Krabi- Ton Sai
After finishing my TEFL course and traveling to Singapore to renew my visa, I was in somewhat of a holding pattern, waiting for the school year to start in a few weeks. My days consisted of sleeping in, sitting by the pool, drinking Chang, walking around Phuket,and eating Pad Thai. But something inside me began clawing at my eye lids when I slept in and pulling my hand away from the open bottles of Chang as I sat around the pool. When it rained, the sky spat on my window; when the sun was out, its rays mocked me. So I packed my things and boarded a bus for Krabi.
My tourist ignorance led me to believe that I would be dropped off on a beautiful beach with a welcoming atmosphere and smiling faces. When I was shaken awake by the bus driver and told we had arrived in Krabi, I was in for a much different experience. I stumbled off the bus in a haze and looked around. The only things I saw were the tail lights of the bus pulling away, and buildings. Just plain, old buildings. I had mistaken the pictures I had seen on the internet of 'Krabi' for Krabi Town. Luckily for me, I had been given advice from a fellow traveler in Phuket (thanks Dan) and quickly found a cab and told them to take me to Ao Nang. At this point I had no idea how long the ride would be, but the driver and I settled on a 200 baht fare so I figured it couldn't be that far.. either that or he was going to take me down an alley and rob me so it didn't matter what the fare was (I'm kidding Mom). When we got to Ao Nang, I found an overpriced hotel near the beach and set my things down. For a moment I wondered what the hell I was doing in this random province in southeast Asia by myself with absolutely no plan, then I remembered that I was in a random province in southeast Asia by myself with absolutely no plan, and smiled. I spent the evening in Ao Nang, getting hassled by 'massage parlors' and 'Armani suit tailors'.. watched the sunset, and got nice and boozed up. Aside from the copious amounts of tourists (and consequently shiny, smiled, slick Thai people trying to take advantage of them (us)) it was a pretty good night. I made it back to my hotel before the sun came up and got some sleep, waking up with a mission the next morning. I quickly threw my few things I had taken out of my pack back into it and checked out of the hotel. I had heard whispers of a secluded beach called 'Ton Sai' that was close to Ao Nang, so I figured I would take a boat over for the day and see what I could see. Little did I know that a 1 day trip would quite quickly and magically turn into a week of blissful ignorance from the rest of the world.
After waiting by the dock at Ao Nang for about half an hour, I boarded a small boat and took the 20 minute ride to Ton Sai, which is only accessible by boat due to its dramatic geography. Pulling in at low-tide, I had no idea what I was doing. The rest of the people on the boat stayed on, taking it to the next beach (Railay) which is much more of a resort beach. I on the other hand, hopped out of the little boat with my big backpack onto jagged rocks and made the 100 meter trek to the beach. After getting to the sand, I figured I may as well get a room so I could have a place to leave my things while I explored the area. I found the first place I could that rented rooms and asked for a room for the night. Walking up off the beach, leaving the crag-like surface of low-tide, and entering the shade and comfort of tall palm trees, I knew I had made the right decision. I was surrounded by dramatic rock faces, lush jungle, and private beach-side bungalows. I was led to my bungalow (which had no hot water or electricity during the day) and dropped my stuff off. These minor issues with the accommodation faded quickly to the back of my mind as I started walking around the area.
Ton Sai is an isolated community of about 2 city blocks worth of bungalows, a few restaurants, and 4 or 5 bars on the beach. However, the main appeal of this place (and the reason why I stayed for over a week) is the people. When I first started walking around, I noticed an extraordinary amount of westerners, which initially bummed me out because I was hoping for the laid back, non-touristy paradise that I had heard about. However, while it consisted of about 90% tourists, Ton Sai is the least ‘touristy’ place I have found in Thailand. No 'massage' parlors, no street vendors hassling you, no drunken Aussies trying to fight you after one too many buckets.. just quite simply good people. The dramatic landscape of cliffs and rock faces that segregate Ton Sai have also turned the area into somewhat of a rock climber’s mecca. Most of the people on the beach came for the climbing, and stayed for environment (and also of course, more climbing.)
