The Medicine for the Soul
Traveling and working abroad has been surprisingly transformative for me. I have to admit, I did not expect the change that took place simply from moving to another location, but this experience has been medicine for my soul.
If I had to have a conversation with my previous self from about a year ago, I might not recognize the person I was. My inner landscape has changed so dramatically that I can feel the difference every day. I dove into the cleansing waters of change and this country washed away the parts of my being that were doing me no good.
It’s weird to think that something so powerful can come from just living abroad, but it is that very act of diving into the unfamiliar and unknown that is so cleansing to the psyche. You can no longer hang on to habits or preconceived notions when you are presented with such a novel experience. You can no longer be in a comfortably sedated haze when everything is so bright, new, and present. Yes, that’s the word I’m looking for. Everything therapeutic about traveling condensed into one word: Presence.
Travel forces you to come to the surface of life and intimately connects you to the present moment. You forget about any heavy mental baggage and become as light as the air kissing your skin. You become the jagged mountain steps you’re climbing or the salty sea water you’re swimming through or the lights of Bangkok dazzling your eyes. You become the moment. And with that constant exposure to presence, your soul settles and becomes more grounded. It is like developing a habit of presence and seeing the sparkling beauty of every moment in life. There is no more room for heavy rumination. My spirit feels lighter as a result. Through exposing myself to the people and nature of Thailand I feel like I’ve cleared myself of those mental habits that pull me away from the moment. My sight has become clearer and now the present moment is always in view.
In Buddhism they make the claim that the doorway to enlightenment is in the moment. According to the Buddha, the roots of pristine happiness grow from presence. After being exposed to living abroad I can say this is true for me. In my home in the United States I was stuck in, what seemed to be, a fog of habitual thinking and ruminating. Similar to the feeling you get when you’re trying to sleep and you can’t stop thinking. Being lost in constant brain-chatter. Television static played over the symphony of your life. And you know what? I was not happy. I felt a dissonance, a weird sense of misalignment in life, like the tuning of my soul was slightly off and every time I tried to play it the music came out sour and left me wondering “What’s wrong?”. I was lost in time. Thinking about the past, worrying about the future, and never seeing the present. It’s a sort of illness, really. An illness who’s primary symptom is a deep sense of dissatisfaction.
The medicine for that which ailed me has been travel. Living abroad has washed away that diluted sense of presence with the dazzling brightness of the unknown and new experiences. I feel awakened to the beauty of life and I look back on my days of familiar and automatic routines as a time when I was kind of asleep and in a haze. But how can I convey this to you, dear reader, when it is something that can only be experienced firsthand. I implore you to dive into the unfamiliar. Travel, meet new people, and encounter new cultures and ways of thinking. See the world in all its stunning beauty. Walk the path less traveled and then forge a new one. I can guarantee this with all my heart, travel can be the medicine to heal the discontent in your soul.
Sawadee pee mai! Songkran is a Thai New Years festival with a long history. Teaching in Thailand gives you an incredible opportunity to soak up the culture and get involved in these local events. Our TESOL graduate Brian tells us what it was like to take part in Songkran, which despite being an ancient tradition, hasn’t lost its appeal today.
Sawadee pee mai! I recently had my first Songkran experience. Back in the day, the tradition was to take some scented water and pour it over a statue of the Buddha. The water was then saved and poured onto loved ones as a blessing. That is not how it went down on Wednesday.
The modern Songkran festival in Thailand is a nationwide super-soaker, bucket-dumping splash fest of epic proportions. The new tradition seems to be to soak everybody you see in a tsunami of unrelenting bucket water. Literally everyone is involved and nobody is off limits. See that police officer over there? Yep, you can splash him too. That sweet little ol’ grandma on the street, you better watch out because she has a bucket of ice-water hiding under that shawl, and she’s gonna get you good.
What’s great about Songkran is that everyone is in such good spirits. People come around with wet chalk and camphor and gently rub it on your cheek as a sign of good will. The camphor burns like minty freshness on the skin, and combined with the shock of the ice-cold water it keeps your heart skipping to the crazy tune of Songkran all day. Likewise, everybody is smiling and wishing you a happy new year. You can’t help but get into the spirit of this wet and wild Thai holiday, which is exactly how I felt at XploreAsia’s Songkran get-together on Wednesday afternoon.
The day was hot and the sun was unrelenting. Dozens of XploreAsia teachers and teachers-in-training came by in their best Songkran themed floral island-shirts, tank-tops, and colorful shorts. Some carried super-soakers that had backpack attachments, some had buckets, and some only brought their wavering sense of security, but all were dry and that was soon about to change. The first buckets of water started pouring from one giant man carrying one giant bucket, and the screams that followed were hilarious to behold. I couldn’t help but crack a wide smile myself before someone behind me dumped a bucket of ice-water on my head and sent me running like a frightened squirrel. Oh it was on! My little water gun never pumped so fast! Streams of icy water streaked through the air like zooming projectiles in a war zone. Waves of double-team bucket attacks would come out of nowhere.
