Starting home

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I’m staring at the clock on my cell phone on a street populated with nothing but black storefronts and groaning garbage trucks, and I’m starting to panic. I’ve been waiting for 20 minutes for my taxi to the airport. It’s only five minutes late, but I haven’t scheduled much leeway into my pickup, booked the day before with my visa card at a taxi stand. I’m studying the Thai receipt by light of my cell phone, making sure it says 5 am. I’m gazing up and down the street, straining to see headlights. At 5:07 I wheel my suitcase to a 24-hour minimart and beg the clerk to call the number on the receipt to check. He does. “You wait, car coming,” he says. So I strain in the street for ten more minutes, until I’ve worked myself into a frenzy thinking that I’ve been duped by a fake taxi stand or ineptitude, and that I’m going to miss my commuter flight to Bangkok and hence the other three flights back home.

I make another trip to the minimart and this time the clerk hands me the phone. “We come, two minutes,” a woman’s voice tells me. Three minutes later, a van pulls up driven by a man and also containing the woman I’d talked to earlier. “But it was for 5,” I say anxiously, waving my receipt and noting the time of 5:20. “Sorry, sorry,” says the woman “no cars, Ok.” She has a point: traffic is nonexistent.

However, this van takes me to a strange little bamboo stand in the middle of nowhere and stops. The man points to the bamboo stand. I make a shocked noise that translates easily as horror: I’m not about to get out and wait some more. But no, the man was pointing to a car parked behind the stand, and he helps me run my suitcase to this new taxi, which the woman is revving up.

Once we’re on the road, I am comforted to see that she appears to be speeding, although I can’t be sure. I do the math. I can make it either way: I don’t have any checked luggage, and I tell myself I’ll use the priority line to get my boarding pass. My taxi driver gets me there in half the time I was quoted, and I thank her profusely and then hurry away to find Bangkok Airways. The check-in line contains one other customer and three staff people, so I’m served immediately. This is good because it takes them awhile to figure out what to do with my luggage. They have me weigh my little rolling suitcase and tell me it’s too heavy to take on board. This mean they have to figure out how to check it since I’ll be transferring to another itinerary once I hit Bangkok, and I don’t have time to go out, get it, and go back through security. I remove my computer, since I’m not about to let them check that, and put the bag back on the scale. The staff point and gasp: the bag is magically light enough to take on board. I hold up my computer to show them. “Ok, ok,” they say, “you can take bag on plane.” With my thus disassembled bags I make my way to security: no line there either. I have just enough time to have a cup of cocoa at the boarding gate courtesy of Bangkok Air and then I board.

It’s going to be a really long day. 39 hours, to be exact. I hope I can get a few naps in. I’m so amped up, I have a feeling it will be difficult.

The caves of Ao Leuk

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If you rent a motorcycle, you can find the less touristy spots in Krabi, such as the network of caves near Ao Leuk marked poorly, if at all. The nicest cave near Ao Leuk is Suanoi Cave, and it is not easy to find. It isn’t the largest, or the most visited, but it is cooler by maybe 20 degrees than the surrounding sunny jungle — the reason being that it holds a 100-meter-deep aquifer, and the breeze blowing across the water makes everything fresh and blissful.

It is both a local swimming hole and a source of local household water — there’s a pump shuttling it away to prove it. Given the amount of trash littering the water’s edge, the presence of ducks, monkeys and wading fishermen, I immediately think better of brushing my teeth with local tap water. Bottled water only from now on.

You can explore this cave without a headlamp thanks to the light pouring in above the aquifer, which is not true of many of the other caves in the region.

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Nearby Phech Cave is good for exploration in the darkness, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The elephant revolution

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When I was two years old, I convinced my parents to let me ride a camel at the San Diego zoo. They asked me if I was sure I wouldn’t be scared to ride such a creature all by myself. “I won’t be scared,” I told them “I’ll be brave,” and so every time I looped past, I called to them: “See, look, I’m being brave!”

But I don’t actually remember that. What I remember from that day is that after convincing my parents to let me ride a camel, I saw someone riding an elephant, and I thought: actually, that’s what I really want to do. But it was too late by then.

