A decade or so ago, I decided I wanted to live abroad. Canada just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. After trying a few different locales – a tiny island in Japan, big bad Bangkok – I eventually settled on a tropical island called Koh Phangan. You may have heard of it – it’s home to the world-famous Full Moon Party that brings 30,000+ tourists to our shores every month.
I’m on my fourth year here now, and I love it. I won’t say I’ve loved every second of it, because that would be very far from the truth. It’s not always easy living in paradise, but here are some valuable lessons I’ve learned from it that have helped me out along the way:
1. You are your own best friend.
Plenty of people think that we folk who live on tropical islands sit around in our hammocks all day sipping pina coladas while cabana boys rub us down with tanning oil. Not quite so. Most of my friends, myself included, run or work at jobs that keep them busy most of the day, and here in paradise when your work schedule varies in accordance with tourist arrivals, working hours are erratic and weird. So sometimes I find myself finished my work for the day with no one to play with. It took me some time to learn that it’s ok to go to a beach bar and sip a beer by the ocean by myself, or to go for a swim at a local resort on my own. Sometimes I take a book or notepad to keep me company, sometimes I don’t. I try not to rely on my mobile phone for company. I’m learning to enjoy being alone with my own thoughts, and I’ve learned that I actually quite enjoy my own company.
2. Making an effort with friends can save your sanity.
But while spending time alone can be fulfilling, it’s also incredibly important to go out of your way to spend time with your friends, especially when you live abroad on an isolated little island. For the first few years I lived here, I barely had any friends. And it was hard. I mean, really hard. After a while, I realised that this wasn’t going to be like anywhere else I’ve ever lived, where friendship circles have organically formed.
On an island, where a lot of people keep to themselves, friendships can almost feel a bit forced at the beginning. And I hate that. But I got over it and gave it a shot anyways. Now, I have a wonderful group of friends and we all support each other through thick and thin. I can’t imagine going back to life without safety net of friends I have to fall into when life gets me down (because you do get down in paradise just like you do in the city and the suburbs), who all understand the trials of living here and who just…get me.
3. You don’t need fancy shops
Yes, it’s annoying that we can’t go and buy organic mustard seeds from Whole Foods, vintage bedside tables from Pottery Barn, and the latest Nicholas Sparks novel from Barnes & Noble. But really, it’s not that annoying. I’ve taught myself to make my own greek yogurt, I’ve repurposed old furniture to make it look new and gorgeous, and I’ve got a library full of fantastic second-hand books that I’ve plowed through because believe it or not – they’re just as good as the day they were printed. When you can’t rely on being able to get anything and everything in the shops, you learn to be resourceful. And becoming less reliant on the newest and best material items is incredibly freeing.
4. You can fix it… even you, ladies!
Can you rewire a cable? Cuz I can. Last week my dog chewed my fan’s cable in half. It’s a huge pain to go and buy a new one because we only have scooters and getting a large standing fan on a scooter while driving is kinda dangerous, especially in monsoon season, which it is right now. So, my fiance taught me how to rewire it. And it was pretty easy. These kinds of skills are also handy when items in our house break, because getting a repairman to come to our house is quite the trick. First of all, addresses on the island don’t really exist. Even the postman can’t find our house. Secondly, even if I do manage to describe it (I usually tell them to look for the house with the bamboo fence and two crazy dogs), we don’t get reception because we’re in between two mountains and…well…it’s Koh Phangan. So if they get lost, they can’t call us. Thirdly, our Thai is kindergarten level at best, so even if they do get here, trying to explain what’s wrong is a nightmare. So, we try to do most things ourselves. And turns out, we can do a heck of a lot more than we had thought.
5. You need to work to keep things exciting.
The beach is great. I love the beach. The beach is why I moved here. But sometimes when I ask my fiance what he wants to do, and he says “go to the beach?”, I’m like….”ughh…again?”.
I know, I know, it makes me sound like a spoiled beach brat. But believe it or not, there’s only so often you can go and sit on a beach. It does actually get pretty repetitive after a while. And when you live in a place where there’s no cinema and most of the restaurants are pretty similar, and there’s not really any other kind of entertainment, you gotta get creative.
I’ve tried my hand at Stand Up Paddleboarding, I’ve hiked our highest mountain, I’ve kayaked to a nearby island, and I’ve taken aerial silk, pole dancing, and dancehall classes – I like to shake things up and try whatever’s available at the time. I’ve also started projects: for one, I’m writing a book (ooh check it out if you like: Dons of Koh Phangan), and I’m also trying to teach myself Thai, German, and Spanish. Yoga and meditation have also been pretty integral to my happiness here. These activities keep my body and brain in shape, and they keep life interesting. Yes, it’s easier to just zone out and watch something on Netflix – but oh wait, but we can’t access Netflix!! – at the end of the day, but if you make an effort to try something new, your body and mind will thank you.
6. Family matters.
My Dad was diagnosed with cancer this year. Yeah, it sucks. You know what’s the hardest part? I’m like a bajillion miles away and feel completely helpless. Of course, I hopped on a plane as quickly as I could and went to visit him, and it wasn’t really until I got there that I finally breathed. But, I couldn’t stay there forever. My fiance and I both have businesses here that we have to tend to. So, we returned to Koh Phangan with heavy hearts because all I really wanted to do was stay with him. We’re heading back again for Christmas and once again I wish I could just transport there now. Skype is great, but it’s Skype – and you aren’t looking each other in the eye, you can’t hug each other, and of course there’s often a delay. It’s not reality. And it’s not until you find out devastating news when you’re on the other side of the world that you realise just how unbelievably much your family means to you. It’s the most difficult challenge of living abroad, and you are guaranteed to question your life decision on numerous occasions when and if something similar happens.
7. Sometimes, it’s not worth the fight
I have noticed that the islands do seem to attract their fair amount of crazies – of course, a lot of people are here because they’re running away from things. And I mean, wow are they crazy. And I think in the western world, you don’t notice them much because there are so many normal people. But here, there seems to be a much higher percentage of them than in anywhere else I’ve lived, and I guess they are finding solidarity in numbers and so feel confident laying their crazy out for all to see. I mean, I’ve had my name dragged through the mud by a girl who had it in for a client of mine, who verbally attacked myself, my friends, and my family. I’ve had a gun pulled on me by someone who didn’t like my dog. Like, that kind of crazy.
What I’ve learned is that no matter how much you can try to make them see reason, most of the time, your efforts will be futile. And the only thing to do is to take a deep breath (and sometimes it needs to be reeeeeeally deep), shrug your shoulders, and walk away, and try to forget their very existence. Because obsessing about how they’ve wronged you or trying to get revenge will not only make the situation worse, but it will make you miserable.
8. Disconnecting lends a whole new perspective.
The power goes out here a lot. And, as someone who spends a ridiculous amount of time in front of screens – the perks (and hazards) of running a digital agency – it’s bloody annoying. But, I need it. I actually secretly enjoy power cuts. I’m a bit of a workaholic, so sometimes it takes a power cut to force me to lay back on the hammock and read a book. And I notice my whole body relaxes when I know that my phone isn’t going to go off with messages from every different platform imaginable like 35 different times in an hour. The best part about it is that I often get my best, most creative ideas – sometimes work-related, sometimes just fun projects I want to start – when I am not on my computer or phone. I guess it lets my brain just flow in free form like it’s meant to. It’s a wonderful feeling.
About the writer: Kaila Krayewski is the founder of a digital agency with a taste for luxury travel on Koh Phangan: Archipelago Communications. She is a passionate writer, obsessive editor, and loves a good DIY project. And despite what she said in this article, she does really, really love the beach.
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