I willingly surrender my mobile phone and camera. My passport, anything that I can read or write on, my pens; into the safe they go. The registration fee for 10 days, including food and shelter, is 2000 baht (70AUD). I give all my money and tell them I will send more. (I meant it at the time; turns out they would prefer me to donate it to another charity as it’s unlikely to arrive through the mail). I sign a form agreeing to follow instructions and abide by the rules completely. Room key 111 is free. A woman hurriedly scans my form, they won’t feed me Dairy. You’re a beginner? At 4pm the Abbot, Ajhan Poh makes a welcoming talk- he tells us; he wants to offer us ‘the best thing in Thailand’- Buddhism. We sit on the stone floor of a large open-air meditation hall, facing 3 ponds surrounded by reeds.
We are at the International Dharma Heritage. A funny little nun leads the tour around the grounds. The men and women have separate sleeping areas, and the boundary is a ditch. There are hot springs, two for men and one for women. The people here are English speakers (or non-speakers, as the case may be). We collect a drink bottle, a blanket and a mosquito net, and cushions for the meditation hall. Our bed is a cement slab raised off the ground, with a ‘wooden pillow’- a block of wood with a bit cut out for your head.
(I undertake the training to intend not to sleep or sit on luxurious beds and seats.) At 6pm in the eating hall we drink ‘tea’; today it’s chocolate milk, they give me sweet juice instead. Because Tal and me arrived late, we sort out details while a video about Buddhadasa Bikkhu, the founding monk, plays on the TV above our heads. There is time for some final question and answers, and then at 7.15pm, the silence begins. We walk wordlessly past one another, heads bowed.
In my cement room, I unpack my backpack. A fellow meditator-to-be leaves her new purple sarong, purchased for a friend, outside my door. I didn’t bring one, and we must bathe completely covered. I hang my clothes on coat hangers on a piece of rope in my room. As well as the allocated blanket, I have the blue blanket from British Airways. The lights go out at 9.30 and silence falls.
I don’t mind the silence, really. I must learn to master my mind though. I came into this with knowledge of the power of the mind, and the hold my own mind has over me. The thought of sitting alone with it scares me. I am wary at the self-destructiveness that will arise in me if I am left to sit with myself.
Day one, day one, start over again… Step one, step one, with not much making sense just yet. I’m faking it, til I’m pseudo making it, from scratch, begin again. But this time I as I, not as we. (I undertake the training to intend not to dance, sing, play or listen to music, watch shows, wear garlands, ornaments and beautify myself with perfumes and cosmetics.)
At 4am the bell begins to ring. Each time it slowly tolls, it sounds like it will be the last time, such is the pause afterwards. But it continues on and on, gently ringing until we are all up. Today, the first day, I wrap myself in the sarong and walk to wash myself. The dorm is a large square, with a garden in the middle and 60 rooms around the outside, facing inwards.
There are two big old trees in the middle on the grass, and 3 large round cement tubs filled with water along each side. At the far end is a row of toilets and the square main cement tubs. I cut the corner and as I walk toward them in the twilight, I find myself stumbling in a drainage ditch. I inwardly curse. On the tub edges are plastic coloured dishes, which you fill with water to pour on yourself. Holding the sarong in my teeth, I pour water underneath. The water is cold. I dress in unfamiliar clothing, not singlets or dresses. I have to be covered from shoulder to knee at all times. When I guess it’s about 430, I make my way in the dark to the meditation hall for the morning reading.
We will sit in the same places each time to avoid confusion. I am in the women’s section, the right, at the back, on the outside. To my right is a section of stone floor, then grass and trees. The weather in Thailand has been so warm and balmy; I haven’t needed my favourite purple jumper, which is with my luggage in Bangkok. Now as we sit for meditation between 4.45 and 5.15am, I miss it. I have such dislike for being cold. (Day 3 I finally approach a nun, she gives me donated jumpers to choose from). From 5.15 to 7am we do ‘Mindfulness in Motion’- this replaces yoga as no one volunteered to instruct. I am disappointed. The sun rises half way through, at 6am. This is the only time are allowed to lie on the floor of the meditation hall and I make the most of it. I follow along at times, and do some of my own stretching. Noteworthy is an exercise where you stand and wave you arms, behind and then out in front and then behind, for 500 repeats. Pushing up in front, letting swing back. And repeat. Apparently the Abbot does thousands of them. At 7, an orange clad monk speaks to us about Dharma and meditation.
At 8, we file to the food hall. A large group of people walking in utter silence, slowly, up a dirt path. Today, everyone is diligent and conscientious, intentionally measuring their steps. We queue for a stainless steel bowl and spoon, and ladle food from a large stainless steel vat. For breakfast, warm rice gruel, with corn and other small pieces of veges floating round in it. A platter of leafy green lettuces and cucumber, a platter of spiky red lychees and small sweet bananas, and a tub of green tea. We sit women to the left and men to the right. The food reflection is read and we repeat, ‘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 stay 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.’ We are encouraged to eat slowly, to put the spoon down between mouthfuls and not put more food in our mouth until we have swallowed. The diet is vegan and pleases me no end. There is a lot of food and I eat until full. Out the back, four tubs of water; to remove solids, to wash with soap, to rinse, to rinse again. They have asked us to aim to keep the final tub free from any solids or suds. Separate tubs to wash our cups, stacked upside down to air-dry. Around 9, I lie down on my cement slab and stare at the ceiling. I knock on the door of the Thai woman who lives in our dorm to turn off the lights and supervise- I point to the weeping gash on my left ankle. Funny thing, this whole time I have been travelling, I have not injured myself. Until now, very few bruises, cuts knocks or scrapes- I struggle to remember any. She pours Bedatine on it and applies a Band-Aid.
I collect a rake and a tub, move to the area I need to rake. The grass has many roots and is tangled together. Ants crawl on my legs and bite me, getting all over my white fisherman’s pants, which now have blood and pus on them from my ankle. In frustration I pick up the leaves one by one, empty them into the tub, return the rake. The bell rings at 10am for our Dharma talk. A large thin mat, two flat cushions, two plump cushions.
Our feet must not face toward the speaker at any time, it is considered rude. As is lying down in public, much to my disdain. When my lower back is out of alignment and hurting, the quickest way to fix it- flat on my back and relax until it crunches back into place. Not so here. We may sit in lotus, half lotus, or on our knees Japanese style. Small wooden squares make a mini seat, and those with back problems (AKA whingers) can sit by request on a chair at the back. As time passes I become more creative with the cushions. Each day we are spoken to about Buddhism basics, in particular the teachings of Buddhadasa Bikkhu, who founded Wat Suan Mokkh. As I come to understand their point of view: The cause of all suffering, or ‘dukkah’ is ignorant contact, when we forget the basic truths of life- Impermanence, and Not-self. Forgetting the basic truths leads to ‘Upadana’- grasping, clinging, attachment. The aim is to free yourself from this state, through practising Mindfulness of Breathing, Anapanasati.
At 11 o’clock we learn Walking Meditation. The aim is to wholly envelop your mind in paying attention to the movements of your feet. To do this, you must move very slowly. Imagine your foot lifting off the ground, moving through the air, lowering to the ground, pressing down. Lifting lifting lifting, moving moving moving, lowering lowering lowering, pressing pressing pressing, for 45 minutes. The pond to the left of the meditation hall has on it a bridge leading to a small island in the centre. Each day it is well populated with people and I keep it for later. When I eventually venture there, the ground of the small island is covered in ants. There is a low tree and I return often to sit between its branches, wrapping myself around and watching the other people slowly walk. I have one moment where I look around, and everyone is deep in concentration on walking so painstakingly slowly, and I notice the ludicrous, almost insane nature of this (although in truth it is no less sane than normal human reality) but for a clear moment I feel as if I am in a mental asylum.
45 minutes sitting meditation. The wound on my ankle is weepy and in the heat attracts flies while I am attempting to sit quietly. They bite. The water we bathe in is communal tap water, when the sore becomes yellow, I show it to the nun and she gives me saline solution to bathe it in. I attend to small details. Each morning, each break, I apply fresh Vaseline to my tattoo. With a small pouch of washing powder, I sit and wash my clothes in buckets. I use the dishes to fill the buckets and worry about contaminating the well with powder. The clothes dry quickly on the strip of washing line outside my door.
I learn to sleep sitting up leaning back against the pole. I sit on my knees with cushions under them, put my head on my thighs, and sleep. I sit with one leg forwards and one backwards, bend onto my knee, and sleep. I rest my forehead on the floor, intending to rest, and sleep. At 12.30 the bell tolls and we go for lunch. File silently up the path each time, queue and fill our bowls, read the food reflection. This will be our final meal for the day. (I undertake the training to intend not to eat in between after noon and before dawn.) There are a few dishes to choose from, curries and rice, as well as lettuce, bananas and lychees and tea again. Eating slowly until I am overfull, to last all afternoon, with a couple of cups of tea. Doing everything carefully, washing up the plate, cup and spoon. I develop a routine, leaving the cup on the sink, washing the bowl and coming back for the spoon. Minor details.
I experiment with seating, most days facing outwards with my back to the male half of the room, looking across the steel boundary to a dirt parking lot with a rainforest hill. Sometimes Thai workers drive along the road in their tractors, motorbikes or cars. Cats mill around near the kitchen. One such tabby waltzes through the breakfast hall while we are eating in our carefully constructed silence and meows, prompting one of the participant’s response of an aggressive irritable shhh! One day, the renga tall pretty girl who is always playing with the animals, hands me a purring cat. Later I sit with in the courtyard on a straw mat and stair at the roof with the noisy cat purring; it is kind of mangy around the mouth and ears, I think back to Morocco and wonder if I will catch something.
On Day One at lunch, an American guy is yelling at the nuns. They are mild-mannered and do not yell back. His girlfriend’s mother (?) died a week before he entered, and he wants them to give him his phone out of the safe to call her. He has signed a form that he will not use it while he is here. He yells at them they are fake Buddhists. They suggest to him that he can leave. He does not. They give him the phone and usher him outside the gate to use it. His manner shakes me, he swears and is abrasive. I wonder if he is a voice for the frustration of the group. I stay away from him when walking the grounds.
