Finally, a few night scenes from the streets of Bangkok.
Next Bangkok adventure: a trip to the weekly night market consisting entirely of hipster equipment. Who’d have guessed that Thailand has a subculture just as filled with vintage clothing/trinkets and fixed gear bicycles as the U.S.?
I’m back home now but still have a few adventures to blog about. My computer broke while I was in China, but I’m all set with a new one now. These last few blogs might be brief but I want to finish what I started anyway.
I rolled into Bangkok to a warm welcome and a visit to the Grand Palace. We rode our bikes through the busy Bangkok traffic to get there, an adventure in itself.
Unfortunately, it’s been so long since I visited that I remember nothing about the history or significance of the Grand Palace. Enjoy a few photos anyway.
After the first day of snorkeling/kayaking at Hong island, I took it easy for almost a week with new friends at the Pak-up Hostel. This hostel is amazing; think college dorm on steroids. A living space with comfortable beds, powerful showers, even trendy minimalist decor, populated by hordes of beautiful young (mostly western) travelers, and not one but two bars built right in to the hostel. Oh, and beds were $7/night. It’s not the kind of place that would justify a trip around the world on it’s own, but at the time it was a very welcome change from isolation in Sumatra. Activities for the week included soccer games with the locals, listening to an amazing Thai guitarist, and lots of masaman curry.
The hostel was great, but I had my sights set on one more big-ticket activity before leaving: deep water solo rock climbing. ‘Solo’ rock climbing is climbing without protective gear like ropes and harnesses. Normally this is indisputably insane, but when performed over deep water the activity becomes acceptable territory for run-of-the-mill adrenaline junkies. I may not be a true card-carrying member of that group, but I had to try deep water soloing because it’s so unique. There aren’t too many places in the world that have the right conditions.
Just to spice things up, I decided to start my deep water solo day with a dawn climb up the 1237 steps to Tiger Temple. I set out on my bike for the 5 mile ride at 4:30am, and after a few wrong turns in the dark found my way to the stairs. The really serious stairs; we’re talking significantly better than a 45 degree angle most of the way up. I was befriended by a stray dog at the bottom of the stairs who followed me all the way up, braving roving bands of malicious monkeys to reach the incredible view on top. Since I was alone, I made it a workout (17 minutes, 1.2 stairs/second, oh yeah!) and ended up at the top with a huge sweat.
On the way down the mountain, I ran into four girls I knew from Pak-up hostel. I met two of them near the top. Looking harried, they said that the other two girls with them had turned back after monkeys attacked, stealing all the food they’d brought with them. I didn’t witness the battle, but I can imagine it was terrifying. The monkeys are seriously scary. On the way up, I’d passed two groups of about 20 monkeys. They just sit on the railings of the narrow stairs watching as you pass, close enough to reach out and touch them on both sides, sometimes baring their teeth and sometimes running along behind you for a few yards. I met the other girls near the bottom and they confirmed the story. Kudos to the others for carrying on in the face(s) of scores of angry monkeys.
Originally deep water solo climbing had sounded to me like a fun, safe way to try climbing without the restrictive ropes. In reality, all but the lowest routes here are are high enough that water doesn’t look so safe anymore. A height that would be fine to jump from is not fine to fall from after missing a grip on the wall and tumbling into an awkward bell-side flop. This place would really be better appreciated by certain of my other family members (just about all of them, honestly), but at least David was there taking full advantage. I took it easy and didn’t try any difficult climbing moves except low down by the water. I did take some of the easier routes up to jump a couple of times.
I got off to a strong start in Krabi Town by taking a boat tour including snorkeling and kayaking around the stunning limestone cliff islands and lagoons.
Later after the boat tour, I checked out the market in Krabi Town.
Heading out of Hat Yai the next morning after my unexpected night tour of downtown, I had an eventful bus ride to Krabi.
I was crammed into the back of a white minibus for the five hour drive. Since the bus was crowded and I had a middle seat, I could barely see outside the bus. There was a curtain over the left window with just a crack where I could see the road flashing by, and another gap between the heads in front to the windshield.
