The Great Escape: Month 59 Roundup

Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically one year late, ha ha) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead — so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.

Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? 😛

3-devide-lines

Oh, how hard it was to leave my island life! This was my final month in Thailand before jetting off to Brazil and a stateside summer, and it was a struggle to say goodbye. Aside from one hellish visa run and one giggle-filled girl’s weekend in Samui, I stuck close to Koh Tao and enjoyed my last bit of stillness.

This is a simple post for a simple month!

Where I’ve Been

• One night in overnight transit

• Five nights on Koh Tao

• Two nights on Koh Samui

• Twenty-one days on Koh Tao

Koh Tao Travel Blog

Highlights

• Breaking my Diet Coke addiction! Long time readers know that I’ve long considered the stuff to be carbonated gold, and I spent years jolting out of bed and immediately heading out on a mission to source a can if I happened to find myself without it. I was well and truly addicted.

When I started thinking about doing a DIY health retreat, I knew I wanted to kick my ridiculous Diet Coke habit. But it took me months to psych myself up for it! I knew that there was nowhere better than Thailand to do it, since I don’t actually love the Thai formula for Coke Light. And you know what? It was raging success — so much so that I extended my initial four weeks to six! I took a million notes and learned SO MUCH from the process. Literally one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given myself. It’s basically not travel related at all, but give me a shout if you’d be interested in a post about getting un-addicted from diet soda!

• Crushing my 5K time. Well, perhaps crushing is a bit of an exaggeration. But I did semi-train for a run for the first time ever, and I saw the results! I set a new best pace for myself, and had a blast crossing the finish line. It wasn’t just that final moment of euphoria though — I also cherished my sunset jogs with my running buddy Amy leading up to it.

• Easter Brunch. Our whole Samui girl’s trip was divine — not because we did anything super special (apart from the race, of course) or ate or drank anywhere especially noteworthy. But we were together, and it was our last big hurrah before my summer departure, and I just loved it. The highlight was our Sunday brunch complete with DIY mimosas and endless toasts to friends and upcoming farewells.

• Not one but two diving courses! A sidemount speciality and an enriched air certification were the perfect courses to take side-by-side. I learned so much, I got excited about diving on Koh Tao again, and I got to cap it all off with a group trip to Sail Rock surrounded by friends. I couldn’t have asked for better days in the ocean.

• Celebrating Sonkgran! My first Songkran years ago was just days into a heart-wrenching breakup with my boyfriend of three years, so suffice it to say that was pretty bittersweet. And I’ve been just missing the big day ever since in my comings and goings from Thailand. Finally, in 2016, I got to have a big wet and wild, happiness-fueled do-ver. Travel BFF Heather even flew in from Bali! Honestly, it was the best day I could have asked for. It’s one of the greatest holidays I’ve had the privilege of celebrating!

• Calling quits on Photo of the Week. It had to happen! I didn’t regret it for a second and I’ve really enjoyed focused more on my Instagram and Facebook since. (My newsletter has been far less successful, unfortunately.) It just took so much pressure off!

• Getting enough sleep. It says something funny about our society that I write here every day about my travels around the world but I’m almost embarrassed to say that I get 7-8 hours of sleep a night when I’m on Koh Tao because I know what a luxury that is.

I’ve spent years with various degrees of sleep deprivation due to anxiety and extreme scheduling. Not that both those didn’t flare up occasionally over my time in Koh Tao — and not that I didn’t have the worst mattress on the planet — but overall it was the most well-rested half a year I’ve had.

Koh Samui Travel Blog

Lowlights and Lessons

• Another hellish visa run to the Burmese border. Paying to spend twenty-four hours being motion sick and be bored to tears by a bureaucratic puppet show? I vowed then and there to never do another one — and so far I’ve stuck to it! (I take mini-vacations instead.)

• Our Samui hotel was pretty disappointing. After all the fabulous places we’ve stayed over the years, it was kind of a letdown to land somewhere so meh for such an epic trip — I really wanted to treat my girls to something special! Ah well, that’s what we get for booking last minute! We still had a blast.

