Monday, 10 December 2012

Fantasy Island: Life in a Tantric Community

Koh Phangan - the fantasy island where I lived.
Photo courtesy of the gorgeously talented Clara Jansen
In Cambodia I fell ill again. Very ill. In fact so ill that I was trapped in a hotel room for several days, unable even to clamber down the 4 flights of stairs to get fresh water. I paid a Khmer man in the corridor to go and fetch me some. He came back with a bottle half filled. I couldn't trust it. I didn't drink water for 2 days and I watched myself waste away in the mirror as ants crawled up the walls. Losing weight was supposed to be a good thing but my cheeks were sunken and even my (formerly rather buxom) chest began to wither and sag. I felt alone and scared. I had to get out of Cambodia but I was trapped on a border town without my passport (on a last minute whim I had paid someone to send it back to Phnom Penh to get a 2 month Thai visa stamped in). Yet again I had to trust that it would come back to me on a local bus. I had to hope that I would get better. The days were drawing nearer to a course I had signed up to in Thailand. I held my breath. The passport arrived as promised. 

The beach that I would come to live on on KPN photo c/o Clara again
View from my beach hut on Koh Phangan
I spent a very uncomfortable day completely nil by mouth crossing the border into Thailand. Luckily I was amused by some very drunken boys from Devon, here on holiday. “I work in a pub and I drink in a pub. My life is great” said one of them, proudly. I told them I was doing a tantra course in Thailand and they oscillated between being fascinated and making crude jokes. It was to become the first of many conversations I would have about the definition of tantra which, clearly, is universally misunderstood. My first time in Bangkok was again spent sick and mostly inside a hotel room, punctuated only by a trip to hospital. In the end I had to fly down to Ko Phangan because I was too weak to travel by train.

Channelling the Goddess
A long day ensued taking in a bus and boat to Ko Phangan but as the sun was setting emblazoned across a purple and azure sky, the ferry glided over glass waters to the island. Triangular shaped smokey coloured mountains sulked in the background. The gulf islands of Thailand are quite possibly one the most sensationally beautiful places on earth. I wandered about the dusky air of the ferry, rocking with the motion of the boat and pondered how this was a dream come true for me to finally be here. And the next two months would be blissful, living on a beach and doing yoga every day.

Shakti awakens
The reason I had come all of this way was to enrol on a tantra course at the Agama School of yoga. Nobody had recommended it to me, I had simply found it on a Google search late one night on the Chinese island of Hainan. Tantra had come up for me a few times in India but I hadn’t felt ready for it back then. After months of deprivation or 'tapas', I now felt grounded enough in my spirituality to be able to start indulging my senses again. After all those months of sitting in ashrams and meditating, how to start living a normal life again? I believed that tantra was the answer.

The Shiva Hall at Agama, being prepared for a Tantric ritual
I didn't know it at the time but I had stumbled upon a gem with the school. The Sanskrit word 'Agama' is the name of a collection of scriptures which teach the practices of tantra, the most ancient science of India and the root from which the other Indian religions have sprung. Lord Shiva himself, who lived as a great master around 7,000 years ago was one of the proponents of tantra, along with the Aryan nomad tribes who invaded India from the North West. They brought with them the notion of non-dualism which is this: we are inseparable from the divine - we are expressions of God, as is everything around us. "I am that." We came from God and we can return to God and this is enlightenment. 

Shakti Power with Lyonne, another Tantric yogini
I have a lot to say on the matter of tantra, some of which is impossible or inappropriate to include here (please feel free to email me personally if you want to know more). It is a difficult subject to paraphrase but I will try my best. Tantra can be divided into two paths - the Right Handed Path and the Left Handed Path. Christ sat at the right hand of God. In India, the right hand is used for prayer and devotion. The Right Handed Path is that which takes you straight to the divine. Jesus was capable of this, Buddha was capable of this however most human beings, limited by working out karmas and bound by samskaras (imprints left by actions in previous lives), are not.  Most religions emphasise deprivation of the senses to get closer to God - through fasting, celibacy and asceticism. However the tantrics believed that it was possible to use the senses in order to transcend them.

