Friday, January 21, 2011

Good Bye Beaches, Hello Northernn Thailand

Hi everyone, today I am in Chiang Mai the northern part of Thailand with Brendan and his friend Ryan.

My last look at Railay Beach. Because Railay East is a very shallow piece of water, you ride in these boxy, homemade 4x4 trucks from the waterline to about 200 feet out where the water is deep enough for the longtail boats, which was just over a foot deep at most. As they drove us out to the boat to drop us off, they also were loading food and supplies from another longtail into the truck to take back to the shops on the beach.

Once I was on the longtail, I had a short ride to the pier at Krabi Town, where I caught a mini-bus. That mini-bus took everyone on a ride to the 'bus station', where we waited around for an hour and a half. It was really just a shack off the road with overpriced junk food, and I passed the time talking politics mostly with some Brits and Aussies. Naturally the ticket seller lied to me and everyone else when they said it was a direct bus all the way, because it certainly was not the case. At around 5pm, we left the 'bus station' in another mini-bus, which we rode in for almost two hours to another shack down a dirt road in who knows where. There, we only had a few minutes to get on the real bus, no time to eat or anything. The bus played the new GI Joe movie, which was just as bad as I expected it to be, but still a decent way to kill time on the long ride. For some reason the toilet was locked, and unlike the buses that make too many stops, this one didn't seem to stop at all and I just about had to pee in a bottle. At just past midnight we finally stopped at a food stand where poor quality and overpriced food was unenthusiastically consumed, then we hopped back on the bus for the rest of the drive.

At 5:15am, well before sunrise, the bus arrived in Bangkok and I had a lot of time to kill. I'm not a coffee drinker, but I got less than 4 hours of uncomfortable sleep on the bus, so I stopped at a little stand that served coffee and fried dough for 20 baht to keep me awake for the long day ahead. I wandered back down Khaosan Road, which actually does sleep apparently, then sat down on a bench on one of the main roads to read my book and wait for sunrise.

At 8am, I went to the hotel I had stayed at with Nick's family to pick up my passport I'd left with them three weeks earlier and picked it up with my new Indian visa. They charged me 3100 when I'd paid for it, but when I got there I was told it was actually 4000 baht and I needed to pay the rest of it. I was a bit annoyed, but that price was inline with the priced I'd been quoted from other places when I was looking where to get it, and still well below the 'official' price of 6800 baht. I then paid 100 baht for breakfast, but the food is good and all you can eat, plus they have wifi. So I sat around their lobby eating for two hours until the food was put away, then another 3 hours taking care of business on the computer and then just killing time. With my visa ready, now all I needed to meet Sazzy in India was my plane ticket.

Because Brendan was arriving at 2am or so, I went ahead and got a room for both of us to stay in. I picked one right on Khaosan because that is where I told him to meet me, and because it is a crazy scene to witness. I ended up with a room in Lak Guest house, because it was cheap, 260 baht, was right across from where I told Brendan to meet me, and had a cool rooftop deck with some decent views. The room was what you expect for that kind of price on Khaosan, but it ended up being a poor choice. What I didn't know was that it was above one of the loudest clubs on the road, and the bass was shaking our room way up on the 5th floor well past 4am...

Ok first of all let me just say I'm not nearly as tan as this picture makes me look! I've been on the beach for a long time up until now, but that looks like some Jersey Shore levels of tanning! Weird lightning or something... Anyways, Brendan arrived about when I expected, shortly before 2am, and after putting his things down we walked around the area, chatted for a while and went to sleep quite late. Brendan was kind enough to bring a package from my mother containing some brownies marzipan. Thanks for the treats!

In the morning we moved into a different guest house on the other end of Khaosan, 7 Holder Guest House (10 baht less and much quieter), and since I knew the area a bit from my last time in Bangkok I took Brendan around the area. Because I thought Wat Po was so nice last time, I was happy to go there again with Brendan and we also spent a while sitting in a park that was once the Royal Garden, and just wandered around for a few hours exploring the neighborhoods away from all the tourist attractions.

Being Asia, most people don't have cars and instead have a moto if they have a vehicle (even in Bangkok which has more cars than any other part of southeast Asia I've been to yet). Most are just 100-125cc Hondas, but there are tons of bikes around and from time to time you see a really nice one like this vintage BMW. My other favorites are the mini-bikes, not sure what they are called, but are about pit-bike size but use the same 125cc engine as the normal motos, and the 125-150cc sport bikes. Being out here really makes me want to buy a motorcycle, but I'm going to try and resist!

