Monday, May 04, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #4: Two weeks in Thailand

Windows, Aisles and Middles,

Hot and sticky greetings from Kuala Basu, Malaysia. Since sending out my last email I met up with my buddy Crosby in Phuket, Thailand to begin 6 weeks of travel together. Our itinerary was very loose, and since we rarely book anything more than 24 hours in advance, we’ve changed our expected schedule daily. Each morning carries with it an unknown adventure, as we know something's happening but we don't know what it is.

So how does one possibly describe two incredible weeks in the islands of southwestern Thailand? The answer is you don’t. You touch on a few highlights, but keep most of the memories in your backpocket to be shared around a campfire one day with close friends. Phuket is a highly developed resort city, studded with sprawling beaches, five-star resorts, friendly shops, and a pretty wild nightlife scene that I didn’t anticipate whatsoever. Before even arriving in Phuket I planned to head out as soon as possible, but we headed over to Patong our first morning, cruised for a few hours to a remote beach on rented motorbikes, and enjoyed one great night of clubbing. All I’ll say about that night is that I saw an “Eel Show.” I won’t provide any details, but I did sprint out the front door within 5 seconds of the show’s start. I’m not kidding, 5 seconds was all it took before I was literally running. For those who are wondering, I also turned off 2 Girls 1 Cup about 2 seconds into its main act… It’s a toss-up as to which is more gross. It’s like asking whether the heads or tails side is more valuable on a quarter. Except no one wins… least of all the cup and the eel.

From there we headed to Koh Phi Phi, a place famed as one of the most beautiful islands in the entire world… due to this notoriety, a burgeoning backpacker town has developed with cobblestone walkways and a plethora of eateries and late-night options. During our days we played volleyball, snorkeled, visited Maya Beach where Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach” was filmed, met other travelers and generally relaxed. At night, it was a different story. Each evening local fire twirlers did their thing as a throbbing beach rave swelled in the sands… Hundreds of young travelers from across the world drank buckets and danced with snake-eyed intent until 5am. Two of them were named Crosby and Adam. After three ridiculously fun nights of this, we crawled away from Koh Phi Phi for two tranquil nights on Koh Lanta and then at Krabi’s Ton Sai Beach.

Our trip is currently taking place in the SE Asia “low season” for travel, so many places are hit or miss. Ton Sai Beach is a super-chilled out backpacker spot nestled between the towering limestone faces of a stunning horseshoe beach that seemed like an off-the-beaten path dream to me, but Crosby was looking for a bit more excitement so we headed through the darkness of a small mountain path with our full packs at 6pm on our second night to relocate to Railay Beach next door. This turned out to be a great move, because we absolutely fell in love with Railay.

We originally anticipated 2-3 nights there… we ended up staying for seven. This was partially due to the fact that we found a cozy resort to stay at (queen sized beds, AC, pool, manicured landscaping, maid service, etc) for $12 each per night. Railay’s east side in the low season was also the perfect storm of nicely developed bars/restaurants with few enough people to create an extremely laid back and congenial vibe. Highlights from our seven days included a magnificent hike to an emerald green lagoon enveloped by 200ft limestone cliffs that left an eye-shaped sky above, monkey viewing, guitar lessons from a lovely Swede and sunset watching on Prenang Beach (one of Thailand’s Top 3 beaches), shady Muay Thai boxing matches at Bamboo Bar, befriending nearly everyone on the island, and going on a true adventure with a local friend.

For seven straight nights we ended up at a bar called Chok D’s, where everyone lay on comfortable cushions listening to a brilliant Phillipino guitarist play covers of any classic song you could think of... the local crew of young Thai guys that ran the joint quickly became our boys, and after a few nights a real bond of kinship was formed. We became particularly close with one 20 year-old kid named Mon (as in, “What’s up Mon”), and on our fourth night I asked him if he could take us to visit his home in the remote village where he lived… He was pretty surprised at the request, but it’s these local experiences that are the core of why I travel. They’re always filled with surprises, newfound appreciation of other cultures, deep humility, and astounding beauty. They don’t come often, as I can probably count my exposure to such events on two hands in over two years of total travel abroad, but they’re the best of the best… and I just had a good feeling about this one. He agreed, saying “My home? I only go back every two months… but in three days, I go. You come? Yea!”

Three days later we found ourselves on a slowboat heading towards Krabi Town with Mon grinning madly. We rented three motorbikes and jetted off for the island of “little Lanta”. Mon hadn’t been on a motorbike in 3 years, so he led the way at speeds reaching 110km along the narrow motorbike lane of the highway. It was pretty nuts, but a blast nonetheless. After 1.5 hours we arrived at his basic concrete home, where his mother and sister had prepared a full meal for us of omelettes, fish, boiled eggs, vegetables and rice that we ate sitting cross-legged on the ground. Surprisingly, it was delicious. From there we headed down to a small local jetty, where Mon’s father picked us up in his mini-slowboat and lazily rode off for “the cave.”

