Photo Friday: Sleepy Baby Monkey

Posted by Ted on Feb 17, 2012 in Outdoors, Photography

Continuing the thread of family from the last installment, this week brings you a pair of Capuchin monkeys, taken at Manuel Antonio National Park, in Costa Rica. These were the first monkeys we’d seen in real life, and while quite photogenic, they were actually quite territorial and vicious up close, with foul rotten teeth.

However, what stood out most in memory was seeing something so familiar, that of a baby clinging contentedly to its parent .. 15 feet up a tree.

(Related photos of Monkeys in Costa Rica can be found here.)

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Review: Crank Adventures – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Posted by Ted on Apr 22, 2011 in Activities, Biking, Outdoors, Reviews, Travel

It all started with a dog named Lucy.

On an evening in early December, Liz and I had been celebrating the Shan New Year with our “Team Chiang Mai” friends at the Thai Freedom House. Arriving separately, I biked back to our guesthouse, and Liz’s walk home took her past a man and his dog grabbing some dinner at a streetside noodle stall. Liz was friends with Lucy by the time she found out that her owner was an adventure sport and tour leading expert. After a quick flurry of late night emails, it was settled — I’d be picked up early in the morning to join Crank Adventures for a 2-day mountain biking tour.

Blearily waking up at 7:40a, I took a quick shower and grabbed breakfast to go from the nearest 7-11. I ate my pork bao, yogurt, and pandan cake as the van carried us north into hills, an hour past Mae Rim. I spent the time getting to know the owner. Damian is a jovial and knowledgeable Australian, fluent in Thai and familiar with just about every trail in Northern Thailand. Finally we were deposited on a hilltop where we unloaded the bikes, donned our gear, took the requisite ‘before’ photos, and charged down the mostly paved hill.

The valley scenery was stunning. We rode past rice paddies and hill tribe villages, and up and down a number of small hills, of which I walked up many of the climbs, out of breath but determined. On or off-road, bicycling is one of the best ways to see a country. Senses of sight and smell are heightened, and you attain an intimate connection with your environment. A rutted dirt track took us through a field, thick smoke rising from slash-and-burn farming. We crossed the Mae Taeng at the river village of Ban Sop Kai, where we stopped for lunch at a noodle shop and were accosted by Hmong women selling cheap bracelets, smiling with betel-blackened teeth.

Back on our bikes, we headed downstream, taking our leave from the road to explore the hills. This was my first time, so I was unaware that the holy grails of mountain biking are “single track” trails, and Damian’s passion is seeking them out. Whereas such trails at home might be created ad-hoc by bikers, these paths were clearly used for inter-village travel – for some villages, a small trail might be the only way in or out. Many of the villages are sustained by the King’s Royal Project to turn opium fields into rice, teak, lychee, longan, corn, banana, cabbage, and passionfruit. Lulled into the peaceful scenery, I was unprepared for the grueling mid-afternoon climb, wherein I pushed the bike and my backpack up a rock-strewn rutted mountain trail.

Bikes and bikers strewn across the forested hilltop, we enjoyed a short rest. Then, as if we were getting off a ski lift, it was time to launch ourselves nearly straight down the mountain. Exhilarating doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of barreling downhill, on track that was maybe 9 inches wide, with a precipitous dropoff to the side. I quickly learned new skills of gauging paths, speed, and break control. Sliding on dirt and rubble is not only unavoidable, it’s part of the skillset.

We finally arrived at a village along the Mae Taeng, used by several tour groups as an overnight stop. A bouncy bamboo bridge spanned the river next to a much bigger, yet broken, concrete one. The first thing I did was strip down to my underwear and jump in the river, letting the fast-flowing cool water carry the day’s sweat away. After rinsing my clothes just as the locals do, I wandered up the hill to relax on the deck with a beer before dinner – green curry with chicken and pumpkin. A long day behind us, and another ahead of us, it was early to bed. We slept dorm-style, in a big multi-room building, and I was unlucky enough to be between snorers, earplugs useless against the reverberating of floorboards throughout the night.

In the morning, after a breakfast of leftovers, we loaded bikes onto the roof of a truck, and took an e-ticket ride up the mountain, bouncing around the back of the truck. After what felt like forever, we reached the top, where we once again unloaded the bikes, and took off down a twisty mountain road. We went through a gate into a nature park of completely overgrown forest, often with no visible trail. We crossed little streams on foot, or over “bridges” of lumber.

