13 Aug My Frantic Koh Tao Farewell • Alex in Wanderland
Where we’re at: I’m recapping my summer of 2018, of which this is the bitter end.
How do you say goodbye to your home nearly a decade in the making?
I first visited Koh Tao in 2009, fell wildly in love, and headed back on a one-way ticket in 2011 ready to start the next chapter of my life, on a tiny island in Thailand. I came and went and traveled my face off, but Koh Tao was my home base for everything in between. And then, in 2018, it came to an abrupt end, when my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and I moved back from across the world to take care of her.
It total I was back in Thailand for exactly two weeks, which is actually an insane amount of time in which to run an eight day retreat, move out of your apartment of three years, and say goodbye to the island you’ve called home for seven. Yikes. Oh, and my cousin happened to be traveling through Thailand and I also wanted to casually show him around Koh Tao. Ha ha.
Needless to say, this had not been the original plan, especially regarding my retreat. I was meant to fly to Thailand directly from my PADI collaboration in Florida, leaving me plenty of time to decompress from a busy summer, be a bridesmaid in one of my oldest Thailand friends’ weddings, and feel settled and ready to rock for my retreat. Life had other plans.
So I made do. I shortened my trip to the absolute minimum necessary to physically do the things I needed to do, and got back and hustled straight into get getting my retreat setup moving. After years of fantasizing about this moment, the eve of my very first Wander Women Retreat, this frazzled state was certainly not how I had ever imagined it.
But, I tried to take it in stride.
And, savoring any stolen moments I could to enjoy the last days on my special, beautiful island, I did.
I literally started planning this inaugural Wander Women Retreat almost two years before it actually happened. I had so much fear and so many insecurities, the idea of a launch was just overwhelmingly terrifying. But this idea I had, this idea of bringing women together to dive, do yoga, laugh, connect, and explore Koh Tao, was so strong that with time it was able to overcome any lingering little voices in the back of my head saying, “you can’t.”
You see, I had a bit of imposter syndrome. Who was I to think I was a grown up who could do something like plan, organize, sell and execute something as elaborate as a dive and yoga retreat? There were days when I ate delivery pizza for breakfast and accidentally took a nap for lunch and didn’t put pants on until I was going out that night for a drink. Surely I didn’t have it together enough to do something so polished.
I literally can’t tell you how terrifying it was, launching that sales page. I went over every nightmare scenario in my head over and over. What if only two people booked? What if I lost money? I bargained with myself, I just needed to break even.
Instead, we sold out. The girls had an incredible time. My team rocked it. It was a memory I don’t think any of us will ever forget.
Which is not to say it all ran smoothly. You read about all the highlights and the special moments and the giving back, and all that was incredible. But it was a first time event with ten trillion moving parts, y’all! When I first started competition research for the idea of diving and yoga retreats, I was shocked by how little was out there. Now, I joke that I kind of understand, ha ha.
And I really did not take the easy way out, in any turn of the imagination — I designed the experience from the ground up and essentially built a dive shop from scratch for a week. No framework. No hand holding. I was laser focused on my vision and I knew there was no manual to follow, because no one had ever done anything quite like this before.
I realized that at some point, you can only do so much preparation. You don’t know what you don’t know until you just go for it. And eventually that’s what I had to do.
There’s this famous quote by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”Luckily, I’m not embarrassed by my first retreat (to which perhaps Reid would say, you should have launched it a year earlier!), and in fact I’m quite proud of it. But, I did truly marvel at some of the disasters that we managed to persevere through, and still have the guests tell us, “this trip is running so smoothly!”
It’s so funny to look back at that time today, now with three retreats behind me, three ahead, and four in progress, and think about how far I’ve come. It’s actually part of what’s fueling one of my many side projects at the moment: I’m in the process of writing an ebook for bloggers and influencers on how to run retreats, tours and experiences of their own, and wow do I feel I’ve got some serious knowledge — and wild stories! — to drop.
I know one thing for sure — I’m proud to look back on this entrepreneurial spirit and think about not only that big leap of faith she took, but also the many, many obstacles she faced in execution. (And okay, I’ll stop talking in the third person now. It’s weird.)
