Flashback March 2016
Pickup from Siem Reap by tuk-tuk. I meet Dianne from Malta, an ER doctor in Preston, UK. Upon arrival at the Angkor Zen Retreat Center, she reacts skittishly to the dog, insistent that Cambodian dogs are the worst.
First impressions are tricky, and despite being skeptical about my accommodations I forge ahead. And I am so glad I did: a four-day retreat turned into five. It truly was an arrival into paradise, one greeted by a litter of yogi cats.
Yoga three times a day, meditation daily. A vegetarian meal plan that includes breakfast, lunch, tea time, and dinner. The food is surprisingly amazing for this carnivore and has swayed me to start thinking about vegetarian first. If only I could get my hands on their cookbook (they make everything from memory /scratch).
House rules are strict about connectivity, the idea is to disconnect digitally and reconnect spiritually. With the exception of a woman from Dubai, everyone is down to earth and real. Your free time is at will and can be spent in the pool, in town or in the communal living space. There are hammocks and Papasan chairs, communal tables for long conversations and then the yoga shala where your transformation begins.
The yoga studio is an open air shala. Thatched roof with Tibetan meditation flags hanging from its center. Tufted floor pillows for meditation and communal yoga mats: use, clean, repeat. The shala is open on 3 sides, facing the surrounding landscape. There is a monastery down the road and oftentimes you can hear the prayer calls and chanting. In the far left corner, there is an altar paying homage to Buddha and Ganesha. This is especially peaceful during meditation and practice. Inevitably one of the yogi cats makes an entrance and stakes claim on a mat or a pillow. Practicing yogis learn to adapt and create harmony in its space.
There are two yogis in residence. Katia from Colombia, strength training Vinyasa. Tammy from California, specializing in Hatha, meditation and alternative yoga practices like Laughter, Partner, Sound, among others. The cooking crew is a mix of local Cambodians, including the owner and Joy a Canadian. Angkor Zen has both resident cats and dogs. Cats with their diamond-shaped heads, stub tails, and sleek bodies. Dog. Singular. A labrador puppy who loves bread.
Tammy introduces us to partner yoga on my first day. The practice strengthens your poses by aligning with another yogi, using each other for balance to mirror the asanas. Federica and I are paired. She is an Italian living in London and works for an environmental agency on climate change. She travels frequently throughout Southeast Asia and is about to buy her first home in the UK. It’s hard not to bond while doing partner yoga, you learn to lean in to support one another. The Italian connection doesn’t hurt either. Over dinner, we plan to head into Old Market Siem Reap for lunch the next day. Dianne decides to join as well. We arrive in Old Market, on the hunt for a coffee (they only serve tea at Angkor Zen) and after a stroll through the day market, Federica and Dianne have burgers (shh, don’t tell) on the brain and so we stop for lunch.
Angkor Zen Gardens tranquility is the saltwater pool. Each day begins with vinyasa yoga followed by breakfast then Pranayama meditation. The Center has the added bonus of the best massage therapists ever. The top massage for my entire trip was my first Khmer massage (pure heaven) at Angkor Zen. There is a separate shala for spa treatments, located behind the dorms. Open air on 4-sides and covered in a canopy. Stepping stones lead to a bamboo bridge; lilies and orchids line the path. There are several meditation ponds on the grounds too, all of them filled with blooming lotus flowers.
I follow my massage with restorative yoga and twilight swimming. It’s nearly sunset and there’s a hammock with my name on it.
Over the course of those five days, I meet some remarkable women: Amber, mother to Herschel on a mommy adventure; Margarita, a Spaniard by way of Copenhagen now living in London; Nina, from Cologne on her own personal sojourn through Asia; along with Katia, Dianne, Federica, and Tammy. In that time over the course of dinner conversations, meditation, and yoga practice we connect on a deeper level. (And thanks to social media, we still keep in touch.)
It is on that last day before Amber leaves that we solidify our friendship over the mediation circle, learning how to let go. Tammy leads us in meditation, our first task is to find a natural offering in the nature around us. This is followed by a devotional and hugging meditation practice that involves an exercise on heart centering, followed by a walking meditation. Tammy’s wealth of knowledge for alternative yoga practices has been enriching and I’ve gained a greater appreciation for yogic meditation and its benefits.
Photo credit: (c) Andrea Preziotti