Sunday, December 20, 2009

Traveler Tales: Part Two - Railay

 Raily was always too good to be true. That much was obvious from the moment our boat struck off from Krabi Town and within minutes began to pass looming limestone cliffs so big a small village could fit on top of one. The pea soup thick mist surrounding us and the method of transportation only made things more surreal. You see, there are no ferries to Railay. Railay does not have any kind of harbor or pier. To get to Railay one takes one of these.

This is a longtail-boat, and it makes an inordinately loud putting noise, so loud in fact that you have to shout to be heard over it. My two lovely traveling buddies here, Tara and Caitlyn, and I, along with about 100 pounds of combined weight in backpacks and other assorted carry on items (we did not pack light) rode this little vessel the forty-five minutes or so to Railay. Now if you're picturing an island in the United States, you would assume there would be some way of transferring oneself and one's luggage to land without having to literally jump off the boat into the water. But Thailand is not the United States. Thai people don't eat peanut butter sandwiches or live in the year 2009 (I swear I am not lying about this). And they also don't stay dry upon arrival at an island.

To be fair, our boat driver warned us. At the Krabi Town "pier" we sat surrounded by a group of Thai boat drivers, half joking amongst themselves in Thai, half conversing with us in English. Low tide, they all repeated. No good to go to Railay at low tide. Must swim. Okay well maybe they didn't say the swim part but their looks inferred as much. So really it's our own fault. We pulled up to East Railay beach, a crescent moon of shore surrounded by sheer, craggy, monstrously huge limestone cliffs. None of really noticed that a handful of other long tail boats were stopped a football field or so away from the sand. We were too busy "ooing" and "ahhing" and OH MY GOD ARE WE REALLY HERE -ing. But then the boat driver stopped the boat, cut off the engine, hoisted a little ladder onto the side, and looked at us expectantly. Luckily I had already been in Thailand six months at this time. If this was pre-Thailand I would take one look at the ladder leading directly into the Andaman Sea, and be all "excuse me? you expect me to back-stroke the rest of the way?". But I was fully ingrained into the often humorously bonkers aspects of Thai life. So I shrugged, hoisted myself over the ladder, hitched up my dress, and took the splash. I nearly fell over into the knee deep water but managed to stay aloft. I had visions in my head of a casual, breezy arrival at Railay, wearing a sundress, sunglasses perched jauntily atop my head. Instead I was going to be slipping and sliding my way down "the road" (as our driver called it). The road = a slim, slippery completely underwater concrete surface extending all the way from the beach to where the boats were. And I was going to be doing all this with a 25 pound backpack on my back and a laptop case held frantically over my head, all the while muttering to myself "please don't slip and fall into the water with all of your possesions and laptop". In the rain. Did I mention the very moody and atmospheric mist had turned into a full fledged monsoon? And when I say monsoon, I don't mean it in the way some people say monsoon when it's raining a tad hard. I mean an honest to God, rainy season, South-East Asian MONSOON, people. So taking baby steps, one by one, me and my friends made our way down the path. And then we went back out to the boat to do it again. So by the time we had all of our stuff on "dry" land, I was drenched to within an inch of my life and covered in sand and mud.

And I could have cared less. Because I was in Railay. And like I said before, Railay is simply too good to be true. And we were on the "ugly" beach, as if ugly has any meaning in a place like Railay. Ugly in Raily means that the limestone formation over there doesn't have as much green on it, and that beautiful clear water has a few mangrove trees cluttering it up, and that sea turtle has really let himself go. I mean seriously. Loaded up with luggage, we checked out the "road signs" (a wooden post with hand written signs pointing to the different hotels and restaurants). Then we set off on foot down the path leading off the beach. There are no cars on Railay. There are no roads on Railay. It is wonderful and perfectly tiny and quaint. So we pack muled our way over to where our hotel was, Railay West, the "pretty" beach. And as much as I joke about East Railay being ugly, well when you get to West Railay you sort of see what the guide books mean. You almost want to nudge the person next to you and say, "my GOD that last place was a real dog." Because West Railay would make the French Riviera seem homely. It's like walking onto the world's most realistic movie set, and even though you can smell the salt water and feel the ocean breeze, it has to be fake. There's no way this could be real. The three of us arrived at West Railay and stood there like cartoon characters, our mouths wide open and jaws on the sand. It didn't matter that it was monsooning and that we'd just taken an unexpected dip with all of our belongings. Nothing mattered except that we were there, staring out at this (albeit a rainer view of it).

