

 

Dharamsala – Triund

From the home of the Dalai Lama in Mcleod Ganj it is around a 4-5 hour trek up to the mountain ridge of Triund, passing screaming monkeys peering out of steaming garbage bins and accumulating stray dogs along the way as you cross beautiful valleys and tree-lined hills.

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If the clouds creep in the majestic view back across the Himalayan foothill valleys will disappear into a white nothingness but once you reach the chai stalls at Triund itself you will be above the clouds to see a majestic mountain appear in front of you from nothing. At sunrise and sunset the views are particularly stunning with any lingering cloud cover dissipating and the mountains bathed in yellow-orange sunlight.

Anapurna Base Camp

While the 26 day trek around the Annapurna circuit has started to become less popular due to the building of roads near part of the previously isolated route, the “ABC” trek is still out there and as inaccessible as things come.

It takes around 7 days including a loop at the bottom to reach the base camp at over 4000 metres with at least two of these days being almost entirely uphill. You will pass through small villages, delightful valleys and gorges, and finally across a snow-covered plateau. There are guesthouses en-route in the various villages, although for the last 3 days you will be staying in lodges that are solely there for the benefit of trekkers since this area is not inhabitable year-round. If you go in March or April, officially the “second season” the hills will be alive with huge rhododendron bushes in red, blue and yellow and the final valley will be a spectacular grass-lined path rather than a snow-covered tundra.

Pinnacles Borneo

Deep in the jungles of Borneo, past nomadic tribes with blow-pipes and a history of cannibalism you can journey out by river-boat and on foot to the base of the Pinnacles, a set of jagged rocks which poke up out of the side of the mountain.

The climb to the top is up a slippery slope of sharp rocks and the last third involves climbing up rope ladders, shimmying across planks and hauling up knotted cable.

Coming down is even more fun, especially if it has been raining, as the downward motion enhances the slipperiness and falling onto those jagged rocks a real possibility. It may not be such a bad move to come down on your bum.

Spiti Valley

To reach this place you have to endure hours of treacherous roads, driving in local Indian buses with drivers who think that honking the horn enables them to safely hurtle around blind corners with drops of thousands of metres awaiting a wrong turn. The buses cheerfully have “Oh God Save Me” handpainted on the front and as you swerve around the 30th bend of the day with crumbling rocks skittling down into the canyon below you realise that maybe grace does have something to do with your survival on this trip.

The views from the bus, if you can stomach to look out of the window, are spectacular though and on arrival in one of the villages along the way, after kissing the ground and praising Shiva, Buddha, Christ and Allah for your survival, you soon realise why some hardy souls choose to live up here.

The “ultra blue” skies are one thing, a shade that reflects the high altitude of the region which is usually around 4000m, but add to that an arid desert landscape with little vegetation and paths hugging the valley which swoops to the trickling rivers below and then the snow peaked Himalaya which surround you at every turn and this is an awesome landscape to trek in.

Staying up here is basic, homestays with the villagers who are welcoming but understandably only able to provide the simplest of food. They burn cow shit to keep warm in the winter and have piles of dung stacked in storage rooms all shaped into neat patties.

Buddhism is rife up here with monasteries everywhere, reflecting the closeness to the border with Tibet, and you can see monks practicing and ancient caves where yogis of the past meditated and gained enlightenment.

We walked from Dhankar to Kaza over five days. The stars at night were the clearest I have seen and sitting on the rooftop of a white-painted house in the middle of this nowhere was an other-worldly experience indeed.

Arunachala – Tiruvanimallai

Tamil Nadu in the South of India is a strongly religious state.  Old and impressive Hindu temples dominate everywhere you go with awesome facades, intense ceremonies and usually a lot of fire.

Tiru is in the shadow of the mountain Arunachala which is said to be an emanation of Lord Shiva, one of the main trinity in the Hindu pantheon. It is a beautiful mountain and walking up amongst its verdant hills and away from the honking and mayhem of the centre of the city is a most peaceful experience.

