Ever dream about running off to live in an island paradise? Megan Flamer explains how she did just that.
"Don't take this the wrong way," my friend wrote beneath my Facebook photo album, "but I hate you."
It was becoming a common occurrence: my friends, who had encouraged me to take this crazy leap in the first place, were turning against me. It seemed the more pictures I posted on Facebook and the more updates that included the words "beach", "sun" and "hammock" the more frustrated they became. What seemed to frustrate them most was my inability to explain how it had all happened, and even now, it's hard to see how it did.
I left Australia in 2009 burnt out and strung out in my late 20s, somewhat traumatised after covering the Black Saturday bushfires and just plain tired from working for too long without a break. I was working as a journalist, but had gained my yoga teacher training qualification a few years earlier and taught a few classes each week.
All I talked about, for years, was travelling. So, after months of deliberation, I packed my bags and bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok. I thought I had enough money to last a year and I was full of plans. I was going to cycle to Chiang Mai in Thailand's north; trek through Burma and Nepal; travel overland through the Middle East; climb Macchu Picchu and enjoy every moment.
Three days into my stay in Bangkok, I slipped on wet pavement and slammed down onto the ground, cracking my spine and dislocating my tailbone. Painful as it was, it was the best thing that could have happened. Immediately, I was forced to slow down. Walking, and especially sitting, was uncomfortable. After a couple of attempts at more strenuous travel (including a particularly uncomfortable walk across the Laos border) I decided to head somewhere warm, practice a lot of yoga and nurse myself back to health.
I had already visited several Thai islands on previous trips and I knew Koh Pha Ngan had several yoga studios. One of my yoga students in Australia told me about one particular resort and, still moving carefully, I caught a train, ferry and longtail boat to "The Beach" (a spot believed to be where the famous book of the same name was set).
It was beautiful. The weather was perfect, the food was sensational, there were loads of yoga classes and there was a constant stream of travellers, also looking for something a bit slower, more peaceful. Somewhere they could escape.
As is often the case with paradise, some of them found it hard to move on.
“I arrived from the UK six months ago and couldn't find a reason to leave,” said 25-year-old Fiona.
“I spend the day interacting with amazing and inspiring people who teach me more about the world and myself each day. I put my time and energy into putting on fun free events for people to inspire creativity.”
Fiona runs a health and wellbeing centre, teaching workshops and serving tea with another British native, Sarah, 39, who arrived in 2002. “I was living in a spiritual community in India and many of the people there had spent time here in Thailand,” she said. “My partner suggested we visit, and we never left!”
“I never thought 'I'm leaving the UK and running off to Asia', but now I have a lot of time for my own creativity - music and dance - and also for nature: swimming, walking, and being in the wild.”
But how are they funding themselves? It's a question many of my envious friends have been asking.
“I had 500 pounds at the beginning of the year and I still have pretty much all of it left,” Fiona said. “I try my hardest to give in other ways than money and at the moment I'm swapping my time and energy in return for bed and board which works fine for me.”
Aside from teaching yoga, I soon discovered I had other skills that were useful. As is often the case with hippy locations, there tend to be creative types: writers, singers, artists. After a few conversations about journalism, word got out that I could edit and proof-read and I soon had a regular pile of manuscripts to read in my hammock.
The beauty of this particular work was that the deadlines were long and the payment was via a sort of barter system. I've travelled all around Europe staying with people whose novels I "took a look at."
Many of the people I encountered during my stay on Koh Pha Ngan were seasonal workers. They follow summer around the world, teaching yoga and running retreats, running workshops or giving massages. Some just end up working at various restaurants or bars, but as psychologist James, who is currently working as a waiter, pointed out, “I don't care what I'm doing as long as I get to wake up here.”
Tahl Ghitter, 31, left Canada in 2003 and hasn't looked back. After a well paid job “slinging English” in the Middle East, she took off to live in Thailand as a yoga teacher.
“I found my way to Koh Lipe and became the local teacher,” she said. “I sold hand-made jewelry and read tarot to subsidise, but when the high season ended and my resources dried up, I ended up in Indonesia on Bintan Island, 45 minutes by ferry away from Singapore. I'm working in an office nine to five but it's in a devastatingly beautiful location by the sea.”
While Tahl has a work permit and is working legally, most of the people I encountered were working illegally for cash or exchanging hours for food and accommodation (which is why several of those quoted above requested their full names not be published). They never really make a lot of money; most just sustain the lifestyle they have come to love.
There are always exceptions to the rule. While teaching yoga in Bali I met a guy from Canada who realised, as a stockbroker, he could do his job anywhere in the world. He spends his days relaxing by the pool, doing yoga and motorbiking around the island and played the stock market for a few hours each night, as Canada was waking up.
Thirty-five-year-old Jeremy Somers, a graphic designer, shores up months of work before he leaves his native California for half the year. You can see him on the beachfront with his laptop most days, getting inspired by his open-air office.
It's not all paradise. Often this is life in a very rustic environment. Sometimes you run out of water, have to go without electricity, or wait for the next supply boat for your chocolate fix.
Earlier this year, I was trapped on a beach (along with some 50 others) when a low pressure system wreaked havoc in the Gulf of Thailand. Coconut palms smashed into bungalows and flooding caused foundations to sway.
Several people were evacuated by the military on the neighbouring island. I've never been so drenched in my life. Needless to say, we do not have clothes dryers.
The beauty of living in this little community is the sense that you will help each other through it and that you all remember what it's like when it stops raining and the sea returns, once again, to it's beautiful calm, blue self.
For me, it has been more about learning how to relax again and fit my work around my yoga, rather than the other way around. I took yoga classes if they came up, edited manuscripts if people asked me and accepted many generous offers from people I met to stay with them or teach yoga as part of their retreats.
Six weeks turned into a couple of months, a couple of months became a year and now, two years later, I'm back in Melbourne, planning retreats I can take my students to in Thailand. Just so they can get a little taste of paradise too ...
Working in paradise: pros and cons
PRO: Portable, work in health retreats or beautifully located studios; working with committed, more relaxed students; good money/hours worked ratio
CON: Seasonal work means you usually can't support yourself in one place, have to relocate
Restaurants and bars
PRO: Great social life, good way to meet people, food and accommodation often included
CON: Pay can be poor, work is seasonal, sometimes require work visas
PRO: Set own hours, work from anywhere with an internet connection, loads of free time, great money
CON: Need to be very careful about tax, only recommended if you're somewhat qualified/aware of markets
PRO: Great social life, get to dive for free, get trained for free
CON: Early starts and long hours, often end up doing the same dives, work is seasonal, Australians never tip
PRO: Good money with certain agencies, great if you love kids and want to explore like somewhere new, great to learn local language
CON: Hours can be long, can end up in isolated areas with non-English speakers, sometimes hard to get time off for holidays
PRO: Own boss, portable job, work in health retreats, good money
CON: Seasonal work, insurance can be difficult to obtain
Megan Flamer is a writer and yogi. See http://shinyhappyhealthy.wordpress.com