When I arrived at Vikasa, I said hello to the people I knew and introduced myself to the people I didn’t know. Carolina and Jeb, a married couple, were the hosts of this getaway trip. I originally met them through my brother Alex, who did Cross-fit with them a while ago. They were the first people I came into contact with when I arrived at the resort and they greeted me with a very warm welcome.
Our group was given the same itinerary for the upcoming week’s activities. Each day would consist of yoga, fitness and more yoga, along with breakfast, lunch and dinner. The classes were not mandatory, only suggested. In other words, if you didn’t want to do a morning yoga session one day and wanted to go to the beach with friends instead, then that is what you’d do. The retreat lasted for seven days. Two out of those seven days, we would all go to a temple tour and go island hopping together.
I really had to push myself the first day, as I haven’t experienced jet lag quite like this before. The morning after I arrived, I awoke and my eyes were heavy. My roommate Christine and I walked down to the yoga sala together for our very first session. For the most part, Carolina would be our yoga instructor and Jeb would pitch in every once in a while. It was pure adrenaline that got me through the first day.
I don’t consider myself to be an expert at yoga. I find it to be very challenging, both mentally and physically. I do it strictly for the peace of mind and to strengthen my core. In the many yoga sessions that I have participated in when in Los Angeles, I have noticed that I have the tendency to glance over at my neighbors to compare what they’re doing to my own practice. Although I recognize that this isn’t a healthy habit, I still catch myself doing it every so often. Before Carolina started the first session, she told us, in a very serious tone, to focus on our breath. She emphasized to us how important breath is in yoga. For example, when our arms became too tired to hold our body weight up any longer, coming back to our breath would distract us from our initial urge to fall. “Return to breath! Return to breath! Return to breath!” My muscles were tight the first day, probably due to sitting on an airplane for 24 hours. I felt as if I hadn’t stretched in years. I was somewhat anxious because I knew that I hadn’t been practicing yoga on a daily basis prior to this trip. I wondered if my body would be able to handle deep stretching like this for an entire week. I wondered if my mind would be able to shut down for the week. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a competition, even if my mind wanted to believe otherwise. Each time I became distracted by how I thought others were doing “better” than I was, I would look down at my mat and tell myself “Return to your breath.” This helped me a lot. The fascinating thing about yoga is that it is based more on mindfulness than a typical workout. Yes, it has its workout perks, like strengthening the core and increasing mobility, but more often than not, it is about returning to your breath. Some have told me that yoga “isn’t for them.” I disagree. I believe that yoga can be for everyone. It doesn’t matter how flexible you are. It doesn’t even matter if you’re fit or not. The practice itself is a testament to your own personal growth. For me, I see it as a mindfulness practice with gentle exercise involved. A lot of people insist that they have to look the part; like the people in the magazines. In truth, you don’t. I left Vikasa realizing this and now I feel more beautiful inside. As the week wore on, my body gradually became more flexible and my mind became still. I felt less of a need to push myself in order to “look” a certain way to others. It became very clear to me that I didn’t need to please anybody except myself. After this realization occurred, I sailed through the rest of the week.
Directly across the street from the resort was a mini mart. The mini mart sold cold beverages, medicine, snacks and a few hats and t-shirts. When I was desperate for some cold A.C, I would walk across the street and sit on the little yellow chair next to the cash register. It was a nice escape from the heat. Next to the mini-mart was a bar called “Moonstone.” It looked to me as if Moonstone was built from houses that might have been damaged in extreme weather conditions. I could be very wrong, but that’s how it appeared to me. One night, I walked to the bar with some people from the group. Before I ordered my beverage, I walked to the bathroom alone, only to be greeted by a chicken. “A chicken” I say. I screamed and almost tripped over it. “What in the dickens is this thing doing here?” I said to myself. Luckily, my scream scared away the chicken and I could go to the bathroom peacefully. On my return, one of bar tenders stopped me and said, “Did you see the chicken? Well, I heard you scream so I assume you did.” I chuckled and replied “Yes!” That night, I drank my beer and chatted with my mates. The breeze seeped through the cracks of the wooden bar and landed on the back of my neck. It felt great. I ended up going to bed a little earlier that night, as I was exhausted from the days activities.
