countin' the days

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Same Same But Different, Part II (Lao Lao)

The last month has been some of the most rapidito traveling I've done in a long time. I've managed to bus my way through 4 different countries in the last 4 weeks, seeing & doing incredible things along the way (well... naturally). Anyway, that's my excuse for not keeping up very well with this here blog. But here I am trying. Accept my apologies, get over it, and let's get to it.

So after the inevitable departure from Ton Sai, I spent a quick week in Northern Thailand, revisiting the lovely city of Chiang Mai and the very fun rock climbing crag located nearby. Mostly we spent the week climbing, but it wouldn't be a visit to Chiang Mai without meeting up with old friends & hitting up the bars a little bit. I was sad to see that Chiang Mai's infamous "Rasta Bar" area has changed tremendously, no longer a bustling area of some three dozen bars, but a much more toned-down area of two dozen semi-okay bars at best. Sure, I found some nice spots to grab some overpriced buckets and even catch some tunes, but it surely wasn't the same rockin' reggae scene it once was.

Suddenly, the 30 day limit for Thailand was up again, and it was time for Laos. This time around, I did almost the same loop as 2007 but totally in reverse: Houay Xai - Luang Prabang - Vang Vieng - Vientiane. Starting in the border town of Houay Xai was an interesting choice, mostly because it presented only 2 options for the inevitably long journey to Luang Prabang. The first option was a two-day journey on a slow boat down the Mekong, which seemed to us overly touristy, overly expensive, and overly long. We opted for the bus, which was supposed to take only 8 (ha!) hours, but took in fact TWELVE. And so began our Series Of Bad Calls. Bad Calls #2-4 were having to stay in not one, not two, but FOUR different guesthouses in LP because it was so damn hot, we couldn't afford air-con (sigh), and just kept choosing the losers. Then of course, we sealed off our Bad Calls with ol' #5, which was choosing to ignore every travel agent that told us there was no local bus to Vang Vieng, going to the bus station ourselves, and then paying the exact same amount for an 8 hour ride in a total clunker that we would have spent to be in an air conditioned minivan. But it wasn't a total bust, because I finally got the see the Kuangsi waterfall, which was absolutely incredible. We spent the day swimming in its epic terraced pools and cooling off better than any stupid overpriced Luang Prabang A/C possibly could have.

Vang Vieng was instantly pretty awesome. Sadly, the actual town of VV is still the same death trap of identical touristy restaurants with zombied-out kids watching reruns of "Friends" played 24 hours a day on maximum volume. If anything, it's just bigger & more mind-numbing than 2 years ago. But that, clearly, is not why I returned to Vang Vieng (though I'd really been dying to catch up on all my early 90s Friends drama). It's for the shockingly gorgeous scenery all around, the lovely lazy river lifestyle, and the rock climbing.

Not surprisingly, this time around I did loads more climbing than before. In fact, it was 100% the focus of our time in VV, which shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who has paid any attention to my life in the last year. In 07, I'd only been to one of VV's crags. Little did I know that there are handfuls of crags all around! We spent every day except 2 climbing, and explored 4 different crags (one of them we even came back to again). The climbing was really fantastic, and it felt good to get back on the rock after the withdrawal of leaving Thailand. In reality, it'd only been a week, but it felt like forever! We even had the good fortune to meet up with Seth -- our stalagtite-dominating friend from Ton Sai (see previous post) -- and all climb together for a few days.

On our last day, we went back to a huge piece of beautiful limestone that we'd seen from the bus on the way into town. We found out that it had been recently bolted and was climbable, and decided to go for it. It was probably the most jungley crag I've ever seen -- the whole wall was covered in spider webs, the ground was covered in sketchy rocks & brush, swarms of butterflies surrounded us, lizards scattered around, and we even got snuck up on by a local machete-wielding dude who hung out and watched while he inspected our rock shoes. But it was pretty rad, the routes were beautiful, and it was definitely a new experience for me!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Go Deep