This place is the kind of beautiful that changes you. It's the kind of beautiful that can never really be summed up by a photograph or post card. It's the kind of beaitful that isn't supposed to really exist. And I do not understand how the Thai people who live here or near here can stand all this beauty all the time. After a certain point wouldn't your head explode with too much beauty? I was there four nights and five days and my head nearly exploded. Before we came here I read a lot in guide books or on websites, saying that Railay was the most beautiful place in Thailand but that it had been "ruined" by development. Well clearly the people who write for Lonely Planet or Travelfish have never been to Myrtle Beach or anywhere on the US's eastern coast for that matter. Because Railay may have a handful of tasteful hotels and beachy bars and restaurants, but they would have to build a 10 story Planet Hollywood globe to ruin this place. And maybe my persepctive was skewed. You know there is an advantage to traveling during monsoon season. There were some tourists on Railay but compared to the beaches I'm used to back home during the summer, this place was barren. Unfortunately the few tourists who were here happened to be of the European speedo variety but what can you do? Those men will never wear any swimsuits that do not look like they were made for a ten year old girl.

The whole place was just so unabashadely wonderful. I loved everything about Railay. Our first night we ventured back over to East Railay (we took a "shortcut" in the dark that unfortunately led straight through the rainforest, but we made it out alive). West Railay may be the pretty gal on the block, but East Railay is backpacker central. And you know what, yes, backpackers can sometimes be painfully obnoxious and loud and rude. I cannot tell you the number of drunken Australians I encoutered during my travels (seriously no nationality gets drunker than Australians, doesnt matter the time or the place, you could be on a 7am nature hike and you will run into boozy Australians). Yet part of me loves these backpacker enclaves. I love the sense of community. Any backpacker area, particularly on an island with no cars, is guaranteed to feel like a drunker version of summer camp. You run into the same people again and again. You strike up conversations with total strangers, because everyone has one important thing in common. In the case of Railay everyone was there, in this place of places. We had a drink at one little bar, with those cliffs looming just as largely at night as they did during the day. Then we ventured farther down, passing Bob Marley bars (there is always a Bob Marley bar at any SE Asian island you go to), passing completely empty bars with thumping club music (ditto). The water was at high tide and so there was about a foot of walkable sand. The mangrove trees cast long shadows on the sand underneath an almost full moon. And then we made it to the end of East Railay, to what was literally called, The Last Bar.

Oh, the Last Bar. I could write a book about this bar. I could dedicate a poem to it. In my mind it's up there with Casablanca's Rick's Cafe, with Cheer's Cheers. This bar was nothing more than a cement floor, a few dozen tables and chairs, a little stage. But it was in my mind, the quintessential backpacker, expat, traveler summer camp bar. That's one thing I really miss, a good expat bar. You can't get that at home. You can't get that bittersweet feeling of sipping a cold beer in a foreign country, listening to Western music, surrounded by other travelers and foreigners, knowing that you're not the only one who is both deliriously happy to be there while at the same time missing home. There's such a great collection of people in these places. There's the aforementioned boozy Aussies. There's the Eurotrash, all short shorts, long nails, leathery tans and blindingly white blonde hair, so brittle looking that you want to touch it just to see if it really is that crispy. There's the adventure sports guys; you can always spot them. These are the boys (and sometimes girls) who follow waves or sharks or big giant rock formations around the world. They're bruised and scarred and give off that undeniable look of health and vigor. There's the older Western guys, in from other parts of Thailand, often sitting with a very young Thai girlfriend. There are the Thai people of course, smiley and happy and even from a distance, just glowing with kindness. And there are a hundred other types, and at The Last Bar, they were all in attendance. We met a shirtless, heavily tatooed British man who was the only Western full time resident of Railay. He provided us with a hookah and shisha (don't worry mom its legal!), and told us about the other Railay, during high season. He informed us that at high season every single room is booked, to the point where people slept on the floor of the bar. We met a charming, young gay man who had just come from Kuala Lumpur (one of our destinations) and happily gave us advice. We sat sipping cold beer for hours, practicing our Thai with our waiter, and by the time we left we felt like we had been coming to this bar for years.

