From somewhere in my memory there is an image of a man in a movie, his image obscured by shadow, standing at a gate crying: "Sanctuary!" I cannot remember the film or the circumstances, just this shadowed outline, deep yearning in his voice. This image returns to me at times, when I am beset by life. I see myself standing at the gate of some mythical place, calling in that same voice to be let in, hoping for shelter there.
And so, one evening, I am on the internet looking for a retreat somewhere in coastal Thailand, where I can go to relax, practice yoga and meditation, and there, on the island of Ko Phagnan, it is: 'Sanctuary'. There are pictures of a small cove, palm trees, white sand, deep blue water, and airy bungalows. Without hesitation, I book a reservation for a week. I envision myself as that shadowed figure at the gate, begging to be allowed in: finding sanctuary.
Waking in the early morning, weary from my adventures and the encounter with the stray dog, I pack my bag, fortify myself with Nescafe, and the owner of the Kaosary Namsai hotel drives me to the bus station. There are quicker ways to get there, but I have been traveling overland for the past couple of months in order to see as much of the landscape as I can. I catch a bus leaving for Surat Thani. I run the gauntlet of curious Thai stares as I find a seat, plug my earphones into my iPod and listen to music, watching the countryside roll by.
Five drifting hours later (they told me it would be four....) I climb off the bus into a throng of locals crowding around the door as it opens. A man steps in front of me, asks me where I am going and when I tell him Ko Phagnan, he follows me to the luggage compartment, grabs my duffel and rolls it off down the street. This is how things go in Thailand. These people make a living channeling tourists into the varieties of transport needed to get to our destinations. I follow my suitcase down the street to a small, dirty, open storefront with some ragged furniture, a battered desk, television blaring. The man stows my duffel in the back of the shop and issues me a ticket for a mini bus which will take me to the ferry landing at Don Sap and from there to Ko Phagnan. He tells me that I have about an hour before the bus leaves so he will watch my luggage (trust me!) and directs me to a street where I can find something to eat.
Surat Thani, like so many places along the journey is nothing more than a way station. The restaurants are small, open and not very clean. The offerings, as usual, include noodle soup, fried rice, fruit shakes....ahh watermelon! There are small souvenir shops offering cheap souvenirs, clothing, bathing suits and sarongs, the ubiquitous 7-Eleven shops offering Asian versions of snack foods and overly sweetened soft drinks. Once again I force myself to buy something I don't really want to eat and take it back to the travel shop where I sit, eat and chat with a wandering German man who is also waiting there. When the it arrives, we load our luggage and climb into the only two seats available in the packed minivan. The trip to Don Sap takes about an hour including a couple of detours to drop off or pick up some locals.
One of the reasons the buses are always behind schedule in Thailand is that they detour regularly, to pick up and drop people off. There is some mystical alchemy of communication along the way - probably via cell phones - where they learn someone will be waiting and they change the route to pick them up. In this way they are assured that all vehicles are always overcrowded and they can get the most income from each and every trip. It also means that one needs to allow extra time to reach any destination. No one in Asia is particularly concerned with time. And I have learned to adapt. It is actually lovely, this feeling of drifting along, just allowing things to be....
In spite of detours, there is still a wait for the ferry to arrive. But now, at last, I am on the coast and I can feel myself grow calmer, my shoulders and neck begin to relax. I eat ice cream and the breeze, cooled by water and smelling of the sea, caresses me. When the ferry arrives, I drag my duffel down the gang plank and up a flight of stairs where I stow it next to a pile of luggage and sit down leaning against it. The ferry heads out to sea. It is a gorgeous sight: the blue-green water of the China Sea, lush green hillsides, and an enormous white Buddha rising from the jungle at the top of the hill. Peace begins to seep into my heart. It is almost dusk and there is a light fog rising from the water. I sit by the rail, drinking Chang beer and watching as we sail between small islands and limestone karsts rising here and there from the water, mysterious and beautiful.
