The Yoga Diary

Siem Reap turns out to be a hidden gem

Siem Reap turns out to be a hidden gem

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While Cambodia may not be celebrated as one of Southeast Asia’s premier yoga destinations, a rustic retreat just outside the centre of Siem Reap turns out to be a hidden gem for lovers of sun salutations, dancer posers and peaceful shavasanas.

After a bumpy, six-hour journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, I am greeted by a wall of heat as I step off the bus. Rather than following other visitors – most of whom are making a beeline towards the Angkor Wat temple complex – I hop into a tuk tuk bound for the Angkor Bodhi Tree retreat, based just outside the centre of the town. Upon arrival, I am greeted by the owner, who welcomes me to the retreat with an enormous smile on his face. After unloading my bags in the blissfully air-conditioned dormitory and feasting on a fragrant vegetable curry, it’s time for an early night before the yoga and meditation programme kicks off the next morning.

An Early Start

The day at Angkor Bodhi Tree starts bright and early at 6:00am, and we plunge straight into our first meditation session at 6.15. For someone who is used to downing a morning coffee before heading straight out to work, taking the time to simply enjoy the cool peace of the in and out breath for 30 minutes results in an incredible difference on my mood for the remainder of the day. Meditation at this retreat isn’t just for seasoned practitioners, and this is one of the reasons I get more out of the workshops. The leader of the session gears the practice towards beginners, gently reminding us throughout that every time we start to lose ourselves in pesky everyday thoughts, simply return to the breath.

Time to Stretch

After a hearty breakfast of fruit, muesli and pumpkin bread toast, it’s time for stretch class. This workshop isn’t based on yoga in the traditional sense, but focuses on letting each person in the class learn the limits of his or her own body – in order to push it later on. We worked in small groups of two or three people to gently stress and contract different muscle groups throughout the body. After twisting my body into a range of positions and being held in place by my helpful partners for almost an hour and a half, I am more than ready for the lunchtime break!

A Trip to the Temple

Later that afternoon, I find myself alone in the retreat; all the other guests having headed to the Angkor Wat temple complex to explore before sunset. Accompanied by the meditation leader, I head down to the local temple for my first ever visit to a Cambodian place of worship. Just as we settle down at the back of the temple to meditate whilst the monks are chanting, a smiling round-faced monk approaches, dressed in the striking saffron robes worn by monks across all of Southeast Asia. The monk is holding a length of red string, and I am told that he wants to bless me. I later learn that you usually have to request to be blessed by one of the local monks. Perhaps he thought that I was in need of some blessing but either way, the red threaded bracelet around my right wrist is supposed to bring me good luck and protection.

One to One

A few hours later, I find myself in a one to one yoga tuition class with the Indian instructor who lives a few minutes’ walk from the retreat. After one hour of flowing through intermediate yoga poses, I thought the class was over. It is at this point that the teacher, Prasad, asks me if I am experiencing any back pain. As someone who spends a large proportion of time hunched over a laptop, back pain had just become a niggly ache that I thought I would be dealing with for the rest of my life. When Prasad offers to try out a healing technique on me, I fully expect to be disappointed. He holds his hands over the painful area of my spine for one minute, before blowing on it. I then lie down on my yoga mat as he prods different pressure points across my body. I get up, ready to be polite and pretend that the pain is gone – except this time, it really is. It’s amazing what a bit of yoga can do!

Burmese Meditation

After a long and physically straining day of walking around temples and stretching my body into testing yogic positions, I am looking forward to bed – but not before one last meditation session. Having discussed the struggle of switching off my thoughts with the instructor, he suggests we try something a little different: Burmese walking meditation. Gentle wafts of incense and the serene melody of bamboo flutes helps set the pace for this exercise, in which I and two other guests time our steps up and down the room to our breath. With something physical to focus on – the act of picking up one foot, swinging it forwards and placing it down – it’s a lot easier to shut off my constant stream of thoughts. When the session ends, I tumble into bed and sleep like a baby.

Top Tips

  • Like most yoga retreats across Southeast Asia, this particular programme is aimed at all levels, which means there is no need to feel anxious if you have never tried yoga before. The key is to stay calm, breathe and let your body move into a stance that challenges without causing discomfort. If you’re in pain, it doesn’t mean you’re working harder, so it’s best just to back off.
  • Surrounded by natural beauty, Cambodia is a fine place to begin your meditation. If you have taken a couple of workshops, then why not have a go on your own? For a meditation session to remember, head to the Angkor Wat temple complex just outside Siem Reap. Find a quiet spot out of the sun and tap into the deep spiritually of your surroundings.
  • If you would rather skip the uncomfortable bus journeys between Siem Reap and Bangkok or Phnom Penh, the town’s international airport is situated about a 15-minute drive from the centre.
  • Do your research before booking onto a programme at one of Southeast Asia’s yoga centres. Each retreat has its own unique focus, whether it be spirituality, fitness or detox. Work out what you expect to get out of the programme and make your decision based on that. After all, there is no point in forcing down green juices for seven days straight if you aren’t going to enjoy yourself!
  • When you’re doing yoga, comfort is key. Despite the range of stylish yoga pants and accessories available nowadays, looking like you stepped out of the pages of a fitness fashion magazine isn’t going to enhance your practice. Your favourite loose t-shirt and a comfortable pair of shorts will do just fine!
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