In the evening, again there was lots of time to kill. Brendan’s friend who we would also be traveling with was arriving at about 2am so we walked around some more, I bought my plane ticket to India (February 2nd, very excited!), and we waited on Khaosan. These were just two crazy Swedish brothers we met while sitting at the bar. They had wasted lots of money in wigs, hill-people hats, and trinkets like the annoying wood frogs people sell everywhere, and were quite amusing. Brendan's friend Ryan finally arrived at 3:15am, and we rather promptly went to sleep in what was probably the most uncomfortable bed I've had yet.

In the morning, the three of us took off walking and we went to a small park by the river. Brendan and Ryan are both big birders, and we sat on a bench for a while just looking at birds that were new to them. We had the bus to Chiang Mai at 5:30 so we couldn't make big plans for the day and just wandered around until we got tired of walking. We did come across a weird little place behind an old fort wall that sold all kinds of fireworks (not very good prices), walked through a market that was I think devoted entirely to Buddhist nick-naks, among other local discoveries.

At 5:30pm, we took off for the bus, and had an uneventful overnight ride to Chiang Mai which is 12 hours away and in the very north of the country. I managed a bit more sleep on this ride than the last one, but still not great. The bus dropped us off and we were then loaded onto a mini-bus and drive into Old Town, where they then dropped us off in front of the guest house they were hoping we would stay at. We kept walking of course, and found another place farther down the street. I was glad to be out of Bangkok and back in a smaller city.

Once we were situated in our rooms, we rented three bikes and headed off for the Warorot Market to get some breakfast and look around. I haven't ridden a bike since Phnom Phen with Nick and Ellen, and it was fun to be back in the saddle. We walked through the market, ate at two different food stalls and went on our way riding around the town.

One of our main stops for the day was Wat Phra Sing one of the many wats in Chiang Mai. I'm not sure the reason for it, but Chang Mai is second to only Bangkok in terms of the number of wats it has, which means you seem to see one every few blocks. We have two right near our guest house that are both surrounded in similar white walls, confusing us on more than one occasion already. Like many others, this complex houses a number of different buildings and Buddha images, including the 'Lion Buddha' which is the oldest and most revered in the area, arriving in the 1360s. The Wat is nice, but seeing this after seeing the wats in Bangkok is sort of like my diving experience: starting out at some of the biggest and best makes everything else seem a little underwhelming in comparison.

This complex housed a school of about 1,100 students, including a school for monks. We hadn't planned on doing one of the 'monk chats' but as we sat down at a table to decide what to do next we were approached by one monk, then another. The idea is to be able to ask the monks questions, and they get to practice their English skills. The two monks we ended up chatting with were both 19 and had been studying together for 6 years. It was pretty interesting to talk with them, about subjects such as how monks couldn't play sports of music, why people become monks, that it is hard for those who become monks to get into university later on, and that one of them liked Chang Mai University 'because it had lots of girls' haha...

Speaking of Chang Mai University, it was the next stop of the day. About 2km from Old Town, we rode down a large road and into the main entrance. Some sort of graduation is happening soon, and students were out in their caps and gowns getting photographed everywhere we looked. The university isn't supposed to be much to look at, but is situated on a tree and grass covered campus at the base of the 'mountain' that overlooks the city. There Brendan and Ryan saw a number of new birds, and we ran into a 18 or 19 year old missionary from Montana who was teaching English to students as part of his training.

We then took a long, late lunch and headed back to the room with plans of relaxing a bit and then heading out in the evening. Instead, exhaustion seemed to catch up to all of us and by the time we had woken up at about 10:30pm, we quickly realized we were not going to get out that evening, and should take a rest day the next day as well.

In the morning, we woke up to return the bikes to the shop (since we were expecting to ride to the bar last night), went out to breakfast, and then went back to the room to plan. After some planning, we headed out and wandered into one of the many previously mentioned wats to look around. It contained a building and Buddha from the 1400s, and strangely enough a statue of Donald Duck with chopsticks...

In our efforts to find transport tomorrow, we returned to the Warorot Market which was much more interesting this time. We entered the dry-good section and clothing section, which had a big screen TV showing music videos, and people working stands were dancing a bit. Also, for some reason there was a guy in a military-style uniform and a microphone walking around talking. I wish I knew what he was saying! At the market I bought a new hair brush (still getting used to this long hair thing) and some avocados, I think the first I've seen here in se-Asia!

