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Travel

Indonesia and Thailand

IndoWhat?!

July 6th, 2010

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Ahoy Friends!

As many of you know, I am in Indonesia. Most of you who receive this blog update email signed up for it (maybe a long time ago) and others I craftily inserted into the list as I suspected you might be interested. If for whatever reason you would not like to receive this update, please direct your attention to the bottom of the email. There you should be able to discreetly Unsubscribe from the list and I will not be the wiser. BUT, you should read it and leave your delicious comments as it brings me such great joy to know that someone is actually reading my travel-ramblings. So I will get on with it!

Since we last spoke I finished another Nintendo Wii game called Boom Blox: Bash Party. It was great fun to work on and now we are between projects again. That means I have to choose my next place of wandering. Yes I realize that I am a lucky bastard and I better be loving every moment I am out here. I think about this constantly and I am very grateful to everyone who supports this lifestyle from co-workers, family, friends and beyond. I encourage everyone to find a way to travel and explore your greatest thoughts and desires. The planet is large and diverse. We cannot understand its vastness from our little blip at home. There are many obstacles unique to your life but it is worth the struggle to solve them. Do it!

So why Indonesia? Last year I almost came here because of the crazy videos I saw on the DVD series Planet Earth. I have also had Scuba Diving friends show me amazing photos. The topper was that they have great Kite-Surfing conditions at precisely the time I am able to come here. Plus I love hot weather, beaches and jungles. I have also never been to Asia and thought this area was off the grid enough for me to satisfy my I-don’t-wanna-be-a-tourist craving while still having affordable activity infrastructure.

So the first 2 questions people ask me when I mention this travel plan are: 1) How long are you going? 2 months. 2) Who are you going with? No one! Just 3 years ago I would have been pretty sketched out at the prospect of flying to the other side of the planet to a location that doesn’t exactly have a rosy safety record and going all by my lonesome. I also decided against making a day by day plan. I did lots of research about culture, safety, visa, shots, language, stuff to do, transportation, rough transit times among many other things. I then loosely collected my ideas into a possible itinerary knowing that there is a high probability of change. The only thing I know for sure is that I fly into Bali and 2 months later I fly out of Bali. This felt right while planning it and I can confirm that it was the right choice (so far) now a week into my trip. The sense of exploration and freedom is very real and empowering. While it is stupendous fun to travel with friends with a plan, this style brings a whole different set of feelings and rewards.

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Blah blah blah. So what has happened so far? I gather all of my precisely chosen travel gear that I will need for 2 months into 1 glorious backpack and jumped on a 1am flight to Denpasar Bali, Indonesia. It was a 14hour flight to Taipei and then 5 more to get into Bali. The flight was not so bad as I had a quirky retired Filipino couple sitting next to me. We chatted about food, travel, America and being young/old. I love how effortlessly many cultures glide into conversations with total strangers. I suspect these interactions are a large part of why I am addicted to travel. I finally land in Bali and know that I have not yet booked my 1st hotel. I tried but multiple email confusions foiled this plan. My plan to arrive during the day did work though so I had plenty of sunlight to find some place to stay. I have to admit I was a bit nervous to tackle this first challenge. I hailed a cab to take me to the center of the busy Kuta Beach. This is the most popular and bustling part of Bali (Bali is an island by the way, with multiple population centers that are very different from each other). He takes me there and plops me in the middle of absolute chaos. I have never seen so many motorbikes swarming every part of the drivable road (including sidewalks). There is barely any semblance of order at all. They drive against traffic, pass on the left or right, they pass other people that are passing that are too slow for them, they squeeze into cracks between buses and people that do not seem safe. Twelve year old boys are driving their 10 year old sister who is holding a baby all on 1 bike. Other bikes are stacked with 6 feet of food bags and boxes on the verge of lettering over. These “gangs” (a word for tiny road in Bali) are not built for cars. At best 2 pedestrians or 1 motorbike should be moving along but instead there are 20 bikes, 5 cars and 100 pedestrians trying to squeeze past at each corner. The handle bars of these bikes are literally scraping across the walls, people and cars as the zoom along. Despite all of this massive chaos, no one seems to be bothered at all. They are barefoot and smiling the whole way through.

