Koh Samui and three days of silence….

Having left our little island paradise of Koh Jum, our next destination was the popular island destination of Koh Samui. Well known for it’s beautiful beaches and lively nightlife, our plan was something pretty different-we had booked onto a three day meditation retreat!
From Krabi a 3 hour bus journey across Southern Thailand to the port, where an hours’ ferry got us to our destination with no problems. An established route, we found ourselves in the midst of a heap of travellers making their way over to Koh Phangan for one of the famous Full Moon Parties…Quite a contrast the three days of silence that we had ahead!

We had a few days to hang out in Koh Samui before the retreat, so we headed to Lamai Beach where we had booked a hut to stay in and looked to getting a few drinks under our belts before the spiritual journey ahead! Lamai Beach was much quieter than we had expected, and it seemed as if the area was suffering from a drop in tourists from the UK due to recent widely publicised events-whether that is true or not is difficult to measure-but for sure it gave the beach a slightly odd atmosphere. The main street is absolutely jam packed with bars and souvenir shops, with a central market area that is populated with ‘go-go’ bars where you find girls and lady-boys dancing on poles behind little open bar areas. In the centre of all of these bars, quite bizarrely, is a Thai boxing ring…More about that shortly.
Mooching around the shops and you discover that they all sold the same things-for sure there is an opportunity for someone to offer some diversity to this area! Anyway, our major find was the street food market, which served a plethora of gorgeous food for around 60 baht for a main meal (around £1.20). We ate here every night, picking out a different stall to sample their offerings and not a bad meal was had-the more time we spend out in Asia the more we appreciate the wonders of street food, and wherever we go now we try to search out these vendors in preference to eating in restaurants.

Given the upcoming days in the retreat we made the obvious decision to have a night out on the cocktails, unfortunately we made the unobvious choice of the night prior to retreat to go out-first rule of meditation retreat rookies, don’t start with a stinking hangover!
Anyway, back to our last evening of freedom and having ate at the street food market we indulged in a few beers and found out that there was actually going to be some Thai boxing in the central market area that night-bargain! We settled in one of the bars surrounding the ring and sponsored one of the female fighters, which essentially makes up her purse for the evenings’ work. Around half way through the fight they halted proceedings and invited ladies of the audience to get up and get in the ring for some sort of contest, with an iota of encouragement Jo was up there and having a balloon tied to her ankle-basically the purpose of the contest was to be the last one in the ring with an inflated balloon on your ankle. What followed was funny, disappointing and a little disturbing…Jo’s balloon was ‘faulty’ and just went down of its own accord and soon she was out of the ring, what followed was a bizarre few minutes where a guy who had entered got quite far on in the competition-and lets just say that he got a little ‘over enthusiastic’, and was soon dealt with by a group of remaining ladies and a lady boy….it got a little heated to say the least! Still, fun was had and certainly the beers and cocktails seemed to have done the trick:

And WE'RE OFF!

And WE’RE OFF!

Disappointment with the 'faulty' balloon...There were murmurs that this may have been rigged!

Disappointment with the ‘faulty’ balloon…There were murmurs that this may have been rigged!

Still, I was all happy rocking the duck t-shiirt

Still, I was all happy rocking the duck t-shiirt

And a late night stroll on the beach and the injustice of earlier was forgotten!

And a late night stroll on the beach and the injustice of earlier was forgotten!

Awakening the following morning with what could only be described as a monster hangover, we readied ourselves for the Diphabhavan meditation retreat. Having limited experience of meditation in the past, and knowing that we were facing three days of silence, what was about to happen certainly had the butterflies excited in our already troubled stomachs!
Here’s the schedule that we were facing for the next few day, while not being allowed to speak at all:

04.30 Wake up
05.00 Morning Reading
05.15 Sitting meditation
05.45 Yoga / Exercise
07.00 Sitting meditation
07.30 Breakfast & Chores
09.30 Dhamma talk
10.30 Walking or standing meditation
11.00 Sitting meditation
11.30 Lunch & chores
14.00 Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.00 Walking or standing meditation
15.30 Sitting meditation
16.00 Walking or standing meditation
16.30 Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
17.30 Tea
19.30 Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 Sitting meditation
21.00 Bedtime
21.30 LIGHTS OUT

