[Sorry for the post delay and the switch to photographs for this one. I'm searchng for a better illustration method than the way I was previously drawing on my iPad, and anyway photos are more appropriate for this post anyhow.]
Both times I've been to Tonsai Beach I've gotten food poisoning.
This time I learned it has a name: Tonsai Belly. Food handling practices aren't up to Western standards, I guess. But then, neither are standards for garbage (most of it is burned in piles), water (bottled is the only fresh source), and lodging (most bathrooms are outdoors, hot water is a luxury.) The economy of Tonsai is so small that cash is a problem: the ATM dispenses thousand-baht notes, and most food and drink is tens of baht. There are maybe thirty stores total on the entire beach, so there's not much commerce.
In spite of its challenges and small overall size, Tonsai has two things in abundance: rock, and people who climb it.
Make that three things: Tonsai has charm. Lots of it. The buildings are made in a driftwood-and-bamboo style that is simultaneously earnestly local and also surprisingly robust. The craftsmanship is very good. And so the beach is peppered with low-key lounges, coffeeshops, and climbing stores busy with Thai residents and visiting foreigners alike hanging out in hammocks, balancing down slacklines, and sitting around talking about the routes they climbed that day, the ones they'll tackle tomorrow, and the projects they'd most like to work up to.
We landed on Tonsai Beach - you get there from Krabi airport via taxi and then longtail boat - and I felt a couple things. First, I thought, "This place is stunning." Then I looked around and thought, "These climbers are stunning." Almost everyone on Tonsai beach is a climber. Literally almost everyone. You wonder if the place is a theme park. It's such a staggering concentration of climbers that when you see someone who doesn't look like a climber you wonder if he got off on the wrong beach.
When I was done ogling the fit, shirtless climber dudes (and, to a lesser extent, the tanned, tank-top-wearing climber chicks) lounging around all over the place, I then had some other emotions:
Intimidation. Inadequacy. Frustration.
I think I'm a decent climber, but I don't train, not really. These people train. I looked around and immediately realized, I'm not showing up anybody here. I'm not getting on a climb and giving someone else advice. I'm going to be one of the weakest climbers here. It's an uncomfortable place to be.
But then immediately I thought: I wish I could stay here all season. I'd train so hard I'd get really strong.
* * *
Both times I've been to Railay Beach I've eaten cheese pizza.
In both cases it was because I had Tonsai Belly and couldn't take the spicy Thai cuisine anymore. Railay Beach is a respite for the spice-weary foreigner: luxurious resorts offer split menus in their restaurants, with full Thai cuisine but also reasonable facsimiles of Western fare, for those with chronically (or, in my case, acutely) less-adventurous stomachs. The main 'Walking Street' in Railay advertises Bud's Famous Ice Cream, apparently from San Francisco. Currency is easier to come by; stores are more plentiful and business is busier.
The most luxurious of the Railay resorts is Rayavadee. Security guards kept us from entering the grounds, but we got far enough up the steps to see that their most expensive accomodations, the Phranang Villas, go for $5000 USD per night.
Railay has many things in abundance. Gleaming tile. White sand. Private pools. And beach tourists. Lots and lots of beach tourists.
There's also great climbing in Railay, so on our second day we took a boat from Tonsai to Railay. As I walked down the beach I had some emotions:
Pride. Superiority. Self-assuredness.
On Tonsai I was passing climbers obviously stronger than me, carrying my rental equipment over my shoulder past them to the rock. On Railay I was walking past sunburnt people lying inert on the beach who stared in fascination at me as I walked by with my climbing gear. On Railay, tourists stand gawking and photographing climbers on even the easiest routes like they're some exotic animal species. It's easy to feel cool as a climber on Railay.
And immediately I thought: I have to get the hell off this beach.
* * *
The craziest thing about the dual cultures of Tonsai and Railay is that these beaches aren't on opposite sides of Thailand. They're right next to each other. When the tide is out, you can walk from one beach to the other in ten minutes. They're only a couple hundred yards apart. The culture shock gives you whiplash.