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So off white boy Brad goes into this mess. I try to walk like I know where I am going but there are no signs or maps. A few friendly shop owners later and I am directed to where I think I might want to go. The 1st few decent lodgings are full (it is high season so there are a fair bunch Australian tourists), but I eventually find one. PHew! After 30 hours of travel, I finally have a new room to call home. This was a tremendous relief. Now I can do anything! A short walk and I am on the famous Kuta beach of Bali. It is utterly massive. As far as the eye can see the sand is covered in baking bodies. The pounding surf is cluttered with 100′s of surfers. Every other step offers me a chance to rent a surfboard, learn to surf or overhear how wicked the x-beach is. I had heard Indonesia was a surf heaven, and this 1st beach moment seems to prove it.

The next few days I spend wandering the beach and getting used to being in Indonesia. I take a surf lesson and actually catch a few waves. The waves are nice but it sorta feels like LA traffic in the ocean. It is quite hard to position and ride without the constant concern of smashing into somebody. I eat a few nice dinners (steak and wine for $10) including 1 with a surprise visit by fire dancers. I wandered into 1 of Bali’s more elite resorts to experience this part of Bali. Everyone is dressed quite fabulous munching on colorful appetizers around the decorative fountains. This was in stark contrast to the beggars and trinket sellers gazing on sadly just outside of the resort property. I suppose I looked no different than all of these rich western white people but I definitely felt uncomfortable. I heard once that humans feel good when they know they are better off than someone else. As awful as this sounds, I think that is the sorta the idea of these resorts. Being rich and beautiful in front of poor people. I hope to truly differentiate myself from this group of tourists by trying to understand the culture and people of Indonesia. I am sure I will comment a lot more about this later.

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I pretty quickly grew tired of Kuta. The constant badgering of souvenir hawkers and guys with mopeds offering “transport” is draining. One slightly interesting thing happened with 1 “tout” (short for person looking to sell you something) when he asked me “Where are you going?” I said I don’t know (cause I didn’t). Then he asked “What do you want?” and I said Nothing (which was true). I thought about these essential questions and how they apply to every moment in our lives and I was happy with my answers right now. By the way, I know I can get pretty heady in these blog posts and traveling alone is only amplifying this phenomenon. I am mostly left to my own thoughts for days at a time and what a social version of me might toss aside, I can now dissect and transom into the penultimate question of existence…or something like that.

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Eventually I scoot over to the east part of the island into a city called Sanur. It is here they offer some great diving and Kite-Surfing! I did a nice dive on a sunken boat called Liberty Wreck. It was a boat the Navy had parked on the beach 50 years ago when an unexpected earthquake shimmied it below the water. Much to the delight of divers, it is now slathered in lush sea life and coral in shallow high visibility warm water. Sure enough there were massive bulges of color in every direction. One of the highlights was a huge mass of schooling Jacks. This is when 100′s of silver colored fish swim in a circle to feed. It is quite an impressive sight. This time around I brought a underwater still camera with an external light instead of a video camera. It is a much smaller rig and now I can practice the very different art of underwater flash photography.

The last few days I have been taking Kite-Surfing lessons. I always knew it was going to be hard and I was right. It is freakin hard. It is a combination of Para-sailing, surfing, wake-boarding and snowboarding. There are always like 10 essential things to keep track of or something will go wrong. The lines get all tangled. The kite crashes. The wind direction changes. The wind gusts or stops altogether. Turn to hard and the air-inflated kite might pop when it crashed into the water. Don’t turn the board in time and I am sent catapulting 5 meters into the air still being dragged by the swirling kite. Not to mention waves, current, boats, curious tourists and jet skis. FREAKIN HARD! But I have had a few moments of glory that lures me on. The kite-surfing school and local riders are all very nice and supportive. It seems everyone is from a different country and has devoted their entire life to “Kiting”. It is all they can think about…finding the perfect wind on a deserted beach. I will continue to “play” as they say for at least a few more days. They assure me that I am close to getting the 1st real rush of success.

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Ok. That was a lot of typing. By the way, the reason for the lack of blog updates is 2fold. 1) I just have not felt compelled to sit in front of a computer. 2) The computers here suck and are PAINFULLLY slow. I had to do some pretty serious jiggering to get these pictures on the computer. I have lots of other cool pictures but it just takes soooooo long to upload. Love you all!

