Saturday, January 27, 2007

Keeping Busy: Thai Style

A week seemed to go quickly by in Chiang Mai this January. Though it is January, and most likely wintery in your neck of the woods here in Thailand the weather has an amazing way of hovering around 90 degrees. In the sun it is always hot, but in the shade, with a dry breeze, it is almost always pleasant. While the first part of the week saw both Michelle and I continuing to fight one Thai nasty bug or another by the end of the week we were back in action – this time tirelessly touring the Thai countryside by motorbike – once again.

We have fully embraced the 125cc motorbike – as nearly the entire Thai population has - as the perfect tool for exploring small rural villages, endless craft fairs, winding forest roads, and smoggy, clogged city streets. In just a handful of days we have covered many kilometers of Thai side roads and been thoroughly amazed with the continued diversity of this country. We climbed through hilly broken concrete roads, unable to read each and every sign in Thai script, and were rewarded with views over the entire valley from perched atop a massive earthen dam. The dam formed a large reservoir, reminiscent of the manmade lakes the dot the Pacific Northwest, and the drying jungle-coated hills could have dotted many a New England hill, but somehow there was still some things very Thai about the landscape.

For one thing, on this weekday, we were nearly the only one enjoying the ‘recreation area.’ No motor boats humming across this lake, only silent smoke rising from the valley below as rice farmers burned their fields and ditches. The air is always noticeably thick in Thailand, but on this day the heavy air only served to insulate us from the sounds of the world below us. The lake and dam and small landscaped park floated lonely in the sky – kick starting our motorbike was an awkward break in the silence.

Back in Chiang Mai we find ourselves indulging in the options of the Thai city. Fresh orange juice for 50 cents, endless bizarres and markets selling so many things we’ve never seen before, constant temptations of ‘nearly free’ pirated software and movies, street food with unknown names, malls with Western familiarities priced in baht, and colorful Thais smiling, and working, and casually keeping busy. On the weekends the night bizarre comes to us and vendors move onto the plaza just outside our door. Stalls – most attached precariously to a motorbike – sell strawberry shakes, pork skewers, sticky rice, vats of curries, and parts of fish we’ve not yet ventured to eat.

In narrow alleys between the food vendors are jewelry vendors and hill-tribe peoples, shop owners and home-craftmans, each tucked under an umbrella and a single bare lightbulb patiently organizing their wares to attract Western tourists and Thais alike. Again, these affairs have the air of being both casual and bustling – it is a line the Thais have learned to walk well. We also continue our casual pace, heading out tomorrow in a rented Suzuki jeep for an larger adventure to the northwestern hills. We’ve embraced the modus operandi of our host country: keeping busy though sometimes it doesn’t look like it.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Settled in to our new Chiang Mai home

It's been quite a different Thailand expereince since Michelle and I arrived in the north last week. Neither one of us have had the motivation (as we continue fight off random ills) to make the journey to the rock climbing areas so we've occupied ourselves with the amazing array of city sights and shopping adventures near our home at the city center. We have checked out everything from the night bazaar to the random Asian mall and been both amused and enlightened. I learned to enjoy shopping (probably because I can actually afford to buy cool stuff) and have sampled another wide range of Thai delicacies and gross-a-ties.

Chiang Mai is nothing short of amazing and beautiful. The bus system is nothing more than a bunch of trucks with seats in the back picking up anyone that waves them down. They are called share-taxis, but in the Thai the literal translation in two-rows (since you sit in two facing rows in the back of a pick-up) and the fare is always fixed. It's a solution to public transportation that seems both brilliant and haphazard. Add in many handfuls of three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxis that'll get you anywhere twice as fast for twice as much and you have an incredibly accessiable city. Everything seems nearby, and there is indeed always something to see right around the corner.

Of course, our third common transportation, and by far our favorite, is the 100cc motorbike. For next to nothing you can rent one of these babies for the day and explore the smogless, cooler countryside of the north. On our last journey we were amazed at the views and rugged topography as we climbed through the windy hills. This is the land where the jungle meets the pines and just over the next hills are the mystical and rough-and-tumble regions of the Burmese and Loa borders. In these hills many native 'hill-tribes' still exists in reportedly 'primitives' villages. Maybe you've seen the long-necked Karen women in an old national geographic - visiting the Karen is likened to a 'human zoo' by Lonely Planet so we don't plan on making that trip - but you get the point, these are isolated native peoples with interesting and one-of-a-kind cultural heritage.

