*Thanks for sticking with me! Funemployment means I can finally finalize all my bits and pieces of blogs and stories and actually gives me a really happy escape back into my trip as the come-down of reality pokes around*
I don’t know if there is a difference between trekking and hiking. I know there is something called scrambling. Or something like that. There are lots of ways to traverse mountains, hills and cliffs. But despite growing up an hour from the mountains, hiking hasn’t ever really caught on for me. Not because I don’t love the idea of it; I think it’s an exposure thing.
Despite this perpetual rookie status on these kind of aventures, following the stop at the elephant camp as our adventure from Chiang Mai continued, we were introduced to “Jungle Boy”, our guide for the trekking portion of the trip. Being that each of us was told something slightly different in terms of what to expect, I looked to our guide to try and guess how difficult this would be. He certainly didn’t look like what I would expect a hardcore seasoned mountain hiker to, and our group was eclectic in attire from cotton dresses and keds to hiking shoes to denim shorts (guess who). I was fairly confident this was going to be a casual experience. As we set off along a well-loved and beaten down, practically-paved path, my new Irish friend doomed us all:
“I really thought this would be more difficult trekking and less walking”
Well, we’re f*cked.
As soon as the last words left her mouth, Jungle Boy took a hard right. Straight into the jungle, straight up a steep incline, machete-ing his way through any last semblance of expectation of a casual day. I should mention here that I am, at the very least, moderately physically capable. I am not an athlete, but I can hold my own. Maybe more accurately, I essentially refuse to fail at anything, ever and will need to physically give out before I give up. I am also a fan of the effects of endorphins, so from time to time, I really do love a next-level physical challenge.
Within 180 seconds of our sharp detour, I was bleeding, which completed the trifecta of blood, sweat and tears for the day. And I was loving it. Part of my reasonable brain was curious to how it was even legal to take a bunch of unknown level of experience hikers trekking with not a single word of guidance or cautionary preparation, but there we were. Our entirely silent guide, whom I had vastly underestimated, was something to behold. If you have ever walked anywhere with me before, you’re aware of Maddie walking speed (approx. 150% pace of normal, my legs are always in a hurry). So Jungle Boy was comfortably on that level, but was trekking almost vertically up a mountain, wielding a machete to get rid of any pesky overhang. Oh, and he was in flip flops. Did I mention flip flops? His skills were impressive, but this meant that you were taking your life in your hands each time you looked up to take in the incredible landscapes, since slowing down would most certainly not be happening. Especially exciting was crossing bodies of water by balancing across a log. It’s just as daunting as movies portray and took every tiny stabilizing muscle I have earned in nearly 8 years yoga to safely cross.
We found reprieve and a place to
lick rinse our wounds at a beautiful waterfall, and coupled with the sunshine, the heart wrench of the morning was beginning to fade. Maybe I was impressed at just how quickly Jungle Boy was striding (possible) or I was being a keener (probable) but for the second half of the day I tried to keep up to him. The added benefit of this is that I could basically just step where he was stepping and know that he probably knew what he was doing. And just like so many other “go for it” moments, jumping ahead proved to be the best way to get our guide talking, albeit in less than probably 50 english words that he understood. By the time we were closing in on the village for the night we were having a great time, he had made me a crown of ferns and gave me half his passion fruit and we were totally in love. Alas, he was 23 and married and I don’t really date smokers, so it didn’t last…
When I use certain words to describe my travels, I find myself using air quotes far far too often. This applies when I describe the “village” we stayed overnight in during our trek or “beach bungalows” I would encounter on islands in the south of Thailand later in my travels. How my brain defines words is exceptionally different than the way reality would present them. The village was one large wooden structure perched on the top of the mountain. But it was perfectly imperfect and between the fireflies that night, the full rainbow in the morning and the complete absence of anything familiar, busy or connected, I found a piece of the Bali feeling I’d been trying to keep close as my time away from that experience grew wider. Nature appreciation does wonders for the heart.
The trekking and travel through the north of Thailand also included a 2 day stop in the town of Pai, which is absolutely full of backpackers, hippies (the real ones, my Bali clothes actually looked polished if you can believe that), and good feels. There were also a lot of bars. And I found my future wedding dress, so at some point I suppose I’ll just have to go back.
It was around this time when I received a message from someone I’d met in Bali: “Oh wow you’re still on vacation!”. Now, without sounding exceptionally ungrateful or eyeroll-worthy, I really didn’t really know how to answer the question. “Yes.” didn’t really cover it and I almost wanted to say “THIS IS NOT A VACATION IM CARRYING HEAVY THINGS AND SWEATING A LOT AND IM DIRTY AND NO ONE IS SERVING ME COCKTAILS”. I didn’t of course, but I thought about it and came to the following instead:
Travel is a privilege, but not always a vacation.
There were pieces, especially as I moved south to the beaches of Thailand, which were relaxing, sunny, peaceful and full of parties and good times. But there remains a very distinct difference: travel allows for things like dragging a backpack 3 times your size into the back of pickup trucks or unmarked “cabs” you’ve essentially begged to take you in the pouring rain, speeding to piers to (fail to) make your ferry in the dark, and sleep in an infested bungalow instead. Vacation allows for leisurely sunning and bathrobes and hammocks. All of these experiences are wonderful, I loved each of my many misadventures and laughed (and cried) through each ridiculous experience as I travelled Thailand top to bottom.
