Rejuvenation surrounded me throughout my time in Thailand. I was humbled by the energy of the fabled island of Koh Phangan and the streets of Bangkok. Within a few short weeks, I nurtured a part of me that I was deeply neglecting. I fed my mind and my soul with peace, tranquility, and appreciation for life, nature, and humanity.
Achieving balance in life cannot be underestimated, especially for outgoing entrepreneurs who tend to stretch themselves thin in hopes of leading successful business ventures and making a difference. As I too am soon to assume this path with great velocity and lofty expectations, I feel so fortunate that my time in Thailand steered me towards finding myself and providing me with a toolkit to maintain that balance going forward.
Although I did spend time with local Thai people during my trip, I must admit that the majority of my time was spent with fellow travelers. I was not deliberately avoiding close interaction with the locals, but I was determined to experience a paradise island and this meant coming into contact with the tourism industry. And as with many tropical destinations, the business of the locals is rooted in tourism.
Traveler v. Tourist
Before I go any further, I must differentiate the traveler from the tourist. In my opinion, the traveler stays longer and invests himself in unique experience. He focuses on integrating with the culture, discovering new things with an open mind, and maintaining a high sensitivity to cultural norms. While the tourist can moonlight in these domains, he does not often go deep. Clearly, both have their reasons for going abroad, but they are very different to say the least.
Thus far you may be asking, “How did you spend a majority of your time interacting with travelers and still claim that you were open to the local culture whilst in Thailand?” Aside from studying the Thai language for several weeks prior to this trip, I admit that this argument is indefensible for my time in Bangkok. Koh Phangan (KP) on the other hand, where I spent a majority of my stay, is a sanctuary for travelers as it posseses incredible beauty and has allowed for the formation of traveler communities. These communities maintain a strong culture on the island. KP is a magical place, and if you let it, it will fill you with joy, energy and wholesomeness.
Until recently I didn’t put too much emphasis in my life on exloring the underlying energy of a location. During my years in the Navy I served on both ship and shore, and in good military fashion, I didn’t have much choice in where I was going and what I was going to do when I got there. The idea of feeling and appreciating a place for its underlying beauty and energy would have been completely lost on me. I now appreciate that location has a power and life force that can help us find a beautiful place within ourselves or tear it from our very existence if we let it.
While in this state of receptivity, upon arrival in KP, I witnessed a boy disembark the ferry, get on his hands and knees, and cry tears of joy while saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” It is no surprise that this energy can be realized regardless of age.
Koh Phangan in Nutshell
If you Google Koh Phangan you will most likely find travel sites, blogs, and reviews on large electronic music parties with the most famous being the renowned, Full Moon Party. You will find content about young partygoers staying out all hours of the night and inebriating themselves to no end. If this type of party culture turns you off, then you have failed your first test in discovering one of the most beautiful places this earth has created.
Of the more than 29 million people visiting Thailand each year, approximately 500 to 750 thousand visit KP. The island is 48 square miles and is only accessible by ferry, although there are rumors that an airport will soon be constructed. While the main roads are well paved, the secondary ones leave something to be desired. Scooter, motorcycle, and retrofitted taxi-like pick-up trucks are the de facto transportation methods. The island is insulated from commercial establishments with the exception being the hallmark Tesco and Makro grocery stores.
Koh Phangan is something of an anomaly and perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of the modern Hippie World. With travelers coming from all over, each having their own reasons, there is a strong subculture that resides within the littoral waters of Koh Phangan; a subculture that is set on freeing its members from societal restrictions while deeply pursuing meaning and deep purpose in life.
When joking with friends in KP, I coined a nickname for the island, “The Hippie Aquarium.” I don’t think any name could be any more true to the destination. The natural environment of KP is what you would expect: white sandy beaches, crystal blue waters, timeless sunsets, thick jungle, and powerful waterfalls. It’s a place you can fall in love with again and again, and a place you want to share with those closest to you.
Experiences with the Traveler Community
It is not uncommon to find people visiting KP for weeks or months at a time. There are a few more on the ambitious side who have made the full conversion to Phanganger, by setting up a local business or running a freelance and/or side business to continue to the dream. The travelers I met were rich in story and many were seeking a peace and tranquility that the island could help provide. Here are a handful of travelers/communities that I embraced during my visit.