We rejoined civilization next to the rapids of the Mae Taeng, riding past white water rafting outfits and negotiating around elephants. I waved to a man making a thatched roof, and passed by a woman doing laundry. The dirt road led to the place we’d had lunch the day before, and the same Hmong women were peddling trinkets. Across the river again and down the other side, up a long hill, then we shot off towards Lisu Lodge, biking down same road I last went down on ox-cart seven months earlier.

Looking back, it was a blur of concentration – extremely technical riding, but thru scenic valley vistas and rice fields, forests, and past villages where kids waved and laughed as we passed by. A decade of serious road cycling was barely adequate training for the sorts of skills that one must quickly learn in mountain biking. Our adventure ended at Wat Tung Luang. We stopped in Mae Rim for lunch, and I savored my last khao soi. Finally back home, I enjoyed a 2 hour massage for 240 Baht ($8).

I still haven’t met Lucy, but I look forward to thanking her when we return to Chiang Mai.

Crank Adventures
3/2 Ratchapakinai Rd, Tambon Suthep
Amphur Muang Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand
Phone: +66 (0) 819527699
Email: info@crankadventures.com
Web: http://www.crankadventures.com


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A harrowing river adventure in Laos

Posted by Ted on Jan 15, 2011 in Activities, Outdoors, Travel

Of all six countries that we visited on our Southeast Asian Adventure, it was Laos that was the most challenging. The least developed of the lot, roads were not always paved, the language barrier was more pronounced, food quality was more questionable, and we narrowly avoided drowning in a river.

It all started in the quaint village of Nong Khiaw, nestled along a bend in the Nam Ou. We had decided to take an overnight kayak trip back down to Luang Prabang, 150 km to the south. The trouble began when we booked our tour with Green Discovery, one of many adventure specialists in the area; they charged us a higher-than-average commission for using a credit card and a lower-than-average exchange rate. Clearly, the “green” that they “discovered” was American dollars. That said, had that been the only issue, the most expensive activity of our trip would still have been worth the $360.

We were up early at 7am on the day of our departure, having already packed the night before. We enjoyed a tasty breakfast of banana pancakes with chocolate sauce and a couple of hard boiled eggs. We walked over to the Riverside, the one upscale resort in town where Green Discovery’s tours depart from. We met our guide, Tung, and proceeded to gather the supplies and take them down to the river where the kayaks were waiting. Despite being on-time for an early departure, we didn’t leave shore until 9:30.

It was a gorgeous day. The air was warm, the sky was clear, and the sun was shining down on the dramatic karst hills that flanked both sides of the river. Kayaking downstream was slow and peaceful, quite unlike the small, loud, and overcrowded hellboat that we took upriver a few days before. Dragonflies and butterflies flitted around us, and a large spider hung from the bow of our guide’s kayak, its legs skimming the water. We passed fishermen and giggling children along the riverbanks.

A few hours later, we pulled to shore for lunch at Ban Huihang, a small Khmu village. We hiked up the embankment and into the rustic settlement, where we were immediately beset upon by dozens of children. While Tung set out our lunch in the shade underneath a stilted house, we ‘falang‘ were the main attraction. Liz engaged them by taking and showing photos of them with her iPhone. While we ate our lunch, their gazes never left us. I decided to offer them their own diversion, and laid my iPhone on the ground, with ‘Bloom‘ set to ‘Create’. While the children seemed intimidated by the simple camera of the iPhone, Bloom spoke for itself with just a few taps from me to show them how it worked. It not only provided distraction from us eating our lunch, but it was fascinating to watch the understanding of how the completely intuitive UI and repeating patterns fell into place.

Finally it was time to get on our way, so we packed up and were escorted back down to the river by a few of the kids who waved to us as we paddled away. A couple of hours later, we stopped at Ban Houaikoung, another Khmu village on the prescribed tour itinerary. After a longer break than was necessary, we set out again and that’s when everything started to go wrong. We had navigated through some rapids throughout the day, but they were mere ripples compared to the turbulent whitewater that we soon encountered. To our novice credit, we did pretty well at first, shifting our weight and paddling down and over and around, attempting to remain upright. Then we collided with the other kayak and lost our balance, capsizing in the fast-moving river, our feet bouncing off rocks. My first instinct was to grab the drybag with my precious camera and hoist it above the waterline. Tung took the bag and helped us right our kayak and` get back on board. Our adrenaline pumping hard, our hearts beating fast, we caught our breath on the other side of the rapids and thanked Guanyin for keeping us alive. Had that been the extent of the day’s adventure, we might have even looked back on it as exhilarating fun, but it gets worse.

