19 uncensored tips from a woman traveling solo in India

Jaime making beautiful crafts with an artist in Srinagar city in India.

I’ve known my fearless and adventurous friend Jaime for a few years now. We met in Vancouver, Canada, enjoyed Burning Man together, and experienced many outdoor adventures and cooking nights with our friends.I’m very proud that she pushed herself to take a long break from work and set out to do a long term travel.

She is currently in India for a few months and despite the many scare stories, she’s been able to navigate through the country, connect with people and picked up street savvy tips on having the experience of a lifetime while staying safe. J

aime took the time to share how she picked up the courage to take a break from work to do long term travel and share a load no BS advice for travelers, particularly if you’re a woman exploring India. She talks about how to deal with men staring, how to minimize scams and the three important words you need to know in India.

Why did you decide to take a break from work to travel? 

I wanted to travel India since I graduated from university, but my parents thought I was too naive (they weren’t wrong) and I had no money to travel. Hence I postponed it for a few years. I was feeling there was something missing in my life: my independence and I wanted to really truly live my life to the fullest, battling my insecurities and just be me.

After a few years of working with a company, it dawned on me that it’s always been my dream to travel either South America or India. Three weeks of holidays is just not enough. I did a lot of research, like I pretty much interviewed all my friends plus more about India.One friend told me – the slogan for India is ‘incredible India’ take this opportunity to really see how incredible India is.

Pretty much all my friends who have been to India said it was their best place they have to travel, even as a lone woman. And when I heard stories of you traveling, I really wanted to fulfill my dreams of traveling.

Jaime in Leh, India watching the Dalai Lama celebrate his 79th birthday on July 6 with Richard Gere.

What would you say to people who fear getting out of their comfort zones and daily routines to travel?

I personally feel that it was the surrounding people like your friends (not the ones in Vancouver) and family who love you and care about give you the most fear. Before coming to India, my friends and family were like “What the hell – are you insane? Did you hear about the rape cases in India? Don’t go there.” Hence I was postponing my flights and was just not sure until my boyfriend Shuvi said, “Honey, don’t let their fear get inside you. Do want YOU want to do, it’s time to start living your life and not theirs.”

I used to be an executive assistant and hence an OCD planner. Everyday, every time there was something to do. If there was nothing, then I’d freak out. Coming to India, I had somewhat a plan (for my mom’s sake). But plans always change, and India really will teach you a lesson on “routine”, or that it’s impossible to have one since nothing is really on time in India, including people and transport.

Prior to starting my travels, I did an ‘Osho Meditation’ session in regards to ‘no mind’ and I learnt, there is nothing in life you should have possession off. Life is full of surprises so just sit, relax and wait for those surprises to come.

How has it been traveling as a woman alone in the areas you’ve been in India?

“This is one of the coolest temples I’ve seen in Bhagsu.”—Jaime

India is still a patriarchal society, so men are everywhere. And they just don’t mind their own business, they stare and you just have to get used to it. And also, they are full of shit (literally full of bullshit) and you can’t trust a single guy (even some young Indian men who are my friends).

You need to accept that they are many Hindus and Muslims so there is no sex before marriage in the culture. And many of them see ‘foreign women’ as an opportunity for some fun. So hugs are generally a no-no but a simple handshake is allowed. If you are too friendly with them (even the younger ones like my age) they want to take you as their bride even if you have a boyfriend or husband. So let’s say – play it safe.

What advice to you have for women traveling solo in India?

1. Be confident and assertive

I am not a mean person, but seriously India, you need to be a little mean because many men just won’t leave you alone. And a little meanness makes them GO AWAY. I had this guy who has a wife and kids and he constantly calls me and gets out of his way to try and see me to the point a female friend from Mumbai said, next time he calls you “tell him to stop calling or else you will call the police.” This is how straight forward it is. There is no niceness in this game, you just need to stand your ground.

Triund mountains, sleeping under sars, shepard and goats

Jaime trekked up the Triund Hill in Mcleodganj. “You would think we would be sleeping under the stars but instead we were sleeping under crazy lightning show, hail, snow, rain and crazy gusty winds which we thought we may get blown off the mountain. Thank lordie for my friends sleeping bag. And a Shepard just slept under a tarp like structure with his many goats and sheep,” Jaime explained.

Also Indian men have no boundaries and they think that foreign women have none. So they will take any chance for some fleshy advantages. If they touch you on the shoulder, brush it off, meanly. I think India has turned most solo travellers into monsters.

2. Three words you need to know in india:

“We did a wonderful overnight journey to Phuktal Monastary, Zanskar. But due to High altitude sickness we didn’t end up checking the place out fully. To our surprise the Monastery was closed. Thankfully we didn’t have to break into a school and catch a wild bird for supper. A homestay invited us to stay at their place and their 2-year-old was so curious about us.”—Jaime

(i) Neh-hi: No. You need to say it strong and loud and they will pretty much leave you alone, especially in Delhi.

(ii) Bai- yah: brother. Once you say it to an Indian men, they can no longer touch you because you have put them in the brother class meaning brothers don’t mess around with sisters.

(iiI) Namaste: hello/ good bye. Still say hello to women, and children. And that you are not aggressive, just assertive with men.

