From Bali to Barmy and Back to Sangkhlaburi

July 22, 2011 - Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Em and I loved Singapore. My particular highlights were the Indian sweets, the abundance of soya-based goods, Beer Fest (quenching my thirst for festivals this year), the art museum and the super tacky but pristine resort island Sentosa; for its fabulous luge. We weren't so fond of the higher prices. We splurged an unexpected SG$28 on Raffles' infamous Singapore Sling, which was actually more than I spent on my flight over there, then made ourselves feel even more sick eating enough free monkey nuts to get our money's worth. The other disappointment was the discovery that the so-called king of Asian fruits, the Durian, (note the capital D) does in fact taste as bad as it smells, which is like rubbish bins. It's actually banned in some countries, and generally in public places... now I understand why. It's definitely punching above its weight with the mangosteen (queen of Asian fruits).

Next stop was the super-wholesome Ubud in Bali. We took a three-hour stroll up through the rice paddies, endured a reasonably ferocious and semi-naked "Balinese" massage and dined at a number of health cafes (raw vegan cakes mmmmm). We also partook in a great cycling adventure - after breakfast looking out over the Batur volcano, we went predominantly downhill, through lots of traditional Balinese sights and sounds (coffee tasting, family compounds, giant trees, etc). The last stint was a twenty-minute uphill mission; un accomplishment leaving me as pink and shiny as my shiny pink T shirt and very much deserving of the ginormaous feast that was to be lunch.

Gili Trewangan was really beautiful, if a little more traveller-touristy than we'd hoped. This was also the case with Bali but I didn't really mind because it was nice to be somewhere with a bit of a buzz after three months in Sangkhla'. It did, however, bring the prices up quite substantially so We scrimped on food - reverting back to brunch and dunch scenarios - and only had a couple of nights out. Which were interesting...

Reputedly Gili T was to be the new Ibiza - from back in the day when it was all Bohemian and lesser-known. This made us very excited, as you can imagine, and we invisaged scenes of dancing on the beach under the stars, to a soundtrack of quality up-and-coming DJs. These illusions were shattered by Rudy's. I suppose you could describe it as a bit like some sort of Jumping Jacks; a sleazy cattle market affair playing a selection of Black Eyed Peas tunes on repeat.. we resigned ourselves to the fact that we are too old for such cavorting and chose instead to enjoy the island's daytime attractions - mainly the pristine white sands and azure blue sea, so not so bad. We also sat among the couples to watch a lovely sunset over a volcano, which was all very romantic.

We spent a day on Lombok, scooting around as many places as our driver could take us before having to get the boat back. It seemed like this was more of a place to get a glimpse of authentic Indonesia, with much cheaper prices and barely a Westerner in sight. Although, saying that, the authenticity of the Sasak village was definitely questionable... The trip brought me back to the days of school trips as it actually resembled the Wealden Down Museum in Sussex - the Sasak way of living is super simple; traditional and very old-fashioned. But the place was suspiciously deserted, unlike the thriving ensemble of modern(ish) houses across the road.

Back on Gili T, we were determined to find out what everyone had been raving about. Each party night had a different venue and according to the guide books Tuesday's shenanigans were to be hosted by Blue Marlin, which promised to play techno! As it was our last night on the island we thought we should give it a go, so we did and were rewarded with some incredible music and a more discerning crowd - less like a students' Union and more like the tropical disco we'd hoped for. We left the island satisfied that it had eventually lived up to its name.

Contrastingly, we were initially pleasantly surprised by Kuta. Having been warned repeatedly that we would not like it I was adament that we skip it and spend our precious time somewhere more authentic. But Emma wanted to be near the airport and I was advised that it was the best place to start life as a surfer, so we braced ourselves and headed over with low expectations.

But alas, we thoroughly enjoyed it! Accommodation was still on the expensive side (high season - a small price to pay for the sunshine that I am so missing now) but food was a lot cheaper and it had a great holiday buzz. So here I took to the seas for my surfing debut...

More difficult than the actual surfing was trying to find the right tuition. Numerous independent self-labelled teachers patrol the beach offering their services for dirt cheap prices; which I was advised were just as good as the bigger establishments. But led by renowned pervy "Kuta Cowboys" these lessons promised to give you more for your money in more than just the surfing sense, as was the case with the offerings from various men at the club: "oh I'll teach you surfing" was everyone's favourite chat-up line. I chose to bypass the sleaze and paid a bit extra for a Pro Surf lesson.