Kite-Surfing to Komodo

July 6th, 2010

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Hello friends,

I hope all is well with all of you. It appears that the blog emails are not automatically sending to you folks. That is a shame. I will try to fix but I am sorta clueless as to where to begin. Anyway, let it be known that this blog post will not be full of extreme adventures and cultural shocks. So if you are only reading this to see pictures of me wading through piles of bat poop or dipping my head into whales mouths, you will have to wait for a future edition. I DID finally successfully kite-surf though! It took a week of the daily ritual of waiting for correct tide and wind conditions and then patiently repeating the same mistakes over and over, but it all resulted in a pretty wonderful last day in Bali with me skimming over the water under only the power of finely controlled wind and a properly angled board. The feeling is immaculate. At first it feels like trying to juggle an apple, a watermelon and a chainsaw at the same time. So many different sets of muscle memory and technical considerations with some less than pleasant repercussions for mistakes. But eventually the huge 14 meter kite flying on miles of rope connecting me to this thin plank on my feet temporarily becomes extensions of my body that let me unite with the wind and water! Of course most rides would end with me swallowing gallons of saltwater and my kite takes a humiliating and dramatic crash into the sea. But it is soooo worth it. And I can see the path to a more controlled ride through more practice. I am definitely taking this up in LA.

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I’m on a boat!

July 6th, 2010

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Greetings computer dwellers,

I type this blog from a steamy stinky internet cafe in the gushing noisy rain of BANGKOK Thailand. How did I end up here? The fun of improv travel of course! But first I will tell you of my voyage on a boat through Indonesia. After baking and lounging in the Gili islands for almost a week, I was ready for something a little bit super-charged. I was hoping to find this adventure on a live-aboard scuba-diving boat called Jaya. The plan was to sail for 8 days from Gili Trawangan through Komodo National Park to Labuan Bajo, Flores and then come all the way back.

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Normally I do not chat about the specific people of my adventures as much as I describe the moods and details of the experience. But this section of the trip was as much a social adventure as it was a diving adventure. This was a nice change of pace as compared to my sometimes quiet solo traveling. Soooo…the leader of the trip was a surly bald English guy named Neil. He had worked in Thailand on a boat for 10 years (and had some crazy stories about the Tsunami) but now was starting a relatively new boat trip business here in Indonesia. He did a nice job of rounding up all of us new passengers on the island the night before to meet for some food and drinks. Meeting your boat mates for the 1st time is a somewhat critical moment as we are about to spend some serious close-quarters time together. Even 1 sour apple could really affect the tone of the trip. But as promised by Neil, he seemed to have successfully harvested a compatible young group of scuba loving goofballs that were fun and easy-going. We were a diverse bunch; a couple from Germany, a guy from Paris, a girl from Norway, sisters from Spain, a handful of English guys and 1 other USA dude. We had a mostly Indonesian crew with a some Divemasters from Spain and France. Let the personality mixing begin!

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We boarded the boat with excitement and anticipation. I was roomied and dive-buddied with the other American dude. We had randomly met earlier playing drums at sunset on a beach, so this made sense. We sorted out our small living quarters and the boat took sail for a full night of traveling to our 1st destination. We were warned that this would probably be the worst night of the trip as we had to cross some open ocean and some straights between islands. That meant we would hit some current and choppy wave action. On top of this we had some very strong headwinds. Most of us were not so worried though and we settled in for the night.

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SMACK!!! I awoke with a jolt in the middle of the night to a loud sharp sound. As my senses slowly tried to make sense of all of the new stimulus I realized that the boat was rocking widely back and forth. Then I felt a brisk spray of salt water shoot across the bed as I listened to the almost comical creaking of our large wooden boat. Sometimes our rhythmic swaying would be interrupted by what felt like our boat running into a punishing wall of water. This would be soon be followed by another surprise spatter of the sea. This was made all the more impressive by the fact that my room was tucked away inside the ship and pretty far forward beneath the deck. The waves must have been quite enormous for them to be able to reach my semi-protected area. Despite all of this chaos, I did not manage to fully wake myself up to find the origin of that horrible smacking sound. Some unknown amount of time later (2 hours? 2 minutes?) I slightly woke up again to grab onto the roof just before I rolled off my top bunk onto floor. This seemed fine and logical in my sleepy head as the boat was now swaying even harder back and forth now. I recall a very bizarre dream that was a somewhat normal walk-around-and-talk-to-people dream except every few seconds I was being thrown left and right onto the floor! This crazy rocking boat was not only trying to toss me from my bed, it was pushing me around in my dreams too! After what must have been a couple dozen smacks I truly awoke to decipher this mystery. The hinged doors to our cabin were not hooked shut so every time the boat took a large dip, the wooden door would come screaming open and smack against the wall. It actually looked quite dramatic in the wet blue moonlight. I did everyone on the boat a favor and clamored out into the puddles to fix this problem. Phew!

