Day 6: Dice push for big day, long night
Proud of setting this new little bouldering problem on Koh Samui. Also pretty stocked to have snagged the photos, shame I wasn't able to get the ones of the high foot as you come over the top. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
MY BREATHING is rapid, as I'm forced to fully commit to the climb. My fingers are hyper aware of the coarse granite boulder; my mind completely focused. Now that I'm several meters up, I'm not thinking about the low quality rock that was crumbling away from my starting foot hold.
The dice were given six options: rock climbing, explore by bike, yoga class, Muay Thai, indoor skydiving and visit the Secrete Buddha Garden.
It takes several minutes of searching to dig up the price for the indoor skydiving, which ends up being 1,800 baht. It's reasonable enough to put on the dice. I wanted to put it as an option either way, but I wasn't prepared for it to break the bank. Most of the other options are low cost, or no cost. Muay Thai squeezed in at the bottom of my interest range simply because it would be kind of funny to let the dice turn me into a punching bag.
I tried Muay Thai in Phuket. It consisted of me being tired, confused and getting hit in the face a lot. Turns out that I don't like getting hit in the face. But one session at the will of the dice would be a laugh.
The die came up an ace – a one spot. Ecstatically, I pack my bag.
I was still in a funk when I got off the ferry to Koh Samui yesterday, but the beautiful granite boulders dotting the hillside just north of Silver Beach had put a silly grin on my face. My eyes could barely stay on the road, I was so enamored by the chunks of rock, which look like Easter eggs tucked into a big basket of hay and fake grass.
Bouncing along a dirt path in a coconut plantation I make for the hills. The dirt path Ts into a cheap, light-gray cement road that steeply slices up the hillside.
The florescent blue back of a Black-capped Kingfisher catches the tropical sun as the bird zips across the path, coming to rest on some of the underbrush. I park the bike at a Y-junction to examine one slightly overhanging boulders in the area.
The steep slope and uneven ground at the base is a concern, but without a crash pad or a buddy to spot me, concerns are as common as crickets in the countryside.
Though nobody has probably ever climbed the rock before, the line is pretty clear. I test the strength of the rock for my anticipated handholds – they are solid. Footholds, however, are something completely different. The first few spots that look good give away quickly. The rock crumbles under my toes. I kick at it for a bit, hoping that something will hold.
I give up, and look for a higher toehold – further from the ground, the rock has taken a more relentless beating from the weather, making it sturdier.
I find it the starting foot hold.
My fingers go white with a dusting of pure, uncut chalk.
My breathing is rapid, but my mind is calm. At this point I don't think about what the results of a fall will be. Most likely a twisted ankle, though there is always the possibility of cracking my head on the edge of the cement road.
These are the sort of thoughts that lead to falling.
These are the sort of thoughts that are dangerous.
Thankfully, this is not what's in my mind.
Three moves in and there is a high, wide left foot placement. Making the move, I know I'm vulnerable. Two steady moves later, I scream. I'm on top. I'm on top of the fucking world.
Okay, I'm on top of a little boulder on a little island in a tiny corner of the world, but it's something.
This is Dice Travels.
My heart is pounding. I look out over the coconut groves and shop-houses lining the road to the ocean. The tide is low. The dirty reef is nearly exposed. Beyond it, the water is a rich deep blue. My body is wet from sweat as I search for a way to clamber down and do the moves again, eventually catching them on camera.
I'm in no way qualified to legitimately claim a first ascent. In fact, I still haven't gotten my head around exactly how making such a claim works. But I name the bouldering problem Dice Travels. I give it a very low rating of V1, despite the heart-pounding moments spent climbing it. In addition to so many things, I'm terrible at rating climbing routes, so until someone seconds the problem, we'll just have to assume I'm right.
I wander through the dry, dead underbrush to another enormous boulder. There is an interesting high start with a wild undercling, but there doesn't appear to be anywhere to go from there. Perhaps with company and a crashed pad, it would be worth having a play on, just to feel it out, but as it is I'm going to pass.
The bike is still parked at the Y-junction. One branch of the road heads up a series of steep inclines, with no clear indications where exactly it goes. The other branch leads to a private home and tennis court, pleasantly nestled into paradise.