More beautiful Shaktis
The left handed path offers an approach whereby the human body can be used as a tool to overcome itself, to attain 'one-ness' with the divine. The tantrics believed that in the age of Kali Yuga (the age of vice) in which we live, the left handed path is the only realistic path for people born into a life of materialism who are unable or unwilling to give it all up. Tantra provides a healthy route to enlightenment without complete renunciation - it basically involves bringing latent energy from our base chakras (associated with low, physical desires) into higher chakras associated with unconditional love, devotion, expression, intellect, creativity, knowledge and soul. I took to it immediately. The course itself was extremely well presented and inspirational. I was hugely affected by the teachings and the meditations which were so powerful I was often either in tears or flying out of my seat. Having been a reiki healer and member of the Usui reiki network for several years, I was well versed in using energy and I found the techniques of moving it upwards came naturally to me. Being an earthy, sensual woman, I had plenty of energy to use in the first place (a pre requisite for being a tantrica). At last I could use it for something positive.

Me and Joel, one of my gorgeous Shivas
The left handed path prescribes many ways of reaching enlightenment and although much smaller emphasis is given to it in the Shastra (the tantric scriptures) one route is sexuality. The sacred union of Shiva (masculine) and Shakti (feminine). The theory is that polarity exists in this entire universe - night and day, good and bad, yin and yang, black and white, male and female, Shiva and Shakti. Shakti represents energy, creation, manifestation, everything on this earth. Shiva is the consciousness which witnesses the action. Shiva is the eye and Shakti is the storm. Without Shiva, Shakti is nothing. Without Shakti, Shiva is nothing. In tantra, the point at which these two forces unite is the point at which Brahma or 'oneness' can be achieved. It is not only a beautiful notion but a beautiful and sacred practice which is completely undermined by ignorant modern-day interpretations based on new age derivations and activities of celebrities such as Sting.  

In the 'yab yum' with my teacher Assaf who I later
ran a workshop with in Goa
To get to the goal requires not only a very high level of purity of body and mind, but rigorous physical and spiritual training that demands an enormous amount of readiness and preparation. There are two pillars in tantra - sublimation (the raising of the energy) and transfiguration of yourself and your partner - to see them and yourself as an incarnation of the divine and to be as devoted to them as you are to God himself. Ram Dass has put this much bRetter than I ever could so I shall defer to him on this one: "It's all about making love. Make love in beauty, in joy, in seeing each other in truth...Let the man worship woman as God, the Holy Mother, the Divine Shakti, the Mana, the Food of Life, the Sustainer of Being, Isis, Astarte, the Good Earth, Terrible Kali and Herself - All of It. She is all of it. Let the woman worship man as God, the Son, the Sun, the Father, the Lite of Her Life, the Creator, the Provider, as Jesus, as Ram, as Shiva, as Krishna, as all of them and Himself. Surrender and die to one another. Become one. The glorious Mystic rose in the garden of the heavenly Father, Permeate the universe, fill it, become it, for this is the union beyond duality. O Holy Family. This is the seat of the practice."  

My beach hut home
And so it was that I lived in a little hut on the beach replete with hammock to swing in as the waves lapped nearby.. Paradise. I enrolled not only on the Tantra 1 and Tantra 2 courses, but a month long intensive yoga training course (6 days per week), which incorporated asana practice, meditation initiation and lessons, esoteric and mystical teaching, philosophy, laya yoga, lessons in a yogic lifestyle and kriyas (cleansing practices). I also embarked on a 10 day detox in which I ate nothing but brown rice and steamed vegetables and avoided all sugar (even toothpaste) to attempt to rid myself of the parasite that kept thwarting me. 

Nicola, my new friend enjoying raw food made with
love by Sabrina  at Wake Up Bar, Chaloklum
It was tough work but I was helped greatly by my fairy godmother Sabrina of Wake Up restaurant who prepared my raw food with love for the duration). With all of this healing work and yet more devotion to spirituality, things came up but on the whole, life was peachy. Tantra had given me a new and wonderful outlook on life and myself. I appeared to magnetise several men whilst on the island, including a gorgeous 22 year old German who became my tantric partner and together we enjoyed intense and beautiful practice. It had been a long time and I entered into love with him fully, consciously, joyfully and spiritually.  