In the breaks after filling my belly, I go to my room to lay down and fall asleep, waking again when the bell tolls to meditate. I do my chore irregularly, sometimes in the morning or afternoon or evening. After the fiasco of the first day, I rake in places where those ants are not. I am unsure exactly where I am supposed to be raking; I check the chore book at breakfast and lunch. There is supposed to be another girl raking as well but I don’t see her; perhaps she rakes immediately after eating. Must be in a different spot though, because each day I have leaves to remove. I take satisfaction in the clear patch of grass immediately to my right when I sit in silence.
The bell tolls for meditation instruction. The British monk speaks to us daily about Anapanasati, working through it chronologically, building our knowledge and understanding to enhance our ‘practice’. (In the afternoons we listen to recordings from the Buddhadasa, which are fascinating but unfortunately usually end with me asleep.) In the space of walking meditation I go into the courtyard around our rooms and walk. I follow the path methodically around and let my mind become restful. I notice details; particular girls clothes, how their rooms are kept. I notice that most of the women have bought large suitcases packed full with many things. Their clothes hang in their rooms and fill the rope. I take comfort in the simplicity in my room; I left most of my things in Bangkok and have only the bare essentials with me.
4.15, sitting meditation. I have never been much of a meditator. I find the pressure of forcing a not calm mind to calm itself distressing. When the lady at check-in asked me if I meditate, I replied, Sometimes when stretching or in the shower. I love to lie in the shower, under the steady beating pressure of the water and let my mind be calm and still. My energy cleansed. The things that bubble to the surface of mind at such times are usually useful. I have read and heard much of the benefit and value of meditation. I don’t want to push myself too much too soon, so when meditation times begin, I focus first on finding comfort and not wriggling too much. I try occasionally to ignore discomfort and pain in my body rather than run from it. It is enough to be here in this time of reflection. I watch my thoughts carefully, I observe, but I allow them liberty to wander. When I am tired, I allow myself to sleep to help the time pass.
At 5pm, Chanting books are distributed and we echo the monk ‘Buddham saranang gacchāmi, Dhammam saranang gacchāmi, Sangham saranang gacchāmi’- To the Buddha, the dhamma and the sanga for refuge we go. All day I have sat with my new tattoo facing up to me. In the breaks I have applied Vaseline, tending to it. Now we chant- Life Does Not Last, Death Is Long Lasting. Inevitably I Must Die, Death Ends The Cycle Of My Life. Life Is Uncertain, Death Is Most Certain. They are willing us to remember the impermance of life. (This I have realised, when I left Norway I wrote to Endre, Life is impermanent, Life is beautiful. One, or the other, why both?!).
The chanting follows with Alas! This Body will not last. When Consciousness Is Gone, They Throw It Away, To Lie, Upon The Ground, Like A Fallen Log, Useless… I don’t want to say it. I only know one dead person and the thought of his body thrown on the ground with dismissal makes me deeply distressed. Tears.
After the chanting is Loving Kindness. The nun speaks of forgiveness, having a gentle heart, love for the family, and such. She recommends exercises and we practice some. She tells us of a young man who ran away from home and lived on the streets. He became a beggar with no food clothing or shelter. A woman took him into his home and he was incredibly grateful for the meal, shower and clean clothes she gave him. He felt eternally indebted to her. And this is what our mother and fathers do for us all our childhood. I can relate to him as I’ve experienced this incredibly gratitude for very small things, and begin to think about my family throughout the loving kindness. Soon I return home to a family I haven’t seen in over 7 months. I feel wary and as the time in here slowly passes, my mind pulls up old memories of them. We will need to talk.
At 6pm we file up to the hall for tea. In the afternoons I sit in a small wooden hut across from the food hall, alone usually. I prefer it, finding the presence of another unsettling. It pulls me out of myself, distracts, and evokes an aversive reaction. I see myself tense and begin to watch myself when another is near, rather then watching my experience. There is a long trail of ants opposite me. The ants here have more character than in Australia, often they are bigger, most are black, none green or red. On a path I watch them quickly gather stones to build a tunnel up and around their track. I absorb my attention in them as I slowly drink my warm cup of tea in the afternoons, and increasingly after meals. On Day 4 when I am Breaking, this is where I sit. I study the ants, their diligence and single focus movements. I wonder what they think- if they think, what their organising concepts look, feel and sound like. I wonder what motivates them. I wonder what it would be like if I had the work ethic of an ant, I wonder what it is like for them to stop and touch each other in the way they do. I’ve since heard that ants don’t sleep. I take comfort in their rhythmical movements, their large sense of purpose held in small forms. I am coming to peace with them. One day I sit and there is a decaying frog that they are taking to pieces slowly. I am repulsed; and then come to accept it for what it is. In chore time, one of the participants is cleaning and moves to remove the frog. I hiss at him and shake my head. He leaves it. Until the next day, when it is gone, swept away. Humans interfering, enforcing their will, resisting the way things are and wanting to change it. (I undertake the training to intend not to take away any breath.)
This time is also allocated for bathing in the hot springs. My hair is freshly dreaded and my ankle freshly tattooed and neither are supposed to get wet immediately. So I delay. Having something to look forward to helps immensely. (With each passing day, it is easier to convince myself to see it out. I habitually resign small pleasures for the following day).
There is a grass path leading to the springs, new territory. It is lined with coconut trees, they are all around and gardeners tend to them. The water in the spring is hot. There are cement steps in, and trees hang over it. Mosquitoes sometimes buzz around. The ground is mushy, laid with wooden planks. The spring appears to be naturally formed, with muddy walls and foliage. I cautiously dip my hair. With undignified, naughty pleasure, I float on my back. To the right is a tree archway, beyond which the planks end and the spring continues. None of the girls usually swim there: I want to. I am afraid of water, of bugs and insects and water creatures. Each day I cautiously venture a little further, frustrated with my own fear. The water is nurturing, calming, and coming out of the pond, even the Thai air feels crisp. There are two showers where the girls get nekked (despite protocol) and rinse.
At 7.30 the bell tolls. We sit and meditate in the hall. At 8.00 together we walk slowly around the ponds in single file. It is surprising and enjoyable, a large group of people walking silently and mindfully under the stars and moon. We pause and face in towards the water, barefoot under the sky in silence. When it rains for nighttime meditation, the woman walk in single file silently around the outside of the main meditation hall. The small nun leads, and pauses to face inwards after sometime. Some girls in the line annoy me, by having clicky hips or by walking with odd timing, or not by leaving even gaps, walking faster than the nun and then making everyone in the line stop when they run out of space. The rain brings the insects alive and the geckos inhabit the silence.
For the duration of the retreat we have remained barefoot inside, as is Thai custom; at the entrance to each building and hall there is a small square foot bath for washing your feet and removing the small sand stones that line the paths. When we walk around the smooth stone of the meditation hall in the silence and night rain, I carry with me a light broom and use it to brush from the path the tiny stones that many imperfectly washed feet have carried onto the stone.
At 8.30, we return to our positions to meditate. The gentle quiet nuns give final instructions, and at 9 we retire to our rooms. The gates are closed and at 9.30 the lights go out. I lay in bed in the darkness, with the gentle rustles of the girls in the rooms around me adjusting their things. The first day has passed and I work to calm my fast beating heart. The wooden pillow isn’t so bad and I am quickly asleep.
On the second morning, I lay awake as the bell tolls. The long pause each time makes me think it has finished, but again, it continues until I am up. I am wearing clothes that are unfamiliar to me, two white shirts I picked up at the charity store, and my comfortable fisherman’s pants. I work at changing clothes often and washing so I can remain clean. The day repeats.
04.30 Morning Reading
04.45 Sitting meditation
07.00 Bells, Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation
08.00 Breakfast & Chores
10.00 Bells. Dhamma talk
11.00 Walking or standing meditation
11.45 Bells. Sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch & Chores
14.30 Bells. Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking or standing meditation
16.15 Bells. Sitting meditation
17.00 Bells. Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
18.00 Tea & hot springs
19.30 Bells Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 Bells Sitting meditation
21.00 Bells Bedtime
21.30 LIGHTS OUT
In hindsight, this experience feels mysterious. I chose not to capture any part of it, to let it all flow away. Fragments, slight variations
There is roughly 40-60 of us, half male, half female. (I undertake the training to keep my mind and body free from any sexual activity). I find myself walking behind one of the guys and staring at the hem of his pants thinking, lets just get married already. You, Me, lets go. The chic equivalent of ‘Lemme throw you down and fuck you right here’.
Each day our numbers fall a little, spaces clear up in the meditation hall, cushions are left and I add them to mine. It encourages me that I am doing well.
Another guy whose pants I liked is sitting outside the female dorm on a water tub; they are whispering to each other and I divert my eyes and ears. (Quickly people relax and become less disciplined. I notice how distracted my mind is by the sound of human speech; it pulls my attention like nothing else.) I need to wash my ankle but can’t get the tap to work- she asks me if I am okay- I nod briefly, smile awkwardly, and go back into the dorm. Later she hands me a note with a smile and walks away. She is leaving and wants me to email her and wishes me luck. Next day they are gone.
I find myself hugging a tree. I have heard about so called ‘Tree Huggers’ and never knew this could go beyond a fondness for preserving nature. I find myself in need of grounding, solid comfort. I push myself against it and find it’s ‘solidness’ exceptionally grounding and uplifting at once. To the left of the mediation hall is a large old tree. The nun tells us they call it ‘Big Tree’. Around it is sand, which is carefully raked by participants each day, they leave patterns stemming out from the trunk, sometimes circles, with their rakes. One day I hoist myself up in the tree and lay on the wide solid braches, my legs dangling over like a sloth in the sun. One of the girls makes a hand movement at me and mouths that it would make a good picture. For a minute I silently lament that it will never be a Facebook profile picture. I watch the ants crawling over the tree. Eventually the nun asks me to get down, I must ‘have respect’.
Much awaits me when I leave and it occupies my mind. The retreats ends on morning of the 11th. On the night of the 11th I will get the overnight train to Bangkok- I have not yet made a booking. My wallet is in Bangkok. I plan to find an Internet cafe, to Western Union some money to myself, pick it up and get the train. Then to find my wallet and get to the airport. Then to pay the flight change fee and get on the plane home. It leaves at 6pm on the 12th of August. To amuse myself I run through the details, backwards and forwards, planning. Increasingly, I think about the vegan restaurant in Bangkok, with their apple crumble and coconut cream custard. It is this coconut cream custard and crispy apple that nearly is my undoing.