The temple tours were spectacular — a must see if you’re ever in Koh Samui. The architecture was stunning, and the temples were huge, standing approximately 100 feet above my head each time. I would have to crane my neck upwards, at a 45-degree angle in order to see the top. The first temple we saw was called, “Wat Phra Yai,” locally referred to as “The Big Buddha.” Built in 1972, this structure sits majestically off Samui’s north shore. In order to honor the culture of Thailand, shoes must be removed before climbing the hundreds of stairs to this masterpiece. As we entered the temples’ grounds, most of the group ran ahead to take pictures. Not me. I wanted the moments I had on these beautiful grounds to last. I wanted to take my time and not rush. Just below the staircase is where most of the monks do their morning chants. One of the girls in our group decided to participate in this practice. We all took pictures of her as she wrote down her blessings on a small sheet of paper and tossed it into a seaweed bowl (this was truly astounding to watch). Below the temple, beyond where the monks live, is where all the shopping happens. They have a few outdoor shops and food vendors. I bought a cute pair of elephant pants and it was worth every Baht. I was definitely in a spiritual mood and decided to do some mindfulness practice on my own. I simply felt the floor below me after each step I took. The marble floor was warm. It felt quite nice.
The next temple we went to was called “Wat Plai Laem.” Nestled alongside a lake, this 18-armed piece delights many travelers and locals who come here to pray. Directly across the street from these temples sits a school. My friends and I heard some chanting and at first, we didn’t know where the sounds were coming from. We followed the sounds. As the chanting grew louder, we noticed a group of about 100 students sitting on the floor with their arms wrapped around their body. The other half of the students had their arms in prayer position. We watched them for approximately 10 minutes. I can only imagine what these children’s lives are like – a harsh, yet skilled teacher to say the least. Right before I was about to walk away from the school’s grounds, a little boy approached the fence and waved to me from the other side. I smiled and waved back. I choked back a few tears as I walked away. “Wat Plai Laem” truly peaked my curiosity and so, I decided to scope out the area even further and I walked to the back of the temple. There was a beautiful lake just waiting to greet me, along with large turtles swarming the area. I got my picture taken and off I went. The temples were certainly worth the 25 minute van ride.
On Thursday morning, we hopped into another van that took us to one of the most popular docks on the island. The van ride was bumpy and full of excitement. The part of the ride I remember most was looking outside and noticing how beautiful the palm trees were. They were perfectly aligned in an empty field of green grass, with stunning mountains in the background. I wasn’t use to seeing so much space and land, as I now live is Los Angeles. Anyway, I was delighted when we arrived to where the boats departed. At first, I couldn’t believe these were snorkeling tour boats, as they were so beautiful and vast, and different from similar trips I’ve taken back home. These boats are considered “speedboats” in Thailand. They don’t go nearly as fast as the speedboats in America, but the engine roared obnoxiously loud. There were six people in my boat and initially, we left the dock area slowly. Then, it became a competition. As the boat increased in speed, the engines’ noise grew louder and within minutes, another boat sped by us, creating waves that almost tipped our boat over. One of the girls screamed and I giggled. It was exhilarating.
When we arrived at the snorkeling spot, we all jumped into the water. The ocean was a beautiful turquoise blue that had me in awe! Most of the group snorkeled, but I decided to do things a little differently. I floated on my back, watching the beautiful clouds pass over me. Then, I flipped upright and watched the islands’ trees sway back and forth, listening to the sounds of nature as it appeared. When we were done our snorkeling festivities, we hopped back onto the boat and headed towards the island of “Koh Madsum,” just south of Koh Samui. Before getting off the boat, I noticed that there was a food stand from afar. Once we arrived, I immediately jumped off the boat and ran to the stand to grab and drink and a snack. I was starving, but didn’t want to admit that to anyone. I nonchalantly roamed around the island for a bit and noticed pigs in the distance. I was shocked! I quickly became intrigued and walked towards them. Surprisingly, they didn’t smell bad at all. I stood there for a while and watched them…just like a little boy watches his favorite cartoons on a Saturday morning. Once again, my inner child started to seep through the cracks. There were a bunch of baby pigs feeding on their mama. I knelt down to watched them.