But it wasn't all a walk in the park and, as with most communities, I found some of the aspects of the Agama 'way' challenging. Some of the members of the community were hard core non-drinking, non-smoking yogis who advocated 'urine therapy' (the daily drinking of one's own urine) and eating only 'yang foods' such as brown rice. I don't have anything against the lifestyle choices of others, but again I defer to Ram Dass on this when it comes to enforced asceticism "you cannot rip the skin from the snake, the snake will shed it's skin when it's ready". Nevertheless, with one notable exception (more on this later) the majority of my time on the island was also spent in sobriety. 

What I found more difficult was the encouragement of polyamoury within the community. Whilst I find the concepts of non ownership and unconditional love something to aspire to, I couldn't help but feeling that there were a few people on the island indulging in 'red tantra' - i.e. sex for the sake of sex. In this way, the ego is indulged, not surpassed and it is very easy to fall into the usual sense-pleasure games under the thin guise of 'spirituality'. They do say the tantric path is a slippery one after all. Although at times tempted, I did manage to successfully avoid getting dragged in. Another of my concerns focused around the ubiquitousness of sexual healing and the occasional unscrupulousness of certain people purporting to be healers whose motives might not be entirely pure. Thankfully the instances of this were peripheral and rare, but nonetheless it was something that I was conscious of and had occasional concerns for those more vulnerable than myself.

Despite this, however, my time on the island was nothing short of transformational. I am now a fully fledged and initiated tantrica and I went on from this to not only complete a tantric yoga teacher training course, but found my own company which runs tantric workshops. We have just launched our first event in Goa which was a great success - you can read all about it on my website and our Facebook page. Perhaps most importantly, I learned what it truly is to be a woman. To surrender. To devote myself to the Divine. To be a good partner. To love myself. And I was about to open myself to such riches that I could not have previously dreamt possible before. For this, I have my lover, Phil to thank, I have my new friends to thank (Johnny, Nicola, Lauren) and I have Agama. Although I don't necessarily sign up to all of their teachings, I think I have found my path.

To be continued... 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Cambodia Photo Blog

Entertaining a village full of Khmer children in a Muslim settlement outside Battambang

Khmer BBQ! Squid and chilly sauce at Phsar Thmey Central Market

Stunning Khmer architecture at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh

Beautiful Buildings in The Royal Palace of Cambodia

The atmospheric indoor Russian market in Phnom Penh

Tasty and cheap street food in Phnom Penh

My lovely friend Tim Tim, professional clown, yoga buddy & street food dining companion

The 'best iced coffee in Phnom Penh! in the Russian Market. They actually have their own Facebook page
And this is the reason why it's so good... It is full of sticky, sweet, condensed milk!  Half  a tin of the stuff! 
Tuol Sleng Genocide Musuem or the S-21 prison, a former school where inmates where tortured to extract confessions. Over '17,000 'suspects' were 'processed' here, of which only 12 survived. Nightmare-inducing stuff but essential testament to the madness of the Khmer Rouge.
Horrific images of forced evacuations, one of the Khmer Rouge's first and most radical moves to enslave citizens as peasants in work camps in order to create an 'ideal' communist society 

Choeung Ek Memorial at one of the many Killing Fields or execution sites...full of the skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge

Pretty in Pink in Phnom Penh

Me and Dana - my HCMC partner in crime, reunited in Happy 11 Backpackers

Buddha statues in a temple around Battambang
All aboard the rackety, clackety bamboo train - there is only one track along which 'carriages' made from Bamboo go in either direction. If a collision is imminent, the carriage with the least amount of people behind it has to be lifted off and disassembled to allow the train coming the other way to pass. Slightly farcical, very fast and lots of fun! 
Receiving a massage from the craggy hands of a blind Khmer woman. Life changing.