I am not hungry, despite the large periods in between food. The food here is filling and sustains me energetically. I awake in the morning encouraged by the prospect of eating. I enjoy the bananas and look forward to the afternoons that come with dark, sweet juice of the kind which I have never tasted before (or since). I enjoy the slow leisurely eating, as I am naturally a slow eater. To keep my mind quiet I count my chews- on one particular instance I remember chewing a mouthful three hundred times. My bowels become regular after only a few days of clear routine. (The toileting is interesting- the retreat has both western and Thai toilets but they are not in the habit of using toilet paper- instead there are taps and round dishes beside the toilet which the Thais use to pour down their back and wash with their left hand. Despite the humidity, in the heat the water dries quickly. We are encouraged to this, although many of the foreigners choose to continue using toilet paper. For small business I find it okay but for big business I stick with the paper. In case you were wondering. I digress.)
For lunch a few dishes to choose from set out in large, stainless steel pots. I fill my bowl full and anxiously look around to see if I am taking more food then others. I notice with judgement that some women, one in particular, consistently begin eating before the food reflection, while the rest of us sit and wait for everyone to be seated. I notice with a little distress and defensiveness the men crossing to the women’s side and eating from our vat when their own is empty. I notice that I don’t usually breathe eating, not properly. I become practised at holding the focus on my mind on breathing while I eat- I bring the attention back, again and again. My peace in eating slowly is disturbed as hot curries begin being served for lunch. The discomfort is too much to eat slowly and I find myself breaking the peace and rhythm and swallowing quickly. The food varies from day to day with small treats, early on there are crunchy vegetable fried cookies that are to die for, and on another day we have some kind of liquid durian poured over rice bubbles in small bowls. Some of the westerners are unsettled by its strange taste and don’t eat it; more for me, I love the newfound, sweet alternative to milk.
What I am now realising on a deeper level then before, is how we use food, like talking, reading, watching TV or working, as an easy way to escape ourselves and our mind. As I pace back and forwards through the events that must occur after I leave here, mentally listing, I decide I will go to Bangkok and back to Khaosan road for the apple crumble before flying home. From the monastery, onto the train, and back to the apple crumble. With coconut cream custard. This is what awaits me when I leave here, and I can leave anytime. I am tempted. I tell myself, just make it until tomorrow, and if you still want to leave, you can go.
There is a shop in the food hall, which sells toilet paper, t-shirts, toiletries, aeroguard, pens and paper, sarongs. It is open irregularly. People line up, buying t-shirts. There is a funny one, of the ‘Monkey mind’, and the girls wear them. I have absolutely no money. I watch the people queuing to accrue new possessions and wonder if they are hearing the teachings of the ego. I ask the nun if I can pay afterwards for a pen and paper, she says yes but questions me whether I really want to do that. I leave the pen and paper in the after-hours supply box. One of the young guys chases after me on the path and asks me if I am leaving. I shake my head. ‘But I would for apple crumble!’ I say, breaking the silence momentarily, then disconnecting and walking to my room. I smile.
Tally leaves a leaf glistening with morning dew.
As the days pass I apply less and less Vaseline to the tattoo and the wound on my ankle slowly heals up.
The women settle in a routine, smiling at each other, cooperating in silence. Gesturing sometimes, although I choose not to. One of them is absolutely beautiful, immaculately presented despite vowing not to beautify herself, with makeup and plucked eyebrows. Blonde hair, curves and large breasts, distracting.
Around day 4, I enter a meditation hall with a floor of sand. In a small shed are brooms and rakes: I get one and during Walking Meditation I painstakingly and repetitively rake the sand, trying to get the surface perfectly smooth, gradually moving my way across to form a square. It reminds me of the small Zen garden on the counter at my work in lotus, but life-size, with the same meditative effect. I return to rake again, this time a man joins me, sitting in meditation at the end while I move with my back to him. Suddenly my rake brushes across a big dead frog and I squeal. He looks at me questioningly and I shrug. I keep raking, and then let out another yelp when the ‘dead’ frog started hopping around. I laugh helplessly at how startled I was. When I realise that all the circular holes in the sand are frogs burrowing, I get grossed out and don’t rake anymore.
Perhaps on day 6, I see a man walk to the woman’s section, and gently place leaves rolled and tied on the pillow of one of the girls. I watch her return and pick it up. Smile. There is a distant meditation hall, open, flat, small and raised but each time I walk there, they are already sitting in it; I wish I could have it to myself.
Allocated question time with the British monk sits in an alternate meditation hall at the top of the stairs speaking freely, Day 3 and 7. We have the opportunity to ask about things that are challenging us, things we don’t understand. Day three, the angry American guy interrupts, asking challenging questions and disrupting the flow of the group. I wonder why he is here. (Soon after, I notice with relief he has left.) I sit and move restlessly up and down the stairs, in and out of the sun and the light rain. I am attentive. I want to hear everything he says. The British Monk (Tan Dhammavidu/ Ken) is charismatic and cynical. He speaks of his previous life, about civilisation and football with biting wit. He jokes regularly. I want to connect and understand. Some of the retreat participants stay behind to ask him questions about their own practice; I linger. The monk tells of the higher meditation experiences- of the ecstasy and joy that can be achieved once the mind is disciplined to become not only still but focussed. Each time I stay right until the end. He is patient. He speaks to the group about how he was full of anger when he was a young man, he tells us of his work on the floor of a factory wearing a beanie, he would keep to himself and spend time sitting in his room. He would get up at 4am in the cold and meditate before and after long shifts, and on the toilet seat at work. He speaks of noticing within himself a long time ago an aversion to people- as they approached him, he would watch inside and find himself affront or withdraw. The monk speaks of his mother in this time, as well as in his talks, about how he hates her. He speaks of how he now walks for alms, and how villagers with a small baby have adopted him as its grandfather. He is interesting and the group sits to attention when he speaks, occasionally chuckling at his surprising comments.
In the food hall there are whiteboards- each day the schedule is posted up, as well as a small thought to meditate on for the day. On day three and day nine there is a sign up sheet with optional sign up for appointment with the monks. Each time I look at it but do not write my name.
As the days pass, the tension in me builds. I sit in meditation and rub Tiger Balm on my shoulder and neck muscles. In Spain Nilla asked me, What are you running from? Now I sit quietly and wonder about that. Myself, probably. We’re all running from ourselves. Each day now we chant that our bodies will be thrown away useless; I rub Vaseline on my tattoo. The Buddhist texts refer to people becoming ‘hot headed’ and on Day Four I am sitting at breakfast with a hot head, slowly chewing, and a patch on my vision begins to blur. I hold my hand in the patch and my hand disappears. I stare at the table and slide my bowl across towards my peripheral vision- it disappears, I slide it back, it reappears. Fuck. Fuck! I wonder if I am going blind. I eat quickly (comparatively), wash my bowl and spoon. I lay on the cement in my room. Breathe.
I feel I have a temperature. I walk back into the hall and the ‘question time’ monk has an empty seat before him. He asks if I have a question and I hesitate, he gestures me to sit down. My eyes are filling with tears and I have questions I cannot articulate. I approach the nun and she takes my temperature. It is normal. She tells me, I am thinking too much. I need to take a Panadol, and rest.
In the meditation hall, Tally gently places a frangipani by my head as I stretch. My heart wells over.
I lay down in my room with my headache. I lay on the cement on this day and cry. I am angry and my body hurts. I don’t want to listen to them anymore about this impermanence, about how nothing lasts and everything must end. About how my body is just flesh and nothing more. No soul, no self, no purpose. I am upset about Ariel, and upset that I am still upset. I am afraid to let go. As I rub the tattoo in meditation I think about what it means. I wonder if the tattoo was an attempt at achieving permanence of something that is gone. I wonder if I have anchored my grief to a little picture on my foot. I wonder what it means that I chose that. I panic that I will not be able to truly move on, let go; now I have a reminder written on me for the rest of my life.
I am lying on my back facing the cement ceiling and my heart is beating quickly. My breathing is shallow and I know better than to go to war to try and force it to be otherwise. I wish it were, though. A warm Thailand evening. I heard a noise; next to my light on the wall is a small, transparent pink gecko. I study him. Close to the light I can see his insides, his small belly rising and falling rhythmically, his hearts’ strong beating. He looks fragile, with everything so obvious. We have been advised there may be spiders, scorpions, frogs and geckos in our rooms, and that they live here too. The other day one of the girls screamed and fussed over a spider. Now I am happy he is here. I sit with him, watching his rising and falling breath. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. It calms me, I sync with him. Girl and the gecko are one.
Next thing, he jumps from the wall and I am horrified to hear a splat. I jolt upright. He has launched himself in a failed attempt to catch a moth attracted to the light. I fear I will find a gorgeous, splatted tiny bub of a gecko on the floor, one who has met his untimely end. Peering over the edge of the bed, I see an unfazed gecko climbing back up the wall. I grin in relief as he retakes his post next to the light for a second attempt. He is more successful this time. I feel encouraged; perhaps I won’t end with a splat.
After an exhausting day I am glad to sleep. When I wake on day five, I find I am much calmer than I have been before. I rake my leaves after breakfast and feel good. As I sit for meditation I find that my mind has become completely blank. Happily, curiously, I explore it. I sit with my eyes closed, focussing forwards, breathing, and watch myself. Thoughts do not come, and when they do, they are quieter, calmer, muted. I am almost wary to be in my own head in case I ruin this lovely place I have found inside myself.
The mind runs backwards and forwards through time to find things to entertain itself with. I see now the benefit in learning how to have discipline with it, for with thoughts, memories and expectations come an arousal of emotion, and in silence with no distractions there is no outlet or escaping. If you want to remain sane, you must learn control.
On day seven, a woman comes up to me while I am looking for the attendant nun and pulls a face. I pull one back and things become dreadfully confusing for a while, with her whispering something I can’t quite hear or understand. I gesture randomly for a while before I realise she is leaving today and would like her purple sarong back. Embarrassed, I return it to her with a ‘thank you’ smile. (At least I hope she understands that’s what it is.) The next evening I walk down the steps into the hot spring full clothed, through a group of women sitting together in dignified peaceful silence. Self-consciously I get into the water and swish around with my see-through, baggy clothes now sticking to me, desperately wanting to explain to them that I don’t have a sarong anymore. Instead I giggle awkwardly and enjoy feeling naughty.
