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I don’t know how I ended up in Tonsai except that I followed two friends to this stretch without having done any research. What the hell? I was really going out of my comfort zone, leaving myself open to whatever comes. Upon having my luggage thrown from a big boat to a smaller boat, then taken to this beach, where I waded in knee deep water to collect my luggage from the smaller boat and from there waited on the beach until I could figure out where my friends were. They had left earlier that morning and I had chosen to sleep in and take the afternoon ferry.
The karst was spectacular. I looked briefly at the travel guide and excitement grew as I thought about all the rock climbing I could do in addition to cave exploration. After finding my friends, we laughed maniacally at how beautiful this place was and couldn’t believe we were actually there. “Where are we?” we kept asking each other. As we walked up the hill, my friend, M, relays a story of her experience prior. She had tried to reach me through messenger, but she could not find wifi anywhere. She approached a young lady who had thick dreads, and the lady said, “Why do you need internet in such a place? But here, you can use my phone, it has unlimited data.”
After we check into our bungalow (mine had a corrugated tin roof and barely any lighting), I sat outside, where this young man reading a Tim Robbins novel from his hammock greeted me. “Where are you going next?” he asked. It’s a thing all the travelers ask, I’ve noticed. Where are you going? Some are truly interested in where you are going, others just want to know to make sure you’re not going anywhere they haven’t gone before.
“I’m thinking of Ao Nang,” I said. There’s a Muay Thai gym there that offers Brazilian jiujitsu, which I wanted to train at. I hadn’t gotten a chance to train since Penang, and I missed all those lovely gyms in Phuket because I had gotten my tattoo.
“Why would you want to go there? It’s full of tourists. I have been in Tonsai for four months. This is the real Thailand.”
My mouth fell agape at this. If there is a “real Thailand” I doubt that it would be in this enclave of hippies and pseudo mountain climbers with fair skin and braids with beads in their hair. I look around me and not one Thai person did I see. This is the real Thailand? As the day progressed, it worsened. There were slackliners playing with fire, scantily dressed barely out of their teens running amok hopped on some powerful cocktail of drugs, and then us, completely out of our element and getting more and more uncomfortable by the minute. Maybe it was because we were all in our thirties, or maybe it was because we just didn’t belong, but by the time we saw the moon in the sky, we wanted to get the hell out. The locals running the businesses there were unhappy, unfriendly, and could frankly not care less about you–in stark contradiction to all the other places in Thailand I have been. And I don’t blame them.
Tonsai is beautiful, but it is not my scene and I doubt I would returned there any time soon. Maybe when I develop more patience for the kind of debauchery and depraved behavior I witnessed there.
This place. From the faces that look at you in smirks that even the Mona Lisa could not hold a flame up to, beckoning you inside the walled temple city. The red dust that rises from sun baked dirt roads only to dampen in the late afternoon rain that only provides temporary relief from the heat. Another world. Another time. From Thailand I went to the Philippines and then back to Thailand and then it was time to move on. Somehow by then three and a half months had passed and I could not tell you what I have done. Except that I had gone into a dreamland.
I spent the first few days in Phuket in near agony: my legs were too stiff to move. As a result, I spent most of my time lazing about on the beach. I didn’t even bother taking my camera with me anywhere. Then there was this fun little accident where I meant to go to Khao Lak, but accidentally ended up in Koh Lanta. Surprise! Had I not done that I would not have visited Koh Rok, which had some of the best snorkeling I have ever seen.
After Mulu, I went back to Kuching. I spent three more days there, but honestly I don’t remember much. I recall sitting at the table staring at my toast in the dim fluorescent lit kitchen, looking at the brown edges, the lingering cigarette smoke stale in my throat, wondering when I should open my laptop and where I ought to next. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to go back. But I knew I couldn’t. I had to keep going.
So I opened my laptop and decided to check out the other parts of Borneo. Sabah, specifically. And kind of on a whim, I decided that yes, I will climb a mountain. I have never summited a mountain. All the reports I read said it was doable and easy and any one can do it. I sent off an email and the next day I got a response, that yes there was one spot available, but it was for two days from that morning. Usually the spots are booked up half year in advance. Before I knew it, I was in Kota Kinabalu, trying to find a bus to take me to the mountain.
If there is anything I can say about Borneo people, it is this: they are absolutely kind, warm, and friendly. My cabbie refused to leave me alone at the bus station, waiting patiently until I boarded a minibus (basically an over cramped minivan) and we were on our way to the mountain. On the return trip, I was taken out to a football match of Sabah vs Kuala Lumpur by a few locals who just wanted to ensure I had a great time in Sabah.
My first night on the mountain, I saw some cats in cages. Loud, cramped, and fat, I felt uncomfortably eating my dinner next to the kitchen while they were in cages. I made a note to eat only vegetarian food for the remainder of my stay. Early the next morning, they were nowhere to be seen. Great, I thought. I did my best to push aside my own cultural identity and recognize that just because I don’t eat cats, doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. I quickly ate my vegetarian breakfast and made my way to the entrance of Mount Kinabalu Nation Park.
My God, the sight of that mountain’s jagged peaks is a formidable scene. That morning the crisp air allowed a clear viewing of what so many of us were going to attempt. It is a perfectly safe climb, though my nerves were shot a little from accounts I had read earlier about a tourist who fell to her death. And then I started talking to other would-be climbers. Ropes? Vertical ascent? I am not cut out for that. I mean, as soon I landed in Kuala Lumpur, some kind of depression hit me, and I succumbed–being the weak person that I am–and bought a pack of cigarettes. I hadn’t been smoking that much, but still a few cigarettes a day is probably too many when you’re attempting a climb to 13,450 feet peak. What have I gotten myself into?
