Family Gap Year Adventures, Chapter 8 – Islands of Thailand


Moving south

We leave Bangkok with a night train to Sukot Thani, a destination in the deep south of Thailand. Our last month in Thailand is going to be all about beaches, palms, sand, which we somehow have managed to avoid on the first half year of our journey. Having lost our swimsuits in China, my daughter and I feel an acute need to shop for swimwear.

After the experience of enjoying and growing roots in Chiang Mai, one of Asias most inspiring cities, we are in a hurry to go to the south of Thailand, in order to show up for an acroyoga-climbing workshop, organized by danish Move Copenhagen. We have signed up for it, one rainy day in China, after managing to circumvent the Great Chinese Firewall, and logging into Facebook for the first time in over a month,  starved for news from home, a lonely island in the sea of chinese people, scrolling down, stopping the scrolling, fixed at a friends status update – winter retreat in Thailand with Move Copenhagen, and remembering what Move Copenhagen is about, these great june days filled with crazy moves, a nordic summer, clear blue sky, the midsummer night fire roaring.

It is a strange thing with Facebook.

Despite all its commercial, time-wasting qualities, it is a lifeline home.

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Almost unspoken, collectively approved, a chapter in our trip has ended, as the bicycles change status from being the vehicle of travel, to local transport mode, and have to endure being stuffed on trains, buses, tuktuks and longtail boats between our southern destinations.

Sometimes, I find myself checking and rechecking my Facebook late in the evening, on my way to dream land, and I have diagnosed, that this is as an expression of longing, homesickness, of missing the faces and voices of people, that have been such a huge part of my life for years, and that i am so far away from … brothers, sister, friends.

While waiting in line to check in the bikes into the night train’s goods carriage, we meet a polish couple, they are checking in bikes as well, they have been suffering on their bicycles in south america, and are ready to continue the adventure in Thailand, while we are more and more dubious about using bicycles as the vehicle of transport, and bemused by why we tend to meet other polish people in strange places and dispositions.

After a night on the tracks, we are in the picture perfect tourist Thailand! We have arrived in  Sukot Thani, the first impression is, this place is too hot, to steaming, we look at our bicycles, and decide to share a tuk-tuk ride with our bikes, a dog, dog cage and a lot of scuba diving equipment, and a heap of backpacks, to our destination Ao Nang.

Almost unspoken, collectively approved, a chapter in our trip has ended, as the bicycles change status from being the vehicle of travel, to local transport mode, and have to endure being stuffed on trains, buses, tuktuks and longtail boats between our southern destinations. We decided to abandon our plan of riding to Singapore, and sell them somewhere on the way.

Ao Nang

Ao Nang is our fist destination in the south, we staying in a garden with ramshackle bamboo huts, a place with a friendly owner, with weary eyes, a shared communal dinner, and bungalows showing even more wear, cold water and ants.

White powdery sand, palms, a handful of travelers, and we meet our first tourist-tourists, people on short term holidays, that are here for the beach and sun, destination unspecified.

The beach side restaurant “La Luna” is a terrible experience, expensive and untasty, the waiters seem to experience a collective Weltzschmerze, the curry is a disguised can of tomatoes, I feel offended, where have all the wonderful thai spices gone, where is my lemon grass and ginger and galanga, the warning sign should have been that the menu is accessible in several european languages, we are in the middle of tourist-tourist zone. This experience has to be mended somehow, and next day we bike one kilometer to  have lunch in the locally famous seafood restaurant “Krua Thara“, which is a sublime experience, the sauce is divine, the fish was wiggling minutes before it hit our plates, the giant shrimps are cooked with lemon oil, chili and ginger,  in other words, heaven in a bite. We muse about, how few meters you have to step away from tourist-tourist zone, to be in the proper Thailand, the country of smiling people and spicy food.

Having found the local spirit of this friendly small town, Pawel decides to stay here on his own, he needs air and space and a break from the intense experience, that traveling with a family is, while Magdalena and I take a longtail boat to world famous Tonsai, to join the much apprehended movement workshop.

Tonsai – Move hell

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If you ask a random climber about climbing in Thailand, the destination Tonsai will probably be the first association. Combine this with 20 people that love movement,  a retreat with yoga and acroyoga workshops, throw in a slack line, there is no way, this can’t be lots of fun. – Well, it can.

If you ask a random climber about climbing in Thailand, the destination Tonsai will probably be the first association. Combine this with 20 people that love movement, a retreat with climbing, yoga and acroyoga workshops, throw in a slack line, there is no way, this can’t be lots of fun.

– Well, it can.

Imagine a beautiful peninsula, impressive limestone backdrop, the worlds most beautiful beach, no electricity, no road, no cars.

Clearly, this has once been a paradise, filled with groovy music, relaxed, people, climbers with bare feet, and the impressive limestone backdrop framing the picture.