There is a both a man and a woman’s exercise hall; on perhaps the 8th day I finally go here with pillows and lay on the ground looking up to the ceiling, enjoying the solitude and new sights, new possibilities of places to sit.
On the 9th and 10th day, the routine varies. On the 9th, we will only eat once, in the morning we will have lunch food for breakfast. (I read the food meditation). And today, the schedule allows for free time. I wander around, and finally venture to the meditation hall I haven’t yet visited. A group have assembled and after hesitating, I venture there anyway. A man is tracing pictures on a woman’s hands. Tally is with an American guy, I am wary of him. He is speaking and I resent him for breaking the silence. I can feel my heart beat quicker in the presence of people, with the pressure now to speak when I would rather not. They are going to leave and get food and cigarettes- they ask me if I want to speak and I shake my head, they ask me if I want to come and I do not.
But I hang around anyway, in the small open meditation hall. When they leave, I am relieved to return to the comfort and peace of myself, although my heart is still beating quicker, such have I adjusted to living alone. The man and woman who had the gift of the leaves have been drawing pictures; I pick up their pen and a vine leaf from the ground and write.
Holding the mind is like holding a butterfly. You must not strangle the butterfly, nor rob it of air in your attempts to keep it still, calm and quiet. You must cup it in your hands; you must give it air and patiently wait. If you shake the mind it will cling, or flutter about, just like the butterfly, getting very distressed and trying to escape. If you want to hold the butterfly, you must rob it of light and sensory stimulation that will startle it, and patiently wait until it is calm and quiet. That is how you hold the butterfly. But why would you want to hold the butterfly?
Butterflies only live for one day.
We’re all just air and butterfly.
Young, Dark skin guy comes onto my radar. He walks with a little bit of a skip and seems like he is always aware of the attention of those around him. Jitwam, the one who asked if I was leaving. In the final few days I branch out from my little hut and sit in the bottom of the bell tower, and then in top the of the bell tower, and finally in the little hut across the way. He is seated and I take to him my vine leaf, sitting across from him. I hand it to him and he reads it, bemused, places it on the table. Tells me that’s funny, because he held a dying butterfly that was so beautiful he stuck it in his diary. I jump up and run to my room, and come back holding a second vine line, one I didn’t copy down. It speaks of a pond as like a mirror for yourself and if you want to see it clearly you need to let the water settle; how when in love two people spiral together above the water, spinning higher and higher or dropping with a splash into the depth of the cold water. Also, though, it speaks of how you should not try to capture or hold onto a dead butterfly. Funny that.
Walking away from the conversation, my peace is disturbed, a short interaction where I did not even speak stirs up so much emotion and it is obvious inside me; now the inner atmosphere is more aligned with silence than with noise.
For meditation instruction, we gather around an image of the Buddhist wheel. We slowly move through an explanation of the symbolism. Contrary to what most people believe, Buddhdasa and his followers teach that reincarnation and rebirth is not rebirth of the ‘self’ through physical lives, because there is no self, and the ego would only want to have us believe so. As we are impermanent, reincarnation and the related karma is actually the rebirth of the EGO, and karma is the effects we experience within ourselves in this lifetime; the dukkha we experience is a result of allowing the ego. When the British monk first explains this, I feel a sense of relief. He is a rational, almost scientific man. Reincarnation is the only tenant of Buddhism I have struggled to grasp so far, and now I do not need to. This makes perfect sense to me.
The way we walk the ‘Light path’ is Anapanasati, Mindfulness in Breath- and walking and speaking and eating, refraining from chasing pleasures, calming and disciplining the mind and remembering impermanence. As part of this, the monks take a vow of celibacy. The British monk tells us of his solution- to stop conceptualising the body as something ‘beautiful’ and of pleasure and desensualise it to be ‘just flesh’. In India there is a burning of bodies you can view; the British monk instead speaks of once seeing a dead dog on a beach, of it becoming rotten and swollen. He recalls these images and links them to flesh to decrease his desire for sex. Nooo!
On the evening of the 10th, the final day, we are asked to move sand for construction at the monastery, and to ‘sweat away the ego’. Males and females are separated. People begin to speak to coordinate things and I wish they hadn’t. (I undertake the training not to harm others by speech.) After all this time in silence, I have much pent up energy and look forward to shovelling and moving sand. The women however, are complaining, they don’t have shoes, the gaps between them in the line to pass the sand are too long, the baskets are too full, the baskets aren’t full enough, they want to rest, they want to shovel instead, they don’t want to shovel anymore, there are prickles, there aren’t enough baskets. Some work but most fuss and fuss, I tell them- just move the sand! I shovel furiously, while most gossip. I am wearing my ring and don’t notice my finger blister. When they stop passing the baskets, I roll my eyes and carry the sand all the way to the end myself, perhaps ruffling a few feathers as I go. When the bell tolls and time is up, I am disappointed and want to keep sweating and exerting myself- but they can’t get away fast enough.
In the evening at the springs and in the dorm the silence is well and truly broken, although I continue to practice mine. We gather for a talk by the Abbot, and then it is time to share.
I am ready to speak when question time comes, of course. I know exactly what I will say.
And then the boy with the butterfly gets up out of nowhere, sits down before me, and says
‘I feel like I have stepped into the matrix…’ Before it is censored, my mouth blurts out- NO WAY! I can’t believe you just said that! I was about to say that!!’ to laughs, followed by a bashful ‘Oop, sorry, go on’, sitting back in my spot. Apparently I’m not so practised at silence after all.
It’s like choosing between the blue pill and the red pill. And once you choose, once you see through the matrix, you can never go back. That’s all he had to say and I follow. Words flow, sharing about the tattoo and worrying if my mother will kill me, about the journey, thanking everyone, a few jokes. Everyone shares- when they open their mouth, the identities, the accents, the operations of their mind spill out in a surprising way. One girl says she believes she is an alien. (Definitely alienating). We return to the rooms for one more night of ‘silence’, although the girls are definitely relaxed about it now.
On the morning of the 12th day, we gather in the breakfast hall to collect our possessions. We trade emails; a woman gifts me a 1000baht to get back to Bangkok. We donate any unwanted things to the Mokkh; we congregate under big tree for photos.
We walk together to breakfast, a flurry of conversation; At breakfast the boy whose pant hems I silently screamed at sits next to me and tells me that a clairvoyant told him he would marry a psychologist he met on his travel. We suffer a dull tour of the Wat Suan Mokkh grounds, see beautiful art work and I speak with Anushka.
Waiting at the bus stop Tally, Jitwam (butterfly boy) and I sing. Back in the town none of us want to part; we mill around until the group that will stay overnight finds a hotel. I sit next to Tally as she receives some news from the heavens that makes my heart want to pour out to her <details>. Jitty sings a haunting tune that still rings in both our heads, though he can barely remember- I dance and spin around the hotel foyer. I have a heated, passionate discussion with the orange haired girl who handed me a cat in the breakfast hall- she lends me Band-Aids and it ends in hugs.
The serious meditator and me are both headed back to Bangkok. I delay parting until I find Tally to say goodbye, I am sad to leave Winston and jitty. We find a song-taew to get the overnight train. There is a long wait at the station and I am thirsty. He lends me his water. I talk to him and he reads his book. People give me death stares for talking too much as they settle in to sleep. It’s to be expected perhaps.
I feel good. I haven’t seen my face for 12 days as there were no mirrors, and with new hair this is strange indeed. What strikes me when I go to brush my teeth in the train bathroom though, is that my whole face and my skin seems clearer than I have ever seen, but more than that I am taken aback that I seem to be glowing, light, in a way that words fail me to describe. I like it.
In Bangkok, I find my wallet, at the shop where I left it. Less money in there than I expected. We are walking down the street and in the middle of the road I see Lavi, the man who left the leaves and traced pictures on the girl’s palms.
Tally has spoken a lot with him and was amazed by him- I have been cautious and mistrusting, when he looks at me I cannot understand what is happening behind his eyes, it is like there is a wall there. (When I later ask him about this, he explains it as having respect when I chose to remain silent although others spoke). We greet him joyously- I am glad for the chance to open myself to what Tally saw. Without further adieu- Apple crumble and coconut cream custard!!
Lavi speaks with an incredibly gentleness, a calm, he explains he feels he is all the children (people)’s king, here to check on and care for them. I ask him what he thinks anger is, and he explains it as a lack of trust.
*Please note. I did not take the beautiful photos taken in this album, as I left my camera packed away for the duration of the visit. Credit goes to Tally Atkins, Helen Rodionova and Chou Rouge. Thank you for the beautiful memories ladies 🙂
* To the amazing, unique people contained within the square walls of this story: Please forgive me for the liberties of description and for my omissions. I welcome and would love to hear any additions, adjustments or corrections. Memory is a funny thing.
Above all, Bless.
Light, Love and Laughter!
From my heart,
The website with attached readings can be found here: http://www.suanmokkh-idh.org/
Arriving in Belgium, hardly any customs. Sleep on the bus to Antwerp. It’s very early morning and raining. To my annoyance my gorgeous new jeans get wet, thongs don’t work so well here. I follow my nose to a bakery, use the loo, buy water. Wait for Axel. He has been working all night; it’s time for breakfast. His house is nice; classy and comfortable. He makes a breakfast spread that blows my mind. All kinds of food from the bakery (some of which I am sure have dairy- Didn’t I whinge enough in Vinarska for him to remember?). There are strawberries, some Belgian specialties like curry spread and sweet children’s sugar to coat the toast in.
Coffee, juice, ketchup, honey… Everything I can think of. Then Axel scrambles me some eggs as well. Some people truly understand the way to my heart is through my stomach! He argues with his mum in French and I understand nothing. His dad though, I can follow some of it. I have a shower in the huge bathtub, dress and feel reborn. Axel gives me a room the repack my bag, so fricken polite. The dog licks its crutch in the foyer and his dad says its name to try and make it stop (I am sorry Axel but this is one of my favourite memories). He is going away for the weekend, we get the same train then say goodbye. I probably won’t see him again- the time for me to leave Europe is rapidly approaching. On the metro to central station to meet Ellen, I buy a postcard and a magnet. Belgichanka appears and nothing has changed. She has a bike, everyone here has a bike. Dump my stuff at her place, ride into town. We are hungry. We buy bread, sun dried tomatoes, avocado, and curry spread. Sit on a fountain, talk and eat til we want to explode. Really, nothing has changed! We go to the Quick, (more like slow); we order a chocolate fudge each. Our heads are on the table and I don’t know if I can even move, let alone ride a bike right now. We manage to ride back to hers. The boyfriend comes round, he is a good kid. Ellen has my suitcases from the Czech republic waiting. I sort through them. I want to get rid of stuff. I begin by giving Ellen the red dress that Arik gave me. It suits her more then me, and I don’t love it. (She loves it and wears it everyday I am there). Any clothes that even remotely irritate me, if I don’t fully love them, they must go. Ellen says, you know most people if they lost all their stuff would want to keep what clothes they had. And it’s funny but ever since losing my bag, I have learned to travel light, to give things away. I want attachment only to things that only cause me pleasure.