It's hard to know what's up the hill, there is so much potential. However, the road is steep and the back of the bike is heavy. Popping the clutch or even giving it too much gas in a low gear could put the bike back on one wheel and me completely out of control. A good friend of mine, had a serious crash in a similar sort of situation – it just comes with the territory of the back of the bike being overloaded.
I'm torn. So, I roll the die.
Odds, call it a day; evens, the bike goes up the hill with me on it. The die bonces on the road. It's a two. With a big fist pump, I enthusiastically climb back on the bike and start up the slope.
The brush presses in on the road, sloughed off debris scattered across the windy path. Slowly, the bike works it's way up.
The world drops away, a 180 degree, isolated look out reveals the ocean on both sides. To the right, the palm frowns of the coconut plantation give way to a shallow tidal zone just below the water's surface. From this height, it is easy to see a clear line between the light brown of the reef just below the water and the deep blue water beyond. To the left, between two enormous boulders the ocean also stretches out to the horizon. Two fishing trawlers float in a small bay, while a cluster of sailboats dot the water further offshore. It's Saturday, perhaps there is race.
Having just narrowly missed the stunning view by a coin flip, makes the entire vista even more precious.
Further along, the road just ends in a thicket of forest. It's most likely one of the many projects underway on the island, or perhaps already abandoned. Unfinished resorts and villas are common sights on the islands dotting the waters of Thailand, this is especially the case in Phuket. These enormous cement structures with 5-star views lay vacant and discarded, as funds for the investment dried up, business partners clashed or it just wasn't possible to put enough grease on the wheels of the legal system. However, this particular bit of road feels very new, with black Thai script spray painted on it, as if giving directions for utility lines to be put in.
On the main road, I start retracing my steps to Brown Rice Healthy Canteen – I need vegetables, and if a vegan restaurant can't serve up some decent veggies, who can?
A man with broad shoulders, a heavy gut and a face reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone's is leaving as I arrive. He looks at the bike, commenting on it.
The conversation evolves, sliding from my trip to an insane motorbike trip he took completely unprepared through the mountains of India toward Nepal. He and a New Zealand woman who joined him on the bike were left sharing slices of potatoes with locals, who didn't even have enough to food feed themselves, but shared their meager rations nonetheless.
“It gives me something to look back on. I can always say, 'I did that,'” he tells me. “It keeps life in perspective.”
He's a Qigong Master, who has been coming to Koh Samui for more than a decade.
“Are there any classes tomorrow?” I ask.
There aren't. In fact, the man is taking part in a ceremony of drinking ayahuasca, a Peruvian hallucinogenic plant used in traditional medicines. When the time is right for a person, the ceremony can provide answers to many of life questions as the person undergoes an out-of-body experience and is confronted by Nature. Nature with a capital “N”.
There is a full-on American shaman on the island somewhere. People fly in from all around the world to visit him, the man explains. There is also a pristine jungle environment south of Surat Thani where all the animals come together, an untouched place where the Peruvian plant is grown.
“I'm not telling you this for your blog,” he says in confidence. He's telling me because part of his journey is planting the seeds for the revelations that can be found while taking ayahuasca.
Though I've never had a drug harder than marijuana, caffeine or sugar, I'm not against them. They've just not played a role in my life. However, part of me, just part of me, wants to be invited along. It is path that would deserve at least a one in four chance of me walking it, or possibly even a coin flip. If the timing is right, the dice will know.
“There is an Oolong tea tasting attended by some expats on the island very Saturday just down the street,” he says. “Just go straight through the spa, walk up the stairs and say hi to everyone if you want to join. It runs from noon until 5pm.”
The tea is directly from Taiwan.
I agree to go, picturing some opium den environment where people are drinking tea out of little cups their faces cast in shadows. Is it a test? A tea ceremony that opens doors to an entirely different side of the island?
It's only 3pm, I agree to join after eating lunch.
“I'll see you down there,” I say, not realizing that he might not still be there by the tie I arrive.
He adds me on Facebook and starts following Dice Travels on Facebook as well. We shake, and I turn to go inside the restaurant for lunch, keenly aware that I don't know what color his eyes are, which were obscured by his sunglasses.