It was here that Sri Ramana Maharshi, a famous Indian saint, sat in a cave for many years and meditated in silence. At the temple in town, where he also lived for some time, his experiences are recorded;  and on the outskirts a small enclave has grown around his ashram, set up by his followers.

In this part of town things are a bit more relaxed and you can spend your days visiting the western gurus who visit to speak of their take on advaita vedanta or the non-dualistic teachings of existence that Ramana originally expressed.

Every month at full moon, thousands of pilgrims walk the 12km around the base of the mountain barefoot, taking time out along the way to give offerings to the hundreds of Shiva Lingam shrines that ring the base, and ending up at the temple for further blessings.

Andaman Islands

Part of India but closer to Burma and Thailand, this set of Islands (forming a large archipelago with the neighbouring but inaccessible Nicobar islands) are as close to the Robinson Crusoe, perfect beach getaway as you can imagine.

Their history is not so great with the British causing great hardship to the indigenous population meaning that many of the tribes have died or have lost their traditional way of life (and why large portions of the islands are now off-limits to tourists).

The main island houses a huge jail which was used for prisoners who were treated extremely harshly and given unfair punishments when they were unable to keep up with the unreasonable targets set in the hard labour work they were sentenced to undertake.

 

Getting away from the history though, you can find almost untouched beaches that are out of a dream. Radha Nagar beach on Havelock Island for example is known for its beautiful sunsets but there are only 2 small guesthouses serving the beach. There are a couple of more upmarket resorts but they are hidden away in the jungle such that when you walk down past the handful of chai shops offering simple thalis you enter out onto the beach and find it stretching as far as you can see in either direction with barely a soul bothering its pristine sand.

The sea is a clear turquoise and the white sand is fine to the touch, jungle rings the shoreline and other than a couple of wooden umbrellas on immediately entering there is nothing man-made in sight.

Walk along to the right and you will find a lagoon with still green water for when you tire of playing in the waves which are frequent but not too strong.

I used to come down at 8 in the morning and there would never be anyone there, I would swim with the dogs who would come to meet me and be amazed that I was so lucky.

4000 islands Laos

Deep in the south of Laos, not far from the border with Cambodia, is this set of islands in the mighty Mekong river. It is home to Irrawaddy dolphins which you can go and see, but for me, it was more about being the most peaceful and beautiful spot to hang out in a hammock.

 

Mount Bromo, Java

The volcanoes in Java are very much active with Gunung Merapi regularly erupting and causing significant damage to the surrounding region. Bromo is a little less dangerous, although a potential eruption here could be devastating.

You walk, or ride a horse, across large flat plateau with nothing except an old temple in between the small town and the crater.

After a climb up the side of the mountain you reach a hole in the earth with smoke gently rising from the innards which are not quite visible . The slope leading down to the pit is reminiscent of the gaping maw that Han Solo narrowly avoids in Return of the Jedi and the security barrier that existed here at one point has now eroded into barely nothing.

As visitors toss their offerings down into the mountain there is often a moment of disquiet as you fear that some over-exuberant fellow may overbalance and follow on down into the middle of the crevasse.

Black Rock City

The home of the Burning Man festival in Nevada. For a month or so the participants transform this site from the most inhospitable desert, with nothing growing on its large flat basin floor and super fine dust covering everything, to something resembling a city, as it might be on Mars.

Taking over the environment by building camps the participants create the vast majority of the city themselves with the organisers only being responsible for some of the main structures.

With massive dance parties all over the landscape, particularly at night when people in EL wire lights fill the entire bowl, art cars parade around pumping out beats and providing their own light show and art exhibits glint and sparkle or flash and titilate depending on their wont.

Burning Man photos by Severin Taranko

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Writing Goals: 5 for Winter

Here I will set my writing goals for the next few months as a way of creating an intention, only in this way will I follow through and prevent my inherent laziness!  As we approach winter and all that entails it seems to me a good time to write, to express fully what is burning inside and to make plans for the future while remaining firmly in the present. Setting these writing goals will help me to tap into that creativity.

