Slow train to Aranyaprathet

After 2 days in Bangkok seeing gilded palaces and temples, waiting for our Vietnamese visas to process and attempting to avoid the hordes of touts on Khao San Rd where we mistakenly spent a night, it was time to leave the big city.

We left the heavy backpack filled with climbing gear with Mark’s friend Hunter, who lives off the last stop on the skytrain and is starting a new job with Microsoft next week. Hunter has spent 2 1/2 years in Thailand and in addition to introducing us to delicious spicy catfish salad, he taught us a little about the Thai language. The grammar is quite simple; there is no verb conjugation and to indicate tenses you just add an additional word (or not, and it just has to be decifered by context). It can be a very literal language (the word for train translates as “car fire” and the word for cheers is “bang glass” according to Hunter) but somewhat lacking in nuance and subtlety.

To get to the Cambodian border, we took the local train. There are only 2 a day and only 3rd class seats are available for 48baht. When the train pulled into the station, everyone rushed on board to try to get a forward facing seat on the shady side of the train. A few stations in, there were no seats left at all.

We soon left the city behind. 2 hours or so from Bangkok, there were little station houses with flowers in pots and a train official in a smart green uniform waving a red flag as the train loads and a green one when it’s safe to leave. By the time we were almost to Aranyaprathet the station was no more than a dirt road leading up to the train tracks.

En route we picked up rural children heading home from school in the next town over and passed rice fields in varying states of cultivation. There were brilliant saffron colored monk’s robes billowing on drying lines outside a small temple, and from time to time ash would drift in through the open windows of the train from the burning fields outside. 5 hours after leaving Bangkok, we had arrived at the end of the line for Thailand.

Like so much chattle & freedom isn’t free (but it’s cheap and has good snorkelling)

We made it to Ko Tao on the night ‘ferry’. Sort of like a Chinatown bus the cargo boats to the gulf islands load cargo and people onto the triple decks. Thankfully it was only French, German and Danish farang backpackers like us that we slept next to and not chickens or goats on the very narrow cots.

Ko Tao is the diving certification HQ of Thailand and in fact certifies more divers than all but one other spot in the world (it apparently has a lot of easy dive sites for learning, plus is very cheap). As a result (and perhaps also as a result of having a harbour deep enough to dock bigger ships) it’s far more developed than Hat Ton Sai. Our resort at Freedom Beach looked mostly new, and there’s lots of construction visible from the main road.

Our big adventure was a circumnavigation of the island of which Captain Cook would have been proud. Our first day on the island we scoped out the sail by trekking through nearly every resort on something of a jungle trail. In the afternoon we stumbled upon first the sailing shop and then the climbing shop. Our feeling was that we’d done enough climbing and a little 14ft Hobie Cat and some snorkeling would be a healthy diversion.

The winds were good, approximately 10-15 knots and we headed south around the island. By the time we made it to the windward side four foot waves with some chop were readily apparent. Zoe seemed fine with it. Mark stated, “So this is what it feels like to be in a teacup in the ocean.” It was something a bit like Mr Toad’s wild ride and Mark got pretty seasick. Nevertheless, we made it around the island to a beautiful snorkeling site back on the leeward side. The water was so clear, you could see over 20 feet down to the coral reefs below and thousands of tropical fish. All in all, a special day.

The next day we took a high speed ferry and bus combo package up to Bangkok…

Cricket and other creepy crawlies

We left Tonsai today for Krabi Town and air con. Yesterday was so hot that even the Thai ladies with the food stands at the south end of Tonsai beach were complaining. We brought something with us though, a large scary spider who hitched a ride in Mark’s backpack. We thought we had chased him away before we left the bungalow but he hung in there through the longboat ride and on top of the song-thaew and only resurfaced when we reached our hotel.

After 9 nights in the bungalow it’s nice to have a real hotel with hot water, AC, and a tv, even if the only English channels are news and sports (soccer, badminton and the utterly unfathomable cricket) and one movie channel from Pakistan. There was also a lizard on the wall above our bed when we got back from dinner at the night market by the pier (bad pad thai – the first time we’ve been burned by street food). He was small and cute and looked harmless enough and scurried off when we came in.

Tomorrow we leave for Ko Tao on the east Gulf Coast; it promises to be another epic travel day/night as we plan to take the overnight ferry from Surat Thani. Ko Tao has both snorkeling and more climbing and we hope it will be slightly cleaner & lower key than the Raileys and Tonsai. From there we’ll keep heading north.

Mai pen rai e.g. ‘No shirt, no shoes, no problem’

We had a nice long post introducing Thailand and the climbing here at Tonsai and the Phra Nang peninsula but then our WordPress app decided to eat it so we’re trying again.

