“This place right here, God circled on a map for you.”
I had been traveling for over a month when I arrived at Suan Sati– a yoga and meditation retreat outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. After 12 days in Bangkok, 5 days in Singapore, 1 night in Chiang Rai and two weeks bouncing around Chiang Mai, I needed a break. A break from city life and a break from my own mind.
It took me TWO YEARS to prepare for this trip, this lifestyle- I should say. I had to sell all of my stuff, pay off debt, save money, build up airline miles, research destinations, prepare to work on the road, and gracefully untangle myself from all of my stateside obligations. Needless to say, I was busy leading up to my departure! I was focused, I was determined, I had a goal.
Freedom was the driving force behind creating this lifestyle, but when I finally arrived in Thailand, I felt more confused than free. I was like the dog who finally caught the car- like, what the hell am I supposed to do now? Going from the structure of chasing a goal to directionless travel was a shock to my system.
I spent the first few weeks abroad teetering between hell yeah, I made it! and what the hell do I do now? For so long I stood behind my long term travel plans with confidence, unwavering when challenged. I didn’t know how to handle the sudden onset of uncertainty.
On one hand I was absolutely stoked to FINALLY be abroad. A travel lifestyle was something I’d wanted for so long! With every new person I met, new food I tried, and new smell I smelled, I thought, this is why I’m here!
On the other hand, I felt a massive amount of pressure that I hadn’t felt on previous trips abroad. This trip was different. This trip IS different. I gave up a successful business, time with friends and family, all of my material possessions, and a lot of money to be here. If this doesn’t turn out to be an epic experience, what were all of those sacrifices for?
In an effort to ensure epicness, I started researching every possible destination, activity, and excursion available.
I was frozen by choice.
How I Ended Up at Suan Sati
Even though long-term organic travel has always been my priority, I did set a few, loose, goals to anchor myself within this free-flowing lifestyle:
- Practice Yoga
- Teach English
- Learn Spanish
These goals were set to give me guidance if I found myself wrapped up in the backpacker party scene or unsure where to go next.
After several weeks on the road, I finally admitted to myself that I was struggling and turned to this list. With the overwhelming nature of city life in Asia and a racing mind, yoga seemed like the way to go. Someone suggested Suan Sati in a comment on my Girls LOVE Travel post. (If it was you, please leave a comment here, I owe you a thank you!)
I researched loads of other yoga retreats (of course I did with the state of mind I was in), but ended up choosing Suan Sati after reading one line in the owner’s bio…
“Will moved to Thailand in 2010 after escaping from a career in five star hospitality in Las Vegas.”
This small connection to home felt like a sign. If nothing else, it finally got me to make a choice. A choice that would, in fact, lead me back home- to the home within myself.
Welcome to Suan Sati
Everyone was eating lunch in the outdoor dining area when my Grab (a ride share service, like Uber) pulled up to Suan Sati early Monday afternoon. At first, I felt awkward walking into what seemed like a well-established community during a meal. To my relief, I was instantly welcomed by everyone.
After Tessa, one of the yoga instructors, gave me a tour of the property, I settled into the bungalow style dorm then joined the group for afternoon yoga and dinner. I had no doubt I was exactly where I was meant to be!
I surprisingly woke up to the ringing of the gong at 5:30am with ease. After dousing myself in bug spray, brushing my teeth, wrapping my sleep tousled hair in a bandanna, and filling up my water bottle, I met everyone in the open-air yoga shala at 6am for our first guided yoga and meditation practice of the day.
Morning at Suan Sati was greeted with silence. No one, other than the yoga instructor, spoke until breakfast. The positive effect of starting my day in silence cannot be overestimated…
Calmness. Peace. Clarity. Stillness.
After 2 hours of yoga and meditation we met for breakfast. Let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a Suan Sati vegan breakfast buffet. The waffles with chocolate sauce and the fresh local fruit (mango, papaya, dragon fruit, passion fruit, banana, watermelon and pineapple) has gone down on record as my favorite breakfast of all time (sorry Ma, your Eggs Benedict has been demoted to to number two).