There are two ways of attempting the Mount Kinabalu climb. The first way (a really crazy way) is to attempt it in one day. It is much cheaper to do a same day climb as you only need to pay the park fees and mountain guide. You and your guide meet early in the morning and you set off giving yourself something like 6-8 hours to do the whole thing. There are numerous gates and check points along the way at which you can rest, and some of them, you must be present by a certain time. If you do not approach the last gate by 11 am or something like that, you will not be permitted to go any further. The second approach–the way I chose to do it–is spread out over 2 days/1 night, but it cost more as it includes your meals and overnight accommodation at Laban Rata. The cost you pay does not include the mountain guide. Add to that there are different costs for foreigners and locals.
So that morning as I approached the Park HQ, I start questioning what I was doing there. I am completely unprepared. This isn’t Mulu. The higher elevation meant cooler air, less humidity, and a landscape not unfamiliar to me. I know this kind of place. I asked around to see if I could split my guide fees with anyone else, and luckily the pair of two women I asked accepted. Sometimes it’s nice to be a solo female traveler. They happened to be from KL, so I managed to get in on the local price. It was extremely fortunately for me as well as Gampat was assigned to us, and he spoke not one word of English and I hadn’t bothered to learn one word of Bahasa. The ladies were incredibly kind and translated a lot for me. As we started our climb, the three of us begin to realize how unprepared we were.
“Surely you guys trained for this?” asked another climber at the third rest stop. No, we shook our head in unison. I mean, it’s supposed to be an easy climb, right? I just walk up the mountain? Perhaps I should have done a bit more research. For the first hour or two, our group sped up the mountain until Gampat told us to slow down. “It’s not a race,” he reminded us.
Look, do you see that first photo of the stairs? How the path crumbled and gave way to rubble? Those steps are actually pretty steep. At times I had to climb them using all four limbs. Well that pathway is only the beginning of the trail. Soon it got worse. And worse. After every bend, every rest stop, ever ascent–I thought, it will get better soon. No. No, it did not. It only got worse. It would not relent. My thighs burned. I wanted to give up. After the first hour. Despite smoking again, I am pretty fit and am no stranger to physical exertion, but I came unprepared. As we went up, there were people coming down, bearing smiles and grin, reassuring us, “It’s totally worth it, don’t give up.” Their wobbly legs could hardly find even footing in the steep path– slippery and wet in some places, unstable and crumbling in others.
Laban Rata. After five hours of stair master climb, we stopped for the night in a place above the clouds. We ate our dinner euphorically, all of us dreading the 1am wakeup call to continue the remainder of the ascent in darkness. Quite a few people had already retired for the evening, but some of us wanted to watch the sunset. I wish I could have brought my DSLR, but I knew I couldn’t carry the weight. In this post is one of my favorite photos of the sunset from the view deck of the rest house. A diagonal line of trees. A splash of color. The flora there had a pale green tinge like the lichen in coastal redwood forests. I love this color. I watched the color stretch thin and blend into a black horizon even from the slit in the curtains from the top bunk in a room of five others.
1am came and alarms started to go off. In groups of two and threes, we got up and prepared ourselves for our trek, enjoying a hot meal before setting off. Most people couldn’t eat. I could hardly but I knew I would need the energy, so I forced myself to swallow a few spoonful of eggs and a couple of sips of coffee. I am a caffeine addict, but I didn’t want to upset my stomach or make the remainder of the climb any worse. An hour later, we followed the beams of light bouncing in the dark up the mountain. I’m glad we did some of the stretches in total darkness. Nothing but our head torches. There was one section where we had to walk on a ledge, our body hugged to the side of the rocky surface, our hands gripping the suspended rope that. That part scared the shit out of me. I couldn’t see anything at all and it seemed inevitable that I would fall and plummet to my death.
And the steepness doesn’t relent. I mentioned that earlier. We were lucky that night/early morning as the sky was clear and the weather good to us. It’s freezing at that altitude. Rain, sleet, snow–water is a common element that often comes out just to make the arduous journey that much more tortuous and unbearable. Once the ropes make an appearance, they don’t go away. They stay there. To guide you. As you walk up and up and up, all you see are dancing beams of light, turning off and on as people move their heads to gage what they’re seeing. Gampat assured us we were leveling off and soon to reach the “flat section.” Well, the flat section is still a slope, just left of a vertical incline. We climb higher and higher in the darkness. We are so high up, people are succumbing to altitude sickness. Some have broken off from the group, huddling their own legs for warmth, with the lucky ones having a partner to hold. My head starts to ache. My fingers go numb. I can see the two women in my group ahead of me and I wanted to cry. This is hard. Seriously hard. My legs don’t want to go any further. I am barely warm, ill dressed, unprepared, exhausted and just worn out. I want to give up. I looked at Gampat. I shook my head. He looked at me, pointing his finger to where a cluster of stars rested on the midpoint of the flat black canvas. “The top, don’t give up.” Still I shook my head. It hurts, I muttered. The next thing I know, Gampat has my hand, and not only is he leading me up the mountain, we are walking fast.
First light. The world became visible again, starting as shapeless splotches of colors until they bled into bright light, illuminating the lunar terrain. I had never done anything as mentally, physically, or emotionally challenging as climbing that mountain. But I did it. And as soon as I was done, I wanted to get the hell off that mountain and onwards to a beach in Thailand.
Above the clouds, a diagonal line is a silhouette of trees. The last light of day. I watch as the colors drain from this world. Before first light we will wake and into the dark we will go where our eyes cannot see and our feet do no want to go. I rest my poor tired soles upon this granite moonface. If I stop too long, I may not continue. In the distance I see the dots of light stop, where before they were stars on this dark rock, blinking a kind of morse code. There I will go and wait for the colors to return–if I can make it in time.