A personal story about how I learned (still always learning) to accept myself, my experience in Thailand, and stay connected with my spirituality.
My spirituality sprouted from the roots of my soul while I was in college. I had ended an abusive relationship with an alcoholic and it wrecked me. My university offered free yoga classes at the gym and I started going to them every day.
Yoga class was not just an exercise, it was also about spiritual growth and coping with trauma. During meditation at the end of class, the instructor would come around and massage our temples with lavender essential oil. They would read us quotes and excerpts about letting go of anger, being in the present, finding yourself, etc. It validated that I was lost, that I needed to get back on the path, and build a fulfilling life. Back then, I was learning about all these ideas for the first time and so they begun to change me.
I became so intrigued with yoga that I minored in Asian Studies. The philosophy, religion, history, and art of Southeast Asia and India fascinated me. I read excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita, Daodejing, and other Buddhist and Hindu texts in my philosophy and history courses. The texts put my abstract, unorganized thoughts into eloquent ideas. It explained things that I felt I had always known deep down in simple ways.
While in college, I volunteered in Ghana and taught yoga to pregnant women. I worked with them one on one, with a translator, and taught them poses to help relieve pain and release tension. The women and the nurses in the clinic were very receptive and excited about what I taught.
All I wanted was to travel, see new places, experience new cultures. I had a longing to go to Asia that I knew I would never let go of. Eventually, timing and opportunity aligned and I packed up and moved to Thailand.
I expected my spirituality to blossom and soar like it had never had before. I had heard that most Thais were Buddhist and so I thought that all the things I had read in the ancient texts would come to life in the culture and the people.
I arrived and found that the only people in my yoga classes were foreigners. I looked at the streets and the only people wearing elephant pants were grimy backpackers. I found that Thais do not do yoga and I found their religious practices very different from what I expected. They were more superstitious than meditative. Many little spirit houses line the streets and sit in backyards. Each day they bring offerings to the spirit houses like food or little shot glasses of soda. They posts selfies to Facebook and wear whitening cream. They frown upon public displays of emotions (anger, frustration) and explode behind closed doors.
Not ALL Thais fall under these stereotypes. In fact, two of my yoga teachers are Thai. The Thais that I work with at my school are genuine, hilarious, welcoming, hard-working, and very talented at their jobs as teachers. Thailand is full of amazing people who have showered me with kindness and even rescued me from some situations. But Thailand is not exactly the Land of Smiles like I expected when I moved here.
I thought there would be more yoga studios, meditation centers, religious people around, but instead, Chiang Mai was filled with tourists who dressed like hippies and Thais who lived by a hierarchy society. The most yogic people around me were foreigners with dreadlocks who refused to wear deodorant. And online all I see are phonies, saying cliché word vomit about inner peace or getting rid of toxic people. Anything to get more followers.
There were people who dressed like yogis, smelled like hippies, but drank like 18-year-old backpackers. I expected more yoga-minded people, but the reality is I was in a sea of travelers and Thais.
It turned “being spiritual,” into a trend, fashion statement, a lifestyle. I look on Instagram and see the same.
I was so lost. My expectations did not match up with the realities of Thailand. There are yoga studios and spiritual healing workshops, but it was difficult for me to connect with any of the people who attended.
I went to a meditation workshop and felt uncomfortable. Is this a cult? The founder spoke about the 7 stages of spiritual development, but it was laid out like a competition–who is more advanced, who is more spiritual? I thought that being spiritual meant that you follow your own path, be a good person, listen to your heart…not a complex 7 step path to enlightenment.
Experiences like these turned me away from my own spiritual growth. The spiritual community and Thai culture disappointed me. I thought: Maybe I am not really that spiritual.
Not all my experiences were negative. I met a French woman at 1 AM in Kuala Lumpur. She lent me her plug adapter so that I could charge my phone. We chatted on the train for 45 minutes about where we are from, traveling, and meditation. She spoke to me about how meditation helps her listen to herself and make more sound decisions. When she told me that she had been to Pai (infamous touristy wannabe-hippie destination with mushroom shakes and brick weed), I asked where she stayed. Her reply was that she stayed out-of-town in nature, alone, meditating. Her spirit was inspiring, happy, lifted and it was just what I needed after my terrible flights from Chiang Mai to Malaysia.
As a foreigner, Thailand is not my home. I was graciously invited. It is not my place to say ‘this is wrong’ or ‘I don’t like this!’ In America, we would HA HA HA in a foreigners face and then complain behind their back about why they do not speak English. Thailand is the way it is. I am not here to judge it. I am here to experience, observe, and learn.
I had written and rewritten this post because I had not processed my feelings and realized that it was ME–the cause of my disappointment. I had all these expectations and ideas about what Thailand SHOULD be like. Thailand is the way it is and that is what makes it magnificent.
I felt that my spirituality was stunted and I was surrounded by people who were bringing me down, but I just went off the path. And that is ok too because getting lost makes you more experienced. It is frustrating to feel misguided. I blamed it on smokey season, working too much, or the tuk tuk driver trying to rip me off. In reality, the good and the bad do not matter because you will always have both.
Once I processed why I was feeling so negative and low, I realized that the reason I love traveling so much is because I love to learn about new places. Thailand completely flipped my world upside down and I am so thankful for it. I needed to accept, be open, and find the communities, friends, and activities that suit me. It has taken longer for me, more than any other place I have been, to adapt. But growth is uncomfortable, sometimes a little painful.
I have found a yoga studio I go to regularly that has great teachers. I have my vegan cafes and fresh markets. I go on weekend trips into nature. I smile and try to speak Thai with strangers. My world has opened back up with rainbows and laughter.
If you are struggling to find happiness on your travel journey, ask yourself what your expectations were going in. Write about it. Talk about it. Take time to process. What is making you unhappy and what will make you happy? Self-reflection will bring you closer to yourself and show the origins of your emotions.