So, I may not have started day one of the retreat in the state of mind that I’d expected. But wow, I learned so much by day eight — literally, our post-retreat team meeting yielded a four page document on tweaks to improve for the future.
Perhaps my biggest lesson? Hire more fabulous people. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me ahead of time that I wouldn’t be able to be a yoga instructor, retreat leader, dive master and photographer all at once. Ha. Thankfully, I had an incredible team around me (including my dive crew, pictured below!) and they truly moved mountains to make this happen.
My next biggest lesson? Moving twelve women from Point A to Point B is no easy task. Okay, now I’m being silly. (But ACTUALLY, it is hard. We were late constantly and I took it all into advisement for future schedule making.)
Actually, scrap all that. The biggest lesson of all? This is my calling. At least one of them.
While it was far from seamless, this eight day retreat was the proudest moment of my career. I will forever be grateful to this group of incredible women who trusted me to create an unforgettable experience on my very first go. I think their feedback speaks for itself. This is just one of so many testimonials I cried reading, after the trip:
“I was so honored to be a part of the very first Wander Women retreat. Alex and her retreat team created such a thoughtfully curated experience for us on Koh Tao, and I couldn’t have asked for more. Everyone was so eager for us to enjoy their little piece of paradise.
Every detail was taken care of and it was obvious to me the care that went into planning. I just got to sit back and relax, and it was a wonderful opportunity to get to explore a new place without having to do any of the legwork. I made wonderful new friends and we still keep in touch (shoutout to my #OGWanderWomen crew). I highly recommend making a Wander Women retreat (or many!) part of your plans. You won’t regret it.”
I’m also just bursting with love for my team, who helped me bring this daydream to life and laugh off our fumbles along the way. And to my incredible tribe on Koh Tao, who always encouraged me to take the leap and listened to my endless hand wringing along the way. You are the magical people that made the magical place that made me want to do this magical thing.
I’m not crying, you’re crying! But so right, I mentioned I had quite a bit going on in addition to that small minor career milestone that I was trying to pull together in the midst of a personal crisis.
Such as, showing my cousin and his two friends around Koh Tao! I have a super small family and just three cousins — so needless to say, I try to have an individual relationship with each of them, and I couldn’t pass up spending time with Eric, even when I had so much going on.
Funny story — Eric is an extremely successful male model and fitness entrepreneur. His trip overlapped with the last day of the retreat, and so I showed the girls and said, pretty much verbatim, “okay ladies, my male cousin is in town and while this is a women’s retreat, I thought I’d let you take a vote on if he should join us for the day…”
Needless to say, the vote was unanimous — and the Instagram comments that rolled in later were equally belly-laugh inducing. Possibly one of my favorites: “You know he needs to come on ALL your retreats now, right?!”
That day aside, we also managed to spend some time together post-retreat before Eric and his crew continued on with their Asia adventuring. And hectic as it was, it was also on theme — showing friends and family around my island home was always one of my highlights of living there. How fitting that I was doing it right up until the bitter end!
Another thing I loved about living there — carefree nights out with friends. Amid all the stress and sadness, it felt so nice to decompress with a few nights out with the girls, feeling like the old days.
And then, it was time to move. By this point, Ian and I had decided I’d bring Prada to America, and I’m super grateful that Ian took care of the paperwork and shots and whatnot, since I had no room left on my own plate. I did bring a leash back from the states and started to practice walk Prada on it, much to the entertainment of everyone in our little local neighborhood of Jitson, who would pull over on their motorbikes, laughing and marveling, and asking what the heck their favorite little bar dog was doing on a leash.
I’d started the process of packing my apartment from pretty much the moment I’d walked into it, but the emotional weight really hit in those last few days as buyers started to come pick up the furniture I’d so lovingly shipping to the island, any my landlord who I loved so much came to say goodbye and wish me luck with my mom, and I started packing up boxes to send back to the states, and I started counting down on one hand how many nights I had left in my big, fairy-light strewn bed.
That’s when it felt real.