 3. Travel light

Traveling in India is exhausting, with many hours on public transport and having to find hotel rooms. Pack what you need only, not what you think you need. You can buy everything you want in India. Maybe not lighters but matches are available. So many women have such heavy backpacks they can’t even carry which gives men opportunities to grab their ass sometime (happened me in Delhi). Last thing for you is to be exhausted and not have any signs of defense.

When you are traveling as alone girl, you never leave any of your belongings behind. And there are some places that are dirty and full of urine, feces and puke. So you have to learn how to squat (with easy access to your own toilet paper) with both backpacks on. Always carry a small rucksack in front of you, not only you protect your breasts but makes you bigger and the men smaller. And combined with a scary looking face, they literally fuck off.

“I’m so inspired by this French woman Sonia. She is a single mother of two wonderful children. She has had continuos battles with family politics of being a vegetarian and a single mother, yet she still stands strong as a steel rod. Through her many journeys through India some 40 years ago she seeks simplicity, kindness and calmness – shanti shanti. Plus she loves dancing trance too!”—Jaime.

4. Indian women – probably the best people on the planet

If you are stranded in a bus/ train station at night or early hours in the morning, stay in the station at least until dusk. Luckily, many women travel with their families throughout India. So if you see an Indian woman, even if you don’t know Hindi and she doesn’t know a word of English, go straight to her and try to communicate with her in sign language. They are more than happy to have you join their company. I had a friend who slept in the bus station next to a group of women and their kids.

5. Indian men and unwanted attention

Indian men are not there to rape you, or harass you. But if you give them an opportunity, some of them will take it. So always stay on the safe side. You are already traveling alone, so unwanted attention is glowing around you.

“This was on a six-hour bus ride on local transport. They pack everyone like sardines. Luckily no one vomited.”

My friends cannot emphasize this enough: dress appropriately in India. Cover your chest, arms and legs, even if it’s 40 degrees. When I was in Praharganj, in Delhi, a group of young women were walking around in shorts and spaghetti strap. And men were staring at them in googly eyes. So really if you don’t want attention dress moderately like the Indian women.

6. Rape alarms and pepper spray

Touch wood, I’ve never had to use it, but I know I can if I need to use it. So again, if you have a chance get one. It’s better for you to feel safe traveling alone.

7. Paying a little more for protection

I know as travellers, we are always on budget. But staying in a place where you need to pass through many alleys just to save a couple hundred rupees is just pure stupid. 50 rupees is $1 US, do the math.

Also, since you need to be on alert all the time, a good night’s rest is heaven rather than hell, especially In Praharganj in Delhi where a lot of rape cases happen at night you do not want to be strolling around after 9 p.m., so get back to your hotel by 9 p.m.

8. Buses

Many travelers opt for the Volvo buses, but to be honest, I have been in India for two months and I haven’t taken a single Volvo bus. Normally local or non-AC (don’t tell my mother). As a general rule, if you are traveling in the daytime, take a local bus.

Jaime hanging out in Triund mountains.

For overnight journeys, take a Volvo (even though they drive like crazy) because it’s better to be with the travelers. Apart from traveling from Mcleodganj to Delhi where all the Tibetans take the non-AC bus, do yourself a favour and don’t count pennies.

9. Trains

I have met a few women who take the cheaper class trains. I spoke to a bunch of Indian travelers and even they don’t travel the cheaper classes because it’s not only less safe but a lot of people (from outside) can just pop into your compartment and steal your luggage.

Just let you know there are hardly any lockable doors on trains in India. Everything is open. The cheapest I take is 3-tier AC meaning that there are three bunk beds, and you are on the upper deck. Pretty much it’s all to yourself. If you are traveling overnight, be wary of the staff sleeping on the floors just before you enter the toilet. See if anyone is following you. And when you get in, lock it immediately.

10. Get used to exercising your kegel muscles

These are the muscles that keep you from wanting to pee. There are many times, and many nights I refuse to go to the toilet if the toilet is outside (not in your room) and many local buses don’t stop for pee breaks (maybe after 5 hours). So get used to exercising those muscles.

Jaime connected with another global explorer in New Delhi who took off six months to travel.

11. Having no expectations

Meaning ZILCH! India is full of surprises, I think that’s part of the “Incredible India” slogan. Remember, you may not get what you really paid for, for hotels, transportation, food, clothing, tourist sights, everything. So travel India with an open mind because you never know what surprises will bring you.

12. Always receive the item first before paying and check the price printer on the item

This goes for hotels, public transport, phone recharge, groceries . . . everything! Hotels: go in and check bathrooms, beds and bedsheets, air conditioning, TV, and especially the lock. All rooms comes with one or two bolted locks which you can lock from inside. Check locks that are working before agreeing with price.

13. Public transport 

People are always trying to scam you even for a few rupees (literally less than a cent). So do your homework and check around for the prices. There are many public transportation options, so make sure the receipt you get is actually what you want.

Auto richshaws: this is best way to travel and negotiate the prices first. I prefer these than taxis so if you feel a little unsafe, you can always jump off. They only go around 20km/hr and always stop due to traffic jams.

