Tonsai is a Paradise – part 2


“Welcome to all climbers. Reggae gave one god one love one people. The Rasta”

“I think you should wear the smaller shoes.”

“I think you’re wrong.”

He didn’t yell, but the edge to his voice was clear demand to shut up about it. I immediately regretted opening my mouth. Like he was ever going to listen to me anyway. I turned away and kept quiet while the other climbers chatted each other up in the early morning shade. It was too early to deal with Rob’s snapping.

His shoes were too big. He was walking in them. All the other climbers were carrying their shoes and walking in flip flops and slip ons. Climbing shoes should fit like a corset. You don’t walk around in them.

There were two other climbers sharing the long tail boat with us on our last day in Tonsai. I was trying to be friendly and ignore my annoyance with Rob.

“Where are you from?” I asked.


Rob said something that I didn’t catch and the three of them laughed.

“What was that?”

“I said there’s no kangaroos in Austria.”

“I know that.”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. “That’s why I said it to her and not to you.”

There’s only one picture of me from that day, on the boat in the morning just after this exchange. I wasn’t smiling.

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I’d been in Thailand for five months now, and every day since arriving I had dreamed about going deep water solo climbing. But at that moment all I could think about was how Rob was ruining it, and how nervous I was that I would be so afraid of falling that Rob would end up mocking me .

Out long tail boat pointed its bow towards a cluster of islands sitting on the other side of a haze and set off. The loud sputtering of motor kept us quiet as tore through unbelievably sapphire water.

Far out on the other side of that haze we came to a cliff that made a cave out over the water. When the tide was high, the cave shrunk. When it was low, there was a chunk of stalactite looking rock that hung down over the far side of the roof of the cave with a ladder going up to the bottom tip of it. There was no way in hell I was going to climb that. The top of the ladder was as up as I cared to fall, and the climb only went up and up and up from there. But that was to be our second stop.

The first stop was at two perpendicular cliff walls. The left wall was a straight up and down, with a traverse that’s more like a shimmy across a very small ledge and a bit of a sideways stair clamber up to a ledge that you could jump off of. All of this was very simple stuff. But it was the space between your feet and the water that terrified me.

There we three other boats besides ours and the kayaks had to line up to take people to the ladder. I waved off the kayak and jumped out of the boat and into the water with my shoes on. Getting up the rope and bamboo ladder hanging from the rock to the water is the hardest part. The ladder swings your legs out in front of you as you pull yourself up. I hadn’t even gotten to the top of the ladder yet and my heart was already pumping adrenaline and my whole body was shaking. I couldn’t have been more than for rungs up, but you see everything from the distance of your head, not your feet.

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First I had to get over my fear of the jump. My whole body was coursing with it. I had bouldered up much higher without a rope before, but never with the intention of jumping. I had learned to manage my fear of heights by focusing on down climbing as much as I did climbing up. That what climbing does—teaches you how to handle fear.

Focus on your body. Where are your hands? Where are your feet? My hands are here, dug into these two good chalky pockets. My feet are resting on a narrow slippery ledge, and the soft part of my shoes are oozing water with each squishy step.


Now where is your right hand going next? Where is your right foot going? Right and here, left foot here, and — move.

Climbing is a series of movements. Its moments lie in every time you shift the weight of your body from one point of rest to another–every time you trust in a hand or a foot and the muscles attached to them. It’s like your ego’s doing trust falls into your body every time you make a move, trusting your muscles and fingers and toes to keep you from dying.

I went right a few feet and then jumped into the water. When I went up a second time I could breathe easier. I went three moves to the right again.

Too much fear can be dangerous for climbing. Fear seizes up your muscles and tares through your strength. The moment that it freezes you, takes over and overpowers your will to move neither up or down—that’s the most dangerous moment on the rock, when your ego stops trusting your body to keep you safe. I’ve had those moments before. So my strategy for managing my fear was to do a little bit at a time, jump, then do a little bit more until my brain became familiar with the sensation of falling.

