Brain Chemistry: Serotonin and Sharks in Thailand

This, my eighth (or ninth, I’ve lost count) trip to Koh Samui, Thailand, was by far the longest journey.  Flight 1 – Kingston to Toronto with a layover, Flight 2 – Toronto to Hong Kong with a layover, Flight 3 – Hong Kong to Bangkok, overnight in Bangkok Flight 4 – Bangkok to Koh Samui.  It was 23 hours of flying time, but 37.5 total door to door.  Nuts!  No wonder I was foggy.  The 15-hr flight from Toronto to Hong Kong was the worst flight ever for me.  By hour 4, I had a persistent jabbing pain in my back from the horrid seat and by hour 6, I started to miss Dale.  It was weird.  I didn’t just miss him, but I had an acute sense of worry.  I couldn’t really pin down exactly what the worry was about, but the best explanation I could come up with was that I had just left the most important person in my life, my best friend, behind.  Not only that, the day I flew out, Dale was going to hitchhike from Kingston to the Ottawa River to engage in one of his favorite past times – white water kayaking.  Call me crazy, but, I wasn’t completely comfortable with the thought of him taking part in what my momentary, irrational mind thought was a death defying sport, while I was on the other side of the world!  My worry resided in my head, like a little stone in my shoe, until we chatted four days later and I knew he was ok.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been here so many times, or maybe it’s the people, or Thai culture in general, but instantly when I landed in Bangkok and took a whiff of the oh so fresh humidity, I felt like I was returning home.  Ironic, since I’d just spent six weeks in Canada.  To a first-time visitor, there are some things that take a bit of getting used to in Thailand.  For me, I know the drill and am always reminded why I love this place when I return.

Random things I love about Thailand:

  • I don’t have to wear a helmet when I drive a motorcycle or scooter, and I don’t need a special license.  Actually I don’t need my license at all to rent one.

  • Thai Massages.  Thai Foot Massages.  Thai oil Massages.  $6 for an hour of Awesomeness.

  • Samahita Yoga Thailand.

  • The People.  They love to smile.

  • I’m tall here.

  • Fresh coconuts and coconut oil.

  • Street food will deliciously fills me up for a buck.  The food in general is just plain excellent.

  • Mangosteen, Mangoes and Pineapple.

  • It’s hot, but I acclimatize quickly and the evening rain drops the humidity during the rainy season.

  • Buddhas and Sprit houses.  Every Thai house or business is home to a spirit house at it’s entrance.  Anywhere I go and find a hill, I can drive up it and know I’m likely to find a Buddha statue and temple at it’s peak.

  • Squatter toilets

  • I know how much things cost, so I’m not swindled.

  • I can buy gas from jars on the side of the road.

  • Fruit Shakes.  Yum!

  • 7-11

I managed to get to Samahita- Yoga Thailand, where I would be teaching for the next month, on time to sneak in a morning practice with my teacher, Paul.  It was a perfect way to begin ironing out the fuzz and flushing toxins I’d accumulated from air travel.  Oh, and that brunch buffet…  Yum!   Directed by nostalgia, I went straight for my usual combination of fruit, yogurt and homemade granola with a bit of ghee.  Surprisingly, I totally forgot to have coffee. It was so nice to be back.

After breakfast I was taken to my new abode.  I would be staying on the “hill”.  I’ll admit, I was a bit reluctant at first, I had been looking forward to the familiarity of staying onsite in one of the guest rooms.  But once I arrived at Samahita Residence and opened the door to my apartment, I knew it would be perfect for my stay.  I was all set with a small kitchen, sitting room (with satellite TV!), desk, bedroom and of course a big bathroom. It didn’t take long at all to call it home.