The sun had already dipped behind the jagged limestone peaks to our right, and soon after the colors in the sky revealed that it was setting behind the horizon. We called ahead to Tung and asked him how far until our stopping point for the day, another small riverside village where we would spend the night in a homestay. “Only 15-20 more minutes,” he reassured us. An hour later we were still paddling furiously downstream as full-on darkness descended upon us. Apparently, our guide had never run the route during the dry season when the river runs slower. We had no lights and under a sliver of a moon we could barely see our guide three meters in front of us as we navigated even more rapids. Our nerves were wracked and we didn’t know what to do. Finally, even Tung realized that the situation was dangerous and we were just not going to make it to our anticipated destination, so we pulled to the shore where we could see a single dim light of a village.

We trudged up into a dark settlement behind Tung, who asked around for the village elder. Finally, we were directed to the vice-chief’s house, who would put us up for the night. The simple two-room house with wicker walls and a corrugated tin roof was a welcome relief. Off the kitchen, we changed into dry clothes in the bathroom area, delineated only by a 5-foot-high concrete wall. We sat in the livingroom as they arranged mattresses and mosquito nets on the floor, and waited for dinner to be ready. We ate in silence, and the rest of the evening was spent in an awkward state of feeling like an imposition. Needless to say, we were disappointed by the turn of events – we had been looking forward to our homestay, and presumably our intended home was looking forward to visitors, instead of feeling obligated due to circumstance.

Once again, had that been the last complication and we managed our time better on day 2, we would have chalked it up as a colorful anecdote. Unfortunately, Liz became violently ill in the middle of the night with travelers sickness. While we ate the same meal, I was thankfully spared, but she was up for much of the night visiting the squat toilet all too frequently. I woke up with the rest of the village at 6:30a as the monks’ morning drumming in the wat next door sounded a slow beat at first picking up tempo over several minutes. Arriving at night, it was disorienting waking up in a strange place. A man walked by carrying fresh caught fish, and women with baskets of rice called “Sabaidee” through the open doorway. The vice-chief’s teenage daughter got ready for school, primping herself in front of a small mirror on the wall of the livingroom. I walked down to the small village pharmacy to get some medicine – we never knew what the discolored expired pills were, but they seemed to help.

Sick and unable to continue downriver, we waited for a couple of hours for the van that was supposed to pick up the kayaks in Luang Prabang to come and take us the rest of the way. Finally, it arrived, the kayaks were loaded, and we left Done Nun. The road followed the Nam Ou, and I could see it occasionally through the trees, wishing that we were on it rather than beside it. Eventually we made it back to town, we checked into a guesthouse, and Liz spent the rest of the day and evening recovering. What should have been a pleasant, slightly adventureful kayak trip turned out to be everything but. Thankfully, we have the memory of those children in Ban Huihang and the beauty of the river valley as some consolation for the stressful hardship we endured.

Have you had a similar experience of an activity going horribly wrong? Have you wondered if you would be lost at sea, dashed to rocks, or worse? Share your travel horror story!

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The Kong Lor Loop of Laos

Posted by Ted on Nov 4, 2010 in Outdoors, Travel

On the great Mekong River, 337 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, is the town of Thakhek. Decently sized by Laotian standards, it still has a fairly relaxed vibe and a riverfront strewn with restaurants and food carts offering a sunset view over Thailand. It is also a convenient starting point for The Kong Lor Loop,
a two to four day journey by motorbike through a dramatic karst landscape in order to take a small longtail boat underneath an immense limestone mountain.

The secret to this trip is revealed in a hand-drawn photo-copied map by Mr. Ku, whose one-room office is conveniently adjacent to the Thakhek Travel Lodge, a reasonably-priced guest house which features hard beds (the norm throughout Laos), excellent laap, and a bonfire every night. Mr. Ku will also rent you a motorbike for 100,000 kip per day, taking your passport as collateral.

The suggested route is counter-clockwise, and it is strongly advised that you always get an early 8a start to the day’s ride. Starting at 1p on our first day, we decided to reverse the directions by taking the main higher-speed road in order to cover the 186km to Ban Kong Lor, the village after which the cave is named, before sunset. Perhaps if we had not stopped to have our breath taken away by the spectacular grandeur of the Phu Hin Bun National Protected Area, we might have succeeded. As it was, we discovered the hard way that my bike did not have working head or tail lights.