My first day in Ton Sai was a breath of fresh air. I sat down at a beachside restaurant/bar and had a few drinks and some lunch. The people who work on Ton Sai are virtually 100% Thai, but they aren’t jaded in the same way a lot of Thai workers are towards foreigners. Before I knew it I was playing (getting my ass kicked in) connect-four and drinking free beer with a bartender named Maxi. I met a few people sitting around the bar and eventually asked to get one of their phone number’s so that we could meet up later that night. This mention of ‘phone’ and ‘meeting up’ brought a collective chuckle over the group, one of whom simply responded “it’s a small beach, we’ll see you.” At first I took this as somewhat of a way of blowing me off, but later that night when I did run into them, I was greeted with open arms and shots of whiskey. I tried my hand at slack-lining the first night (which is basically tight rope walking, but on a line with more slack in it) and couldn’t even stand up on the damn thing. Before I left (I told myself) I would walk the entire distance of the rope, turn around and walk back. There were fire shows, live music, dancing. It was everything I pictured as a kid whenever I imagined the word paradise. Eventually people broke off into smaller groups, sat down on mats or on the beach, and mellowed out over onversations, stories, and aspirations. These people were different though. When you spoke, they listened. When they spoke, I listened. At every pause in a story, people’s eyes didn’t light up in anticipation of how much they’re going to impress you. They didn’t have words tip-toeing on the edge of their lips, ready to pounce off and enlighten you with their insight. People cared what you had to say, they didn’t just simply wait for their turn to speak.
The next few days are somewhat of a haze of sunshine, reading, smiling, and busting my ass trying to slack-line. I hiked over to Railay a few times, which is either a 45 minute walk around the rock cliffs, or a sketchy 20 minute wade/hike over rocky terrain at low-tide. I never took the route around the rock cliffs. While these days were full of relaxation and introspection, there was one particular moment that got a bit dicey. One day I decided I would rent a kayak and cruise around the area a bit to see what I could see. However, I made two costly mistakes before taking to the water; going out when the tide was unfavorable, and forgetting a life jacket.
After coasting around Ton Sai, Railay, and a few little islands for a while, I saw what looked like a super cool opening going into a rock face. So of course I paddled over to it and cruised around the enclave and eventually ended up pretty far back into a small lagoon area. Going into the little enclave was smooth sailing, I was gliding along with the water and occasionally even catching a bit of a wave for a few seconds, it was nice. Then I was hit with the reality that I was going to have to paddle out of this area, against the current and the rising tide. I knew that it was going to be difficult to get out when I could hardly turn my kayak around because I was constantly being tossed around and pushed into the rock wall. Once I finally got turned around it seemed like every foot I paddled I was pushed back two. Long (incredibly sketchy) story short, after contemplating ditching my kayak and trying to swim the half-mile back to shore with no life vest, I was able to get the kayak back out into the open water with only a few bangs and scrapes on my elbows and knees (and also one particularly concerning bump to the head I took). I decided at this point to call it a day for kayaking and enjoy the sand between my toes. That night I put in several hours on the slack-line and achieved my goal of walking down and back. It was a good feeling and everyone that was watching was just as happy for me as I was. I’m going to miss them.
The days moved along smoothly and eventually I was talked into trying my hand at rock climbing. Now I’m not going to say that I have a ‘fear’ of heights (I used to have an incredible fear of them as a kid), but I will admit that I have a… slight issue of comfort with regard to heights. But, I figured I was in one of the best spots in Southeast Asia for it, so why not. I met up with a Thai climber (whose name I couldn’t pronounce so he told me just to call him ‘buddy’) at a climbing shop at the end of Ton Sai beach. I was the only person that showed up for the beginner’s climb that afternoon so me and buddy made our way to a place called ‘the fire wall’ to do some climbing. Since it was just me and buddy there, I had to belay for him while he went up the rock face and clipped in to the anchor hook at the top of the route (climbing friends: please forgive me for having absolutely no idea what I’m talking about). So essentially buddy hands me a harness, straps some belaying equipment on to me and gives me a crash course on how to not let him die if he fell. The conversation went something like this:
“So I hold it like this, buddy?”
