Meditation and breathing have soothed my mind through the global pandemic so far. Never before have I been so still. So pinned down to one place. Confined to a space. Travel has been my escapism for the last twenty years; leaving the wahala of London for warmer climes and adventure excites me. The thrill of booking a trip and counting down the months, weeks, days then sleeps, gives me life.
At some point during this pandemic, I felt the oppression of being locked down and having to stay put. It crept under my vitamin-D deprived skin, filled my timeline with terror and bombarded my head with questions of ‘what is life?’ I took to meditation to reduce the volume and return to centre. While in a meditative state I can drift back to those heady travel-filled days. There are many places I can reimagine, Thailand is just one. A good one.
Accompanied by a good friend, the purpose of the trip to Thailand was multi-layered: to step foot in Asia for the first time and see a good deal of the country by visiting five cities over sixteen days, to drench my senses with tantalising new experiences and to dispel the fear of being caught with drugs in my suitcase that I had no knowledge of (watching Nicole Kidman get framed in Bangkok Hilton when I should have been asleep as a child and re-runs Banged Up Abroad as an adult does that to you).
To take me back I light a coconut and lemongrass candle, fitting for the destination. Sitting in a pose that is ubiquitous across many parts of Asia - cross-legged, back straight, arms relaxed by my sides, I start to breathe. Deep, nostalgically scented whole breaths fill my lungs and loosen the tension in my body. I feel the noise of daily coronavirus briefings and the closeness of the four walls subsiding.
Deep breath in through the nose for one, two, three, four - exhale through the mouth - five, six, seven eight. I drift and fall into a beautiful visualisation of my time on Koh Phi Phi Don.
My visualisation starts on the fifth day of our epic trip. Ninety minutes by ferry from Phuket in the south of the country, Koh Phi Phi Don is one of a group of six islands. Unlike the other five islands it is the only inhabited one. Compared to Bangkok, Koh Phi Phi is like a painkiller, easing away all the madness you can’t unsee or undo in the capital city. Gone are the screaming tuk-tuks that zig and zag through packed streets, ladies and ladyboys beckoning you into ‘massage’ parlours and nightclubs that wouldn’t be out of place in London’s West-End. They are replaced with a vehicle-free, Wi-Fi sparse, sandy and notably calmer environment.
Tonsai Village in the middle of the island provides a slice of excitement with its restaurants, bars, tattoo parlours and souvenir shops. Prices are inflated but beauty does have a cost after all. What you would pay for a four-star hotel room up north will get you a two/three-star room here. The variety of seafood and spice content in local dishes increases further south also, which is a bonus.
Mentally I skip through our first 24 hours on the island (I’m searching for relaxing images after all).Those hours were filled with dragging our suitcase through the sand to our hotel, sunbathing, eating and two-for-one Long Island iced tea buckets at Banana Bar (Ao Nang, Mueang Krabi District, Krabi 81000) that left me in a somewhat comatose state. Instead I focus on the morning after the night before and waking to the sound ebb and flow of the Andaman Sea and slices of papaya, pineapple and mango so mouth-watering I consider the logistics of smuggling a suitcase full of tropical fruits back to the U.K.
The afternoon was set aside for a sunset cruise to Koh Phi Phi Leh. Famed for its starring role in the 2000 film, The Beach, Maya Bay was to be the pièce de résistance of the day. We kill a few hours exploring the small island before our departure. Met with warm smiles by ever hospitable natives there is also sadness in the patches of rubble and devastation that still remain from the tsunami that ravaged the archipelago in 2004. We find there is plenty to do while on the island: snorkelling, diving, hiking and cookery courses are flogged by many tour operators. If only we had more time here.
We set sail a touch before 2pm, the boat’s canopy shielding us from its midday blistering rays. As we pulled away from the shore, I remember taking in the spectacular view. The vibrant turquoise sea and green tones of the limestone cliffs, complimented the off-white sandy shores and powder blue sky. Slowly the shore faded into the distance and our first stop at Monkey Beach brought about the first chance to be mindful.
The sea fills me with bliss and terror simultaneously. I love the way it feels on my skin, the lightness of floating in it and the gentle lapping sound it makes when it is calm and placid but a nightmare of drowning at sea as a child still seems to rob me of feeling completely comfortable when surrounded by such a vast amount of water. Rather than join the rest of the group and the cheeky monkeys, I remain on the boat, close my eyes and gently take note of where I am. Deep breaths shake off the slight tinge of anxiety. I stay here for what feels like hours until the rev of the boat’s engine and soggy footsteps break the stillness as we head towards our next destination – Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park – Maya Bay.
A slither of time passes before our long tail boat stops. Belongings are gathered and one by one people climb off and wade through the now unfriendly looking water to the rocky shore and take on the challenge of climbing up a rope net, reminiscent of the apparatus used in primary school P.E to embark on the short trek to Maya Bay. It’s a challenge that is out of my comfort zone and definitely something that my basic swimming skills cannot conquer. Taking pity, the crew escort my friend and I to the shore via a small canoe boat and kindly point out a small alcove that also leads us to the path to the bay, avoiding the net.
Once through to the other side dark grey cliffs jut up towards the sky, blocking out the sunlight. There is an intrigue as to what we will walk out onto. New acquaintances are met along the way, one from Uruguay the other from Argentina. A chance to take a photo with two fellow travellers from places on the bucket list. Eventually the destination becomes clear as the cliffs give way to the infamous bay and I can understand why so many globetrotters make the pilgrimage to this distant part of Thailand. It is breathtakingly beautiful. Velvety soft white sand leads into clear and perfect sea water. Luckily the bay, on this day, is not crowded like so many of the travel blogs and books warn about. I take the opportunity to immerse my shimmering, tanned black skin with as much of the sea as I feel comfortable and make a mental note of how outstanding it feels and to include this in my gratitude journal.
As golden hour approached, we settled back onto the boat to enjoy the setting sun. The feeling on the vessel was chilled in that sexy way too much sunshine and heat leaves you feeling languid and slightly tipsy. The downtime of the cruise was needed but returning to shore spiked to my energy and desire to explore more of this extraordinary country.
Deep breath in through the nose for one, two, three, four - exhale through the mouth - five, six, seven eight. I open my eyes and I’m back to reality.