At the moment the three of us are sitting at a restaurant where we all had some great curry dishes, and are using their wifi. Tonight we are going to go to a bar for some live music, and tomorrow into the park to see a view of the city and do some nature watching (well, birding in particular). Until next time!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Rock Climbing on Railay, Does it Get Any Better Than This?

Welcome back, as I write this, I am waiting for the boat that will take me away from Railay Beach (too soon!!) and off to Bangkok. I've had a wonderful time here, so sit back and read all about it:

As I discussed in my last blog, Railay is supposed to be one of the top climbing spots in the world (one person was saying he thinks it's #2, after one of the spots in California, forget which one...) and is an area full of everything from serious climbers to tourists here to try climbing for the first time. The schools are all over the place, with ½, 1, 2 and 3 day classes and all offering exactly the same thing. I went with Real Rock simply due to price (4500 baht verses 5000-6000) for other schools, and I was pretty happy with it. Everywhere we went we saw all the other schools, and they all know each other and get along so I'm not sure why you would pick one of the more expensive ones.

While I've done a little bit of rock climbing in the past, it's really been five years since I've done much. That was during the semester I lived in the woods in New York, the Adirondack Semester, but since then I'm struggling to recall the last time I climbed. Sure I climb trees at work, and do some mountain climbing with my dad, but actual rock climbing is very different, and I was very rusty on how it all worked so I needed a refresher and some people to climb with out here. The class was a perfect way to do that.

We started out at 9am on One Two Three wall, one of the closest ones and the area with the bulk of the easier routes. It is a bit of a zoo with so many people around (high season and all) but despite this it was all managed pretty well. It was a mixture of classes and other climbers who were just out with their own gear, and between climbs was fun to watch so many other people.

We started out doing top rope of course, and as soon as I got my hands on the rock again I was loving it. After maybe two climbs and some quick instruction (as well as watching others), I was given a rack of quick-draws and sent up a more challenging route as lead climber. What that means is that I was going up trailing the rope behind me and clipping into the bolts as I went, rather than having the rope setup above from the beginning. It's a bit more challenging and technical, and a lot of fun. This photo is just me looking down from the top of one of the routes.

Just another beautiful day in Thailand! This is Railay East, from the spot we were climbing at. After morning climbing, we would take a one hour lunch break. I thought this was funny, because when they said “includes lunch” what that meant was that they just gave back 100 baht of what you already paid and told you to go buy your own lunch, haha. That system however, is probably better than the alternative. Most times you sign up for something that includes lunch it's just some dish of low quality fried rice, so I preferred their system.

In the afternoon we went to Diamond Cave Wall, and did more climbing. This time again, it was a mixture of lead climbing and top rope, just depending on what routes we ended up doing and if the other instructors had ropes up to the anchor already. The routes we did were rated 6a and 6b, and people seemed impressed I could lead 6b climbs on my first day climbing in so many years.

After a hard days work and almost nothing but Thai food for three weeks, I decided to splurge and get a burger for dinner. I ordered beef, and while the 'meat' didn't look like any beef I'd seen before it was very good. I think I mentioned it last post, but the restaurant here at Rapala where I stayed is about the cheapest place to eat here on the beach, and the food is quite good. I ended up eating almost every meal for three or four days in a row here, haha.

Yep, just another wonderful day out here in Thailand, walking down the beach to go rock climbing! That cliff was our next climbing spot, I forget the name though... (and don't have the map with me), where we did a few routes in the morning. At one point one of our guides was leading, and took a fall. Normally this doesn't really matter, but for some reason the belay device that was supposed to stop him automatically, a Gregorry (sp?), failed to catch and he came all the way to the ground very quickly, maybe 30 feet. At the ground the weight balanced with that of the person belaying him, so he didn't fall to the ground in a heap, but he landed on his foot which seemed to hurt a fair bit. After some climbing we headed to the cave in the cliff, and entered the darkness.

The opening was very large, but quickly we began climbing up rickety bamboo ladders into the darkness.

After a few minutes, we saw light again, had gone through he whole cliff and arrived on the other side, very cool. From here we had this amazing view of Railay West and of climbers coming up the rock from below us. Here we rappelled down, which was supposed to be a 'feature' of the class or whatever, and something people pay to do on it's own. To me though, it was just a waste of time because honestly I rappel out of taller trees than this all the time, and it was just boring. The view was nice though, and for people who have never done it before I'm sure it is exciting.

After lunch we went back to One Two Three wall, and tried some more challenging routes. I had no trouble in the early afternoon, but by the end of the day my hands and forearms were so weak and tired I was useless, and called it a day.