Arriving after dark, the serene beauty of Kong Lor wasn’t revealed to us until the next morning when we awoke to water buffalos grazing in rice fields, framed by jagged limestone peaks. After a leisurely breakfast, we rode the 1km to the end of the road, paid the minimal park and parking fees, and happened upon a woman sitting at the gate reading a book. Her name was Katie, from Adelaide, and she was waiting for two other people to share the cost of one of the 3-seater boats through the cave. Finding it fortuitous that we all needed each other, we set off together to rent headlamps and hire a boat for 130,000 kip – about $16.

We walked into the small mouth of a cave which immediately opened up into a big cavern, and made our way over a soft clay floor to a waiting long-tail boat at the water’s edge. 20 feet long and 3 feet wide, with a small engine connected to an 8-foot long propeller, these craft ferry travelers the 7.5km through the pitch black subterranean tunnel and back. Riding just 6 inches above the surface of the water, we skimmed out into the river and headed upstream. The only lights were from our headlamps shining circles on the walls and ceiling like scanning floodlights against a night sky. The only sound was of the water rushing past and the loud engine, without which we would be stranded beneath a mountain like Gollum.

As we wound through the serpentine cave, our mouths were agape in awe. Generally about 200 feet wide, the tunnel’s ceiling varied between 10 and 100 feet above our heads. Then we would turn a corner and enter into a cavern that would reach 300 feet high, and all sense of significance was lost. We were but the smallest creatures in a gargantuan underground cavern. This happened over and over again as we navigated the river. After about 2km, we pulled to the shore in a large section with lights illuminating a particularly impressive series of stalactites and stalagmites. Surrounded by strange shapes in a dusty grey moon-like landscape, we felt as if we had stepped onto the set of a sci if movie.

We returned to the boat and snaked our way upstream, passing through more caverns and occasionally having to get out in order for the boatmen to push the craft through shallows. We finally exited into blinding daylight, finding ourselves in a lush green wilderness, surrounded by majestic peaks. We spent some time on shore walking to a nearby village before returning to the boat for our trip back through the cave. Heading downstream this time, we sped through the twisty tunnel without stopping. At one point we stopped to add more gas to the engine, and I relished the quiet moment, listening to the water echoing in the cave, wishing that we could have turned off our headlamps, just for a minute, to experience the cavern in its lightless natural state.

When we returned to Kong Lor, we shared a quick lunch before saying goodbye to our new friend and heading out again, aiming to make Kuon Kham before sunset, not only racing sunlight but dwindling fuel tanks. Arriving on fumes, we found a gas station and a nearby guest house to crash for the night. The next morning we set out early towards Lak Sao, 58km to the east, knowing that the day’s ride would be a hard one. The wind blew with fierce determination, causing us to stop several times just to gather our nerves. We had intended to hit the ATM to replenish our supply of kip, but neglected to take into consideration that it was a Saturday, and the one bank in town was closed. Thankfully, we had enough for lunch and our guest houses were happy to be paid in Thai Baht. Then we turned south, and that’s when the five hours of stressful riding really began.

The “road” from Lak Sao to Thalang is 62km of harrowing white-knuckled excitement. The first half is rutted uneven dirt and rocks. The second half was more flat and even, but composed of loose gravel. We could not tell you anything about the scenery, for navigating the road on motorbikes in 2nd gear required every iota of concentration that we had. Thankfully, we arrived in Thalang just before sunset. There’s a reason that the suggested route is counter-clockwise – it puts this section of road squarely in the early morning. Had the sun won the day’s race, we would have camped out by the side of the road rather than continue on in darkness. We found a guest house, and as we relaxed by the after-dinner bonfire, sharing bottles of Beer Lao with another couple taking The Loop, who should arrive but Katie, having made her own way by walking and hitchhiking.

Our last day began early again, parting ways shortly after breakfast. The road south of Thalang offered no respite, the gravel finer and only slightly less loose. Stopping in Nakai for lunch, we ran into Katie again by the side of the road on the south side of town, our game of leap-frog providing a moment of levity in the otherwise stressful second day of hard riding. We did not see paved road until many kilometers later, shortly before we turned west towards Thakhek. We relished in being able to use 4th gear again. 30km from the end of our adventure, we stopped to take a short break. That’s when Liz’ motorbike failed to start.

