Sitting in the departure lounge at Bangkok airport at 1am in the morning.... and it is the perfect place to begin writing this post. I can stay in the moment as I reflect on my experiences instead of the contemplating the hours of travelling that lay ahead.
My volunteering experience in Thailand almost didn't happen at all. My mum and I had originally planned a trip to visit my sister who is currently working in Bangkok, I wanted to extend my stay after the family holiday time together and found a yoga retreat centre. However what I failed to realise was that this particular centre was a 12 hour bus ride away and totally unpractical. So at the last minute I scanned the Workaway website (a more recent amazing discovery) and found an opportunity to volunteer in the construction of a yoga centre a short drive from Chaingmai city itself.
It seemed perfect, and it did not disappoint!
I spent seven days at Yoga House getting involved with gardening, artwork and cooking. Most days I woke with the sunrise just before 6am and cycled to the early morning market for fruit- so much amazing fruit! I watched the sun come up whilst siting on the deck drinking hot water with fresh lime and eating some of the fruit, then got to work for a couple of hours before the heat of the day truly hit. Even though the temperature was over 40C most days I found it surprisingly ok, in fact without air conditioning my body acclimatised a lot better. I have never been a fan of air conditioning and this experience reinforced that.
The bedrooms were simple shed-like structures. I'll be honest it took me a couple of days to get used to the multiple frogs and lizards sharing my room every night (I felt like a contestant in 'I'm a Celebrity' initially). I was glad of the mosquito net 'shield'. I was also very glad to have taken eye mask and earplugs- who knew wildlife was with so loud!! There was one slightly amusing incident (amusing more in hindsight) in which I was in the middle of a coaching session with my coach and the lizards on the ceiling and walls were much more active with the light on. One fell off the ceiling right on front of my face and I leapt up launching my phone (on which I was Skyping) across the room!
We took part in yoga everyday during early evening, the warm glow of the setting sun bathing the floor tiles of the space with a golden hue. My flexibility improved in that short time and I nailed a couple of new moves- scorpion arm balance and headstand-to crow-to chataranga. Both of which I was very to happy to come away with and has re-motivated me with my yoga practice.
Ma, owner of Yoga House taught all the classes and had built the centre from scratch over the last year. I hugely admire his energy and vision and the generosity he extended to us all, with just two hours a day of work and a 100baht (£2) contribution towards all food each day. With other volunteering opportunities it is more typical that you work 4-5 hours each day without paying a supplement for food. I was more than happy with the arrangement at Yoga House, and even though the menu was typically vegetarian, I was well catered for with vegan food.... plus the fruit ;-)
I spent my days with a beautiful group of fellow volunteers and a couple of guests who were also staying at the centre. We prepared and ate all our meals together, and enjoyed so many random and interesting conversations around the table, sharing stories and teaching each other words from our languages. This is what I loved so much, the energy of the time together gathered around a table sharing bowls of food we created.
This was a very similar experience at the Buddhist meditation centre and one of my greatest memories there also. I have lots more to talk about when it comes to food of course, but I'll save that for a separate post!
A few photos of how I spent my week, to give you the essence beyond that which words can say...
A personal highlight was a trip to the local national park wth a beautifully clear waterfall steam that we swam and played in. After a couple of hours it thundered and as we made our way back to the truck the sky opened and it poured! The journey back in the open topped truck was an experience as we were pelted by rain!
The uniqueness of travel and volunteering in this way, is such that people flow in and out of your life, and I within theirs. You quickly create bonds and friendships, then those people then leave and others flow in. A beautiful dynamic, a test of attachment, of letting go, of appreciating the moments for what they are and the inevitable process of ebb and flow.
There were between 4-6 other volunteers/guests at any one time, with a shift in group dynamic every few days as people came and went.
The other thing I loved, again similar to that I experienced at the mediation centre, is that some of the volunteers/guests are living there longer term. It reminds me that 'it could be me' if I choose to do so. When you go on a typical holiday abroad, the setup is such that it is a finite bubble of bliss. A luxury experience. It is not a real life setting and more simply a respite from 'real life'. The beauty of this paired back, cost effective experience is that it could become 'real life'. You are literally spending time in another persons real world. Yes, I may have left after a week but the setup was such that I couldn't have stayed indefinitely if I had wished...
Another big difference for me personally (and one in which I fully appreciated in jumping without pause from holiday mode to volunteering mode) is that holidays are for DOING, yet the volunteering experience is for BEING. I've touched many times on the shift between those two aspects of life and my own endeavours to spend more time BEing and as such become more heart centred in my approach to life.
The Yoga House created a beautiful space for that process. Set in a small village area outside the bustle of Chaingmai city, with old bikes to take out, hammocks hung from trees, a deck to perfectly view the sunrise from and a yoga den to use all day long. It created so much space to simply be. I appreciate not all volunteering experiences would create this same level of quiet reflection, and that many users of the workaway site would use the opportunity to find city centred locations to explore the surrounding beyond their work times. However I think the overall sense of doing away with luxury, pairing back to simplicity and coming to know yourself is still deeply embedded.
Travellers interest me. I had never realised that in previous years since I had never travelled! I am now beginning to see what I was missing out on! My motto, the words I wear around my ankle on a red chord, read: 'always be curious'. This last week I surrounded myself with curious people. People who not only want to explore but have actually stepped up into doing it.
Interestingly, it is less the sense of physical exploration that I refer to (but of course that plays a part with interesting stories and insights to tell) but more the mental sense of exploration, of growth and change as a person. In being around others on this path, it raises my own excitement, energy and inner confidence to continue to do the same.
Travel changes you significantly, there is no doubt about it. From my experiences so far, it has presented me a whole new window on my life and on my world that is difficult to grasp quite so profoundly any other way. When you are outside of your own culture, comfort zone and norms of society you become more consciously aware. It is impossible to run on autopilot when your ingrained social context is taken away. You get curious and question more and assume less, something I am striving to do more in my everyday life.
I'm smiling softly as I wrap up the draft of this post, now flying somewhere over Moscow only a few hours away from landing on home turf. I feel there is so much more to say as the energy is bubbling up inside me, but that can wait until it finds its moment.
I smile because not only have I left this week with a host of beautiful memories, but also with the notion this can happen all over again as soon as I want it to. I design my own life, on my own terms. I now plan to prioritise travel in my life, to deeply enrich my personal growth and my mind-body connection, but also in equal part enrich and strengthen my offering as a coach, my work with 1-1 clients and also in the creating of retreat experiences and the longer term dream of creating a 'centre for BEing'.
I am home for just seven days before I take off again for the biggest experience of my life so far. As a gift to myself for my birthday next month, I decided to step fully beyond my comfort zone and live for the entire month of May at Rainbow City in Portugal. In saying 'yes' to this opportunity it brought butterflies to my stomach, it still does! I have no idea what to expect, but at the same time fully acknowledge that to be the beauty of the experience. Open mind, open heart. I can't wait to report back from there soon!
Here again are the links to Yoga House and Workaway in case you want to explore them for yourself (neither of these are affiliate links in any way). I loved every minute of my experience, and highly recommend volunteering as an incredible cost effective way to explore the world (or even just the UK as I did at the mediation centre) and meet inspiring people, and maybe in the process find a little more of yourself.
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