Soooooooo…..Yeah, that was it-this was the challenge that we were facing. I had no idea how hard this would be, and it’s only really a ‘taster’ course-usually these retreats would be 7 or 10 days, so the quick fire few days should be a breeze right? No, not at all. On arrival you’re reminded of the rules of the retreat, and you sign up to these rules and pretty much commit to staying there for the duration-all electronic devices and reading materials are packed away, and at eight o clock on the first evening you begin ‘The Silence’, clearing the mind allowing for effective meditation.
Some of the rules:
-Men were to sit on the left hand side of the meditation hall and dining area, women on the right.
-Wherever possible try to avoid non verbal communication as well as verbal, so if you’re going to smile at someone-try to make sure that you’re already smiling before you make eye contact
-Respect all living creatures, do not kill any bugs
-No reading
-No writing
-You sleep on a mat on a wooden platform, with a wooden pillow (male and female dorms separate, obviously!)
-You must attend all sessions
-You do not leave the boundaries of the retreat
-No drinking, smoking, sexual activity or drugs
-No nudity in the wash area (something that I didn’t realise and broke this rule on the first day!)

So, feeling rather daunted by it all (and still REALLY hungover), Jo and I said our ‘goodbyes’ and entered ‘The Silence’!
The first evening and we had our introduction to meditation techniques and postures-it was actually surprising to discover how difficult it is to find a sitting position that you can stay n comfortably for half an hour…Try it, straight back, legs crossed, hands rested on your knees-remain in that position for 30 minutes without moving-it’s harder than you may think.
The meditation technique that we were being taught was that of breathing and walking meditations, or Vipassana. In it’s most basic and simple explanation, by focussing on your breathing or walking you clear your mind of all other thoughts, and achieve mindfulness and focus. Easier said than done I tell thee.
So first evening out of the way, and we retired to our wooden platforms for a night of broken sleep-looking forward to the chimes that awaken us at 4.30AM.
The first full day really hit home how tough it was going to be….It was a REALLY long day, and over the next couple of days, I think that I speak for both of us when I say we experienced quite significant feelings of loneliness. It’s really difficult to not to be able to engage with your partner, just a smile and to check on how they are feeling.
Still, our underlying competitiveness drove us through the day, neither of us wanting to give up! One highlight of our days was the Dharma talks from one of the monks there called Hubert. This guy was incredibly happy, and gave talks on the meditation techniques and their grounding in Buddhism. He had an infectious smile, and really did emanate calmness-for sure he was a fantastic advert for the benefits of meditation!
Pretty much until the last two sitting meditation sessions I didn’t ‘get it’. I didn’t feel that I was clearing my mind, and really it was just a case of ‘getting to the end’….However, following Hubert’s penultimate talk, something happened…I found myself in a mental space where there was no inner dialogue, there was only the sensation of air passing in and out through my nose. Nothing else, just this mindfulness/consciousness of my breathing. For me this was something of a breakthrough, and to some extent the ‘trial’ of the retreat was looking justified. Jo also found meditation success, both through the latter sessions of the breathing techniques, and also in the walking meditation-where you focus entirely on the sensations and mechanics of slow walking.

The final morning came and following a few more sessions of meditation the silence was finally broken. This was such a strange time, people didn’t really know what to do! You felt like you had some sort of connection with your dorm mates, however you hadn’t spoken to them for days so when the opportunity finally came-it took some time to get comfortable with being able to speak once again. At this point we were reunited with each other, and felt the relief of being able to converse once again. To share our common struggles, and to give each other a hug! Reunited with our technology, predictably I got my camera out to take a few snaps of the location for this ‘journey’:

The retreat was set at the top of a hill on Koh Samui, it pretty much dense forest

The retreat was set at the top of a hill on Koh Samui, it pretty much dense forest

The meditation hall, where we spent most time

The meditation hall, where we spent most time

The view from the meditation hall

The view from the meditation hall

More of the jungle around us

More of the jungle around us

Did I mention we were surrounded by jungle?

Did I mention we were surrounded by jungle?

The Buddha statue in one of the popular walking meditation areas

The Buddha statue in one of the popular walking meditation areas

This meditation was a real test, as it was populated with some quite aggressive mossies!

This meditation was a real test, as it was populated with some quite aggressive mossies!

Ahhh, there it is, my bed for the duration...Just looking at it makes me tired!

Ahhh, there it is, my bed for the duration…Just looking at it makes me tired!

The ladies had shower cubicles, the gents had a trough!

The ladies had shower cubicles, the gents had a trough!

Everyone happy to have finished-and if you look closely you'll see Hubert...Ahhhh, Hubert :-)

Everyone happy to have finished-and if you look closely you’ll see Hubert…Ahhhh, Hubert 🙂

One of the many 'friends' dotted around the place to keep you on your toes!!