On the right wall around the corner there were some more interesting problems, and less damn people. Up to the left of that ladder you could go up and around the corner on parallel ridges of stalactite. To the right of the ladder there was a traverse with two levels, a lower first level and an upper second level, then it was straight overhang climbing from there.

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I went up to the right of the ladder until the traverse got tricky—you had to swing your body down and out at the same time and the rocks were so wet that no matter how much chalk you put on it washed off by your second hand hold.

I traversed across back to the left of the ladder, rested on a ledge for a bit, and tried to approach the problem again from lower down on the rock. A Brooklyn boy whose boat had come from Ko Pi Pi showed me where to put my hands once the rock to my right jutted forward.

“Just use your left to grip that bit right there. Then swing out and get your right foot over to that hold over there.”

I gripped the wet stone, took a breath, and flew.


Tonsai is a Paradise – part 1

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We caught a longtail boat to Tonsai a couple hours after dawn. It was everything I had heard it would be–a climber’s paradise. A small stretch of beach flanked on either side by towering limestone cliffs. No one was waiting on the beach trying to sell us tuk tuk rides or bungalows. There were no tuk tuks here and the beach was still and quiet.

For fourteen dollars a night Rob and I rented a bungalow with a private toilet and a mosquito net. We made the mistake of waiting until evening to close the net. By then dozens of the fuckers were trapped inside, feasting on us while we slept. Rob had to hunt them down one by one. I smashed them into the bed it left a smear of blood on the sheets.

In the bathroom, the drain in the sink was actually just a hole that splashed water onto the tile floor. There was a hole in the floor that served as an actual drain, but this was three inches to the left of where the sink water splashed down. 

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I was so eager that we went out the first night to a bouldering cave called “The Temple.” Walk up the dirt path on the north edge of the beach and soon you’ll see a short, steep path to your left with a rope lying on the ground. Pull yourself up the path and there’s the cave—like the inside of a cracked egg, dotted with pockets of white chalk and decorated with rivers of grooved, greenish rock. There were three limp mats on the dusty ground—the thai style mattresses without springs in them. A laminated map of the routes sat on a shelf in the rock next to an old toothbrush. The routes on the right were all V6-V11 with sharp overhangs, but on the left the rock was more vertical. We picked a V3 traverse and kept at it until Rob’s hands were covered in blisters and the bats began to flutter around us.

We were supposed to go deep water solo climbing the next morning, but we had a dilemma. Electricity only ran between 6pm and 6am and there was only one outlet in the room. We could charge our phones, or we could plug in the fan. The fan won out. Rob’s phone battery died in the night and we woke up at 10. The fan had been off for four hours. If you don’t get up before 6 here, then you always wake up sweaty.

I almost stole this kitten.

I almost stole this kitten.

Having missed our boat, we went down to the beach for breakfast. “Family Restaurant” was the cheapest place on the beach, with big bowls of curry stuffed with meat and vegetables for $3, a pot of rice for $2, and lemon sodas for $1 each. While the pricier joints sprawled out on the beach, Family was tucked into a narrow alley of sand, with plastic chairs surrounding uneven table tops. The flies were everywhere.

At every place I’ve been in Thailand, food comes slow, and here was no exception. I sipped my lemon soda and watched a girl in diapers carrying a dinosaur shaped floaty ring over her head. The top of her hair stuck up through one of the leg holes. I had to yell at Rob a few times to get him to notice. They were showing the highlights from last night’s Premier League game on the Thai news channel and not even adorable Thai babies took precedence over that.

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There was a lazy rhythm to Tonsai that I liked immensely. In the morning when the ocean kissed the cement foundations of the restaurants and the cliffs cast long shadows over the sand, people alternated between swimming in the ocean and climbing the shaded cliffs. You could wade into the water and float there, watching a climber hang off the rock with just one hand and a toe, shaking their arms out one by one, then lunging to the next hold. Inevitably they would always fall, and then hang in their harnesses until they had the strength to pull themselves up by their ropes again. That was one thing I had not become accustomed too yet with climbing—the inevitability of the fall. 