Prepaid taxis: if you have a smart phone really check the address they put on the slip, because in Mumbai, I was at the counter with one address and he printed a completely different address. So I spent 30 minutes arguing with the damn taxi driver. They are also the safest transport from the airport.

A local artist in Sinegar, Kashmir.

14. Phone/SIM cards

I’m writing this because obviously I got scammed. Pretty much it takes 24 hours if I register your SIM (security reasons). If they demand money at first, just pay for the SIM (50 rupees) and you will come tomorrow to pay the rest once your SIM is registered.

Obviously I didn’t and shelled out $22 for a 3G data plan, talk time and SIM. And when my SIM card got registered there was zero balance. Every time you top up, wait for the message that pops up on your phone saying “recharge successful” stating how much you put in, its validity, and then you pay. Do not pay them the rest until you receive that damn text.

15. Groceries

there is always a printed cost of the maximum they will charge you for an item. So make sure they don’t get more money than it is worth. When buying fruits and vegetables, make sure that you pick the veggies not them because they end up giving you the rotten ones in a new paper bag. So if you go back to your hotel with a sack of rotten vegetables, don’t start feeling sorry for yourself.

Scams are bound to happen to everyone in India, even the locals get scammed all the time. So take it with a grain of salt and say at least it was money and not your life.

16. Asking for directions

“I went to a birthday party in Bhagsu. You know it’s a brilliant party when you danced with people who are constantly smiling, when your knees and feet hurt, your clothes are stinking with sweat and it only costs you $8 which includes a full meal too!”—Jaime

There are no street signs anywhere in India and sometimes it is impossible to find a place. Don’t ask a stranger for directions at night, you are just asking for trouble. Ask shop owners and women. If a man approaches you and tells you to follow him-don’t. You are asking for trouble. If you have a smart phone with data, that’s also a good idea to find where the hell you are.

17. No where is safe in India

Many solo travelers and locals have agreed that there isn’t a single safe place in India where you can roam around alone at night or in quiet places. Even in Mcleodganj (where majority of the Tibetans live), I don’t walk alone at night. So be smart and always travel with another traveller.

When I was in Rishikesh (the yoga central of the world) some solo women were going to the beaches alone, and literally, Indian men would be masturbating on the next rock. So don’t think you are ever safe.

18. Tell people where you are going

Tell people where you are going, whether its another traveller, a local or even your parents/ friends at home. Sometimes as a lone traveller, you just want to go anywhere. Yes feel free to go anywhere but let someone know where you are going so they don’t get worried sick about you.

It also helps, when you are talking about the place you are going because a group of university students may approach you and ask if you want to share a taxi with them.  And if there is a female student, best to stick with her.

“We stayed one night at Golden Palace houseboat, accompanied by many younger children and having dinner ‘Kashmir’ style at their home!. We attempted to paddle a small route and failed miserably. It was nice just being a kid again.”—Jaime

19. If you get harassed, please don’t just do NOTHING

It drives me bonkers when I hear other female travelers who get harassed and they are too embarrassed to do anything. This does not teach the violators anything. I’m just waiting for that one guy to touch me and my whole hatred with harassment will just get dumped on him. I got pinch on the butt in a packed metro in Delhi with my big backpack. And instead of doing nothing, I turned around I shouted, “Who the fuck touched me?!” And they all turned around in shock. An Indian woman and I gave the man a good slap on the face with my Lonely Planet Book. It’s big and heavy for a reason.

On the bus, when a man tried to reach something over me, I turned around give him an assertive stare and he hasn’t done it since. Also, in Mysore I heard there are a lot of flashers. This is when pepper spray is handy. I don’t think the men will love it when their precious parts gets pepper sprayed on. Also take a picture of the flasher and show it to the police. The good thing about Indian men is that they literally fuck off if you put them in their place.

“Getting ready for our Zanskar Valley trek from Padam to Photoskar with our three little donkeys!”—Jaime

When me and two other girls arrived in Delhi by bus, we were surrounded by taxi drivers wanting to take us to our destination. Literally we pushed them, and said ‘neh-hi’ or simply, “fuck off”, then they give you maybe a feet of space. Then we ran to an auto rickshaw, quickly negotiated the price and left .

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Thailand cost summary

The coast of Koh Chang island in the south of Thailand. We were living in a treehouse for a few days built by our awesome Thai friend.

 

In January 2014, my friend and I spent a month in Thailand. We were in Bangkok for a few days, in Ko Chang island for a week, and two weeks in Chiang Mai. We stayed at friends’ places, a few guesthouses, in a tent, and on farm stays.

At the time we were in Thailand, $1.00 US =30 Thai Baht. All of these costs are in US dollars.

BANGKOK

Accommodation

  • Free: 7 nights accommodation with two friends who lived close to the BTS (Bangkok Train Station) station.
  • $20.00 per person (split 3 ways): 3 nights at Nasa Vegas hotel. You have to pay extra for internet. But there is an internet cafe across the street and you can get unlimited internet for a day for about $5.

Transportation 

  • $0.50 to $1.50: Each BTS train station trip in Bangkok.
  • $1.50: Train from the airport to the BTS .
  • $0.30: Each trip on the public busses.