After few hours fat raindrops started pounding the roof of the van. The storm was over in ten minutes but ten minutes of rain here delivers the same volume of water as a week or two of Seattle drizzle. That rainstorm led to possibly the most shocking five minutes of my life.
After the storm I felt the van drift right to avoid something blocking our lane. I craned my neck to see through the gap in the curtain. Though the road outside was flashing by, every detail of the scene was shockingly clear. First a motorcycle on its side on the shoulder of the road, then a split second later a man lying face down on the pavement. There was no helmet on his head.
We continued driving. The van was silent for the next thirty seconds, then discussion broke out. I felt ashamed that we hadn’t stopped. There was probably nothing we could do for the man, but at least we could have directed traffic around the accident. I considered yelling up to the driver to stop, but I did not. I have seen a culture throughout Asia of avoiding involvement with accidents for fear of being, at best, entangled with corrupt police and legal systems and at worst, outright blamed for the accident. But this was my first time experiencing the decision first hand. Someone in the van had at least called the police.
I don’t know for sure what happened to the man, but we were driving on a big highway with fast traffic. Face down, no helmet, no movement; not much cause for hope.
Just minutes later, emotions were still high in the van when I saw a dump truck change from the left to the right lane about two hundred meters in front of our minivan. This was one of those giant dump trucks that has an extra trailer hitched behind, and both truck beds were piled high with giant rocks. The truck moved to the right lane, but it didn’t stop. Through the gap in heads up front, I watched as the truck went into a slide, crossing both lanes of oncoming traffic and sliding further across a grassy clearing beside the road before slamming into the palm trees. The impact caused several big trees to snap and fall down over top of the truck towards the road.
I’m grateful that our minivan escaped unscathed from the rainstorm carnage, but we had problems of our own before reaching Krabi. Check out what happened to our left rear tire a bit further down the road.
I took a train north from Georgetown, Malaysia hoping to make it all the way to Krabi Town, Thailand in one day. It was not to be. After a successful border crossing, where the train stopped for 20 minutes and we all filed out to have our passports stamped, I ended up in Hat Yai too late to catch the connecting bus. I didn’t have a guide book with me, so I just started walking around Hat Yai hoping to stumble on a hostel.
Instead I stumbled upon Gavin and Drew, a couple of white guys drinking at an outdoor cafe. They gave me good advice about hostels and then invited me to have a beer with them. That invitation turned my few hours in Hat Yai into a fascinating glimpse of expatriate life in Thailand.
Drew and Gavin are both British guys teaching English in Hat Yai. Hat Yai is the biggest city in southern Thailand, a butt ugly transportation hub tourists would only visit when they’re stranded like I was. Drew is Welsh and happily married to a Thai woman. Or at least I think he was happy. To hear him tell it, their marriage consists of endless arguments about money (his), shopping (hers), food (theirs), and beer (his), but he never stopped smiling when he told us about it. Gavin is single. He was quiet through most of the conversation with Drew and I, and I couldn’t get a read on him until after Drew decided to call it a night and head back into battle with his wife.
It turns out Gavin is very smart and a great observer of people, a skill he has been exercising in Thailand for years. It seems he’d just waiting for the chance to share his observations with someone else. I was lucky enough to be that person for a night. Gavin speaks pretty decent Thai and he learned it all on the internet and from talking to people. Amazing. He is mostly quiet during group conversations, and when he does take a turn to talk it takes the form of intelligent streams of thought that last just a little longer than they should.
After our beer was finished Gavin offered to take me around for the evening and show me the town. Though he’s living there long term, Gavin stays at a hostel and I just got a room at the same place. Then we headed out for a tour of downtown Hat Yai.