In the late afternoon the tides would begin to roll out. First the beach volleyball net would appear on the sand, the boats would float away from the restaurants, a rock would appear, poking out of the surface of the water, then a dozen more. Within an hour or so the whole beach had turned into a jagged muck of rock and mud. It made an ugly sight, but if you walked into it a bit you could see everything that normally hid beneath the water. In a square foot of muck there were dozens of tiny hermit crabs with shells no bigger than the nail of my pinky finger. Fish darted around in little tide pools and the sea slugs as big as my foot clung to the underside of rocks. 

At night people would come down to the beach to buy breasts of barbecued chicken and the small handful of reggae bars would have live Bob Marley cover bands. I never saw the drinking turn into a wild party, just the mellow relaxing of stoned athletes. 

A hermit crab at low tide

A hermit crab at low tide

Still, there were nights where I couldn’t sleep. Released from work and the flurry of planning, it was as though as soon as we left Simahaphot my brain broke open. There was a barrage of useless information pummeling at all times–bits of a book I was reading, pictures of birds diving towards insects, worries about Rob’s opinion of me, and all the time a current of anxiety over how swiftly each day was going by.

I thought frequently of those bastards back at home, but never for very long at a time. I pictured shaking Avery violently while yelling at him what an idiot cunt he was. But Marie’s face was always still and always horrible. It was a face convinced it was justified in hating me. Sometimes, while Rob was sleeping and I stayed up scratching at bites from that one mosquito we could never seem to kill, sometimes that face got the better of me.

The boy with the Cashmere sweater – part 2

“Alright, I’m going to bed,” Richard announced to the few of us who were left. “Goodnight mate. Good night. I’ll see you in the morning. You’ll be at the hospital so I won’t see you.”

“Fuck you.”

Nodding towards the sleeping guy he said, “Seriously, you should take advantage of him, he’s a good guy.”

“Goodnight,” I replied.

Alex and I had to shake him awake.

“It’s morning,” I said. “The birds are chirping. You have to get up so you can go to sleep.”

We pushed him until he lurched up and shook his head suddenly.

“How long was I asleep?”

“An hour at least.”

“You were out like a light man.”

“Agh, I need some water.”

“Want to go to 7-11?”

“Yeah, let’s do it.”

We said our goodbyes to Alex and the skinny Londoner and set off with arms wrapped around each other’s waists. In the street he began to kiss me.

“Not in the street,” I laughed. “Here, on the sidewalk at least.”

There was the heaviness of a night without sleep and the sound of birds, the grey and swiftly rising light, and my hands tugging at slender hips under a layer of cashmere. Then there was the sidewalk, jutting slabs of broken cement underneath, and my back against the wall in an alley as wide as a set of handlebars. Gripping on hip bones under something thin and meant for winter.

An old man pulling a cart covered with a tarp emerged from the alley  and we broke apart.

“Water,” I said.

“Water,” he replied.

Photo via


The fluorescent shock of the 7-11 smacked up against my stupor—all those clean, white, narrow aisles full of plastic-wrapped junk food. The open refrigerators with their packets of ham and cheese toasties, cold gyoza complete with single plastic packets of soy sauce, tiny sugar bombs of activia yogurt promising to make girls skinny and whiter. The refrigerators hummed, and the Thai twenty-something year olds stood in their pale green shirts and rang up a large water with a loud beep of a hand held scanner.

I could never walk into a 7-11 without thinking of Rob. A memory flashed of him in his stifling hot business suit and ridiculous long, pointed black shoes of fake alligator skin. There was me in my teacher clothes with my brown striped skirt and flat soft shoes. Inside the air-conditioned relief of 7-11 I giggled deliciously while he snuck a grab for my ass the store clerk pretended not to notice. We would come back to the office loaded with crispy, hot sandwiches and boxes of sugar flavored vegetable juice and pretend not to care that every teacher in the office knew we were fucking.

Back on the street the Irish boy pushed me into a bus stop and began kissing me again.

“No good,” he mumbled.


