Reflecting on Thailand: The Imperfect Art of Travel

I was wide awake, too scared to sleep, crammed on a bus full of backpackers. It was the middle of the night, and we were moving entirely too fast for such a big bus on such a small road. I was somewhere in the middle of a jungle headed South in Thailand.

Two years before, Andrew and I decided Thailand looked like an awesome place to climb. I don’t remember when it went from “wouldn’t it be cool to go there?” to “We’re doing this.” But, after over a year of saving, I was sitting on a sketchy bus, in the middle of the night, headed from Bangkok to Krabi. Our plan to take the sleeper train did not take into account that it was the Chinese Holiday—one of the busiest weekends in Thailand—tickets were sold-out. Our choices were hanging around Bangkok for a few more days or take a bus to the islands instead. Even though the guidebooks warned against it, we chose bus.

Everything the guidebooks said where true. Andrew and I sat together, our knees near our chest, because our luggage was taking up all the leg-room. We knew better than to leave our climbing gear and valuables in the storage area. Andrew had fallen asleep, but I continued to stare out the window, wondering how much smaller a two lane road could get. Nothing but small houses and trees would zoom by me for miles, and then out of no where, huge golden statues of Buddha, as big as a two-story building, or a beautiful temple, would appear. I’d only have a few seconds to take it all in. Afterwards, I’d look around the bus, to see if anyone else noticed what I’d just seen. It seemed like everyone was sleeping, except for me.

When the bus would stop, the driver would yell something none of us really understood. The driver and crew would come through the bus, point at the stickers on our shirts and tell people to get off. The confused backpackers would stumble off the bus, half asleep, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere.  Before we knew it, we’ were off again.

We were the last group to get off the bus. I figured our bus adventures were over, but before I knew it, I was being herded to another one. The second bus didn’t feel as sketchy as the first—maybe I was too tired to care or maybe I was just getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. At 7:30 am, after over twelve hours on buses, we caught a glimpse of the first limestone cliffs, peeking out from the fog. The bus came to life with whispers. We were one van ride and a long-tail fishing boat ride away from Railay Beach. Andrew and I decided that the first thing we would do, (after finding a place to stay in TonSai) would be to buy plane tickets back to Bangkok. Now that we had survived, we appreciated this stressful adventure, but one-way was enough.

Our first glimpse of the limestone towers.

I got my first glimpse of Railay beach and immediately realized how touristy it really was. Unlike most of the families and couples staying on Railay Beach, there to soak in the sun and enjoy air-conditioned rooms, we were there to climb.  The climbers and backpackers usually stay across the peninsula at TonSai. Unless it’s low-tide, TonSai and Railay are divided by a steep but short scramble. From Railay, we started up the ‘Jungle path’, towards TonSai. I lugged my heavy backpack over rocks and mud, leaving the sun-burned tourists behind. I didn’t say much as I tried to just take in the view and process that I’d actually made it.

We walked further up hill, into the jungle, and away from the beach, where the cheaper places to stay in TonSai are. Our little bungalow for twenty-five dollars a night, with no air conditioning, and cold showers was nearly perfect.  The occasional sounds of a bat that came from somewhere in the ceiling, the fan that only worked occasionally, and the little slug that hung out in the bathroom never really bothered us. The seclusion we felt from being away from the beach scene was priceless.

Our little bungalow

We spent the following morning buying plane tickets and wondering around trying to take it all in. TonSai is a climber’s paradise. Cheap places to stay, giant limestone cliffs, beach bars that play reggae music day and night and the best cheap food you’ll ever eat (a bold statement, but I believe it). I wondered what the families, just across the way, at Railay must think of TonSai. Most of them turned off by the steep scramble and others, I guessed, by the amount of dreadlocks. Occasionally I noticed Railay tourists who would venture over, but when they did, they didn’t explore long enough to find the little places that make TonSai so great. Little shacks, serving the most amazing food, sit tucked away behind the main beach bars and restaurants in TonSai. I couldn’t decide if I felt bad or a little pleasure knowing that the Railay folks were paying too much for hotel food, while I had some of the best cheap food of my life.