The first stop was a noodle shop where I enjoyed my first Thai meal since December. I couldn’t feel my tongue afterward but it was amazing even after Georgetown cuisine. When Gavin chatted with the waitress, I discovered his self-taught Thai skills. He was modest and to prove how easy it was he launched into a lengthy explanation of how to read Thai by pointing at and reading the signs around the restaurant. I was impressed but unfortunately still could not read Thai even after his explanation.
Gavin was in Hat Yai in 2006 when some southern Thai Muslim extremists bombed the city. Not only was he in the city, he was right in the action. He mentioned this casually in conversation over noodles. I think it went something like “So after we’re finished eating I’ll take you to the pub where all the guys usually hang out. Maybe there will be a football game on. We’ll take a right at the corner where the bomb went off, then head down toward the night market…do you want to stop at the pub or head around the block first?”
Naturally I responded with “Wait, a bomb?” And that’s how I learned about the Hat Yai bombings. As promised, we walked right by the corner where the bomb went off. The first bomb, that is. Gavin took me through the play by play of 2006. “I was sitting in this cafe”, and he points, “when we all heard the noise.” Gavin decided to go investigate and as he walked down the street, the second bomb went off just half a block away. “Right there, on a motorcycle,” he pointed back up the street the way we’d just come. “And then, when I turned to go take shelter in the coffee shop, the third bomb went off right across the street, there.” Again, he points. “I was standing right here, where we are now.” I am stunned. He is pointing literally across the street, and about 20 yards down on the opposite side. “I think that one was on a tuk-tuk, but it might have been another motorcycle.”
“The Canadian who died in the attacks was standing right there.” Another jaw-dropping piece of information; Gavin is pointing just 10 feet in front of us. “And you were standing here, where we are now?” I asked, just to confirm. Gavin is telling me this information as a lecture, deadpan, the same way he’d tried to explain Thai writing in the restaurant. He nodded. “I think it was shrapnel from the bike that caught him. Unlucky.”
As I attempt to process this information, we reached the pub he’d told me about earlier. As promised, ‘the guys’ are out watching football, a big final match between Liverpool and Cardiff City.
Two of the more memorable characters were Larry and Big Bad Bill. Big Bad Bill was the quiet guy in the corner filling two chairs with his girth. His luscious white beard and flowing ponytail complemented his black biker style t-shirt, leather jacket, and baseball cap. He and Larry were the only two Americans in the room. Both were Vietnam vets and (more recently) retirees. Larry easily won the respectability contest at first with his full head of neatly trimmed white hair, professional glasses, and a button up shirt. He asked me about myself, commended me for going into engineering, but then ruined his kindly grandfather image when he started saying naughty things about Thai girls. Oh well.
Everyone I met that night had an interesting story, and the best part was getting their side of the story and then Gavin’s behind the scenes analysis of their psychological state. Usually the extra information had to do with their Thai girlfriend status: everyone is either looking for one, has one and is happy, or has had one and had their heart broken and/or lost money somehow. Names have been changed but even so I will say no more here for fear of incriminating the innocent. Also, this all happened a month ago and my memory is foggy.
Gavin and I made our way back to the hostel and went to sleep. I caught my bus the next day and never got his contact information. Gavin, if you’re out there you know who you are. Give me a shout! That was a great night; without you, my memory of Hat Yai would have faded into random-hostel-bed obscurity.
Georgetown was awesome. The food alone was amazing, and I was also starting to feel back on the beaten travel track, a welcome change after starting to feel isolated in Indonesia. I only stayed one night, so I ate twice as much as usual to take full advantage of food other than boring fried Indonesian food.
Once again I’m very behind in blogging, so first a quick update on my current whereabouts. I’ve been in Bangkok for a week and a half now trying to book a Chinese visa and taking a bit of a vacation from traveling. I’m staying with a friend in luxury – I even have a guest membership to a gym in downtown Bangkok! If all goes smoothly with the visa (fingers crossed), I will pick it up tomorrow afternoon and fly to Shenzhen tomorrow evening. From there, I’ll take the overnight bus to Yangshuo, one of the most beautiful places in China and one I visited too briefly in 2007. When I get there, I’ll be finished moving around for a while. I’ve signed up for Chinese classes in Yangshuo. If the classes are good, I’ll stay there for at least a month. There’s all kinds of stuff to do there, mostly outdoors stuff like rock climbing and hiking, plus there are lots of travelers going through all the time. It should be a perfect balance between working on my Chinese and relaxing, without being too isolated.
