Do you ever have those moments in your life where you stop what you’re doing and wonder, what did I do to bring me to this moment, right now? What were the series of steps and decisions that brought me here? At around 6:45pm last month, I was in the middle of rural Cambodia, sitting in seated meditation, and had the same thought.
After deciding I was going to go to Cambodia alone, I wanted to break up my solo adventure with some time around people- but in a constructive manner, not partying on an island or something similar. I looked in to yoga retreats, having had good experiences in the past, and came across Hariharalaya. Because they impose a digital detox at the retreat, it was really difficult to get a feel for what it would be like, beyond what was posted on their website, but I figured, six days in the Cambodian countryside, doing yoga? Sounds ideal. And it was, but not in the ways I was expecting.
Having been on yoga retreats before, I pulled on my past experience a lot when building up that mental picture of what Hariharalaya would be like. Hariharalaya’s founder, Joel, has a lot of interesting and wise things to say, but what he says about building up stories about the future (that may or may not come true) are so true in this case: any preconceptions I had about what the retreat would be like proved utterly false. Toward the end of the retreat, I asked most of the attendees how they would describe the retreat to people who asked about it afterwards, knowing I was going to blog about it, and trying to anchor a truly transformative experience by giving it words. It is really hard, honestly, without going in to a 100000000 word diatribe, which no one would read! So I’ll give the basics, the information that I most wanted to know going in to the experience, and finish it with some brief remarks about my time and also how its changed how I live my life now that its over.
The retreat centre: Hariharalaya is situated near Bakong temple, along a dirt road about 35 km outside of Siem Reap. The centre itself is situated underneath loads of different trees (some of which have fruit that just fall right out of them, making crazy noises at times), so its always cooler there than in the village or in Siem Reap. The centre is spread across a main house and many, many different smaller huts, all made in traditional Khmer style. You won’t find air conditioning here, and the huts, main house and yoga hall are all open air- so you’ll find the occasional insect, rodent, ant, gecko, snake or frog around. It is simple, but comfortable- there are plenty of hammocks for laying out, a pool, a place to clean clothes (by hand), gardens for sitting and even a tree house.
The rooms: I paid for a room in the main house, and didn’t get to see in any of the shared cabins or open air huts. The photos of the room are below. Like I said, simple but comfortable. Just make sure you put down the mosquito net and keep it down, because, as I mentioned, the rooms are open air- so you might find weird things in the sheets if you kept the mosquito net up all day. I’m pretty squeamish about “nature” (before the retreat I wouldn’t even walk in the grass barefoot, and would honestly still struggle to lay in the grass in a park without a blanket down), and I will admit that living like this pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but not in an anxiety-producing way. It was just a learning experience- except when I was walking with a girl and she almost stepped on a tarantula. That really upset me and I felt like it was in my sheets all night after that.
The amentities and spa: Besides the pool, there was a fitness area, arts and crafts room, snack bar, rock climbing wall and of course the Cambodian village right beyond the front drive. There was also a spa centre where blind shaitsu, coconut oil and Khmer (like Thai) massage was available. I had all three massages, spread across three different days, and they were all fantastic- and super reasonably priced. The snack bar had great smoothies, fresh coconuts and vegan cakes available, as well as things you might have forgotten- toothbrushes, insect repellant, etc. (although these are all also available at the morning market up the road).
The food: the food at Hariharalaya was absolutely amazing. I’m a vegetarian anyway, but even the meateaters of the group (most of the people) had only glowing things to say. Most everything was prepared fresh in the village immediately prior to being consumed. I especially loved the rice noodles, the stew and the coconut porridge. If you’re a really picky eater, or love your meat, you may want to bring some snacks, or just eat from the snack bar- but honestly there wasn’t a person there who ever said they were hungry or had a problem with the food. Just go with an open mind- and be ready for delicious, healthy options galore!
The yoga and pranayama: I’ll admit that I started my trip thinking that I was going to a physical asana retreat, and I was a bit disappointed the first few days when it turned out that the asana practice was very slow. However, as I settled in to it, I came to realise that the asana practice was just what I needed- I’m going through a time of severe pitta imbalance, and am thus naturally attracted to heated, hardcore exercise that further irritates it. This slow, steady practice was just what I needed- it was physical, and dropped me in to my body- but was simultaneously calming and relaxing. It was coupled with pranayama (breathing) exercises, which I’d been through before, but which were really helpful and which I have found myself using in stressful situations outside of the retreat environment.