Writing Goals -  bring back this creativity

Writing Goals – bring back this creativity

I’ve been a lax blogger in the last few months and while I can blame work and domestic issues the fact is I haven’t prioritised writing in any meaningful way, I haven’t taken the hints to write every day, to make time and focus, turn off the internet and lose myself in the written word for a while.

This is going to change. I feel it has to for my general sanity, so here I set my writing goals:

 

First of all I am going to take part in NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month – otherwise known as November.

The challenge here is to write a novel, from scratch, in the 30 days of the month. The target is 50,000 words, which is a lot considering the pace of London life and the social opportunities that always crop up.

I don’t even have an idea for a plot yet, although I’m thinking it might involve India.

So the first writing goal is to plan for, and then write a novel. Easy.

 

Number two on the list is to blog more regularly. Writing a journal is a good start but putting stuff out there makes me much less likely to become self-indulgent or lazy.

I’ve got several posts I could catch up on, although a lot of them are rather out of date now so it becomes a bit less easy to remember details. Still, I will set the writing goal of 1 blog post a week – minimum.

 

The third writing goal is to use my time more effectively. Get up earlier, stop wasting time on trivialities and spend it on writing, planning and doing practice that energises me.

My daily yoga practice for example has become something of myth and legend. I did practice this morning, and it was great, but I want to do that every morning and face the day rejuvenated.

So the goal is to rise at least an hour earlier than I need to for work. Practice and write before leaving the house. This in itself is what will give me the opportunity to reach the other writing goals in this list since carving out the time to write is the thing that I find hardest.

 

Four is to grasp new opportunities, and follow them through.

It seems simple but I don’t do it often enough. I have a nature that is calm, relaxed and perhaps to the outside seems unflappable but equally unlikely to get over-enthusiastic about things. Positivity is the key and pushing forward with projects that are important to me while only giving the time I absolutely need to for those that aren’t is crucial.

So being open to new things and experiencing whatever comes my way but also to set the time aside to NOT be distracted by messages, tweets and phone calls to actually do what I need to in the first place.

 

Finally, I want to make sure that the things I have going on already come to some fruition.

So, I will write more for the wonderful bods at Le Cool London, I will try to chase the Thai Cookbook that I spent quite a lot of time on last year, and I will continue to write for Weekend Notes, Recipe Yum and the like.

Stir Fried Fresh Beans and Red Curry Paste... Writing goals - publish the cookbook

Writing goals – publish the cookbook

I might never have mentioned I wrote a random e-book about Prince Philip last year and have a couple of others that I started work on, so they need to come to completion.

These are primarily my writing goals for the next few months. Write a novel. Do a minimum of one blog post a week. Keep writing on my existing platforms. Find new platforms. Write some ebooks.

I have other goals too. Learn to drive, speak Spanish, speak more confidently in public and create a lifestyle that allows me to do the things I love more regularly.

 

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Last “Special” dishes and party at Brown Rice/Organic Bistro

It was our last day of cooking, Wednesday, the day Duang closes the restaurant so he proposed that we cook all of the 10 remaining dishes. We didn’t quite achieve that but we certainly made enough to feed the friends that I invited along…

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Next step is to tidy up the manuscript and then approach publishers (Duang has worked with one before).

Exciting times, although I couldn’t rest on my laurels too much since I had to dash over to Laos to renew my visa.

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More Progress at Brown Rice/Organic Bistro

Big progress is being made at Brown Rice – both in terms of the book and the restaurant.
There are pictures above of some of the dishes we have been cooking and some of the new additions at the restaurant such as the Citron Honey Soda which is made from special lime-like fruit that has been delivered from Bangkok – not available anywhere else in Chiang Mai right now…

We made Pumpkin stuffed with Thai custard – appropriate for halloween along with a number of other Pumpkin dishes – Fries with Red Curry Sauce and Stir Fried Pumpkin with egg and sweet basil.