“I can feel your rigidity.”

“We are standing on the street, outside of 7-11.”

“Would you like a massage?”

“I would love one.”

We went back to the cushions in front of the hostel and sat while he rubbed my shoulders. It was proper morning now and the staff was beginning to mill about. He was a clumsy masseuse, but it didn’t matter.

“I have to sleep,” I told him.

“I know you don’t want to cram onto my tiny bed, so I won’t ask.”

“Is it private?”


“I have an empty apartment in Huai Kwang.”

“Where’s that.”

“A fifteen minute cab ride from here.”

“Too far.”

The monks were beginning their alms rounds when I hailed a cab.

“Last chance,” I said, slipping from his arms into the back leather seat.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”


“Ah,  I’ll hold your friend hostage so you have to come see me.”

He shut the door.

“Haui Kwang,” I said to the driver. “Ratchada soi sip sii.

The cab proceeded in silence.

Photo by Jun Hirabayashi

Photo by Jun Hirabayashi

The sun was up now, piercing light above the tops of concrete buildings. Everyone who was out was wearing business suits, black heels with tight pencil skirts, briefcases and purses, headphones in and heads tilted down toward the sidewalk.

That day the Irish boy named Cam left on a bus for Cambodia. I never saw him again.

The boy with the Cashmere sweater – part 1


I didn’t sleep that night.

By the time I left the hostel the monks were walking barefoot on the beer and urine splattered pavement, carrying their alms bowls. There was an Irish boy with a dark beard and a gray cashmere sweater. We had been kissing since  before dawn, when the birds started chirping right at the end of the darkness. I had turned away two other men that evening to be with him, going so far as to wait  when he fell asleep for nearly two hours on the cushions outside the hostel. The prospect of taking a taxi alone in the dark to my empty apartment didn’t appeal to me.

While the Irish boy was sleeping the other men came outside. They had already gotten laid and were smoking cigarettes in their boxers, ganging up on a boy whose girl of the night had banged two other men in the past two nights.

“Did you use a condom?” The accent belonged to another Irishman, name Richard, tattooed and muscular, who had run off with a tiny Japanese girl halfway through the night.

“We were in the shower.” This poor sap was an English boy with a decent face, though just less than handsome in my taste. His name was Alex

“Ah, you’ll be fine mate; the clap’s the best of the worst anyway.”

“Fuck off.”

“Don’t be sore. I would have done the same.”

“Me too,” said a skinny Londoner. “Even if I knew she had the clap and she asked me to fuck her bareback I would still do it. She’s fit.”

“She is fit.”

“Fuck off the both of you.”

“Eh mate, it’s just one pill.”

“As long as it’s not aids you’ll be fine.”

“You guys better be fucking with me.”

“Two guys in the past two nights. I swear it on my life.”

“Are you serious?”

“Hey, don’t feel bad mate. We both would have fucked her too.”

“Maybe you were the lucky one and the others both wrapped up.”

Richard and the Londoner laughed at that. Alex hung his head in his hands.

“What happened to him?” Richard turned to my boy, asleep with his mouth open, his arm still laying where it had wrapped around my shoulder.

“Fell asleep.”

“Weren’t you kissing him earlier?”

“He’s out cold now.”

“You should start kissing him again. Maybe he’ll wake up.”

It had been typical for a night on KaoSan Road. I had arrived at the hostel around 11, and found the whole place in a drunken revelry. My friend Laura, with a platinum blonde sheen of hair and an impeccably proper English accent, told me I would have to play catch up. We bought beers at the 7-11 and set out en mass for the crowded streets pumping house music, lined with coolers full of Leos and Chan, crawling with stumbling, screeching, drunk white kids and knee-high Thai children with their hands on their hips, hawking red and white roses for 100 bhat a pop.

