Ton was the first resident I met on arriving at the New Life Thai Foundation. It was a fine, hot Saturday afternoon in mid-February and I taxied my way to the complex from Chiang Rai Airport following the short flight from Bangkok. After settling into the room that I would occupy for the best part of the next three weeks, I took a moment to better appraise the environs – hills, valleys, lakes and teak tree forests. A short time later I encountered a slim, young Thai woman near the pair of squat buildings that, in individual rooms, housed roughly half the residents and volunteers.
"Ton," she said, giving me her hand.
"You are here as a resident or volunteer?"
"I'm a volunteer. What about you?"
She had been a resident for a few weeks, she explained. The intentional communities I had spent time in in the past – there had been about twenty, scattered all over the world – were, in a real sense, recovery communities though they coined other terminology when it came to describing their rationale. New Life, however, specifically advertised itself as a learning community or an international recovery community for people suffering because of addiction problems, depression, stress, burnout or relationship issues. They aimed to cultivate a lifestyle fostering inner awareness and growth. Those guided along this road might then rediscover meaning or purpose in their lives.
Inspired by Buddhist thought, exercises in mindfulness or learning the art of being in the present moment were one of the keys. There were also guided and silent meditations, yoga and Tai Chi programmes and enneagram and other workshops. The residents received regular life coaching from a team of specialists who lent a non-judgemental ear. Their job was to champion, encourage, support and to help brainstorm solutions to problems.
New Life occupied sixty-five acres of land, upon which was grown rice, corn, vegetables and fruit using organic farming techniques. The food served daily in the refectory was plentiful and healthy. I knew from past experience that farm and garden work was ideal for practising my own form of meditation and this was no less the case in the foundation’s rice paddies and vegetable plots.
Seeing her of a morning in the meditation hall, where we gathered daily except Sunday for a meeting and short meditation to kick-start proceedings, I sometimes wondered what I could do to help Ton or the other residents, many of whom were battling serious addictions. And yet, as I had often noticed in previous community settings, little appeared to distinguish the volunteers from the residents. It was never a case of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
“I never used English before … like this,” Ton told me once.
"You manage well," I said, giving her a smile.
This must have been only one of the adjustments she had to make in order to commence the mammoth undertaking of turning her life around. Some of the other residents and staff were Thai, but English predominated. Thankfully, her one-on-one programmes were conducted in her native language. She referred one other time to the amphetamine addiction that had infiltrated her life.
"My father didn't want me to come here."
"He thinks I'm a baby."
"You're not a baby. And you're doing fine, aren't you?"
She gave a sort of nod. I always found her warm, friendly and upbeat though the glimpses I gained of her on the busy work days were sometimes limited to that morning sighting in the meditation hall or a brief chat when I entered or left my room. Ton’s was located diagonally opposite mine and it was not uncommon for her to perch in her doorway while she smoked a cigarette or listened to music, sometimes in the company of others.
When my brief commitment wound down we parted with mutual good wishes. Just a few days before, she had announced her intention to remain at New Life for several more weeks, as a non-working resident whose days would be taken up with further life coaching and a continuation of the efforts already made toward recovery. As far as I could tell, much augured well.
We maintained contact during the month that I remained in Thailand. She was back home in Bangkok when I called her on the evening of my departure for Indonesia. She had continued her life coaching, she said, and was now contemplating returning to the foundation for a further month as a volunteer. I was delighted to learn that her recovery was on track.
We hugged as fervently on reuniting as we had done in parting a little over fourteen months before. We were at a food outlet on the lower level of Bangkok's MBK Mall. I had flown into the city from Ko Lipe just two days before. Ton had gained a little weight and I congratulated her on how healthy she looked.
She was now working part-time for her dad, who owned an electrical parts firm that employed a number of locals in the space they operated out of, the downstairs of the family home. I met the man, his partner Took and several of the employees when Ton invited me to visit three days after our brief get-together in the mall. I tried my limited Thai on some of the staff, attempts that were met with good grace. They were all warm and welcoming and curious about my connection with Ton.
In their tongue, one of the women asked her several questions about me. "She wants to know who you are," Ton confided at the end of the conversation.
"What did you tell her?"
"My best friend."
I smiled, chuffed at the thought. But then it was true from my perspective as well; she was someone I had grown to love.