Other favourites were the Gluai Khaek – or Deep Fried Banana and the “Son-In-Law Egg” Boiled and deep fried eggs topped with fried shallots and dried chili and drizzled with Tamarind sauce. So called because cooking an egg in Thailand, as most places in the world is considered the bottom line in cooking ability and this variation on a simple dish represents the Son-in-Law trying to impress by doing something a bit different. It’s very popular amongst children in Thailand.

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Ko Phangan. Part 2

Of late, things have been kind of leading on, one step to the next without too much attention from me. I have been happy to let the universe do its thing and let the experiences that I want to have come to me. (Of course I had to make the initial leap of coming away in the first place and be constantly willing.) It’s all about meeting the right people to resonate with but the place you are in obviously helps you meet those people and be directed onwards.

Allowing for the natural order of things to pan out is sometimes more challenging than it sounds. These connections can be very strong and unnerving as you realise that you have met someone for a very specific purpose, however unlikely it may at first seem.

I guess places and courses can work in a similar way and I was drawn to Ko Phangan despite my previous visit being purely for the Full Moon Party in all its dayglo, bucket swilling glory. That is the main reason most people visit this place but after spending just an hour or so in Haad Rin I was glad to be nowhere near it. I enjoyed my time here 6 years ago but was in a totally different zone this time.

So my arrival, by accident, in what appeared to be the hippy central of the island on a beach so beautiful that I couldn’t believe my eyes when I sat in my hammock, became even more profoundly interconnected by meeting several people within a couple of days of arriving.

I was wandering and wanted to see the local Sri Thanu Wat, set apart from the main street down a dusty side road lined with trees and with nothing else much around. The Wat seemed to be still under construction with bamboo scaffolding surrounding it and piles of yellow dirt and other materials lying about in the sun. In the background a few monks went about their daily business in the hermitage which I decided against entering.

Slightly feeling that I had made a wasted trip up this street I decided to have a look at the little cafe advertising books and home-made brownies in a ramshackle way that I had passed. I entered through the rickety looking furniture with toys strewn about the dirt floor to be greeted by Jenny, 8 months pregnant and also from England. We had a little chat, I ordered a brownie and browsed the books for sale or to borrow, realising that the fantastic selection of interesting spiritual books were all for rent.  I decided to take Eckhart Tolle‘s The Power of Now which I subsequently spent several days reading in a hammock and at every other opportunity. It speaks about living in the present without the distractions of a past and future that only really exist in our minds anyway and fits in with Buddhism, Yoga and all the other stuff that I’ve been learning. He came to a realisation after sinking to a low but seemingly opened his eyes, looked on the world differently and now teaches this around the world to an adoring audience, it’s inspiring actually. Of course, synchronicity meant that this book had come up before and has been mentioned by various people a lot since, I feel it is one I need to buy and revisit often.

Jenny also told me about the buffet that they had on that night of healthy local vegetarian fare which seemed like something not to miss, ever the indecisive diner, I do love a buffet.

So when I turned up that evening with Marion, the beautiful French girl from my guesthouse with an accent to make the knees tremble, we found the place abuzz and ended up sharing our table with a couple who were clearly a sign…

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Ko Si Chang

Discovering more about different forms of Buddhism and attempting to practice meditation further is something I want to make a part of this trip but I was slightly put off if anything by my visit to the Tam Yai Phrik Hermitage on Ko Si Chang.

Not that it wasn’t a beautiful and peaceful setting but I didn’t find it particularly helpful to my practice (or general wellbeing) to get up at 4AM, only have one meal a day and sleep on a reed mat on a concrete floor with a small and ineffective fan.

I arrived on the Island at around 4 after a bus journey that took about two hours longer than it should since we stopped to wait for more passengers almost constantly. I think I could have walked out of Bangkok quicker. The small ferry pier had a selection of seafood to grill and I chose a bit of squid which was served up in a bag with some extremely spicy sauce – I had been warned and it was really good although little was I to know that it would be the last thing I would eat that day.

Arriving at the monastery I was greeted by Bo, a nun who had been there for around a year, who spoke good English and who had actually lived in London amid “lots of stress of my own making.” “What is life for?” she asked rhetorically and I began to think this might be alright.

