Eat, Pray, Pad Thai (part one)

I recently spent some time in Thailand, my first visit ever, to train to become a yoga instructor.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I kind of reached the point over the years that it seemed like I would never get to do it, so one day in May I cracked and booked flights as a few weeks off work. Waiting in terminal 5 in Heathrow, again my first time (South African Airways operates out of T3, and that is the main reason I hit Heathrow in the first place). I wrote the majority of this on the day of my return flight, my birthday, drinking mini bottles of prosecco in multiples.

 

The flight to Bangkok was uneventful enough, despite some pretty intense turbulence that lasted the width of India and the Andaman sea. It seemed that we’d never get past India, I knew it was big but not hours worth at 30,000ft. I arrived in BKK confused and tired. All I wanted was coffee, but I didn’t have it in me to try order one (ridiculous, I know, but hey I was tired). On the 50-minute domestic flight to Koh Samui we were rapidly served a full meal of spicy shrimp and rice at 11am. No options, no meat or vegetarian choice, no lacto-ovo-paleo-whatever else option. I tried the food, the chillies were enormous and it was pretty delicious. I just couldn’t go on though – all I wanted was the coffee, dark and bitter. I sipped this and watched the islands pass by as we flew over the Gulf of Thailand.

 

Flying over Koh Phangan

Hot, humid midday air hit me as I got off the plane and stepped on the golf buggy/childrens fun train hybrid to bring us to the terminal. Samui airport is small and surrounded by tropical flowers. It’s also mostly outdoors – there are few walls (something I would soon get used to during my trip) so it really was one with nature. I was here at last, to learn to teach yoga, and perhaps even ‘find myself’, who knows.

 

I collected my baggage from the ‘international’ carousel – one of only two. My teacher was waiting outside as promised with my name on a mini whiteboard to bring me to our accommodation. She kept mentioning how she was a slow driver, however as we weaved through moped traffic, potholes, and at one point directly on the runway (a shortcut) I realised this may not be the whole truth. Either that, or people in Thailand drive faster on average.

 

The international carousel at Samui airport

At the accommodation, I fell straight onto the bed and slept fitfully for a few hours after the flight, surfacing only in the early evening. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast over Myanmar at dawn. The walk to the main beach road was short, lined with small shacks, shops, and stray dogs napping in the glow of dusk. There are no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings on Samui – apparently there was one traffic light on the neighbouring island Koh Phangan but locals destroyed it, preferring the game of chance they’ve played for years. 

 

I knew the beach was on the other side of the main road, but was obscured by buildings. I finally found a path through an overgrown car park area, then realised once I was on the beach how hilariously dodgy that would have been back in London. I’m in paradise at last, but the entrance is through an abandoned stretch of dodgy land. The beach was beautiful – I’ve seen some beaches in my time but have always pined for the perfect tropical paradise, lined with coconut palms. This was it – a toe in the water proved what I’d read, that it is as warm as bathwater.

 

Bangrak beach at sunset

I fell back into a fitful sleep back at the accommodation, and was woken by a female voice calling out late in the evening. I waited for the longest time, hoping they would go away, before finally heading out to find two Dutch girls. They were leaving, they said, because there were millipedes on their bedroom walls. I assured them I didn’t work there, and that also there seemed to be a lot of millipedes around anyway. The teacher had told me there were 4 other students joining class the next morning, I thought these girls were part of this number. After they left, I sat in the dark in bed wondering ‘what on earth have I done?’ ‘Is it really that bad?’ ‘Should I also leave?’ In my notebook, I constructed a calendar with which to tick off the days, as if I could even tick off hours passed it would get me home sooner.

 Top: my room for the duration of the course; bottom: a chill-out area on our patio

The next day meditation started at 7am. Three other bodies found their way to the patio from their respective bungalows. Turns out the Dutch girls weren’t students, we were awaiting one more girl to join us a few days later, and the other students were fairly normal. Thank goodness.

We sat on the beach, joined by a friendly-ish stray dog our teacher called ‘Goofy’ (his real name was Moo Ping which means BBQ pork, his favourite thing to steal from the food stall he hangs out by). We meditated on the root chakra mantra ‘lam’; although I meditated on the beach, the view, and the little hermit crabs scuttling across the sand in front of us.

After meditation was a coffee break initiated by me – I had brought a tin of Nescafé Azera from the UK, my only comfort – I could not deal with caffeine withdrawal symptoms on top of culture shock and jet lag. This post-meditation coffee break became a daily ritual for us, necessary energy for the day ahead.