Inside, I'm not impressed with the selection of food. I quickly chose Thai-style cabbage and soup. The dice orders Butterfly Pea Juice, which they are out of, so I go with another option.
I sit at the long communal-style dining table, another couple is already on the same bench as me, but at the far end of it.
Moments after putting my food in front of me, the server places another dish and bowl of soup directly across from me. A Canadian girl, about my age, with thick, slightly wavy blond hair sits down across from me. We are both fiddling with our phones.
I put mine down.
We are no longer use to sharing a table with a stranger. A hundred years ago, it would no doubt be common place. Now, however, we are used to our own table, empty of uninvited people. Our phones work as our social crutches. They seem to demonstrate that we are both busy and already have people who like us. People who presumably are messaging us at nearly any moment that a social situation becomes awkward.
I try the soup. It's the kind of better that makes you think it must be healthy.
There is a small chess set sitting between us. I wait for her to put her phone down. It's an inevitable moment, as it's very hard to watch food going into your mouth, while you are also watching your phone. I don't have to wait long. She put's her phone down.
We start to talk. That's how you stop being strangers. The conversation is engaging. She's just escaped the rain that is hammering my climbing friends in Railey on the Andaman Coast.
I find it easy to converse with North Americans, there is a shared cultural understanding that keeps everything flowing.
She's about to embark on two weeks of Muay Thai training. I wish her good luck. Hopefully, she enjoys getting punched in the face more than I do.
Done with my food, but not ready to leave the conversation, I ordered a coffee at the prompting of the owner of the restaurant.
Time quickens. An hour goes by. If I don't wrap up the conversation soon, I'll miss my chance to step through the wardrobe into a different side of Samui.
I quickly explain the tea ceremony, hesitating to invite her along, as I'll be a stranger to the situation myself. I get her Facebook in hopes of catching up later. We leave Brown Rice together, with me mumbling something about having left my keys in the ignition.
This isn't the first time that I've left the keys in the bike in this trip. In fact, it's become a very bad habit. There is no point locking my stuff in panniers, if I'm going to leave those keys and the keys to the bike in the ignition.
The lights of the bike look faint, as I attempt to start it. It doesn't start. After a few failed attempts to get it running, Bertie discretely slips away, no need to watch my embarrassing attempt to sort out the bike.
It had nearly failed to start earlier when I left the keys in the ignition at the top of the hill with the boulders. Now, it's not in the mood at all.
The Ooling tea ceremony is slipping between my fingers as I shove the bike down the road. I try to pop the clutch, to kick start it, but with no success. Minutes later, I'm able to shove it into a Tesco grocery store parking lot.
I start running with it, perhaps running is the wrong word, despite being on wheels it's a damn heavy piece of machinery to push. With the bike in first gear and a little momentum, I let out the clutch and she bursts into life, almost bucking out of my hands. I hit the brakes and let off the throttle, barely managing not to drop the bloody thing.
Away we go.
I can't find the hotel that the Oolong tea ceremony is being held at. The man's directions had been very clear. I must have passed it. Air comes in sharply through my nose as I take a deep breath to calm down.
The name of the hotel pops up on Google Maps. Yup, passed it. At about 4:20pm.
Do you drink Ooling? Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A group of about nine people sit around a table on the second floor of the open-air, Bali-style restaurant area of the resort. I walk past them and gaze out at the sea.
I finally muster the courage to speak,“Is there time left for me to join.”
Of course there is. I pull up a chair next to an American chap named Harvey and nice younger man who is conducting the tea tasting.
The tea table, which takes nearly an hour to properly unpack and setup, is well used and adds an aura of ritual to the situation.
“Have you ever had Ooling?” the young Norwegian man asks, after informing me that San-bao the “Tea Master” is not on the island at the moment to present the tasting.
“Yes, yes, I have,” I say.
I have had Ooling before. I'm sure I have. Not that I've necessarily framed it up in my mind as “I drink Ooling”. It was more of a, English Breakfast and Sleepy Time Camomile don't seem right. Maybe I'll try some sort of green tea; I'll give Ooling a try.
I hear tea connoisseurs gasping and see Tea Masters gently shaking their heads, at the vocalization of such a thought.
Ooling isn't a green tea; the processing is different, they might inform me, if they thought I was worth educating on the matter.
