Breathe in, breathe out …

  • TEXT SASCHA BORRÉE
  • PHOTOS AARON JOEL SANTOS

Each year, thousands travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to find themselves in yoga, Thai boxing or meditation. Our author went there, too, to see what this spiritual playground has to offer.

Lightning flashes across the night sky, the rain beats down – and here I am, riding a motor scooter through the back of beyond in Thailand. I see the old woman on the street too late, brake, slide, fall, skid across the asphalt and feel a searing pain just below my right knee. The following morning, I skip the Thai boxing I had planned and head to the hospital instead. Diagnosis: a hairline fracture in my shin. It will heal, but not today. Will this put paid to my self-discovery project?

I had arrived in Chiang Mai three days before to really work on myself. Reiki, yoga, meditation, massage, dance mandala, qi gong, Thai boxing – I wanted to give them all a try. Back home,  even sports clubs and adult education centers now offer seminars in Far Eastern-inspired self-discovery, but few places in the world offer such endless opportunities to participate in such activities as Chiang Mai. The city in the highlands of northern Thailand has become a place of pilgrimage for people from around the world eager to school body and mind. Over the decades, hippies, dropouts and alternative thinkers have come to appreciate the city, which counts as one of the obligatory stops along the Banana Pancake Trail. But while other places on that backpacker route are overrun by package tourists, the heart of Chiang Mai’s old town has preserved its alternative atmosphere and become a dream destination for 21st-century seekers of the meaning of life.

 

Temple novices in Chiang Mai

Encounters in Chiang Mai: temple novices

© Aaron Joel Santos

Dance teacher Areeradh

© Aaron Joel Santos

  My first stop: the Sabai De Ka massage school. Meaw, my 47-year-old instructor, promises to teach me the high art of massage in a day.  Already my oil-smeared hands are kneading her shoulders rather helplessly. At first, my attempts elicit no more than a polite “Not bad…” from her. Frustrated, I’m about to give up when I suddenly get the hang of it and Meaw begins to moan. “Mmmm, yes, goood!” There you go, I’m thinking, encouraged, when she says, “That’s enough on the shoulders, let’s move on to the back.” With slippery fingers, I leaf through the manual she gave me and start working her spine muscles.

 

Here to stay: Will, founder of Suan Sati, a rural commune, with visitors.

© Aaron Joel Santos

After the course, I accompany fellow massage student Carla to the hippy café next door. Carla, 33, is Irish and has short black hair and a mandala tattoo on her upper arm. She tells me her story – one I’ve heard in similar forms from many other visitors to Chiang Mai: “China, Vietnam, Cambodia – I’ve been traveling for six months now. My life at home was a dead end. Here, I want to learn new things, hence the massage course.“ Then she raises one corner of her mouth mockingly: “But I’m not just doing it for a day, I’m on a four-week workshop.” And she’s right, of course. My radical express program makes me an exception. Most of the people I meet here stay longer – and don’t even have to take time off work to do it: Chiang Mai has become the capital of digital nomads, who sit around in co-working spaces or on the roof terrace of their apartment, developing new apps and suchlike.

The lanes in Chiang Mai’s old city center are tiny and the temples ornate, their grounds rambling and green; there’s no sense at all here of a bustling metropolis; all is tranquility and relaxation. Shaven-headed monks in orange robes walk calmly along the streets. I’m on my way to the backyard studio Yoga Tree for the second day of my dance mandala course. My instructor, Areeradh, 47, developed this method of spiritual dance herself. There are eleven of us. “Sit down, close your eyes,” says Areeradh. Music starts up. The floorboards creak when the second song begins, and I open my eyes. Two or three people have stood up and started moving, their bodies swaying back and forth like grasses in the wind. It looks odd. I stand up, too, sway back and forth, and feel odd. But then my mind switches off and all by themselves, my movements become larger and stronger. I take little leaps and break into a sweat. Areeradh’s instructions? She says something but it sounds far off. When the course is over, I feel free, weightless almost.

Spiritual center: ...

© Aaron Joel Santos

... Chiang Mai's temples

© Aaron Joel Santos

  “Wasn’t that wonderful?” Coco asks me. We’re sitting in the garden at the Yoga Tree, eating mangoes and papayas. Coco, 38, used to work as a dancer and now teaches a modern version of belly dance – at home in Berlin and on her own Youtube channel. Here in Chiang Mai, she’s training to teach dance mandala. “There are no set moves, you just dance the way your body wants,” she raves. “It’s not about seeing or being seen.”

On the third day of my experiment, I drive to Suan Sati, a newly opened rural commune outside the city. Plain bamboo huts amid vegetable beds and banana plants. “A year ago, you couldn’t see three meters ahead of you; everything was so overgrown,” says Will, 31, Suan Sati’s U.S.-born founder. “We worked for months, building the huts and planting the vegetables. We want to be as self-sufficient as we can.” Will, who has shoulder-length dreadlocks, lives here with his Austrian partner, Lisa, 28, and two other pals. They have space for up to 16 guests. Some people come for a few weeks; others stay for months, help in the fields, meditate, do yoga together. I join the afternoon yoga session, then we share a tofu curry. Beside me is Rachel, a yoga teacher from New York, and across from us sits full-bearded Adam from Colorado, a former ski instructor, who’s been traveling the world with his girlfriend for two years. Our conversation zigzags across the large table. Strangers a couple of hours ago, now we feel like we’ve known each other for a very long time. What we do for a living, how much we earn – none of that matters here. I would love to stay longer, but I had made other plans.

The electric storm ruined them on the way back into town. The accident, the knee brace… What now? Determined to complete my program nevertheless, I attend my reiki course at the Body & Mind Healing School, where I am supposed to learn how to lay my hands on different parts of my body, empty my mind
and heal myself. Unfortunately, I fail. When the course is over, my shin is just as painful as before.

 

Kick it: Interior designer Thays practices Thai boxing.

© Aaron Joel Santos

  And so I have to cancel  kick-boxing, although I do limp over to the Chiangmai Muay Thai Gym to take a look, at least. It’s a high, open space with a boxing ring, and like a whirlwind inside it, Thays, 25, an interior designer from Germany, is thrashing at her sparring partner’s punch padding. “I’ve been training here morning and night for the past two weeks,” she says during a break. “To start with,
I was so whacked that I slept like a log between the sessions.” I look on enviously as she climbs back into the ring.

I meet up with Carla again later, the woman from the massage workshop. I grumble to her about my tumble, my unfinished research. “You don’t learn the most important things in seminars, anyway,” she tells me “but when things don’t go the way you want.”

Esoteric babble? Mild mockery? Anger surges briefly inside me but soon subsides, surprisingly enough. This city has had an effect on me. I am calmer now, more relaxed – and more inquisitive. What if I committed totally to life in Chiang Mai, like Carla, Coco and Thays? If instead of jumping from one workshop to the next, I really immersed myself in what was going on here? “I’ll be back,” I tell Carla. “Next time, I’m planning to stay at least a month.”