Ton Sai Dreaming

After a taxi, plane, bus and boat, we arrived in Ton Sai bay, near Krabi in the south of Thailand. Ton Sai could be aptly described as a climbers paradise, with huge orange cliffs dripping with stalactites, rising straight from sandy beaches. The first climbers arrived in Ton Sai in the early nineties, and since then there has been a lot of development. The bay has gone from having a handful of bamboo huts and restaurant shacks, to a large number of bungalows and resorts today. Consequently Ton Sai hosts a diverse crowd of early morning, muesli eating climbers and late night, beer drinking holiday makers – of course with most falling somewhere between the two extremes.

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Luke on the photogenic ‘Burnt Offerings’ (7a+)

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Ton Sai bay

A couple of our climbing friends from home had been staying on Ton Sai for the past month, and by chance our first day overlapped with their last day. It was great to see some familiar faces and to get the crucial info on which climbs to try, and of course the best places to eat!

After 5 months of almost no climbing, and far too much delicious Asian food, we were apprehensive about getting back on the rock. Things got off to an auspicious start, with both of us failing on routes we would usually warm up on. In our first couple of sessions we were exhausted after just one or two routes, but before long things improved and we began to gain fitness and move back up through the grades.

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Charlotte deep in ‘The Groovetube’ (6a)

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Stretched out on ‘Beauty And The Beast’ (6c)

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‘Straight Out Of Tonsai’ (7a) – if Carlsberg made climbing routes…

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Charlotte dispatching her project ‘Missing Snow’ (6b+)

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“Thumbs up if you love climbing!”

We’ve now been here for two weeks; I feel like I have regained decent onsighting form (climbing a route first go without falling off), but haven’t managed to redpoint (practising a route and then climbing it in one go) any difficult routes yet. Charlotte has made massive progress with the mental side of her climbing, and is leading (and falling!) more confidently than ever before. Regardless of our successes and failures, it is just a real pleasure to climb here.

So far we have really enjoyed being in Ton Sai; in particular it has been great to be based in one place for a while, rather than constantly moving on. We are relishing being able to exercise hard every day, something we have missed a lot! Equally, relaxing on the beach on rest days has been very pleasant…

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Apr├Ęs-climb fun

Tomorrow we are taking a 5 day trip to a remote island called Koh Lao Liang, which supposedly has some brilliant climbing, before returning to Ton Sai for a final week in which we hope to tick off some projects.

L

A Shift in Focus

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and, unlike Luang Prabang, can be accurately described as a city. It sits on the banks of the Mekong, with Thailand on the other side, meaning it receives a lot of one day visitors renewing Thai visas. We spent a few days here seeing the sights, but for us it didn’t have the same charm and character as Luang Prabang, and though our stay was pleasant enough we were happy to move on.

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Patuxai – Vientiane’s very own Arc de Triomphe

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The view from the top

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Pha That Luang – supposedly the most important national monument in Laos

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Big Buddha

After two visits to the Thai Consulate, and enduring its baffling queueing system, we succeeded in obtaining Thai visas and were ready to continue. Following a morning visit to the dilapidated local bowling alley (which felt like a time warp to the 1980s) we made our way to Thanaleng rail station, 13km outside the city. From here you stamp out of Laos, and board a 15 minute shuttle train which runs across the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge to Nong Khai station. This is usually a road bridge, but when the train runs the traffic is stopped at either end to let it pass. At Nong Khai station we were stamped into Thailand, and then boarded a overnight sleeper train to Bangkok. This was a real luxury after all the terrible sleeper buses, and we enjoyed a relatively comfortable nights sleep in our bunks.

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No selfie stick so I had to make do with my arms

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Goodbye Laos, hello Thailand

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Not a bus

After several months in Asia, we have succumbed to the common travellers ailment of ‘temple fatigue’, and so in Bangkok we were determined to steer clear of religious buildings. We took a long trip on the river ferry (a great way to avoid the notorious Bangkok road traffic) and then a taxi to reach the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Bangkok’s answer to the Tate Modern. MOCA only opened in 2012 and is housed in an impressive building which sees surprisingly few visitors, perhaps due to its location. It was really refreshing to spend an afternoon here, and even the long journey on its own would have been worthwhile to see the different sides of the city. We also visited the Museum of Siam, a brilliantly interactive museum which focuses on Thai history and heritage.

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Futuristic Bangkok

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Buddhist heaven, middle earth and hell at MOCA

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A mugshot (sorry…)

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Exploring the markets of Chinatown

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Birthday in Bangkok

Our arrival in Bangkok marked the halfway point of our trip, and also a (metaphorical) change in direction. So far we have been purely travelling, and barring a week in Hampi we have not done any rock climbing. Whilst we’ve had a fantastic time, we’ve both found the lack of climbing difficult and have felt the effect on our bodies (that, and all the street food!). We are moving on to Krabi next, Thailand’s best known climbing destination, where we will stay for 4 weeks. We are both very excited about starting to climb again, though also prepared for a few ego-denting weeks whilst we get back into it! Our next stops after Krabi are New Zealand and Australia, where climbing will continue to be a major focus (apologies in advance to our non-climbing readers).