Ellen asks what I want to do, and the truth is sleep and write. It is that time again, I haven’t written since Spain and I need to get it all out. I play Beyonce ‘Halo’ on repeat. Ellen’s dad had suggestedl things for her to suggest I do but she was like, Don’t worry dad, its Angela. She doesn’t need entertaining. I don’t know whether to be offended or flattered she knows me so well. Ellen was the last person I saw in the Czech republic before she sent me on my way. And now I spend a lot of time talking to her about what has happened. Especially about the boys. Arik isn’t answering the phone and I whinge to Ellen. Ben has been talking about coming to meet me in London. I call, then email him that I met someone in Israel. Even if nothing is happening with Arik, he should know. I feel pretty bad for him. He has already booked a ticket to London and is going there now. He wants to see me even if it is only for 5 minutes.
When I am going?? I had originally planned to get the Eurostar to London from Paris. I had told Ben I might have time to come back to Paris, but now I don’t see the point. Ellen looks at tickets (god bless my personal travel agent) while I lay on the floor, try to breathe and get clear on what I wanna do. Standard. The tickets a couple of hundred Euro, No Bueno. I don’t really want to go until the blog is off my chest. It is taking a long time, writing about my baggage. We make amazing Cous Cous for dinner each night and eat too much. Then Halva as well. I stay up late writing and sleep past midday. July 19th, Ellen is going home to her parents and invites me along. The blog isn’t done but time waits for no one. Check the tickets again- from Brussels for 77 Euro. Not so bad. We get the train to the town where her parents live. It is late arvo, cold and I’m sleepy. We share a raspberry and a strawberry beer. Her brother picks us up, we stop for Belgian French fries. There are a billion different types of sauce but we just have two types of ketchup, on account of dairy intolerance. It is a tiny town, very quiet. We walk to her house on a cobblestone road with trees arching over and around. Could be a scene from a scary movie. They have horses, we pat them. Green lawns, gardens and trees with a small lake in front surround the house. She says it’s more like a pond or a puddle, but I know a small lake when I see one. She packs for scouts while I lay on her floor. I start reading a big green book called ‘Rumo’ and don’t want to put it down. She gifts it to me and tells me not to read it all at once.
Next morning its time to say goodbye. I am surprisingly sad. Ellen mentioned that she doesn’t usually miss people when they aren’t around; I know exactly what she means. When it comes to family and friends, I don’t make a habit of craving for what it is not in front of me. I have really enjoyed her company and don’t know when I will see her again. I tell her dad to send her to visit me. I take my Moroccan blanket and book and sleep on the lawn.
I wake to rain and her dad asking if I am hungry. We eat vegetable soup he has cooked. I leave the halva in the cupboard for Ellen so I don’t eat it all. Her dad is driving me into Brussels and giving me a tour as well. (The Belgians truly are lovely people!) I am sleepy and lazy. He says we will see the atomium. I didn’t realise there is a giant structure of an iron atom in Belgium, it’s huge and surprising. There is a 45minutes wait. I tell the woman I have to get a train to fly home, and the magic words, I am from Australia. She takes us to the front of the line, as I thought she would. Ellen’s dad seems surprised and guilty we aren’t waiting like everyone else; he comments that they are probably annoyed at us cutting in. I wonder where the right and wrong is in this situation. In the elevator, a father and a young girl are going to abseil off the top of the atom. I wait to watch them come down on a suspended piece of wire, their legs dangling in the air. I wonder what they would do if the rope broke, I wonder how the father feels about sharing this experience with his daughter. My father would have done something like that with me, which probably explains why I like snowboarding on big glaciers, rollercoasters, and hitch hiking. Ellen’s dad buys me the beautiful black and white postcard I was eyeing off earlier. The Brussels tour happens from the top of the atom, it’s time for me to check in to the Eurostar.
There are grumpy ladies in the line who snap we‘ve pushed in. The line is wide, I’m not sure if we did or not. On the train, I wanted to lie down to sleep- I think the poor guy next to me can tell he is unwelcome. Across from me is an olive skinned guy with a labret piercing. At the cafeteria I would like a pesto salad but they’re expensive as hell. Instead I get a plastic knife to eat the food Ellen’s dad has given me. The labret guy walks to the cafeteria soon after me and now offers me a fruit salad. I’m stoked. We start talking, when my seat buddy returns I move to the aisle. Mounir- he speaks in French and a little English. He and his brother are from Morocco and France, as far as I can tell. The guy next to me has been on holidays at a festival in Belgium, he’s sunburnt and chronically hung-over. When we get off the train he seems lost, lingering like the smell of a salad sandwich.
While partying in San Sebastian, I had told a guy about my travel. I told him, I want to go to Morocco! He added me on Facebook and became a fan when he read about my trip to the Sahara. He is flying home from London the day after me. Staying at the Hilton, invites me to as well. I sit on my suitcase and wonder where he is. I’m in no rush to go anywhere. Finally he calls. When he sees me, I get the feeling he’s surprised, disappointed, something. Like he was expecting more. I guess I looked prettier when he met me in Spain. And now I am just ordinary me. I tell him the joke about Israelis in disguise, it smooths things over a little. I was worried I wouldn’t recognise him but as soon as he speaks, he seems familiar. I must have spent a lot of time talking to him that night! At the hotel, they ask if I want them to take my suitcases, I love it but say no. Seems over the top when there is an elevator. The room is nice, but not that nice, although the bathroom is pretty cool. I am uneasy when I see only one double bed. We have Thai food. Convo over dinner is interesting. He works in American politics. I use the toilet- a taste of Thailand to come, with hoses to wash one’s private parts.
Back at the hotel, I am edgy. Being in a room with a double bed, about flying tomorrow to Thailand, about going home… I am not sure why, actually, but it could be any one of these things. I lay on the ground and talk, talk about what I have seen, what I think of the world. I read my Osho cards for him. My phone rings and it is Arik, I am happy to hear from him. He tells me his brother is sick in hospital. Tells me he will talk to me when I am back in Aus. I am so stoked to hear from him I fall on the bed grinning. As the sun rises, I struggle with the curtains I have a hysterical giggling fit at Ryan saying ‘C’est Bon’ in a retard voice. Sleep restlessly. When Ryan’s up, I wake and tell him what I am dreaming, and sleep again. And then wake and then sleep. I wanted to see the changing of the guards today, but I have stayed in bed too long. We check out by 12 and say goodbyes.
I make my way to meet Ben at Buckingham Palace, reading Rumo as I walk. I am late, he has been waiting. He sits beside me. I hate to be ripped from the book, I am so into it. It starts raining on us and once again I love the purple jumper. We spend a while browsing the gift store, I buy a huge lead pencil and a fold out map. I am happy floating around playing with things, there is a documentary of a day in the life of the queen, I stand and watch it for a while. He seems impatient, we have lunch. The food is good. He pays. He gives me a red photo album of the pictures we took together in Paris. Some are blurry, it was a film camera. I look happy in them.
In the metro, (Mind the gap!) I write him a letter with my giant red pencil in the air. Big swirly letters and he can’t read any of it, he wants to, but I don’t mind. I remember writing Scott a letter on his back once similarly. I don’t care if he reads it or not, I am honest more easily if I think he won’t. Just want to get it out. To the Hilton to pick up my suitcases, he thinks I am joking and his eyebrows go through the roof when he realises I am not. I’m not in a hurry to explain. I want to get to the airport as soon as possible. I don’t want him to come with me. I say goodbye to him, tell him to get off the metro and go where he needs to go. I kiss him goodbye and then realise he has my Rumo book in his bag. Not the Rumo! I call him, he answers with ‘I have your book.’ Get it off him and back on the metro. A large group of people are spread throughout the train; one of them is nursing a little boy who falls asleep. I sit on my suitcase in the aisle and watch them. After a debate they decide I am in terminal 5. I don’t remember terminal 5. I get off and straight back on; there’s a sign saying BA terminal 4. At the airport, pay the fee for the reissue of my ticket. The BA dude is rude when he tells me there isn’t a window seat.
On the plane, gap between me and the window. Even better. I settle in with Rumo, next to a woman with a row of children. I didn’t request vegan food, don’t eat half of my meal, jealously watch the kids eat theirs. Read Rumo. Sleep a little in the chair. Lay on the floor and sleep. Breakfast is sausages, and scrambled egg. The flight attendant brings me leftover fruit. 3pm we land in Thailand. I am edgy still, concerned to collect my suitcases. Lay down for a minute while I figure out what to do. The exchange place doesn’t take MasterCard debit. Walk around, all the same banks, same thing. Nothing they can do to help, except repeatedly direct me to ATMs, of no use with this emergency replacement card. I’d like to know what kind of emergency this card would help me in. The tourist police can do a total of nothing, except tell me to call my bank. At the tourist office, I use the phone to call the Thailand MasterCard, request an emergency cash advance, and wait on hold for a long time. Finally, they have sent a request to the bank, the bank will call me. Western Union upstairs has closed, there’s one in town that shuts at 8. Outside there are cabs. I had planned on the bus, but don’t want to try without money. I ask a guy standing outside if people in Thailand hitchhike. He has no idea what I am talking about. I ask a farang (European/non Thai) couple where they’re headed, the guys says they aren’t going where I am going- even though I haven‘t said where I am going. At the cab desk, I get a slip and get in. The tourist guy has written an explanation in Thai. I give it to the taxi driver, as well as the address. I point at the note and hold up 8 fingers, point to the clock. He squints his eyes at the note and nods. I don’t think he can see it. Drives slowly, talks on the phone. His friend talks English; I tell him- if we’re not there by eight, I have no money. Traffic jams. Eight comes and goes. I hand gesture- mai money, Yuk! Yuk! Stop, put me out. He keeps driving. I ask where we’re going, he tells me the street name. I think, what if he takes me to the police station?! The only thing I am afraid of. I think, okay, let’s see what he does. Pulls up outside a police station. By which point, I’ve come to terms with it, walk in with him. Young Asian guy talks to him. A smile twitches at the corner of his mouth. I show him the note. I’ll sleep at the airport if the cab driver takes me back, but he wants another 500. In the police station are airport seats; I laughingly ask if I can sleep here. They shrug and say ok, ask if I am hungry, take me for Pad Thai. I settle into the chairs with Rumo and a blanket- but they are taking me to a hotel. Room 28, double bed aircon and shower, they give me 200 Baht.