KO CHANG ISLAND

Accommodation

  • $60.00: Total price for two people at Garden Lodge for 4 nights. The price included Wi-Fi, free water from a filter and a full kitchen to use. The price includes $0.30 per cup of coffee and tea.
  • $3.30 per person for one night on the beach in the tent.
  • $2.50 per person per night for three nights at a treehouse on the beach. The owner was so nice and made a full BBQ for us with delicious fresh fish for free.

Food

  • $1.00 to $5 per meal.

Transportation

  • $70.00 for having a scooter for 6 days in Ko Chang. My friend and I split this in half so it costed me $35 for the 6 days.

CHIANG MAI

Accommodation

  • $4.00: per person per night for three nights with VR guesthouse. 
  • Free: One night free with a friend.
  • $3.30: shuttle ride from Chiang Mai to Mindful Farm, a vegetarian farm that integrates.
  • Free: scooters for two days from a friend.

Mindful farm

  • $7.00 per day for accommodation and meals for three meals a day for three days.

Mae Hong Son mountain loop

Aside from meals and accommodation, my friend and I divided everything in two.

  • $73.00 (split 2 ways): 200 cc Honda Phantom rental for four days.
  • $8.00 (well worth it): Mae Hong Son Map.
  • $6.00 (split 2 ways): Entry fee for waterfalls and geysers.
  • $10.00 per person: Tacomepai farm homestay for accommodation and three meals a day ($3.33 per person per night for accommodation and $1.67 per day for three meals a day)
  • $20.00: 91 grade gas to travel 600 km (split 2 ways)
  • $5.00: One night stay in a village guesthouse including water
  • $1.00 to $5.00 per meal for three days.

Total cost per person in Mae Hong Son: $96 for four days

Total cost for one month in Thailand: $463 

Global time conversions

Real time bathroom stall updates in the public washroom in Taiwan. Not only is it efficient in Taiwan, you get all the info you need and more.

After traveling around different parts of Asia, there are very different attitudes towards time or a lack of acknowledgement of time. Of course every community has people who are very punctual and people who are very “late” by our Western value of time. But you can definitely feel a difference depending which communities you are in.

Here are some general time conversions as you navigate through different places:

  • 30 real time minutes=30 minutes in Taiwan
  • 30 real time minutes=45 to 90 minutes in Cambodia
  • 30 real time minutes=1 to 3.8 hours in hippy communities
  • 30 real time minutes=45 minutes to “whenever my massage is done” in northern Thailand
  • 30 real time minutes=1.5 hours or “whenever I feel like it” in Laos
  • 30 real time minutes=10 minutes in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is probably the most intense and quickest environment that is most definitely not a zen place to be if you want to relax in the main city. Everything in the city feels so fast and rushed, especially when you’re at restaurants. I remember when I went to dim sum with my family at a restaurant and the second you finish your meal, they yell and rush you out and throw the next plates for the next customers. Any second wasted on us getting ready to go is money being wasted in their eyes.

On the other extreme end of the non-existent time spectrum, you have Laos PDR, which stands for “Please Don’t Rush” as the airport sign told me. Even at a restaurant that has two customers or less, the food can take up to an hour and a half to come out. Service generally happens whenever people feel like it. So assume there will likely be delays in your journey.

 

 

Meditating, cooking, and connecting at Mindful Farm in northern Thailand

While my friend and I were staying at V.R. guesthouse, I tried to look for places we could couch surf so we could ideally stay with local people. Then I came across a profile from Mindful Farm, located 75 km from Chiang Mai in the mountains.

The farm is centered around a simple way of life, organic farming, mud-brick construction, vegetarian cooking, meditation and Buddhism. It is run by Pi Nan, a former monk of 20 years, and his partner Noriko. They have a beautiful two-year old daughter. Noriko told me they met when they were going on a meditation retreat together.

According to them, “Mindfulness is a word used in connection with Buddhism and meditation. It means to be in the present moment. It is being really aware of what we are doing while we are doing it. As a method for cultivating mindfulness – meditation is a vital part of the daily life at Mindful Farm.”

The beautiful Mindful Farm. Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

Pi Nan has come from several generations of farmers and was raised in a village just a 15-minute walk from the farm. He began the farm just two years ago so he always welcomes volunteers who want to learn and contribute to a long-term project.

For 200 baht a day (about $7 US), we could participate in meditation, work on the farm, provided three meals a day and a place to sleep. Because we had a deadline to be out of Thailand as a result of our visa, we could only stay for three days and wanted to give some time to do the Mae Hong Son loop by motorcycle.

At first I was a bit suspicious of this farm and didn’t want to commit for a very long time in case it wasn’t a good experience. But the days on this farm ended up being some of the most memorable days of my month in Thailand. I highly recommend people stay at least five days if you want to connect with and be inspired by incredible people.

The funny ride up

Our shuttle taxi from Warorot Market in Chiang Mai that brought us to Mindful Farm. We made stops every five to ten minutes.

There is a yellow shuttle bus, which costs 100 baht per person, that leaves once a day at 11:15-ish (big emphasis on the ISH) in the morning to get from Warorot market in Chiang Mai to get to the farm. The website warned us that the ride would take 3-4 hours because the bus makes stops to pick up and drop off things at the villages along the way. Fair enough.

