Meet the Irish living an alternative life on Koh Phangan
There’s a quieter side to the tropical Thai island, best known for its full moon parties
Art McHeart and Jenny Keane are both yoga instructors who have spent time learning and teaching on Koh Phangan. Art McHeart and Jenny Keane are both yoga instructors who have spent time learning and teaching on Koh Phangan.
The tropical paradise of Koh Phangan may be best known for its raucous “full moon parties” on its southern beaches, but the northern part of the Thai island is a world apart. Detox centres, holistic courses, meditation and tantric schools, ecstatic dance, plant medicine ceremonies and a seemingly endless list of other alternative lifestyle courses make it a mecca for yogis, vegans and others looking to get away from it all, including a transient group of Irish people who currently call the island home.
Originally from Co Roscommon, I have spent more than a decade working in war zones, as a human rights worker assisting refugees. The work is sometimes life threatening, but also life rewarding. After ten years I needed a break from it, and to transition out of humanitarian work. I had been coming to Koh Phangan for some ten years on holidays, mostly to the eastern tri-bays side of the island, to dance and relax. An Australian friend suggested the north part of the island, specifically a place called Srithanu.
I came for three months in 2016, and more than a year later, I am still here. This extended time has allowed me to learn yoga, reiki and meditation. The latter, in particular, has brought me remarkable clarity and calmness. The island has also drawn me into the world of ecstatic dance - where people are free to express themselves without intoxicants - which I hope has made me a better DJ.
The island’s idyllic nature, open minded community and the friends I have made here encouraged me to finish my first novel and film. Both projects were on hold for years; both are now complete.
Throughout my time on the island, I have met many similar Irish people who have taken time out from the frantic external world and absorbed the alternative lifestyle here on Koh Phangan.
Conor Doran, yoga instructor, health coach and musician
Conor Doran is originally from Co Donegal. Over the past 17 years in Asia, he has become a holistic health coach, yoga instructor, Chi Nei Tsang practitioner, and multi-instrumentalist. He has lived in Thailand and South Korea and has been visiting Koh Phangan since 2002, where he lived for a year in 2017. While there, he ran a detox centre, part of a healing centre incorporating yoga, meditation, and a vegan restaurant.
“Health and wellness is much more than the food we eat. Most people came to upgrade their life and cure various ailments through fasting programmes with self-administered colonics. Clients come from all over the world, but mostly from Europe and North America, and could sign up for anywhere between four to 28 day programmes,” he explains.
“With health and wellness it’s wise to play the long game, it’s not just a quick fix.”
Conor is currently back in Ireland, preparing to move to China.
Declan Stapleton, ‘conscious dance’ facilitator
Declan Stapleton’s journey to becoming a “conscious dance” facilitator is unusual. Originally from Co Limerick, he spent six years as an investment banker in London, New York and Sydney, leading what he calls a “mainstream and conventional lifestyle”. That changed in 2004, after he took six months out to travel around India.
“I started doing lots of Vipassana meditation and ayahuasca - a strong plant-derived hallucinogen administered during shamanic rituals in South America - which unlocked lots of doors for me,” he says.
He quit his job and went to live in India for 10 years, finally settling in Goa and Dharamsala, and touring as DJ and musician in the European summer months. He has since set up ecstatic and contact dances in Goa, Bali and Thailand.
“The global framework for ecstatic dance is no talking, no shoes, no alcohol, drugs and no phones. It’s a safe space to explore and dance freely, with no judgement of others,” he explains.
“Before the conscious dance movements, most people associated dance with drugs and alcohol. After you go to an ecstatic dance event for the first time, you realise, wow, it is possible to experience that without being high!”
Stapleton has recently moved to Portugal where he a student at Tamera Community (www.tamera.org), learning about sustainable living. He is co-founder of the New Regenerative Culture movement, which is dedicated to pioneering how to live in harmony with the environment and each other. His dream is to integrate conscious dance into a fully sustainable model of living, with permaculture, clean energy, green schools and creative arts.
Art McHeart and Jenny Keane, yoga instructors
Art McHeart and Jenny Keane became friends while working on animation and graphics projects together for Windmill Lane recording studios in Dublin in 2010. Since then, they have crisscrossed the world, meeting along the way, most recently on Koh Phangan. Both are now yoga instructors.
Art currently hosts transformative breath workshops and yoga teacher training programmes on Koh Phangan, as well as co-facilitating shamanic tantra retreats. He plans to stay on the island for at least another year.
“I want to expand my capacity for learning: physically, spiritually and intellectually, integrating body awareness in gymnastics and yoga asana,” he says.
“I want to test the limits of the breath work I am learning here, while innovating my life studies in order to return home to Ireland with concrete tools and knowledge.”
Keane is keen to introduce Irish women to tantric massage, an erotic massage incorporating elements from yoga, bioenergetics and sexual therapy, that she studied while on Koh Phangan.
“It was the most sacred experience of my life,” she says. “In Ireland, I want to break down the shame and judgment that surrounds women’s sexuality, and teach women about this powerful feminine force.”
She has recently returned to Dublin where she is teaching yoga and running a women’s circle. She plans to go to India this winter to continue her study of tantra yoga.
Shane Cogan is a writer, human rights worker, musician and filmmaker. His first novel, The Purple River (sci-fi/fantasy) is out on Amazon this month.