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There were so many cool things on this trip that I am not sure which stories to tell. I suppose since this is a scuba diving trip I should start there. Our 1st dive was a “Check Dive”. This is a way for the Divemasters to see our skill level (buoyancy at different depths, air consumption, ability to follow) and double check the gear. It was also our 1st of 17 dives. Although we were told that this dive was not going to compare to what lies ahead, we were all quite impressed. The visibility was magical. We descended down a large sloping wall covered in the most diverse and colorful coral I have seen since Australia 7 years ago. Swimming next to this underwater mountain and being able to see so far up and down inspired just a little bit of awe. We all popped up from the dive onto the surface of the water with big sloppy grins on our face as we knew we were in for some great diving.

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It turns out that mountain was not a mountain but a Volcano! Our next dive was on a different part of this underwater volcano called Bubble Reef. As you swim along you can see a steady stream of champagne bubbles gurgling from the ground. Swimming through this bubble land was delightful and unique. We watched our Dive guide shove his hand in the sand. We did the same and immediately felt the our hands heating up. We could feel the heat from the volcano! Next we swam past a blurry area emitting from a coral. As we got closer we could Really start feeling the heat. Sooo coool! Add to this great visibility, stunning gardens of coral and a dense population of tropical fish and you have a tremendous dive.

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A gang of happy divers ate our yummy Indonesian dinner of fresh fish and spicy rice on the deck as the sun began to set. Suddenly our captain emerges from below wearing a Batman costume! This did not immediately make any sense until he pointed towards the sky. Sure enough, we saw some giant bats silhouettes filling the sky. The longer we watched, the more that appeared till eventually we saw them in all directions. There must have been 1000′s! (sadly none of my pictures could capture this difficult lighting). Our Bat Captain and his creatures of the night led us further away from the population centers. Eventually all of the man-made lights blinked out. We could see nothing but the stars. Eventually we saw the moon rise. Now, I suppose I have heard of a “moon rise” before but I don’t particularly remember this being all that interesting. Well, this moon emerged from the dark horizon as fast as any moon I have ever seen. It was a dark red and cast a spooky haze over the ocean. I must have spent hours just staring out at all of the marvelous and strange sparkles shimmering around us.

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We continue to have more glorious and unique diving. One dive in particular deserves a mention. It is called Castle Rock. We are told that it can have some serious current so we need to be careful. Normally scuba diving is a relaxing recreational hobby…especially in warm water with good visibility. You just through on some dive gear and look at the pretty fish. But when current enters the equation, we have to be more careful. Why dive in current? Because big fish like strong current as it brings nutrient rich water full of yummy food. Castle Rock has current because it is a giant coral at the crossroads of 2 very strong currents. These currents look like roaring riers from the boat with 1 glassy calm spot in the middle. It is here at the “Splt” that we want to be. We are told to jump into the water and descend as fast as possible. The current will be rushing you towards the reef so grab it or you will be swept out to sea! I hype up our nervous group with a round of “Eye of the Tiger” before we drop to ease the nerves a bit. BA! Ba-Ba-BA! Ba-Ba-BA! Ba-Ba-BAAAAA!

