It’s 5.30am and we are awoken by the sound of a gong. Rather than violently jarring me awake like an alarm clock, the gong is a gentle, mellow noise and continues for quite some time. By the time it has ceased, I am feeling surprisingly awake for this time in the morning. Or, at least awake enough to pull on my yoga leggings, grab a sweater (it can be chilly here in the mornings in northern Thailand) and make my way to the 6 am yoga and meditation class.
We’re at Suan Sati Yoga Retreat in San Sai, just outside of Chiang Mai, where the American founder, Will, has invited us to spend a week finding out what his new retreat is all about. The word ‘Suan’ is Thai for ‘garden’, and ‘Sati’ means ‘mindfulness’ in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. ‘Mindfulness Garden’ seems the perfect name for this quiet place of yoga, meditation and permaculture set amidst the Thai countryside.
The retreat has been open for only six months, but it’s already running at full capacity. We arrived, along with about 15 other guests, on a Thursday, after the centre had been closed for a few days. (Will and his partner, Lisa, had taken a short break to Pai after finishing their first Yoga Teacher Training Course at the centre.) The atmosphere upon arrival was one of apprehension and excitement, with some people staying only a couple of days, others booked in for a few weeks. We instantly got on with everybody and although we can’t speak for every person who’s walked through the gates of the garden, Suan Sati seems to attract a really authentic bunch of people. Some of our group had never done yoga before, others had been practising for years. You’re unlikely to find your Instagram Yogi poser here. As for our crowd, we were all here to learn and absorb whatever we could from the teachers, and each other.
The entire place is run on the principles of permaculture, a system of organic gardening and running a business that minimises waste and harm to the environment. The permaculture system at Suan Sati has been set up by American, Ian and his French girlfriend, Sasha, who have worked on permaculture projects in Asia, Central America and Europe. Plastic, paper and other waste are recycled and shower water and sink water are reused to nourish the garden. No chemical products (synthetic shampoos, conditioners and toothpaste), should be used whilst at Suan Sati. In the showers, there’s free homemade kaffir lime shampoo, (which smells divine!), and they have some great natural products available at their shop which will see you through your stay. You’ll probably like them so much, you’ll continue to use them after you leave, as I did.
The food is entirely vegan, but there’s no pressure to convert, although apparently, some people have done after leaving Suan Sati. Most of the guests were already vegetarian, and the food (cooked in Thai style by a Thai chef) was so delicious, that meat eaters like myself and my boyfriend, did not crave anything during our week’s stay. Alcohol and drugs are also not allowed on premises, but there is a private area to smoke at the far end of the garden, away from the nostrils of fellow yogis.
Yoga classes are taught by Will, Lisa, and other guest yoga teachers, all of whom are excellent and give good instruction and adjustments. The main focus of Will’s style of yoga is aimed at improving your meditation practice. Hip openers and back strengthening poses are encouraged, to make it easier to sit cross legged for long periods of time. There’s an emphasis placed on overcoming mental and physical discomfort, challenging you to get beyond pre-conceived notions that you can and cannot do something. Mindfulness on the mat, as well as during your entire stay at Suan Sati is what it’s all about.
Having passed our 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training Courses ourselves earlier this year, Will had mentioned about us having a go at teaching a guest class ourselves during our stay. However, after seeing the quality of the teaching, I personally felt like I’d have to practise a lot more before feeling confident enough to teach a class here. My boyfriend, Dave, did lead a meditation which everyone seemed to enjoy. Will was very encouraging to both of us with regards to our yoga journeys.
The meditation practice at Suan Sati is based on the Thai Forest Tradition, which is a lineage of Theravada Buddhist Monasticism. It seemed to me to be similar to Vipassana meditation practice, of which I am familiar, although I haven’t yet done a formal retreat. Not much instruction is given by Will, other than following your breath and watching the subtle sensations of how your breathing affects your body. I guess this can be hard for new meditators who perhaps need more guidance and to be reassured that they are ‘doing it right.’ For me, however, I actually liked the repetitive style of the meditation, as I was able to practise one style consistently for seven days and saw how my mind behaved differently each day.
Why is Suan Sati Yoga Retreat so popular?
Well, the price certainly helps. If you’re staying in their dormitory (which is a lovely bamboo hut style structure with big beds and good quality mattresses), the cost is just 1200 THB / day. This includes four hours of yoga and meditation across two sessions per day, three ‘all you can eat, but you must eat everything on your plate’ meals a day, water, soft drinks, tea and coffee.
The price is further discounted 200 THB / day if you book for one week or more. For couples who want to stay in a private bungalow, the price is 1600 per person, per day, again discounted 200 THB / day for a longer stay. And, for a unique experience, you can stay in their quirky ‘truckalow’ (an old Thai truck converted into a bungalow – see here on our Instagram) for 2000 THB per person / per day.
Cost compared to other Yoga Retreats in Thailand
Will told us that the next cheapest yoga retreat in Thailand is double the price per day.
Looking at some of the one and two-week yoga and meditation retreats listed on ‘bookyogaretreats.com,’ I couldn’t believe the price! The recommended results included ‘10 Days Yoga Holiday in Koh Samui,’ listed at 56,000 THB (that’s $1700 USD) and ‘12-day Luxury Couples Meditation and Yoga in Phuket’ at a whopping 336,574 THB ($10,000 USD!). This is way out of the price range of the average backpacker.