The hermitage is set on a hill and surrounded by jungle apart from where the quiet area hosting male lay practicioners (i.e. me) which had a spectacular view overlooking the bay.  It was an indicator of how much we would be staying within nature that as she showed me around we had to pause to allow a snake to slither off the path in front of us.

The steep walk up past the Tam Yai Phrik cave, where a dude meditated before the hermitage was established after he brought some relics back from India which began to multiply.  Alongside the monk’s vegetable garden left me sweating with my rucksack, and it wouldn’t be the last time the shady path would leave me exhausted.

Bo explained the routine at the hermitage which involved a lot of personal meditation practice bookended by chanting and the early morning alms collection. So at 5.25, after morning chanting I would accompany the monks down into the village as they collected the food which would make up their meal that day from the various devotees that took this opportunity to give to the sangha. It was still dark when we set off but an hour later the sun was up and it was already pretty sweaty, particularly when I was carrying a heavy bag.  The monks had a good system, they carried their bowls and would receive the alms directly and then, apart from rice they would put the items in my bag which I would then carry until the next collection table (there were about 4 on the route) from where a guy on a motorbike would collect the bounty.  I have to say I didn’t find the monks particularly friendly or welcoming, they didn’t speak a lot of English from what I could tell but while I was trying to follow instructions in this task I was never sure if my help was appreciated or if they saw me as a hindrance.  I was constantly being told to get in front or behind, on the inside or outside.  Theravada Buddhism is all about digging up the roots of attachment that bind you to rebirth and suffering so I can understand that their practice doesn’t particularly  revolve around interaction, indeed most of their time is spent in Vipassana meditation to realise the differentiation between mind and body. This isn’t an easy practice. It’s something I’ve been toying with doing in the format of a ten day retreat but I’m not sure I’m ready for such an austere method with no external stimulation to distract yourself from your own mind.

Here the setup was different to organised centres where silence is imposed and there is a strict timetable to follow each day. You are pretty much left to your own devices during the day but with no teachings as such I was left feeling a little bit lost. Bon showed me some walking meditation techniques and gave me some English books which was nice but as much as I read and get what the monks are trying to achieve through this practice, personally I struggle to realise the potential and grow frustrated, leading at times to more anxiety than when I started!

When we had collected the food from the village we all joined together for breakfast with the dishes that had been presented served up first to the Monks and then the rest of the practicioners, with us helping ourselves to whatever we wanted in a large metal bowl.  There was always a range of different things on offer, from soups, vegetables, curries to fruits, sweets, and selections of soya milk and other drinks.  I was surprised that the offerings weren’t always vegetarian, although they tended to be, but I learnt that, as in Tibetan Buddhism, there is no compulsion for the Monks to be vegetarian, although it is recommended. They are only allowed to eat what they have been given so the alms collection is important although it was supplemented by vegetables and herbs grown in their garden.

The monks only ate this one meal a day while the rest of us were allowed to save some food for later. The first day I went to my bowl and sat on my verandah for lunch as a nice distraction from meditating. Little did I suspect it would send me so far the other way in terms of relaxation… First I had hornets buzzing around my head but it was easy enough to wave them away and then ignore their hovering presence.  Almost as soon as I had managed to do this and settle back to eating there was a thud and a metallic clang as something fell from above into my lap, making me jump and then squeal like a girl as I realised the creature slithering away from me was the snake we had encountered the previous day.

I don’t know where it had been hiding or if it is normal for snakes to jump on top of people but it certainly broke my concentration as I scurried back inside the hut to finish my meal, keeping one eye on the door..

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Bangkok

So I landed in the “land of smiles” less than a week ago and while I’ve been trying to take it fairly easy, which has been helped a lot by jetlag which left me unsure as to when sleep was a good idea. With a few rather restless nights, I’ve still managed to do a lot of what I wanted to in the first few days of my trip.