We met a lovely couple on the bus who, like me, quit their jobs so they could travel for a long time. It’s nice to meet people who have also taken a break from working to explore the world because we understand each other and don’t have to justify why we made that decision. They had just come back from India after being there for three months and they thought Bangkok of all places was quiet. They also got engaged in Nepal, which is amazing.  Not everyone has to get engaged in France or Italy.

So after waiting 45 minutes, the bus finally left at 12:00 p.m. and we were on our way. The 75 km ride could theoretically be done in an hour and a half. But it was funny that the bus kept stopping every 5 to 15 minutes.

Our driver who made several beer stops after collecting our money.

What was even funnier is when the driver asked us for our 100 baht for the trip about half way in, which was a bit unusual because most of the time you pay for services at the end around Thailand. After he took our cash, he walked away somewhere and then a local person told us, “His back is hurting so he is going for a massage.” We just hoped it wasn’t going to be an hour-long massage.

Half an hour later, we were on our way again driving along the windy mountain roads amongst the beautiful green landscape and fields. Then we passed a clearly foreign visitor and I said, “We must be close.” The driver told us we arrived and thankfully the visitor we passed was also staying at Mindful Farm so she showed us the way, otherwise it would have taken us a lot longer to find it.

I was amazed how big the farm was and how peaceful it was to be in the mountains.

First activities

Our fantastic first meal at Mindful Farm. We ate falafels, sticky rice, lettuce and cabbage.

We were waiting for Pi Nan in a small sheltered space, which we would later learn was going to be where my friend and I slept for the few nights we were there. There were about 30 people on the farm and all of the bungalows were taken. In the shelter I noticed a sign that said, “Walk Like a Buddha” and I thought, “I’m going to like this place.”

We were introduced to Pi Nan, the owner of the farm, and he signed us in. He exuded s a very gentle energy and always speaks at a moderate pace.  After only a few minutes of our introduction, he asked us, “Do you want to do yoga?” This was kind of an unexpected first task after a four-hour bus ride, but why not?

Pi Nan helping make a fire.

We joined the end of the yoga session that was being taught by one of the volunteers. When the class finished, people were very nice and introduced themselves to us. After spending a week at Koh Chang Island and other popular traveler spots, we found the people, mostly tourists, on that island quite closed and unfriendly. They would look at you when you pass and not say anything. So it was nice to meet a group of Westerners who were open.

That night, we all helped cook dinner. Pi Nan asked me to pick some lettuce. As a city girl who did not grow up with garden hands, I hoped that I wouldn’t destroy or wreck other plans while I was doing this seemingly simple request.

It was really nice to work together to prepare the meal that would be eaten by the nightly fire. After eating out so much in Asia, I really miss cooking, especially cooking with people. Everything we ate was grown on the farm and always delicious!

Our first meal there we had sticky rice, egg and cabbage, lettuce, falafels. I couldn’t believe how tasty the lettuce was raw. Usually everyone eats in the meditation area but because there were so many people, six of us ate together by the fire.

Dr. Phat

The funny and hospitable Dr. Phat.

During our first meal, we were introduced to Dr. Phat, Pi Nan’s cousin. For two days I thought he was a medical doctor. He is a 58-year-old man who is always laughing, singing and builds the fires. He and his wife has a son in the village close by but he spends most of his nights by the farm, doesn’t eat that much food and drinks rice whiskey on a daily basis.

I asked Pi Nan how he got the name Dr. Phat and he told us people in the village joke and assign people academic degrees based on how much they drink. As Pi Nan said, “Because he is hungover every day, we call him doctor.” Needless to say, he is not the person to go to for medical attention.

We were staying in the shelter next to his room and on the first night, in the middle of the night, I could hear him and his friend chatting and building a fire. I thought maybe it was dawn already but it was probably 3:00 a.m.

He’s a funny character.

An incredible mix of global explorers

Volunteers eating lunch together in the meditation room. We eat all of our meals here. Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

Our first night was also the last night of a Swiss family who was traveling with their son and daughter, who are about 9 and 12 years old, for one year. The mother is homeschooling them while they travel. What better education could a child have than experiencing the world?

The family lived on the farm for three weeks and their daughter formed a close bond with Pi Nan’s two-year old daughter who must have been so sad to see her new Swiss friend leave the farm. She is such a zen baby; she is so quiet and clearly the daughter of a former monk.

Another traveler I met was a Vietnamese girl who lived in Norway and spoke four languages. She did a six-month internship in Chile and was traveling Asia for a long time as well.

Another volunteer wanted to learn about gardening and organic farming so she spent some time in Tacomepai in Pai, another farm in the Mae Hong Son province. Because the owner Sandot was away for two weeks, she came to Mindful Farm to continue learning about farming and plants.

We were comparing our squatting abilities while were preparing dinner.

Based on her recommendation, we would later go to Tacomepai for an unforgettable few days in the mountains. She drew us a map of how to get to the farm, which was very helpful for us while we were going around the 600 km Mae Hong Song loop the following week.

Of all the Western people I’ve met since I left Cambodia, this has been the most open and amazing group of travelers I met. I learned so much about their cultures and was inspired by their unique journeys.

Walking meditation

Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova

When people started gathering around the fire, Pi Nan said anyone could join for the walking meditation, meaning people walk in silence around the farm and walk consciously, paying attention to our every movement.