Most of my days during my 3 weeks in Ton Sai went something like this:
- Wake up when it gets too unbearably hot to sleep any longer (usually about 9am, a good 2 to 3 hours after the power got shut off).
- Have breakfast of delicious banana pancakes at Green Valley Resort while swatting away mozzies.
Get climbing gear together, refill the water bottles, scope out a morning route.
- Break for lunch and the way-too-intense-for-climbing mid-day heat. Generally this meant eating phenomenally delicious pad thai at Kruie Thai restaurant right on the beach for 70 Baht ($2).
- Spend the afternoon lounging on the beach, in the shade, perhaps quickly jumping on the slackline.
- Choose a new wall, and climb until it gets dark.
- Have beer at sunset.
- Return to bungalow of questionable integrity, take a cold (only option) shower to get rid of a phenomenal amount of grime, and head out for grub Thai dinner.
- Depending on the cash flow situation and plans for tomorrow, either go out for beers or chill and go to bed earlyish.
- Wake and repeat.

While most days more or less followed this tremendously enjoyable schedule, we diverted from the itinerary a few times. Unquestionable, one of the biggest highlights among these diversions was going Deep Water Soloing (DWS). DWS is where you hire a longtail boat for the day, and spend the day going out to funky-shaped islands, climbing the rock, and when finished, jumping directly into the water. Deep Water = a safe depth in which to jump off the rock into the warm turquoise Andaman Sea. Soloing = climbing, with only shoes on and nothing else, no ropes, no protection, following whatever lines you find suitable.

We had the good fortune to round up a fantastic group of hyper-enthusiastic North Americans, stoked on climbing & socializing & ready to make the absolute most of the day. Everyone climbed their hearts out all day long, while the rest of the crew not on the rock watched from the boat, cheering like a bunch of drunken high school kids in the 4th quarter of a tied game where the home team's about to push on to the championships.

Naturally, climbing wasn't the ONLY thing on the menu; there was plenty of drinking involved. We brought a nice stash of beers & flasks of Sangsom (Thai "whiskey"), and then took a break on the aptly-named Beer Island to suck down some cans of Chang and grub on some overpriced but still delicious food.

Inevitably, the climbing -- for the competitive & slightly intoxicated boys on the boat -- became a (how shall I say?) kind of "stick"-measuring competition for attainable height. A certain stalagtite, hanging a good 60 feet above the water, was selected as the goal, with each dude climbing higher and higher. "Well, I touched it, you touch it with TWO hands!" "OK, I touched it with TWO hands, you have to jump ONTO it!" Eventually, the stalagtite was not just touched but climbed onto and even higher up!! Seth, the grand champion, ended up about 90 feet off the water and jumped all the way down. Unfrickinreal.

It was a superb day. And timed just a few days before we sadly had to depart, it was a tasty icing to spread over the top of the delightful little cake that was our 3 weeks in Ton Sai.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Same Same But Different

After wrapping up a quick hop & skip through China, it was back on to my familiar, beloved, delicious, and beautiful Thailand. This was my fifth trip into Thailand in the last 3 years... proof enough of my true feelings for the place. I started doing the math and realized that, in fact, Thailand is second only to the U.S. in places where I've spent most of my time. It's now even lapped Spain, where I studied abroad for 4 months way back in '04.

It's hard to describe the feeling I get each time I return to Thailand. Knowing exactly what's going on, how to get around, how to bargain, where to sleep, what combination of delicious delights will make up my meals for the day... those are all lovely, comforting things to feel in any country upon return. But Thailand's got something different. It's the smiling people, the epic sunsets, the smell of fish sauce + garlic + chilis, it's the Tom Yum Kung and Som Tam and Pad Thai Tofu, the rainbow colored tuk-tuks hauled by the remnants of an old hog, bargaining in my broken Thai that always ends with laughter and a wide grin, the giant blow-up photos of His Majesty the King taking photographs from 20+ years ago proudly displayed in the middle of traffic ... what can I say? This Is Thailand. I love it here. And I can't help but keep coming back.

