Talking to Strangers

As soon as I arrived back in Thailand a month ago, I felt instantly happy and content. I find Laos such a beautiful place, but it doesn’t seem to agree with me long term – the two times I have taken jobs there, I have ended up getting so sick and not feeling like the happiest, sparkliest version of myself.

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Several days I felt like an introverted hermit woman floating around in the swimming pool and lying on my air conditioned bed. I had a wonderful time, teaching yoga in an incredible space, teaching English to a Laos family and learning Laos in exchange, meeting volunteers, being surrounded by beauty in people and nature. Sometimes, though, I think there are places in the world that have a certain energy, and maybe that energy is misaligned with your own, in that it doesn’t build you up, it brings you down, and I’m just glad I can recognise that now. We have to find the places that support our happiness and health on all levels.

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When that happens, its time for Thailand. We spent about ten days in Chiang Mai, staying in an AirBnB with a firm mattress on the floor, a balcony, a rooftop for practicing yoga and free breakfast and bicycles in the Old City – a perfect spot for us.

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I think the best thing we did was ride our bicycles everywhere – this is the way to explore the Old City. We convinced ourselves that it was our task to go out and do as many social things as possible in order to meet people and spread the word about our retreat.

The atmosphere in Thailand was a little different this time, because of the death of their King. No live music in any of the bars, everyone wearing black, a little more reserved and sombre than usual. There was a worry prior to visiting that it would be seen as disrespectful for tourists to visit Thailand during this period of mourning but in fact the Thai people were very welcoming and appreciated our respect.

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I am just blown away by the beautiful kindness of the Thai people – they are having fun with every interaction, their eyes glitter with mischievous laughter and their kindness and selflessness, innate to their Buddhist culture, brings a cycle of good energy exchange and onward flow of good karma. Free buses, sharing their meals with you, fixing your things that are broken, helping you when you are lost, being curious about you and your home and precisely how long it takes to fly there on an airplane, giving you free beers when its 1 AM by the river and you forgot to hit up the 7-11 before midnight so you ask where they got theirs. Every single interaction soaked in kindness and generosity. They will give you a smile, without asking for anything in return.

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I am currently going through a stage in my life where I talk to anyone and everyone, because I truly believe everyone wants to make friends, and we are all just curious about one another. So my task in Chiang Mai was to talk to as many interesting people as possible. As I like to say, “if it’s not a good time, it’s a good story”.. I’m very sorry to my mother, because this story involves many stories that see me talking to strange men in strange situations. But this is a great joy in life – the unknown. What will happen when you say hello?

Natasha and I went to the park in the corner of the Old City one afternoon for some yoga and sunbathing, and we noticed some pretty interesting characters surrounding us. A man came along and set up camp behind us, spreading out his bamboo mat and sipping on his sugarcane juice, his muscular tattooed chest bare. He began to stretch and practice some yoga, so I decided to take him a card about our retreat and ask him some questions. The tables turned quickly.

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“I am from France. My name is XAVIER. What is this card? You want me to come do yoga wiz you?”

“Yeah, you would love it! SO much fun!”

“You want me to show you some things that you do not already know about yoga? I know many breathings. Zey are good to practice in public places, to eradicate the ego, so zat everyone knows you do not give the shit what they thinking of you!”

“Haha….okay sure. Oh you want me to kneel with my knees out wide like that? Oh okay… cool.”

“We are practicing ze lions breath. You sucky sucky in your belly and stick out your tongue and gaze at your third eye and roar to release all the air in your body and SUCKY SUCKY BELLY raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar waggle your tongue!”

“Rarrrrrrrrrr!”

“LOUDER NOW!”

“RARRRRRRRRRRR!”

“Excellent. yeeeees.”

A small Thai woman having a picnic behind us gazes at me with astonishment, suppressing laughter.

“Now you lie down.”

I lie down, he takes my hand, and begins to caress it very gently, either the softest acupressure or the creepiest hand hold ever. Then he promptly drops my hand, stands up and walks to the other side of the park, and stands gazing at a tree for a short while. I sit up, dazed, and look around me, as if emerging from a dream.

“Cheers Xavier! You should… become a pranayama teacher! That was truly profound. I must go now. Bye bye….”

Xavier was right – I realised that my ego did not want me to do that, to protect my coolness, of which I have a lot. He gave me a sense of awe at people who just truly do not give a shit what people think. It must be very freeing.