We drank and lost each other and drank some more. There were two cousins from Ecuador with loose afros that I spoke with in broken Spanish about my plans to go to Rio for the world cup. There was a German boy who sat with me on the curb while I cried for an hour, refusing to go inside and dance. There was a Thai girl who threw her arms around me when I gave her 100 bhat for a red rose. She came back and gave me four more wrapped in plastic, then put a clipped white rose in my hair and a red one behind my ear. I gave her the 100 bhat because she had wiped tears from my face, telling me “No cry; no cry,” in a grown-up voice that made me feel frivolous and self-absorbed.

I had wandered back to the hostel sometime after 3am. I had lost Laura and found the Ecuadorean cousins inside a 24hr Burger King. I had almost hailed a tuk tuk from there but changed my mind when the driver asked me if I wanted weed. (I did, but not from him.) The three of us walked back through a narrow alleyway full of scurrying rats and clothes hung out to dry. When the yellow glow of the hostel lights emerged at the other end and I saw the Irish boy with the grey sweater sitting on the ground, my spirit rose. I wasn’t going anywhere yet.

I take a Night bus from Bangkok to Krabi and meet with the Fear

“I hate to say this, but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the fear.” “Nonsense. We came here to find the American dream. Now that we’re right in the vortex you want to quit. You must realize man, we found the main nerve.” “That’s what gives me the fear.”

“I hate to say this, but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the fear.”
“Nonsense. We came here to find the American dream. Now that we’re right in the vortex you want to quit. You must realize man, we found the main nerve.”
“That’s what gives me the fear.”

It was keeping me company on that long night ride South from Bangkok. I was never good at sleeping on buses, unlike Rob. He could sleep anywhere and in any situation. The best night’s sleep he had in Simahaphot was on the bathroom floor curled by the toilet. He threw up half the night and was bright as a daisy the next morning. I wasn’t gifted in that way. I sat awake staring into that  1am darkness while Rob’s head dipped and bobbed with the rocking of the bus.


I was acutely aware of my own heartbeat—that nervous flutter that usually comes from too much coffee. I hadn’t drunk any coffee. It was the Fear that was squeezing on my lungs.


But what was there to be afraid of? We were headed to Tonsai, to the rock climber’s paradise—a beach in the south of Thailand with limestone cliffs that towered over a teal ocean. It was what I’d been waiting for for the last four hellishly long months stuck in a backwater town of rice patties and Double A paper factories. I should have been giddy. But the Fear was there, staring down from the top of the seat in front of me with eyes like a monkey—animal eyes that looked back with recognition.

We would spend five nights in Tonsai, then one week together in Malaysia and Singapore. Then Rob would fly home to Brisbane, and I would be alone again in Southeast Asia. That was the heart of my fear.


Had it been that long since I had been alone in the world? Where would I go once the money ran out? Could I make it in Seoul working under the table? Did they have English teaching jobs in beach paradises? Would I go home to California after Songkran?


The prospect of going home was only slightly more terrifying than the idea of flying to Korea without money, contacts, or proper paperwork. Home would guarantee a semi-permanence—the possibility of getting trapped again. I could move into an overpriced apartment in north Oakland and leverage my university degree to land a waitressing job at Croll’s, spending half my paychecks on rent and the other half on booze. I could smother my dreams of writing in hard cider and sticky nugs of marijuana.


But goddamn did I miss baseball, and people back home were already posting pictures of The Giants’ spring training games on facebook.

The top of the bus was swaying like a ferry boat. Somewhere in the dark a passenger snored. It came to me then that this is what Marie must have felt just before she decided that she was in love with my then-boyfriend. I recalled the wild glare in her eyes when she told me how much she hated sleeping alone, even with her two cats and a rabbit named Mishka to keep her company. She had only been single for a week. I didn’t realized then how serious she was until it was too late. The Fear had a terrible power over that one.


I should say that this was when I roused my courage to face the great and terrible adventure of being alone in an unfamiliar world. I would wax philosophical on how facing the fear of the unknown is the beating heart of what drives the traveler. But instead I closed my eyes and decided to move in with my dad in Bangkok once the money ran out, then figure out the rest from there.

I opened my eyes in the darkness and the Fear blinked back at me from its perch on the bus seat, and smiled with a mouth full of feathers.