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We do our backrolls and bam! we are met with the promised currents. I have dove in some serious current before but this is way beyond anything I have felt. I am kicking as hard as I can muster and I am barely moving! As each person diligently clasps onto a rock, the lower half of the body is pivoted in the direction of the water rush. We all look like windsocks at an airport. Our dive guide is as cool as a cucumber as he checks if we are all good. Sure we are! So he leads us further into the chaos. To move just 10 meters is now a serious challenge. We have to get our breathing back down to a normal pace and pick out our next rock to hang ourselves on. Each segment tires me out just a bit more to where it is getting harder to return to normal breathing. Sometimes I can feel my heart pounding in the temples of my head. I am huffing air like a maniac. My vision is even a bit blurry and dark. At one of the pit stops I look over at my dive buddy and we start pumping our fists to “Eye of the Tiger”. I can hear it in my head. BA! Ba-Ba-BA! My nerves calm a bit and I push on. Eventually we make it past this angry water and arrive at the glorious Split! It is here we can hunker down and watch the action. Sharks everywhere! Giant schools of fish, barracuda, turtles, rays, oh my! At this point we are all running absurdly low on air so we ascend to highest point on the rock. We are now blowing like kites hanging on for our 3 minute Safety Stop. At the end of this interval he counts us down for release…3….2….1 and we are shot to the surface like sky-divers jumping from a plane (expect we are underwater and going up)! Wow! What a rush! Definitely one of the most intense things I have ever done. Most everyone had a similar reaction to the dive as me. A few people were overwhelmed and actually did run out of air. Another person blacked out for a few seconds. Yowza! But we all loved it and did that dive a total of 4 times on the trip.

The days are spent lounging in hammocks, eating, sleeping, playing poker (I won some money!), dance parties, jam sessions and more sleeping. I even gave a few music lessons about modes and tonal harmony! We saw almost every sunset on 1 side of the boat and then watched the sunrise on the other. One ambitious day we all jumped from the crows nest at the top of the mast. This was insanely scary but totally worth it. Another day we visited a ultra-small village on a nearly deserted island and gave them some gifts. They were all in very poor health but in generally good spirits to meet us. Sometimes dolphins would swim along with our boat and send us scrambling with happiness. Flying fish were always skimming across the surface like stones. We did some incredible drift dives, muck dives and met eye to eye with more sharks. I got some decent pictures but overall I am still discouraged by the technical aspects of underwater photography. I prefer the purely creative point and shootiness of video.

It was a spectacular trip and we were all sad to say goodbye. No later than THAT NIGHT did I get a text from my favorite LA lady Kristi saying she wanted to come to Asia and party with me. 2 days later and we are about to meet in Bangkok! Holy Crap! I gotta go pick her up from the airport right now!

Thailand a go go!

July 7th, 2010

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So after 1 month of finding my own way through Indonesia, I was getting a bit weary of making new friends all the time and sometimes eating alone. And then Poof! Kristi got a new job and had some time to spare before her 1st day. So we decided Thailand would be a fun switch-a-roo. My 1st night in Bangkok was in the Very Backpacker Khao San Road. I thought this would be a fun place to meet like-minded travelers but I found it to be a dirty and average white person slum. Determined not to subject Kristi to this drab introduction to our trip, I did some serious Bangkok research and planned a rather decent hotel near a cool part of town. We ate dinner at a High Concept restaurant called the Bed Supper Club. The exterior of the building looks like a massive white space tube. The original version of this restaurant is in Amsterdam. The concept is that you sit/lay on giant white beds with strangers and eat a “surprise” dinner…i.e. they don’t tell you what you are eating beforehand. There were 2 floors of beds and all sorts of moody lighting. Don’t worry, there was nothing kinky going on….just lounging and eating. It turns out kicking back on a bed and eating delicious food is really nice. While we ate, some modern Thai performance artists did a sort of Alice in Wonderland-ish movements and acting. One woman sat in a 10 foot tall chair in a dress that hung to the bottom reading a book for 20 minutes. Then a magical butterful (dangled by a man with a fishing rod-esque stick) fluttered around us as we ate. Then some singers and dancers did a sort of flamenco opera in front of us. Overall a very nice evening.

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We spent the next day wandering around looking at temples, shrines and markets. Just getting around Bangkok is actually quite entertaining. We took the Skytrain (a subway system that is on a giant track high above the city) to the subway (below the city) to a tuk-tuk (small moped passenger vehicle) to a longtail boat (in the rivers snaking through the city). We were able to cross the city for about 1 dollar! Many of the temples are impressive and since it is low season, not too overrun with tourists. Eventually the hustle and bustle of the city did get to us and we wanted to seek out some nature and adventure. We hopped on a small plane and flew into Phuket. Sadly I do not currently have access to my Bangkok pics due to a memory card malfunction.