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Another hilarious interaction was with a complete stranger from Canada. We met on the street, we drank beers by the river (which were gifted to us by a kind group of Thai people who just wanted us to have a good night), we saw a few rats and cockroaches and exclaimed on how fat and happy they were.  He was about half a year younger than me, and exuded this youthful enthusiasm that reminded me exactly of how I was at the beginning of my travels, and reminded me to find the excitement in all the little interactions. He exclaimed with disproportionate excitement for a stranger I’d just met, when I told him I was working in Southeast Asia and leading a retreat in just a few weeks time. He was like a reflection of myself and lit a little fire reminding me to enjoy each moment, after a brief period of feeling very tired of Asia in all its glory. I mostly enjoyed his self deprecating humour and ability to laugh at himself, telling me a story of himself when he was little, that he wore an eye patch and was a little chubster, a wee fat pirate, and I thought to myself that it was the most attractive story a man could ever tell me. Maybe this is what I’m into?

He told me he always pats the stray dogs even though they probably have rabies and fleas, because he believes they deserve a little love too, which made me think he is the male version of me. He turned to me at one point and said “can I kiss you”? And I just laughed in his face and he took it remarkably well. It wasn’t that I didn’t think he was a handsome chap, I suppose I’m just not that kind of girl. I have left his name out of this because maybe he doesn’t want his mum knowing he went on a date with a hobo girl in a tie-dye dress on a bicycle.

I drove home with him on the back of my bicycle, he rode glamorously on the back, I tooted my bell at passers-by, then I left him on the street and conked out on my bed next to Natasha. When I woke up I felt that it was all a dream. I checked my inbox and he had written a message ending in “wishing you nothing but the best.” Gave me something, asked for nothing (much, haha).

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Natasha and I visited Zoe in The Yellow (the place to party in Chiang Mai) one night and ended up hanging out with four Spanish guys. Two of them were policemen from Spain, and were probably the most genuine dudes ever. They were so nice to each other, saying to me “wherever he goes, I go.” Two huge, muscular guys with so much kindness. They ran alongside our bicycles on the way to Spicy club, waited for us at each door, offered us drinks not to get us drunk but because they wanted us to have the best time possible in their company, they cleared out the mens toilet in the club and stood by the door so that I could go to the bathroom. They carried a bag of souvenirs for their family back home with them all night, little bobble-heads and fridge magnets, which I believe says something about a person. They wanted nothing from us other than to spend time in our company and it was such a refreshing notion.

Then one night we were sat in the night market eating our nightly feast of pad thai and papaya salad, and I noticed a man sitting a couple of tables down from us by himself with a large beard and a pensive look on his face. I recognised him instantly but I couldn’t put my finger on how. We made eye contact a couple of times, Natasha went to leave and go home and I decided to stay and chat to him. I wandered up to him and said “HI! How are you? Have we met before?”. He looked mildly astonished at this bold girl approaching him wearing a floral onesie, no makeup, a slightly troll-like hairstyle, and no hidden agenda other than a genuine curiosity about what was behind his man bun and sad eyes. I told him he looked sad, and he just laughed and said, “Shit! I think I was just really involved in my dinner”. That makes sense, but also, how unfortunate to have a sad dinner face?

He had been living in Chiang Mai for almost 6 months, so I definitely had seen him before. I never forget a face. We sat at this rickety table in the night market for over four hours with no food, no drink, no phones, no music, just two people sitting opposite one another conversing authentically, which can be a hard thing to find these days. He told me he could tell as soon as I approached him that I didn’t want anything from him. I’m just a curious child. He told me he learned years ago that he was surrounding himself with people and situations who wanted something from him, who wanted to take away from him in some way – sex, drugs, alcohol, love, money. He made a complete lifestyle change, quit drinking and drugs, and started to build himself up rather than allow himself to be drained. He chose to spend time only with select people who he knew were good for him, who encouraged positivity, and who understood the importance of a healthy energy exchange in life, of karma and the consequences of actions.

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So we rode his motorbike up into the mountains in the dark, which in hindsight sounds like a bloody terrifying thing to do, but my gut was telling me to just go with it. We wandered into some abandoned temples, found some people praying for the king by candlelight, we drove to his apartment and sat on his balcony and he played me some songs on his guitar, including a song he wrote himself, which he was quietly proud of, I could tell.

