« November 2007 | Main | January 2008 »

December 25, 2007

Ton Sai Climbing Photos

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/22 at 11:11 [CIMG4464]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/24 at 10:35 [CIMG4552]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/24 at 12:38 [CIMG4571]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/24 at 13:02 [CIMG4575]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/24 at 13:39 [CIMG4602]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/24 at 18:12 [CIMG4630]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/23 at 16:45 [CIMG4538]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/24 at 13:05 [CIMG4578]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/24 at 13:06 [CIMG4581]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/24 at 20:07 [CIMG4636]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/24 at 20:50 [CIMG4641]

December 22, 2007

Rock Climbing in Ton Sai, Thailand

We moved to the Andaman coast of Thailand, by overnight sleeper boat from Ko Tao to Sura-Thani, minibus and bus to Krabi, pickup truck to Ao Nang and finally by longboat to Ton Sai, Railey's little cousin where the living is easy and life revolves around the rock climbing. Bordered by the sea and cliffs, accessible only by boat, and thus "off the grid", this is reputed to be the most beautiful beach in Thailand. We have to agree.

Over 700 routes have been set up the dozens of vertical cliffs (karsts) covered in lush tropical vegetation that seem to pop out of nowhere straight up for a hundred meters. Everywhere you look, people are climbing the rock faces, overhangs and stalagtites of limestone. If you're lucky, you are humbled by a large family of monkeys scaling the rocks as effortlessly as we'd walk on flat ground.

Our friends Mike and Malani "showed us the ropes" today, and we both successfully scaled our first vertical faces dozens of meters up. Exhausted after 5 hours of on and off climbing, the bathwater-hot sea beckoned us for a soak and float, looking up at the cliffs and westward towards the setting sun.

We'll be in the area for Christmas and Joanne's birthday, mixing between rock climbing, exploring the mangrove forests by kayak, and maybe even hiring an elephant for a jungle trek...

Happy Holidays to you all!

December 17, 2007

Ko Tao Bungalow

The place we're staying in is a dream. We pay 450 Baht per day ($15) for a private beach bungalow right on the beach – as in just 3 or 4 meters from the water at high tide.

An outstanding meal big enough to share of Thai curry with vegetables and tofu and a heap of steamed rice goes for 50 Baht ($1.70). If we're hungry, we add a spicy Thai salad or Tom Kha Gai soup (coconut milk soup with pineapple, chicken, veggies) for another 50 Baht ($1.70). It's easy to spend very little here.

Check out the photo set on flickr, or perhaps more interestingly, see them laid out on a map

Morning Balcony View in Ko Tao, Thailand

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/11 at 17:17 [CIMG4343]
Good morning from Ko Tao, a small lush island that is home to 5500 inhabitants, and a part of Samui archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand.

We have just woken to the peaceful sounds of the water gently lapping against the shore, intermingled by cheerful bird songs. We lay in bed for a short while taking it all in as we slowly rouse into our morning. What a stark contrast to the screaming traffic of Thailand's cosmopolitan capital Bangkok, where we first set foot after Taiwan.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/11 at 16:48 [CIMG4337]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/11 at 17:21 [CIMG4344]

Nature's symphony invites us outdoors. Paul dons his swimsuit and heads straight for the water. The tide is still low, so the sand caresses his feet for the 6 or so steps between our bungalow and the sea before he dives straight into the shallow, crystal clear water, letting his body float to the surface.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/16 at 17:43 [CIMG4370]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/10 at 12:15 [CIMG4309]
After a while, he emerges looking relaxed and ready to embark in another productive day working on his web site: iTools. After changing out of his swimsuit, with laptop in hand, he strolls slowly towards the cafe where his dreams and visions of recreating iTools are turning into reality.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/16 at 14:35 [CIMG4360]
This is all observed as I sit in a bamboo chair on the balcony of our beach bungalow just a few feet away. The bungalow sits on stilts 2 feet above the sand. The balcony is made of slats of wood that are an inch or so apart from each other. The singing birds come to visit under foot in search of crumbs that have fallen. It is not uncommon to be visited by the occasional rooster or stray dog as well.

The sights to be appreciated from our balcony don't stop there:

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/12 at 09:17 [CIMG4354]
Off in the distance there are a dozen or so boats anchored in the tranquil bay. Most are long boats (over sized canoes with small gas engines mounted on the back, attached to a propeller by a 20 foot shaft). The other boats are for diving as Ko Tao is the mecca where people come to get scuba certified.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/11 at 17:39 [CIMG4347]
Also visible, just 1 kilometer off the northwestern coast is Ko Nang Yuan, three very rustic, undeveloped islands that are joined together by a sand bar.

We had the pleasure of knowing these islands up close and personal after swimming to them one day - much to our surprise - through jellyfish inhabited waters. We could not see them, but the intermittent stream of little stingers kissing our bodies made their presence undeniable.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/11 at 12:46 [CIMG4323]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/11 at 18:10 [CIMG4352]

A few dozen other unassuming bungalows can be seen in the hills at the end of the curving bay blending into the landscape of a tropical forest broken by enormous boulders.

As I sit peacefully on our balcony taking it all in, I suddenly realize: the waters are calling me too. What a beautiful way to wake up.

Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, Thailand

We enjoyed the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok with our travel partners, Mike and Malani

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/08 at 10:06 [CIMG4257]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/08 at 11:11 [CIMG4263]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/08 at 12:36 [CIMG4273]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/08 at 15:26 [CIMG4282]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/08 at 19:22 [CIMG4287]

December 16, 2007

Beyond Taiwan's Stereotypes

Photo: Photo taken 2007/11/28 at 18:44 [CIMG3799]
When many think of Taiwan, images of grand scale factories pumping all manner of goods that receive the" Made in Taiwan" tags come to mind. But venture out of the bustling metropolis of Taipei, down the mountainous eastern shore of the island and one marvel after another unfolds before you.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 17:48 [CIMG3988]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 17:52 [CIMG3990]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 17:52 [CIMG3992]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 17:57 [CIMG3997]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 17:58 [CIMG3999]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 18:02 [CIMG4001]

As the high speed train pulls out of Taipei station, it leaves behind the world's tallest building, the 101-story Taipei 101. It rolls southward past water-soaked rice fields being turned over by man and ox. The contrast presented by mounting a train for 30 minutes is stunning.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/11/29 at 19:07 [CIMG3886]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/11/30 at 23:51 [CIMG3978]

Before I can absorb the change from city to farmland, another vista is painted through the train windows: the magnificent coastline. Our appetites for scenery are wet by the time we disembark three hours later in Hualien. We rent a couple of motorbikes and continue down the scenic road hugging the coastline towards Taitung. Dramatic mountains of marble covered by lush vegetation plunge from great heights straight down into the ocean, which pounds them relentlessly with waves that throw up enormous splashes as they meet.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 20:18 [CIMG4032]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 20:21 [CIMG4034]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 22:15 [CIMG4061]

The road's mere existence along the vertical rock and beside the tsunami-battered shore is impressive. Sometimes seeming to hang right off the edge of the island, sometimes plowing right through solid rock, the roads and tunnels we traveled on two wheels granted us a view of Taiwan's grandiose, and often overlooked beauty.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 17:33 [CIMG3986]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 19:27 [CIMG4008]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 19:33 [CIMG4009]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 19:48 [CIMG4016]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 19:51 [CIMG4018]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 20:19 [CIMG4033]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 22:33 [CIMG4075]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 22:38 [CIMG4083]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 22:43 [CIMG4085]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/01 at 23:40 [CIMG4099]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 10:38 [CIMG4127]

Hungry for more, we plan a trek through Taroko Gorge, which we hear is a gem and among the world's most scenic spots. After a night's rest in Hualien, we hop back on the scooters and head for the train station to return them and catch a bus north to Tienshiang, a small town most of the way up the gorge. Only my normally good sense of direction failed us. We ended up who knows where, lost without the slightest sense of where we were or which direction the station was.

Aggravating the situation was the fuel tank indicator on Joanne's bike. It was so far below the empty line that it wasn't even remotely associated with the scale anymore. But in a time crunch to catch the bus, we decide to push on. I "ask" a fellow motorist stopped at a light, shrugging my shoulders, wrists together, palms up: "choo! choo!", then making a revolving piston motion with my arms. Thankfully, he answers my pantomime with surprisingly good English. Unfortunately, he asks: "Which town's station?" Sadly, we weren't even in Hualien anymore.!

Remarkably for us, but typical for the overwhelmingly hospitable attitude the Taiwanese have towards visiting foreigners, he stops his journey and escorts us back in the opposite direction through a maze of similar looking streets and alleys for 15 minutes until we're back at the Hualien train station. This helpful and often curious attitude was repeated again and again as we navigated, often stumbling with effective illiteracy, deafness and muteness from the language barrier.

With minutes to spare, we pull into the bike rental shop, come to a stop, and Joanne's putt-putt puts out its last putt and dies, out of gas. Amazing.

We hurry to the ticket counter, buy two tickets to Tienshiang and board the bus. Setting our packs at our feet, we begin to reminisce about yesterday's outstanding experience riding the scooters down and up the coast, stopping here and there to check out whatever called to us. And then it hit us... What are we doing on a bus!? We need to make the journey into the gorge on bikes! Disembarking just as the bus was to pull out, we make our way back to the ticket counter, where they exchange our tickets for cash, which we exchange again for our trusty two wheeled adventure-mobiles.

And so we cruise to and through the stunning gorge on a narrow road hugging one side or another of the meandering . base of the deeply eroded canyon system. Cut over millennia by frothy whitewater inevitably pouring from mountaintop to sea, it exposes wonders: To our sides stand near-vertical slopes of exposed marble with unlikely but plentiful trees squeezing through the cracks, some of whose roots can be seen tracing a path downward over the rocks into another crack. There are thick moss-covered areas where water oozes out seemingly from solid rock and patches of jade to delight the eyes.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 11:39 [CIMG4138]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 12:07 [CIMG4154]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 12:25 [CIMG4161]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 12:40 [CIMG4166]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 12:45 [CIMG4169]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 14:13 [CIMG4187]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 14:16 [CIMG4189]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 14:24 [CIMG4194]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/04 at 08:03 [CIMG4212]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/04 at 14:45 [CIMG4226]
Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/03 at 11:52 [CIMG4148]

Hours of awe ensue as we climb, crossing a dozen bridges and traversing a dozen tunnels drilled out from solid rock wherever neither side could hold a road or where recurring landslides bury efforts to shape this wild space into a motorist pass under heaps of rocks and boulders.

The balmy weather we began with at its mouth where it pours into the sea changes to crisp mountain air as we rise up, and up and up. Along the way, we are passed by several busses zipping past all the goodies that we stopped to admire. We soon realized that their stops were defined not by their beauty, but by the road engineer's ability to make a parking area for buses, where they and a hundred others would briefly snap photos and move on. That was almost us.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/04 at 15:31 [CIMG4234]
We bed dreamily that night in Tienshiang, blessed by our tendency to follow our instincts. An early dawn hike up to one of the many nearby peaks - whose trailhead had no bus parking - topped the experience off with a clan of howler monkeys and literally breathtaking vistas (or was that the steep unrelenting climb?). Back in town, with wonderfully sore muscles, we sip enough oolong tea to warm our weary bones, and then got to ride the winding roads all over again in reverse, enjoying it much more than any rerun we've ever seen.