After a long van ride home, I plopped down on my bed and took a 20 minute nap. The sun will surely make you tired, no matter what kind of day you had.
The elephant sanctuary was phenomenal. The van picked us up in the wee hours of the morning and took us over to where the elephants lived. My roommate and I had planned this just two days into the retreat. Both of us decided that this was something we really wanted to do, more than anything else. It was worth the money! A couple of others from the retreat joined us on that cloudy afternoon. Once we arrived, we had to wait for other groups to join us in order to start the process. Yes, it was a process, and a tedious one at that. After waiting over an hour for the others to arrive, we were forced to watch a short documentary on how to treat the elephants. I could clearly see the sadness painted on the face of the woman speaking harsh realities about the elephants and how they were mistreated in the past. Furthermore, the documentary told us how to approach the elephants and where to stand. For example, you don’t want to stand where the elephants can’t see you, as a few of the elephants are blind in one eye. They went on to tell us the do’s and don’t’s of feeding and approaching an elephant. Once a couple of hours passed by, it was finally time to meet these beautiful creatures.
After waiting for what seemed like a lifetime, I think it’s appropriate to say we all just wanted to jump right in. However, that wasn’t an option. We had to approach the elephants slowly because they startle easily. I grabbed some pineapple from the bucket and started feeding them one-by-one. I wasn’t scared, but rather hesitant. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I was told to do, properly. Prior to feeding them, one of the girls yelled from afar, “Oh my god, Maddie, just GO!” Well, jeez! Perhaps a little push is just what I needed. After I fed them a couple of times, I became more comfortable with them, just as they did with me. After 20 minutes passed by, our guide announced that it was time to “hop the fence,” (not literally). He opened the gate and we went through. The elephants followed us. We ventured further into the wilderness and as we approached a tree, we stopped. The remainder of the sanctuary consisted of our guide speaking more about the elephants and us getting to pet and feed them. It was sad leaving the sanctuary. I wanted to make sure that they were going to be well taken care of. It appeared to me that they were, but you never know in a foreign country. After our mini group arrived back to Vikasa, we were bombarded with questions by those who didn’t participate in the outing. They all pretty much asked the same question, like, “Oh my god, how was it?” — Yeah, something along those lines. Ha!
During the the middle of the week, Christine and I went downtown to go shopping. This was the first time I had been downtown since I arrived to Koh Samui. It was alarming and quite different from the resort life. Certain areas of downtown were more developed than other parts. It was interesting to see the transition from block to block. During the taxi ride, my eyes were glued to the surroundings. I saw dogs running across the street, which is a very normal thing to see in Thailand. I saw a lot of food vendors on the side of the street where locals sold their food. I saw the elderly knitting on the side of the road and selling their makings. I was acting like I was on a different planet, like Jupiter, for example. We hopped out of the taxi and it started pouring down rain. We didn’t have umbrellas handy, so we walked a quarter of a mile to a 7-11 to get ponchos. It started thundering and lighting as well, and the only thing that kept us dry were tents. We shopped in cute boutique stores alongside the road. The side walks were so small, they practically didn’t exist. It was lunch time and I was craving some real Thai food. Christine agreed that Thai food would be ideal right about now. After shopping for thirty minutes, we plopped down to get some delicious food. I was starving and inhaled my food within six minutes (a rough estimate). I patiently waited for Christine to finish. She looked at me and asked if I was rushing her. “No darling, take your time” I said. Oh, how I was embarrassed. After lunch, we enjoyed strolling around the area for a while. It stopped raining at this point. As we were walking, I saw a salon that caught my attention immediately. I stopped and Christine ran into the back of me. We both looked at each other and exchanged knowing glances. Yes, this means that we got our nails done in Thailand. I also got a Thai foot massage that felt incredible!