That last morning, when it was time to hand my keys in, I was just flooded with emotion. I first moved into that apartment in 2016, and I can’t begin to tell you the memories that took place inside over the years… it’s almost staggering. As my apartment filled with friends there to pitch in for the final clean out, including my friend Amy who came all the way from Koh Phangan, where she’d recently moved, I was just overwhelmed. It felt like my heart was out of my body, swirling around that room with all my life in boxes and all my wonderful people taping them up and trying to make me laugh in such a sad, surreal moment.
How had I been so lucky to build this life? And was it really all ending?
After a heartfelt farewell brunch, Ian and I were off on one final adventure of our own.
It started with using a gift certificate he’d had for Jamahkiri Spa for nearly a year. While our lifestyle looked completely carefree, and, well, it more or less was, there was always some reason one or the other of us couldn’t drive a whole fifteen minutes to the other side of the island. Ha! So down to the wire, we’d saved it for the last minute.
And it ended up working out — I probably never needed a spa day more. Nor, when it came to the facial, a belly laugh as hard as I had when I peeled off my oddly suffocating mask and saw this. Ah, so grateful my phone was handy to document.
And then we were off for a night at Baan Talay Resort. We thought we were checking out their new glamping options but after a slight misunderstanding we ended up in one of their bungalows. Oh well.
I admit I’d been pretty resistant to this whole idea. I had so little time left on Koh Tao, I didn’t feel like I had the time or capacity for a mini vacation, of all things. But after running on absolute fumes till that moment, it actually was nice to take a forced moment to breathe. I’d been setting my alarm at 4am some mornings to FaceTime with my mom and my family back home before starting work at 5am, prepping myself for the day ahead and using any extra time before I met the retreat girls to pack up my apartment. After the girls went to bed, I often ended up decompressing with one of my friends who I didn’t know when I’d see again.
Finally, there was stillness. And sleep.
And with that stillness, some moments to think and reflect and absorb. Even now looking back it’s hard not to just marvel and think wait, this was my life!? It was so good! How did I get so lucky? Truly, it feels a million miles away.
I’ve written tens of thousands of words over the years about Koh Tao — heck, I wrote a book on it. Yet I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to truly capture what it meant to me, all the ways in which my life changed since I first stepped foot on the island nine years earlier as a baby-faced nineteen year old.
I loved here. I lost here. I spent my twenties here. I grew up here. And it was all so, so beautiful.
Many times, I imagined leaving Koh Tao. I pictured elaborate goodbye celebrations, a ceremonial bucket list ticking, a raging send off. Never had it looked like this. Filled with questions of what was ahead, not knowing when I’d be back, a few friends crying at the pier as waved goodbye numbly from the ferry.
I wrote this not long after:
I was ready to leave Koh Tao, but I wasn’t ready to leave so abruptly.
I still think of Koh Tao every day, of that little moment on the peak of the main road where you get a split second stunning view of the whole island, of the feel of the ocean on a sticky hot day, of holding my best friends hands in our Sunday savasana (yes we are THOSE GIRLS in your yoga class), the sound of Prada’s tail thumping against the floor when I woke up in the morning, the smell of the morning when I ate breakfast on my balcony, the sweetness of my boyfriend cooking dinner when I walked in the door after a late night workout, the satisfaction of taking an hour off to get a spontaneous afternoon massage, the thrill of slamming my laptop shut after a hard day of work and rushing out to meet my friends for a well deserved night of dancing in the sand, the laughter when I’d open my door the next morning and one of my girlfriends would be there, hungover and unannounced, flinging dramatically into my couch and demanding we order pizza.
I loved my life on Koh Tao very deeply and miss it dearly. But I try to focus on how truly blessed I am to have made a home in a place that was so damn hard to leave.
Making the indefinite move back to the US was not easy. But it was right. And I am blessed — not only for the past but for the future. I’m so grateful to both the Wanderland Guide to Koh Tao and to Wander Women Retreats (can’t wait to return in March 2020 for the next edition of Wander Women: Koh Tao!) for bringing me back to the island what I hope will be annually.
Even if Koh Tao is no longer my mailing address, it will forever feel like home in my heart.
Well, this was an old school ramble, but it was straight from the heart. Thanks for coming along on my Koh Tao journey, my friends <3