Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In My End Is My Beginning

This is Phu (Mountain) Kradeung, at sunset on January 1st taken from the saawng tao stop where the six of us waited for our bus back to Khon Khen and home. On the highest cliffs, there on the right, was where we sat with a cast of thousands at daybreak of that same day, and where the following photo was taken facing the other direction:
This was taken at around 6am. Woken up by Rita's friend Sean at 4:45, we hiked a mile or so in a silent stream of strangely garbed Thais- flip flops, funny animal hats, an assortment of down parkas and flimsy windbreakers. This after the first night in Thailand where I was shivering cold, and even during this dark hike my muscles remained tense. As I hiked I thought of the New Year's I spent camping with my family on the banks of the St. George River in Warren Maine, ten years earlier at the change of the Millennium, when so many dark predictions of chaos and collapse were bandied about, paranoid citizens buying thousand dollar survival kits and the radio and television alive with fear mongering experts. On that night there were five of us (I think for some reason the dog was with us, so six in that case) wrapped into a double zipped monster sleeping bag, enduring a night which dipped close to zero Fahrenheit. We managed to stay warm. Ten years later I spent it in a one-man tent in a six dollar Tesco sleeping bag through which, if I held it to the light, I could see through like a mosquito net. I managed to freeze. It did not help my night's sleep that we had chosen a campsite next to a threesome of young men who had splurged on a bottle of Chivas Regal (easily over $1000 Baht) and engaged in a scintillating and wide-ranging conversation, which to me sounded much like drunk half geese/half sheep animals, well past the midnight/New Year's mark. At 4:45 I made sure to invite them on the sunrise hike and tried to help them awake with some choice pine cones found laying near my tent.
The trip began with a series of challenging bus miscommunications which meant that after being thrown off of our first bus for not having tickets in advance (we never had to before) we had to stuff ourselves three to a seat for several hours, cramping the poor locals who were just trying to get to work or back home to their families. We actually disembarked at the wrong town at one point and were nearly left behind before scrambling back on to sit on the floor. Phu Kradeung is a famous mountain and we picked the most popular day of the year to hike it. This meant that our experience was less than typical. I suppose it would be akin to dropping in at Vail ski mountain during Christmas break and seeing the gyenormous lines at every lift.

 Still, the mountain is meant to traffic large numbers of people simultaneously and there were some very "Thai" aspects to the experience, including the existence of professional porters that most people use to carry their gear up the mountain for 15 bht a kilo.
My pack with the two tents weighed just 12 kilos, so it would have been about $6 up and $6 back to have it ported.
These men and women were unbelievably strong and sinewy and they spanned a range of ages. It was not uncommon to see them stopping for a cigarette break!
 I tried shouldering one of these loads to get an idea of what they went through to make a living and it couldn't have been less than 45 Kilos. This particular one is mostly two large bags of rice, a commercial load if you will, headed up to be served at one of the multiple restaurants located at the top. It is Thailand afterall, so not only were there restaurants and souvenir shops on top, there were four or five locations on the way up as well. It sort of felt like a very slow Boston Marathon where you could throw down some carbs or a drink as you hiked along.

 Rita and I paced ahead, we both have a pretty fast walk in general, but we stopped to smell the flowers, listen to the wind and birds in the bamboo forests, and eat a quick slice or two of daang moh (red watermelon).

 There were sections that were rigorously steep (I have no idea how the porters managed them), and some of them had stone or steel stairs built to get you up.
We went round and round later about how they possibly carted all of the materials to build and supply the structures on top, but with the exception of one tractor vehicle moving trash we saw no evidence of anything being delivered without human power. There were signs to watch for wild elephants (unfortunately the only chang we saw was Ben and this very strange thing in all black),
and Sarah wondered why they couldn't be put to lugging things up, a preferable life in some ways to putting on a dog and pony show (that is an oddly mixed metaphor- an elephant putting on a dog and pony show), but I pointed out that such a remedy would then put the porters out of a job, and then we would have had to go to the "porter round up" in Surin and watch the porters reenact old battles and throw darts at oversized  dart boards and give people rides around town. Once we arrived on the summit, where the porters put down their loads and they were transferred to rolling carts, and we covered a flat sandy 3 k trail, we arrived at an enormous tent city.
I am just guessing, but I would say there were close to 6,000 people who spent New Year's Night with us atop the massive butte. All things taken into consideration, it was remarkably laid back and well run. There were cold showers and sinks and trash areas and the eating/shopping area. There were tents to rent, and, as we only discovered too late the next morning, sleeping bags for 30 bht!!! I can only compare it to my ski trips to Colorado during Christmas break, where you either have to accept the crowds and relax, or think about it cynically and ruin your own vacation. And unlike the glitzy crowds pushing their way to the chairlift on $1200 skis, the mellow Thai vibe allows for no one-upmanship or rush. Of course, the phenomenal green curry was jacked all the way up from $1 to almost $2!!!
 That hot food truly hit the spot as the temperatures plummeted with the sunset. None of us brought any genuine cold weather gear, and like soldiers talking about home cooking on a distant front, we huddled in the night describing in detail our wonderful down parkas and super-insulated sleeping bags back in New Hampshire and Maine and Snowmass. It was not hard to get out of the sleeping bag when Sean gave the alert, because I wanted to get moving and get the blood back into my extremities. That plan worked a little, but it did not provide enough of an upswing to counter the 40 minutes of sitting on the cliff in the dark. Those first rays of daylight of 2011 were all the more delicious as they represented not only new beginnings but WARMTH!