As we were walking through the valley under the beautiful full moon, I felt for a few moments that I was living in a dream. In the morning we were in the city in Chiang Mai with traffic, food and a buzzing atmosphere. Then by the afternoon we walking in the middle of a mountain on a silent mediation on a beautiful night.

Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

After the walk, Pi Nan found a spot for all of us to sit silently facing the moon for some time. I thought, “I can’t believe I was supposed to be at the Full Moon Party right now and now I’m looking at the full moon on an organic, vegetarian farm with a former monk and environmentally-conscious travelers.”

The friend I’m traveling with was very surprised that the young Swiss children sat quietly without complaining during the silent meditation, especially compared to the overly stimulated children in North America who can’t sit still. I wasn’t surprised because they’re not the first children I’ve seen raised by parents who practice meditation regularly. When kids are treated like mature beings in a calm environment that focuses on connection with people and nature, they can adapt to those environments.

Our daily schedule

The “bell,” or end of a shovel, that was rung whenever the meal was ready.

  • 6:30 – Watering plants/walking meditation/yoga
  • 8:00 – Breakfast
  • 9:00 – Morning volunteer work
  • 12:00 – Lunch and Rest
  • 15:30 – Afternoon volunteer work
  • 18:00 – Dinner
  • 19:30 – Meditation

In the morning, we always ate breakfast in silence facing the farm so we can focus on eating consciously. It was a great way to start the morning and has motivated me to have more silent and slow breakfasts in the morning. We did speak with each other during lunch and dinner, so it was a great balance throughout the day.

On the second day, Pi Nan needed help with some gardening. I’m ashamed how little I know about the basics of gardening and that I have no experience growing food. I couldn’t even tell which plants were weeds. He patiently said, “I will teach you.” So I spent most of the morning weeding and putting dry compost between the plants as he instructed me. Then it was already time for lunch then in the afternoon, people could either take a break or continue with their work.

Our nightly fire that is put on by Dr. Phat. We always have great fireside chats and deep conversations with people.

Dr. Phat hosts guests for tea by the fire every night and I often end up having deep conversations with at least one person that really affects my outlook on life. The people here remind me so much of the Intention community in Vancouver, a group that also focuses on building community, meditation, healing, love, and spiritual music.

I talked to one girl who had a friend who committed suicide at the age of 21. She asked a very legitimate question and said,  “Why not celebrate their life rather than focus on death? It’s like 95% of their existence doesn’t even matter.  I told my friends and family if anything ever happens to me, have a party or say nice things about me.”

Dinner time. My body felt so healthy and fresh during my days at Mindful Farm.

I told her about how different cultures around Asia celebrate life rather than the ceremony being a sad event.

She said she knew a couch surfing host who stopped celebrating Christmas because it was the anniversary of his mother’s death. But when he hosted someone who told him that it’s important to celebrate his mother’s life as well. Since then he has began celebrating Christmas again.

Communal cooking

Making a loving meal together with the wonderful outdoor kitchen.

I love outdoor kitchens! Having an outdoor kitchen of my own is now one of my life goals. It’s been so wonderful cooking with people again and eating the freshest food you could have, especially after eating so much street food the past few months.

I felt so much healthier after eating on the farm and I wasn’t having an excess amount of sugar as I usually do in the city because I love milk teas. I need to re-adapt my body to get used to not having as much sugar and artificial foods like instant noodles.

Meditation 101

This sign is in the shelter and is one of the first things I saw when Pi Nan greeted us for the first time.

Meditation is essentially about being mindful or conscious about everything you do and to keep your mind focused on the present moment. So often we easily dwell and drift in our past and the future.

So many people have their eyes glued to their phones, are consumed by so many responsibilities and pulled in many different directions. When I watch Pi Nan and his family live a simple life, there is a big appeal to it. It’s not boring as many people may imagine it to be. It is peaceful and fulfilling.

The core practice of meditation is focusing on our breath. There is much scientific evidence of the positive long-term impacts of deep and focused breath. Taking deep breaths regularly reduces anxiety, decreases blood pressure, and relaxes the muscles, among other benefits.

“When people rush with their coffee to get to meditation, this is not the right way to meditate.” Of course this is easier said than done. Instead of doing one focused hour a day or a week, it’s good for people to practice integrating conscious breathing and mindfulness in daily life.

Pi Nan read us an article called driving meditation. He talked about how in this changing world monks sometimes need to drive and adapt to changes in society. But they still integrate their meditation practice into daily life.

When people drive, they see the red light as an obstacle to their destination. But instead, people can see it as a remind to stop, take a breath and be in the present moment.

One-day silent meditation

This is the view from my friend’s “paradise” during her silent meditation day. Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

One volunteer told me, “I learned this from other volunteers but everyone is supposed to do a full day of silent meditation in the forest on your first full day at the farm.”

I asked Pi Nan about this and I told him because we were only there for a short time, I could continue the work if he wanted and skip the meditation. He said, “You should do the meditation.” So he walked my friend and I to a part of the jungle and we each had our own spot. He said:

You can build your paradise here. You can clear the leaves and make it comfortable for yourself. Over here you can do a walking meditation and walk back and forth slowly. Empty your mind and be happy. Breathe in and out and just be aware of your body.

