This is a story about change.
This is not a story that reminisces on “the way it used to be,” nor a story that criticize “the people on top” (if looking for a politically charged story, click here).
Instead, this story reveals how people can embrace change through flow.
This is Tonsai’s story.
I first heard about Tonsai through Lou, an Aussie friend who considers himself local in Thailand. While attempting to cure our morning hangovers with cheap mimosas and Thai-spicy curry, he rambled about his days on a reggae style beach. Rock climbing junkies, glass sharp coral, base jumping, heaps of mushroom bars, and heaps of greenery occupied the hippy heaven. I listened casually, without much interest. There are a lot of beaches like this in Thailand.
Then, he mentioned the fire spinning. I was hooked.
I suddenly took Lou seriously, and for the next fifteen minutes, I nailed him for information. My demeanor changed, but his demeanor changed too. I am not sure if he was too hungover to speak, or if he didn’t want to divulge too much, but my enthusiasm made him hesitant. Not the Lou I knew. I continued to nail him. Mostly, I wanted to know how to get to the beach.
Eventually he became fed-up with my nagging and threw his hands on the table.
“Mannn,” he groaned, “I’m gonna settle this.”
He walked off. Angry? Annoyed? I think hungover. He returned a few minutes later and handed me this:
“That’s the beach,” he muttered, sinking back into his chair, “Tonsai.”
I started to thank him, but he was not finished.
“But, I don’t know if I would go back there…” he mentioned, sipping his mimosa, “some rich guy put up a wall and wants to build a resort. I’ve heard it’s different now.”
I didn’t care; I was dead set on spinning some fire. Map in hand, I made the journey for Tonsai the following morning.
Tonsai beach is located on Thailand’s west coast, the Andaman Sea. Since the beach is only accessible by boat, Tonsai feels like an island: laid back, regulation-free, and timeless. Tonsai and its neighboring beaches are considered some of the top rock climbing spots in the world, and traveling climbers have been gathering on this nook of coastline since the late 1980’s. In the last 30 years, Tonsai has become more than a climbing hot spot.
Tonsai has become a backpacker paradise.
According to legend and photographs, Tonsai beach was once lined with a few mushroom bars and restaurants, bamboo bungalows, smoothie stands, slack lines, and chill-out spots. Base jumpers would fly from the sheer limestone cliffs during the day, and at night, locals and backpackers would perform epic fire shows on the beach.
Luckily, all this exists in Tonsai today. There are still bars, bungalows, slack lines, and fire spinners. Base jumping is technically “not allowed” anymore, but it still happens. The limestone cliffs are still there and they are not moving anytime soon. From my research and observations, the change in Tonsai is not due to the disappearance of anything.
The change in Tonsai is due to the construction of the wall.
“Tonsai Tonsai!” the boatman yelled and threw around his ropes and anchors.
The engine died, snapping me out of a dream. The aqua blue ocean and towering limestone cliffs had me in a trance. As I sat up and peered forward, my eyes slowly focused on a deserted beach ahead. All I could see was white sand and jungle.
“Tonsai Tonsai!” he repeated louder.
I figured I would see more development as my vision cleared, but I was wrong. There were people, but only one restaurant in sight. It couldn’t be Tonsai, I told myself. Where were the legendary mushroom shacks?
The boatman was already on the sand with my pack, urging me to get off the boat. By the time I reached my pack and turned to wave goodbye, he was steering the boat out at sea. We were obviously in two different time zones.
I glared at the beach in front of me. I was still not convinced that I was standing in Tonsai. My legs eventually began to walk forward, but my mind was still stuck in the state of awe that I experienced on the boat. Anxious for answers, my legs carried me to the first people in sight.
“Is this Tonsai?”
The couple giggled and presented endearing smiles. They were a beautiful dreadlocked man and woman, adorned with stone jewelry, bangles, and sarongs.
With calm, the woman answered, “Yes, this is Tonsai. Take the path at the end of the beach along the wall. It will take you to everything.”
I thanked them, then followed her directions to the wall.
The boatman’s shouting could not wake me from my dream, but Tonsai’s wall surely shot me into reality.
About two years ago, all of the local businesses lining Tonsai beach were forced to relocate into the jungle. Spanning about a mile in length, a concrete wall was built to separate the community from the beach.
Even after extensive internet research, I failed to find a reliable source that identifies who built the wall (if anyone reading this knows, please educate me). The majority of travel blogs gossip that a Sheraton resort is taking over the beach. Others state that a Bangkok-based company owns the land, and is planning to develop. When I was in Tonsai, the popular rumor was that “some wealthy British guy” owned the land, and was planning to build a major resort. When I would question locals about the issue, they always discounted the subject with a joke and laughter.
My initial reaction to the wall was anger. I felt like the wall was was built by some wealthy authoritarian to isolate the free-thinkers or “hippies” from the rest of society. But, after spending time in Tonsai, my attitude took a 360º.
While “division” may be the wall’s objective, Tonsai does not recognize the wall as a barrier. Tonsai identifies the wall as an opportunity to create, and as a result, the wall connects Tonsai.
Tonsai’s concrete wall is not a wall at all- it is a massive canvas. And today, it stands as a global masterpiece. Travelers from all over the world continue to paint murals on the wall, adding to the color and beauty of the Tonsai community.
Instead of rebelling against the wall, locals and tourists made the wall part of Tonsai’s identity. To me, this is a trait of a spiritually advanced community.
Over the last thirty years, Tonsai has encountered several soul-threatening changes: the 2004 tsunami, the influx of tourism, and the wall, to name a few.
However, even with all the challenges encountered from the changes, Tonsai has not lost its essence, because Tonsai embodies flow.
From rock climbing, slack lining, and painting, to fire spinning, dancing, and yoga, the people in Tonsai are constantly in flow.
In psychology, flow is an optimal state of consciousness that arises when a person’s attention is fully immersed in an activity. During flow, high challenge is met by high skill, and as a result, an individual undergoes peak enjoyment and creativity. To me, flow is the key to a happy and meaningful life.
If there was a recipe for creativity, flow would be the essential ingredient. Even more, research has revealed that creativity induced from flow carries over in the days following the flow state. The results from this study are clearly evident in Tonsai.
When the Tonsai community is met with a challenge, such as the wall, they are able to overcome the challenge through creativity, which is induced by the people’s continual involvement in flow activities.
Since challenge is a key aspect to flow, Tonsai does not regard challenge as a problem, but rather as a necessity for achieving success. By engaging in flow, Tonsai people perceive challenge as part of the natural course of life.
Tonsai reminds us to not be discouraged by an uncontrollable environmental challenge. Instead, we can control challenge through perception and creativity induced by flow.
I was drawn to Tonsai to spin fire, and left Tonsai with a deeper outlook on the benefits of flow. Tonsai taught me more than new hoop tricks; Tonsai taught me that I can conquer challenge and allow change to be part of my essence by finding flow.
Even though most people will never have the chance to meet Tonsai, I hope that Tonsai’s story can inspire individuals and communities to create and flow.
Author’s note: For more information on bringing flow into your life, I highly recommend reading “Finding Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Or, just pick up a hula hoop and see where it takes you.