We have had an incredible 5 months, full of memories and experiences – from getting engaged in the Mongolian wilderness, to scaling mountains in the Nepalese Himalaya, to kicking back on a beautiful Cambodian beach. We can’t wait to see what the next 5 months have in store…

L

Welcome to the Jungle

We made it to the other side… eventually!

The route from Hanoi to Luang Prabang follows a fairly major road through Vietnam to the border, a nondescript collection of concrete buildings, before deteriorating into a winding track through Northern Laos’ mountainous countryside. It would be reasonable to expect the 526 mile journey to take a while, but at an average speed of 17 mph it was almost unbearable. We left Hanoi at 17:30, continued to pick up passengers and cargo throughout the journey and arrived sagging in Luang Prabang 30 hours later!

Luang Prabang is the second biggest city in Laos, but with a population of just 62,000 it feels more like a town. Bordered by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it is a UNESCO protected peninsula made up of stunning temples and colonial French buildings. The relaxed atmosphere has drawn increasing numbers of visitors, but despite the blossoming guesthouses and restaurants it has retained its charm.

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Monks crossing the seasonally constructed bamboo bridge

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The Royal Palace of Luang Prabang

We knew very little about Laos before arriving, but like other SE Asian countries it is steeped in a rich history; fighting kingdoms, French rule, and the U.S. “Secret War”. Between 1965 and 1973, in response to the Viet Cong funnelling massive amounts of war munitions down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. devastated eastern and northeastern Laos with nonstop carpet bombing. The scale of the bombing is almost unbelievable, with an average of one B-52 bomb-load being dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 8 years! Due to the secret nature of the war, the usual rules which govern warfare (as applied in Vietnam) were not enforced, and so all types of weapons, from cluster bombs to chemical agents, were released indiscriminately on civilian settlements. It is estimated that 30% of the cluster bombs that were dropped failed to detonate, and death and injury from unexploded ordinance (UXO) remains a very real fear in many provinces of Laos. One of the most interesting exhibitions in Luang Prabang is the UXO visitor centre, where the story of the Secret War and its after effects are documented alongside the efforts being made to clear Laos of its UXO.

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U.S. cluster bomb

Having spent Christmas eating our way through Hanoi we were in desperate need of exercise. We had heard that the jungles and rivers of Laos were excellent for trekking, kayaking and mountain biking, and so by the end of our first day we had booked the most challenging (longest) trek and mountain bike trip we could find!

On reflection we worried that a challenging route in the mountain biking world could mean technically as well as physically difficult, but when our guide arrived in a designer shirt and jeans our minds were put at rest, and in fact both the distance and the dirt track terrain made for a brilliant and suitably “challenging” day out.

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Crossing the Mekong river

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Don’t get your feet wet…

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Riding through the rice paddies

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Spot the bikers

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Bringing in the New Year

We are usually more than happy walking with a map and compass, and tend to avoid organised treks. However, considering that the country is peppered with UXO and made up of dense jungle, we decided to make an exception this time, and following our mountain biking tour we headed back into the jungle for a 3 day, 2 night, home stay trek.

Aside from walking through the countryside, which after an easy first day became harder and harder, we learnt about the different tribes of Laos and how rural communities live without the need for electricity and running water. Both the villages in which we stayed were welcoming and happy for us to get involved in their daily jobs, and as usual the most inquisitive of all were the village children who challenged each other to get a closer view of the strangers. We were lucky to be joined by a diverse, interesting group for the trek, and were lead by 2 knowledgeable and funny pint-sized Lao guides. We both returned tired, dirty and stiff but with a much better knowledge of the Lao countryside and its communities.

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Luke makes a new friend

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The curious locals

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Beautiful Laos countryside

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Not always plain sailing

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Jungle lunch

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A change of shoes was essential

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Beating sticky rice – it’s a man’s job

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The view from above

Our final sight seeing trip was to the Kuang Si falls, a 40 minute drive from the city. Armed with camera and swimming attire, we spent an afternoon exploring the multi-tiered cascade and splashing about in the turquoise lagoons at its foot. Its description as “a tonic for sore eyes” wasn’t far off the mark.

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Kuang Si falls

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The beautiful blue lagoons

Luang Prabang has been a welcome break from the hustle of Vietnam, and the perfect mix of sightseeing, relaxation and exercise. It has also not disappointed in the range of street cuisine on offer; fresh fruit shakes, French style baguettes and barbecued bananas to name but a few of the more healthy delights on offer. We are now off to Vientiane, Laos’ capital, on a relatively swift 10 hour night ride.

C