Travel Rehab – Hariharalaya

Heading into Hariharalaya

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.'

Breakfast at the Cambodian house next door

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.

Magic, up close

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).

More ancient temples!

Floating in the flooded forest

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?



Stuck in Siem Reap

Downtown Siem Reap

I could describe Siem Reap as Kansas, or Niagara Falls, or the Wild West – or just a place where you can get stuck. It was somewhere I got stuck for a while – not because I loved it, but because I couldn't work up the energy to go anywhere else.

I'd say it's like Kansas because the red dust swirls in a vortex up around the motorbikes and into your face if you're riding on the back, making me think of dirt poor depression-era farmers and the Wizard of Oz, where everything is whipped in the wind. It's more Niagara Falls tacky than it is tornado-scale windy – a downmarket version of the Falls, with bright neon signs hanging over the streets that are filled with tourist shops and restaurants, all on the doorstep of a world wonder – Angkor Wat. In front of the shops are street side aquariums pedalling fish massages, to nibble away at your temple-worn, dirty, scaly feet. And like the Wild West, it's filled with enterprising Westerners looking for a haven away from Thailand where the living is still cheap and easy. It's a crowded party town that's dusty and sweaty and filled with transient tourists and locals trying to make money off of them.

Tourist having a fish massage

Not long after I arrived, Tony from the US warned me that Siem Reap was a vortex for foreigners – it sucks people in. They just stay, maybe work for an NGO, and drink all the time, because there's nothing else to do. Prophetic words, you ask? Not exactly. I avoided the spiral of drunkenness and debauchery without much effort, but I did stay put. When I finally left after close to two weeks, it was to go to a retreat centre a half hour motorbike ride out of town, where I wound up staying for almost 2 months.

At the circus! Impressive show

While in town I was stuck mostly in slow gear. I hung out with Mitch from Ottawa, a friend of friends from home, the owner of the hotel I stayed at, and an enterprising and all round friendly guy. I maxed out my quota of ancient temples after three days at Angkor Wat with a visit to Beng Melea, billed as the most mystical of them all. It's in pieces with massive trees groping the rubble, and surrounded by a muddy moat serving as a playground to a bunch of kids who were running shrieking and diving in the water. Twice when they saw me, one of them broke out into the Gangnam Style dance. I might have been wearing sunglasses but I don't look like Psy – I was laughing but I did start to wonder if there was something I was missing. In town, I wandered around Pub St and the Night Market, ate chocolate and Western food, and started to feel lost about where to go next.

At Beng Melea

Gangnam Style, whenever, wherever

At first I was planning to travel out east to the jungle to go birdwatching, but I heard the rain and the muddy roads weren't worth the trip. My next destination was Laos, but I couldn't figure out a way of getting there that didn't involve around a 1.5 day bus ride. I couldn't work up the enthusiasm for the travel, and I was feeling kind of non-plussed about actually getting there. There was just so much going there and here and somewhere else, with a list of things not to miss and travel that would take around three times the length of time as at home. I'd had plans to see more of South East Asia, but everything was so spread out, slow and the prospect of moving around so much was feeling more like work than anything else.

Floating Village of Mechray - visit with Mitch

The days passed and I stayed in Siem Reap, dragging my feet, getting sick, making plans to go birding with Mitch at another ancient temple, but those fell through. Finally it came down to giving myself a Saturday morning deadline to book a bus or a plane out of town. That was when I realised there wasn't much point going anywhere. Not if I wasn't feeling excited to actually get there. I'd had to work up the energy to go see Angkor Wat, and that is a Wonder of the Ancient World. Sure, I've since heard it described as 'just a bunch of rocks' but it's kind of, well, one of those places you're supposed to go See. It came to me then, that what I needed wasn't more sight-seeing, but some time out to get my excitement levels back up. What I needed was a retreat. I started looking for places in Thailand and Laos, and sent a few emails, before mentioning it to Mitch, who surprised me by saying there was a retreat just outside of town. I hadn't even thought of looking in Siem Reap or Cambodia, feeling anxious to get on the move, but a half hour tuk tuk ride versus a day and a half of travel to northern Thailand was suddenly much more appealing. I called the centre and made plans to go the next day – I booked for a week, and never expected I'd wind up staying from the end of July to mid September. That's where, rather than getting stuck, I found myself wanting to stay put.