“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn‟t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I TOOK AN OVERNIGHT BUS from Ipoh northwards to Hat Yai, a town on the Thai side of the Thailand/Malaysia border. Whilst in the queue at immigration, I accidentally broke wind (must have been the long bus ride). To my dismay, who should be behind me, but a bespectacled middle-aged Buddhist monk in full saffron robes! Shit! Hopefully, I’ve got enough credit in my karmic account to bode me well in Thailand, the “Land of Smiles‟.
Geographically, Thailand is at the heart of the South-East Asian region; it’s bordered by Malaysia to the south, Cambodia to the east, Myanmar to the west and north, and Laos to the north and to the east. It‟s a large country with more than 62m people and is probably the most popular backpacking destination in the world. About 75% of the population is ethnically Thai, 14% of Chinese origin, and 3% ethnically Malay; the remaining 8% accounts for minority groups including Khmers and various hill tribes. The ethnically Thai speak the official language of Thailand, Thai, which is part of the Kradai language family, as distinct from the Austro-Asiatic language family. This distinction is one of the main differences between the Thais and the Cambodians who are mostly ethnically Khmer and whose language, Khmer, is part of the Austro-Asiatic language family.
My first impression of Thailand (Hat Yai at least) was that it was much more chaotic than Malaysia. It was early morning (about 7.30am) but already it was steamily hot. The water on the streets was already drying and I noticed dead cockroaches on the pavements. Tuk-tuks, buses and motorbikes were already honking and beeping down the narrow streets. Vendors were already on the street trying to entice you in for breakfast. There‟s not much in Hat Yai though; it‟s really just a border town that‟s used as a jumping off point for heading to the islands further north and to Malaysia and Singapore to the south. I decided to leave as soon as I could, and when buying a bus ticket out, I stumbled over the currency exchange adjustments; going from the easy mental currency exchange of Malaysian Ringgits to Sterling to working out the (slightly more taxing) Thai Baht (TB) to Sterling rate of about 55TB to 1GBP. Within an hour of arriving in Hat Yai, I was in a minibus headed northwards to Krabi.
The minibus looked like it had been through an episode on the Thai version of MTV‟s Pimp My Ride; its seats were fully decked out in beige leather, there was an extensive stereo system with multiple speakers, a large flat screen monitor, a mini-fridge and tinted windows. The other passengers were middle-aged Thai women who immediately grabbed a couple of song catalogues. Thirty seconds later, the first ballad came on screen and there followed two hours of full-blooded karaoke love songs! (Unfortunately, there weren’t any English songs, because of course I was mad keen to show these girls how it was done (ahem)). Karaoke, evidently, is immensely popular in Thailand and it definitely brightens up a bus journey.
Krabi (pronounced Gra-bee) is a town on the Andaman Coast, on the West Coast of Thailand. Krabi Province is known as the global Mecca for the sport of rock climbing, where enthusiasts come from all over the world to test their mettle on the famous limestone cliffs, and the epicentre of Krabi climbing is at Railay beach. Never having rock climbed before, and seeing as I was in one of the finest sites for the sport, I simply had to give it a try. To get there, I took a traditional Thai long boat from Ao Nang, a beach near Krabi Town. Ao Nang was my first sighting of the Andaman Coast, famed for its beauty. The beach at Ao Nang is massive; it’s a beach that absolutely blew me away; the bay must be nearly a kilometre wide. The jetty in the centre is at least 500m long and just goes straight out into the deepest blue sea you’ve ever seen, and, in the distance, are more limestone karsts and islands, just poking out of the waters.
Railay itself was no less beautiful; it has almost the perfect beach: blindingly white sands gently curling round to forested limestone cliffs on either side, with mirror-still blue waters and moored longboats bobbing gently on the sea: idyllic. This was the beach where I was going to start learning how to climb. Much like Bolivia, health and safety is fairly broad-brush here in Thailand! It‟s just put your harness on, slip the rope into your harness with a quickly demonstrated figure-of-eight knot, pat some chalk on your hands, and off you go! At its simplest, rock climbing is about scaling a rock-face to a projected target. The rope you‟re attached to is connected up the rock-face through drilled-in hooks and, eventually, near your target, it goes through a final hook and comes all the way back down to another climber who acts as the anchor in what is, effectively, a pulley system. The rope doesn‟t hoist you up to the target but it does act as a safety net. Just getting started is often tricky as you have to heave yourself onto the first bit of rock, which due to erosion, is often six feet clear of the ground. You find nooks and crannies in the rock for your hands and feet. It’s generally easy enough to remain stationary as both your hands and your feet have secure holds in the rock. Some people describe climbing as similar to chess, in that it’s strategic, tactical and requires forward planning at each step. It‟s moving to the next correct position and so on up the rock-face that can be so demanding! Routes vary in difficulty according to the distance between holds, the depth of those holds and the overall gradient of the cliff. As to technique, you‟re supposed to rely more heavily on your feet for upward propulsion than your hands; easier said than done! By the end of my first successful climb to about 15m, my hands and forearm muscles were seriously aching! By the end of my third successful climb (this time to about 25m), the muscles in my hands and fingers were shot to pieces and I could no longer sustain any weight on my fingers at all. I couldn’t even apply any pressure when shaking my instructor’s hand goodbye!