The nice man presents a small wooden plate with a wide, low-rimmed shot glass of a tea cup and a tall narrow tea cup.
He carefully pours a serving of Four Seasons Ooling into the tall cup.
I think him. Surrounding the table are the aged faces of expats, most who appear to work in the health-retreat industry.
I bring the tall cup to my lips and taste it.
It's also a faux pas, not that I realize it.
Nobody says anything, there isn't even a sideways glance to inform me that I've made a misstep and ousted myself as an impostor.
There is some small talk that touches on Dice Travels briefly, but lacks to capture anyone's imagination. Finally, one woman from London launches into a story about a wild trip she had in Myanmar more than a decade ago to catch a solar eclipse. It's always a pleasure to just sit back and listen to a good story.
We try another tea, Ooling Ding Dong.
Those freshly served wait a moment, then slowly pour the tea from the tall cup to the squat one. They bury their noses into the tall cup, deeply breathing in the aroma, before sipping the tea.
Monkey see, monkey do. This time, I follow the proper process for drinking Ooling.
The tea ceremony, is apparently regularly held at a number of other places on the island throughout the week, and was not – at least to my knowledge – some gateway to another world. Then again, it's always possible that I just failed the test.
Either way, it was pleasant. And I can now safely say: “Yes, I have tried Ooling.”
A gaggle of English girls are in the dorm room getting ready for the evening with the bravado of young pups freshly off the leash that is so common for kids on their gap year. One is in a towel, waiting for the shower in the room to open up. Their bustling charges the room with energy. I figure it's time to finally shave.
I shower down the hall, returning to the room without my shirt on to collect a few things and then grab dinner.
A close examination of my off-white underwear before dressing in the shower reveals a brown stain that smelled exactly as one would expect it to. Even though I plan on dropping Bertie a line, their was no plan for me to be losing my pants, so what's a little brown at the end of the day?
My Tinder account is blowing up with matches. While reviewing matches during dinner, it's clear that it was a questionable choice to indiscriminately swipe right for everyone: the vast majority of people that like me back seem to be prostitutes – one profile blatantly points out “Remember, no money, no honey” – or ladyboys. Nonetheless, there are a few interesting matches as well – possible adventure buddies. However, nothing beats chance meetings in the real world.
I drop Bertie a message on Facebook.
“Was thinking of leaving my evening plans to the dice. Want in?” I ask.
“Haha. Sure!.. Or Wait... What are the options?... I should probably know those first,” she writes in a quick stream of of messages.
“Up to us.”
I'm ten minutes late as I walk up to Lamai Central Plaza, which is a cluster of girly bars bathed in bright pink lights with a Muay Thai boxing ring at the heart of it all. The bar stools are all empty except for a few working girls waiting for the night to get started.
Bertie, wearing a loose black dress, sits at a table across the street. She's digging into a helping of panang curry.
I join here at the table.
“Let's do this,” I say.
We jot down the options for the night, which we had outlined earlier, but I refined on the drive over to Lamai: 1) Attempt to get to the half-moon party 2) Go to a ladyboy show 3) Eat ice cream 4) Go to a biker bar.
I hand Bertie the four-sided die.
Option number one, which was carefully worded, is the most extreme possibility. The half-moon party is on the next island over, Koh Phangan. It's an hour ferry ride and then a night of debauchery. The key word is “attempt”. Strong gusts of wind are whipping across the island, I have no idea what the wind was doing to the sea or if boats would be running to Koh Phangan. I really didn't want to have to go the airport and try to find some last-minute booking just to follow through on a die role, so we will simply make a reasonable attempt, if the die shows a one.
Bertie rolls: one.
After a cocktail, we climb onto the bike and head toward the pier from which the boats to Koh Phangna leave. By the time we arrive, it's nearly 10pm. No boats are going. Or at least we can't find one. The three woman working at one of the private speedboat charters seems baffled by our request for an immediate transfer to the party. In a last ditch effort, we cruise the main drag for a tour booking agency, but, not surprisingly, none are open.
Well, we tried.
We stop at the first bar we can find, a little Thai place that according to a couple of stickers prohibits anyone under the age of 18, as well as firearms and knives – seems reasonable enough. On the chalk board there is a picture of a pitcher pouring some frothy pink stuff into shot glasses for 109 baht.