As we pulled the wooden boat up to a small mangrove patch I knew we were in for something special, and I now truly believe that we’re some of the only Westerners to ever see this local gem. The crew scaled a bamboo ladder and with flashlights in hand entered a shockingly massive and deep cave, filled with stalagmite formations, baby cones, ancient engravings, a few bats and our hushed “oohs” and “ahhs.” After 45 minutes of exploration we returned to the boat, thanking Mon’s father profusely, and he took us on an hour-long island viewing boat tour before we jetted back to Krabi town. From there we hired a boat to return us to Railay as the sunset melted wax candles onto the sky over our shoulders, sea winds whipped our faces, Michael Franti’s baritone blasted into my ears, and as each wave bounced beneath us like nature’s heartbeat the creases of our smiles grew ever so slightly. We both agreed, it was our best day in Thailand for sure.

Railay and Ton Sai also happen to be two of the Top 5 rockclimbing locations in Thailand, so they’re among the world’s best. I’d never rockclimbed before, but we had to go for it… and it was indescribably great. We spent an afternoon under the baking sun scaling several different routes of a 400ft rock face, challenging every strain of physical and mental juice that we had in our bodies. It was exhausting. It was insanely hard. More than anything, it was fucking awesome. There’s just something about ascending a wall formed thousands of years ago with nothing to help you but a harness, a rope, determination, blood and guts. It reminds you of your own mortality, vigor and pulsing lifeforce. There were many times when I was sure I couldn’t move my arms whatsoever, but I just had do yell at myself a bit to keep the spirits high. After several deep breaths the adrenaline would propel me upwards… And upon reaching the peak and turning around to see the tropical paradise below with aqua green waters shimmering for miles, the endorphin-release was unparalleled. I’m pretty sure I’ll be forcing my unborn kids onto professional-grade climbs before they reach the age of 10… just to toughen em up and whatnot. They can take it, they’re not even born yet.

Departing Railay was extremely tough, but a necessary move to continue the trip. It took a ridiculous 16 hour trip by boat and several minishuttles to get us to Malaysia, but we’ve had a great few days here so far and are looking forward to the next stop… which we booked last night on a whim although it certainly wasn’t part of the original itinerary. But you’ll have to wait for the next update to see where the adventures have taken us…

Our time in the cave really got me thinking about what we saw in there and how we responded to it. The formations we witnessed were at once beautiful, scary and awe-inspiring, much like many of the elements each person possesses deep within the recesses of their mental, emotional and spiritual beings. We now live in a world of hyperconnectivity, where we not only immediately share and post the images of our lives for thousands of others to see, but we’re moving towards a society where people are increasingly sharing their every thought, action and feeling via the internet multiple times a day to friends and strangers alike. When you take a picture it’s now usually with Facebook or Shutterfly in mind, as the lights of universal exposure become brighter and brighter with each passing moment.

But what about the caves? As the power and scope of these lights expand, the internal caves seem to be diminishing day by day. The fact remains though, that certain things can only develop in the still silence of darkness. Our time in the cave was a stark reminder of this. Not everything needs to be put on immediate display for others to recognize and commend. Some items should be kept in the caves, enabling isolation to harvest their evolving beauty… and in the future, when each of us allows a few trusted and intrepid explorers into those caves, they too will shine their flashlights of illumination with deep appreciation and respect. The previously hidden elements will remain steadfast from the lengthy period of unfettered development, and each person who enters this cave will leave knowing they have experienced something special. It’s okay to keep a few pieces of yourself in the caves. These are the things that one day, if you keep them away from the eyes of the world long enough, just might turn into someone else's treasure.

Walkin’ the many roads,

Key Trip Info
Album of Choice- “Live at Bats” by Fly My Pretties. A New Zealand super-group comes together for a wicked live set that grooves in all four directions at once. If you can’t get this live set, find anything by Fly My Pretties or their band members’ own groups. You’ll sleep happily once you do.
Song of Choice- “Your Protector” by Fleet Foxes. They’re the modern lovechild of Simon & Garfunkel and The Band. Mountain men who only care about two things- Making sweet, sweet harmonies and growing burly beards. Definitely check them out, explore their catalogue, and find your own favorites… this bellowing ballad sounds oh so right when you’re surrounded by sparkling turquoise waters headed on a speed boat towards the Perhentian Islands. Give it a listen.