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Phuket is a pretty large island with a wide range of places to stay from low-end backpacker joints to high end exclusive resorts. We opted to stay in the busy area of Patong. We wanted to witness some of the carnivalesque insanity that Thailand is famous for. We started with a Thai massage. I have had massages before but never a Traditional Thai Massage. These women basically kick your ass for an hour and then you pay them! I tried to be tough and not wince but when they found the tender spots they would sometimes mercifully ask “you want strong or weak?”. But in the end I felt refreshed and relaxed. Since they are so cheap, we have continued to get these throughout the trip. Later that night we went to a Muay Thai Boxing match. This was in a pretty big stadium on Bangla Road! We didn’t quite know what to expect but we liked the crazy announcer that drove around the city “Tonight! Tonight! Big Fight! Best fight of the Month! Tonight!”. Thai boxing uses boxing gloves and punching, but you can also use your bare feet and knees. To our surprise the match started with 2 young boys! They must have been 10 years old but they put on quite a show. They each have their own pre-fight routine that includes intensely walking around to each post and doing a prayer and then doing a sort of fight like dance in the middle. There was live Indian-esque music while the fought. It was a bit uncomfortable watching these kids pummel each other but I suppose it is not so different from how American kids have karate or wrestling tournaments when they are young. Each match the kids got older until they became big strong men (and 1 match with women!). The final match a giant Australian man nearly snapped the back of a local Thai fighter. The main event ended in 10 seconds!

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Again we grew weary of the fast pace of a tourist center so we set up a 2 day rafting trip. They drove us up to a fairly remote area and we did some really nice nature stuff. We blasted down 2 white water rafting rivers. The 1st was quite hilarious as it is a dam release river. That means all of the rafting companies in the area have to get in position at the same time and then they open the floodgates. Instant chaos! There must have been at least 100 rafts bouncing, squishing and sometimes flipping all over each other. None of the passengers have any idea of what they are doing (most of they were not even holding paddles) The guides dont speak any English and there was virtually no safety talk. Most of our time was spent alternately holding on for dear life and trying to ultra-splash the nearest boat. The 2nd rafting trip was more focused on precise paddling around giant gushing rocks and mini waterfalls. Fun fun. We also took a nice hike to a big waterfall where we could climb up into it and jump off. Wooooooo! It seems vacations are always full of jumping from crazy things. We took another hike to a cave that houses a temple. Around the cave there are 100′s of monkeys and food stalls selling bananas! We got a few bundles and watched the monkey business begin! There were so many hilarious encounters between huge Alpha monkeys, skinny sneaky monkeys, moms with babies and goofy groups of swinging jumping monkeys. After this we wandered into the cave. Inside there were shrines and monks and bats. Quite an amazing combination. The cave area ended with a very bizarre depiction of Heaven and Hell that quite resembled Dantes inferno. I hope I don’t go to hell! Finally we got to take a bath with elephants in a river! This was a pretty fantastic experience. It felt quite natural as they seemed to like us scrubbing the grime off the head and ears. They made a lovely ultra-low grumbly purring sound. Sometimes they would dip down into the diver and take us with them! Other times they would bubble some water with their bizarre trunks. I am not normally a fan of this kind of direct animal/human experience but this seemed better than the much more popular Elephant Rides. I wouldn’t mind if someone cleaned me! We wrapped up our nature trip with a massive Seafood BBQ. The Thai people that took care of us there were very kind and friendly. Even though they spoke very little English, we definitely bonded.

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Next stop, the rock climbing mecca and birthplace of Deep Water Soloing….Railay!

Rock!

July 7th, 2010

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Sawadee mis amigos!