Every time you needed to refill you left yourself vulnerable to a sneak attack, so you had to keep your senses sharp. A Thai family a couple of meters down the street were overseeing a barrel of the coldest water that was ever your misfortune to experience. I’m not sure what type of magic they were doing on that thing but it was so icy that I had to summon up courage every time I wanted to get a refill. It was worth it though, to see your victims scream and jump as you poured the frigid water down their backs. Oh, they will remember that shock for the rest of their lives.
Trucks drove by with families and extended families throwing water and shooting super-soakers. Smiling faces walked by with bowls of wet chalk and smeared the colorful paste on your face like a monk’s blessing. Foreigners and Thai people alike shared the streets and washed the heat of the day away in a bath of smiles and good vibes. As the afternoon progressed, XploreAsia staff brought out food o’plenty for us rascals and laid it out in our dry area where we could lounge around and eat in peace.
The food was good, the company was great, and the memories will be cherished. I raise my bucket to you Thailand, once again you have shown me the time of my life.
Written by: Brian Mule
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Sawadee pee mai!
My wife and I are calling Hua Hin, Thailand, home for a couple months. I’m working as an intern for Xplore Asia and Amy earned her TESOL certification. Of course, part of goal in coming here was travel. Chiang Mai and Angkor Wat in Cambodia came up high on Amy’s list. Below are my thoughts on this adventure.
Before I continue, I wasn’t familiar with Angkor Wat when Amy put it on the must-do list. I knew two things, there were temple ruins and they were located in the opposite direction of our trip’s ultimate destination, Chiang Mai. Being a typical guy, I whined a bit about cramming too much into too little time. As you can guess, I lost and Cambodia was added to our itinerary.
Thank the gods, I was out voted. Angkor Wat is a place not to be missed. Let’s get on to the story.
Amy did the research and found a flight to Siem Reap, the city close by the Angkor Wat ruins. BTW, Amy’s a good shopper and found the best deals on Air Asia. The flight from Bangkok was quick, up and down in an hour.
The Airport at Siem Reap was fantastic. Very modern and customs was a snap. They process your Visa on the spot. NOTE: Make sure and have a couple passport style pictures for your Visa application. The cost of the visa was $30 US.
Interestingly, US currency is the payment of choice in Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Don’t convert to Cambodian Reils and make sure you have plenty of one dollar bills (US). Lot’s of things cost a buck or two.
There are a lot of hotel options in Siem Reap. From refined luxury like Raffels Grand Hotel to simple hostels, they have it all. We found a cheap and cheerful place that worked fine for our budget lifestyle. I’d say, look for a place closer to the downtown/night market region… it’s better for nightlife fun.
We set up a group tour to the Angkor Wat ruins. I’d advise getting a guide. We would have missed a lot of cool info and history. There are two basic options for the day long tour… sunrise or not. We were not up to a 6:00 am departure so we took a 8:30 start that lasted into mid-afternoon.
We visited 3 of the temples. For us it was enough. One of our tour mates was staying on for a few days and planned on seeing closer to a dozen. Each of the four we saw was radically different and remarkable.
FYI: Angkor Wat is the catch all name for the area but it is also the name of one of the many sites. Yeah, a bit confusing.
Angkor Wat: Quite a stunning piece of Hindu and Cambodian history. You can see they were once the rulers of SE Asia by the scope of their religious cities.
Bayon Temple: Located within the ancient city of Angkor Tom, it is known for its many faces of the king and massive structures.
Ta Prohm: Known for the colossal trees that appear to grow right out of the rocks and stones of the temple.
I’ve hot linked to online info about each of these temple sites verses giving full descriptions of each. I do have to say I was most blown away by Ta Prohm. Many of you would recognize it from the Laura Croft Tomb Raider movie. All I can say is it was magical, like a Disney movie, only real.
The evening after our tour we spent time exploring Siem Reap. Since Amy has a background in international travel we took a Tuk Tuk ride to Raffles. It is considered one of the World’s premier hotel chains. It was sweet and we felt like prosperous European travelers having a cocktail in the bar.
Next we were off to the Night Market. We’ve been to night markets in China and Thailand but this one was very different. Most night markets are what I’d call “pop-up” events. Seim Reap’s market is much more formal with flooring, deep aisles, lots of color and dramatic lighting. The real treat was the variety and quality of the merchandise. Many night markets are filled with trinkets, food and the same clothing aisle after aisle. Seim Reap’s Angkor Market had lots of unusual and artsy items. Make sure check this out.
We flew out the next day going back to Bangkok and then on to Chiang Mai. Perhaps another day in Seim Reap would have been fun, yet we got a good taste of the town and ruins in our 1.5 days in country. Below is a slide show/movie of the trip. Hope it gives you a taste of the adventure.
Watch Our Angkor Wat Video
Gene Urban… Explore Asia Intern