So 31 years later, I read a flyer for an elephant-riding safari close to Ao Nang, on sale for 500 baht, or about $17. This flier described the relationship between the elephants and the mahouts as mutually respectful, like the elephants were friends and children, trained early and lovingly.

IMG_0705But I can’t help feeling like this is impossible once I get to the camp and see the parade of people being plunked onto the elephants. Giant fat tourists set on iron Elephant spraying touriststhrones strapped on in ways that look decidedly uncomfortable. The mahouts sit on the elephant’s heads and kick at their ears to spur them on, touch them with bullhooks. They tell me to step barefoot onto the thick gray skin with its prickly hair, and I feel slightly like a rapist or a colonizer, like I’m violating a highly sentient being whose permission I have not gotten to use in this manner. I’ve grown up riding animals but this feels different. There is something, some superior intelligence in the way these animals lift their trunks to me, even in the way they have to be spurred forward. We go through water and one sucks up a trunkful and holds it a few inches from my face. I smile at it and think, serves me right if you get me wet, and the animal lowers its trunk, chooses a different tourist target, and sprays away.

As I look around me, I want these elephants to start a revolution. I want them to know their strength and communal wit, to break their chains, go running away into the jungle together and leave the bullhooks and the tourists behind. Some are saved and transported to elephant conservatories, but that still drives demand. Revolution would not drive demand.

Once I’m back in my hotel in Ao Nang, I start researching elephant riding. I’m horrified by what I find, remorseful. And more than ever I want the elephants to rise up in protest, break their shackles and escape into some remote corner of Southeast Asia where nobody could find them. But I don’t think this would work out very well for them. Only humans refusing to ride them would do the trick.

People like me

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I meet people who think like me when I travel. Almost too much so, actually. I meet impoverished writers who tell me an effective way of getting free food is to find the unopened stuff in the trash bins in places like Boulder. I meet 30-year-olds living on fold-out couches all over the world, people who say they save money on all kinds of things but they spend on certain special things. For one guy, it’s good Port. For most of them, it’s plane tickets. I meet people who tell me about the feeling of lifting off in an airplane, a feeling that brings them near tears, a feeling of wanting to incinerate themselves in the engines of a jet plane and thus travel forever, never touching the ground.

Because I’m traveling alone, people talk to me and I talk to them. On a bus in Bangkok, a white boy grins at me and begins to pester me with questions: where I’m from, what I’m doing, how long I’m traveling. In a shared taxi in Krabi, a woman tells me in broken English that I’m beautiful. “Me, fat,” she says cheerfully “brown, black!” she points to the skin of her arms and giggles. I try to tell her that where I’m from, everyone wants to be tan, but I’m not sure she understands.

I am thankful for these people I’ve never met before and whom I will probably never see again. I am thankful because they have turned a solitary trip into one full of conversations and shared experiences.

But I am thankful most of all for the family who waits for me back home, for those I have grown up with and the little ones whose eyes are still full of wonder for my snapshots of monkeys and elephants, who snuggle down into my lap in welcome. I can go all the way around the world and come back to the tradition of mashed potatoes and turkey and a sagging table full of memories.

Baring it

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IMG_0494If I could, I’d be a nudist here. The humidity, the rain, the red clay and the sand conspire to make everything you wear the worst possible version of itself; all your clothes are filthy in short order and sandpaper-itchy to boot. Washing them does not seem to help, it only gets them wetter and therefore more prone to souring.

My shoes are the worst, so I stop wearing them. I go barefoot for miles, through the jungle, through caves, over beaches, over the sidewalks of the tourist towns, over the rocks of low tide. I carry my flip-flops just in case, but I only put them on for heavy gravel. I even rappel barefoot after climbing up through a cave that overlooks Ralay beach.

At the end of my IMG_0592adventures I am wearing nothing but my bathing suit and a climbing harness, and am covered in splotchy pink mosquito bites and streaks of red clay. My feet are caked in mud. I saunter up the most frou-frou street of Ralay bay (which isn’t saying much) in this ensemble, sit on a stoop and drink from my water bottle.

I look like Gollum with chicken pox, but I feel like a badass.

Climbing in the rain

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It’s been raining every day here, which makes rock climbing difficult. You need (mostly) dry rock to climb. However, there are so many routes to choose from in this area that some are protected even in the most horrific downpours. The cliffs here are so high and the rock formations so spectacular that it’s really not difficult to find a crevice out of the rain.