• My Brazilian visa photo. Lol? I know it sounds like a funny thing to complain about, but I was legit horrified to learn that the awful passport photo I’d submitted with my Brazilian visa application was PRINTED ON THE VISA AND PASTED INTO MY PASSPORT. Of all the passport photos I’ve had to submit over the years, none but the original have actually ended up in my passport! Lesson learned: I’ll never settle for anything less than frame-worthy again. Tears were shed, guys. My vanity knows no bounds.

• The Boat Party… ugh. Honestly, this was so traumatizing of an event that this is the first time I’m mentioning it anywhere in public. And frankly, I’m still going to be super vague, because I’m always on edge writing negatively about anything pertaining to the Thai Government or authorities, considering the country’s track record of warmth towards free speech and criticism.

But basically, what happened was this: a yacht was hired for a private party of mostly long-term expats. We boarded the boat with much elation and enjoyed our fun at sea for about an hour before being approached by a police vessel which boarded the boat and forced it back to a pier other than the one we’d departed from. When docked, we headed for the end of the long pier — only to realize the police had locked it from the other side. We spent two hours in the hot sun with no water or access to bathrooms, portions of it on our knees with our hands over our head, while the police tossed the boat and tried to figure out what charges we could be held on. When we were released, we had to write down names, passport numbers, addresses, and more. It was incredibly traumatizing and I actually cried when we were finally freed. Anyway, that’s the short version — for the longer one, you’ll have to wait for an incredibly juicy chapter of the book I’ve finally accepted I’ll try to write someday.

• Leaving Koh Tao. Seriously, it never gets any easier. This was one of the best seasons I ever spent on the island, and leaving literally felt heart-wrenching. That said, a travel writer stranding herself on an island that is the isolation equivalent of being a 4-5 hour drive from the closest, most expensive airport and a 7-8 hour drive from the more reasonably priced one is not a sustainable business plan and I recognize that my time off the island is necessary for both my business and my mental health! Still, there are always things I long for when I’m away.

Burma Travel Blog

Best and Worst Beds of the Month

Best: Well I didn’t really travel much this month but I did soak up my last beautiful weeks of sleeping in my own apartment! Kind of a shame that I loathed, ya know, my actual bed.

Worst: Easy — my evening on the night boat with broken AC followed by a miserable motion-sickness inducing car ride to the edge on Thailand on my visa run. (Though frankly, the hotel in Samui was nothing much exciting either.)

Best and Worst Meals of the Month

Best: Our post-Songkran brunch at my friend Janine’s house! I made banana cinnamon pancakes and mango mimosas — hangover food in the tropics.

Worst: Sorry to be a broken record, but I’ll have to go with “whatever shitty snacks I compiled from a five-minute stop at 7-11 just over the Burmese border.” Yeah, I really hate those visa runs.

Koh Tao Travel Blog

Spending

I had another nice and low-key month of expenditures (much needed before the spend-storm that was Brazil!). While Songkran and our trip to Samui were mild splurges, my day-to-day lifestyle on Koh Tao is so affordable it can definitely absorb the blow of a few fun activities thrown in per month. In Samui I also used some built up hotel credit I had — nothing special for being a blogger, just normal loyalty programs anyone can use! — to cover the majority of the cost of the rooms.

Unusually for me, two of my biggest splurges were clothes and accessories — new bikinis from local Koh Tao designer Flip Flop and Treacle, and some new jewelry from local island jeweler Amy Jennifer Jewellery. Had to send myself off in style!

Saving

Hallelujah! I doubled my income from the previous month thanks to a few big campaigns coming in with my regular blog partners, as well as a successful month for affiliate income. Again — right before Brazil, I seriously needed it.

Health and Fitness

Between my 5K, the training for it, and trying to use up all my gym and yoga passes before heading off to Brazil, I basically crushed it. Admittedly, Songkran was quite debaucherous, but overall

What Was Next

Six weeks in BRAZIL!