Over the years, as the popularity grew, the steady stream of tourists, with lonely planet guides in hand arriving, to check out the most beautiful, groovy beach, has invited progress and development, cutting down of trees, building of shacks and bamboo huts,and concrete hotels, to the point where the small peninsula, is filled to the brim with accommodation and restaurants.

No power lines, means that the myriads of accommodations run noisy power generators, long tail boat transport means the garbage stays to decay.

Waste water is flowing in open sewers, garbage is piled in stinking bags behind the respective resorts, the place is on the observation list in the ministry of health for recurring food poisonings, and any dip in the water, leaves cuts and wounds in an infected state.

What has been a paradise, has now gone bad, the fall caused by that primeval sin of greed, which has led to over expansion and unsustainable development, that sadly is a thai specialty.

This is my private version of hell, the lack of authenticity, the dirt, the only thai people we meet are here to serve the tourists, they have tired eyes, the tourists are a spoiled royalty, are here to enjoy the warm sun and sand, destination unspecified, the bars, covered in weed fumes, compete for attention with blasting music.

The environment is against the very idea retreat.

We meet the other participants of the retreat, the first impression is a dissonance, coming from the difference in pace, they have just arrived from the hectic reality of the western world, symptomatic with mails that neeed attention, news that have to be read, things that need doing, their presence a tight strung chord, vibrating efficiency and stress.

It is here, that I experience one of the most dangerous moments in three years of climing.

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I lay back on the crux hold, stem my body … and fall down with the enormous hold in my hands

We are having a climbing workshop with Esben Seir, one of the coolest climbers, a super dad, and Noah, his super son, I have partnered up with Li, one of the retreat participants, an energetic swiss climbing girl, Esben has motivated us to climb hard, and I am trying to clim a 6c route.

I lay back on the crux hold, stem my body … and fall down with the enormous hold in my hands.

The fall is from the first bolt, Li is standing just under me.

As I fall, the world spins around, time slows down, I think only about her fragile head, she is just under me, I manage to twist in the air, and throw the rock during the twist, the rock drops a few hands away from Li, she is unharmed.

One of the reasons why i love climbing so much, is how I connect and communicate with my guarding angel, a real presence, when i am high on the face, stepping on minimal footholds, and have to draw a deep breath for courage. Guarding angel, or intiuition, or divine presence, it is all only different words.

My heart is racing, I thank the guarding angels, that have been on duty today, for avoiding an accident, and I decide to trust my intuition,  I feel danger, I am on survival mode, I can not connect with this place, and I decide not to climb anymore.

I count the days till the end of the retreat, and the end of our exile. I am miserable among happy people, that enjoy their holidays. Maybe this is simply because i don’t find the right spots, other climbers seems to enjoy their time  here …  but i am on survival mode, and spend my energy to protect myself from the bad vibes of this peninsula, while other people explore the peninsula, and what it has to offer, the bars, the umbrella drinks, the workshop activities.

Ko Yao Noi – back to Thailand!

We pack our backpacks, kiss the move people goodbye, fill the air with wishes for happy travel, and hurry off in the early morning to catch a ferry, that sails across the strait.

We arrive on a small island, called Ko Yao Noi.

I know, that this is a paradise, a minute after stepping down from the ferry. The pulse of the island is slow and happy, we feel the friendly presence of locals with smiles, that reach their eyes, women with covered heads, men in lungis, we see rubber plantations and cows, mangrove forest and sand.

We are guests, in a traditional village, and the villagers are welcoming us.

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My gypsy soul is happy here, I enjoy the friendliness of the locals, the developing friendships,the climbing, seeing the fierce sunrises and bleeding sunsets.

The place is steaming hot, we roll from the tiny ferry to nearby “Namtok Bungalows”, a place rumored to be the climbers hangout, and are offered a clean bungalow, with running hot water. The place is so clean, and warm and welcoming, I feel, like if I have just returned to Thailand, after a week spent in tourist-plastic-hell, I feel like crying.

I enjoy being back in Thailand. The locals look at me as a person. They smile, they are gentle, they are authentic.

My gypsy soul is happy here, I enjoy the friendliness of the locals, the developing friendships, the climbing, seeing the fierce sunrises and bleeding sunsets.

To reach the climbing crags, you have either to hire a long tail boat with a bunch of friends, or to brave a potted road trough woods on a scooter.

The local food is a treat.

There is a small breakfast place where the climbers meet in the morning, to have a rice soup, and to sample the breakfast surprise packets, coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves, baked with various fruits.

The Three Sisters is a favorite hangout, there are kisses and hugs from the chatty women, they don’t seem to grow tired of correcting our faltering thai pronunciation, they serve an amazing spicy chicken salad –  lap gao, fresh coconut smoothies, and their curries come in coconut or pineapple shells.

Other nights, the kids make a campfire on the beach, we cook dinner over the fire, and lie in the sand, looking at the stars, listening to the sound of waves.

Friendship is in the air. The community of traveling climbers is small, and when meeting, saying goodbye, and happily reuniting, friendships are growing stronger.