We went back every night for the remainder of our stay. The first three nights everyone pumped us up for this AMAZING singer who would be there the last night. The older Thai lady who worked there assured us he had the voice of an angel and would make us sob. How could we not go? And so we went, for only the fourth time, but what felt like the 400th. We took our usual seats, ordered some cold ones (and some of the only cheaper Thai food in Railay), and waited for this vocal phenomenon. Finally he came on, along with a band, and launched into one of the most entertaining musical sets I've ever listened to. The guy had a good voice. I wouldn't necessarily call it the voice of an angel. My eyes stayed dry. But in that setting, in that bar, it was about as perfect as you can get. He played songs from home, the way all of these Thai bands do at Western patronized bars. And he played them well, oldies and not so oldies, everything from the Beatles to Jason Mraz. By the end of the night we unabashedly sang along. When he busted out Take Me Home, Country Roads, I sang that song like he was singing about my Virginia, instead of that less cool Western counterpart. Looking around, at all of the assorted nationalities, at all of the misfits and restless souls, I fell in love with this place. Because at a good expat bar you're simultaneously home and miles from it. And The Last Bar, as far as expat bars go, was the best.

Now before you start worrying about me, let me tell you that I did not spend all of my time in Railay at a bar. Oh there were days of lying on beaches, of sitting besides beaches eating fresh fruit picked off the trees above my head. There was the time at night where the entire ocean glowed, something about phytoplankton and algae. I can't define it for you in scientifc terms, but I can tell you that it doesn't happen that often and we were there for it. Picture swimming in the warmest waters, looking down, and every time you move a hand or a foot the entire ocean erupts in shimmering bubbles of light. Picture the waves crashing and a thousand tiny flashbulbs go off. It stormed pretty much once a day while we were there (again rainy season, go figure) but I didnt care. We stayed on the beach until the clouds came, and then we moved up to the hotel's restaurant right off the sand and watched the storm move in. Even the storms in Railay are off the charts beautiful, these big, rapid explosions of rain that leave as suddenly as they come.


At dusk, as the freckled, sun burnt Westerners left the beach to shower and cool off, the Thai contingent would move in. The first day we could hear this insane shouting and screaming from our bungalow. We walked up to the beach to investigate and saw that it was full of Thai people in jerseys. There was a game of volleyball next to a game of soccer next to a game of some sport I had never seen before. Apparently this was the Railay games, where presumably the staff of the hotels and bars (there is not much in the way of a Thai town or permanent residences here) ferociously compete against each other in different sports. This could have been the World Cup, the way these people cheered each other on. Me and my friends would sit at tables with icy fruit shakes and watch these games as the sun sank into the sky, the end of another day as long and perfect as the best day of summer.

And then there was the rock climbing. If you know me you wouldn't necessarily picture rock climbing and me in the same sentence, or even just the same general vicinity. But Railay is world famous for their rock climbing (rememeber me talking about all those big limestone cliffs, well they're there for more than just to look pretty), and my friend wanted to do it, so I thought what the hey. We rock climbed the second day and after one day in very tropical sun I was a nice, healthy magenta color. But I soldiered on. We met our Thai guide, got our harnesses and special shoes (you can't just wear any old shoes to rock climb, doncha know), and walked along the shore until we got to an area with a handful of other climbers. I saw people on the ground with harnesses on, fiddling with ropes, and thought, well this can't be that bad! And then I looked up. High, high, so very high above me, were people, human beings dangling off giant cliffs, at the complete mercy of a harness and the person beneath them holding the rope. And that's when the first little alarm bell inside my head went off. I was supposed to do this, risk life and limb climbing up a jagged piece of earth. Why would I do such a thing? Humans aren't supposed to climb things past the age of ten. And even then it's trees, sensible things to climb. Who climbs a jagged piece of earth? In the rain no less! But before I had time to go into a full blown panic it was time for our first "climb". Now looking back this was a tiny, baby cliff, about as high as a fairly short tree. This was the beginner cliff designated for people who well, look like me, about as weak and unathletic as they come. My muscles are practically concave. To attach the rope our guide climbed this thing without a harness or rope. He practically did it in one leap. But at the time, I looked at this glorified pebble and saw a mountain. I might as well have been looking at Mt. Everest, so terrifed was I of this baby cliff designed for dogs and toddlers. And that's about how I acted as I climbed it, all shaky and "please don't let me FALL!" and "SWEET JESUS I CANT DO IT." I admit this with no pride and with a great deal of embarassment. It was not my finest moment. Here I was, surrounded by world class climbers, people who were hundreds of feet up in the air above me, whistling and solving complex math equations while they did it, and I was having a nervous breakdown over something that could have been in my backyard. You know the scene in Spinal Tap when they perform on stage and this big, dramatic replica of stone henge is supposed to come down and instead its this teeny, tiny thing which can easily be trampled by the dancing dwarves. This cliff might as well have been that teen, tiny stonehenge.