Why have I come away again so soon you may ask, and it’s a reasonable question. I never really felt like I had finished my last trip, the end was unsatisfactory and although I did enjoy going home and seeing friends and family I never really planned to stay for long so when my bank balance suggested I could travel again I leapt at the opportunity. Thailand is a stepping stone but it’s been fascinating in the last week and I feel like I’ve got closer to the heart of the country already than I did last time I was here.

I decided to try and get more from Couchsurfing on this trip and it has been fantastic although I haven’t stayed with anyone I met several people through Bangkok groups that I joined and they have been extremely enjoyable and rewarding meetings.

I decided to stay away from the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road this time since I thought I was going to have a funny turn in my cell the last time I was there, and went for one of the highly recommended places in the buzzy Silom district, HQ Hostel. The place was kinda nice, in a Crystal Maze Industrial Zone sorta way and I can’t complain about the beds which were very comfortable or the fact that my four bed dorm was empty for all but the first night I was there (when two guys came in at 3AM but then left by the time I got back after going out earlier in the morning). It wasn’t the busiest place then but that did allow me to make full use of the free wi-fi , the only gripe I would have is that after 4 nights for the price of 3 booked online at a discount when I tried to extend one extra night they were insistent they could do nothing about the price (which was nearly double what I’d been paying.) I said thank you and goodbye and walked across the road to the equally good, if not better Smile Society which was actually cheaper and had free breakfast (although I had to share the dorm with some dick who getting up at 5AM decided to re-pack his bag and then managed to drop coins all over the floor… so yeah, compassion but come on dude a bit of forward planning and consideration…)

Anyway, enough about my accommodation, and more about the area… Silom is a big road which leads to Lumpini Park at one end where I spent a couple of hours on two days, chilling by the lake, attempting to meditate, getting bitten by ants and being bemused by joggers (in this heat!?)

It is also home to the notorious Patpong night market, an area which sells tourist tat and is flanked on either side by go-go bars, ping pong shows, massage parlours like “99 Climax Massage” and guys trying to drag you off to their club where they have the “best girls.” It’s not really as seedy as it sounds, with most of the potential customers being faintly amused or frightened tourists. I saw a ping pong show last time I was here though, and I really don’t need to see one again so it didn’t hold that much interest for me, although I did get a banana pancake just down the road.

Also in this area is Soi Convent which has loads of great street food stalls and the Irish pub Molly Malones which I arranged to meet a couple of CouchSurfers in the second night I was there.

After buying a Guiness that was more expensive than in London I wasn’t terribly impressed but then I met Oh and Adeline, from Bangkok and Malaysia respectively and it was nice to meet some people who worked in the area.  We went for street food and ended up eating some sort of pig stomach soup. Despite my reservations, which I think Oh misunderstood, it was actually really nice with the gloopy gravy much better than it sounds…!

After that we hopped on the BTS (skytrain) and went to the Saxaphone pub where a Thai band was belting out live jazz and the singer did a very passable Sinatra impression. I ordered a dark Paulaner beer and felt like I’d never left London (not that I go to classy places like that in London…)

The next day my intentions were bold but not carried out due to being exhausted so I didn’t really do much apart from eat street food until I met Adeline in the afternoon to go and visit some temples for the Buddhist holiday that had left Bangkok something of a ghost town. We didn’t know exactly what the holiday was about, and neither did anyone we had spoken to but as she is also a Buddhist we thought it was a good excuse to do some sightseeing. We jumped on the Chao Phraya river boat to take us down to Wat Arun which is on the other side of the river to most of town and which rises high up like an old Khmer temple, very similar in style to Angkor Wat.

It was busy there with many people circumnambulating with incense, candles and Lotus flowers and monks talking over the PA system incessantly but cheerfully about who knows what. We watched a monk give a blessing and then decided to climb the steep steps which led to the top. It was quite a climb but the views over the river back to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho made it worthwhile, and there was a breeze up there as well!

 

Back across the other side of the river we bought some purple Dragon Fruit juice from a poetic juice maker and then wandered to Wat Mahathat which is very much a working temple and also an International School for Vipassanna meditiation. Unfortunately we arrived too late for the meditation class but a monk gave us some information and sent us to where many people were beginning to set up for what looked like an allnighter in the main temple hall. We got some incense and so on and did a couple of circumnambulations ourselves before moving on.