Of my 4 weeks in Thailand this time around, 3 were spent down south in old familiar Ton Sai & Railay, and 1 was spent up north in Chiang Mai en route to Laos. It's become sort of inevitable at this point that upon my arrival in Thailand, I will proceed immediately to Krabi Airport, hitch a ride to Ao Nang, hop on a longtail boat, and get my ass to Ton Sai beach as quickly as possible. If you happen to have ever read my blog in the past, you can understand why. Ton Sai is dear to my heart, a gem of a place, and home to some of the world's most epic rock climbing. The whole place is nothing but huge limestone cliffs, soft sand, turquoise water, and nightly beach parties.

Mostly things were the same as before, but certainly not everything. As the Thai saying goes: same same but different. Prices are higher (a natural but nevertheless frutrating inevitability), April was surprisingly crowded, many restaurants that used to be phenomenal have now altered their best dishes to watered-down tourist-friendly and less-tasty versions, the funky little bamboo bars have both sprouted up by the handful and been taken over by larger resorts... the usual kinds of things. But the rock is still epic, the monkeys run free, Ton Sai "road" is still a potholed mess of a dirt path, Dream Valley has the same exact p.o.s. overpriced bungalow for rent, the heat beats down like there ain't no tomorrow, and life is good with a capital muthafunkin' G. It's been interesting to watch Ton Sai evolve over the last 3 years, at a pace that at times truly frightens me. I guess I just feel lucky to be checking it out now.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

China: WTF?

China is a country of very extreme contrasts. In any given moment, in any given place, you can experience the strange dualities that seem to define much of China. The beautiful alongside the disgusting, zen among the chaos, balance within incongruencies, harmony not too far from the barely tolerable. Normally, during my travels I will keep my famous "best & worst" lists for each country I visit in the back of my journal. But in China, thanks to these strange extremes and all the oddities in between, best & worst just didn't seem to fit. Thus, my "China: What the F*ck?" list was born.

Generally, when I saw something fitting for this list, the dialogue would go something like this:
Courtney: "What the F*CK is that about?"
Erica: "Yup, that's China for ya."

Here are a few excerpts from CHINA: WTF?
- man painting a wall blue, in the middle of the day, wearing a suit
- man gutting a fish for a restaurant on the concrete floor on an alleyway
- taxi drivers refusing to drive us once they knew our destination (this happened probably 6 times)
- "no cars" sign posted on a small, quaint footpath in the middle of the park
- complete lack of internet cafes due to government censorship of the internet
- strip malls built in sacred spots (ie Jing'an Temple)
- "Take Me Home Country Roads", sung Chinese ballad-style, blaring out of speakers at the Hangzhou train station
- woman holding a bouquet of not flowers, but stuffed teddy bears
- getting cut in line every single time
- the lead-poisoned milk scandal & subsequent execution of the farmer who started it
- taxis cutting off cop cars, while speeding
- enormous popularity of Haagen Daaz chains
- vendors pushing carts through insanely crowded train cars, over & over again
- people blowing snot rockets into their hands
- is it really so hard to smile?
- men gardening bushes to clear the path, then parking their bikes full of clippings in the middle of the sidewalk, thus totally blocking the path
- 70% of adult males smoking 30% of the world's cigarettes
- speciality on the dim sum menu: "aerobics frog"
- children "fishing" for tadpoles at the dirty lake in the park and collecting them in water bottles
- guards at the park telling people to stay off the grass, then tossing garbage directly into the lake
- Lays potato chips in fruit flavors (blueberry, lychee, lime)
- stop lights with only red & green arrows, each pointing in 3 different directions

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Asia: Round III

On March 31st, I arrived at the International Terminal of LAX for the umpteenth time. I had wrapped up my life in Utah, spent a couple weeks preparing for my travels in LA, and even managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Nor Cal to visit friends & family. It had been far too long since I'd hopped on an international flight, and I was very ready to go.

I arrived in Shanghai, via a quick layover in Seoul, well-rested and with few hassles to report (thanks for that Ambien, Mom!). Erica met me at the airport, we got on the airport bus, and were at her apartment in central Shanghai in no time. On the way there, with our crazy bus driver weaving through lanes and honking at everything that moved, we passed by a construction site where a handful of Chinese men in hard hats and flip flops were welding a piece of steel about 6 inches from the road, wearing no eye protection whatsoever, at 9 o'clock at night. There was no doubt about it: I was definitely back in Asia.

