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No going back for retreat centre


Joel’s retreat is evolving into a self sufficient utopia. Photograph: Claire Byrne/Phnom Penh Post

Hariharalaya is growing. In more ways than one. The popular retreat centre is evolving into something of an eco-village and spurring it on is its ever-fascinating and permanently chilled out founder, Joel Altman.

Sitting down for (vegan, of course) breakfast with Joel is something of an enlightening experience. A linguist by trade, he speaks eight languages, and can read fourteen. Sign language is his next endeavour; he likes silence, he once spent six months immersed in it. “You must have gone crazy?” I question. “That’s the point,” he retorts.

Joel never set out with lofty plans for Hariharalaya, the centre by the Bakong temple opened less than two years ago. For him its success and growth is all part of a greater plan than his own. “I find that things move by themselves. If we’re not open then it becomes stagnant. It’s been this continual manifestation and growth since the first day,” he explains. “It’s not this pre-pro grammed commercial style retreat or anything, every day is fresh, new andunexpected.”

Most unexpected for Joel was the retreat’s recent growth spurt. Content with the house and its small garden, four months ago the centre was given a plot of land next door. Since then, new dorms have been constructed, eco bath-rooms created, and last week’s first ever perma-blitz saw the plans for creating what Joel refers to as an Eden get fully underway. “We’re going to really do biodiversity, we’re not just men, this isn’t just a human trip, a human planet. There are infinite species from the insects to the trees from all the kingdoms that can teach us so much about ourselves and life.”

With over 80 trees brought in just last week alone, he now wants to demonstrate how land here can be used for more than just rice production. “This was all natural forest up to 15 or 18 years ago and it was cut down. We want to bring nature back into the rice fields. So people can do more planting, get a bit more out of the land. There’s a lot of water, but we can really use water to our advantage if we direct it where to go. Then it’s not a problem, it’s a resource. Everything is a resource, even what we consider waste,” he explains, “That’s what the new aspect of permaculture and deep ecology is about,  integrating all aspects of life.” Over the next six weeks, Joel will be welcoming guests to permaculture workshops working with resident expert volunteers to learn more about the concept.

Along with permaculture planting, Joel hopes to bring animals into the mix and has also begun digging a lotus pond for meditation and a bamboo forest. In keeping with Hariharalaya’s holistic approach, which already includes reiki, massage, art and music, a volleyball court and archery area will also be set up.

Cooking, along with yoga and meditation has been at the centre’s core since the start, and the retreat owes a lot of its popularity to Joel’s fare. For this reason a cookery book was another natural pro-gression. “Everybody always asks for the cookbook.” he explains. “It’s so important that we prepare our own food, because it’s our vibration, our love, our feeling. The idea is that we can create very simple and beautiful foods that will nourish us through the cooking and through the eating.”

Joel describes the food at Hariharilaya as local simple food, easy to digest and colourful. “It’s all prepared fresh, it’s prepared with love too,” he says. And he’s not wrong. Breakfast is a tasty miso soup, along with a peanut and banana smoothie. There’s delicious bread I didn’t know was possible to bake without dairy, plus purple potato chips, bright red tomatoes and lush greens.

The cookbook, available in July, will include 60 dishes from Joel’s many themed courses around food consciousness, sustainability and digestive health. Joel says highlights include scrambled tofu, garlic sweet potato chips, caramelised pumpkin and palm sugar, Mexican bean chilli and African peanut stew. “We work with a variety of dishes from different cultures and we serve it buffet style, family style.

Everybody eats together so we’re all coming together. Sometimes we’ll spend an hour and a half just all talking, some people will pick up an instrument, it’s a very dynamic context.”

Not content with just one book this summer, Joel will also release a collection of poetry. It seems Hariharalaya is something of a creative retreat as well as one for yoga and meditation. As Joel steadily evolves his place into a self-sufficient utopia, I ask him if he ever misses the real world. “I don’t want a part of that one, I know the real world, this is the real world.”

Looking around at the trees, insects, and chilled out volunteers high on life after a week immersed at Hari-haralaya away from the daily grind, I realise he might just be on to something.

“We’re really infused with that spirit of spontaneous beauty and joy, this Eden consciousness, this is what I’m calling it,” says Joel.

“It’s here right now, it always has been, it’s a choice that we make, every moment.”



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