Koh Tao Travel Blog

I simply couldn’t ask for better travel companions than all of you!

Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.

Traveling responsibly in Thailand

When you’re on the road, it’s easy to get completely caught up in your own experiences – your adventures, your struggles, where you’re going, and how the experience is affecting you. But as a visitor in someone else’s country, what about how you, as a traveler, affect the people who live there?

The tourism industry can be tremendously beneficial to local communities, by providing new job opportunities, accumulating tax revenue, and facilitating cross-cultural exchange. But when it goes unchecked – leading to overcrowding, environmental damage, and disrespect of local people – things get murky. Fortunately, the movement for responsible travel is growing, and it’s pushing both travelers and those working in tourism to make choices that have better social, economic, and environmental outcomes. But we have a long way to go before tourism will be wholly beneficial.

Responsible travel is especially critical in a place like Thailand, a developing country that now sees over 30 million visitors per year and is only getting more popular. Tourism in Thailand has really taken off over the past decade, and there are already stories of places that receive more visitors than they can sustain, where the level of tourism is straining local resources and degrading the environment, and where respect for local people has taken a backseat to having a good time. Travelers committed to having a positive impact can start to turn some of these situations around, so consider these seven things to make your next trip to Thailand a responsible one.

1. Don’t ride an elephant.

The effort to end elephant riding in Thailand and elsewhere is one of the most prominent causes of responsible travel advocates and has been taken up by animal rights groups as well. But despite the movement’s increasing visibility, elephant rides continue, as do shows with elephants trained to do circus-type tricks.

Even though they’re huge animals, elephants are not built to carry the weight of a human on their back, and they’re certainly not circus performers by nature. The elephants that work in the tourism industry have been taken from the wild or bred in captivity, and often separated from their mothers at a young age. They’re beaten into submission through a process known as “crushing the elephant’s spirit,” which involves having their feet roped or chained together, getting beaten and slashed with metal bull hooks, and being deprived of food and water. Once their spirit has been crushed, the elephants are held in captivity, where they often live in filthy conditions, are separated from other elephants, receive inadequate food and water, and are overworked to the point of exhaustion.

Though it might seem like fun from the outset, riding elephants or attending performances supports an abusive industry. Sanctuaries that instead give visitors the chance to feed or bathe elephants, though still somewhat controversial, are a significant improvement over traditional elephant tourism in Thailand.

2. Don’t take a tiger selfie.

Though not as synonymous with Thailand as the elephant, encounters with tigers are also common and equally problematic. While the notorious Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province was recently shut down, similar venues are still operating across the country, hosting circus performances or allowing visitors to pet or hug a tiger (perfect social media fodder!).

Like the elephants used in tourism, these tigers are often separated from their mothers at a young age and then chained, beaten, starved, and confined in cages. A tiger’s innate reaction to a human holding or petting it is to attack – the ones that don’t have had their natural instinct beaten out of them.

For an ethical way to see animals in Thailand, consider visiting one of the country’s national parks, where you’ll be able to see them in the wild, roaming free and unabused – and get plenty of Instagram-worthy photos, too.

3. Take a responsible hill tribe trek.

For travelers interested in culture, hill tribe visits in northern Thailand are extremely popular. But they, too, are rife with ethical concerns, commonly seen as tourist traps and called “human zoos.” Visits to the famed “long neck” Karen tribes are the most controversial. Most of the people in these villages are Burmese refugees who aren’t fully recognized in Thailand and often don’t have access to education, healthcare, or other job opportunities. Some of the “villages” are actually just rows of souvenir stalls that have been set up solely for tourism and even charge an admission fee to enter and see the women, who receive only a small fraction of the profits from the tours.