Tonsai is only part of the network of good rock to climb in this area. If you hike for ten minutes through the jungle and the sea (depending on the tides) you reach West Railay; walk another ten and you reach East Railay. From there it’s five minutes to Phra Nang with its network of roof overhangs and its beautiful beach. When there’s a storm approaching, this comes in handy.

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IMG_0476I am just emerging from the safety of a cave near Phra Nang with four climbing partners to find some lunch when it starts dumping. We have different ways of dealing with this: I suggest going into the ocean and thereby rendering the rain moot, while the older couple I’ve been climbing with finds a rattan mat to huddle under with several tourists. The ocean is much warmer than the rain, bathwater warm, and I sit in it for awhile, squinting against the water pelting my face. Then I remember lunch, so I fish out some money and buy pad thai from a boat bobbing in the water, standing knee-deep in the turquoise sea, the rain beating against my scalp. I eat it out of its Styrofoam box with a plastic fork, still standing there in the rain and the sea, the freshly-cooked noodles so hot they nearly burn me. Then we all troop back to the cave for more climbing.

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Finding climbing partners in Tonsai

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Everywhere you look here in Tonsai there are the shirtless, smooth-skinned, compact bodies of climbers, the men short with overdeveloped lats, or lanky and stringy, the women with well-muscled shoulders. Some have aged like leather, pliable, rugged, striated, brown.

I gather my climbing gear together and I set out to see if I can meet anyone to climb with. I walk around for ten minutes with no luck, and decide I’m hungry anyway. I’m walking to get food when three Thai instructors from the Base Camp climbing shop pass by. One of them nods to the climbing shoes hanging from my bag. “We’re going bouldering,” he says “you want to come?”

“Sure,” I say. Eating can wait.

IMG_0316The instructors are so good that they gather an audience, as it often happens here. I hear two people speaking French, so I start a conversation with them, then jump in the ocean with them. They point out the multi-pitch they did the day before yesterday and offer to let me climb with them when I say that I have my own shoes and harness but I’m traveling solo.

However, I don’t see them around again, so the next evening after a rainy day I drink some tonic water at the outdoor bar by the rocks and start talking to a passel of Scottish girls drinking red wine and Dutch boys drinking Thai beer. The Scottish girls are not climbers, but one of the Dutch boys is injured, which means they may be climbing somewhere around my level. We make a plan to meet up at ten the next day at the same spot, and then climb for six hours with a break in the middle for lunch. We don’t even stop when it rains, just switching location to an overhung area that stays dry in the downpour. I am quite gratified because they are appear to be constructed entirely out of abdominal and back muscles, and I can still climb everything they’re climbing. But they’re from the Netherlands, which means that although they’ve climbed a lot, it’s nearly all been indoors, so they’re still getting their heads around this outdoor thing. They are undoubtedly better than I am, it’s just a matter of them figuring that out.

It’s always slightly awkward being the third wheel in a party that otherwise speaks a language you can’t. But I do my best. I learn the word for take in Dutch, as in “take the rope in because I’m about to fall and only have time to say one syllable.” This comes in handy because they tend to shout instinctively in such moments instead of remembering the English word I taught them.

At one point one of them says something to the other in Dutch, and I ask: “Oh, there’s a hot girl in a bikini and sunglasses on the beach?” They are surprised, but it was really just an educated guess based on the word bikini and the word zonnebril, which sounds like the German word for sunglasses, and the fact that what else would they be talking about? Nonetheless, I let them be impressed with my stealth knowledge of Dutch, and whip out the occasional Dutch phrase just to keep them on their toes.

IMG_0512IMG_0507We’re unsuccessfully attempting a 6c (5.11a; I had to look it up) when we meet up with an older fellow and his girlfriend from Utah. The older fellow says he’ll give the lead a shot, and he cranks it out. This is how it is done, grasshopper. His girlfriend anoints the mosquito bites on my back, which I have been unable to reach.

 

The dangers of Tonsai

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Tonsai monkeyIn the Northwestern US, when you go out into the forest, you bear-proof your camp by hanging up your food in a tree. Here in Thailand, it’s a little different. Here, you’ve got to worry about the monkeys. The very first person I ask about lodging says that monkeys broke into his bungalow and went through his stuff looking for food, and made off with his girlfriend’s perfume. They found the half-empty bottle discarded a short distance away.