There is a healthy group of yogis that have created shalas interspersed on the west side of the Island. I visited Gaia Yogashala, and I was amazed to find a predominantly French Yogi community that offered student and instructor yoga training in Dynamic Vinyasa, Ashtanga, and Pyramid Chakra Balancing. The Shala provided classes in Tai Chi and even the occasional class of Tantric Rebirthing. And, to be honest, I’m still not certain what that one is…
While indulging in some Yoga classes, I was introduced to Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art that translates to “the source” or “the beginning,” by Layanna, a teacher from Alsace France. Carrying an intensely pleasant composure, a strong aura, and natural beauty, Layanna pursues Tai Chi as a life practice. Her intention seemed to be that of Chakra Tai Chi, which is closely related to meditation in movement. That movement is designed to activate and enlighten all parts of the being – the mind, body, emotions, and soul. The practice was difficult and very strenuous on my legs and the bottoms of my feet. Although a novice at best, I could feel something powerful here, perhaps the beginning of my ability to channel energy from my body and the environment around me. To some this notion may seem nonsensical. I believe that the practice does unlock power and energy as well as exude an undeniably beautiful.
The Italian Spear Fisherman
Francesco from Italy was traveling through KP years ago and fell in love. Possessing chef and spearfishing skills, he decided to open a charming Italian restaurant on the island called Il Barracuda. By day he pilots his own small boat into the Gulf of Thailand, free dives with his spear gun, and brings back his daily catches to his restaurant. By night he prepares some of the best Italian seafood dishes I have ever had. His fish carpaccio and grilled barracuda are to die for. I doubt anywhere else could prepare it as freshly or with as much love as Francesco does.
To my surprise, there were a more than a few Russian visitors on KP. I had the pleasure of cultivating friendships with a select few and gaining unique insight into what it would be like to live a life in and around the Moscow area as a young professional or businessperson. We talked about protecting yourself from the government, managing corruption, securing and growing financial assets in a complex currency, banking and tax environment, as well as avoiding and managing legal problems. Stunned with some of the commentary, I gained a new appreciation for being anchored in the US economic system, one that in my opinion enjoys a higher level of security and reliability when compared to that of Russia. I hope for their sake that their system improves, and that the volatility and associated uncertainties they currently endure are eased.
Meeting Brandon from Los Angeles was a blessing. In addition to developing a strong friendship, he served as a meditation coach to me. I have tried to meditate in the past, but with little success. Having a coach or mentor can be immensely helpful in one’s practice. We talked about mindfulness, intention, clarity, self-awareness, and of course, self-realization. My first opportunity to put his teachings into practice was at the Wat Kow Tahm (Mountain Cave Monastery), a Theravadin Buddhist Monastery and International Meditation Center.
While I did not participate in the Center’s formal teachings, I experienced a nascent state of mindfulness during my meditation there. Encountering distraction is common during meditation, and during my meditation here, one of the island’s many stray dogs entered the Monastery and panted heavily by my side. Rather than let the cortisol course through my veins, I focused on being in harmony with my environment and appreciating our mutual desire for companionship.
Dancing with Buddha
Nestled in the side table of my hotel room was book on Buddhist teachings. Prior to
coming to Thailand I knew very little of Buddhism. I dusted off some pages, and my eyes centered on words such as enlightenment, wisdom, inner peace, truth, and moral thought and action. While I have heard of many of these principles in various religions before, I was intrigued to read more deeply. Whether it was my state of openness, the environment, or the timing in my life – I began internalizing the deeper meaning behind the terms. Buddhism is often labeled as a religion, but it isn’t. It’s a philosophy and way of life. And while I may have only scratched the surface, I do plan on learning more and bringing more of the practice into my own life as I feel there is incredible value to be gained.
Leaving KP is not an easy thing to do.
The location, the people, and the experience are something I never want to let go of, but as long as the memory stays strong, I never have to. Admittedly, I am fearful that KP will change in the years to come and will lose the sanctity that it possesses today. Locals might argue that this is already happening due to the electronic music parties. To note, these crowds can be easily avoided if you stay away from the main party areas when these events are held.
While KP has unique power. I must confess that I am still the same Chad I have always been. I didn’t, in a matter of a few weeks, become a completely different person. I will argue that a dimension of myself developed that I never felt as strongly as I do now. I am excited, intrigued, and I will continue to bring out the best of it so that I can share these gifts with the world.
I owe so many thanks to the friends and guides along the way that made all of this possible. It was truly a moving experience.
Revisiting the Entrepreneurial Connection
I realize that taking the time and money to fly to Bangkok, make a connection to a regional airport, and find a ferry to a paradise island isn’t possible for everyone. Entrepreneurs are likely to have impossible schedules and massive to-do lists. While operating at full speed, work-life balance or mindfulness and spirituality may not be their highest priority.
For me the lesson I learned in KP is the importance of finding sanctuary in our lives, no matter how busy we are. Everyone can do this whether it be a weekend retreat in nature, meditating in your living room, or merely spending time with yourself or close friends and family with a focus on developing the mindful dimension. But if you can take a sabbatical, I highly recommend KP.
I know that there is a mountain of work, unknowns, stress, and problems that I will be encounter as I take my next steps down the path of entrepreneurship. But I am confident that calling upon the teachings and growth that I have embraced here will allow me to meet these obstacles from a position of strength, confidence, and resilience.