Where we’re at: I’m time-traveling back to finally recap 2020, including this Wander Women Retreat in Koh Tao in March. This post is Part I of III.
We’re re-launching this retreat in 2023 as a Learn To Dive Retreat! Learn more here. (While originally scheduled for 2022, the omicron outbreak forced us to postpone until next year — and we know it will be worth the wait!)
So, I can say with confidence that the second edition of our Wander Women Koh Tao Dive + Yoga Retreat, which just so happened to begin on March 14th, 2020, I will probably look back on as one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
I was sitting on my friend Janine’s couch, suspended somewhere between deep contentment at being back on the island I’d once called home but left abruptly a year and a half before and feeling unsettled at the state of the world beyond our shores. I’d arrived back on Koh Tao from Bangkok a few days prior, and it felt like I’d left talk of the eery and mysterious “coronavirus” back in the big city. There on the island we hugged without hesitation, and favored sunsets over doomsday screen scrolls. I was grateful to be in a bubble.
Until the morning of March 12th, when I got a text from Janine, still in Bangkok, to turn on her TV — and it popped. I watched, my mouth agape, as the President made a stunning and confusing announcement — travel between the US and Europe was suspended. The news showed images of airports flooded with frantic passengers. I checked the time on my phone. Several of our guests were already in the air en route to Thailand.
Okay, I remember thinking. We’re doing this.
It is always our job, on our retreats, to create a space where women feel safe, cared for, listened to, celebrated — you know the drill. This, however, was our first time doing so in the heat of the fire of what we later knew to be a turning point in truly all of our lives. It was one of those historic moments we’ll be talking about for the rest of our lives. Where were you when the world shut down?
Well, we were here. In the serenity of these villas, our Wander Women Retreats home base in Thailand. Running what we couldn’t possibly know at the time would in fact be our last retreat of 2020. Our last retreat for over fourteen months.
When I first started Wander Women Retreats, I wanted to use villas or home rentals always. I quickly had to adjust that vision to accommodate the unique quirks of the many destinations I wanted to share with the world, but there’s something so incredibly special to me about a week-long sleepover party.
These villas have everything we need — secluded pools, a yoga deck, relaxing bedrooms, a big table for family-style meals, and easy access to the main village of Sairee for anyone who wants some independent time to wander. While many of Koh Tao’s villas boast beautiful views, they essentially trap you in the hills. I like that this one keeps us all right down on earth.
While setting up the villas, one of our most fun moments is, of course, putting out our welcome bags. I’m not sure who enjoys these more — me making them, or the guests receiving them, ha! These were, in my humble opinion, a truly epic edition.
Each retreat features, of course, a destination print from our friend Lauren at Green Blanky Studios. This one is especially poignant, as it’s where the tradition was born from! Lauren was a guest on our first ever retreat, right here in Koh Tao in 2018, and made one of these prints upon return home. She then surprised me — and every other guest! — with a printed copy.
I fell so in love I knew I needed one for every trip we did from there forward.
We also always work to support and promote local businesses with our gift bags.
In this edition, we gifted every guest a reusable water bottle from Trash Hero, as we do not purchase any single use plastic water bottles on this trip. We also bought goodies from two of our favorite female-owned local shops — a detox face mask from Gaia Organic Living, a zero waste shop that was sadly shuttered by the pandemic, and a multi-use balm from May + Co, a holistic general store.
And finally, we had some fabulous items from our friends at Girls That Scuba. Female-owned and sustainability focused, if you love to dive you must check out their shop! They have so many great accessories and gifts — I’m obsessed!
With each guests’ arrival, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. Had the retreat been even one week later, we would have been plagued with uncertainty over whether or not it should move forward, and would have been tasked with a huge decision. As it was, we really just had to breathe, accept each day as it came, and live in and enjoy the moment.
Sounds like a pretty great lesson for a yoga retreat, no?
And as we gathered on the rooftop for introductions and that first juicy slow flow welcome class, I felt very grateful that the universe had brought me this exact group of women to spend this deeply transitional time with. Some groups just click, and this was one of them.
All our retreats are open to all levels of yogis, from first timers to seasoned practitioners. This group had the full range, and I truly cherished the challenge of teaching to all of them.
As the sky turned to darkness on that first shared night in Thailand, lying on our mats staring up at the stars, I remembered exactly why Koh Tao inspired me to start Wander Women Retreats in the first place.
I could not have had a better team by my side for this retreat. My longtime dear friend and fellow yoga teacher Shannon had accepted my offer to try out the role of Retreat Manager on this trip, one she aced so fabulously I was thrilled to bring her on as Retreat Manager for Wander Women Egypt and Wander Women Red Sea in 2021, as well a larger role behind the scenes at Wander Women Retreats later that year.