But that’s not to say that all hill tribe visits are bad; on the contrary, they can be enriching and responsible experiences that benefit both the visitor and the community. Many companies visit authentic villages that aren’t overrun with tourists, share their revenue with the community, and employ local guides from the hill tribes. Dozens of companies operate hill tribe treks that leave from various towns in northern Thailand, so just do your research before choosing one.

4. Spend your money locally.

One of the simplest ways to make an impact while traveling is to make sure the money you spend actually stays in the area. Staying at international hotel chains, eating at foreign-owned restaurants, and buying imported goods and snacks all send money out of the country, often to large corporations in the U.S. or Europe. Spending money with local businesses instead keeps cash in the country and town you’re visiting, benefitting the people who live there and helping to develop the local economy.

And in Thailand, there are plenty of locally owned guesthouses, restaurants, and tour companies that are charming and professional, so you won’t be missing out – and you’ll usually end up with a much more interesting experience.

5. Watch yourself under water.

There’s a good chance that diving or snorkeling will be on your itinerary in Thailand, since the country’s islands are famous for their tropical fish and coral reefs. But the ocean’s eco-systems are fragile, so it pays to be careful under water. Interacting with fish or other sea creatures in an unnatural way can change their habits, make them sick, and even cause them to become aggressive. Don’t dive with companies that feed the fish or encourage divers to touch them (and if you’re feeling bold, tell them that’s why they’re losing business!), and the same goes for coral. Those stories about the death of the Great Barrier Reef weren’t actually true, but it’s a fact that coral can die simply from being touched.

Even if you don’t intentionally touch the fish or coral, though, you may accidentally come into contact with something if you don’t have good buoyancy control. Practice your diving skills until you’re confident you can avoid brushing against fish or coral you swim by.

6. Be careful with volunteering.

Thailand has an abundance of “voluntourism” activities for travelers who want to give back, and they often involve working with children. But while these volunteers may have good intentions, the unfortunate truth is that they often end up doing more harm than good. Most short-term volunteer programs are mainly designed to give the volunteer a good experience – not to truly make a difference to the people they’re alleged to help.

Voluntourists usually lack the technical skills for the work they’re sent to do – like teaching, social work, healthcare, agriculture, or construction. Even for qualified volunteers, working effectively in a foreign country usually requires putting in the time to understand the culture, study the language, and build relationships with local communities. The few days or weeks most travelers want to commit is far too little to make a meaningful impact on the long-term, structural problems people in developing countries face. Plus, a constant stream of short-term volunteers means the programs they’re supposed to support have no continuity.

Some proponents argue that volunteers aren’t hurting anyone, even if they’re not highly effective. But these programs waste the local community’s time and resources, which could be directed at more useful initiatives, and exacerbate the notion of the “white savior” swooping in to help. Voluntourism opportunities with children, which are probably the most common, are especially problematic. A substantial portion of children living in orphanages in Southeast Asia aren’t even orphans (over 75 percent in Cambodia) – rather, they’re kept in institutions that exist to profit from providing volunteering opportunities for Westerners. Whether they’re in orphanages or elsewhere, vulnerable children experience psychological damage from developing relationships with foreign volunteers who quickly leave them again and again.

Unless you have a useful technical skill and can commit to a long-term placement, donating to a non-profit organization that works in Thailand will have a much more positive impact than volunteering (even if it doesn’t come with the warm fuzzies).

7. Pack responsibly.

Responsible travel actually starts before you leave home. Choices about what to pack and even where to shop make a difference, and they can set you up for a trip that’s eco-friendly and socially conscious. Sleeping at an eco-lodge in Thailand or elsewhere doesn’t cancel out the harm incurred by a bag full of clothes made in a sweatshop, so shop for your trips at responsible companies and small businesses when possible.

Some of the items on your Thailand packing list can also help you travel more responsibly there, especially when it comes to plastic. It’s no secret that plastic products are both ubiquitous and damaging to the environment, and many travelers find themselves using even more plastic on the road than at home, especially plastic bags and water bottles. Plastic use anywhere is environmentally harmful, but it’s especially problematic in developing countries, where waste management systems are weak and recycling infrastructure may not exist at all. Reduce your footprint in Thailand or anywhere you travel by bringing things like a refillable water bottle, portable water filter, and reusable cloth bag.