Arrival at Ko Phagnan is another flurry, this time, songtaew taxi drivers clamoring for customers. With the helpful assistance of another traveler, I throw my duffel on top of one and climb in to sit on a wooden bench, waiting while the driver solicits other passengers until we are crowded together like sardines and there is no room for a single additional body or back pack. We head out across the small island, along a narrow road, marginally big enough for two vehicles to pass, both sides of the road crowded with bars, bungalows, guest houses, fairy lights strung in the bars and along the road. This truly feels like a tropical island paradise. It is Friday evening, there is a carnival atmosphere in the air and, in the taxi, we share the festive feeling. I am seated in the middle of a group of five gorgeous, talkative young men from various European countries. Of course, one of them is bandaged, deep contusions all along one side of his body, acquired in a motorbike accident.
You see this everywhere in Asia. Getting around on a motorbike is easy, they are cheap to rent and no license is required. Even I have learned to drive one, but woe unto you if you use your right hand to break. If you have any speed, you will fly 'ass over teakettle' and end up like this young man.
We share our travelers tales as we bump along the road. As usual, these young men are astonished when I tell them I am traveling alone. Every few minutes the taxi stops: a few passengers alight and a few more climb aboard. My stop is the last on the road. We are now in Haad Rin, home of the famous Full Moon Party: a rave event that takes place each month during the full moon. On that night, the beaches here are covered with tens of thousands of young westerners dancing and drinking from dusk until dawn.
Once again, I claim my duffel and roll it down to the beach where I have been told I can find a boat taxi to take me to Had Thien, a few coves away from here. Boat taxis are the only way to get to where I am going. There are no roads. Or, there are roads, of a sort, some of the time. You don't want to go there... I sit on a barstool in the sand by a wooden bar erected on the beach just above the waterline, drinking gin and tonic while the driver solicits other passengers. Like all modes of transport, the boat drivers are in no hurry to leave until their vehicles are filled. I watch the lights of fishing boats far out on the dark water and exchange the usual, stilted, conversation with the bartender's young daughter in broken English.
Before too long, the boat driver comes to find me it: is time to leave. I strain to roll my duffel over the sand to the edge of the water where a long tail boat bobs in the shallows. The driver throws it into the boat, without getting it too wet, and I wade, knee deep in water, to the side of the boat, climb aboard and sit in the front on the rough wooden deck. It is fully dark now and the taxi speeds away into darkness, the lights of Haad Rin fading behind us, water spraying in our faces. I laugh out loud. This is one of the coolest moments of my life.
After about fifteen minutes the boat turns back to shore, bouncing and weaving into a small cove between high limestone bluffs. There are lights twinkling ahead, growing brighter until we are, once again, on the beach where, built just above waterline on the beach, there is a large, open pavilion. About fifty people are lounging on pillows at low tables, swinging in hammocks and seated in rattan chairs. The driver drops my suitcase at the water's edge. I struggle to roll it over the sand, up a few steps and across a small pool of water built into the walkway which I must walk through to wash the sand off my feet before stepping onto the polished stone floor. There is lounge music in the air. I have arrived at Sanctuary.
I am greeted at reception, by a young Thai man who introduces himself as 'Mike'. Yeah, right. He takes my suitcase from me, and guides me up a steep rock stair above the pavilion. He shows me into a small bungalow with thatched roof, teak floors, a bathroom, the wall partially tiled and partially carved from the rock hillside, a small sink, shower wand and gravity toilet. The room has a double platform bed with a colorful tapestry cover, tapestry curtains over the windows and a mosquito net hanging from the thatch. There is also a small terrace with bamboo chairs and my own hammock overlooking a tea pavilion. Sanctuary indeed!
It is very late so I leave my things and return to the pavilion which serves as restaurant and gathering place for the retreat. I sit on cushions at a low table and one of the wandering staff brings me a menu. Joy of joys! The menu is extensive; vegetarian offerings, fresh fruits, salads, sandwiches, even steaks, pasta, cheese! My mouth begins to water. For the first time in weeks my appetite is engaged. I order pasta with cheese and a glass of wine and sit back to watch the scene. And it is indeed a scene...
Sanctuary is a man's paradise. The patrons are predominately women and, oh what gorgeous women! Although they range in ages from early twenties into their sixties, most of them are young, fit, tanned, and gorgeously dressed - or undressed. This could be seriously intimidating! But I am not here to compete with anyone, so I sit back to watch the show. For the next week I will watch the drama unfold as I sit on this terrace overlooking the ocean. Many of the residents here are permanent and many others are regulars. They know each other well, and there is a definite clique with 'in-people' and 'out-people'. Their pairings and partings are on continual display furnishing a wealth of entertainment for onlookers.