It doesn't take a long journey from town to realize just how much open countryside there is in Thailand's north and while we live in a modern, fairly westernized big city, villagers from the rural regions mix in with the urban Thais to sell their crafts and return their earnings to their families. The whole thing becomes a jumble of cultures and economies and one begins to understand how so many challenges have come about by the attempted integration of these tribes. For, just 10 years ago some of these rural peoples were growing over 90% of the world's opium and many have fled to Thailand to escape more repressive governments in their homelands. The situation is a bit more complex than I can describe here, but it's a new outlook of native lifestyles that Michelle and I our struggling to understand.

Not all our adventures have been natural, culturally sensitive affairs. In Chaing Mai I have overcome two dislikes of travelling: touristy activities and shopping. Shopping, as stated above, is just too fun and diverse to pass up, tourist attractions, the same. From elephant camps to snake charmers to insects museums and monkey shows, Chaing Mai has it's fair share of attractions the cater to the western tourist. We have given in - and plan to give in again - to these diversions. The monkey show can not fully be described in words, yet one thing was made clear: these monkeys are in training to pick coconuts, and even though they were on leashes for our protection 'they are released to a large jungle area to play and relax' when the tourists leave. Well... atleast their fed well with our 200baht ticket money - and those monkeys sure can peddle a big tricycle! Hope all is well with everyone... i and m

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Photos: (U)Bells at Wat Suphet. In the 13th century a glowing relic was enshrined here after it miraculously divided. The holiest site in Northern Thailand. (L) A small side street in Bangcock or soi that is being prepared for a festival. The flags hanging are the Thai flag and the yellow flag is that of the King.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Tonsai - Moving fast (for Thai time)

Two months went by so quickly. We have been living in the dense jungle and walking the dirt tracks of Tonsai town enough days to nearly call it home now. Yet, there are parts of the Pha Nang penninsula I wouldn't want to point out if it was my home.For while I have discovered so many magical places exploring the caves and coves paradise, there is no denying the impacts continued tourist pressure brings to the shores.

The constant hum of generator mixes with the drone of unmuffled longtail engines. The limestine towers serve only to reverberant the sounds of transportation and electricity. Plumbing is a maze of pipes crisscrossing the streets and paths, freshwater barrells sit open on hillsides, the garbage pile just off our porch grows daily, otherwise we are woken by the smell of burning plastic. Talking with the early climbers in Tonsai one can easily imagine how much this place has changed in just maybe 10 years. Climbing brought people to Tonsai, but no longer do they make up the bulk of the tourist load. Everyone enjoys the warm sea water and outstanding beauty, climbing helped Tonsai rival neighboring and swanky Railey.

We were, no one is, exempt in impacting Tonsai. Wee told me 12 years ago he swam in a fresh water pool at the base on Tonsai crag. Since then the freshwater has be diverted and the pool built over with the freedom bar. He's Thai and, alongside many American climbers developing the routes here, built tonsai into a world-recognized climbing destination. I am (just as every other visiting tourist climber is) indebted and thankful of these climbers that put this place on the map, yet I am cautious just how many maps to tonsai there will be.

Without a doubt, climbing an airy corner, steming in limetsone pockets and clipping titanium staples 1000 feet above the deep green Andaman sea is a special moment for any rock climber. Words can not describe the intensity of the steep, pocketed, and often exposed climbing here. It is challengeing yet friendly, melting hot but always sheltered from the rain, through jungle and up fixed ropes. Chasing lines of bolts up asthetic featured limestone in a beachside paradise is still that (no matter what): paradise.

In the photos: The fixed lines leading from the jungle shelf to the base of Thaiwand wall. the banana spider living just outside our bungalow. Michelle surveying the setting sun from railay west, and me "chok dee" the streetside beer salesman in Aonang town.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Jungle Hut (B-1)

If rustic jungle living is what your after then this studio is for you! Just up the street from the cheapest beer storein town and if you want 40 baht beef noodle soup from a frothy boiling vat then this is the place for you.

Just off the porch your find a banana spider larger than your hand and in the evenings monkeys and wildly colored squirrels will drop nuts and branches on your roof to keep you on your toes. The shower is cold but nicelytiled and the bug nets only have a few small holes.

Could be yours for just under 500 baht per night. That is of course when we move out and head to Chaing Mi Jan. 11th. Another week of climbing and melting into the one of a kind tonsai life before we trade the two months of seaside adventuring for some terrain a bit more mountainous.