When they drop me off, I take their pictures. They pose very seriously and are proud. They ask me to email it to them. I get naked and put all my clothes in the shower. My beautiful jeans are dirty; I scrub them, washing powder all over the place. It’s raining. I feel uneasy here, this country is very different to where I have been, I don’t know the people and I don’t feel safe yet. As I use the water I wonder if someone will come and get upset at me. There is no hot water but the air is warm. Read Rumo and sleep.
Next day, my clothes are still hanging and damp. The air here is so humid, that despite the heat, nothing dries. The girl I met at the train station yesterday, Deva, comes to take me to the bank. She studied in Melbourne and speaks English well. I am half asleep when she arrives, slept without the aircon, still getting used to the heat. Fold my wet clothes up in a bag. At the bank we wait. The Commonwealth need to approve the money transfer. They were supposed to do this yesterday but I am still waiting. Deva has things to do- she is a weather reporter on Thai TV. (She tells me that there are three seasons here: hot and wet, hot and not so wet, and kinda hot. Right now it is hot and wet; apparently it rains every afternoon). She parks the car near Khaosan road, where she isn’t supposed to, and when a policeman tells her to move she yells at him in Thai. Its amusing, she is tiny and all dressed up in heels. We leave my suitcases at the police station, she points me in the direction of the bank and goes off to work. To the bank, receive the money. I see a seasoned traveller respond well to someone hustling her, I go up to her and ask if she eats the food from the stalls in the street. When she says she does, I buy some. Look briefly for a laundry, find myself behind the police station where there is a sign saying ‘investigation and suppression room’ (?). I ask at the police station where to store my luggage and he tells me to go to a TAT, the Tourist Association of Thailand, circles it on my map. I get a tuk tuk with my suitcases and enjoy the wind blowing in my hair. I make a movie. Arrive at the TAT and realise, it is just a travel agent who is REGISTERED with the TAT, who want to sell me a package tour. I don’t want no package tour. They tell me I can store my luggage at the train station. I get a taxi there; the aircon is a little bit delicious.
I walk into a large hall with a large stained glass window. I notice as I walk in, the bustle of the city disappears and a calm silence falls. There are noises, but not like outside. There’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on. It feels good in here, I like it. I am hungry, buy some spring rolls. Find the left baggage, they want me to pay per suitcase per day. 120 Bahts, which adds up to 1440 for the 2 weeks I am here. How painful! I show her my money and say ‘this is all I have!’- Not much English. I want her to charge me for two medium bags rather then for large ones, given how long I am staying here. She reduces the price slightly. I repack my clothes and cosmetics into the purple bag, take a picture of my suitcases, and leave them in their care. I hope they will be here when I get back.
I enquire about train prices. (I really want to blog and wonder if there’s Internet.) In the window of the information desk is a sign ‘trips to Cambodia’. Holy shit, I could go to Cambodia. The package tour is like 7000 Bahts though. I could do it myself, but it seems you have to get a visa. I take the brochure and a train timetable. Consult my map. Before I left the Czech republic, one of the Aussie guys there said to me- are you stopping over in Thailand? Stop over in Thailand! He had stayed on Koh Phangan and gone to the full moon party there. Now, time hanging out on the verandah of a bungalow on the beach is exactly what I want. The overnight train goes to Surat Thani. It is affordable, between 350 and 700 bath ($13-26 dollars). There are many trains, express rapid and special… sitting, sleeping, first class, second class, fan, aircon. I ask lots of questions, can’t decide what to do. I tie my ring to a piece of string and ask it. Settle on a train, but by now it is full. Decide to stay in town, back outside, on a tuk tuk again. I could get the bus, but they seemed filled with people wearing facemasks, swine flu I guess. I don’t have a mask, so I travel with the wind whipping my hair again. I told the police I would come back today with money for the taxi driver. On the way, I make a movie. The air is nice, it is dark and the city is lit up.
There is lots of traffic as always, and I feel a bad for my tuk tuk driver as I drove a hard bargain for him to take me. The police remember me, and tell me not to worry about the money. The young guy isn’t here, but another guys table is covered in lychees and he offers me one. I eat it and smile. He gives me a handful to take with me.
Yesterday, the tourist guy at the airport gave me a brochure of the hotels and hostels in Bangkok. He had circled a few that were cheap. Last night at the police station, when they asked where I was planning on staying, I had randomly picked one of them. They had laughed at me cos it was only 200 baht a night (about 8 bucks). Now I get a taxi back there- I have spent the day slowly moving back and forth across this city. I walk down a wide long road filled with stalls, music, food, and people. I haven’t realised it yet but I have arrived in backpacker heaven. I also haven’t figured out yet that behind the stalls, nestled in the buildings all the way down this street, is seemingly hundreds of different B&B’s, restaurants, hotels and hostels. I see a sign for lockers. I buy a padlock and leave my things there. It smells like dead rat. In the street, there is fake ID’s for sale, student cards, press passes, diplomas. There are signs that say ‘Beer- fucking good’. Everything is really cheap; it’s time for me to start shopping for souvenirs. Lots of people are strolling down the street, loud music plays. In the middle is a big sign that says D&D Inn. There are no ordinary single rooms left, only deluxe with a bathroom for 750 baht (30 bucks). The hotel is nice, big foyer, elevators with mirrors. I ask to see the room, and the second I walk in I am putting down my bag and changing my dress while the dude waits for me. The clothes I washed last night are all stinky in my bag and I hang them on the posh clothes hangers. Downstairs I pay for the room and the key deposit. Some other guys are thinking of going somewhere else, I offer them my brochure. Back out in the street, spring rolls cost 25 baht. Pad Thai is cooked in big woks on trolleys that are wheeled down the street. I eat some. Sew my handbag, which is tearing again, read Rumo again and sleep.
Next morning I am up early and head down to breakfast. There is a door list, and food spread outdoors with a pond with fish and a bridge. I’m a little bit in heaven. There’s toast and cereal and noodles and veges and fruit and juice. Pretty much everything I’d want. The Inn has the cheapest Internet in the whole street- there’s an Internet room on the rooftop (which makes up for the fact the pool is being renovated). Check out at lunchtime. In the alleyway are women wearing jangly hats and selling wooden frogs that croak. One compliments my bag. I take it off, repack my things into a blue one I bought yesterday, and give it to her. Tell her to wash it.
Have a fruit juice. There are green strange shaped fruit for sale, which on second thought I have seen in Woolworths. A Brit guy tells me they are coconuts, and that the brown coconut I am used to seeing comes out of the middle. I don’t believe him, I tell him it must be a different type of coconut, he swears it isn’t, and we buy one to try. He’s right, I think, and we drink the juice. The flesh in these fruit is nothing like the coconut you buy in a supermarket, it is all wet and mushy and slimy. I try it and it doesn’t taste so good either. The juice is amazing though.
I have fun shopping, buy a new phone charger, camera batteries, a dress, a shirt, postcards and gifts. Things are cheap and I enjoy bargaining.
At breakfast, I noticed a place called hide-away massage in a house on stilts behind the hotel. There are massage places everywhere. Thai style massage is slightly cheaper, but I had a Chinese massage in Australia once and I found massage of that type leaves me feeling unbalanced and in pain, like I have been pounded through a meat mincer or something. It’s 200 baht for an hour of oil massage, plus an extra 50 baht for a half hour foot massage. Sounds good to me! This one is dreadfully relaxing. I even fall asleep towards the end. The lady who is doing it is a big woman and gets very hot as she does it; she is dripping in sweat, especially on her face. She gives me a cup of tea. I sit in my bra for a while, feeling dreadfully blessed out. A dude comes in and she hurriedly closes the curtain. I tip her well and finally leave. In the restaurant I eat satay tofu and rice, which comes in a star.
On the opposite side of the street near a pharmacy is a place crappy place for approx. 400 baht a night. The room is slightly bigger then the double bed, and the walls are dirty. I have a bathroom with a shower, which is just a nozzle on the wall in the middle. The window has shutters, which are broken, and there is a club immediately behind singing karaoke, sleep is impossible. I head back to D&D, pay for Internet and spend a lot of hours writing. I spend four and a half minutes of my time in Thailand watching Hanson play MMMBop on YouTube. In the street in the middle of the night, there is a stand selling deep fried grasshopper and witchetty grubs. I stand and stare at them, appalled.
A drunken traveller comes and eats them in my face, saying delicious delicious, and crunching into them. I respect her courage, but I wonder what her hangover will be like with a belly full of bugs. I have a sugar and chocolate craving something crazy; it’s that time (hence all the sleeping). To be safe, since Arik in Israel I took emergency contraception; now I need comfort food. There are crepe stands in the streets but they can’t make it without milk. I go to the 7-11 and read every single label looking for dark chocolate. There’s none. I buy a peanut butter bar coated in chocolate, cookies and cream Hershey’s, and a dairy free banana cake. The pharmacy is closed now, but I will buy antihistamine tomorrow. The peanut bar is amazing, maybe the best thing I have ever tasted. Sleep.
July 25th. If I stay past checkout time, I have to pay for another day. Problematic, I am a little nocturnal here. On the other side of the road, I find the Top Inn, 300 baht, quiet, big bed, private bathroom. Huge bed, actually. On the street a man asks me where I want to go. He is hustling, but I feel like I should be seeing some of Thailand beyond this road. I go with him. He says he will charge 20 baht/hour (about a dollar). He points at random places on the map, he will wait while I tour them. We go first to a temple. In a quiet small section, I light some incense, watch a man chanting. I have no idea what is going on here, but try to respect it anyway, take my shoes off. I like the barefoot thing Thailand has going on. At the entrance to the section under the huge standing Buddha, a man has birds in cages that you can pay to release in the square. Dreadfully romantic, but the little birds are packed in and the weather is hot.
