04 March 2015

The Truth About Thailand

International trips are awesome. They deliver you to a new space and time where you experience different people and cultures and places and things. Traveling abroad can be incredibly transformative and spectacularly eye-opening. 

International trips are difficult. They remove you from your comfort zone where you experience irritating people and food and travel logistics and cultural barriers. Traveling abroad can be endlessly frustrating and forever headache-inducing.

Where to?

I've found the key to a good trip is to develop a sense of the place you're visiting (in terms of climate, people, food, etc.) and the things you're going to do while you're there (climb on rocks, ski in zee mountains, relax on the beach, etc.) before you go. This exercise in planning helps "manage your expectations" for a more enjoyable time. Or at least I think so. But then I'm a 'Type-A Dirtbag'. 

What does that mean exactly? Well, a dirtbag is a term of endearment for a climbing bum who likes to live on the cheap and "really experience life brah". But I'm also anal-retentive and track my spending on a spreadsheet that I turn into a pie chart at the end of a trip to quantify not only how much I spent but how much I spent per category. Which just shows that I care about things like planning and organizing and managing my expectations. 



An actual pie chart from an actual trip. What, you thought I was kidding?


Which is why I need to get real with you all for a minute and say the shocking truth: my trip to Thailand wasn't all I thought it'd be. I didn't have just the best time ever. I'll give you a moment to digest this information. 

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You may have just found this blog or you may have been following me for a while, but you deserve to know the truth - not all trips are epic, and my life isn't more adventurous than yours most of the time. And that's why I haven't written about Thailand. I generally do a good job of tricking people into thinking I lead an incredibly glamorous existence, and I feel like I should have come back with crazy-fun, epic stories from Thailand.

I wore a tutu on the beach. Does that count as epic?

Only I have none. Sure I got super sick from Tonsai Tummy, was fighting a head cold the entire time, got rained on a lot, and almost lost my lunch off the side of a Long Tail Boat, but overall the trip just didn't meet my expectations and so I haven't been overly motivated to share. Which is sort of a whiny petulant child type of thing to say.
"Wah. I went to Thailand and I didn't have the best time ever so I'm pouting about it." 
I'm a jerk. A pouty one.

Feeling like this makes me kind of a jerk and I don't mean for it to. I'm not saying I didn't experience moments of "Holy shit I cannot believe this is my life right now!". I had those moments - for sure! - but not enough to make this the trip of my dreams.

Wandering Wats in Bangkok. One of the "holy cow" moments.

Paddling to deep water solo. Another "holy cow" moment.

So what went wrong? Why didn't I love Thailand?

Well, Thailand has been on my "short list" for a while, and I was enthusiastic to start planning over a year ago when my friend Rachel mentioned she wanted to go. On Thanksgiving Day in 2013 actually, as Rachel and I were on an awesome climbing trip in El Potrero Chico, Mexico, Rachel looked at me and said, "I'd really like to go climb in Thailand". "Me too!", I enthusiastically responded. And that was it. The trip was born. We wouldspend the following Christmas in Thailand climbing on perfectly gorgeous limestone!


Thailand!

I had over a year to plan. And research. And plan some more. Only I didn't. This is my biggest failure. Rachel and I bought plane tickets with just a few months to spare. I bought a climbing guide the week we left. I found an old 2006 Lonely Planet Thailand in my book pile and tore out the chapters about Bangkok and Tonsai. Friends and colleagues told me all about their Thailand adventures. They recommended climbs and cautioned me about bad bolts and bold monkeys who might try to steal my camera or sunglasses or snacks. But that was it - no real "let's sit down and pencil out the trip."

I arrived in Tonsai expecting a utopia filled gorgeous views and beautiful, untouched limestone and delicious food and climbing on the beach. The reality was .... not quite the same.

Expectation.
Reality.

I was greated by rain and garbage everywhere and food that might poison you. The beach was littered with people smoking and boats roaring and Styrofoam for days. The sad fact is Tonsai - the main climbing area and traditional haunt for dirtbags of the Type-A and other Type-varieties - just isn't what it used to be. Developers have come in with plans to build a resort on the beachfront, thus relegating all of the bars and restaurants - which previously decorated the beachfront - to the "back alley" in the jungle.

Granted I was there at the busiest time of year, but Tonsai's infrastructure was so taxed with overpopulation that raw sewage was running through the streets and eventually into the ocean. This was all the worse from due to plastic bottles and styrofoam containers floating in the waste runoff. I don't think I even need to mention the rancid-air filled with mosquitoes.

And I was sick - that never helps anything. I picked up a bad respiratory infection right before I left Seattle that chased me across Thailand. It made me more irritable in general and more affected by the smoke in particular. That part sucked. (Worse yet, I eventually "gave" my cold to Rachel, who spent her first five days back in the States with no voice.) Just as I was recovering I caught the ole' Tonsai Tummy and wasted two days sick in bed (with Liz, who also caught the TT). I'll spare you the details, but it was coming out both ends.


We may have seriously considered buying some of these...

There's bad luck and bad planning and this trip had a little of both. We had some bad weather early, bad colds and tummy aches throughout, and I suffered from poor expectation management overall. My failure specifically was coming expecting a hard-core climbing trip and being waylaid by the aforementioned bad licks from which my morale would never quite recover. For me, this trip turned into an exercise in flexibility and mindfulness. And let's just say I've never been lauded for my flexibility. 

But despite these major drawbacks, Tonsai is still beautiful. And the climbing is good. And the sunsets on the beach will take your breath away and I met more friendly people there than I have met almost anywhere else. I had some damn good food too. It's totally worth a visit - just don't ask me to go with you.


Here's hoping your next trip delivers fireworks.