I spent the next week mostly in Shanghai, with a few days of checking out nearby Hangzhou thrown in. Shanghai is a big, Asian metropolis with plenty of the modern mixed in with the ancient. The traffic seemed absolutely dead-set on running me over, the subways were clean but jam-packed, bicyclists pedaled down the most crowded of streets alongside motorbikes & taxis, charming alleyways abounding with charm and stories of laundry drying in the breeze would pop out of random urban blocks, people of all ages practiced Tai Chi around every corner... it was the China I had been expecting.

Hangzhou was a breath of fresh air -- literally and figuratively -- with its beautiful silver lake and multi-tiered pagodas popping out of the mysterious mist that perpetually lingers in the air. I wandered around the shores of its lake and finally felt like I had discovered the other, more zen-like side of China. Whereas Shanghai was the modern, crazy China I had expected, Hangzhou was the more etherial, ancient China I had dreamed of.

From the first hour, China presented many challenges to me. The language barrier was absolutely huge -- in no place I have traveled to before has English been so absent. The basic Chinese I struggled to learn was essentially useless, given that I couldn't understand anyone's responses and, frankly, was probably pronouncing everything wrong anyway. An ever bigger challenge was the food issue. I have been a vegetarian for 5 years now, though I'll dabble in fish if & when it sounds good. China seemingly is unaware of what vegetarian food is, and even when I would try desperately to order tofu or vegetables dishes, they would inevitably arrive with chunks of pork floating around in them. (I will say, however, that on my last day in Shanghai I discovered a restaurant with a 100% vegetarian and MSG-free menu that was divine!!) Initially, I had a radical itinerary planned, but once my jet lag kicked in, and the reality of my Chinese travel challenges set in, I opted to take it easy, abandon my grand plans, and shift my pace down to a much more leisurely one.

It was -- as it always is -- a good call. I became familiar with Shanghai and got to discover many of its beautiful parks. On a Sunday, I went to the "kite-flying park" and spent hours walking around as old men played chess in secluded leafy corners, Tai Chi masters taught classes to the public, and traditional Chinese music ensembles got together to play music & sing songs. That same day, I also got to have not one but TWO exceptionally delicious meals with Erica's family, who were also visiting from the States.

This first trip to China was only a short one; essentially, an extended layover to check things out & visit Erica as I made my way on down to Southeast Asia. But I'm headed back after my rounds in the South are done, with even grander plans for traveling through southeastern China, Tibet, and Beijing.

Another Adventure Born

By the end of March of 2009, I'd spent more than 10 months living & working in the US, the longest continuous amount of time I'd spent stateside since 2005. I had unexpectedly landed in Utah after returning from South America in June of '08, and due to a combination of great people & great times, ended up staying far longer than I had initially imagined. It was a good run -- a 6-month-long production job with the Sundance Film Festival, quality time spent with new friends & fun family, many hours of late night Rock Band sessions, dozens of days of snowboarding the Utah pow pow for free, a boatload of adventures rock climbing at classic crags in the States, and a decent share of boisterous nights at the bars. But, eventually, I grew tired of Utah's absurd liquor laws, "private club" membership fees at every bar, oblivious & horrible drivers, the snail's pace at which life crawls by, and was itching for international adventure.

To those that know me, it should come as no surprise that I chose to return to Asia. I've spent quite a chunk of time exploring Southeast Asia, and from my very first time here it's had a special place in my heart. I've been ready to come back since I last left (in November '07), so I guess it was due time for my return trip. Originally, I was thinking only of Southeast Asia, as my climbing partner (& then some) Tim had long since planned a climbing adventure in these parts. The idea of returning to SE Asia as a better & stronger climber was beyond tempting. When I found out my college friend Erica was living in Shanghai, I expanded the picture to include China. Then when I started researching China (oh what would I do without the color photographs in Lonely Planet??!!?), I decided I may as well include Tibet since I was already going to be all the way over here!

Thus, my 2009 Asian travel itinerary/sketch/plan/idea was born. That being said, there is not the slightest hint of doubt in my mind that it will change. But here's the plan:
China > Thailand > Laos > Cambodia > Vietnam > Tibet > China