Then it was time to scurry back to our tents and a hot breakfast, which, coupled with the Thai sun soon did it work and had us all back to our usual sweaty selves. Rita's friend Sean who teaches in Chaing Mai and his girlfriend Bpalm had to get back to their car for a twelve hour drive home, and after much discussion, we decided to head back down ourselves rather than stay another night.

This meant that Ben, who was arriving a day late, would be making the trek up the mountain with all his gear for the shear exercise of it, unless he wanted to stay up  on his own. There are many waterfalls on the top of the butte, yet at this time of year they are close to completely dry. We too had a long trip home and thought it better to catch up on our sleep in Khon Khen so we could be in good teaching form for the 4th. We scooched over to the nearest waterfall, snapped a few photos, and broke down the tents.
 Ben arrived at noon, beating Rita and my time of 3.5 hours by 30 minutes, in great spirits, and met our news of departure with his usual mai pen rai. We did allow him to eat a delicious lunch before heading back down- always the worst part on the body, most notably on my poor 50 year old knees. I was happy to say they held up great and I only felt the stabbing pain of a thousand scalpels for the last 2k or so. We took this group shot at the last rest area before the final descent:
We had planned on buying some Leuaang mo (yellow watermelon) at this stop, but it was the only one where the confection was not available. I decided this was our elusive Moby Dick, the unsatisfied object of our desire which would call us back. If I do make it back to the top of Phu Kradeung, it will most likely be conveyed like this elderly fellow. We wondered if they were going to throw him off the cliff  in some death ceremony or if he had paid for a round trip.

 I was very hooked on this Moby Dick premise and thought we should each come up with a personal Moby for which we quested while in Thailand. If one managed to locate their Moby, they had to immediately imagine a new one.
 My Moby breached the very next day in KK when I obsessed on finding a small restaurant deemed by the Lonely Planet as "one of the best in all of Thailand..." Here we are trying to find it. Hopeless. That is the problem with guides like LP. They provide a backbone at most. There are far more great places than they mention, and the places they describe are as wont to have disappeared as not. We did have luck with one of their recommendations for dinner, and the hotel they suggested that Ben and I stayed in, at $1.25 each, was truly up my alley style wise- old and funky and full of history. Leaving the mountain early turned out to be an excellent decision since we were all wiped out by the descent and our lack of sleep. 
  And what would a trip be without a shot of Ben fast asleep?  He did, after all, make the trip up and back with a full pack in a day. Just after this shot, Rita put a banana chip into the poor boy's mouth and danged if he didn't start chewing it in his sleep. So we beat most of you to the punch on New Years. Rita actually sent her brother a text many hours later when it was midnight in Colorado. Though it was far from any of our ideal back to nature journey, we all agreed that to feel the upward trail underfoot, to hear the wind in the pines(!) on top, and most of all the general change from our rice paddy, daily burning life was well worth every baht and every hour on the bus. One particular aspect of the trip that made it especially fun was the inclusion of Sarah from Texas and Malibu Jackie from Massachusetts. I gave Sarah a hard time about her penchant for finding the deadly lining to any nice moment: What a sunrise! And if you stare into it you will go blind...Oh that sun feels so good after freezing! Yes and it gives you cancer...Sarah is our resident computer guru and she turns me on to great music. And Jackie? A hard headed, whiskey-voiced, fearless young woman who just takes any moment and by her presence makes it automatically more energized and happy. A talented photographer and like myself and Ben, one with genuinely itchy feet. Here she is giving the old Beantown B:
 Back home, thinking about our trip led me back to all the other mountains I have climbed, and all the endings and beginnings that make up a life. This led me back to one of my all time favorite poems I discovered at 16, the TS Eliot poem East Coker. Here it is in part and I cannot believe how well it fits my current state:
  Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

and our cold night atop this Thai landmark led me then to the wonderful poems of Han Shan, translated by Gary Snyder:

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path
Han-shan (Cold Mountain), Han-shan (Cold Mountain) poetry, Buddhist, Buddhist poetry, Zen / Chan poetry, [TRADITION SUB2] poetry, Taoist poetry by Han-shan (Cold Mountain)
(730? - 850?)

English version by
Gary Snyder
Original Language

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?


  1. Hey Peter, I think you own me for subbing for me at tennis last year. You can send me the cash in Baht, that will work.

    Just kidding. I love following your adventure. Be safe and stay well.

  2. The guy in the Triumph shirt looks just like I remember him.

  3. Nice cross cultural references, Peter, hinting at the universality of human experience. Keep those word plays coming,too. Playing any tennis?