My adventures in the South took me to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Krabi and Phukhet.
One little note on accommodations. If you are going to Thailand and want to hold onto one semblance of your sanity while sleeping, please double check if you have AC or at least a functioning fan where you are staying. Trust. Me. Even as a human who is “never too hot”, there are limits, and Thailand humidity without any decrease in temperature once he sun goes down is one of them. Spend the extra $5 per night if you must; thank me later. Or just read your reservation more carefully than I did (this is really why I went on this trip; to learn things the hard way and share all this wisdom, right?)
On Koh Samui, I stayed on Bohput beach, just down from Fisherman’s village. This same beach is lined from end-to-end with beautiful, luxurious resorts. It was the first time in Thailand I had really seen (from afar, of course) typical vacationing tourists (vs backpackers), not staying in hostels, but families and honeymooners on beautiful beaches with private dinners and exclusive pools with floating flamingos and frosty drinks. Vacation. I spent a lot of time walking the beach and enjoying the ocean (I didn’t know you could be homesick for the ocean until I was away from it for almost 2 weeks). And I discovered that if you were to stand out in the water and scan the entire beach from left to right, with all it’s high walls, cushy beach chairs and restaurants, and ask me which of these lovely places I was staying it would go something like this: “nope not there, keep going, nope, no not that one either, nope, nope, nope, nope not that one, no see that one? no not that one the one way back there”. Waaaaaay down to the right end of the beach, tucked behind some trees and rocks, where the beach gets a little dirty, and some fishing boats are moored… therrrrrrre it is. Home sweet home in adorable-but-slightly-downtrodden-and-hotter-than-hell bungalows. Another fun fact: I found travelling overall to be filled with quirky examples of juxtapositions like these. And was often the piece that didn’t fit.
It was on the trip from Koh Phangan to Krabi that I decided to finally open the tiny bag full of notes from all the friends I had completed Blissology training with. Each one of us wrote on a small slip of paper for each and every one of the 40 fellow teacher-trainees we’d opened our hearts, minds, and practices with. The notes travelled with me every single day in my little bag, as preciously close as my credit card, journal and Baa. The essentials. I’d been hoarding and saving them for no particular reason, except knowing that I would need those words one day on my travels when I would feel alone or need a little extra love with me. And it wasn’t a particularly special ferry or a particularly special day when some part of me knew I needed to find that Bali bliss place and give myself the feelings I had had surrounded by those people and their love. So I opened the tiny cloth bag, which had been filled what felt like a lifetime before. So many little pieces of paper: “All this for me?”. Savour them, I told myself. Like Christmas presents, or the best bite of food. Unceremoniously, I picked each out at random, desperately careful not to drop any. Floodgates, like someone who has just found water after traversing the desert, completely unable to just read one or two after beginning to dig in. And so there I sat, sweaty and dirty in my Toronto blue jays hat and tucked into a too-cramped ferry seat, with giant tears and an even bigger smile, poring over the words and feeling like I was right back in a light circle or snuggle with each person who had a little piece of my heart, scattered the world around. It was perfectly imperfect.
While much of my travel in the north of Thailand had been planned, the south was left relatively open, especially in regards to what I was seeing and doing. Compared to Chiang Mai, I found island life a slower pace (exceptions include catching boats and trains and the half-moon party). It gave me a little ease and a fuller exploratory experience on all the beautiful beaches, and it was here that my best day of Thailand took place. I’d had rock climbing Railay Beach recommended to me by a friend I made on Koh Phangan. And, since by this point, I’d become really well-practiced in a) saying yes and b) being brave, I was all in.
Getting to Railay beach from the side of Krabi I was staying on meant a long boat ride (not a long boat ride, a long boat; as in the boat is long, not the boat ride. Ok.) The company I went with, to advertise them a little bit here, were top-notch. Such great guys, incredibly fun and excellent at what they do. Also, to this end, I found ratings on Tripadvisor throughout my trip to be extremely indicative of the experience I had with any of the booked adventures I did. If you see a ton of consistent ratings and comments, and can sort through any one-offs that give you the tails of the statistical curve (sorry not sorry), I found it extremely reliable. But I digress.
Railay beach is spectacular. It is everything I’d envisioned as the peak of Thai beach beauty. The final rock climb we did that morning was one of the hardest physical challenges I’ve done and refusing to give up on it gave me such an endorphin rush, I felt like I was floating. It’s difficult to describe why exactly it was my very favourite day in the entire country, but here’s a little peek into some high-as-a-kite journalling I was doing on the beach that afternoon:
“Maybe it was the Bali notes, maybe it’s coincidence but this is the happiest I have been in Thailand. Maybe it’s the endorphins from this morning’s climb, the sun, conquering any lingering fears, meeting genuine kind, happy humans. Railay has me in the happiest tears and I have caught my 3rd travel wind. The final push and all the sails are full. There are tiny seashells, tiny crabs, giant cliffs. I wish you were here. I feel so alive and I am doing things I’ve never even been creative enough to dream of doing. I’m doing it all and I’m doing more. Every day. This day. This life.”
Travel is not vacation.