The ground is about two feet below my feet, and I was shaking. I couldnt even reach the top. I came down and tried to avoid eye contact with anyone who witnesses this travesty, while loudly talking about how slippery the darn thing was, and of course I would have been able to climb it if not for the slipperiness people! And this was the beginning. There were three climbs left. Now my flight response was in full effect. But what other time would I get the chance to rock climb a  limestone cliff in  Railay. I couldn't just give up. Embarassment be darned. I would embarass myself repeatedly if I had too. And I did embrass myself, to a lesser degree the next climb and to an even lesser degree the one after that. The rain was really starting to come down. You'd look up and see a hundred tiny specks of water shoot down from the far away top of the cliff. My hands were scratched. My legs were bruised. But against all odds I was starting to enjoy myself. And then the fourth climb, the hardest one.For this climb we'd have to arch backwards for part of it, climb up and out, very tricky with the whole gravity thing. But two miraculous things happened. The first, my friend Cailtyn, told me she'd buy me a drink if I made it to the third of these ledge things in the rock, fairly high up. And well for a backpacker with limited funds the promise of a free drink is quite the motivator. The second miraculous thing that happened is that I stopped being scared. The first teeny baby climb I was terrified of falling. I knew I was in a harness. I knew there were ropes and a very strong Thai man controlling the ropes. But still, it's hard to push aside that basic human instinct that falling off a cliff is a bad thing. And if you're scared you can't climb. You're afraid to reach up and balance your foot on that miniscule little outcrop of rock. You're scared to arch backward. So you do the wrong things, try and pull yourself up with your hands (a big no no in rock climbing). But after my 3rd or 7th fall (who's counting), I finally got it. I didn't need to be scared. I had fallen off a cliff repeatedly that day and I was fine. Every time I fell, the harness caught me and I would simply dangle and spin in the air like a broadway actress playing Peter Pan. And so for this fourth climb I just went for it. I listened to my guide. He said to lift off with my right foot and put my left foot in that tiny little crevice, well I was darn well going to do it. And I did fall, but as soon as I fell I kept going. And you know what, I made it to that third ledge, AND I kept going. And from far below me I heard claps and cheers. Now this may have been delirium (by this point I was probably the most physically exhausted I have ever been). It may just have been that these nice people felt sorry for me and they were clapping for me the way you'd clap for a small child who goes number 2 in the toilet. But honestly, I dont care.

You know how people always talk about a runner's high? Well I've always thought runners were insane and that was just crazy talk. But I totally get it. I was doing something so physically demanding that the next day my arms hurt just hanging limply at my sides, but I was loving it. I pushed myself beyond anything I could imagine and it felt awesome. The rest of the day I couldn't stop smiling. That night at The Last Bar, bruised and battered, we ran into two Scottish rock climbers who had been climbing with us that day. Both of these men were experienced climbers who come to Thailand once a year just to climb. One of them turned to me and said "you did pretty good out there." It was one of the best compliments I've ever recieved.


And then, cruelly, impossibly, it was time to leave Railay. This time we walked quite a distance out into the water with our stuff, then climbed into a long-tail boat (which is impossible to do with any dignity I might add) which took us out to deeper water to get onto a ferry. But maybe it's good they make it so hard to get to and leave Railay. It's fitting you have to earn this place a little bit. Railay shouldn't come easy. It's too beautiful, so beautiful in fact that I still can't really believe it was all real. Of course I'm being overly sentimental and nostalgic. I'm building Railay up into this mythical place. It couldn't really have been that perfect, right?

I tell myself, logically that it couldn't have been. But maybe forget that rule that everything in life has to have a flaw. Forget that we have to be reasonable and practical, that nothing and nowhere is perfect. Maybe Railay quite simply was.

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