Chiang Rai

Posted on January 8, 2020


Chiang Rai was thrust into the media spotlight last year with the cave rescue of the Thai schoolboys. It’s a stunningly beautiful province in the north of Thailand: rice paddy fields, luscious green mountains, and quiet country roads. The temperature is cooler and of course rainfall is heavy when the monsoons hit.

In all the times I’ve visited The Kingdom over the last few decades I never made it to the north. The ocean has always pulled me back each time. But when I landed in November I was staying for a solid month. Feet firmly planted on the ground.

Yoga has been an important part of my life now for the last eight years. I started with Bikram yoga (the man is a charlatan) but at the time when I came to it, I enjoyed the discipline of doing a set series in sauna like conditions. I always felt cleaner and leaner as the sweat poured out of me. But what I hadn’t appreciated at the time, was the focus I was giving the asanas (postures) was stopping my mind-chatter. For 90 minutes I didn’t think about work, money issues, family problems, stress. I just focused on my breath and trying to do my best on the mat. I was meditating, but i was unaware of it.

When I moved to Istanbul there were no hot yoga studios because the Turkish summers are scorching and no one wants to practise in the same heat as outside. So I joined a studio to start learning Vinyasa. My first class was a disaster. All in Turkish and I had no clue what to do. But I went back, again and again.

It was here that my proverbial Vinyasa seed was germinated and has since flourished. I practise yoga in every country I visit regardless of what language the class is taught in. And I credit the teachers I’ve met along the way who have all helped to inspire me to be where I am now.

My knowledge and appreciation of the practise of yoga continues to deepen, and i would very much like to dispel a few world wide myths:

Yoga is not about looking cool in Lycra and standing on your head for an Instagram photo. It is not about showing off or competing with the person on the mat next to you.

Yoga is in fact how you carry yourself through life. To practise yoga is to live with conscious awareness of your actions and with your mind and your body. It guides you how to engage with others through this journey. The postures make up just one aspect of the eight limbs of yoga coined by the Indian Sage Patanjali. Through the physical practise of asanas your mental and physical well-being improves and that is the positive outcome of regular practise. But few western teachers ever mention the spiritual aspect of this discipline to people dropping in to classes.

I was nervous about doing my yoga teacher training because I didn’t think I was physically ready. There’s no point spending thousands of pounds on training if you cannot touch your toes. Ok I am simplifying this. But you need to have been practising regularly for a while other it’s a waste of time and money. And if you are not fit you will not have the energy to practise three to four hours a day, six days a week. That part was actually the least of my concerns. I am known as The Machine by friends.

For one solid month I spent time living in a small village in close quarters with a infamous monk (now de robed) Canadian by birth but lives in Thailand and five amazing Thai women aged 23-42. They became my pseudo-family. We were blessed to have such a small group and with personalities that gelled. We laughed, debated and practised together. My happiness levels shot up in days. They welcomed me as one of them. Something I had been craving after the cold shoulder from the Filipino villagers of Anda. My teachers were fantastic with their love, support, encouragement and knowledge. And the Shala I trained at had the most amazing cook. All the food was made by the aunty of one of the teachers. Homemade Thai food everyday. I was in paradise. I can honestly say it was one of the best months of my life. The love I feel for those people is the same love I felt for the Uganda students and staff I lived with in Budongo, East Africa almost a decade ago. You bond in a way that is indescribable because you share a unique experience that stays with you forever.

That time in Chiang Rai evaporated and it pained me to leave everyone. I didn’t want to be on my own again. They all had families to go back to. People who needed them. I saw an open road ahead of me yet again. But two months on and we are still all in touch.

December was spent returning to Chiang Mai to build on my training. I went back to a shala i had visited in the summer. There were two teachers in particular I wanted to reconnect with. The north of Thailand has the strongest practise I’ve experienced. No messing around.

I have fallen in love with the city. It has beautiful temples, great local restaurants, arts and culture, phenomenal coffee and of course yoga. The neighbourhoods are cute and hip in places. It is not a party city, it’s renown for its culture, so the tourists visiting these parts are very different, and a wide age bracket too.

But despite the yoga I missed the water. So for the week leading up to Christmas I booked a ticket and went back down south, saw some of my old Koh Tao family, stayed on Samui for yoga and finally dived Sail Rock with an old German instructor friend. It was a brilliant end to the year.

So what now? Diving is being kept as a hobby. I have struggled for two years, job wise, to find somewhere I feel I fit. The truth is the scuba industry is full of heavy drinkers and smokers and I can’t deal with the fallout that brings the next day. Hangovers, mood swings, lateness, laziness, immaturity and no sense of teamwork. I’m not staying the yoga world doesn’t have its own fair share of nut jobs. But the set up is slightly different.

Thailand has the best land-living I have experienced anywhere. Great food, people, culture, climate, cost and it’s safe. The trouble is you have to keep doing visa runs and have a work permit. These two factors were predominantly why I left Koh Tao.

But I want to stay in Thailand a little longer. I’ve started to build my Thai friendship circles and I’m not ready to go yet.

So time to learn another skill. I know. “When does she stop?”

I’m going back to school again, actually it’s university. A friend recently said to me, “wow you don’t let the grass grow under your feet!”.

I’m enrolling at the Language Institute of Chiang Mai University to learn Thai. I get a visa for a year (which can be extended up to three years) and no visa runs. The admissions office does it all for you. The proviso is no skipping class or you’re kicked off the course and out of the country.

But I sincerely want to learn the language. I want to be able to have conversations with the old people in the markets I buy my vegetables from. I want to have a sense of community and a home. I want to feel like I belong somewhere.

Yoga for now will be taught for free as “community” based classes to tourists to build a name and reputation as an instructor until I figure out how to make it all come together. Still working on this idea.

Right now I’m in Cambodia. I had to come next door to sort out the Thai paperwork at the embassy. If it goes to plan, I’m due to start on February 20th.

Mai pen rai! (don’t worry!).