One of the many ‘friends’ dotted around the place to keep you on your toes!!

There may be more to add to this post once I’ve given it even more thought and reread it a couple of times, but for now-that’s your lot! Now onwards to back-to-back night trains, a revisit to old faithful Terminal 21, and Chiang Mai….Oh what stories await!

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Peace Paradise, Koh Jum-could you get anymore perfect?!

Having made the leap of faith from ferry to longtail boat, and the remaining, and some what bemused, passengers set off for partying on Koh Lanta, our gaze focussed on the island ahead-Koh Jum. We weren’t looking to party, quite the opposite, we were in search of a secluded island paradise-and from what I had read, Koh Jum was this paradise.
The only problem is, once something is published on the internet, like the ‘Thailand’s last hidden island gem’ article that I had found, you really have to assume that everyone else has read it as well-and you may not really get what you hope for.
Fortunately for us, we had found exactly what we were looking for. Anywhere else in the world, this would be lauded as a stunning island with perfect beaches. However, when flanked by the islands of Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, Koh Jum is somewhat underrated! BRILLIANT!
We jumped off the boat (in fact I nearly tipped everyone off the boat with some over enthusiastic vaulting off the side) and made our way to Peace Paradise Resort. If you’re looking for a five star hotel with Jacuzzi en suite and infinity pool, then really you need to be somewhere else! The main restaurant and bar area of Peace Paradise is made completely from driftwood and other oddities that are found washed up on the beach, and with the island not being wired up to the main grid-you only get electricity between the hours of 6PM and midnight.
The ‘resort’ has eight wood beach bungalows, basically Robinson Crusoe type shacks-all overlooking the sea. It didn’t take us long to discover that we were actually the only people in the resort apart from the staff….Unbelievable-this really was shaping up to be the hidden island gem that I had read about!

So having settled into our new home, and meandered along the beach for a little while, we set ourselves in the bar and bathed in some roots reggae while playing jenga and various card games with the guys who worked there…To some it may sound kinda boring, to us it was absolutely brilliant. The lady who ran the place was an inspiration, great English which she learned just from working with tourists over the years-she transpired to be quite the shrewd business woman. Explaining her path to Koh Jum, we found out that she had been based in Krabi originally where she learned about tourism, then moved to Koh Lanta before the tourism boom. Her decision was to leave once they became too rowdy and saturated with party goers. Not to miss the boat, in each place she managed to save enough money to purchase land before the prices inflated-and retains this land and rents it out-quite the savvy operator! She was also an absolutely superb cook, really quite tremendous-we’d struck gold, this place was incredible.
On our second day there a couple of German women joined us in our little paradise bubble, and they were an absolute hoot-and equally enthralled by the surroundings and people. Our four days here flew by, rather too quickly…..But obviously not so quick that I didn’t take some snaps! Y’all ready?! Here we go:

Koh Jum Ahoy!!!

Koh Jum Ahoy!!!

Pretty happy about our discovery!

Pretty happy about our discovery!

Jenga championships

Jenga championships

Spectacular colours every night

Spectacular colours every night

Pretty chuffed with how things have turned out!

Pretty chuffed with how things have turned out!

Rustic bridge leading up to our abode!

Rustic bridge leading up to our abode!

Our little hut!

Our little hut!

Every direction you looked seemed to frame a photo perfectly

Every direction you looked seemed to frame a photo perfectly

One of the many sunset shots that you're going to have to endure!

One of the many sunset shots that you’re going to have to endure!

Peace Paradise in all its glory!

Peace Paradise in all its glory!

Round the corner not so inviting, but keeping us nicely isolated from any wanderers!

Round the corner not so inviting, but keeping us nicely isolated from any wanderers!

Some of the drift artwork dotted around Peace Paradise

Some of the drift artwork dotted around Peace Paradise

Views across the beach, as you can see difficult to find what spot to choose!

Views across the beach, as you can see difficult to find what spot to choose!

A few signs to give you an idea where exactly paradise is!

A few signs to give you an idea where exactly paradise is!

So long Koh Jum, we're gonna miss ya!

So long Koh Jum, we’re gonna miss ya!