Traveling to Tonsai Beach from Malaysian Pulau Langkawi was about as epic as the sixteen hour trans-Artic flight we took from EWR > HKG. It involved catching a taxi at about 8am, then a ferry to Thailand, then riding in the back of a small pickup truck, then a long and bumpy bus ride over a short distance to Krabi Town, another pickup truck to Ao Nang, waiting at sunset for enough passengers for a Longboat to Tonsai and then finally a short jungle walk pecking around for accomodations. It worked out though. Our little bamboo and wood bungalow does the job with a mosquito net and small oscilating fan and we seem to have acclimated to the heat well enough. It’s even started to feel cool at night.

Our ‘resort’ is almost entirely filled with climbers; in fact, the entire Tonsai beach feels like a giant international youth hostel for scruffy sporty types. Tonsai is cut off from East and West Railey beaches by karst crags; climbers will take one of two rather rigorous (but relatively short) jungle treks over the rock and back down to get to the other beaches, but your typical sunseeker is unlikely to make the trek in the other direction, particularly when their beach is nicer anyway.

We’ve met a few other young American couples, but Germans, Scandinavians and Aussies/Kiwis definitely predominate. Regardless of nationality, everyone is fit, sweaty, and tries to wear as little clothing as possible. You hear a lot of Jack Johnson playing pretty much everywhere on the beach, Singha and Chang beer flows freely, and at night there are fire juggling shows on the slackline (tight rope) at the bar across the dirt road from us.

The climbing, well let’s just say it’s been challenging. The rock formations are incredible, large limestone karst rising above the water, full of tufas and stalactites. The holds are mostly big but the sea and rain have worn away at the rock and it’s almost all overhung. Our arms and backs are sore. Almost all easy, vertical routes are utilized by the dozen or so climbing schools that have sprouted up all over the peninsula, so they are overrun between 9am and 6pm. If you stay away from those areas though, and from the climbing areas closer to the cheap bungalows in Tonsai, it’s actually not too crowded. Nothing really is when you come from New York.

Mai pen rai is a Thai phrase that loosely translates to ‘don’t worry about it’ and has been described as the unofficial national motto. It definitely fits the ethos of Tonsai, where no one seems to have any idea what day of the week it is (including us) and even the resident roosters don’t start crowing until 10am. ‘Mai pen rai’ the route is a 6a (blissfully easy, maybe a 5.10a on the Yosemite scale) in the Defile area off of Phra Nang beach, just past the wooden phalli filled shrine to the ancient princess who haunts the island. When you reach the top of the 25 meter climb, you have a panoramic view of Phra Nang and West Railey beaches to the north, and sea with hazy islands to the west. It’s one of those moments that remind you why you did come to Thailand to climb.

Arguments against rolling suitcases while traveling in Thailand

Although technically on the Phra Nang peninsula, Tonsai and Railey beaches are in effect islands, cut off from the mainland by the huge limestone karst formations that make this such a good place for climbing. Electricity is powered by generators and food and drink are twice as expensive (though that’s still cheap by western standards).

To get to the beaches, you must take a long tail boat from either Krabi town or the beach town of Ao Nang. The boats are so named because they have externally mounted vintage car engines with no mufflers (ie they’re very loud) welded to an exceedingly long propeller which allows the boat to be propelled and turned in extremely shallow tides and shoals.

Usually you can fit eight or ten or twelve passengers in these smaller longtails and during normal hours with the nominal six riders it’s 80 Baht per person. We paid 100 TB each our first night when arriving after sunset as it does become more troublesome at night with no lights or channel markers.

Tonight getting back from Ao Nang (the only ATM on the peninsula was out of service and we needed more cash, plus we were taking a rest day from climbing after too many pumpy overhanging routes) just before sunset it was low tide, so we had an epic 400 meter wade out into the Andaman Sea, well over knee high, before flinging ourselves into the low bottomed boat while the Thai operator pulled anchor. Pulling into Tonsai beach, the low tide exposed hundreds of meters of rocky bottom jutting up. The boat operators had dredged a channel but it was still a long muddy walk to get to shore. The Australian in our boat with the rollig suitcase did not look pleased; nor did the couple with a giant baby stroller getting out of another boat. Given that there are no paved roads or sidewalks on Tonsai, it will likely prove less than useful.

Cruising geopark Langkawi

We may be putting up a number of posts at once; we’re writing them as we go but our wireless access for actually uploading is sporadic. Some hostels have had it; the public buses on Penang had it; our last post went up from the KFC in Kuah, the main ferry port on Langkawi. But here on Tengah beach wifi is scarce.

We are eating our first semi western style meal, a breakfast of toast with jam and an omelette. Plus tea and coffee with lots of sweetened condensed milk of course. We heard rumors that some of the wrapped banana leaves have coconut rice inside for breakfast, but every time we try, they’re full of rice with squid and anchovies and spicy chili paste.

Yesterday we rented a scooter for about US$ 10 and scooted up to the north side of the island and some even nicer beaches (and got shooed off the four seasons private beach). Traffic wasn’t too bad though we did have to stop for a herd of cows crossing the road. There are roadside stands everywhere selling spicy noodle soup and fresh juices, though the best so far has still been the cart right outside our hotel where icy sweetened coconut juice with pulp is just 1 ringit (about 30 cents).