We snuck into his apartment sauna after hours, then realised it was turned off, so we just sat there in the dark and stared out over Chiang Mai by night. I asked him to take me home, realising suddenly I had left my bicycle in the market carpark, unlocked, and he drove me back. We said goodbye and he thanked me for coming to talk to him – he had been planning to just go home and sleep. We connected on Facebook but I knew we were saying goodbye for good. And that was quite fine.

These people, giving me everything, hilarity and wisdom, insight and protection, without even realising it, and asking for nothing in return.

This is what can happen when you talk to strangers. I guess I just love the possibility of people.

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The Laos Life

I’m sitting on the pool patio, sipping on ice cold water, soaking up the rays through the layer of thick, humid cloud that is concealing the sun. On the other side of the river the builders are blasting Laos pop music at max volume, I can hear the hammering of tools and the occasional outburst of laughter or shouting. The sounds seem to bounce around the hills in the distance, as if we are in a little box of Laos and the hills are the walls.

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Infinity

I’ve found myself back in Laos, this time in Vang Vieng, known for it’s party scene, drunken tubing and half naked tourists wandering confused in the streets after consuming mushroom shakes and taking too many shots at Sakura Bar,in the quest for a free t-shirt, labelled “drink triple, see double, act single”, rules which every bogan backpacker worth their salt will follow on their quest to find themselves in Southeast Asia.

I’m here in the quiet season, and I’m seeing a different side to Vang Vieng. Emphasis is on the beauty of the scenery, the tourists are mostly Korean who cruise down the river in their tubes, occasionally falling out and unable to get back in, they hold onto their tubes and scream with laughter as they bob around, lifejackets and armbands keeping them afloat, all the while holding their phones in waterproof casing and taking selfies with one hand, gripping for dear life with the other.

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Nam Song River 

I’m here for one month, teaching yoga for Yoga in Vang Vieng, based at the Silver Naga Hotel. Myself and my fellow teacher, the lovely Tye from Australia, take turns with our teaching days, me teaching both classes one day, and her the next, which means every second day is a day off! Living the dream? Ahhh yep.

It took a few days for me to settle in here, as I always do. I felt like I had stepped into a dream – after one month of quality, much needed family and recuperation time in the UK, I found myself back in sticky, sweaty southeast Asia with all its lovely sounds and smells and I had to break myself back in to the… different way of living here. My first night here I woke up in the middle of the night to thunder and lightning, very very frightening, and one of the hotel dogs scratching at the door trying to get in for a cuddle. However, I’m not living in a bamboo hut or showering in cold water every day, nor am I getting up at the crack of dawn and teaching all day. I remind myself daily of how incredibly lucky I am to be doing what I love while travelling the world, and I get to live in a beautiful hotel this time, which is the cherry on top.

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The doggy trying to cool his genitals on the floor

I’m up at 6.30am on teaching days, prepping the room and my class, I teach from 7.30-9.00am, have breakfast in the hotel (buffet awesomeness), chill by the pool, hang out in my room, explore the town, get a massage, go for a bike ride, practice my Laos language on the hotel staff (who just laugh at me, shaking their heads like “such a fool, at least she tries), visit a local cafe, plan classes, write my journal, chat to other guests, teach again at 5pm, then go for dinner and chill for the evening. On my days off – same same, except I attend the classes instead of teaching (or sleep in, haha…).

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One of my first days here I visited a cafe in the town for coffee and good internet, and got chatting to the owner, who offered me a job on the spot, “like a homestay! You come here, speak English with us and the customers, help us, eat with us, we speak Laos with you, you drink coffee??”. Obviously I said yes, we shook hands, and every day since I have wandered into Offbeat Cafe, bringing writing notebooks and coloured pens and Laos-English language books and we sit around miming things in attempt to make conversation. They laugh at my attempts at Laos language (my mouth just doesn’t make certain sounds), and they laugh at themselves when they try the English words. They call me their baby Laos, because I sound like a very special baby when I speak Laos, and they also call me “uaey” which means “big sister”, which makes me feel all happy. I call them “nongsau” which means “little sister”. There is Song and Prin, brother and sister who own the cafe, and the three young girls, Tame, Deuy and Daa. They are adorable and all wear their hair in the same high bun and their work t-shirt tied up in a fashionable way.

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Dinner Time!