And, I’m pretty sure that, even if I had that kind of money, I’d find it hard to justify paying that much for something that let’s face it, you only need your body and a yoga mat to do. I think I’d find it impossible to get in touch with my inner peace whilst meditating knowing that the twenty minutes I had my eyes closed just cost me about $50 USD! I wonder what those ancient Indian sages think about the commercialization of yoga today?
Suan Sati is, without doubt, an authentic place and Will is the real deal when it comes to yoga and meditation, as well as the type of lifestyle that comes with trying to make a positive impact on the planet. Will and I have a mutual friend in common, who had told him about South East Asia Backpacker Magazine, as well as our interest in yoga and meditation. He had invited us to stay for free in the hope that we may enjoy our experience and write about it. However, he made it very clear to us that he did not want false advertising and that we were to write an honest review, and only if we felt like it. As he’s only been open six months, he was also open to suggestions from guests, and ways to improve the retreat.
Integration into the local community and fair trade
As a foreign business owner in Thailand, Will has learnt the Thai language, to the point where he is almost fluent (something that I feel so few ‘farangs’ do when they live here for an extended period of time). Will is also trying his hand at the dialect of Northern Thai, which he speaks with his staff at the centre.
His staff are paid more than the average wage and seem very happy in their work. The food is plentiful, good quality, delicious and locally sourced. The bungalows are basic but very clean, well designed and comfortable. Suan Sati does not feel like a ‘budget, no frills retreat’ where every penny is scrimped and saved in order to squeeze out a profit. Guests are comfortable and have everything they want whilst not being overcharged, which makes you wonder why other retreats are so expensive.
Will also takes part in an internship program at Mae Jo University, where students come to work at Suan Sati for a few days to learn new skills and practise their English. He houses foreign volunteers who work at permaculture and building in exchange for food, accommodation and yoga classes.
Will told me directly that he is happy with the lifestyle that he is able to afford from running the retreat and though I’m sure he could, he’s not interested in ramping up the prices at Suan Sati to become increasingly more profitable. He clearly wants to make a positive impact on the surroundings here in Northern Thailand and has decided to dedicate his life at the moment to sharing the positive effects of his yoga and meditation practise.
Will, originally from Washington, arrived in Thailand in 2010 to take a TEFL Course in Phuket. He then went on to teach English for one year at a school in Bangkok. Living in a very Thai neighbourhood where few people spoke English, he picked up Thai quickly and has continued to improve through books, DVDs and a few lessons. After the year, he moved to Chiang Mai to continue teaching English and fell in love with the city. He lived in a big old house near Wat Prasingh with a few other teachers, and they regularly hosted couchsurfers who spoke to him of their travels in Southeast Asia, about yoga, meditation and permaculture, and inspired him to explore the region and the spiritual opportunities it held.
Will set off on his travels around Asia after spending a summer teaching and saving money in Hanoi, Vietnam. After having an amazing adventure and exploring every country in Asia, apart from Pakistan and Bhutan, he decided that it was time for him to explore inside. He started with a 10-day Vipassana retreat at Wat Kow Tham in Koh Phangan, followed immediately by another 10-days at Wat Suan Mok in Surat Thani, and then back to Wat Kow Tham for another 10-days. After this, on a year’s working holiday in Australia, he spent time in the outback in the middle of nowhere, studying Buddhism and reflecting on his recent meditation practice and deciding what he wanted to do next with his life. After more travels to Indonesia, Europe and Central America, he was really starting to feel like he wanted to stay in one place and create something. He knew that he wanted to dedicate his life to spreading loving kindness, and had decided that the place he wanted to do this was Chiang Mai.
The creation of Suan Sati
With Suan Sati already in mind, Will trained to become a Yoga Teacher over his 30th birthday at Trimurti Yoga School in South Goa. It was here that he met Lisa, his now partner, whose ideas resonated with his own. They decided to go back to Chiang Mai together and begin to build Suan Sati.
With the help of permaculture enthusiasts, Ian and Sasha, natural building expert, Asfar, (who built the bungalows and the amazing outdoors showers), plus a never ending stream of enthusiastic volunteers from Workaway, the team turned an overgrown patch of land into the ‘mindfulness garden’ that you see today. From having no electricity, water, nor any buildings apart from the old wooden Thai house that was already on the site at the beginning, it’s inspirational to see what has been created by a team of passionate souls. Suan Sati opened on January 1st 2017.
How can you visit?
At the moment, during low season in Thailand, Suan Sati are running a guesthouse style retreat. This means that you can book accommodation for a minimum of three nights, and partake in all of the yoga, and meals are included. In the high season, they’ll switch over to running batch retreats which will be 6-day / 5-night retreats at a set cost of 7,500. Throughout the year, there will also be Teacher Training Courses and speciality guest retreats hosted at Suan Sati. The next Teacher Training Course is in October.
Check out the Suan Sati website for availability and upcoming retreats. Find out more about Yoga & Meditation in Southeast Asia here.
Nikki Scott is the founder & editor of South East Asia Backpacker. A traveller-turned-entrepreneur, she left the UK in 2009 and after 6 months on the road, she started a bi-monthly print magazine about backpacking in Asia. South America Backpacker soon followed and today she runs her backpacking enterprise from her base in Spain. Her honest and fascinating book, Backpacker Business, tells the story of her success in the face of adversity.