A retreat. That sounded like just the thing I needed. The funny thing is, I’ve heard of many retreat centers scattered around Southeast Asia (and even Malaysia) that are frequented by foreigners, but seldom do I hear many Asians going off to ‘find themselves’. It is a pretty uncommon sort of holiday for us. So when my friend Abby couldn’t stop going on about a retreat that she recently went to — how it had changed her, how different it was; I decided to check it out.
The Hariharalaya Retreat was just the thing I needed. Six days of being still in one place. Six days among people I do not know. Six days of healthy living. Six days to clear my head and rediscover ‘me’. It sounded wonderful.
I was already planning a quick trip to Siem Reap with a buddy of mine for a couple of days — so I suggested that we explored the town and ruins together before parting ways for me to head off to the retreat. The dates worked out well too, so I sent an email to Hariharalaya just one week before flying off — they replied me within a day, I sent my deposit in the next, and I was all booked and ready for six days of yoga, meditation, and me.
The Hariharalaya Retreat
The Hariharalaya Retreat is situated about half an hour out of the Siem Reap town center, in the village of Bakong. There are a couple of Angkor ruins hidden here as well — the beautiful, but less visited Rolous cluster is situated within the area. I loved the thought that I would be totally cut out from the outside world, and living within the village community for a couple of days. I was already imagining green fields, blue skies, dusty roads and a simple rustic life.
Before heading to Hariharalaya, I was only expecting to spend six days with some time of my own, continue my yoga journey (I’ve been doing it on and off for the last couple of years), learn a little about the art of meditation, and basically just live healthily (and lose some weight, hopefully, in the process). What I didn’t expect was that I discovered a whole lot more during the short retreat — a bit more about myself, my loves, my fears, and how to let go and be free.
Arriving at Hariharalaya
I arrived at the meet-up point just before 7.45am. A couple of ladies were waiting in front of the mall; some dressed in loose printed pants and some with yoga attire, with their overly huge backpacks on the ground next to them — a telltale sign that they were probably headed off to the retreat too. As I joined the group, I was welcomed by Sam, the retreat’s yoga instructor who was there to greet us. It felt awkward standing in a circle among a group of strangers — some of us alone, some with friends, but all not knowing what to expect.
17 of us got onto the few tuk-tuks provided for us; I was fortunate to share my ride with Jaclyn and Sean, a lovely backpacking couple from the States who were on a year’s travel around Asia; and Raleigh, also from the States, but currently based in Taiwan. My ride to the retreat was eye-opening — I got a little glimpse into the many different people I was to meet.
Everyone gasped in wonder as we arrived at the front gates of Hariharalaya — the place had such a simplistic beauty about it. Lush greenery, wooden buildings, roofs made of dried leaves, and a group of locals smiling and welcoming us with a scarf around our neck (which I unfortunately lost when it blew off while I was cycling around the village). We were then ushered into the dining area for some refreshments; given a short briefing by Joel, the founder of Hariharalaya; passed in our ‘registration forms’; introduced to our yoga instructors — Sam, Nana, Tapovan, Alina and Ryan; and then taken for a tour around the retreat.
Around the Retreat
Hariharalaya just exudes so much tranquility and peace. The lush trees and plants growing all around the retreat shade the lovingly built bamboo huts — other than several different rooms scattered around the retreat, it also has a games room with a snooker table, an arts room for drawing and music, a ‘cinema’ hut, a hangout area with juice bar, a spa, a library, and open-aired areas like the swimming pool and jungle gym. The retreat also has plenty of wooden benches and hammocks all around — it is the perfect place to lose yourself and to hide away. And if I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I could just chill at the ‘quiet area’ — where silence is golden.
My room (I booked a ‘Private Room’) was located on the 1st floor of the main building. Other rooms include the dormitory, twin huts, bamboo huts and open-air bungalows; which are free standing buildings made from wood and bamboo. My room was simple and basic — a bed with mosquito netting, dresser, desk, and fan; the shared bathroom had hot water. The retreat provided me a simple natural way of living — but still, with all the little extra comforts.
The Daily Routine
We had a daily schedule prepared for us — the bell rung at exactly 6.30am every morning, though I was always up before that. I’m an early riser, and I took the opportunity to wake up early to see the sunrise, to watch the skies change color and to visit the market in the wee hours of the morning. I loved the smell of the crisp morning air at the village.