This person tells me that the monkeys cannot get into luggage, so I keep most of my stuff in my bag, zipped up. This is probably better anyway, since it also keeps the dust and the bugs out. I tie up my food in a cloth bag and hang it up high on a nail: separate, so there’s less temptation to try to get into my luggage. As a bonus, this also foils the ants, who try unsuccessfully to get into the bag, as I discover later. Thailand does not appear to have nearly as many ants as some other places I’ve been, such as Belize, but still. Keeping my clothes in my bag also seems to keep them drier, as everything that I hang up to air out in the room becomes slightly moist from the humidity.

Apparently the sanitation is also a problem in this fairly primitive inlet: people get sick here by the droves. They tell me of the ailments they contracted, from Dengue Fever to what sounds like food poisoning, describing the color of their vomit in intricate detail. I decide I should only eat cooked food, use a new pair of cellophane-wrapped chopsticks every time, and brush my teeth with bottled water. No matter what I try, however, I can’t seem to avoid getting bitten by bugs, and before long I count over 60 bites. Combined with my white skin and the stubble on my legs I can’t see to shave in the semidarkness of my lodging, it makes me look dead sexy in a bikini.

Arrival in Tonsai

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There are two Tonsai bays near Krabi, or rather there’s Ton sai and Tonsai, often spelled interchangeably. Ton sai is the place on Phi Phi island where everyone goes to party, and Tonsai next to Ralay bay is where the rock climbers hang out. So, when you arrive at the bus station or the airport in Krabi, make sure you know which is which. If you’re headed to party central, it’s simplest to leave from the pier in Krabi town. If you’re headed to the climbing mecca, it’s easiest to leave in a long boat from Ao Nang. To make sure, tell your taxi or bus driver you intend to go to “Ton sai Phi Phi island” or “Tonsai Ralay beach.”

I, of course, am going to the rock climbing mecca, having discovered it last February and vowed I would return. It’s perfect for solo climbers who want to meet people to climb with and dunk themselves in the ocean whenever they get a little too warm. Kind of like the Camp 4 of Southeast Asia. I land in Tonsai and ask around about lodging, because this is a trick I’ve learned about Thailand: it’s best to look at lodging in person, and often the cheapest places are not anywhere online. I end up shouldering my little rolling bag and schlepping it into the jungle, pausing every so often at “resorts” to ask their price. There’s one with a pool for around $50, so I keep walking. Then there’s a bungalow for 400 baht, but I know things get IMG_0310cheaper so I keep going farther. On top of a little hill I find one for 200 baht, or less than $6. It’s a tiny hut constructed out of a concrete slab, sheet metal, rushes and sticks, and the electricity comes on from 6 pm to midnight, but the sheet covering the bed looks clean, at least apart from the sand around the edges. There’s pink netting hanging over the middle of the bed to catch the debris that falls from the ceiling, which reminds me of four-poster beds in the days of thatched roofs. I feel the bed — a bit saggy, but ok — and say I’ll take it.

I take a cold shower and am quite happy to be alone in my little hut in the jungle. I do the only logical thing: take a nap. I wake up with more mosquito bites than I started out with, but I’ve planned for this, and smear my Thai mosquito ointment on the bites.

Over the next few days I discover that my hut appears to be perpetually damp, despite my efforts to air the place out: the humidity, no doubt. Instead of drying, my bikini starts to smell like it’s molding. The weather is extra humid and raining intermittently. However, I tell myself it’s still more comfortable than camping. Fortunately, I have brought my own soap, wet wipes, toilet paper and headlamp: I was prepared for camping-level digs. I’d move to somewhere more expensive, but from what I can tell from the discussions at the outdoor bars, everywhere has its set of problems and even the fanciest place on the bay hasn’t found a way to get rid of the humidity. There’s apparently one place in the entire inlet that has semi-decent wifi, and it’s the bar, but you have to buy the wifi separately. I talk to one guy who’s staying on Ralay beach a ten-minute walk along a jungle path, where everything is more developed, and it sounds like he’s paying over triple what I am for something worse than I have.

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