Wednesday, January 12, 2011

More of Thailand's Best

Greetings from Railay Beach, the rock climbing mecca of southeast Asia! I finally said goodbye to Koh Lanta yesterday and am on my way back north towards Bangkok to meet my friend Brendan and then to northern Thailand. Looking forward to it, but first let's wrap up the last few days:

As I discussed in the last post, I'd gotten to Koh Lanta expecting it to just be a jumping off point to going farther south, but for various schedule reasons that didn't happen, giving me a good way to relax in one spot for a while.  On this day I did the usual: sleeping in, laying on the beach, playing some soccer with other travelers and locals (barefoot, I got a big blood blister on my left foot....), and enjoying the sunset. 

This is Miao (“Like a cat”), and on this day she showed up at the dorm to stay for a few nights.  She is from China, and has done some pretty cool trips on-and-off for the last year or so in the region.  We spent quite a while talking travel, and comparing photos from our respective journeys.  Her time in Burma in particular stood out to me just because of how undeveloped it is compared to the rest of southeast Asia, and her trip to the base camp of Everest. Jealous! So the picture, haha. Well, she had a little spill on a moto she rented. Nothing serious, just some road rash, and some scrapes on the bike, but she was pretty bummed because it was going to keep her out of the water for a few days at least. 

The bike rental became a bit of an issue: Miao had left her cellphone with them as a deposit, and when she returned just a few minutes later to grab a map of the island, they said they didn't have the phone. Naturally she became quite upset, thinking they had stole, or at least lost the phone, and she wasn't going to give the bike back (this distraction is partly why she crashed later in the day).  The next day, the people she rented the bike from came to our room where the bike was parked and tried to take the bike back.  She still wasn't willing to give the bike back until her phone had been returned or she was paid for the lost phone, and this caused a bit of a scene.  I was inside, and I heard Miao say “Ow, your hurting me!” so I rushed outside, and saw the old lady from the rental place grabbing her (on one of her fresh wounds at that).  I sort of pushed my way in between them to break it up, and stood there to make sure things stayed under control. The rental place was insisting they never even got a phone, which is impossible, because without a deposit they wouldn't have given her a bike in the first place, and she was still refusing to let them take the bike. At this point there were probably 10 people standing around the bike on various sides of the argument, or translators between everyone.  Eventually the police were called, and a guy who spoke zero English showed up in a truck wearing a white polo (apparently he is the only police officer on the island) maybe 15 minutes later.  He sat in our room smoking a cigarette with two other guys around Miao speaking in Thai and nothing new was said. Talk about an uncomfortable situation huh? (I sat near them the whole time just to keep an eye on things). Anyways, I guess they went to the police station, and the rental people finally admitted they had gotten the phone and lost it or something, and I believe they agreed to pay her 2000 baht (as well as not charge for the rental or damage to the bike).  I think most people would have given into the pressure and gotten nothing, but she was very persistent and it paid off better than any of us had actually expected it to. Ah, travel!

The next day was more of the same relaxation I'd been enjoying for a while now.  More sleeping in, laying on the beach, and reading. I was still very interested in doing the home stay, and I had gotten a way to rent a moto for myself, meaning transportation was no longer the issue, and tried to contact the guy and say I'd meet him on the dock in the morning. While I'd both called and emailed him a day or two before, when I called back both numbers said they were 'temporarily unavailable' and he didn't respond to my emails either.  I found this a bit annoying, because I'd been hoping to do it for a few days, and trying to schedule that meant I didn't go to the animal shelter to volunteer, since I didn't know what days I would be around and able to help.  So in the end, neither happened....

That evening at the bar, a pool tournament was going on, and part of the festivities was a snake show!  I was pretty excited to see it, because while I wanted to see one, and billboards were all over for it, I wasn't going to shell out a few hundred baht to see one.  This way I got to see it for free! (well, I bought the guy a beer when he was done, that cost me 50 baht, haha)

I'm not sure what kind of snake this one was (anyone know??) but it was the first of the two he brought out, and he crawled around on the mat sort of dancing to avoid the snake strikes.  One thing he did which I thought was really cool, was he pet the snake on it's chin and then down it's body, and the snake actually rolled over like a dog when you scratch it's belly! He concluded this snake by catching it by the tail and then holding it in his mouth.

The other snake he brought out was the serious business, a king cobra.  He did pretty much the same thing with it, which is to say the snake just wanted to hide in the corner, but he poked and prodded it into striking at him.  He also caught it by it's tail, and would put his hand on the back of it's head, getting it to lay flat on the ground.  He concluded the show by getting the cobra to bite a cup, releasing it's venom and showing the cup of venom to the audience.  Neat stuf.