Guess what I did…more cool stuff! After the flurry of Bangkok and the onslaught of Phuket, Kristi and I were in the mood for something with a mellow nature vibe. This led us to a place called Railey in Krabi (Tonsai to be more precise). This wonderful town is known all over the world for having some very excellent rock climbing. Although not an island, it very much feels like one as it is surrounded by impassable mountains and cliffs that cannot be accessed by vehicle. This is good news as it means there are no cars or motorbikes to honk or sell you transport. The longtail boat ride into the area was immediately inspiring. Dramatic limestone crags and pinnacles exploded directly out of the water and reached towards the sky. Each of these mammoth rock formations were quite dramatic and unique. Wandering around our new home continued to impress us. The only reason people looked at us was to smile or say hello. Nobody was bothered to sell us anything. The area felt nearly abandoned. We would wander into an area of secluded jungle huts to find Zero people…not even someone to rent us a room. This was a bit confusing as it was absolutely stunning in all directions! Rugged jungle paths dotted with authentic jungle bungalows, white sand beaches with gentle turquoise waves, funky colorful rock climbing shops just waiting to show us the secrets of the rocks and massively laid back beach bars filled with hammocks, cushions and reggae. It was 10 times the paradise of the more touristy areas yet nobody was there to clutter it up. Score!

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We budgeted 4 days in the area so we decided to sign up for a 3 day rock climbing coarse. Our research pointed to a school from a guy named Wee. He literally wrote the book on rock climbing in Thailand. We were the only 2 people in the course so we got prime attention. We started with a tiny bit of theory and then we started scrambling up some amazing rocks. These were the same rocks that are towering over the ocean from the beach. It was fabulous to climb in such a beautiful place…it definitely beats our normal gym climbing. Overall I would say we did quite well. We clearly had some basic skills and strength from our training in LA. Awesome! The biggest challenge of the course was our 1st attempt at Lead Climbing. Up until that point we had only done Top Rope climbing. This is where a pre-existing rope is anchored to the top of the climbing area that another person holds you with in case you fall. This has has two big benefits. 1) You never feel too scared to make a difficult movement as you can be sure that you will not be punished with falling 2) if you are struggling at a particularly difficult section, your rope helper can pull down on the rope a bit to give you some lift. Lead Climbing does not have a top rope. Instead you are equipped with an assortment of small metal clips that you must clip into metal bolts that are placed strategically on the rock. Each successful clip acts essentially like a temporary top rope from that point on the wall. If you fall, this bolt will catch you. The scary part is that if you climb higher (but not high enough to clip into the next bolt), you will fall back down to your last clipping. Yikes!

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But we felt strong of mind and body so we gave it a shot. The 1st time leading up one of these giant rock walls was quite intimidating. Suddenly each movement felt absolutely critical. A movement that was previously a comfortable shift of body weight or moderate reach now felt like an impossible challenge that I wanted to abort. But the Extra scary thing is that there is no Abort! Once you are above your last bolt, it is quite difficult to back out of a climb. Your best bet is to try to make it to the next bolt and rest. This is best done by moving swiftly and confidently up the wall so as not to waste energy gripping and sweating and fretting about your next movement. Doing this will drain your strength and make it nearly impossible to continue moving up. But moving too quickly and choosing a bad hold or a dead end route can be equally as problematic. So a balance of speed and intelligence is the best strategy. With each successive climb, we felt more confident and the terror slowly subsided. After 2 days of climbing, we felt like relative Masters of the Beginner/Intermediate Rocks of Thailand! Detecting a sliver of bravado, our instructor jacked it up 1 notch for our last climb. He said you cannot use strength to power through this route but that it requires technique. Lemme at it! As we were roping up he told me an interesting story about a trip he took with the owner of the shop while he was doing his training. He was climbing a particularly difficult route with Wee belaying. His foot slipped and he began to fall. He fell 15 meters straight towards the rocky ground along the sheer cliff until Wee tightened the line to stop his fall. This obviously scared the shit out of him but Wee was doing this to teach a lesson. Don’t panic when you fall, the ropes and the bolts will save your life. Removing this fear will enable you to climb with the confidence and speed that more difficult routes require. I responded with “Oh….cool story…ok….I guess I will start climbing now.”

