A Tantalising Taste of Awakening in the Cambodian Countryside
~ My Week at Om Ma Ya Om
By Michelle Taffe, AKA The Global Yogi
I recently spent a peaceful week at Om Ma Ya Om centre in the countryside of Cambodia – about halfway up the country, close to the Eastern border with Vietnam.
I offered to volunteer for a week at the centre because I needed to leave where I live in Bali for my visa and I always like to do something meaningful on these occasions rather than just leave and then come back again. Plus, I had never been to Cambodia, so I thought – why not visit a new country in South East Asia while I had the chance?
I had heard so much about Cambodia, and I knew that there were many different yoga centres that had sprung up there in the previous decade, so I was curious to discover what all the fuss was about.
I flew into Phnom Penh on a Thursday evening and stayed a day and a night at a guesthouse in the centre of town, before taking a minibus trip of about 6 hours up to the mountain town of Mondulkiri where Om Ma Ya Om is located.
The bus trip was surprisingly pleasant (luckily not like a similar one which I caught with a very edgy and in a hurry driver across the Thai peninsula some years back). Halfway through the trip we stopped at a roadside service station to refuel both the bus and the passengers where I was really happy to get a big bowl of Kuy teav, Cambodia’s version of noodle soup – in a vegetarian variety, packed full with bean shoots, bamboo root, bok choy and all manner of local herbs that I hadn’t seen before. This is something I absolutely love about South East Asian culture, that most countries share. Fresh food is cooked at very simple makeshift stalls by the roadside, and though the chairs might be wooden boxes and the tables be simple fold up plastic ones, the ingredients are always the freshest of the fresh, the spices and accompaniments are carefully chosen to be a perfect compliment to the food, and the prices are always super cheap. I think I paid the equivalent of about 1 Australian dollar for my big bowl of veggie noodle soup.
I arrived at the hill town of Mondulkiri at about 1pm, and from there I was met by a tuk-tuk driver who had been organised by Ofir. In about ten minutes I was at Om Ma Ya Om. The terrain in this area reminded me of Northern Thailand around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, with rolling hills covered by very lush greenery and rich red soil.
Om Ma Ya Om itself is housed in a charming Cambodian guest house, a line of solid brick bungalows stacked up one next to the other down the slope of the hill. Each bungalow is equipped with an ensuite bathroom and has a spectacular view out across the green slopes that go down to the river. In the hillside gardens below the last bungalow there are avocado trees and passion fruits, and lots of other exotic looking trees. Though there weren’t any avocados on the trees when I was there, Ofir assured me that when in fruit these trees are literally laden with these delightful green balls of goodness. Ofir did manage to get lots of avocados from the market though for our daily delicious salads. One variety was so smooth it was like avocado cream: Spreadable!
I was lucky enough to get a bungalow to myself during my stay. At the same time there were three young Israeli girls, travelling around Asia after their time serving in the Israeli army. They had signed up for the five-day Conscious Living Retreat offered by Om Ma Ya Om. There are also 10 Day and 21 Day options, as well as longer term stays available.
Line of bungalows
I joined in with some of this retreat, mainly the morning practices. I woke at 5.30am, with a friendly knock on the door from Yigal, had a shower and got ready to go out and do Chi gong as the sun rose over the tree tops. There is not a set routine here, but it does start each day with the 5.30am wake up call. Then Yigal offers either a chi gong or a yoga practice to wake up the body. Most days we also did a sun gazing practice, looking with eyes semi closed towards the sun as it was rising each morning. I enjoyed the chi gong practice, and learned a few new moves to add to my small chi gong repertoire. I love this practice as a nice complement to my Ashtanga yoga practice, as it feels like a softer practice, more of a yin style of movement as opposed to the more yang Ashtanga series.
One morning though we also did a flowing and intuitive yoga practice, led by Yigal, starting on the floor, and ending also on the floor. Down by the river there is a beautiful wooden platform, which is perfect for a morning yoga practice. When I was there the river was low, but still flowing quite strongly, and the constant murmur of the water flowing over the rocks was a lovely background for our practice, as was the soundtrack carefully selected by Yigal to flow through the series.
Chi Gong Morning Practice
From about 10 am each day, I worked with Ofir on marketing for the centre. This was the time when Yigal had check-ins with the girls on the Conscious Living Retreat. From my viewpoint in the kitchen it seemed like these were very spirited discussions were dissent was actively encouraged.
On some of the mornings during my stay we also went on walks around the country roads nearby the centre. Walking on the red dirt roads we passed villagers who would generally call over to us and laugh and smile. Most people I met in Cambodia were very friendly and seemed to be quite interested in the foreigners in their midst. On one walk by myself I was blessed with two little girls who ran right out onto the street and hugged me. The heat meant that morning was the only really viable time to go on these walks, and by the time we got back most of us had worked up quite a sweat and needed to rest for a while.