It’s a ruse to get money out of tourists. I bargain for the cage with the most birds in it, they fly up to a tree, I think they should’ve gone somewhere with water. Hopefully they get some out of the leaves, or something. There is a plaque, which says ‘…Luang Pho to who could bless everyone all success, has miraculous powers, especially if they would present a head of a fish of the mackerel kind, a boiled egg and a lei of flowers’. Ha! Dom would love that, I used to feed him and Murphy tinned mackerel all the time. There is a garden and it is my favourite part of all the temples. Back to the tuk tuk, the man is waiting for me. As I get in, he starts to tell me that we will make a stop at his friend who is a tailor… I have heard of this happening, of tuk tuks taking people and then forcing them to visit tailors. Working for a commission. Ugh. Of course I could have seen that one coming. I take my things from his tuk tuk, give him 20 baht, and walk away. Only thing is, all the tuk tuks here are waiting for people. There is a dessert stand- I spent a while trying to say ‘Chan Pae Nom’, I am allergic to milk. The ‘Pae’ is a strange word, it comes out like pleeh- at least, it’s supposed to. A guy comes over who speaks Thai and good English- he is friendly, and it all has milk. He asks me what I’m doing later and gives me his number and Facebook.
Through sloooow moving, bustly Thai traffic the cab driver and me go. The air is humid, but the cab has cold aircon. There are people on motorbikes everywhere, sometimes as many as four people crammed into one. Songtaews (blue pick up trucks) ride around with people in the tray. I get out at Bangkok Zoo. Entry isn’t much, even with me paying the artificially inflated tourist price. Lots of leafy greenness. There are rows of motorbikes and for a minute (or ten) I get excited when I think you can rent them to ride around the zoo. I finally understand the hand signals mean no, these are peoples bike that are being minded, bugger. ‘African savannah’ the sign says, and there is a giraffe standing with his hooves in soggy mud. Not sure that’s how it is in Africa.
There is a children train, a few dollars to ride around, hop on and hop off for one lap. Sweeeet. Chocolate craving continues, into the 7-11, none dairy free, banana cake again. There are monkeys; I love how intelligent they are. I don’t know why I come to the zoo- I am curious, and maybe I want something to get indignant about. The cage sizes are never big enough, the toys not enough, the animals neurotic, and the people who are viewing the animals. I see little boys knocking on glass… and right at the end, I see some little boys throwing things at the goats. Arr. A lone hippo is wallowing in slimy water that only just covers her, in the deepest bit. There is a ‘war and loss’ display, with an air shelter. I notice space for the keepers and maintainers behind one of the enclosures that is as big as the enclosure itself… The bears are surrounded by a moat and an electric fence. They pace back and forth and beg for fruit. There is a children playground, brightly coloured and surrounded by leafy green vegetation. I get off the train and find myself standing in front of inflatable plastic balls floating in water. I pay for 3 minutes and after debating whether it’s worth catching swine flu from all the kids who have been in the thing, get in. At the edge, I hesitate to step off the edge and screamingly go over. Needn’t to have worried, its only a foot deep. Wearing my white dress probably wasn’t the best idea. It is impossible to stand up! The kids give up quickly and just stay lying down. I cack myself laughing, and try and stand and fall again and again. It gets very hot from all my running and laughing and I am sweating like nothing else. I finally come out, gasping for air. I buy a ticket and do it again. The video fills up my memory card- fewer photos from now on. I am worn out. See some elephants surrounded by a small, low fence. One still has tusks. Woman are selling fruit in baskets and children are feeding him. He steps back, and steps forward, steps back, and steps forward. I move close to touch him and flinch when he moves. I am afraid of that tusk getting me. But then I realise I needn’t be worried. His movements are incredibly rhythmical, he moves back and forward and back again, stopping only to greedily grab at the fruit and then resume his moments. I touch the end of his trunk, firstly worried he will bite me with it, but it is just a nose that is like a hand. I notice he has a green patch on his knee and neck; he has worn the paint off the bars in front of him, now they’re smooth and shiny. He must do this all day and all night. I have had enough of the zoo. (On the way out a small horse is tied to a tree and it tries to bite me. FML.)
Sleep all through the afternoon. Back to the D&D inn Internet, and each time I wonder if they will crash tackle me with ‘you’re not staying here anymore!’. The Internet here is around the clock and I feel for the guys who have to sit here all night giving me change. I write and upload vids.
It is morning and I have finished writing about Spain. It was long and didn’t quite fit in the online page, but I am glad it is off my chest. One of the less pleasant issues, all about my baggage. The view off the rooftop is awesome in the early morning hush. Downstairs, I walk through the alley coming out of the hotel, I can hear meowing. In a wooden box nailed to the wall is a tiiiiny kitten. There is milk in a container but it isn’t drinking it. It is far too small to be away from the mother. I see this a lot as I travel, baby kittens abandoned by the mothers, presumably because people touch the babies. I stand around helplessly for a while, go into a café, ask for ‘nom’ and make meowing noises. They laugh at me and give me some milk. But the kitten won’t drink it. It will probably die.
Lie down and sleep through the afternoon. Wake and check the Internet in the foyer. A girl is on the phone to MasterCard. She is an Aussie going through what I have been through, lost her credit card. Tell her everything I know. Spend some time trying to get phone numbers to work for her, but she can’t call reverse charge, and she’s drunk. She invites me to come for a drink. Meet her friend who has a beautiful and quiet energy, slightly less drunk. We have falafel, then to the Irish pub. Upstairs, sitting at the bar, I order a Malibu and pineapple juice. The first drink I’ve had in ages. Last night I dreamt that Arik’s brother had passed away. I have the urge to call him, as I don’t really feel like partying. After trading details, I excuse myself. Arik isn’t answering.
A guy I met at a party in Norway is in Bangkok. He doesn’t have a phone. He at Dio guesthouse, 20 metres up from me. Find his receipt at the front desk, go up to his room. He has a new Buddhist tattoo. It is slightly awkward; we only met briefly and have talked mainly online. We quickly clicked in Norway although we didn’t talk much then. I ask him if he wants to come to my room to see my tarot cards. He shuffles them, looks at them one by one and I know I need to give them to him. I can tell him what every card means by memory; quoting the book- I don’t need them anymore.
In London I did a visualisation, and out in the future I had dreadlocks. Every day, as I have walk down Khaosan road, I stop and watch the street stalls doing peoples hair. I ask how much, keep walking. I haven’t washed my hair since I arrived; they will stay better in dirty hair? 3am say bye to Frank. 4am, one guy still has his dread stand out. How much? 550. I sit and he does them. It hurts as he knits my hair with a crochet hook.
Some drunken guys make a movie. The net says if dreads are wet when I go to bed they might rot from the inside out. I webcam a lucky few with the news. Take some pictures but don’t send it home- not ready to deal with what other people think of my decisions yet. Just want to enjoy it. Frank is sitting outside the hostel early in the morning. Get the hair guy to fix some bits he missed- eat brekkie while he does it. Do some washing on the rooftop, there are big tubs of water and I have fun splashing it around.
Have a brochure for a vegan place, Ethos- didn’t manage to find it last night, so I walk there for lunch. Apparently they have a vegan apple crumble, but there’s none left. I eat vegan lasagne and vegan chocolate fudge, with a coconut cream and banana smoothie, amazing. The girls from last night are here as well; funny how similar people roll in similar directions. Phil, the owner is from Melbourne, Australia. He is offering meditation courses; we might come back at 4. Phil speaks with me about a man he works with whom he is having problems with. They were close friends, and the relationship broke down. He tells me this guy completely changed and ruined everything. He is blaming the other guy but can’t see the forest for the trees. I ask him, hypothetically, why would you have created this? He is irritated with me, and maybe stoned. We talk for a long while, at some point the girls leave. I am trying to ask him, why he brought this into his reality. He wants to tell me, the other guy did it. I won’t accept that and when I won’t, he starts to blame me as well. I give him as much as I can, pay and I leave.
I check out of my room with my big bed and into the hostel Frank is staying at. Super cheap, only 180 baht a night (7 dollars). Sleep on the rock hard bed with the fan on. At 6pm, back to Ethos. Get the apple crumble with coconut cream custard. It’s Amazing, and huge. Phil tells me that Eleanor is upstairs and will be down soon. I don’t feel like waiting around. Before I left Australia, I wrote a list of things I wanted to do. Snowboard, tick. Dogsled, tick. Hitchhike, tick. See the ballet, tick. Get the Eurostar, tick. Stay in a monastery? – Not yet. I realise: Thailand is a Buddhist nation. Today, Google found one that sounded perfect. A retreat for ten day stays, starting at the beginning of the month. Call Australian travel agent and change my flight. Upstairs in the crappy hostel, I sit at a table across from a weathered Thai man with big long dreadlocks and eat the leftovers of my apple crumble. I tell him I am going to Wat Suan Mokkh in Chaiya. He knows the place, looks at me and says, you have a broken heart? This reaction surprises me. I start to cry. I am not sure why. If I had to say, it would be because when Ariel left, everything got turned upside down and I don’t understand the world anymore. He tells me, your mama and your papa, they luurrrve you. Don’t you know that? If you call them and tell them to pick you up at the airport, they’ll be there. Everything he says hits home with me. He is distressed at my tears, he intends to make me happy, but I just cry more with everything he says. He tells me, come with me. I hesitate, throw my things in the bin, and follow him.
In the street, a circle of Thai people and a white girl who’s lived here for ten years. Most of them have dreadlocks, I feel like mine fit in. They put a beer in my hand. I flick bottle caps. Works well to both cheer me up and break the ice. They head to the Irish pub from last night. I start a convo with a girl, sit and talk for 20 mins. Find them upstairs. They put another beer in my hand. I am dancing and laughing and the dreads guy catches my eye and smiles. There are Germans nearby. I switch clothes with one of them, an attractive guy standing in the pub in my purple dress. The bar staff tell him to get dressed. Skip ahead 3 hours and I am standing in their hotel room. They are all naked, penises everywhere, so casually. My jaw is dropped. I may or may not have ridden some kind of trolley here? My room is nearby and I leave. Adios, amigos. Hello hard hot bed and hangover.