Each morning I rise at dawn and make my way to the cove, where I sit in the sand meditating and watching the sun rise. I am usually alone on the beach so early and one morning a small white puppy comes to lie down against my knees as I sit. I have the fanciful notion he is asking forgiveness after my last encounter with the dog in Ranong.
After the sun rises, I walk to the pavilion where I order wonderful caffe lattes, delicious banana shakes with buckwheat and sit to write for a couple of hours looking out over blue water, sparkling in sunlight. Then I climb high up a hill to a yoga pavilion where I receive the best yoga instruction I have found anywhere. These morning classes will transform my practice.
After yoga, I go to the beach to swim and lie in the sun - although I really don't need any more sun - but the sand and water are too beautiful too resist. From here it is only a few steps to the pavilion for lunch and then back to the beach. One afternoon, as I am lying on my chaise, I watch a ferry come ashore from Ko Samui. A stunning, young woman in cut-off shorts and halter climbs down the ladder and raises her arm high in greeting to someone on the shore. A tall slender, deeply tanned, young man, also in cut-offs, hurries down the beach and takes her in his arms. They exchange passionate kisses. For a moment, I am almost overwhelmed with envy. I have been alone for months now and I long for that connection. I watch the regulars as they come and go and sometimes, I wish there were someone here to greet my coming and going. But I remind myself that I have undertaken this journey out of a deep need to be alone in the world for a while. So I celebrate these moments with them as an onlooker.
Sometimes I return to my bungalow and take a nap, swinging in my hammock, rocked by the tropical breeze. At sundown I eat dinner in the pavilion and watch the show. Some evenings there is live music and, one evening, a talent show where the performers are surprisingly talented and polished. When I am tired, I return to my little bungalow to climb under the mosquito net, (oh yes, there are mosquitoes!), the net ruffles softly in the breeze from my fan, the waves whisper on the shore. I sleep deeply and peacefully.
After a few days I have met a couple of other women with whom I have rapport. One is a lovely woman about my age from Romania whose name is Jenny, another, a young German woman named Karla. Sometimes for lunch or dinner we climb high up into the hills behind the cove where there is a restaurant that has a wide terrace overlooking the jungle and the ocean. We sit on cushions drinking beer, and talking, as women do, about out lives, relationships, quests, hopes and fears. One morning, I take the boat back to Haad Rin where I must visit a clinic and have my Rabies booster vaccination. I spend the day shopping for new bikinis and sarongs (well, perhaps I need to compete a bit...), and then sit on the beach again drinking gin and tonic while I wait for a boat to take me back to Sanctuary It is the only time I leave the small cove.
On my last night in Sanctuary, we are issued ear plugs. When I checked in I was warned that there is a dance party every Friday night in one of the bars behind the cove which lasts from dusk until dawn. I know I will not be able to sleep with earplugs, but after dinner I am tired, so I go to my bungalow, pack my case for early morning departure and fall asleep as the beginnings of trance music begin to fill the cove.
Sometime around 1 am, I am awakened by the music which has, during the past couple of hours, grown much louder. I lay in the dark listening for a while and decide I am not going to sleep again. So I get up, dress, grab my flashlight and walk along the dark trail through the jungle to an open bar lit with black lights and colorful paintings. I find Karla there and we buy each other a drink. I join the crowd and dance in the hot night for two hours until I am exhausted, dripping with sweat and my mosquito repellant has washed away. I return to my bungalow, take a cold shower, climb into my nest and fall deeply asleep, trance rhythm echoing through the jungle and into my dreams.
When I wake in the early morning for a final swim before leaving, the music is still playing. There are young people strewn along the beach, sleeping in the sand, waiting for the boatmen -- who are also sleeping in hammocks strung in the palm trees further up the beach -- to wake and begin ferrying partygoers off the island. I swim in the sunrise, check out, eat breakfast and return to the beach to wait with them. Jenny is sunbathing, so we sit and talk for a few minutes, promising to stay in touch and, perhaps see each other again somewhere in the world.
The boatman comes to tell me it is time to leave. We kiss each other and she helps me carry my case to the boat. As we speed away from the cove I look back and tears come to my eyes. Jenny is standing on the shore waving to me.