Just some of the 216 giant faces of King Jayavarman VII at Bayon Temples, Siem Reap

Crowds gather for sunrise at the infamous Angkor Watt temple

The sun beginning to peep out behind Angkor Watt 

The incredible temple of Ta Promh, being swallowed up by jungle, was used as a film set for 'Tomb Raider' 

Monks on a bike
Exquisite bas relief from Angkor Watt temple depicting the infamous 'churning of the ocean of milk' story of Hindu cosmology in which gods and demons churn the ocean for 1,000yrs to release amritam the nectar of immortality 

Meditating at Beng Melay, ironically a temple dedicated to Vishnu the preserver and now completely reclaimed by nature. A long tuk tuk drive out from the main temple complex at Angor but arguably the highlight of all the ruins. We were the only people there and clambered around in perfect peace
John Beaton (who I met on that infamous bus ride in Vietnam) and I decided one breakfast to make a film in a day in a Cambodian temple. Within 2 hours we had it storyboarded and scripted, had procured cast and crew and 2 x tuk tuks to convey us to the 'set'. A few hours later, it was in the can! Nice work
Action shot! Filming in the back of a tuk tuk

There are huge communities of Vietnamese, Khmer, Chinese and Cham people living on the Mekong Delta, either on boats or on structures like these on stilts and making their living as farmers and fishermen

Film directors

Cast and crew

Mekong Delta people

Cheeky little Khmer children
Traditional Khmer hats

Traditional Khmer dress - different colours are worn on different days of the week

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Naughty 'Nam, Hoi An & Jeremy Clarkson

Tegan, my little miss sunshine & Saigon roomie
On my first night alone again in HCMC I sat and reflected on the previous fortnight. I had had a blast with my friend but I was determined to get back on the spiritual path and devote myself to moderation once more. That night as I settled into my bunk bed and listened to the sounds of the streets outside, I felt alone. In fact, I felt lonely. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going next in the world and I felt the need to bounce ideas around. I logged into Thorntree - the Lonely Planet forum for travellers - and linked in with a lively online discussion group who were all bemoaning how 'touristy' HCMC was and 'full of chavvy backpackers'. I suggested that, from time to time we all suffer from this particular malaise - thinking, mistakenly, that we long term backpackers are 'above' the traveller scene. I suggested to the guys online that we greet everyone with a broad smile and an open heart - whether authentic local or white westerner. After all, you never know what experience is awaiting you.  

Dana, my new BFF
Deciding that to practice what I preach, I headed out of the winding alleyway to the street beer bars in the Pham Ngu Lao area. I would recommend to anyone going to Saigon to spend at least one night at one of these street-side bars, where the atmosphere is possibly the best of any drinking establishment I have frequented (and believe me, I have patronised a few). Everyone huddles together on tiny kindergarten sized plastic seats and all proceedings are overseen (at Cafe 100 at least) by an formidable Vietnamese woman in her 80s. This lady stands up all night and ensures that you are seated and have a beer in your hand within approximately 30 seconds of your arrival. At no point will you be empty handed - and with the beer cheaper than water, what better way to refresh? 

The elderly woman who oversees proceedings at Cafe 100
However, drinking on the streets in Vietnam is actually illegal and, at periodic intervals, the 'chair police' patrol the road. The police drive, inexplicably, in the back of a pick up truck with sun umbrellas over the top and slowly cruise the street. As soon as the patron of the establishment notices their appearance, all customers are ushered up to standing and there is a kick-bollocks scramble to stack the chairs up. The bars are usually full to bursting, with patrons spilling out onto the streets, but once the police are there we have to crowd onto the pavement. This nightly ritual is hilariously pointless...The police know that everyone is sitting on the plastic seats on the road but they continue their drive by and so, every half an hour the game of musical chairs begins again. Other spectacular sights in Pham Ngu Lao include dancing prostitutes who erect giant speakers and dance through the streets, promoting their wares and a man who swallows a live snake then spits it out (and a load of black stuff) onto the floor. Rank. 

