I came to Hariharalaya, the yoga and meditation retreat outside Siem Reap, with some unease and a desire for someone else to take over the scheduling for a while, so I could get a break from feeling like a sluggish and crabby tourist.
I called on Saturday to go there on the Sunday, and in between the arranging and arrival, I had a flash of panic about what I'd signed up for. In my search for an immediate retreat destination, I hadn't bothered to look into the place too closely, beyond the price (cheap) and location (around the corner). My worry machine fired up – what if it was some weird little cult – all far out, full of peace and love and uniting with your goddess sisters and brothers? Being pushed to embrace my inner goddess irritates my inner cranky old man, who can't stand being peer-pressured into embracing total strangers whose light in which I am supposed to glory.
I came back to Mitch, my friend and hotel owner, who had suggested the retreat.
What's the place like? Are the people there… normal?'
Joel, the owner, has a big beard. He's the only one though. The people staying there are normal, yeah.'
Walking in the door the next day at lunch, I started to feel nervous. There was a bunch of young backpackers stretched out on cushions in front of low tables barely lifted off the floor, which was dirty under my feet. It wasn't striking me as my kind of place, but I'd already said I'd stay for a week and they had a no refunds policy.
I sat down for a lunch of vegan Cambodian soup, and took the intro tour afterwards, led by Sean, the manager from Scotland, with another recent arrival Mauricio, a jiu jitsu expert from Brazil who lives in Colorado. We had a walk through the rules and around the grounds to the yoga hut, dharma hall, washing up area, outdoor gardens and bikes.
It was the cup table that stood out the most, a little beacon of anal retentiveness amidst the gritty floors and incense haze. Sean, who was striking me as a suit and tie kind of guy, was clearly responsible for this recent innovation, pointing out the tape and marker for the labelling of drinking devices, explaining how the place used to be so messy, with cups and bottles everywhere. Now if you're leaving your cup, you leave it on the cup table.
A cup table? My word. That was the first indication that things might not be as hippie-dippie as I'd feared.
For some reason I was barely able to sleep for my first two weeks, but I managed to keep up with the daily schedule of yoga, chanting and meditation from 7-9am, karma yoga three days a week from 10:15 – 11:30, a one hour noon-time dharma talk and meditation followed by lunch, a 4pm class most days, and evening meditation at 6pm, with dinner at 7. I felt like I was at camp at the start – in my first week I took a trip to the Hidden Temples to see still more ancient ruins, these ones buried in forest, and a trip to another floating village, taking a small row boat through a flooded forest and a boat out to Cambodia's largest lake, Tonle Sap, a muddy expanse stretching thick and brown as far as you could see. I watched my first close-up magic show performed by the resident manager and magician Sean, and had a demo jiu jitsu class led by Mauricio, finally finding a sport where speed and skill are not required – you only need to leverage your body weight to throw off aggressors three times your size. (But remember, like they say in the Untouchables, don't bring a knife to a gun fight… or a fist to a knife fight).
Slowly, in between all of the activity, I relaxed into being there – noticeably enough that other people started commenting on it sometime in my second week. Shameez from South Africa suggested I extend my stay if I could, and I ended up following her advice and doing that repeatedly – revising my travel plans bit by bit, I extended from one week to three, to another two, plus a few more. I joined the student program, to work on developing a personal practice of yoga and meditation, take part in student meetings and to take on meal clean-up duties in exchange for a cheaper rate.
I started to find that fitting in was less of a problem than I had anticipated. There was a surprise hugging session at the end of one of the evening meditations my first week… and I actually… found myself getting caught up in the spirit of things. And when one of the hippie-ish yoga teacher guests told me how she had to talk herself into being okay with the morning chanting, which was outside of her comfort zone, I was secretly surprised, because I hadn't had a problem with it at all. It was one of my favourite parts of the day, and I even found a favourite mantra. How far out is that?