Of course, there’s more to responsible travel than these seven issues, and following these tips doesn’t guarantee your trip to Thailand will be completely free of ethical qualms. But, they’re a step in the right direction and if you’re new to responsible travel, they’re a good place to start.

Creating a DIY Health Retreat in Thailand

Raise your virtual hand if one of your New Year’s resolutions for like, every single year of your life thus far has been to live a healthier lifestyle in some way, shape, or form. Me too!

About a year and a half ago, I found my self-esteem hitting an all-time low as my weight hit an all-time high. My first instinct? To sign up for a health retreat, one that would hit the reset button on my body, mind, and soul. My current destination of Thailand is a popular destination for spiritual-style fat camps, and it’s easy to see why – I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting for kick-starting a healthy lifestyle.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Yoga on Koh Tao

Yoga on Koh Tao

But that particular slice of paradise comes at quite a price. A popular health retreat in Chiang Mai, including food, accommodation, massages, and group training will set you back 218,000 baht for a month – that’s a cool $6,000USD! A similar retreat in Phuket goes for 125,000 baht, or $3,500USD.

While I’m sure those are fabulous programs that provide fantastic results for their customers, that just wasn’t a splurge I was willing nor able to make at that moment. In the same boat? Don’t let it stop you. I figured if I couldn’t afford an official health bootcamp on my travels, I could find a destination where I could self-style my own.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

And so I decided to create my own, on the little Thai island I call home: Koh Tao. This post is a compilation of notes, journals, and experiences from over a year of experimenting here in Thailand.

Now, I just want to throw in a reminder here that despite my loyal viewership of Grey’s Anatomy, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not a fitness expert. I’m just a girl hungry for a healthier lifestyle. And these are just my stories of trying to find it on Koh Tao, and some ideas for how you could build your own DIY health retreat at home or anywhere else you choose to travel to.

Trapeze Koh Tao

My Goals

In late October of 2015, I kick-started a new workout plan after a period of falling off the fitness wagon. I work best with specific monthly and/or weekly goals. Here’s a sample of a list of monthly goals, or a general roadmap to my DIY health retreat!

Keep a food log every single day to stay accountable to myself

Get my sweat on 25+ times, ideally including 12 gym sessions, 8 yoga sessions, and 4-6 other activities

Drink 2.5L of water per day (three full bottles full)

Get two massages per week

Use only positive self talk

Continue to educate myself on living a healthy lifestyle

You’ll notice that generally none of my goals involved cutting something out of my life, rather on trying to positively add to it. That said, in the past I wasn’t a proponent of axing specific foods or food groups, but ever since completing an incredibly rewarding Diet Coke Cleanse that finally broke my addiction to the most beautiful beverage ever invented (perhaps a topic for a full other post!) I do occasionally experiment with cutting out anything that I’m obsessing over, like candies and desserts, to remind myself that I can live without it.

Hiking on Koh Tao

I also try to avoid making specific goals for numbers I’d like to see on the scale. While I admit that there is a certain number that I seem ever-obsessed with, I’m trying to focus more on the long road it takes to feel fit, confident and strong than setting an arbitrary weight at which I’ll feel I’ve achieved it.

Tracking

For me, tracking is an essential part of meeting my goals. For years I’ve tracked my spending daily in order to meet my financial goals, and in the last eighteen months, I’ve begun tracking my health, too.

I have a cute calendar expressly for tracking my eating and exercising and I try to fill it in religiously every night. In the monthly view section, I fill in my workouts and notate the days I meet my water goals (so important for this former serial dehydrator). In the weekly section, I write down every single thing I eat and drink. Each week I reflect on how the week went, and tweak my goals slightly (swap ciders for vodka sodas, focus on not over-ordering when eating out, etc.)