Lunch was at 1pm, the second yoga and meditation practice was at 4pm and dinner was at 6pm.
Lunch and dinner were vegan buffets as well, alternating between Thai and Western inspired dishes. From lush green salads to Koh Soi (a signature noodle soup of Northern Thailand) to pasta with marinara sauce, there wasn’t a single dish I disliked!
Before dinner we gathered around the food holding hands. After a moment of silence, each person shared something they were grateful for. Sometimes people shared something simple, even comical, like “mosquito netting,” and other times we were brought to tears by an out pour of truly heartfelt gratitude.
Sunday was a free day. No gong. No yoga. 3 vegan buffets.
Yoga & Meditation
During my time at Suan Sati, there were three yoga instructors on rotation. Each one had a completely different background and teaching style, exposing me to a wide variety of new yoga and meditation techniques. Constantly challenged, my practice progressed daily.
I opted to take a private yoga lesson with Tessa. She showed me techniques to improve my form and ways to deal with my problem knees and wrist. She also created a personalized 25 minute sequence for me to do on my own! I have been doing it in hostel common areas and public parks since leaving Suan Sati a month ago. (Thanks Tessa!)
Free Time Activities
After breakfast, lunch and dinner we had free time. During these times we had the option to take a Thai vegan cooking class, get a Thai massage, do arts and crafts, read, go to the pool at the golf club down the street, partake in one of the activities hosted by the yoga instructors or simply chill.
Cooking Class & Thai Massage
I did not take the cooking class with Aunty Orn, but from eating the food they made, I can say she is a great cook and teacher!
I did, however, use my free time one evening to get a Thai massage. Just before 7, the masseuse’s husband, also Suan Sati’s handy man, came to pick me up on his motorbike. His young daughter was with him. I was nervous- I’d never been on a motorbike before and for my first ride there’d be a small child on the bike!
The little girl sat in front of him and I hoped on the back. The drive was less than 5 minutes. It was so quick I’m surprised they didn’t have me walk. But I’m glad they didn’t, it was the perfect introduction to motorbiking in Thailand! Gliding alongside the sunset sky and countryside landscape, with the wind in my face, I tasted the freedom I’d been craving. It was as if the universe was reminding me, “you are exactly where you’re supposed to be… and motorbikes aren’t that scary.”
The massage took place on a mattress in the main room of their quaint, dimly lit, home. It was an authentic, casual and intimate affair.
Books and Arts & Crafts in the Big House
In the Big House (the main structure where yoga practice, meals and gatherings took place), there were books, paper, pens, paints and supplies to make jewelry. I whipped out a few beaded bracelets one morning during free time. Something about making bracelets, like braiding hair, is meditative for me. I also picked up the book “This is It” by Alan Watts. I didn’t finish it but will as soon as I can get my hands on another copy.
To the individual thus enlightened it appears as a vivid and overwhelming certainty that the universe, precisely as it is at this moment, as a whole and in every one of its parts, is so completely right as to need no explanation or justification beyond what it simply is.
-Alan Watts “This is It”
Writing Workshop & Movie Nights
The yoga teachers hosted several activities during my stay including a writing workshop and a few movie nights.
In the writing workshop I free wrote on the word “gratitude” which brought to light my thankfulness for my privilege to travel. We finished the workshop on a lighter note- writing goofy haiku poems.
The movie nights were two of my favorite nights at Suan Sati. Using yoga mats, meditation cushions and bolsters, we turned the yoga shala into a comfy home theater. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a movie person. There are so many movies that get referenced all the time that I’ve never seen (like “Dirty Dancing”). A move has to really spark my interest for me to sit through it. The two movies we watched, the “Samadhi Movie” and “Black Panther” couldn’t have been more up my alley. They were completely different films but both had a profound impact on me.
On Sunday, a small group of us rode bikes to Mae Joe Golf Club. For ฿100 ($4 USD) we were able to spend the day at their luxurious resort pool!