We had quiet time in the morning, with yoga and meditation before breakfast; followed by lots of free time before and after lunch. The evenings were filled with optional Dharma talks or yoga classes; and just before dinner we had another session of yoga, meditation and breathing practices, before spending the nights watching movies, dancing or playing games.
One of the most memorable things I did during my time in Hariharalaya was during the Ecstatic Dance night where we turned off the lights, turned on the music and just let our bodies flow with the rhythm. I never felt so light — no one watching me, judging me or telling me to dance otherwise. I felt the same during the night we gathered and chanted around a bonfire — and as I stared into the flames, I burned away my burdens, my worries and my fears. It was during these activities that I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom.
6 Days of Change
It was difficult at first — getting used to a lifestyle with vegan food and digital detox. I think these were the two things that worried me most when I first got to the retreat. My handphone is almost a part of me, so putting it down took a lot of discipline. I went against the rules sometimes, but more often than not, I managed to stay away from the lure of social media. The vegan food was surprisingly delicious. From a variety of dishes like spring rolls, stew, and porridge — each meal was skillfully prepared by the local Cambodian chefs with ingredients grown in the village.
I woke up every morning with delightfully sore muscles from the yoga practices. Being a dancer, I assumed that I knew things about my body, and the limits of my flexibility. I haven’t been dancing consistently for years, and I thought that there were things I wasn’t capable of anymore. I was wrong. The daily yoga practices showed me that if I just let it be and appreciate my body for what it can do, it can achieve so much more. Meditation took a lot of getting used to — I couldn’t sit still for more than 2 minutes before my mind wandered and my legs cramped up. It took a few practices to finally find a position that suited me.
And the weather was unbearably hot and humid! I was sweaty and sticky most of the time — I think I showered almost 5 times a day! That’s a huge change compared to my 24-hour a/c filled lifestyle back at home.
Friends and Leisure
The people I met at Hariharalaya helped make the journey as wonderful as it was. Everyone was welcoming and friendly, and came from every corner of the globe — the States, Canada, Europe, Australia (I was the only Asian). But it didn’t matter who we were, what position we held, who we knew, how much money we made, how famous or popular we were, how we dressed or how we looked. I didn’t have to impress, I could just be me. We talked and laughed when we wanted to, and I could just recoil and be by myself when I wanted to. We were authentic, we were real.
During my free time, I read books, I slept, I lazed on the hammocks and went to the spa (they have the best services ever — blind shiatzu massages, Khmer messages and four-hands bliss massages); but most of the time I would take one of the many bicycles at the retreat and ride along the dusty roads of the village. I rode to the market and watched the villagers go about their daily activities, I rode to the temples to admire the ancient ruins, I dropped by one of the stalls for a coconut and talked to the locals. Sometimes I had company, sometimes I didn’t — but it didn’t matter, I had me.
On one of the days, the retreat organized a temple tour where we visited a hidden ruin called the Prei Monti. Only 5 of us joined the tour; and we had a lovely afternoon with some outdoor yoga, walking meditation and a lovely 7-course vegan picnic — the village kids dropped by to join us for a little while too.
What I’ve Learnt
I think the one thing I learned throughout my stay at Hariharalaya was to just be. When I arrived, I was hoping to just fit into this schedule set up for me, and hopefully, discover myself along the way. I wanted to let go, but I didn’t even know what letting go meant. Back in a world where I had to build up walls to protect myself and portray an image I’ve set for myself — when I got there, I realized that I didn’t have to worry about it all. I was free to be me. And so I spent six days with not a care in the world. It was a breath of fresh air, in every sense of the word. I learned to let go.
It’s been a month since I’ve been back from the retreat — and I have to admit, the reality of life is starting to creep in again. I still carry out my morning sun salutations, practice my Pranayama exercises and meditate whenever I can; I have persistently tried to make it a habit. I guess it’s normal to get back into the thick of things and be caught up again in all these worldly worries, just as long as I know how to find time for myself. So when I can, I’ll head back for another retreat again to refresh my body, heart and mind — and that’s what places like Hariharalaya is for.