I Love Salad Koh Tao

This is all about being accountable to myself. No longer can I snarf up three servings of Goldfish and conveniently forget that little snack when I order up a sugary shake an hour later. It also allows me to catch myself before I fall into bad patterns — like realizing I didn’t get any veggies all day, or realizing I’ve been struggling to meet my water goals all week — and course correct for the next day or week.

And for my workout tracking – it’s fun! I created little symbols for my different workouts just for laughs and I love seeing how little white space I can leave at the end of the month by filling the whole page with sweat sessions.

Ideally I would love to be taking more progress photos and recording my measurements as well, but I seem to avoid those tasks pretty successfully on a regular basis. My true test of progress? A favorite pair of shorts that haven’t fit in a long time. When those slip on again, I’ll be ready to celebrate.

Cost: $15 for a calendar

Eating

Having healthy, nutritious and restricted meals provided for you is probably the number one benefit to an actual health retreat. Admittedly, I’m eating a little less strictly in my self-styled version than I would in a “real” one – but I’m okay with that. It’s helping me find healthier ways to live that can be applied to real life, and not just live within the confines of a health resort.

The past year has opened my eyes in many ways. Overall, I’ve become a drastically less picky eater over the years. But now I’m also experimenting with a more plant-based diet than I’ve ever eaten before, I’m ordering more carefully when I eat out (which is often) and I’m even discovering new foods – I ordered tofu for the first time in my life, and actually enjoyed it it.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Again, I haven’t really cut anything out, though I have focused on eating a protein, vegetable and fruit heavy diet with less reliance on carbs. For example, I eat Thai stir fries and curries often but I no longer order white rice. That said, I have noticed that my afternoon and evening workouts are much easier when I have a lunch that includes a whole wheat wrap or a bit of black rice, so I’m certainly not banning the bottom of the food pyramid.

Heading to Koh Tao for a DIY health retreat of your own? Head to these three locations, the source of the vast majority of my meals:

• Living Juices: Koh Tao’s original green juicer. While I’ve yet to advance to drinking kale, I do go for an occasional ginger carrot juice when my immune system needs a boost and often use one of their a chia seed, oats and banana packed smoothies, the Good Morning Koh Tao, as a filling breakfast. Another fabulous option are the Living Bowls, smoothie bowls made from all-natural goodness. Delish!

For lunch, I often grab a Superfood Salad (all kinds of amazing greens and veggies topped with coconut oil, hummus and/or quinoa chia seed bread, yum!) or if I’m looking for a snack, the Sticks and Dip (sliced and diced veggies with homemade hummus).

Living Juices Koh Tao

Living Juices Koh Tao

• Fitness Café: A health-centric eatery attached to Koh Tao Gym & Fitness. I’m a regular here for the Frozen Berry Nut Crunch (fresh Greek yogurt with berries and almonds) or the Superfood Porridge (with milk, banana, apple, goji, flax, chia seeds and honey) for breakfast, or the chicken quinoa feta salad or chicken avocado on tomato garlic wrap for lunch. Grab a 10% off loyalty card.

• Vegetabowl: A vegetarian lunch and dinner spot building beautiful salad bowls with different themes. My favorite is the Mexican Bowl, which featured black beans that fill me up with protein, but have recently branched out to ordering their tofu-packed versions as well, like the Japanese Bowl – also including edamame, bean spouts, and mango.

Koh Tao Vegetabowl

Koh Tao Vegetabowl

Here’s an example of one of the days from my daily food diary, and the cost:

Breakfast: Frozen berry crunch from Fitness Café (110B)
Jasmine Green Tea

Lunch: Morning Glory & Chicken Stir Fry from Thai restaurant (120B)
Carrot Orange Ginger Juice from Living Juices (150B)

Snack: Banana (5B)
Ginger tea (Free with massage)

Dinner: Mexican Bowl from Vegetabowl (240B)
Soda water (12B)

Water: 2.5L Water (Free!)