While we were flowing, Shannon and our dive team were turning our deck into a beautiful private dining room.
We were treated to an incredible feast of Thai food by our friend Idjang, one of the best chefs on Koh Tao. A female private chef for an al fresco meal? Simply wanderful. (Forgive me. I’m verklempt.)
We ended the night with a tradition I’ve been respecting since my very first trip to Thailand in 2009 — the night of one’s arrival in the Kingdom, one must get a Thai massage. It’s the perfect cure for a tired travel body, for curing jetlag, and for blissing out before bed!
Luckily on Koh Tao, Shannon and I were such regulars at our favorite spa on Koh Tao, they are more than happy to clear the back room and reserve an hour of the entire staff’s time for us. I’ve hosted Christmas parties at this spa, I’ve cried my eyes out at this spa, I’ve sat and had drinks with the masseuses at this spa. Suffice it to say, I love it there — and I always love introducing the ladies to my retreat groups and vice versa.
The next morning brought our first full day together on Koh Tao. Appropriately, I designed it as a little sampler showing off everything I loved about calling this little island home.
We kicked things off with breakfast from Living Juices, our dear friend Janine’s healthy and delicious eatery. It’s the best way to start a super hot Thai day!
And then, keeping it all in the family, we set off for a hike up to the land on Janine’s house, where she was kind enough to once again allow us to roll out our mats and practice in front of one of the best views on the island.
On this particular morning, Shannon led us through a sweaty strong vinyasa flow, infused with her signature sassy playlists, and heartfelt sequences (have I mentioned we are kindred teaching spirits?)
After class, we toasted with cool lemongrass-infused towels and island-made sips from The Kombucha Company, yet another female-owned business on Koh Tao.
From there, it was a choose your own adventure — some headed back to the villa to jump in the pool, while others continued onwards up to Fraggle Rock, picking up a few stray dogs along the way, in true Koh Tao style.
Having worked up a wild sweat, we all reconvened at The Factory, another one of Koh Tao’s many healthy eateries led by incredible island women. I would fly back to Koh Tao for their pomegranate-seed sprinkled avocado toast right now!
And then, the time had finally come — our first dives!
We boarded our private dive boat and turned our attention to the incredible PADI dive team the girls had met at dinner the night before. One of the things I’m obsessed with about this retreat is it really is made up of the dream team of some of my oldest and dearest friends on Koh Tao; true island rock stars.
On this retreat we had Andie, Kathryn, Hannah and Leslie — Koh Tao’s best who kept us safe and smiling underwater, and laughing and learning above it!
We also had our dedicated land and sea retreat photographer Laura with us, my first time hiring a photographer for a full retreat! (A few years into this, I truly cannot believe how many roles I used to fill on each trip, ha! I sometimes don’t know how I made it this far — but so grateful for all the hustling, because it got us here today.)
These first dives are just about getting everyone in the water and getting them comfortable again! We’d had two guests arrive early to Koh Tao to sign off on their PADI Open Water courses, and I loved seeing them rock it on some of their first ocean dives ever.
We eased in with two of Koh Tao’s best breezy training sites famous for calm conditions and friendly fish, White Rock and Twins.
The fact that Koh Tao is one of the number one dive training destinations in the world is what inspired us to make the next edition of this retreat one for those who have never been diving before to get certified all together. Since the very inception of Wander Women Retreats we’ve had guests who got certified just to come on our trips; an enormous honor and inspiration!
However, many struggled to find instructors they vibed with or to make time for the course and the retreat. So we thought, why not take advantage of this perfect place for learning and give the guests who have been asking us for something like this for years exactly what they want? And the next Wander Women Koh Tao was born.
Our dream? For our future guests to leave with a new lifelong hobby and love of the ocean — and for us to secure a whole new group of badass dive buddies for ourselves, ha!
Because honestly, there is nothing like a boat full of incredible women to remind me what I love most about diving. No ego, no competition, no BS — just a supportive and fun environment to explore the great blue planet with.
And frankly, on this particular year, it was a reminder that diving is the ultimate meditation. No headlines, no doomsday predictions, no angst-inducing social media messages can find you underwater — it’s just you, your breath, and a beautiful but fragile ecosystem that has somehow survived since the dawn of time.
That’s what it’s all about. And this was just the beginning.
Stay tuned for Parts II + III!
Really enjoyed this column and the photographs were superb! I am looking forward to reading the rest of the story, love it!
Thanks Ramona! Really appreciate your loyal comments over the years <3
Bloody good post
Thanks Jo 🙂
well – I’m crying. I’ve been looking forward to reading how you put into words the surreal feelings of happiness we were gifted on this trip while the world shut down around us – an amazing trip that will stick in my memory for many reasons forever!
Can’t wait for the next one <3