Our favorite place to eat.

That evening we set our sights on what we’d really come for, the climbing.

As soon as we started talking about Thailand, I began looking at routes online. One specific route caught my eye, the climb was called Groove Tube. Rated somewhere around 5.9, which isn’t that hard compared to most of the routes in Thailand; it called to me. The tube-shaped rock was aesthetic and unique, I had to try it.

We went directly to Groove Tube for our first climb in Thailand. A party of five had just started climbing, so I sat shoo–ing mosquitoes and watching them laugh their way up the route. They didn’t speak English, but I knew they were having a blast.

Andrew asked if I wanted to climb something else while we waited for Groove Tube, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the route. It was “mine” next.

When the group finished, it was our turn. I suggested earlier that Andrew climb it first, see how it was, and then we’d pull the rope down and I would lead it. Andrew must have known I couldn’t wait that long, so he offered the climb to me. I didn’t stop to think about it, I just tied in.

I’m not the bravest lead climber. I never lead anything harder than 5.8, even though I climb a few grades higher. It scares me. This time, it felt different. I felt calm. I wasn’t thinking about falling, I was just thinking about climbing. When I realized that my sweat was blinding me and my hands were slippery (something that never happens in Colorado) I got a little nervous near the top, but it was just enough to make me want to finish it more. When I got to the anchors a sense of accomplishment washed over me. I came down, all smiles. Andrew led the climb next, and lowered down, just before it started to rain.

I spent the rest of the evening smiling and acting giddy. I’d randomly blurt out “Yay, I climbed Groove Tube!” mid-dinner and Andrew would smile and congratulate me.

Coming out of the tunnel, entering the tube.

Sitting at my computer, reflecting on the trip and the experiences, I realized I climbed harder routes then Groove Tube, saw beautiful things, and ate yummy food; yet my mind still wanders back to that climb.  I didn’t realize why that climb meant something more to me until I got home. It was the point in our trip, where I realized I’d made it to Thailand. I stared at that same route online for so long, thinking “I have to climb that someday,” and to see it come to fruition meant a lot. All of the planning, over a year of saving, three planes, two sketchy buses, one van, and a fishing boat later—my dream had become reality.

Thailand taught me that the beauty of travel is that it pushes you out of your comfort zone. I wouldn’t take back any of the uncomfortable moments on the trip. If it had flown two and half hours down to the beaches instead of sitting on a crammed bus for twelve hours, I wouldn’t have seen some of the most beautiful sights of my life. If I had stayed in the air-conditioned rooms, without the bat that woke me up every morning, I may have missed out on the sounds of monkeys and birds and the seclusion felt “up the hill” in TonSai. If I had been too afraid to lead Groove Tube and given the lead to Andrew, I would have missed out on the sense of accomplishment I got from reaching the anchors. Even though it took coming home to realize it, each uncomfortable moment is what made the trip absolutely perfect.


7 thoughts on “Reflecting on Thailand: The Imperfect Art of Travel

  1. Like Totti says, if everything goes smoothly, you won’t remember it as well as when things go differently than what you planned….or something along those lines. But anyway, I’m glad you got the travel/adventure gene. Have a blast! So proud of you.
    Aunt Audie

  2. This brings back some pretty good memories of being in Thailand a few years ago. I didn’t get to climb, but I got to see some wonderful lines all over Railay. I’d love to give it a shot again. Southern Thailand is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, with some of the best food and nicest people. Hopefully I can go back. Thanks for posting.

  3. What an awesome writing of your reflection Whitney. Your story of accomplishment gave me chill bumps (in a good way!) So happy you could experience this trip with my son….. and I hope you enjoy many more adventures together!

  4. You have a great gift with words. Thank you for not writing that until after we knew you were home safe and sound, tho! Really glad you guys had the trip of your dreams and that it turned out as perfectly as you imagined.

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