A 90-minute yoga sequence followed coffee – on the first day it was a welcome novelty. There was a lovely open-air shala (yoga studio) at our teacher’s house deep in the Samui jungle. The following days, when I realised we would repeat the same sequence every day I felt disheartened – the humidity, sweat, mosquitos seemed too much at times. 

 Our own jungle shala

We learned about yoga philosophy, sat on the patio and drew our own yantras (like Buddhist and Hindu mandalas) for the elephant god Ganesh, and wrote down 10 wishes. This was the perfect time to do so, our teacher told us, as the course started on the new moon which is intention-setting time. The table – a standard issue wooden picnic table – was nicknamed the ‘yoga’ table due to its propensity for collapsing to one side if someone got up. I later worked out it could not be a yoga table for that very reason – it should have widened its stance.

 My yantra

Our fifth student joined us a day or two later, a spur-of-the-moment flight from Boston. I felt for her, we had already become accustomed to doing the yoga sequence amongst the millipedes. Turns out I had nothing to worry about – she was a plucky Russian native who fitted right in to our motley crew.

Over the following days we meditated and asana-d our way through the chakras from root to crown. The second day (sacral chakra), I struggled with moving my body in the heat, some emotions during the tough yoga practice, and with unexplained nausea that sat in the pit of my stomach for days. I thought: this is going to be a long slog.

 

We had breakfast and lunch during our school day, served initially by the accommodation’s housekeeper. The usual cook, Ronald (not his real name), was in Phuket trying to bail a friend out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit, apparently. Once he was back we enjoyed salads with exotic dressings, jerusalem artichokes and blue rice noodles. After the first few days of an egg-heavy ketogenic diet, and suffering with this nausea, I spoke up. ‘I don’t mind eggs, I just barely eat them at home. I’m struggling with having them every day’. I asked for at least a smaller portion. It became an in-joke with my classmates every time we were served eggs, I’d brace myself and mix each small bite of egg with as much of the exotic local veg garnish as I could fit on my fork. Eggs or tofu, or eggs and tofu – we had it all.

 

A typical lunch

I found a kindred spirit in the only guy on the course, a half Brit-half Singaporean who had been through the UK private boarding school system. Every day after food during our lunch break we would sneak down the road to the local French bakery for good coffee, and every other day a buttery pain au chocolat or chocolate-laden sacristain twist. We chatted about home, our jobs, and shared stories of boarding school shenanigans. At dinner, it was always us ordering Chang or Singha beers to quench our thirst. We’d decided early on that we’d need every little bit of fuel and comfort to get us through 11 hours of yoga every day, and as drinking tap water isn’t a thing you may as well order a beer.

 

One dinner-time restaurant stood out to me, a small unassuming spot close to our local 7-11 store. In front was a cart where broth for noodle soup was made, and in the back were a few basic chairs and tables. The chicken noodle soup was cheap and delicious, the fried morning glory on the side (kind of a cross between kale and tenderstem broccoli) spicy, crunchy and rich with garlic and oyster sauce.

 Chicken noodle soup, morning glory, and fried pork.

One Sunday evening we were taken to the local ‘green market’ after class, where our cook and co-host (who had returned from multiple trips to the mainland and Phuket to save the friend from jail) had a stall selling salads and a range of kombuchas. ‘He’s a microbiologist and an ex-rockstar’ our teacher assured us. I took this with a few grains of salt, this guy apparently lived in ‘a shed up the mountain’ and wore tatty, too-big chino cut-offs. The green market was in the back garden of a bar, and attracted a strange mix of eclectic expats getting drunk on wine and smoking cannabis. ‘Cannabis is now legal on Samui’ we were assured, however a quick google search proved this to not be the case. We would certainly not be taking any chances.

 

After the first few days I’d gotten used to our daily routine, my body slowly becoming stronger with every sun salutation I did. I got used to being sweaty – dripping off me at every opportunity, and not wearing makeup. I also got used to big, ugly mosquito bites all over, and dark blue residue from the yoga mats sitting underneath my nails. I didn’t look at myself in the small mirror in the shared bathroom, preferring to get in and out of there as quickly as possible. Early on I discovered that I shared the bathroom with a tiny little jumping frog, and that the pipe from the sink just drained onto the bathroom floor. It had very few walls, as did the bathroom at the yoga shala.

Bathroom frog

From the beginning, I had to accept that I was here, I’d chosen to be here, and pretty much had to see it through. I had to surrender and just go with the flow, something I realised I’m not good at. Back home I felt like a bit of a hippy in the city, but here in the jungle with locals and on the beach with dreadlocked, tye-dye wearing gap year students I felt like a type-A control freak.

To be continued, read part 2 here