Some people try very hard to meditate and think they will be enlightened, but this wrong. Meditation is about being happy and at peace. Some people are very serious when they meditate but you can smile and just be happy.

You must be silent for the full day, but you can smile at each other and smile at other people. If you are feeling sick or if you have a thought, you are allowed to talk to me. When you hear the bell, you can get your food and return to your spot.  You are not allowed to write or read because your mind will wander.

It is 7:30 a.m. now, you will end at 7:30 p.m.

While we ate during our meditation, we are much more aware of our food and its layers of flavour. I haven’t eaten so consciously in a long time and it’s a good practice to get back to.

So there I was, in my own little paradise just starting to breathe deeply and consciously. I keep trying to do 10 deep conscious breaths but I could barely get through two before my mind began drifting off into another world.

But when I’ve gone to festivals and events focused on mindfulness, music and healing, it usually takes me three days to clear my head and then really get into being in a present headspace. How is it different when you’re mindful?

For me when I’m very present, I feel like my intuition and awareness is sharp, time feels slower and I just do what my body or intuition guides me to do instead of mindlessly following a time schedule. I feel much more attentive when people are talking to me and they can feel a different energy from me as well.

I had one super zen month in 2011 and it was the most calm and present I’ve ever been in my life. I knew I would lose it after I got back into city life but at least I knew I could do it. It’s an ongoing challenge to find ways to integrate mindfulness in my daily life.

When I was allowed to talk again, one of the other guests said, “There you are!” And gave me a big hug with a smile. Another friend was asking where I was earlier in the day not knowing it was my day to be in the forest. It was nice of her to be thinking about me and we continued chatting by the fire later in the night. She was so kind to say in French, “If you are ever in France, you can visit me.” I find the people I’ve met the past year who do these kinds of invites are very genuine.

I shared my experience with Pi Nan and told him someone was dominating my thoughts in a negative way. When this happens I asked him if the best way is to just focus on breathing. He said, “Keep going back to your breath. When we have thoughts of the past, it brings emotions of sadness and happiness. But when you keep breathing, you will be present and take away the power of your thoughts.”

Our last day

Ida, in the middle, was so sweet to give us a heart bookmark that she made herself as a souvenir before she left. We couldn’t communicate much because I didn’t speak much Spanish and she didn’t speak much English. But we smiled at each other and she had a warm touch whenever we interacted the few days we were together.

I was sad to have stayed at Mindful Farm for such a short time and I know for next time I would stay at a farm for at least two weeks. There was one woman, Ida, who only spoke Spanish but she was so nice to give me a hand-made bookmark in the shape of a heart before she left. With a group of open people like this, language is never a barrier. You can show kindness and connection through our actions and touch.

One of our new friends wrote me a nice note and shared her favourite quotes in my notebook. Part of her message said, “Despite the fact that we’ve known each other for two days I see you as a good friend. It seems like we’ve known each other in another life . . . I wish you all the best life can offer: happiness, love and more luuuuuv.”

We savoured every minute of our last fire with people, including the kind co-host Dr. Phat.

Our days at Mindful Farm was one of my favourite times in our month in Thailand and I would go back and stay longer the next chance I get.

The bookmarks Ida made to share with people. Photo credit: Zuzana Kotorova.

 

 

 

When life steers you in a different direction

Surin

The wonderful people who kept us company for the whole day in Surin.

I was looking forward to the Full Moon Party in Koh Pagnan island in Thailand for two months and it was the only fixed plan I had in January. Everything else was up in the air. 10,000 to 30,000 people go the party every month to dance the night away and enjoy themselves however they please. I was more attracted to the event for the electronic music and dancing on the beach, which is hard to do in countries with many regulations like Canada.

Because I just got my open water diving license in Bali, I wanted to go to one of the best diving sites in the world, which is Surin Island south of Thailand. So I thought I could go there for a few days to dive then head to Koh Pagnan afterward.

I booked my accommodation for three nights on Koh Pagnan ahead of time because it was going to be busy and I looked online on how to Surin Island and tried to find the bus and ferry ticket, which was not as easy as it seemed.

Navigating through organized chaos

Rush hour on the BTS skytrain in Bangkok

After the first two hours of being on public transit, I finally got to the bus terminal to try and get the ticket because you can’t book it online. But at the first bus station when I asked for Surin, he told me I had to go to Mo Chit bus station an hour and a half away to get to the island, which wasn’t on the website. But the site information could have been outdated for all I knew.

Five hours after navigating through the organized chaos city that is Bangkok, I finally get to Mo Chit. I asked the info booth how to get to Surin, got our tickets and waited for the overnight bus to take us to our first stop. The website I read said from the first island, you can take a 7:00 a.m. ferry to get to another island first before getting to Surin Island.

We left at 8:00 p.m. and arrived at 5:00 a.m. to Surin. So when I asked someone where the ferry was they gestured that there was no ferry in the area. When my friend pulled out the map to indicate where we wanted to go, we found out we went eight hours in the wrong direction! We headed north to the city of Surin, which is different than the island of Surin. Who knew there would be two things named Surin? Someone told me next time I should ask for “Koh Surin,” which means Surin Island. Mental note.