“No, no, brake like this.”
“Yes if I fall, you brake.”
“Oh.. so like this?”
“No, switch hands.”
“Oh, ok so I let the rope out like this and brake like this?”
“No, no.. opposite. Pull down not up.. down, down, both hands. Got it?”
“I think so..”
“Ok, let’s climb!”
Before I knew it he was already 10 feet off the ground, effortlessly moving up the wall. It was if he was crawling on the ground, only the camera in my head had been turned 90 degrees. Each time he clipped in I thought he was at the top, but he just kept going higher up the wall, while my heart moved higher into my throat. He eventually made it to the top and yelled down to me, “beautiful view man! Ok, I’m coming down.. you got me?” Before I could answer he was leaning back out over the ledge sitting in his harness, placing complete trust in me that I wouldn’t let him fall. And I didn’t. After he got back to the ground, he tied my harness to the rope and pointed at the place on the wall where I should start. No amount of chalk could keep my hands dry at this point but I went for it anyways. “One move at a time, have fun, one move at a time, feet wider.. very good, one move at a time.” I kept my eyes on the holds and ears on buddy and moved slowly up the wall. Before I knew it I was at the halfway point where there was a small ledge that you could stand on and take a short rest. At this point I was around 50 feet off the ground, but found myself more relaxed than I was at 5 feet off the ground. After 30 seconds or so I yelled down to buddy that I was climbing and took to the more difficult second half of the climb. My confidence level was rising with my altitude and I started trying more difficult moves and paths, each time accepting the fact that I may fall but if I did everything would be fine. This complete stranger wouldn’t let me die, he was my buddy. I made it over the last overhang and up to the top where there was a nice 5x5 foot ledge that had an amazing view of the coastline. This is not a feeling I will soon forget. We did a few more climbs, tried a few more difficult ones, and each time my enjoyment grew along with the pain in my forearms. Four hours later, after I unhooked for the last time, I was hooked. I doubt seriously that this will be the last time I go climbing.
After dropping off my climbing gear, I got some food and had a quick drink with some friends. I then went straight to my bungalow and slept like a rock.
The effects of climbing hit me like a ton of bricks the next day, along with my newfound level of respect for my friends who did it on a daily basis. I decided this would be a good beach day, so I grabbed a few books that I had picked up at the local book-trade and made the short walk down to the coast. I found a beautiful shaded area right on the beach with a sharp decline in the sand. It was perfect for leaning up against to stare at the ocean. I don’t know if it was something in the air, the beauty of what I was staring at, or the fact that my entire body was in glorious pain, but I saw the ocean much differently that day. I walked down to the surf and looked out at the water, the waves licking at the tips of my toes, and noticed the unbelievable perpetuation of waves coming at me. I introduced myself to each wave as it came in, and reluctantly watched each one recede back into itself. It doesn’t matter how far a wave reaches up on a beach, nor the water mark it leaves on the sand. Every wave will simply be overcome by the next one in line. What matters are those who are listening, watching, living, and loving in the moment that the wave crashes; the people who are there to witness the collective ‘hush’ of millions of bubbles exploding on the sand with the disintegration of each wave; the sweaty-palmed grasp between the chaos of collapsing crests and the resilience of the incoming tide. I walked back to my shady spot on the beach and took a nap. I’ve been told that sometimes I smile in my sleep. If I had to guess, I would say that this was one of those times.
The next morning I woke up and packed my things. I made my way to the coast, making sure to avoid anybody that I might know, and waited on a boat back to Ao Nang. It came. I boarded and rode. I arrived and checked into an over-priced hotel. And here I sit, trying to make sense of it all.
Until next time,