This glorious day of food and drink cost 637 baht (actually cheaper since I have discount cards and local prices at many of these places, but that would be the walk in cost). That comes to about $18USD.

This was an expensive day, and often I have cheaper ones by swapping a meal for an apple and peanut butter or organic, GMO-free rice thins (a great find on the island imported from Australia) spread with peanut butter and mango. In general though, eating a healthy and plant-heavy diet in Thailand will cost a lot more than grabbing a Pad Thai on the street.

Cost: $500 per month for healthy nutritious meals.

Exercise

There’s nothing I love more than getting my sweat on! Here’s a few workouts I’ve experimented with here on Koh Tao:

• Yoga: Yoga has changed my life! Sadly I practice a lot less of it now that Grounded, my local studio on Sairee Beach, has closed their location that was literally next door to my apartment, and Ocean Sound has taken a hiatus from offering workshops. That said, I make it to Ocean Sound classes once or twice a week, and I occasionally practice at home using the Yoga with Adrienne YouTube channel, a great option for those who don’t have a studio nearby or are on limited budgets.

Ocean Sound Yoga Koh Tao

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

• Gym: Last year I finally tried the insta-famous 12 week BBG Program, a PDF or app-based workout you can do anywhere. Its founder Kayla Itsines is a social media celebrity, and the before-and-afters from real users posted to instagram are what inspired me to start. While I do these workouts at the gym, they are light on equipment and could be modified to do just about anywhere with body weight. The program calls for three gym sessions a week, each focusing on legs, arms and abs, or abs and cardio.

Recently I’ve been hitting the gym again and haven’t been feeling motivated to start a new round of BBG, so I just search Pinterest for the body area I want to exercise and the amount of time I have (ie. twenty minute arm workout) and pin a workout from there! On Koh Tao, I purchase twelve-pack gym sessions from Koh Tao Gym and Fitness.

• Other: In the past year I’ve logged sessions of trapeze, paddleboarding, muay thai, hiking, scuba diving, and crossfit. Anything that gets my heart rate up – and bonus points if it involves exploring this beautiful island!

Trapeze Koh Tao

Koh Tao Trapeze

Trapeze Koh Tao

By purchasing class packs for yoga and the gym, I’m able to make them very affordable. Hiking and practicing yoga at home are also free! See more pricing information and Koh Tao workout inspiration in this post.

Cost: $150 per month for exercise. 

Positive Thoughts

Last year, at an intensive vinyasa workshop, our instructor was discussing the yamas of yoga, and piqued my interest when she brought up animas, or non-violence. We discussed that animas can be interpreted more broadly than just “don’t hit people.” It also means to practice non-violence towards yourself – to use positive language when you talk about your body, and to treat yourself the way you’d treat your closest friends.

Koh Tao Paddleboarding

This hit home because it’s something I’ve been musing a lot on lately. I’ve been struggling greatly with feeling comfortable in my skin, and when I go to the gym and look in the mirror and start to feel negative thoughts creeping out, I remind myself to work out not because I hate my body and wish I had someone else’s instead, because I love my body and I’m grateful for all the adventures it takes me on — and I want to treat it with respect in return.

Cost: Free!

Water

After a life of dehydration, in the past year I finally feel like I know what being properly watered feels like. And dang, is it gorgeous! I make the ambitious goal of chugging three bottles full per day, which amounts to 2.5L or 10 cups (so a bit above the standard recommended 8).

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Wondering how I can drink water out of the tap in Thailand? Read this post on personal filtration devices — I also recently invested in this filtered water pitcher for my house. It’s amazing what a difference this makes in my day! Drinking water has never been easier and I feel more full, have more energy and get less headaches.

Cost: Thanks to the products mentioned above, I budget $0 per month for water.

Massage

I’ve always felt strongly that massage was a critically important part of health, and finally TIME.com went and provided me with the perfect pull quote to prove it:

The results are fairly clear that massage boosts your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels, which helps you create new good habits… Massage reduces pain because the oxytocin system activates painkilling endorphins. Massage also improves sleep and reduces fatigue by increasing serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.