Neither the electric starter nor the kickstart brought the bike to life. We wheeled the bike into the nearest small village looking for a mechanic, but there were no one but children. We stashed the bike off the road, and continued on. The first shop we found was closed, being Sunday. 6km further, we found a mechanic relaxing with his family. With no common language, we played a game of charades, using the working bike to convey that the failing bike had gas, and we’d tried both methods of starting it. He pointed to the spark plug, and we simply shrugged. He grabbed a new one and a couple of tools, then followed us back down the road. Within 2 minutes, he replaced a worn black spark plug with a shiny new one, and the bike purred back to life. For this emergency out-call service, he asked for just 20,000 kip – about $2.50.

Finally on our way, with just an hour before sunset, we were rewarded with the most spectacular scenery yet. These last few kilometers east of Thakhek took us through a range of karsts, a deep orange-red sun playing peekaboo among the vertical cliffs. Tears of joy and sacred awe fell beneath my visor. Sadly, I was too frazzled and worried about the dwindling daylight to stop and capture the magnificent beauty with my camera. We made it into town before dark, and a mere 20 yards from the Travel Lodge that we had left 3 days earlier, we saw a familiar traveler walking down the road. By separate means, we and Katie had managed to travel the same route in the same time, each with our own stories to tell.

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The heart of America

Posted by Ted on Jul 5, 2010 in Events, Outdoors

Thanks to the windfall of some friends – the use of a summer home for a couple weeks – we spent the July 4th weekend getting a taste of gold rush country.

ps1322-c3-1867_00001Copperopolis is a small town nestled in the Sierra foothills, just over two hours east of San Francisco. It is located in Calaveras County, made slightly famous by the tale of an unwitting frog, told by that uniquely American troublemaker and storyteller, Mark Twain. While Angel’s Camp is the only incorporated city, dozens of small towns are scattered throughout the rolling hills, some as small as Carson Hill with only 37 people. Steeped in the history of our westward expansion and entrepreneurial spirit, we connected with our new Californian roots.

The weekend was filled with such wonders as Natural Bridges, where a forest creek has cut through a ridge of limestone deposits creating watery subterranean caves. The first cavern is the most impressive, sporting a high ceiling crenelated with stalactites. Halfway through, there is a bend with an outcropping one can stand on and jump into a deeper section of the slowly flowing creek. The downstream end is the most magical, as one navigates around sheets of rain falling from the ceiling, fed from another creek above. natural-bridges-smI spent at least half an hour in an innertube with my legs crossed, pushing off the sides with my hands, crisscrossing the cavern. When one starts to get chilly, just crawl back out and lay on any number of large rocks that line the creek. One of the things I love most about California is her diverse geographical beauty, and Natural Bridges is one of the most striking places that I’ve seen in my year and a half here in the Bay Area, and it’s completely free. There’s a part of me that wants to hide this secret place, but instead I’ll just caution those who might feel inspired to treat all natural resources with respect and to Leave No Trace.

As if that wasn’t already a great way to spend a Saturday, we went from there to Ironstone Vineyards, where we joined a couple thousand revelers relaxing on the grass waiting for the sun to set. Once it was dark enough, the sky erupted above us in a star-spangled shower of fireworks. I have seen flashier individual explosions, with longer trails or intricate shapes, but I have never seen a choreography so well executed. The timing was flawless, taking the audience on a roller coaster of fiery joy. Every time we thought the show would end, there would be another volley of light over our heads.

columbia-state-park2Yesterday, the proper 4th of July, we stepped back 150 years into the wild wild west, wandering up and down the streets of Columbia. With mid-19th century storefronts and townspeople in historical dress, it felt like walking through Frontierland at DisneyWorld, only more authentic. There were watermelon and pie eating contests, gold panning stations, horse-drawn carriage rides, and Sarsaparilla flavored shaved ice. We watched more than a dozen kids try to climb two greased poles, which was more entertaining than any of us expected. Both collaborative and competitive, it was exciting to see different techniques being used. Some kids would wrap their hands with their shirts to wipe off the grease, others would throw dirt on the pole to provide traction. As one technique was shown to work, others would copy it. Since I could not climb a pole, greased or otherwise, every child had my respect.

Eventually it was time to leave, and we made our way back to Copperopolis, spending the evening drinking, grilling, lighting fireworks, and stargazing. Between stunning natural beauty, immersion in gold rush history, spectacular fireworks, and the making of new friends, it was the most truly American celebration of our Independence Day that I have ever experienced.

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