We order it. It's a pitcher of artificially flavored, slightly alcoholic slushy. The die orders the blueberry flavor, which is at the top of my range.
However, the waiter serves us grape, or at least it sure tastes like grape.
The half-moon party is removed from the list and replaced by “Go dancing”.
Bertie rolls again: three – ice cream.
We quickly finish off the slushy, battling brain freezes, and make it to the ice cream parlor down the streets, Casa de Italina Cafe, fifteen minutes before it closes.
We taste a number of ice creams. Bertie is torn between chocolate chip and dark chocolate fudge.
“Would you be disappointed with either?” I ask.
“Evens, you get chocolate chip; odds you get dark chocolate.”
I roll; she orders the dark chocolate fudge.
For the next mission, and the final mission of the night, the die sends us off to find a karaoke bar.
It's Asia. How hard can it be to find a karaoke bar? In Phuket, I could track down a karaoke bar in minutes. On Koh Samui, it turns into a full mission.
We are pointed in the right direction, passing countless bars and nightlife venues, but can't find a karaokes. After my haphazard guessing gets us nowhere in the first 40 minutes, Bertie takes over with Google Maps.
“Take a right here,” she says. The narrow road seems more of a path for cattle than a road. However, Google Maps is confident, so Bertie is confident.
The windy path quickly gives way to some deep sand. Small shacks are scattered around us. We end up on a dusty sepak takraw court, with no karaoke insight.
We are forced to backtrack. Finally, Diamond Karaoke, the place recommended to us at the slushy bar comes into view.
It's a squat, off-white building with florescent lights and worn-out sign done up with a Vegas font.
With utterly glee we bounce into the place and get ourselves situated.
It's a big room with fake wooden paneling, awkwardly colored pleather couches, a variety of pillows that must have been stolen from someone's grandmother's house, a oriental fan spread across the front wall, next to the TV, and a big blue curtain on the back wall. Behind the curtain is just more wall.
After having previously established that we are ag similar levels of really bad at karaoke, we are now in our element. A server starts pouring us glasses of soda and whiskey from the half bottle of Regent we order. We launch in with “Mambo No 5”.
“Achy Breaky Heart” is a big success, with Bertie trying to remember the proper line dancing moves for it, as I put on my best Elvis voice.
Smiles big enough to paint on a billboard, we plow on. Bertie sets a new bench mark for quality with
“California Girls” by Katy Perry and forces us to belt out “Hotel California”. With The Eagles seal broken, I'm quick to put “Desperado” on the list.
With song we recognize dwindling in the hodgepodge of options, I go for a long shot with “Mack The Knife”. The foxtrot comes on and Frank's there with me. I'm lost in the song, taken to a world far from the karaoke bar.
Another song comes on, which for the life of me I can't recall, but it's a waltz. A very fast waltz.
“Do you waltz?” I ask.
Apparently, everyone waltz. It's not elegant, but it's fun. We waltz around until the next song finds its way onto the television screen.
We sit a bit closer, legs touching, scouring the book for more options.
The English-language options that we know are completely exhausted, but we aren't.
In the momentary silence of the karaoke room, we start making jungle sounds into the mics, mixing in some low-quality beatboxing. If we weren't so wrapped up in the moment, we'd be bursting out with laughter.
The magic starts to fizzling a little as we get sidetracked in a conversation on professionalism with personal profiles on Facebook – she specializes on the tech side of digital advertising. The conservation slides sideways and becomes slightly more interesting as she becomes adamant that I should always use Google's Incognito mode when searching porn.
A few laughs later, we are back on the mics, rounding the night off with “Mambo No 5”, one last time.
It's nearly 4:00am. We split the bill and set off.
True to her Canadian roots, Bertie offers to find a taxi on the main road. The idea is so ridiculous – there aren't really taxis at this time of the morning – that I simply tease her about it for most of the drive back to her hotel, which is the opposite direction of mine.
She gets off the bike at a 7-Eleven next to her place to get some water. After a quick, surprisingly awkward hug, I put on my helmet and head back to Casa Luna.
The dice did well; it's time for sleep.