Throughout the show, for a little crowd participation they had two snakes they passed around the audience for those interested to hold.  Personally, I would have gotten onto the mat with the first snake if they would have let me, but I guess this one will have to suffice for now!

I spent yet another day doing nothing, but then the next morning, it was finally time to leave Koh Lanta.  I'd arrived expecting to spend a night or two, and ended up staying for nine!  I'm still not sure how that happened really, and each day sort of blurs into the next, but it was a great place to just do nothing for a while, and I guess I needed to do that.  That said, I was totally ready to go and get moving again, and for 450 baht hopped on a boat to go back to Railay Beach.

As I said earlier, Railay is a rock climbers wonderland, and while I haven't done any real rock climbing in quite a while, I obviously love climbing things (mountains, trees, buildings, etc) so I had to return.  With Nick and family, we visited just for the afternoon while staying at Ao Nang, and I saw how beautiful the place is, and got all excited to climb, so I had to come back. (this photo is actually of Ton Sai Beach right next to Railay by the way, but one of the big climbing spots in the whole 'Railay area')

Railay is not a particularly cheap place compared to other parts of the country and region, and while I wanted to find a bunk room to stay in and meet people, no such place exists here.  I wanted to go explore the area further, in search of a cheap room, but I was running out of daylight and getting frustrated. I ended up at my most expensive room to date, 600 baht ($20), but sometimes you just have to do it.  With a room sorted out, I walked around the area exploring what the options are for staying the next few nights, and talking to the numerous climbing schools. 

 This photo is of Tham Phra Nang (Princess Cave) on the beach. The story is that in the 3rd century, an Indian princess drowned here in a storm, and her sprint lives in the cave.  Fisherman, both Muslim and Buddhist, leave offerings of carved wooden phalluses to ensure they have a good catch.

In the morning, I moved out of that expensive bungalow and into one at Rapala, which is a much better value, 400 baht.  I suppose I was spoiled by the dorm, because staying there a week, I only ended up paying 115 baht a night!  400 is still more expensive than I would like to be paying, but I think it is the cheapest place on this part of the beach, the room is fairly nice, in a good location, and has a good restaurant with what seems to be the cheapest food on the beach as well (60 baht a meal).  And I guess since I spent so little for the previous week, it's not too bad to have to spend a bit more now.

On my to-do list for the day was to decide what climbing operation to go with, and that meant walking all over the area, including heading over to Ton Sai beach.  Ton Sai is the more 'backpacker' part of the beach, so I was expecting to find cheaper rooms over there, and it is also the base for most of the serious rock climbers, as many of the harder routes are in this area.  To get to Ton Sai from Railay, you have to walk about 30 minutes on a path that takes you through the jungle and over the hill.  Some of the scenery on the walk is excellent, and in this clearing, everything was just bananas and other plants with giant, green leaves.  On the path I also came across a spider on a web almost as big as my hand! It turned out cheaper rooms could be found here, but the only climbing school on this beach was more expensive, and so was the food, so it didn't make sense to move off of Railay East. 

Next on the activities list was a walk through one of the limestone caves on the island, Tham Pranangnai (also called Inner Princess Cave and Diamond Cave).  This particular cave is actually a national park, costs 40 baht to enter, and has an illuminated boardwalk in the cave.  The cave goes in maybe 200 feet, has a very high ceiling in places, and has some pretty impressive formations.  I spent about 30 minutes just walking around alone looking at it all, and could have easily spent more.

This is the formation which the cave gets it's 'diamond cave' name.  It is a sparkling, gold colored quartz formation and is actually very similar to the cave I swam in while in the Philippines.  40 baht well spent.

 After the cave, I ate some food and signed up for a rock climbing class that I am pumped about! It cost 4,500 baht, or $150, but for that I get gear rental, lunch, and an instructor for three days in one of the best spots in the world! (prices ranged from 4500-6000).  The first day is a review of the basics and top rope climbing, the next day is lead climbing, and the third day is multi-pitch climbing on one of the big faces! I can't wait.

So now I've got my next few days sorted out and will be climbing the whole time.  As a result, I'm here in my room, under the mosquito net, writing this blog and going to bed early, rather than going out for the evening which is just fine by me.

 I am hoping to meet up with Nick and Ellen again in Phuket on the 15th, part way through their volunteer program, and Chris who I traveled with in the Philippines is also going to be in Phuket at that time.  If all works out, I'll take a boat from here on Railay to Phuket, meet Nick, Ellen and Chris, then on the 16th get an overnight bus to Bangkok, arriving the morning of the 17th. Brendan gets in to Bangkok at like 1am the next day, so I'll find a room and be ready for his arrival.  As always, should be fun!