Now, back to where I left off in Sumatra…
Back in Bukittinggi for just a night on my way to the Padang airport, I decided to try the Hotel Dahlia out instead of returning to the Orchid hotel. I’d met the Chinese-Indonesian woman who runs the place and liked her, plus it seemed clean and about the same price as the Orchid. They tried to sell me on a nicer, more expensive room at first, but when I didn’t want it they just gave it to me anyway for a huge discount, barely more than the bare bones budget room.
My plane left at the awkward time of 8:30am the morning of Friday February 24th from the Padang airport. The Padang airport is pretty new and was built a terribly long way from both the city of Padang and even farther from Bukittinggi. To save money on early morning transport to the airport, when public cheap transportation is not running, and avoid waking up any earlier than necessary, I decided to make my way toward the airport Thursday evening. The only downside is that no one knew exactly where I could stay. The guides in Bedudal were pretty sure there was something available about 5km away on the highway, so I took them at their word and had my minivan drop me in a random spot on the street when we were about that far out. It was already getting dark so I just walked along asking people if there was a place to stay nearby.
I walked just a few hundred meters before I found a place. It was not ideal, but you can’t really be picky when you’ve been left on the side of the road at dusk. The room was windowless, super hot and stuffy, and it looked like someone dirty had taken a bath right in the mandi. There must have been something amazing in that water though, or maybe in the food scraps that guests had been leaving behind, because the rat in my room was not only extra large, it had superpowers.
After checking in, I left my room to go for a walk. When I came back I opened the door, turned on the light, and watched this rat run along the floor to the wall, along the wall to the corner, then keep running right up the wall through a hole in the ceiling. He never slowed down, it was like the wall was just an extension of the floor.
But a little rat, or even a big one, never stopped me from getting a good night’s sleep. I was up at the crack of dawn the next morning and took a motorbike taxi to the airport. Mission save money, accomplished.
After flying to Kuala Lumpur, I just had 12 hours to see the city until my overnight train to Georgetown (a colonial town on the Malaysian island of Penang). Without any time to waste, I made my way straight to the Petronas Twin Towers, the highest building(s?) in Malaysia.
Unfortunately the tickets were all sold out for the day to go up in the towers (it’s a real office building and they have a daily limit for tourists). Anyway, the tickets only let you go up to the level of the skybridge linking the two buildings. A little anticlimactic if you ask me; that bridge is only 2/3 of the way up.
Luckily there’s another option for viewing KL at elevation: the KL tower, which was fitting for me since it bears a striking resemblance to the space needler.
While I was taking photos at the base of the twin towers, a woman asked me to help her out by taking her photo and we started talking. She was also traveling alone so we decided to team up to see the KL tower.
Mila took pity on my sweaty self, who hadn’t showered since leaving Bukittinggi, and invited me back to her presidential hotel suite (she’d been upgraded free after stirring things up with the hotel staff). Thanks to her, I had the pleasure of a luxurious shower before I had to get on my night train. She also fed me Italian bread and sausage. What a champion! It was like having a mom for the day.
Freshly showered, I wanted to see the towers at night. My plane didn’t leave until later that evening so I had time, and as expected they were even more photogenic with all those lights.
I love the night train and this one was no exception. It’s so easy to sleep with the train rocking and clacking along. This one was a little lacking in the storage department though, so I had to share my bed with both of my backpacks.
I slept like a baby even with the space constraints and popped up around dawn the next morning at Butterworth station. The train stops on the mainland across from Georgetown, so I had to catch the very convenient ferry just a quick walk from the train station.