It was only on leaving the temple that we were able to discover what the festival was about because they had a display exhibition set up which was very good with figures of the Buddha and the story which were very well explained by one of the helpers there who told us that they were celebrating the Buddha’s first teachings at the Deer Park in Sarnath, India.

The next stop was a busy street food stall where we ordered Tom Yam Goong, Drunken Noodles and a pork steak (of all things). All were great and I think we found a really good place, it was packed which is always a good sign but all three dishes were excellent. The Drunken Noodles were spicy, with a real after kick but the Tom Yam was a perfect balance of sour and spicy because often I can find this dish a bit too much and they were extremely generous with the shrimp. The pork was in a rather nice peppery sauce and came as a good counter point to the other two.

At this point I’ll say that I’ve not lived up to any aim to be more vegetarian on this trip, it really seems hard to do here with pork especially prevalent and street food being rather meat heavy.

I’d arranged to meet another couple of interesting sounding Couch Surfers who were going to a free European Union film festival at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre near Siam Square. I was thrilled when I got there because the place was like nothing else I’ve seen in Asia, a real cool spot similar to the South Bank Centre or the Barbican or something like that with lots of art displays, trendy tea shops and the like in a circular building where the middle-class arty types hang out.  Not sure Thailand has an equivalent to the Guardian but this is where the people who would read it can be found rather than the large shopping malls that surround it, so I fit right in.

We were going to see a German film called Run if You Can which was a comedy about a love triangle involving a nervous cellist and a paraplegic which was rather fun and suggested that the German sense of humour is actually quite good, but then I knew that already..

I had contacted Natt and Pap because of their profiles which made them look interesting and I wasn’t wrong. Both had an interest in Buddhism and Pap is a documentary film maker who has been working on a series about festivals around the world among other things. After the film we went to get some dinner and despite the Buddhist festival managed to get some beer as well which helped us immensely to set the world to rights!  I learnt a lot about the political situation which has obviously been turbulent to say the least in the last couple of years in Thailand and we discussed religion philosophy and the difference between East and West.  Not least came the question, why is the East considered the East and the West the West when the Earth is a sphere. I guess the original cartogrophers coming from Europe naturally placed us in the middle but it certainly gets you thinking about the constructs that we live in every day.  We covered Paganism and Animism as well, with Thailand being a Buddhist country but with most houses also containing a shrine to the earth and spirits due to the strong animistic tradition which seems to have strong links with paganism… interesting.

The next day I arranged to meet Adeline again with the plan to go and get a Traditional Thai massage at a place she had been recommended called Health Land. First I met her at a mall where we had a Bubble Tea, or Pearl Milk Tea, something which has become one of those trendy things in London recently but nowhere near as much as it is over here. There were five stalls within 100m of each other all selling the same thing and apparently it is a craze that all the kids are getting into. Not wanting to miss out on this I had to give it a try. It is basically iced tea but with jelly balls of chewy tapioca starch in the bottom. Highly unusual and probably ridiculously unhealthy but still quite a novelty!

Anyway, after this little treat we went and found the massage place which was in a large impressive building that looked like a hotel from the lobby and from the corridors. It was extremely professional apart from the masseuses who seemed to find both of us hilarious, probably because we couldn’t do up our massage pyjamas properly. After two hours of getting pummelled and sat on I could feel every muscle in my body but in a numb good kind of way..!

We wandered around in a bit of a daze for a while after the massage which suggests it was pretty good until deciding to head to an area called Thong Lo which is known for its ex-pat community and food options. Wandering again we found one place that was phenomenal. Housing  Thai, Japanese and Indian restaurants in a wooden structure with pools and water features and a spa in the middle we were shown around by the delightful girl at the front desk who insisted on telling and showing us everything although after looking at the menu we already knew it was way out of our budget. She was great though and waited until we were leaving to make the point that actually if we came back shorts and flip flops were really not acceptable anyway!

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