I’m amazed at how eager they are to learn – when I was in school I don’t think my eyes lit up the way theirs do when the teacher walks into the room. They come running up to me, saying “Jao kin kao ya baw??” which means “have you had lunch??”, and they touch my arm and say “beautiful skin” and I’m like really cos I didn’t moisturise today hahahahaha and they look at me blankly but endearingly, like “she crazy, but we will allow it because she has the knowledge we require”.

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Munchkins.

Mealtimes are interesting. Sometimes I have lunch or dinner with them, and we sit around the table and eat with our hands. The first time I joined them, they put a box of sticky rice, a bowl of vegetables and a plate of meat on the table, pointed to me and said “eat!”. So I sat down, pulled the plate towards me and started to eat, and they started laughing hysterically, “NOOOOOO hhahahahhaah that bowl for EVERYONE!”. Needless to say I felt like a greedy little farang at that moment. Just goes to show that portion sizes in the western world are outrageous, that our normal evening meal would feed a family of four in Asia.

The next time we ate together, Song pulled out a plate of pastey stuff, called “jaeow”, gestured to the sticky rice and said “you eat!”.

Rosie: “what’s this? fish paste?” (It sure tasted fishy.)
Song: “no, no, no fish. Vegetable. And….”
Prin: “Vegetable aaaand…. and…. injection!” *flaps arms wildly*
Rosie: “INJECTION??!” *look of horror*
Prin: “Ahhhh…. Insects!”
Rosie: “mmmmm….”
Prin: *googling furiously…..* “CRICKETS!”

Welll. I ate no more cricket paste that evening, and awoke the next morning with a dubious sensation in the pit of my stomach. My body may not be ready for Laos cuisine in its entirety, but it sure is exciting!

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Green Cookies!

I’m off to swim in the infinity pool. Peace and love from Laos to you all.

La Kon! Goodbye!

p.s. six weeks until our Whole & Happy Retreat in Chanthaburi, Thailand on the 4th of November. Wanna join us? There are still some spaces available. Email me at rosie.moreton@gmail.com to reserve your space, or book online at:

http://wholeandhappyretreat.eventbrite.com

See you there?

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Loving and Leaving

I can’t quite believe that my one month in Luang Prabang, Laos, has trickled past so quickly. In a hazy blur of yoga, sunrises, sunsets, a birthday, lush countryside, new friends, some illness and homesickness, but most of all an overwhelming feeling of contentment and gleeful disbelief that my world right now allows me to work, travel and live like this.

There’s something very special about Luang Prabang, in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. It is the kind of place that just keeps ticking along – you come, you settle in, then you leave, and it just keeps going without you, which is both sad and comforting at the same time. A month is too short a time to fully experience life there, at least in the way it needs to be experienced. The most captivating part of Luang Prabang life for me is that life feels easy. Nothing is too far away, you have culture, religion, outdoor adventure, nature, comfort and a bounty of good, cheap food on your doorstep.

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I was there for a month, teaching yoga daily for Luang Prabang Yoga, overlooking the Nam Khan River, through rain and shine, sunrise and sunset, to whoever passed through. I had some regulars – people staying in town for a while, expats, or returning visitors who went elsewhere and decided this was the place to be. I was teaching most classes at Utopia, which is just as it sounds – a chilled out, everybody welcome kind of place with good food, interesting people, cosy seating overlooking the river, a volleyball net and a yoga deck.

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One of my favourite evening activities was to visit one of the temples at around 6.30pm and join the monks and novices for their evening chanting and meditation. From 6.30 – 7pm they would chant Buddhist verses, then from 7 – 8pm they would meditate in silence. I would do my best, sometimes sneaking out a little earlier, because an hour and a half is a long time to sit without stretching out your legs. The feet are considered the lowest part of your body in all respects, so its very rude to stretch your legs forward and face the soles of your feet at Buddha. If you want to stretch, you have to awkwardly poke your legs to one side. One time I made the foolish mistake of wearing a wrap around skirt to meditation, and quickly realised that I couldn’t sit cross legged without baring my crotch to the Buddha, which is generally deemed inappropriate in Buddhist tradition.