Monday, armed with long pants, I headed back to the same trail where I’d been with the Aussies on my first hike in the Harau Valley. The road ends at some shops under three beautiful waterfalls and the trail continues on up the canyon as it narrows and eventually ends.
This time, instead of taking the right-hand trail when it forks near the top, I chose left. I had a suspicion that this trail would connect with the other trail I’d been walking on for my solo hike. I wanted to make the connection and come back down to the valley floor by a different path than I’d come up. Remembering where the trail had become indistinct in the gambir fields, I wasn’t sure if I would recognize it coming from a different direction. If it got confusing, I planned to turn around and retrace my steps to get down.
The trail at the top was well worn. There were other trails branching off at several places, but it was never a question which was the main trail. For extra help, someone had been there before with some red paint. Occasionally a tree would be marked red, presumably to signal that this is the main trail. When other trails branched off, if the other trail was big they had painted a red ‘x’ on the wrong trail. Very convenient for navigating, but if you are considering this hike, don’t assume you’ll be so lucky.
With such nice trail markings, it only took an hour or so to reach a place I recognized from my previous hike. Instead of following it all the way to where I knew I would find the viewpoint benches and the red clay trail leading down, I decided to explore a smaller trail branching off the main one that also seemed to head down the mountain. It was steeper and led into a really wild canyon, with the limestone cliffs overhanging the stream in places. Lower down, the trail and the stream were one and the same, so I had to hop from rock to rock. But eventually, I came to another waterfall that I recognized. Here, the smaller trail joined back up with the one I’d gone up a few days previously.
I was already finished with the trail I’d chosen but still wanted more, so when I returned to Abdi I just kept walking. I passed the waterfall that’s just behind Abdi and followed the base of the cliff as it curved into the next valley over. This trail was very muddy, but I pushed through anyway and came to another canyon after walking just 15 minutes from Abdi. The trail leading into this canyon was not as nice as the one I’d taken earlier, but I suspected it might lead to the top. The set of cliffs nearest to Abdi leads to an upper plateau entirely unconnected to the one I’d been exploring in my previous hikes, and the explorer in me wanted to conquer this plateau as well.
There was a trail, but not much of one. It led over an exposed rock face where I had to use all fours, then up to another incredible spot where the towering limestone was overhanging the trail. This place was amazing – water from above was just trickling down, in a waterfall dispersed over 10 meters and falling directly on the trail. The water was so slight is was more like rain than a waterfall. I walked through the drizzle, but above the trail got even more difficult. It looked like there had been a small landslide here. The canyon got very narrow and I picked my way up, but eventually I was stuck. I could reach out on both sides and touch the walls, and above there was a tree root. I nearly turned around, but in the end I hoisted myself up by grabbing the tree root above my head and scrambling up the walls.
Above this toughest spot, it took me a while to find the upward trail again. I followed one laterally along the side of the slope hoping it would head up again at some point, but no luck. I backtracked, continued bushwhacking up just a bit longer, and did connect again with a small trail there.
Again, before long I was walking through an even more spectacular section where I had to hop from rock to rock in a small stream, where the water was drizzling down from above. This one was much longer, at least 50 meters. The rocks at the bottom were very clean and shiny from being drizzled on all the time, and looked very nice with some deep red colors and white quartz. I’m kicking myself now because I didn’t take any photos. At the time I didn’t want to because the camera would get wet, but I’m sure I could have found a solution.
Near the top the trail got very steep again but there were plenty of small trees I could use to pull myself up. I crested and emerged into a gambir field. Unfortunately, no great views at the top of this one.
It was getting close to dark so I didn’t have long, but I followed a trail along the top for 30 minutes or so through fields. This plateau was much more cultivated than the other, covered mostly with gambir fields interspersed with patches of jungle. I wanted to find a different way down as I’d done on previous walks, but I guess I can’t be so lucky on every attempt. I ran out of time before I found another trail down or even a nice view. I backtracked to get down before dark, managing to find an alternate route around the really hairy spot where I’d had to employ acrobatics on the way up.