Morning walk in the village
Yigal has some great knowledge of the local flora and showed us a few different plants, one, a small plant he called ‘don’t touch me’ whose leaves closed up at the touch of your finger, like a shy person protecting themselves. An experience like this shows you very clearly how plants are living, vibrant beings which respond sensitively just like we do to touch.
One of the big highlights of my week was definitely the delicious food prepared by Ofir and Yigal. Every morning Ofir goes to the local market, where she picks up the freshest and tastiest fruits and veggies from the smiling and laughing vendors, which are the raw materials for their creations. Each morning after our practices or walk, we were offered an amazing breakfast of super tasty tapioca porridge, with lots of fresh fruits such as apples, bananas, dragon fruit, watermelon, mangoes and pineapple. As well there was delicious chocolate sauce, which was also home made by Ofir and Yigal, and this was topped off with fresh grated coconut. Needless to say I was in breakfast heaven...
Miss your heavenly breakfasts! :)
Subscribing to a philosophy of simple living for an awakened and healthy life, healthy and delicious food is integral to their program, helping their guests to see that everything you put into your body is either supporting your life force or Prana, or alternatively dulling it. Just the same as the thoughts that you choose to nourish are either supporting your growth and development, and a healthy relationship with yourself, or they are harming you, even if you are not aware of this.
Ofir told me that they have been asked many times to create a cookbook by the Om Ma Ya Om guests, but so far they have not done so.
‘We don’t have recipes’, Yigal said, throwing his hands up in the air.
‘We make everything up as we go along.’
This is also a good way to sum up the fluid and organic way that the retreat flows, with Yigal tailoring each day’s program according to the needs of the guests at the time. His philosophy on awakening is based on a strong present moment awareness, that doesn’t presume anything. What might be right for this morning’s practice may not be for tomorrow.
River flowing at the retreat centre
As a teacher he encourages a spirit of enquiry. If you are not sure of what you believe, or what is right for you, start where you are, and ask questions. Let go of the need for a right or wrong. You are here to find you own way and your own path. I appreciated this openness at Om Ma Ya Om. Yigal has spent many years learning from different spiritual traditions such as Buddhism and yoga, amongst others, and this shows in his teachings, but he is not associated with any particular dogma, and encourages each person to find what is true for them. Non-attachment is practiced here with everything. No need to attach to a particular story, to a particular tradition, or even to the story about yourself. The more you detach from your stories about yourself and about life, the more awake you will become.
When I asked Yigal how they came to set up the centre in Cambodia, he told me that this was also coincidence. He and Ofir had been living in India previously, and he had come to Cambodia some years before, and then they ended up coming to this corner of hilly Eastern Cambodia, planning only to either buy or build a house to live in and practice.
‘Nobody planted a seed that this was the place’ he told me, ‘it was pure coincidence really’.
As well, Cambodia is relatively open to foreigners coming into the country and starting businesses, so it’s quite easy to get a long stay visa. This was also a part of the reason why they ended up settling in the area.
As Ofir said, ‘there was not so much a story’ (to them coming to settle in Cambodia). Like India, where they were based before, cost of living is also low, so this supports a simple life, and the development of their centre.
Yigal & Ofir - retreat founders
Yigal adds ‘I think the story of here is about how two people, flowing with life organically, came to be here. If you write an article about us it will be a short one, about how after two and a half years we realised we had a small centre. And the truth is we didn’t have any clue. There was no special ‘Cinderella story’ to this centre. We don’t even know if when you contact us in a month whether we will still be here. We are not even attached to that. When it’s finished, we will (claps his hands together) move onto the next journey.’
View from bungalows
Lunch at Om Ma Ya Om was also super delicious – a mix of fresh middle eastern influence salads, with greens, mung beans, and nuts, as well as tasty Israeli recipes like falafel and hummus, complimented by some beautiful hearty vegetable soups. During some afternoons in the middle of a busy marketing strategy session, Yigal also baked beautiful chocolate cookies or cakes, which to me looked like they came straight from a professional bakers oven. Perfect mind food! Even though they don’t know how long they will be at the current location, they have completely fitted out the kitchen with an oven, blenders, and all that you need to create the most tantalising and tasty food to ‘awaken’ all of your senses. To me this shows that they are fully invested in their work, while at the same time not attached to its longevity or outcomes.
Vegan lunch at Om Ma Ya Om
If you want to experience a lovely corner of the Cambodian countryside, while also going inwards and taking time out from your regular life to check in with yourself, I highly recommend a stay at Om Ma Ya Om! Yigal and Ofir are friendly and welcoming to all who come in a spirit of enquiry and openness, and are clearly doing the work that is most meaningful to them, in service to others.
You will return home refreshed and renewed in body and mind with a new outlook on life. Remember to be fully in the present moment at mealtimes especially, you don’t want to miss any of those tongue tantalising flavours!
With the girls from the retreat
Michelle came to spend a week on an exchange with us in October. She is a writer, traveller and a yoga and meditation teacher and the founder of The Global Yogi.