After a month of Rugby World Cup shenanigans and family time in England, my travels took an unexpected turn and I jumped on a plane bound for Siem Reap, Cambodia. Definitely did not foresee such action, but it turns out it was an excellent decision.
Whilst in Spain, I was also applying for various yoga jobs in Europe, just throwing my CV out there and hoping the universe would provide. Old universe came through, but as usual, it was in a highly unexpected way.
So now I’m in Cambodia, working in the traditional Khmer village of Bakong, near the temples of Angkor Wat, surround by rice paddies, an overwhelmingly stinky marketplace, curious-looking cows, tiny children dressed proudly in school uniforms riding bicycles far too large, dusty brown roads and dense green jungle. The villagers throw wild, loud parties that begin at 4am and finish at 3am. They celebrate life, death, weddings, anniversaries, getting a new cow, their neighbour getting a new cow, the anniversary of 100 days since their neighbour got a new cow…. Anything is a reason to party, and I respect that. I also respect and relish my one hour of silence between 3am and 4am, when the wailing and chanting ends and the frogs begin.
I’m teaching yoga at Hariharalaya Yoga and Meditation Retreat, quite possibly the best yoga retreat in Cambodia, but maybe I’m biased… I live in a little thatched hut, with a mosquito net that I keep throughly tucked into my mattress, and a broom to sweep out the fresh gecko poop. My pet gecko is called Fred, and sometimes I burst into my room to find him squatting hurriedly in the corner, an alarmed look in his beady eyes as he is caught doing his thrice daily ablutions! One of Hariharalaya’s pure intentions is to get people back in touch with nature, and there’s no doubt it has done that for me… A frog squad lingers outside my hut at dawn and dusk, exchanging tales from pond life, leaping over each other and avoiding my huge human tread. Once, on a sleepy midnight trip to the bathroom, I stepped firmly on something very soft and squishy, which turned out to be a tiny frog, fresh from tadpole life, and I felt so sad and mournful.
There are also giant worms, and I mean so so large. As long as my leg (which in fact is not very long but long if you’re a worm). The first few weeks I was here, there were still remnants of the rainy season, and after the rain the giant worms would come out to play. At first I thought they were snakes. And then the first time I saw a snake, I thought it was a giant worm, so I peered at it curiously, considered prodding it, until one of the Cambodian girls came sprinting out of the house, broomstick in hand, and started bashing at it furiously with all her might. She turned to me, eyes bright, and cried “ees small, but ees baaaaaad!”. Poisonous worm, otherwise known as snake. I should not be left alone in the jungle.
My first week was a challenge. Up at 5.30am every morning, sometimes earlier, learning the ropes, planning classes for groups of 20-30 people of mixed yoga experience, from all different backgrounds and languages, and trying to balance doing a good job with socialising with guests. Plus I was dealing with the culture shock, the temperature and humidity, jet lag, a cold turkey vegan diet (pun intended) and caffeine withdrawals. 5.30am is rough WITH a nice cup of English breakfast tea or strong coffee, but without… I truly felt like a zombie going through the motions. Jasmine tea and meditation is what I have to work with. Days off though…
My first two weeks of morning and night meditation was a STRUGGLE. I’ve tried to meditate regularly over the past couple of years, but never really got into the rhythm. Here I have no choice, which as it turns out, is exactly what I needed. I could not sit comfortably for half an hour without fidgeting, worrying about bugs in my hair, scratching mosquito bites, adjusting my shawl, rearranging my sitting position from cross legged to kneeling to cross legged to kneeling.. I soon realised that I am obsessed with being comfortable (which anyone could guess from my collection of chunky jumpers and yoga pants) and that maybe it is quite good for me to sit with the discomfort for a while. And that’s when my meditation improved. Amazing! I mean obviously, it’s still bloody awkward sometimes, especially when a moist slimy gecko lands on your leg in the darkness of evening meditation, and you can’t see what it is, so you let out a wisp of a scream and jump from the ground, fumbling for the light of your phone then realising you don’t have it because it’s a digital detox and all phones are contraband, so you scamper to the bathroom and sit on the toilet until the meditation bell rings to signal dinner time, and you emerge, pale and shamefaced, admitting defeat by a wayward gecko.
There are many humorous moments, and many meaningful ones too. At the end of each retreat we do a closing circle where everyone shares something of their experience. Sometimes people start crying which generally makes me cry and then the sight of me crying makes other people cry because it’s not very pretty, in fact it’s a bit scary. It’s a healing place though and I’m so grateful that I’m a part of it.
The next retreat is over Christmas, so that’ll be weird. Vegan, wine-free Christmas? If I was Santa I’d stay at home. But maybe it’s a good opportunity to give Christmas a different meaning. My family dinner this year will be with my lovely workmates and retreat-goers, passion fruit smoothies will be my prosecco, and the treehouse will be my Christmas tree, the sunset will be my Christmas lights… These are the things that people who live on yoga retreats begin to say. Village life is going to my head.
I’m currently enjoying a luxurious three nights off, recovering from some kind of savage bird flu (maybe just normal flu but I like to be dramatic), partaking in hot showers, green juices, mineral water, jacuzzis and vast swimming pools. All the different types of water please. I recently had a very bad, very boyish haircut from a lady in the marketplace (in hindsight, not a good idea) so I don’t particularly want to go out where lots of people can point and laugh. “It’s not so bad!”, my friends cry, but they’re not the ones with a frizzy mullet.
I will be back soon with more tales of Cambodian village life. This post was mainly about insects and creepy crawlies, but this stuff is important to cover. In the meantime, if you’re in Southeast Asia….. book yourself in for a retreat here!