I did more haircuts!
Haircuts took up a good chunk of my free time at Suan Sati! Just like in Bangkok, people were keen in an instant for a haircut! I did five haircuts and 3 beard trims during my time at Suan Sati.
I was reminded once again how much I love connecting with people while cutting their hair. There were two guys in particular that I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to speak with one on one had I not cut their hair.
The first was 24 year old New Zealander, originally from Iraq, en route to travel the world with his girlfriend for the next couple of years! The second was a wise and witty thirty something Hungarian guy living the digital nomad life. Their travel stories were inspiring and had they not needed haircuts and beard trims, I wouldn’t have gotten to hear them.
I took advantage of more than just silent mornings at Suan Sati. For an entire day I chose not to speak. Suan Sati supplied me with a “SILENCE” pin, signifying to everyone that I was choosing to spend the day in silence. Not talking for an entire day made me realize two things- One, I talk A LOT and two, so many things can, in fact, be left unsaid.
Suan Sati has a beautiful relationship with the land it occupies in the countryside outside of Chiang Mai. For starters, there is a sprawling organic garden where kale, tomatoes, cucumbers, chilies, galangal, turmeric, beans, sprouts, pumpkins and several other crops grow on a rotating basis.
The Big House, as well as the varied accommodations on the property, are constructed simply, with natural, local materials.
All the water used at Suan Sati is returned directly to the land. It is kept clean and chemical free through the use of natural cleaning products and personal hygiene products (soap, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, bug spray etc.) I conveniently purchased a personal supply of these products at Good Health, a health store in Chiang Mai. They are also available for purchase at Suan Sati’s Honor Your Body Shop.
Water is preserved at Suan Sati with a variety of innovative techniques. My favorite is the 5 tub dish washing station. Dishes progressively get cleaner as they pass through 5 different washing tubs. After the dishes are done, the water from the first two tubs, consisting of the majority of the food debris, gets dumped into the grass. The other water tubs get moved up the line. The empty tubs are then placed back in the last two spots and refilled with fresh water, ready for the next round. Brilliant!
Any unused food (which isn’t much thanks to mindful eating) gets composted. Garbage that cannot be composted gets cut up and packed tightly into plastic bottles, making ecobricks. Eventually, these ecobricks will be used in future construction projects at Suan Sati.
Connecting to the Present Moment
Suan Sati forced me out of my racing mind by connecting me with the present moment. By leaving the city, disconnecting from my cell phone, doing 4 hours of yoga and meditation per day, eating healthy vegan meals, connecting with other humans and to the earth, and being silent, I went from living in the past and the future to living in the present.
No longer attached to every epic destination I researched, I was free to accept an invitation to extend my stay at Suan Sati as a volunteer. In exchange for doing the dishes, composting, ecobricking, and assisting with social media marketing, I enjoyed all the benefits of the Suan for 9 additional nights. I stayed until my Thai visa expired!
Will, the founder of Suan Sati, who, unbeknownst to him, I connected with over the word “Las Vegas” in his bio, had been away traveling during my entire stay. He returned the night before my departure. I got the opportunity to chat with him about Las Vegas and Suan Sati over the homemade vegan cookies his mom sent back with him from The States.
Had my experience not been exactly what I needed, I might say I wish I would have come while Will was teaching. But I am so grateful for the EXACT experience I had and the uncanny timing that allowed me to meet him face to face, I wouldn’t change it even if I could!
Arriving in Bangkok was the moment my travel lifestyle went from a hypothetical future fantasy to reality. It was the moment I had to officially let go of home with both hands. No wonder I was confused and uncertain- even though I was embarking on a much anticipated journey, I was also going through a MASSIVE transition.
Suan Sati helped me navigate this transition by giving me the tools and space to mentally and emotionally move from the physical place I associated with home to the home within myself. The home that no matter how far or how long I travel this world, I can always come back to in the present moment.
Thank you Suan Sati!