The rock in Krabi, this region of Thailand, is dramatically vertical, jutting directly up from the flat beaches in towering spires and pinnacles and cliffs. It makes for phenomenal climbing, and also for the hard separation of beaches that preserves the cultural isolation. Out of sight, out of mind.
It has a storybook quality to it, the miniaturized scale and exaggerated cultural differences. It's like Tonsai and Railay are step-sisters in a Disney adaptation of an old fable.
It is, of course, a fable about context and accomplishment. It is the fable about all of us, with great dreams, lulled by comfort and pleasure into a dull, dreamless sleep. And occasionally, if we're lucky, we're brought back by a minor humiliation, a sense of loss, maybe wounded pride, and behind that sting we feel the dreams anew.
Both Tonsai and Railay are supportive environments in their own way. Railay supports the ego. "You've worked hard enough," she says, "Lay down here and rest. Have some Bud's ice cream. It's from San Francisco, you know."
Tonsai supports the other way, through challenge. "You're not really hungry," she says, "And you know you'll feel better - in a deep, lasting way - if you get out there and train. Come on."
Environments like Railay are everywhere. Environments like Tonsai are not. They are rare and precious. Often when I express frustration with my training, or point at a goal I want to achieve, there is someone nearby ready to make an excuse for me, to tell me I'm already working too hard, or say that from their perspective it sure seems like I'm climbing pretty well, or whatever.
After visiting Tonsai I realize I need to thank people politely when they do this and then ask them not to make excuses for me. Excuses are there to assuage the frustration, to "make you feel better," but this is a mistake. It is exactly this so-called "negative" energy of frustration and disappointment, when it arises, that we need not to dull away but to channel back as energy to work harder. I resolve to be more grateful for my frustration, and to use it as the gift it is.
Strive to find places to live, people to love, and routines to cherish that support not by coddling the ego but by challenging. Live every day in Tonsai.
Pro tip, though: bring your own food.
* * *
This is a post about accomplishment, so here are some things I might anticipate in the comments: "Climbing rocks or whatever you're accomplishing isn't the only thing in life, so maybe you should chill out," or maybe, "What do you have against people in Railay just trying to enjoy their vacation? You don't always have to be accomplishing things to be a worthwhile human." Let me head those responses off now:
I agree with you. Accomplishment is not everything. Beach vacations can be lovely. What is important is being honest with yourself about what makes you truly, deeply happy and finding environments that support that.
"But that's just like being able to ... push a peanut up Mt. Tamalpais with your nose, or any other kind of accomplishment you want to engage in."
I think this is important to understand. No accomplishment is intrinsically better than any other accomplishment. In fact, there's nothing intrinsically good about accomplishment, period. The only value accomplishments have is the personal value we each get out of them.
It's crucial to realize this because then you stop trying to defend your accomplishment in terms that boil down to "My accomplishment makes me a better person," and you can simply say, "I climb because it makes me happy to climb."
At that point it's just a simple choice: will it make me happier to train climbing and lose a few pounds so I can climb harder, or will it make me happy to spend that time eating ice cream instead? And if I choose the latter, is it a rational, reasoned decision, or is it just a failure of discipline, essentially miswanting? Well, the question is, later, having eaten the ice cream, will I later wish I hadn't? Will I wish I had gone climbing instead?
My answer is basically always "yes." And that's what I'm talking about here. I'm not talking about beating myself up, being too hard on myself, getting off on that masochistic feeling of inadequacy. I'm just talking about cultivating discipline, and recognizing the importance of context in supporting my discipline.
Because let's face it, that thing you wish you were better at? The excuses you tell yourself about life balance and overextending yourself? What if you stopped telling yourself those excuses and channeled that frustration into training? I'm willing to bet you'd be a happier person. I know I would.
One last thing: The people on Tonsai? And the people on Railay?
Guess who smiles more.
(It's not even close.)