Feeling the love with Rogier (young Dutch!)
I planned to order one drink and hopefully have banter with other travellers. Within moments of ordering my 12,000 Dong beer (that's about 30 pence to me and you), a group of travellers started to assemble around me and squeeze into the miniature plastic chairs and tables. I found myself sitting next to Dana, a fellow sassy, sexy solo female traveller. We both bonded over our mutual travels in China and in Asia. And so, one beer turned into many and the scene changed to group bonding, yoga asanas in the street (who knew I could do a head stand in my mini skirt when drunk) and onwards to what would affectionately later become known later as 'Gang Rape Bar'. My one beer had turned into an all night bender that even my former media girl self would have been proud of. 

Cafe 100, where the beer is cheaper than water

Our lovely drinking crew

John - my new male BFF
I sailed into the Saigon Youth Hostel at 7am in the morning and was kindly handed a cheese baguette (the French influence still lives on), had a quick shower and turned around immediately to head out to my Cu Chi Tunnel tour. I had already booked and missed one trip (due to having my handbag snatched - another story and sadly not an uncommon occurrence in HCMC) and was determined not to let anything, not even lack of sleep prevent me from going this time. However, I'm not the alcoholic I once was and soon began to feel the after effects of the all nighter. I staggered to the tour office and tried to persuade the agent that I was only fit for a half day not the full day tour (a staggering 8 hrs which took in Tay Ninh temple, too). But he wasn't having any of it - I had paid for the full day and the full day I would do. 
The drunken Irish guy (inappropriately, still drinking beer!)
I fell asleep outside the office - a crumpled mess on a bench - and was woken up by a tour guide who came to escort me to my bus. En route I fell in with a lovely chap called John and I instantly liked him. When we got to the bus stand, however, John was ushered onto the half day bus and I was left standing there in the already scorching sunlight, hungover, feeling like 'death and loss' and alone once more. As I watched the bus pull away the woman shot me a sunny smile and waved me on. I jumped shouting "I MANIFESTED THIS!"Much to the amusement of my fellow passengers. I stumbled to my seat then began to insult (in an affectionate kind of way) an Irish guy who was sitting next to me. Turns out he was as drunk as I was and we both managed to amuse the rest of the bus until I passed out, exhausted, thus missing the entire commentary by the tour guide.

Putting on a brave face...
The extensive network of underground in the Cu Chi district of Saigon which were used by the Viet Cong guerilla fighters during the Vietnam War are now one of the major tourist attractions around Saigon and many tour operators run buses there several times per day. Whilst it seems inappropriate to visit such an 'attraction', you have to hand it to the Vietnamese - a race who has been invaded and pillaged from all corners - for managing to turn their tumultuous past into something positive. The network of tunnels which spans 250km, were built with the bare hands of Vietnamese people during the French occupation but were expanded to provide a competitive advantage over the Americans in the 1960s. They played a major role in the Vietnamese winning the war with several military campaigns based there including the Tet Offensive in 1968. The tunnels originally stretched from the Cambodian border to what was then Saigon and remain as a testament to the fighting spirit, resilience and ingenuity of the people of Vietnam. 
OMG I'm going in...
Beer fear: don't try this on a hangover!
Entire communities of Vietnamese Cong fighters subsisted in these tunnels which were only a couple of feet in height and width: living, working, educating their children and even giving birth in there as well as planning deadly attacks on US forces and the South Vietnamese. In addition, American soldiers were deployed into the tunnels. In a horrific spin on hide and seek they would try and find the Vietnamese before they found them...Scary stuff, especially as the VC had the place booby trapped to buggery. Many of these grisly traps still exist and are on display as part of the site's attractions today. The Americans or 'tunnel rats' who had the misfortune to be enter the tunnels coined the phrase 'black echo' to describe the way life down there. Rats, scorpions, parasites, vermin and disease was rife, especially malaria which was second only to battle wounds as a major cause of death. As part of the 'attraction' at Cu Chi, visitors are able to enter the sections of the tunnels - ranging from 150 feet to 650 feet in length and crawl through the dank, claustrophobic network.