Samahita Residences

The teacher’s apartment at Samahita Residences, mine is the bottom right hand

My first two days were used to get over jet lag, settle in and luckily spend some time practicing with Tiwariji and Paul.  I received my teaching schedule and on my third day, I jumped into adjusting in the mysore practice for the teacher’s continuing education course.  It was wonderful to be teaching again.  I hadn’t taught full time in a year, and only a few mysore classes over the summer.   The students (who were mostly teachers themselves) were delightful.

Sunset beach walk

Samahita Yoga Thailand Shala

The Shala at Yoga Thailand

Buddha shala

Within the week, the wellness centre began to promote my one-on-one Myofascial Compression Techniques sessions.  Word got around about the power of Trigger Point Performance; its immediate results on biomechanics, increase in mobility and decreased pain.  Soon, coupled with my teaching schedule, I was booked solid for the next two weeks.  In addition to teaching, MCT sessions and my own practice, I was also attending the lectures for the Pranayama  & Yogasara Sangraha continuing education course with Tiwariji and Paul.  My days were full.  I was going to bed just after sunset, and up before sunrise for Fire Ceremony.  By week two, I no longer needed my alarm. The routine agreed with me, teaching and practicing in the morning, learning and teaching in the evening, then hopping on my scooter to ride home to my quiet apartment to skype call with Dale.

"photo of Tiwari"

Tiwariji at the Fire Ceremony

"photo puja"

Giving an offering at the sunrise fire ceremony

By week three, I was totally engulfed in the life at Samahita.  I was connecting with students and retreat guests and reconnecting with returnees I had met before.  The satvic food was amazing, and I was particularly impressed with the addition of raw food selections on the buffet.  Wake-up, kryias, pranayama, teach, coconut, asana, swim in the ocean, attend lecture, teach again, amazing food, walk on the beach… life in paradise.

"koh samui sunset"

Sunset view from a nearby temple

Full moon rising at the temple

Of course, it wasn’t without a bit of turbulence to pump some norepinephrine up to go along with my high serotonin levels.   A scooter ride out of the bubble, to a main road could do the trick.  Or, a random encounter with a cobra could give you your fill for the month!   Yes, I’m serious.  Up close and personal.  Nothing to be alarmed by, most of the snake species in Thailand aren’t poisonous to humans.   The cobra, unfortunately, is one of the deadliest.  If you get to a hospital on time, you’re especially lucky if they have the right anti-venom treatment in stock.  The one I saw was small, probably a teenager and it was quickly taken care of by one of the staff.   But it created enough paranoia in me that I became a little neurotic at watching my steps, in particular at night on my way home.

"green tree snake photo"

Can you see the snake in the photo? Check out the next shot.

White eyed viper thailand, green tree snake thailand

Can you see it now?  It’s either a White-eyed viper or a green tree snake… not sure.  This was outside our apartment

Practice with Paul

My five weeks at Samahita flew by, but went slow enough for me to miss waking up beside my husband.  When Dale joined me on the island for my final week, it added another layer of icing on my already pretty damn good cake.  It felt great to be together again.  On our last day, I rose before sunrise to practice pranayama with the light peaking over the ocean and we said goodbye to Yoga Thailand ,the day before our anniversary.

Sunrise koh Samui

Sunrise for pranayama

Samahita beach shala

Pranayama in the beach Shala at sunrise at Samahita

It was fun watching and being a part of a place that has such a significant impact on the people who visit.  It’s something I personally experienced, year after year as a student, and again now, as a teacher.  Retreat guests, student teachers and students all arrive with their own “sh-tuff”. Be it lack of health, mismanagement of stress, a dominating ego, physical pain, or any other number of things we like to hold onto and throw in the bag we carry on our shoulders.   When they were ready to leave, I could see the change; the wrinkle they held between their eye brows softened, their face changed, they carried themselves differently, they laughed and they smiled.  It is a special place.  I’m honored to be teaching a Teacher’s Continuing Education Course in Anatomy there next June.