We could have gone back to the south or just head up to Chiang Mai, which we were planning to do after the Full Moon Party. I said, “Well we’re already this far, let’s take the bus to Chiang Mai.” Unlucky for us, the earlier buses were full so we had to wait 14 hours for the next bus, which was another 14-hour ride to Chiang Mai.

New friends in Surin

We looked for a coffee shop with Wi-Fi to stay at the whole day. Thankfully the first cafe’s internet didn’t work otherwise we wouldn’t have met the wonderful people who spent time with us at another coffee shop.

I found out that the 21-year old woman staff member was originally from Cambodia, which instantly made me homesick from my Asian home Siem Reap. I spoke a bit of Khmer (Cambodian language) with her, and she was so surprised. She came to Thailand to work, which is what many Cambodians do, and works seven days a week at the shop. She had the most adorable laugh and she so reminded me of the wonderful smile and friendliness of many Cambodians I met while I was in the country for eight months.

We saw a mix of older Western men and local Thai women, whom we said hello to and we started chatting casually here and there. I learned from them that most people in Surin speak Khmer partly because they are so close to the country.

I was surprised how long they hung around the coffee shop, but one of the women, Sudjai, was friends with the owner. They told us a bit about their family, their work and many other random things.

Our highlight of the day was when they offered to drive us to the night market so we left our stuff at the coffee shop. It was nice to have a mini tour of the city. I asked myself, “When in Vancouver and other cities could you feel comfortable leaving your bags at a coffee shop and have people offer you a ride for dinner after meeting them after just a few hours?”

We all grabbed some food and brought it back to the coffee shop to eat together. They stayed with us from the morning until our bus came at 8:00 p.m. Before we left, Sudjai said, “Next time you’re in Surin, you can visit our family.” I am chatting on Facebook with Sudjai now and she said again, “So when you visit Thailand next time you can stay with us for free.” I told her next time we visit Thailand and have time, we will go to Surin on purpose and include a visit to them as part of our trip.

It’s so beautiful that around many parts of Asia that I’ve been to, I can easily talk to people and find people to connect with wherever I go.

We then continued on our journey to Chiang Mai and the northern mountains, which led to my most memorable days in Thailand. I will tell you in my next post how I ended up watching the full moon during a silent sitting meditation with a group of world travelers and Thai owner of an organic vegetarian farm instead of the originally planned Full Moon Party.

A fixed destination can distract you from the path you were meant to take.

Blogging on bathrooms and transport in a land of regulations

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I’m catching up on blog posts I should have posted months ago from different countries over the next few months. I hope you don’t mind.

In Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Thailand, I could get a local phone number for a few dollars and be done. The any rules of the road are governed by the people who are on the road and the speed limits are whatever people feel comfortable with, even if it’s 90 km/hour on a scooter (more commonly referred to as mottos in Asia). So I was a bit culture shocked coming to Taiwan in December, a country with enforced regulations that people actually follow.

After being in Taiwan for a few days, my reaction to enforced rules was:

“What?! You have to show two pieces of ID just to get a phone number?”

“What?! There are traffic lights here and people actually follow the road rules? It takes forever to cross the street.”

But it is refreshing and good to know there are some places with some sense of order.

Well-organized transport

Piano player at one of the train stations. I would love to see more public art and hired musicians in Vancouver, Canada at our bus and skytrain station to complement the wonderful buskers.

Taiwan has one of the cleanest and easiest transportation systems I have ever seen. The train lines, high speed rail and slow trains that connect to different parts of the country make it very easy to travel. This is the first country I’ve seen between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand that really accommodates pregnant women, people with disabilities and the elderly very well.

There is also great public art and unique designs at the train stations that make the place more vibrant.

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Sign at the High Speed Rail station.

Clean and functionally designed bathrooms

I really appreciate places with smart and functional design and the public bathrooms in Taiwan are among the cleanest and smartly designed. I know it seems weird for someone to write about bathrooms but after doing my business in every type of bathroom you can imagine, you appreciate common comforts like toilet paper.

Just when I thought they couldn’t make the bathrooms any more convenient, anther train station bathroom surprises me because it has real-time bathroom stall updates so you know which ones are free and which ones are occupied. Wow.

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Real-time bathroom stall updates.

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Bathroom at the train station.

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This is the first “help” button I’ve seen in a public bathroom stall. Very considerate. Though aside from an elderly person falling, I’m wondering what other situations would require people to use this convenient feature. Hmmmmmm.

The best automatic dryer I’ve ever used. Your hands are dry within seconds.

How to take the BTS train in Bangkok

The BTS train station is a very cheap and easy way to get around Bangkok. It’s clean and has air conditioning that you will enjoy on the very hot days. Here’s how you take the train:

1. Get coins

The ticket machine only takes coins. You can exchange your bills for coins at the ticket office close the machines.

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2. Select the fare of your destination

The fares of the BTS station range from 15 to 52 baht from depending where you want to go.

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 3. Put your ticket in the slot with the green arrow to open the gate

Remember to keep your ticket until you exit your final destination! You’ll need to put the ticket in to open the gates when you exit the station. Otherwise you’ll pay about 40 baht to exit.

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Happy travels.