Peace and Pandemonium
If one were forced to choose a single destination that best epitomizes the dichotomy that is Thailand, it could well be Koh Phangan, possibly Thailand’s most contradictory destination. On the one hand the island is the venue for the world-infamous Full Moon Party, on the other hand it continues to develop its long spiritual tradition.
Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party has now become the world’s biggest beach party, a monthly drug-fest that has become a must-do for the young people following each other lemming-like round Thailand’s party circuit: Bangkok, to Koh Phi Phi, to Koh Phangan, then back to Bangkok (possibly with a diversion to Koh Lipe thrown in if time allows).
Whilst the young backpackers can justifiably pour scorn on ex-party animals who now preach against the Full Moon Party’s excesses, due to being too old to be able to indulge in them themselves, the greying ex-sybarites do have a point. The sanitary facilities cannot cope with the number of ravers, many of whom therefore relieve themselves, from all ends, right on the beach. Whilst older visitors probably think of ‘sex on the beach’ as a tasty cocktail, the Phangan party crowd think of ‘sex on the beach’ as something you do if you’re too wasted to get back to your bungalow. The party is also, simply, dangerous – most months someone irretrievably loses their marbles, and rapes and deaths not uncommon.
Some stories from the Full Moon Party:
1) Simon, 48, from England, writes:
My girlfriend ate some mushrooms and just freaked out, climbing onto the banisters on top of a guard rail next to a sheer drop. I had to grab her and then shout at her not to kill herself ‘on my watch’, which didn’t improve her mood or the evening, the rest of which I spent following her round and making sure that she didn’t hurt herself. The evening did have one enjoyable period for me, when she fell asleep in my lap next to a really good DJ’s music session. So I enjoyed the party – but only after my girlfriend passed out. Soon after the party she left Thailand and returned to Norway, where she had a psychotic breakdown and was admitted to a mental institution.
2) Victor, 32 from Australia writes:
I thought we were buying cocaine but it turned out to be heroin. My little sister almost died: she spent 2 weeks in hospital, tied down to the bed. When she left hospital she wasn’t the same, her behaviour was inappropriate and weird. Whether the brain damage is permanent remains to be seen.
In marked contrast to the Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan has in recent years become Thailand’s premier destination for people seeking personal growth or healing. Many such visitors go on an ascetic ten-day silent retreat at the unattractive Suan Mokk monastery, 53 kilometres north of Surat Thani (www.suanmokk.org).
For many others facing life crises, however, the silence, the unattractiveness of the setting and the asceticism of the experience at Suan Mokk are too much for them to bear while battling their inner demons. Such people, if they have deep enough pockets, can hope to be healed without any deprivation at places such as the Chiva Som Resort (www.chivasom.com) or the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, where the yoga and the meditation retreats take place inside a 700 year old Buddhist temple (www.anantara.com).
Those with shallow pockets, or those with deep ones who believe that a measure of self-denial is an essential prerequisite to spiritual growth, should head for Koh Yao Noi or to Koh Phangan, where the density of yoga and meditation centres means that there is one to suit almost anyone’s needs. Koh Phangan offers the widest choice of yoga and meditation centres, with Koh Yao Noi offering the most peaceful environment.
“Don’t just do something, sit there.”
Koh Phangan’s Ayurvana spa at the Santhiya resort (www.santhiya.com) is the luxury choice, with the following other options available:
The Pyramid Yoga Centre (www.pyramidyoga.com) runs daily yoga classes and is situated near the lovely Haad Yao beach.
The Monte Vista Retreat Centre (www.montevistathailand.com) offers cleansing, detoxification, fasting and colonic treatments, with personal counselling, in a superb location overlooking Ang Thong Marine Park.
The Yoga Retreat (www.yogaretreat-kohphangan.com) offers Pilates and Alexander technique treatments.
At The Sanctuary (www.thesanctuarythailand.com) there are daily yoga classes for both beginners and experienced yogis.
The Agama Yoga Centre (www.agamayoga.com) is part of a worldwide chain of healing centres inspired by the teachings of the guru Swami Vivekananda Saraswati. It offers a comprehensive list of spiritual programs and can literally be described as all-singing and all-dancing, as this list includes chanting and belly-dancing.
There is a somewhat cultish air about the place, with young female devotees referring to their guru as ‘my master’ and expressing a love for him which appears to go beyond spiritual devotion. Whilst the Agama centre appears to be part of a cult it does not, however, seem to be an abusive one and there is no obvious indication that the Swami (the word means ‘respected one’ in Hindi) is using his power for anything but the facilitation of personal growth and the relief of suffering.
The visitor’s first impression of the Agama yoga centre will very much depend on who they are. Some people will get a somewhat negative first impression of the reception area, where three TVs gush a pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo of psychedelic patterns interchanging with infantile science. Such programs do, however, have their uses. Even if phrases such as ‘atoms rubbing together transform air into ether’ will make many cringe, the programmes are so boring that if, like so many other people, you have a sleep problem, these programs will very likely cure it.