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Sure enough this route was significantly more difficult than previous climbs. Normally our instructor did not shout too many climbing tips at us but instead let us make our own decisions. This time he unleashed a flurry of quick and decisive commands for each limb. “Left foot higher! Under-cling left hand! another under-cling right hand! Kick your right foot out….now shift your whole body!” Miraculously I was able to obey many of these commands instantly and correctly even though I was barely processing what he was saying. Eventually I got to the toughest part of the climb and did not feel capable of following his advice. “Shift your whole body right” is quite difficult to do on a flat vertical wall with what felt like no holds. I hesitated and my energy quickly started to plummet. My hands were greased with sweat. I knew I couldn’t hold on much longer so I reached for a Quick Clip to connect to a bolt above my head. I needed to keep my body as close to the wall as possible to maintain the awkward muscle tension that was keeping me connected to this rock. I slowly carefully reached my hand up to clip in but I just couldn’t reach it. With one last surge of energy I lunged for the bolt…..SWOOOOOOSSHHH! In what felt like an instant and an eternity, I slipped off the wall and descended head first towards the ground. The falling seemed to continue much longer than I expected but I felt strangely calm. Just as my vision was able to make out the people below, the line tightened and my plummet quickly and safely came to an end. What a rush!! My instructor was in complete control of my fall the whole time. He smiled and made sure I was OK. I said yes and went back to climbing. A few less dramatic falls and some of my hardest climbing moves later, I made it up the rock! YAAAAHOOOOOO! It was a true feeling of triumph. After getting back on the ground, I realized his crazy falling story was not coincidental. He knew this was just at my limit of climbing and prepared me for a bonus lesson about how to handle falling. That was the moment his tip doubled. :) Our instructor was awesome. He knew each crack of every rock. He knew exactly how much to help us and when to let us struggle a bit. The course ended and we were said our goodbyes.

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One last adventure before leaving our Rock Climbing mecca was to try the world famous Deep Water Soloing. We hired a longtail boat and guide to take us out to the giant rocks further out into the ocean. The idea is that you climb these sharp monster rocks WITH NO ROPES because if you fall, the deep water below will catch you. Just getting onto the rock is a challenge as the wobbly kayak below you is smashing you into the sharp underhang that you must basically do a pull up on to get started. Once on the rock, your safety boat paddles away and you are alone with your challenge. The hilarious guide just shouts barely understandable English tips about….”Higher…More higher….follow the chalk”. But the courage must come and the body adjusts. The climbing was challenging and fun. One interesting element that is quite specific to this form of climbing is the fact that the higher you climb, the farther you have to fall/jump. Ideally you want to fall in control with a firm 2 foot push away from the rock. This will ensure that you land safely away from the wall and into the deep water. I climbed to what felt pretty damn high and turned around for my descent. As always, this provided a nice smack of fear and loud heart gulp. Our goofy guide started singing the Bob Marley classic “Everything gonna be alright”. This actually worked to calm my nerves and I took my first leap of faith. Awesome. We did a full day of this form of climbing. We had one injection of drama when I decided it would be cool to bring my waterproof camera up the wall with me. Sure enough as I did my big final plunge, the camera got loose and sank to the bottom of the ocean. CRAP!!! I quickly geared up a mask and fins and tried to free dive down to it. I had done a bit of practice with free-diving in Indonesia but was wishing I had taken the 3 day course. The course promised that in 3 days they could train me to go to 30 meters for 3 minutes on 1 breath. I had no where near that skill but I was quite satisfied to go about 10 meters to see the bottom. Unfortunately by the time I reached the bottom I was out of air and could not spend any time looking around. I tried this several times but could not find it. The problem was made a bit more difficult by the fact that this particular area was swarming with tiny little jellyfish. Each swoosh of my arm would literally send 10 or 20 slimy little guys slithering across my body. Eewwww! But their sting was super super tiny so it was actually not a real problem. Eventually I gave up and we boated away to eat lunch on a nearby island. I was quite bummed about losing the camera and some pictures. After lunch we returned to the same area and I noticed some scuba diving boats parked nearby. I swam over to one of them and asked if I could rent some gear to go find my camera. They smiled but said they did not have enough tanks. Shortly thereafter a few divers surfaced from below….and….you guessed it…..THEY FOUND THE CAMERA! Celebrations abound! Although it is a waterproof camera to around 10 meters, maybe it was sitting at 12 meters for the last 2 hours? The moment of truth came as I pressed On and took a picture….IT WORKS!!

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Needless to say, Kristi and I absolutely love this place. I suspect we will be coming back as the trend for many of the climbers we met was to return every year for at least a few weeks to indulge in this fantastic place to climb. I hope all of your lives are full of smiles. Next up, Koh Phangan and the Full Moon Party!