The entire island is considered a UNESCO Geopark though it is small and rural enough to support farmers and fishing. Near the black sands beach we saw many of the old wooden long tail boats used by the locals with seine nets. Each beach seems to have a different tourist population, though Russian, Scandanavian and German seem to be in the largest numbers. There are also some Malaysian tourists; the Muslim women in head scarves and long sleeved shirts roll up their pants to dip their feet only into the ocean.

Sugar and spice and everything nice

Malaysians love their sugar and their condensed milk. Sometimes the results are delicious, as with cendol, the improbably good concoction of shaved ice, red bean, coconut, strange gelatinous noodles and of course condensed milk. Other times less so, like when you order a carrot juice and it comes out as carrot flavored condensed milk. And you generally want to stay away from anything that comes in a can, as no matter what the label says, the strongest flavor will be sugar.

The other thing that’s big here is frying. There are vats of oil at the roadside stands and hawkers frying stuff up. We had freshly fried and juicy chicken when we got lost in the outskirts of KL, some savory Samosa like dumplings, crazy fish and prawn cakes that got slathered with sauce so they disintegrate, and then the Chinese ladies in Georgetown were frying up some churros (or the Chinese equivalent thereof). And that’s just the deep frying.

The food hasn’t been too spicy here; we’re waiting for Thailand.

Jungle cool but the sun burns so

Yesterday we took the local 101 bus up the coast of Penang this morning to the national park on the island’s northern peninsula. The temperatures were pleasant in the morning and walking on the thick wet jungle track seemed to keep the temps down. It was about 4km to the aptly named monkey beach where many tourists chose to arrive by boat rather than tramp through the bush. We saw two Australians on the trail and probably only about 10 people the whole afternoon on the beach. It wasn’t the whitest sand nor the most pristine of waters but it was a nice start to the beach hopping and the walk through the jungle was a pleasant departure from KL’s almost unwalkable traffic.

Today it was the 101 again, back towards Georgetown to the upscale gated neighborhood of Jesselton Heights where after some funny looks and only a little bushwhacking through the forest behind the last of the mansions we were able to find the rock. We got about four routes in before our sweaty hands started slipping off the granite.

Now we are in the world’s smallest hotel room in Chinatown. But it has attached shower and, more importantly, air con. Now off to find some food. If it is as good as the banana crepes and chicken roti we had last night we’ll be happy indeed.

Ocean City, Malaysia

Note to future travelers when taking buses to Penang be sure to specify which town in Penang it’s a pretty big island and you want to go to Kompleks Komptar which is the main bus terminal in Georgetown and not the bus drop off near the airport which is 10km away from downtown.

It’s humid. It’s not a dry heat; it’s simply hot and humid. We have however reached what we believe to be the Indian Ocean. We have also reached beer and fresh juice, which mitigates this somewhat. On the fabled island of Langkawi, which is our next destination, beer is duty free, and supposedly half the price since there’s a heavy sin tax on alcohol in the rest of this Islamic country.

Zoe slept most of the bus ride, missing out on a lot of strip mining and extensive clear cutting. There isn’t much of an environmental movement in Malaysia.

Tomorrow we go to the national park to see more monkeys. Mark loves monkeys but is scared of birds (there were a lot of aviaries in Hong Kong). Many more confusing bus rides and hot hostel rooms to come, we are sure.

HK > MO > MY

It’s too hot to properly blog, so here are some quick observations from our trip so far:

Hong Kong: escalators, Prada, Swiss watches, green hills, pedestrian skyways, luxury cars, century egg congee, pork in everything, multi-modal public transport, double decker trams (street cars) aka “ding dings”, and ever more shopping malls

Macao: Christmas decorations, corrugated aluminum roofs, many Chinese tourists with large Digital SLRs who don’t speak Portuguese, tasty egg custard tarts, gaudy Vegas style Casinos, and high speed hydrofoil ferries

Kuala Lumpur: Scooters, heat and sweat, delicious street food, spicy street food, dangerous traffic patterns, lack of pedestrian rights, multi-ethnicity and religious co-existence, no shoes indoors, cheeky monkeys, and iced coconut juice

View from Stanley pier

View from Stanley pier, HK

Christmas decorations at St. Paul's ruins, Macao

Christmas decorations at St. Paul's ruins, Macao

Staircase, Macao

Staircase, Macao

Grand Lisboa hotel & casino, Macao

Grand Lisboa hotel & casino, Macao

Zoe in purple at the Masjid Negara

Zoe in purple at the Masjid Negara

Malaysian street food in KL

Malaysian street food in KL

Hindu vendor, Batu Caves

Hindu vendor, Batu Caves

View of KL from Batu Caves

View of KL from Batu Caves