Many readers will also be put off by the touchy / feely aspect of the centre: straight men with plaited beards kiss each other hello and goodbye, and substitute clichés like ‘be well’ for ‘see you later’. Visitors approaching the subject of yoga from an intellectual standpoint may well be disappointed by talk of the five elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth), discussions of all of which, including of the water element, tend to be pretty dry. There is similarly, no amusement value in the three ‘humours’ (Vatta, Pitta and Kapha).
Cynics who act on their impulse to take flight immediately will, however, miss out on the centre’s treatments and loving atmosphere. While the accommodation at the adjoining Ananda Resort is basic, the atmosphere there is extremely conducive to relaxation and healing: your hammock-swinging is not unlikely to be enhanced by the melodies of a lovely nightingale walking by, singing a song that inspires her, and maybe you too, to take courage in the face of life’s challenges:
“When you cast your fears aside, then you’ll know you can survive, and you’ll finally see the truth, a hero lies in you”.
If you can overcome your embarrassment at talking about your feelings, fears and failures, then this is a great place for healing, as there are so many kind and caring people here who are more than happy to hear you out.
Many older people were brought up to believe in a stoical, stiff-upper-lip attitude to life’s vicissitudes that proscribes against burdening other people with their troubles. Whilst this is in some ways commendable, as self-absorption is certainly no path to contentment, it also means that such stoics miss out on the cathartic benefits of openly talking about their fears with empathetic listeners. Readers of such a disposition are recommended to try opening up, and Koh Phangan’s Agama Yoga centre is an excellent place to do this.
There follows a selection of treatments from the centre’s large portfolio:
The aspirant is put on a liquid diet of broths, fruit and vegetables juices, bentonite clay and psyillium husk, in order to purge and purify the system. ‘Arise and Shine’ nutritional supplements nourish the digestive system and loosen mucoid plaque (the stuff that sticks to the insides of the intestines). Daily coffee enemas are given. Many readers may already be aware that drinking coffee encourages toilet trips, so will not be surprised at the purging effect that 16 litres of the stuff has, when pumped up the backside.
This is the Sanskrit word for ‘longevity science’ and, if you are feeling your years but fancy enjoying a few more, you might like to investigate the centre’s Ayurvedic program. Specific recommendations are to avoid too much raw food and not to skip meals. Many readers may be heartily sick of receiving dietary advice, as it is a subject on which so many people seem to disagree. However, some of the Ayurvedic practices are less controversial and more obviously beneficial to health, such as massage and cleansing, and cultivating the inner balance and courage that prevents addictive and unhealthy behaviour patterns.
Aspirants are taught the sublimation of sexual energy, where the libido is suppressed and sexual energy is re-channeled into courage, insight and compassion. Two exercises which facilitate this are as follows:
- Slowly and fully breathe out, while slowly hunkering down on your haunches, then suck in your stomach and hold the exhaled pose as long as you can. Next, slowly and lengthily inhale while standing, then hold the breath as long as you can. Do this 25 times.
- Perform 10 shoulder stands. This exercise will supposedly facilitate the pouring of sexual energy from the lower parts of the body into the higher ones.
If the above exercises do not succeed in suppressing your libido, never fear, you are not alone. Tantra is, however, far from being all about abstinence. Aspirants learn how to have more powerful and longer orgasms, in order to extend the length of the moment of ecstatic inspiration. This is done not only for the pleasure it gives, but in order to channel the extra energy generated into the higher consciousness and to so achieve insight. Whilst some practitioners can supposedly even achieve astral projection, even earth-bound individuals can extend the duration of the sense of post-coital calm. Advanced practitioners can apparently extend its duration so much that they eventually reach a state of permanent peace.
Whilst it might come as no great surprise to hear that fantastic sex can put a permanent smile on your face, it may surprise the reader to hear that the centre’s guru, the swinging Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, does not advocate monogamy. Lonely males should note that the tantra classes are performed with the clothes on – and no partner is provided.
Although Koh Phangan is not as adventurous a destination as Ao Nang or Chiang Mai, some good soft adventure possibilities do exist. Kayaking at Ang Thong Marine Park is close by, there is some decent snorkelling to the north, and the island has two strikingly beautiful waterfall treks. Dipping in the waterfalls’ peaceful pools is a perfect way to complement a day’s yoga – or to attempt to recover from a billion-neuron-blowout hangover after a Full Moon Party.
Many visitors to Koh Phangan aren’t interested in yoga or partying, just in blissing out on a gorgeous tropical beach. In the best beach stakes, Haad Rin should win hands-down, but is unfortunately disqualified by being the venue for the Full Moon Party, which doesn’t ever fully stop, month-in and month-out. The gold medal is instead awarded to beautiful Thong Nai Pan beach in the northeast of the island, which pips Haad Yao at the post due to its better resorts. The best economy bungalow on the island is the beach-front bungalow at Haad Yao’s Ibiza resort, which has a coconut tree growing almost horizontally out of the side of it and over the beach.