But you can't buy talent. I was definitely disappointed to find I was not a natural, as I'd secretly hoped, and up riding big, exciting waves after my first lesson. There's something to be said for my ballet dancer's balance as I was standing fairly early on, but that was all irrelevant once my "off-the-scale-weakness" had set in (I was exhausted just carrying the ginormous board across the beach). The sea was so strong and I was so feeble! And getting myself up into a standing position was more a case of carefully arising from a plie due to my lack of upper body strength, which left no time to pay attention to waves and suchlike... I suppose, as Emma pointed out, those stereotypical surfer types' muscles are for more than just aesthetic purposes.

The sun set on our trip in Ulu Watu; a temple perched on the edge of a dramatic cliff. We sat at the top of a huge open-air auditorium and watched a traditional fire dance. This turned into a strange pantomime affair but the real attraction was the spectacular sunset behind; silhouetting the temple and the cliff and turning the sky orange. Ahh.

As a Matter of Fact Matter really doesn't Matter..

The final stage of my adventure took me to Vipassana; the ten-day no-communication meditation course that I've been wanting to do for so long. Apart from the meditation training aspect of things, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect; old students would praise the course profusely, stating boldly that it had changed their lives, but wouldn't specify exactly how or what took place. So I arrived with an open and ready to be trained mind!

Upon arrival we were asked to surrender all instruments of temptation; phones, ipods, books and suchlike; leaving us completely cut off from the outside world. The "noble silence" was to commence in the evening so we had a couple of hours to settle in and chat to others, if we so wished. But as I sat enduring the conversation of a rather irritating Polish woman I couldn't wait for the silence to commence. She was informing me a little too loudly that her neighbour was wearing a wig.

The so-called "basic accommodation" was quite lost on me - we were allocated a small cottage each, with en-suite bathroom and lots of little extras that you might find in a nice hotel - big, fluffy towels, umbrella, torch... Quite the luxury treatment for someone accustomed to Baan Unrak's wooden volunteer home! Similarly, we were asked to "make do with the simple vegetarian dishes" but meal times were an absolute banquet; with a vast array of exciting healthy dishes and an abundance of fresh fruit for breakast - grapefruit, mangosteen, papaya, pineapple... It was just a shame there wasn't much need for it all. As it happens, sitting completely still for twelve hours a day doesn't give you much of an appetite.

Throughout the day we would all file silently into the meditation hall, where we'd sit cross-legged on our allocated cushions and receive instruction from a recording. Despite feeling like a mixture of school assembly, sitting exams and some sort of authoritarian regime, this was strangely enjoyable. The mornings and evenings especially so because they'd dim the lights and we'd all wear pyjamas and shawls, and everything was quiet except for the sounds of the rainforest outside.

Also, aside from the meditation, there's something quite indulgent about sitting alone with your own mind for a period of time. And this was half of how the course worked; the main aim was to focus your mind according to the tuition (basically observing the presence of each part of your body; starting with your breathing, your nose and eventually moving from head to toe) but the undercurrent was observing your own inevitable procrastinary thoughts. The idea is to quieten your mind so that you can listen to your so-called sub-conscious thoughts, and on the way down lots of things pop up.

In the beginning I was just really tired (the day started at 4am) and kept falling into a sort of semi-conscious haze. In this state I would enjoy some rather magical hallucinations; whilst concentrating on my breathing my nose turned into my purse and I got annoyed because someone placed a receipt on it. Then on another occasion a very small spoon was passed down to me from a very large hand, which on contact jolted and threw the spoon up over some mountains, from behind which a line of piglet pepper pots came marching, singing songs from The Sound of Music... All of this was viewed on Gameboy format. Thus any prior concerns were dispelled - sitting alone for twelve hours a day was far from boring.

Once I'd woken up a bit I was going through career options and deciding what I wanted to do with my life (rebelliously as we were supposed to be focusing on the present) and settled on the idea of eventually running my own health retreat, with yoga and meditation tuition. I had planned to revisit India and take a yoga teaching training course and was mentally constructing a menu.. green tea and coconut milk ice cream, yum. Oh no, wait, focusing on my breath...

So the first day I was full of the joys of spring - loving the meals and the venue (tucked away up a hill in the rainforest) and future planning.

Day Two, the fluffy clouds cleared and concerns that I never even realised I had seemed to surface - pensions, property ladders and my liver?! Yuck. We were supposed to observe them and let them pass, understanding that nothing is permanent and any sensation, be it good or bad, will eventually pass. The discourse in the evenings taught us that it's the mind's reaction to sensation that causes unwanted emotion - misery, craving, anger and suchlike, so the trick is to remain equanimous. And that is what the course aims to do - sharpen your mind so that you can sort of merge the conscious with the unconscious.