Adios Peace Paradise

Adios Peace Paradise

So with Koh Jum fading into the rear view mirror, onto our next stop, the island of Koh Samui, and a three day (silent) meditation retreat…

All aboard, the night train! Bangkok-Krabi-Koh Jum

Once again we find ourselves in Bangkok as our hub for Asia travel, although this time we only need the one night before heading down South to hit some of the world famous Thai islands.
So this was it, our first night train! Obviously when traveling, the beauty of a night train is that it saves you the cost of a nights accommodation, while getting you where you wanted to be next-so we were excited to see how we would get on.
We had a day to pass before the train departed at 7.30PM and so we left our bags at the train station and set off to get some food and have a mooch around, the only reason why I tell you this is that we actually found the most outrageous shopping centre that absolutely needs a mention-Terminal 21. This place was ridiculously good, it’s set out like an airport and each floor is a different world city. From San Francisco to Istanbul-each floor is fashioned after the city that it represents, to give you an idea-here’s a couple of snaps from London:

Yup, that's right....A tube train!

Yup, that’s right….A tube train!

And when the tube doesn't go there-the buses do!

And when the tube doesn’t go there-the buses do!

It won’t surprise you to find out that I managed to bag myself another bargain t-shirt special here…You’ll see more of that later.

Fast forward a fair few hours and we’re boarding the night train for our inaugural voyage, and boy were we impressed! We approached the train with a fair amount of trepidation, as we were going to be booking the 1st class tickets but they had sold out-so we had to go with the 2nd class A/C option…Who knew what we were going to be faced with upon finding our seats?! With much joy and relief, what we found were ingenious seats that converted into sleeping berths-fantastic!

One minute a seat

One minute a seat

And now a bed!!

And now a bed!!

Fed, watered and rested; 12 hours later and we had arrive in Surat Thani, the central transport hub for southern Thailand. From here we had a three hour bus transfer to Krabi, from which we were going to decide on our first Thai island to explore. Sitting on the coast of the Andaman Sea, the beaches around Krabi are famous for the many lime rocks jutting out from the water-think James Bond in Man With the Golden Gun.
The beach areas of Ao Nang, Railay and Koh Phi Phi are major tourist destinations, but we were looking for something a little out of the norm-and so after much research we plumped for Koh Jung.
Having booked our island retreat, we first had some time to explore Krabi Town, and the most notable excursion was to visit the Tiger Temple. Set in the hills just outside Krabi, we had an afternoon exploring a bit of jungle where the monks live in caves, with some pretty hefty spiders for company it has to be noted, and then set off on the hike up the steps to the actual temple. There are over 1,200 steps to the top, so you can imagine that we made the obvious and wise decision to attempt this jaunt at the peak of the midday heat-nice! The climb was so much more difficult than either of us was expecting, but oh boy were the rewards worth it!

First venture into the jungle-breathtaking

First venture into the jungle-breathtaking

Various monkey shrieks and animal noises certainly added to the atmosphere!

Various monkey shrieks and animal noises certainly added to the atmosphere!

Some of the monks actually lived in the caves, others had these sweet lodgings!

Some of the monks actually lived in the caves, others had these sweet lodgings!

Who lives in a house like this?!

Who lives in a house like this?!

One of the many cave temples with a Buddha relic

One of the many cave temples with a Buddha relic

Some of the friendly neighbours!

Some of the friendly neighbours!

The view as we start the climb to the top

The view as we start the climb to the top

Obviously Jo was taking it all in her stride-I wasn't faring so well!

Obviously Jo was taking it all in her stride-I wasn’t faring so well!

Not even halfway, already looking decidedly 'damp'

Not even halfway, already looking decidedly ‘damp’

Finally at the top, bloody marvellous!

Finally at the top, bloody marvellous!

Just glorious!

Just glorious!

What can you say-awesome!

What can you say-awesome!

The effort to get up there was quickly forgotten.

The effort to get up there was quickly forgotten.

Just stunning scenery in every direction

Just stunning scenery in every direction

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So after a couple of days in Krabi we set off on our first island adventure in Thailand, and what can I say-we struck absolute gold! As I mentioned before, our research had lead us to Koh Jum, much less popular than it’s famous neighbours, Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi…..Koh Jum doesn’t even have a pier for a ferry to drop you off at. Instead you start your adventure with the ferry to Koh Lanta, and after about an hour the ferry just comes to a stop in the middle of the sea, and you have to literally jump onto long-tail boat that has come rushing off the island to meet you. It was mental, and a little scary! Certainly we were wondering what we had let ourselves into as we watched bags being flung from our ferry into this rickety old boat below. What was to come was truly wonderful….And will have to be saved for my next post as bedtime is calling!

Somehow it all just works perfectly, as we 'transfer to the long-tail for the last part of our journey

Somehow it all just works perfectly, as we ‘transfer to the long-tail for the last part of our journey