Me and John: getting tanked up! 
This part is definitely the hardest thing about Cu Chi. Many of the tourists that I was with started to enter the tunnels then bolted, having changed their mind. A lot of people couldn't even go down there. I am proud to say that, although it took me a couple of attempts and much hyperventilating, with the help of some other awesome chicks on the tour, I made it through the entire 650 foot network. Fortunately, there are several 'get out' points where, if you need to exit due to panic, you can. We emerged sweaty but triumphant, much to the admiration of many of the boys who had not been able to stomach it. Note to self though, going underground at Cu Chi tunnels is pretty difficult at the best of times, never mind the morning after the night before, on no sleep whatsoever and feeling plenty of beer fear! I think the photos speak for themselves!

I'm a lover, not a fighter. Honest!
The other activities at Cu Chi included bomb craters, booby traps, scarily life-like mannequins of VC soldiers and a few abandoned tanks that were available for clambering on. There was even the option to shoot an AK47 or a M16 machine gun. Of course I got on board, despite the fact that I was blatantly still drunk. It took me back to the days when I earned my striped as a corporal in the army cadets!  We rocked around the site, our merry tour group, including the Irish lads who were still inappropriately drinking beer and eating bags of crisps. Our cheeky faced tour guide didn't seem to mind our irreverent attitude, however, he was just pleased we were having fun. Once again, I had to admire the Vietnamese for their sense of humour and philosophical outlook, despite the atrocities of their recent past. 

Lanterns in the quaint streets of Hoi An
And so our bus full of love and wonderful people drove back to the backpackers district of Saigon and we all chatted nineteen to the dozen. As well as John, there was the articulate Phi, yet another American (based in Cali, no less) and Shona, a wonderful English girl with whom I shared more than a few things in common. The Irish lads, who had provided us with so much amusement, finally dozed off to sleep and John and I talked and talked about everything from art to Hinduism to life and everything. In fact, we couldn't stop talking and even though I was completely exhausted, so inspiring and energising was his company that we spent the rest of the day and evening together, chatting over coffee. He drew me a one page map of Vietnam in my notepad (the only piece of cartographical reference I had to rely on) and we vowed to meet again in Cambodia to continue where we left off in a week's time. the universe had spoken. I made plans. 

White rose dumplings, a Hoi An speciality
However, I had a few more things that I wanted to explore in Vietnam before my visa was due to run out, so I flew up to Hoi An, a beautifully preserved South East Asian port town that is now a listed UNESCO heritage sight in the Quang Nam province. I spent a day sightseeing, wandering through ancient streets with buildings tangled with bougainvillea and visiting many colourful temples and pagodas.  I watched some traditional Vietnamese dancing and feasted on delicious local treats, including the legendary white rose dumplings made up to resemble tiny roses. I also reconvened with Phi and Sho (a coincidence that the combination of both their names = mine?) and we enjoyed some girly time together including more gastronomic delights, street food and even some Vietnamese wine. 

Getting ready to burn rubber
Tommy, one of the guys in our Saigon drinking massive, had told me about a motorbike drive he and Johnny (a fellow scouser) had done, which had featured on Top Gear. Not wanting to miss out, I managed to find myself two willing lads to accompany me on Vietnam's most beautiful drive - from Hoi An to Hue over the mountain road. You might remember that Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond did this drive on Top Gear. If not, you can watch the clip here. Driving along the coast road with the wind in my hair, I really felt as if I was finally 'doing Vietnam'. 

The boys, taking in the view
Having made the spectacular drive over the mountains, I nearly got separated from the boys on the way back and thankfully caught up with them at a roadside stop. I didn't have a mobile phone, or a map and although I'm a good driver, am rubbish at directions and was relying on them to get me back. Unfortunately, they were both as terrified as me (if not more) and on the way home we lost our nerve and had to come back through the city - not a good move as we were sharing lanes with up to 60 other bikes at a time and negotiating horrendous traffic. We ended up following a bus back to Hoi An! Not so rock n roll. But the drive has inspired me to go back and drive the length of the country next time, on Highway 1. I'm looking for potential biker buddies to accompany let me know if you're keen!  

Biker chick

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