The best thing about it is that it is completely realistic, scientific if you will, and that you can see how it all works. The glass is both half full and half empty and you need to work honestly to earn the means with which to fill it. "The truth", as it is so described, is that we are all made up of billions of atoms constantly buzzing around, always changing. Nothing will ever be the same again. Initially this scared me - as the tingly sensations passed over my eyes I felt my crow's feet forming and worried that I should be out making the most of my youth rather than sitting, eyes closed, in a meditation hall... But after I'd processed it all it did seem quite reassuring. And at the end when you've trained your mind to feel all of the subtle sensations and you're picturing yourself as these moving particles it does indeed feel very peaceful.

I could see why the silence was necessary. Throughout the whole experience you remained completely in the zone - I was even dreaming of the technique and sweeping sensations from head to toe. Similarly, in the day, consciousness was still merging into sleep and moving the focus from each part of the body turned into analysing the contents of my bag (rummaging through my bag is something I had been doing constantly whilst living out of a suitcase the past month). From behind the partition, the men would file into the hall as toy red buses and as I "swept" the tingling sensations down through my arms my hand turned into a tray of coffee making paraphinalea... Bizarre.

It also became clear why you weren't supposed to do any yoga. Although delicious on aching muscles (almost worth having the pain in the first place), this would also take you out of the zone. Plus the pain is actually a very useful tool in mastering the technique - it initally helps you to feel sensation and then, once you've acquired the tingling sensations, you learn to break it down and see it for what it is - a sensation that will arise and pass away. Which is how you are training yourself to react to emotion.

Towards the end I was burdened by the skill of multitasking. Whilst unable to perfect this in day-to-day life, my mind was annoyingly capable of following meditation instruction as well as plotting my novel. Trying to restrict this distraction to break times, I resolved to ship myself off somewhere remote after my remaining three months at Baan Unrak, and put it all into words. A very exciting prospect, this was helping me come to terms with the inevitability of leaving my little cocoon and venturing back out into the real world.

And so it ended... Huddled in one student's cottage, we stayed up past our curfew and farmiliarised ourselves with the art of talking again. I learnt that most of the participants were Wealthy Thais; pale and Chinese-looking with perfect English/American accents. This explained the luxury of the whole thing - to me it was like a plush resort, with elaborate hanging branch ornaments and everything!

It also transpired that the annoying Polish woman from the beginning was actually quite a character. Despite having participated in fifteen Vipassana courses she insisted she had not wanted to do any of them, but that fate was dragging her kicking and screaming towards enlightenment. She criticised Goenke (recorded teacher) for having an ego as big as the newly built Golden Pagoda in Mumbai (a huge structure built to house Vipassana students regardless of the terrorism threat that it poses) and told us tales of participants in India who would chat during meditation and idolise the teachers (precisely what we are instructed not to do). She said she much prefers to occupy herself with a bottle of whiskey and her numerous boyfriends but this only causes her problems so she resorts back to Vipassana... and each time, slowly but surely, she is seeing things a little clearer.

Although I did not voice it (walls were very thin and it seemed a tad disrespectful) I was also of the opinion that he did not practise what he preached with regards to the ego. All of the drawn-out chanting was somewhat self-indulgent and especially frustrating on the last day - it went on sooo long! To the extent that I thought it was intended to test out our newly developped abilities to resist reaction and not get annoyed/crave its cessation. To give you an idea of what it sounded like, I initially pictured him as some sort of Burmese Henry VIII because he had such a deep, boomy voice. And when he chanted he'd try and warble a bit like Britney Spears, but much less in-tune. Quite the contrast to the beautiful chanting of my teacher in the ashram! Some of his stories also came across as a little boastful during the conclusion but I suppose, having millions of followers, it must be hard not let it go to your head. He is only human, as Bagoushka pointed out; despite years of teaching he is still yet to reach enlightenment...

These are minor points though. You can't argue with the technique because at the end of the day (or ten) it does actually work and each person benefits in their own individual way from the experience - explaining the mystery that surrounds people's opinions of it. I will certainly be going back for more (this is just the beginning!). On the last day I asked if I could be a server (volunteer there) but unfortunately they only take Thai speakers at this particular location. So I cleaned my area to the best of my abilities and resolved to serve when back in England, and perhaps in return was rewarded with good luck and free transport all the way home - the handsome policemen hitched me a lift on the back of a truck and the weather held out the entire distance. So I enjoyed the beautiful scenery without it raining on my lovely sunny, contented parade.



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