At the end of the meditation sometimes the novices would turn to practice their English with any westerners in the temple. They were very inquisitive about our lives and how we can travel, and in exchange I asked questions trying to get a grasp on the day in the life of a monk or novice. It’s a lot of discipline for these tiny little boys, and one night in meditation I opened my eyes to just watch them sitting. Some of them are so small and their heads keep lolling forward, then they catch themselves and try to sit upright again, only to keep falling asleep every few minutes. It’s adorable and kind of sad and also very impressive all at the same time – as teenagers these kids have more discipline than many of us might learn in a lifetime. At their age I was running around half naked in a field, building tree houses and singing at the top of my lungs. The contrast is pretty eye opening.

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The food… People say that Laos food is nothing to write home about. I found some gems in Luang Prabang that made me rethink – my particular favourite breakfast at Delilah’s consisted of a little bamboo box of sticky rice, a Lao omelette with dill and vegetables, steamed vegetables and a pot of spicy eggplant dip which was the best in town. I would go there for brunch after teaching, use the Internet, and just watch people passing by. It was a weird little place, they would often be blasting the music at 9am, even if I was the only customer, but I took my food outside and they took a shine to me because I tried out my rudimentary Laos on them every day and they thought I was hilarious.

Some places in town make awesome Laap or Laab – made with either chicken, fish or tofu/mushroom, mixed in with fresh herbs and served with greens and sometimes sticky rice, it makes a refreshing lunch or dinner. Street side stalls have grilled bananas, fresh fruit, tiny pancakes, sandwiches, and fruit shakes. I discovered an alleyway in the night market offering a buffet selection of vegetarian food, where you grab a bowl, fill it with as much as you can pack in, get them to heat it up for you, chuck an egg on top and pay a tiny 15,000kip (less than 2usd). You can also choose to wash it down with a big beer Laos, at the average price of 10,000 kip. Cheap and cheerful.

A favourite was also the Sin Daad or Laos BBQ, with baskets of vegetables, noodles, raw meat or tofu, pots of broth and dipping sauce. You grill your own meat or tofu on the hot pot which is built into the table, pour the broth into the little most and fill it with vegetables and noodles, and then scoop it out bit by bit into your bowl and try to get it in your mouth with chopsticks. An awesome social way to eat, pretty cheap, and there are places around town that offer an all-you-can-eat situation, including icecream for dessert, and you can just stay there for several hours to see how many meals you can squeeze in for your kip.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in Luang Prabang for me, though. I got a nasty burn on my leg from riding on the back of my friends motorbike, which I was terrified was getting infected, especially when it started bleeding and looking quite worrying. Luckily a friend had some medical supplies and it has started to heal nicely. Apparently they call them “Laos burns”, because everyone gets a burn in the same place from bumping against the exhaust pipe on their bike.

I got a weird bite or something suspicious on the back of my other leg which became a curious texture and felt all squishy when I touched it, but I just kind of ignored it for a while (out of sight, out of mind) and it seems to have gone away. Phew.

I also had some nasty stomach issues which still haven’t quite been resolved – a sensitive stomach at the best of times can struggle in Asia, with all the hidden ingredients and language barrier when you ask for certain things to be excluded/ added to your meal. Laos has come a long way, but if you’re looking for gluten free dairy free vegan chia seed muffins, this is not the place. And maybe that’s a good thing.

In general, being sick when you’re away from home is pretty much the worst thing. Every tiny little inconvenience of living in Asia comes to the fore – you can’t find the medicine you need, you can’t drink from the tap, there’s a power cut and you lie there all feverish with no air con, nobody understands what you’re saying (to the point where you think perhaps you are delirious and rambling), the thought of noodle soup makes you turn green, and everything comforting and familiar is far away.

Nobody ever talks about the shitty hard part of living and working away from home. It’s like it’s a little bit unacceptable to admit to being unhappy while you’re living in sunshine paradise and working your dream job. It’s natural that there are ups and downs, and being sick makes you realise that your health is the single most important thing, coming before everything else. If you’re not well then you can’t enjoy everything that your surroundings offer.

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And THAT, my friends, is the time to go to Chiang Mai, a vegan/ vegetarian/organic/ gluten free/paleo Mecca for anyone with awkward dietary requirements. It was very sad for me to leave Luang Prabang, where life was easy, and faces had become familiar, but the time has come, and I’m looking forward to starting a Thai Massage training in Chiang Mai and having the resources around me to get my glow back.

I’m currently up in Pai, a chilled out ‘hippie town’ north of Chiang Mai, where I plan to spend several days doing just that – chilling out, doing yoga, catching up on some work and exploring the lush surroundings. Next week I start my course, where I will learn to massage bodies.

✌️

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