We  planned to go diving for our anniversary.  From Samui, we had a few options.  I’ve been to Koh Tao (“Turtle Island”) a few times before to dive so we opted to go back.   We treated ourselves to a private ocean view suite bungalow with A/C for the days around our anniversary.  What better place for us to celebrate than in the country where we first started talking commitment, with words like “our children” prior to our engagement, and partaking in the rec activity that really brought us to Thailand on our first big trip together.  The diving that day was laid back, we just loved being in the water again.

koh tao photo

Our ocean view on Koh Tao

Being that the label given to the first wedding anniversary is “paper”, we exchanged gifts based on that premise.  When Dale asked me the month earlier what we were doing for gifts and what type of thing would be appropriate, I assured him something small, from the heart was the key.   Dale gave me my gift the day after he arrived… he had carried a homemade chocolate egg – the size of a football – in a make shift cooler box, all the way from Canada.  Of course I loved it.   The little goodies and messages it was stuffed with  told the story of our lives ‘til now and what we hope to come of the next year.  Brilliant.  From the heart.   I knew I wanted to get Dale a wedding band to wear while are traveling, but there needed to be something more.  So far in our marriage, I have stuck to my maiden name.  So, I took a photocopy of my passport and wrote in a new last name “Nash-Degagne”, this was my paper gift to him.  Now all I have to do is the paperwork when we get home.

Our anniversary dinner – celebrated in style with Green Curry

We stayed on Koh Tao for the full week, lured in by the promise of a dive trip to Sail Rock with Crystal, the dive centre where I did my PADI courses.  What was so important about Sail Rock?  ………… Sharks.  Not just any sharks, Bull-Sharks!  I’ve been diving with them before at a different pinnacle near Koh Tao, but for Dale, this would be the diving that would inspire him to come back to Thailand for the sport.  The first one I spotted caught be by surprise, and jumped my heartrate up about 100bpm as he swam by me, turned around and looked at me.  He was swimming right for me.  I did a little self-talk reminding myself that I make bubbles and sharks are afraid of bubbles.  But, what if it’s curious?  What if this is the one time that those bubbles intrigue him that little bit more that he opens his mouth to eat them?  He got closer, 6m, 5m, 4m, 3m…. Phew, he decided I wasn’t going to be lunch and he changed course to swim by me.  With it behind me, I let out a sigh of relief, but kept my wits about me knowing it was still very close.  Turning your back on a shark must be one of the eeriest feelings someone can have.

photo of bull shark

Bull Shark!

I was surprisingly calm for the next dive, where the mission was solely to see sharks as Dale missed them on the first dive.  We were not disappointed.  They were everywhere.  They are awesome to watch swim.  We were lucky to see a mother with a small baby swimming alongside, which was easy to spot despite the Kobias that like to protect themselves in the sharks preditorial shadow.  Strangely, I spent a two hour with sharks, 20m below the surface and I got more scared of the massive trigger fish we saw.  Funny that.  Maybe because I’ve actually seen a trigger fish attack a diver – they can’t bite through a wetsuit, but they are feisty buggers and will nip at your fins causing you to be a little frantic, thus causing you to consume a ton of air very quickly.  The thrill of a day like this, with sharks, is one of the reasons I dive.

wart slug, nudibranch photo thailand

Part of our underwater world in Koh Tao, wart slug

trigger fish koh Tao

Pufferfish koh tao

Nudibranch

"Giant sea clam photo"

"soft coral photo"

"Angel fish photo"

We left Koh Tao on a Sunday afternoon via catamaran to Chumpon.  There, we caught an overnight train to Bangkok.   Any visit to Bangkok is not complete without visiting Wat Pho.  So that’s exactly what we did.  We ditched our bags at a friends place, and argued with taxi drivers to get to the site.  I went there on my first trip to Thailand, nearly a decade ago, but was still in awe of the attention to detail put into the temple.    We met an old friend from Toronto for dinner and were off to the airport to catch our flight to India.  We had started on the second leg of our honeymoon.

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