That evening I could feel my hands and forearms were just wasted and my fingers cut up from the sharp rock. Rock climbing involves so much hand strength and little muscles you just don't use in anything else, so two days of climbing with no prior training I knew I couldn't climb the next day worth anything. This left me with a decision: take a day off from climbing, finish the class the day after and miss out on meeting Nick, Ellen and Chris in Phuket, or not finish the class, on the day we would learn about multi-pitch climbing, and just go to Phuket. I felt bad for not meeting up with my friends, but honestly the decision wasn't that hard to make, haha.

So the next day I slept in and took care of some business. Walking around the beach, I asked about prices from Railay to Bangkok, and got a ticket for 500 baht (they ranged from 5-600). That includes taking a longtail boat to Krabi Town, a van to the bus station, and then an overnight bus to Bangkok, a pretty good deal really. I also did some laundry (the tried and true plastic-bag method) and left it to dry on the deck of my bungalow.

With rest being the order of the day I went back to the beach and just lazed about as the sun was going down. I've been to a lot of different beaches on this trip now, and the beach here is very nice. Unlike some beaches, there are no people harassing you trying to sell you things, there are no rocks in the water, at low tide it is still deep enough to swim easily, and of course the views of the surrounding cliffs are amazing. I then finished the day by eating dinner, reading my book and going to bed early so I could get the most out of climbing the next day.

The next day my hands were still far from back to normal, but felt a lot better and I was ready to go. We headed back to One Two Three wall, and after an easy warmup, I lead this climb here that starts off with a good little overhang. I've always dreamed about doing some cool overhang climbing like this, and I was pumped to have a chance out here! The first few moves were pretty hard, and since I was leading and the first bolt was a ways above me, I was unprotected (no rope to catch me) but it was a blast. Also, pictures like this make me realize just how much hair I have now, haha.

And farther up the same route, where it gets a fair bit easier. Let me just say climbing on and among stalactites is pretty awesome!

After lunch we got to learn about what I was most excited to do, multi-pitch climbing. What that means, is climbing with a partner up long stretches where a rope isn't long enough to do it in one shot. So instead, the first person climbs up to where the anchor is on the cliff, clips in, and then belays their partner from above. Once both people are up the wall on the anchor, then the process is repeated and you belay your partner from on the rock face. I'd never done this, and had no idea how to set it all up so it was pretty exciting to learn and practice it. I wish we had more time, but we only did one 'multi-pitch' climb and it was really just stopping half way at another anchor, tying in, and then going on to the next anchor that could have been done in one shot in the first place. Oh well, I suppose I should have expected that, but I was expecting to get to do more...

After that, I wanted to do a few more climbs, and the guide pointed to a route and told me to do it. Of course I did, and as soon as I got down he said “Now that one, no rest!” So I went up the next one as well without stopping. I thought that would be my last climb, so I went all out, going hard and fast up the rock. Then the sent me up another, directing me up a pretty hard section where I fell once or twice, but made it. I got down, and they said “Do this one, only two minutes!” So I did a bit of a speed climb up that one, thinking it would be my last. Rather exhausted, I got back to the ground, and then they wanted me to lead one of the hardest routes on that particular wall. I had done that climb before, and found it very difficult. Now it was my third day of climbing, at the end of the day after just racing up four other routes, and I was very tired but game to try. I didn't think I'd be able to do it, and took one fall, but made it up, feeling really good. That turned out to be my last climb, and it was a wonderful way to end the course and my time climbing at Railay.

In the evening, I showered, shaved and decided to splurge for a personal pizza for dinner, after all I deserved it! It was very good, but to be honest hardly worth the price of more than two of the Thai dishes. Oh well, part of the reason is that cheese is expensive out here since they don't really eat dairy out here. Anyways, I went to the bar (The Last Bar, probably the best one on the beach along with Ya Ya) for some live music and a fire show (yah, they are everywhere, just about every night) with some of the better dancers I've seen. After one beer though, I was ready to turn in, and did just that.

And this brings me to the end of my brief time on Railay Beach. It's sad really, because it's been probably the best place I've been on this trip and I wish I had more time. I could spend a month here easily, because I think I've caught the rock climbing bug a bit. If only I'd come here straight from Phi Phi instead of going to Koh Lanta, I would have had another nine days here! Oh well, no point in looking back with regret, I have enjoyed every day of this trip immensely, and this is minor in the scheme of things. I do think I'll be buying some rock climbing gear of my own when I get home though!

Well, that brings me pretty much up to date. Next as I said is going to Bangkok to meet Brendan and his friend, and then into northern Thailand. As always, the future is bright!