There is Sara and Jason, my heart is filled with love for this beautiful couple, I admire their resilience, I am inspired by their way to view and share the world as we travel trough it, the respect and observant towards local customs. It is Sara that introduces us to the breakfast surprise packages, it is messages from Sara, that keep me afloat while in survival mode on Tonsai, letting me know that there is another, more beautiful world just across the strait, and that we should go there.

There is Mary and Dan, an adventurous couple from England, traveling and climbing, our travel paths have twisted and merged so many times, every meeting brings us closer together, Dan is helping out with each of our bicycle breakdowns, Mary is a tough climbing girl, seeing her on the rock inspires me to try harder.

There is Nathan, we laugh together and cheer on each other, and we get lost on a multi pitch wall, instead of a fairly easy climb, we manage to bump into the walls hardest, and i lead, involuntarily, a 6c+ beast, before Nathan battles with topping out on a 7b+ climb. We are done, as overcooked potatoes, when we get ready to abseil down, and that is probably why I end up hanging in midair, on my rope, not able to reach the wall.

Then there is Lee, the superman, than climbs up with a rope, and saves me from the torture of having to climb up on the rope using prusik knots.

When time comes to leave, it is hard to break away from this special community.

Volontourism on Asa Lanta

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We are a dozen volunteers, that have come to Asa Lanta, to help building an unspecified academy, with clay and soil, bamboo and our bare hands.

Our next stop is Ko Lanta, where we have signed up as volunteers for a sustainable building project on Asa Lanta. Anke runs this small place with dutch efficiency, while her partner supervises the construction work, we are a dozen volunteers, that have come to Asa Lanta,  to help building an unspecified academy, with clay and soil, bamboo and our bare hands.

We tramp in the mud, mix it with sawdust and water, form the mass into bricks, and bake them in the sun. The organic structure is slowly rising, it is a feeling of deep satisfaction to see visual effects of the hard work. The other volunteers are a cheerful group of people, it is an interesting meeting of many different life paths and destinations, but the owners are aloft and their smiles don’t reach their eyes.

We have to pay a contribution to come and volunteer on Asa Lanta, and when I on one of the days off work, I am spent a day sipping smoothies and chatting with Langwa,  one of the neighbours, that runs a small guest house, with a cafe, and internet.

She can’t understand, how this neighbouring Asa Lanta works, where is the stream of volunteers coming from, why are they willing to pay more for the privilege to work a week on Asa Lanta, than she is charging her customers for board and food.

– They say, volunteer, volunteer, but it is business and money! – she exclaims with indignation.

It is not a big business, but enough to make a better living, than the neighbours.

But when we find out, how much they overcharge us, in a very friendly manner, for a trip on our day off, I begin to think, that volontourism might not be the ideal match between a cause, and a willing soul, it is a cleverly branded  product, that uses our higher emotions, like empathy and compassion, to sell an experience.

Some things should not be objects of trade, like empathy and compassion.

Ko Lao Liang

The children decide to stay longer on Ko Lanta in Langwas friendly guesthouse, while I enjoy Ko Lao Liang, an exclusive climbers paradise. It is all about climbing, no roads, no cars, no electricity, the development is managed carefully by two local inspirators, there is only one resort, and a limit on the number of guests, accommodation is in tents.

I enjoy a few days of climbing, and a fantastic gang of people. The tides make the main wall unclimbable until well after lunch, which leads to a relaxed atmosphere, spent discussing how the world is, and how it should be, a discussion led by Joseph from Switzerland, a raw vegan food artist, that starts every morning by climbing into the palms, to fetch fresh coconuts.

Together with my climbing partner Henrique, we kayak around the island, the island is tiny, an hour around in kayak, the corals move in the clear water below, as we paddle silently.

Terry is one of the really inspiring characters I meet on the climbing circuit. It is only after having known her for weeks, I discover that I am taller, so powerful is her impression. I also discover, that we have been swapping climbing partners for a while, and she travels on with Henrique, to explore Tonsai further, while I have to say goodbye to climbing and Thailand for a while.

Next stop, Malaysia

Our thai visa is running out, and on it’s last day we reunite the family, and make for Satun, from where there is a local ferry to Langkawi in Malaysia. Unfortunately, the Ko Lanta ferry was delayed for several hours, and when it finally arrives, the transport time is to short, and we miss the next ferry.
We find our selves stranded for the night in the deepest of the deep south, a place travellers are warned against, because of simmering tensions, filled with curious locals, and a fabuolous night food market, where we can enjoy our last night with the wonderful thai cuisine.

While waiting for the ferry, we sell the last of our bicycles, and we can use the money to pay the one-day overstay fine, the offence settlement is a meticulous affair,  we can watch the thai characters being filled by the local police officer, while the minutes to the ferrys’s departure tick away, in the very last moment we are allowed to sign it, and having thus pleaded guilty to the crime of overstaying, we run for the ferry, and manage to leave Thailand.

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