Wake up, find Frank, go for vegan.
He will be going south as well, not now though, he has an upset stomach. I tell him to lie down and rub his pressure points. I am out of money, a friend offered me some, and when I said yes, she told me she didn’t have any. WTF mate. I buy a train ticket. It rains. I look at T-shirts and fisherman’s pants; get purple thread put in my dreads. When I go to pay for it, I don’t have my wallet. FML. I think I know where I left it, but the stuffs been rearranged and it’s not there. With my passport, I have pretty much the exact amount to get to the retreat and pay for the ten days, then see what happens. Back to the train station, repack suitcase, pay for extra days. Buy a flu mask. I am in the first carriage of the train, on the bottom bunk. 2nd class sleeper with fan. My bed is currently two chairs and a table. A young Thai guy is sitting in the chair. Bugger, I want it to be made into a bunk now. This girl is hung-over, dehydrated, tired, a little dizzy, and this guy wants to talk. I don’t want to talk. Usually I am open to people, but right now I’m not. I wonder if I will miss something cos of it. It’s nice to say no for once. I’ve ordered dinner, I’m starving, when it finally comes, it is amazing. There is soup, and greens, and a plate of food with rice, and pineapple, and juice and tea, and its all vegan. I eat until I am starting to be full, wrap everything back up and put it beside my bed. Lay down to digest, look up and my food is gone. Squeal. The lady has taken it, I gesture, point; I want it back. I didn’t even eat any of the pineapple! I was being good and not over eating. FML. When she comes with the bill, I only want to pay half cos I only got to eat half. End up paying full price, lay down grumbling and wondering what the moral to the story is.
In the morning, he wants me to make the bed back into chairs. I don’t really want him back in my space, cooperate anyway. Wollongong University back home. Interesting. At Surat Thani, it is early morning. I wander around; find some Internet, Skype to MasterCard. I walk into a parking lot, with deep fried sweet potato and banana. Greasy. Share it with some locals. The train station is 15k bus ride from the main town, for a dollar or so. I use the toilet at the bus station, make a movie. There are two large tubs of water, a plastic hole with two foot stands. No hope of toilet paper in this country, wash it away and then air dry. Takes some getting used to. I stand on a corner; a man asks if I need to go somewhere. He has a motorbike taxi! The wind is blowing in my hair; the sun is on my arms, reflections of dreadlocks in the side mirrors. My bliss evaporates in the cold plastic of the mall. A bank has western union. A man loans me his phone, I call Australia for the money transfer number, and it isn’t ready. This man, Tom, owns a hotel on Koh Phangan, tourists are his livelihood. He gives me a ride back with him into town, drops me at the Internet café. For an hour in a big cushy pink chair for only 15 baht /hr. He comes back and gets me, takes me to the yellow bank in his big FWD ute. I collect the last of the money out of my bank account. Buy a combined bus and ferry ticket to Koh Phangan, the island near Koh Samui where full moon parties attract crowds of 60 000+ each month. I have takeaway Thai and grass jelly drink in a can, its delicious. Buy second hand white shirts that cover my shoulders. The woman serving has her baby on the counter on a mat. While I wait for the bus, I read a new Asian backpacker mag. They want submissions; I wonder what will happen here that I could write about. (I should send them something.)
Sleep on the bus, sleep on the ferry. It takes a fair few hours, as we arrive the sun is setting. I pile into the back of a truck with other tourists. They are all chatty. I want to go to Lifestyle bungalows. Talk with some Brit guy; they‘re chatty and witty. The truck stops in the middle of a dark road… this is my stop? I’m not ready to get out here alone- I want to keep socialising. I say I will go where the others are going. In the main town everyone splits up, the guys find a room, there is room for three and they offer for me to stay with them. I suss out the room, swing in their hammock for a while. Tell them I will think about it; I want a quiet bungalow on the beach. They have beers; I have pad seew with some sticky rice for dessert. I am quiet over the meals- they are bantering back and forth with the conversation; it’s amusing, I watch. One of them tells me, he has recently come from Australia, some messed up things happened there and he’s not ready to talk about it. I tell him, I’m sorry. (I wonder if someone died.) He says, that sounded genuine, thank you. He wants to drink. Doesn’t care where or who with, he leads the way in search of alcohol. We meet up with some girls from the truck; one of them has purple dreadlocks. As we walk down the hill towards the full moon party beach, a guy on a motorbike stops. I ask him, are you going to Baan Thai beach? He says yes. I ask him, can I come with you? He is slightly taken aback, but off we go. Leave the guys without a goodbye. He stops for fuel, asks me, why didn’t you get a truck? I tell him, I don’t have much money. The roads are crazy steep, he brakes a lot going down the hill and trucks and bikes overtake. He tells me the bike is old and he is scared. I try not to roll my eyes too much; maybe I’d be scared if I was the one driving. At the bungalows, he says no to my money. I walk down a deserted dark driveway and a dog barks and runs at me. He drives me down the driveway.
Five bungalows on the beach. Painted with tattoo designs. One has people in it- I knock and ask where I can check in. Wooden balconies with cushions and hammocks. A skinny young Thai guy with a huge mane of frizzy hair turns on the TV, gives me water. It is low season, the bungalows are empty. I finished reading Rumo on the plane- now I write a note in the front and donate it to the bookshelf. The bed is huge with a mosquito net, rock hard. With no blanket- lucky I have one from British Airways. I wash my clothes, sleep. For breakfast, I have baked beans, with 4 mushrooms and 2 pieces of toast. Its what I asked for but the plate feels bare. I spend the day reading a romance novel. Lying in the hammock, occasionally looking up and reminding myself where I am. A sea breeze and blue water. The guy with lion’s hair floats around. He has a Siamese Fighting Fish in a jar- he puts a mirror in front to see what it does.
He asks if I want to come for a ride. On the back of his motorbike, wind in my hair again as we zoom around the island. It is ordinary and beautiful in turns, the bays with sand, green water, trees and neighbouring islands. I buy washing powder and a banana cake at the 7/11. A road is unfamiliar to him and we turn back. At the bungalows, I walk along the beach. There are coral reefs nearby and it shows in the huge range of shells. I want to swim but the water is cloudy? Internet across the road for an hour. There is construction everywhere, building more bungalows. He asks if I am hungry. We go a market, many people both Thai and farang, are here for dinner. There is a huge range of dishes, they smell delicious. In big stainless bowls and pots. Mussamen beef without the beef. A huge range of desserts and I can’t choose. It comes with hot coconut milk, and when I drink it out of the bag and make a mess, he pulls faces at me, laughs. He stops at a tattoo parlour and tells me to wait for 2 minutes. I follow him in, he disappears out the back. A man in bright purple pants comes out and the smell of hash wafts out after him. I ask them, how much for a small tattoo on my foot? There is a small Labrador puppy, she sits on my lap. He says, for me, 1000 baht, 40 bucks. I say, ok cool, I don’t have money. My wallet was stolen, my bag was stolen, now my wallet’s in Bangkok. Same tired story. He says, ok we’ll do it anyway. The tattoo guy sterilises the bamboo needle. I am drawing on a piece of paper the word ‘Ariel’ with a frangipani, hypothetically. I wash my feet. I am sitting on the table and he is drawing on my foot in red pen. He doesn’t know what a frangipani is. MY eyes well up as I flick through a flower book. Run to Internet next door, show him a picture. He starts to stab at my foot and I say- fuck! Its forever! Then I realise, nothings forever. As he tattoos I sing ‘Don’t worry, about a thing, cos every little thing, is gonna be alright…’ I ask, you cleaned that needle, right? It’s ok, he says yes. It doesn’t bleed, only really hurts when he puts the yellow in the flower. I grimace and keep singing. Play with the puppy for a while longer- find ticks on her. The purple pants guy wants me to come out with them. Lion mane guy laughs at him and we leave.
We lay on the deck in the warm night air on Thai cushioned mats. He used to have dreadlocks; he wraps his legs around my back and neatens my hair while I read. He wants to be close but I shy away. The ferry leaves in the morning at 7, need to leave at 630. He has said he will take me and I ask again, will you definitely be up? I excuse myself and go to bed. I hear his motorbike leave as I pack. When I wake at 6, the bike is gone and his bed is empty. No goodbyes again, what is it with this place? On the road, a song thaw for 100 baht. Onto the ferry. It is small, inside air conditioned to freezing, and the water beats noisily against the boat. I try to sleep spread across seats. In the nose of the boat, two people have spread cushioned mats, they look comfy and I’m a little envious. I wake and the guy offers me some fruit. Lychees. He has a nice aura about him, smiles and his eyes dance. His girlfriend has really short hair and huge eyes, she seems reserved. Off the ferry and onto the bus. I sit upstairs at the front with a bit wide window. A guy from Israel sits across from me and we chat. A man in a Chinese hat sits below us and sings in a language we don’t understand. It’s pleasant. And cute.
Bus stops, we wait for connections. The lychee guy, Lahshman, now offers me a banana. I was praying for food. I sit with them. He has been to Suan Mokkh, tells me to say hello to the women there. The girl with the big eyes makes vegan sandwiches, pours salty coconut milk on them. Gives me one, its delightful.
In Surat Thani, a grey haired woman is also going to Suan Mokkh. Find Internet, call my mother and let her know I will be out of reach. I have difficulty understanding the bus system, the Thais laugh at the clueless white girl asking questions. The bus ride is long, for a dollar. A woman gives me a beaded plastic ring. Suan Mokkh is the monastery and from here I must go to the International Dharma heritage. As I wait for the truck there, a girl stands in front me and asks, do you need to go to Chaiya? I don’t. If I had enough money I would go with her. Tally Atkins. She sits to eat a durian- stinky, sweet, custard fruit in a hard spiky shell.
She hacks it with a knife and laughingly tells me it is her first time trying to eat one. Mine too. It is messy and when a monk tells us the truck is here, we are slow to move. The truck goes without us, we walk. She has a large pack and I take her carry pack- my bag is light these days. We walk down a dirt road. She is eighteen and travelling through Asia. I show her my tattoo and talk about hitchhiking. She wants to try it one day. She is soft and open and laughs easily. We chat excitedly until we arrive at the gate.
In the hall there are boards covered with information. We are among the last to arrive and quickly sign our forms. Time to begin…