Here in Koh Tao, twice weekly massages are a luxury I can easily afford. Typically I go for one full hour Thai or oil massage (300-400 baht or $9-12 USD) and one half-hour reflexology session (200-250 baht or $6-7 USD).

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

Yoga on Koh Tao

Yoga on Koh Tao

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

I realize that isn’t possible in most parts of the world. When I’m in the US and my body is aching for a treatment, I scour Groupon for deals or trade with friends – in the past, I took a one-day massage course in Chiang Mai and I still like to bust out those moves.

Cost: I budget $80 per month for massages.

Education

Being in Koh Tao, I don’t have access to any formal education opportunities as far as nutrition and wellness. But I knew this would be an important part of my progress, so I crowdsourced books and documentaries on the subjects with a Facebook post asking friends for their recommendation. Here’s what I’ve downloaded as a result.

Watching

• Fed Up: Absolutely eye-opening — you won’t go food shopping the same way ever again!

• Food Inc.: The classic film on food in America.

• Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: Emotional and moving account of one man’s struggle to change school lunch programs.

• Food Matters / Hungry for Change / The Sugar Film: Still need to watch!

Reading

• What Are You Hungry For?: The Chopra Solution to Permanent Weight Loss, Well-Being, and Lightness of Soul: This has been my favorite health-related read ever. It’s all about refocusing your perspective so that you crave the things that are good for you, instead of fetishizing those that are bad.

• In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: So excited to dig into this infamous book on our culture’s complicated relationship with food.

• Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us: My little sister loved this — I’m almost afraid to read it (I love salt, sugar, and fat!). But I do love being angry at major corporations, so there’s that!

• Eat. Nourish. Glow.: A recent recommendation I’m looking forward to digging into.

• Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life: My older sister recommended this as a way to help incorporate more plant-based nutrients into my diet, which I’m interested in for ethical and environmental reasons (though I don’t plan to give up meat entirely.)

Also

Attending yoga workshops, watching free TED talks on fitness and nutrition, and talking to friends and family about their experiences with health and nutrition.

The beauty of the fact that so many travelers have a laptop or iPad or a Kindle or even a smartphone means you can educate yourself anywhere you decide to do a DIY health retreat. Some documentaries are free or available on Netflix, but if not cost about $5 to rent. Books were generally around $10 on Kindle.

Cost: I budgeted $50 for books and movies. 

. . . . . . .

Trapeze Koh Tao

Now, there’s one element here that simply can’t be ignored: dealing with distractions! If I was sequestered away at an all-inclusive health spa, I certainly wouldn’t have the temptation to drink with my friends or order a pizza from my favorite italian restaurant… both of which I do here on Koh Tao, since I’ve been living here on and off for years. Ideally, I’d love to try creating a DIY health retreat in a destination where I’d have a few less diversions.

In total, here’s what you could spend for a month long self-styled health retreat. To make the comparison fair, I’ve also included a sample monthly rent on a past, fairly luxurious apartment of mine that included all my bills and weekly cleaning.

Rent: $420

Tracking: $15

Food: $500

Exercise: $150

Massages: $80

Education: $50 

Total: $1,215

As you can see, that’s quite a significant savings over the $3,500 Phuket version of the $6,000 retreat in Chiang Mai. Would I still love to hit one of those up someday and see what kind of physical transformation they might bring? Hell yes. But for now, I’m working with what time and funds I’ve got.

Koh Tao Fitness Retreat

I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out — far from it! But I am trying to constantly guide myself towards a slightly healthier lifestyle, wherever in the world I may be. I have to admit, I’m currently in a bit of a slump where I’m feeling frustrated with my progress and I hope that publishing this, and starting a conversation with you all in the comments, will motivate me out of my funk. So let’s chat health and fitness!

What steps would you take for a DIY health retreat?