The meditation: This was the most surprising facet of the retreat to me. I have always tried and thought I’d failed at meditation- and this retreat was so amazing in that it helped me find a meditation practice that I think I can stick to these days. Every day after asana practice, both in the morning and evening, we sat for at least 45 minutes in seated meditation. Let me tell you something: this is extremely physically demanding. I found my body cracking and creaking in ways I didn’t know were possible, mostly because I spent a large part of my time in a cross-legged seated position. There were many times when my body screamed in so much pain that it was difficult to think of anything else, or when my thoughts of discomfort- being bitten on by mosquitos, crawled on my ants, or just generally overwhelmed by thoughts- got the best of me. However, there were also times when I felt my mind and my body slow down. Even writing this about a month post-retreat, I have found that my mind moves more slowly- not in a bad way, just more deliberately- and that I’ve managed to clean out a lot of mental clutter more quickly. I don’t meditate every day, but I know its available to me and for that I am grateful.
The village: I really enjoyed my time at the village, which is just adjacent to Hariharalaya. There’s a morning market that I went to a few times, walking around to see what was for sale and buying a few local treats. Many locals can speak a tiny bit of English, so conversations can definitely occur, even if sometimes you have to smile and move your hands a lot. I loved seeing how people lived, biking by people’s houses and having kids run after me and yell, “Hello! I love you!” Seeing how people lived, and recognizing that the people in this village are probably better off than most people living in rural Cambodia, was a deeply humbling experience.
Silent time and silent day: I worried most about being silent for large portions of most days, and for one entire day, but I actually enjoyed it. I stressed about being rude if I met eyes with someone, or how I would react to silence, but it was a great way to relax and just be with myself.
Digital detox: This was difficult as I was less than a month from being married- and I run my own business and need to be on email. But I followed through, with one transgression to check an urgent client email (there is a small and slow computer for emergencies). Now, I find myself less attached to my phone, mostly because its clear it isn’t necessary and its just a time filler. That doesn’t mean I don’t find myself checking Instagram, but I do find that the detox helped me step away from filling my time with solely social media, and engaging in other ways, like reading a book, or even just sitting silently and thinking.
Karma yoga: This was such a small element of the programme, but some people complained. Everyone must help clean up the kitchen after dinner at least once during the retreat week. This allows the kitchen staff to go home and see their families. I laughed more during my karma yoga week than any other time at the retreat. I loved it, and didn’t think it was a big deal to help out around the centre. It’s a community and as such, everyone needs to pitch in (or so I think).
The staff: I found everyone at Hariharalaya to be so friendly, helpful and most of all approachable. Everyone lives at the retreat centre, which means they are all very open to simple, mindful living, and were very open to answering questions about yoga, meditation, mindful living and anything else you could ask. I often think of them and wonder how they could live in such simple surroundings all the time, but I find that there is something really special about that and really respect them for the lifestyle they lead.
Joel Altman: I had read some negative comments on TripAdvisor about Joel and his dharma talks, so I went in with some mixed expectations, but I have to say that I’ve rarely been so inspired and impressed by another human being. I don’t want to say much more so as to tinge any expectations, but I will say that I’m floored by this man, his warmth, his inner peace and wisdom, and the fact that an American like myself could live in rural Cambodia, speak fluent Khmer and live as Cambodians do.
Excursions and events: Although I was not super impressed with the private yoga lesson I took, in terms of the cost for what I got, I found all other optional events and excursions that I signed up for to be really worthwhile. I did the three massage package, which I would highly recommend just to add that much more zen and relaxation to your experience, and I also did the morning yoga at the temple excursion, complete with a water blessing from local monks, which was a really spiritual and interesting experience- complete with walking through fields in silent, walking meditation. I also did a group healing treatment (acupuncture) which I only did because I was inexpensive- I heard from others that the one-on-ones were too pricey. I’d also recommend doing as many of the optional activities- cow yoga, subtle yoga and dharma talks- as you can to really learn about and take advantage of the full experience. You never know what you’ll hear or pick up that could change how you think of things- that’s what I found, anyway.
My overall take away: I couldn’t recommend Hariharalaya enough- it was a transformative week. There were many things I learned, some of which I have taken with me in the time that has intervened since the retreat, and some that I will look back on fondly as an experience I more than likely will not repeat. Overall, I’d say that whether you’re looking for a yoga retreat, spiritual getaway or just a little time to get away from it all, this is a place to strongly consider.