I had a dream last night.
We flew to Bangkok in late December, clueless, having done zero research prior to the trip. We always have an 'oh we'll figure it out later' mentality, which is super chill most of the times, but once in awhile comes back round and bites us in the ass.
Things we learnt about Bangkok: Street markets are everywhere. Street food is great but extremely un-vegetarian friendly. It also took me about 3-4 days for my stomach to get used to eating meat again. Tuktuks are expensive but fun for its initial novelty. Taxis are really cheap, and are more value for money than the public trains if you have a party of 2 and up. ONCE AGAIN HOSTEL IS THE BEST PLACE EVER (STAY THERE).
We hit up Wat Pho, which houses the reclining Buddha, Chatuchak market, Khaosan road (overrated), Soi Cowboy, a shit ton of markets and a mall that had themed floors (Terminal 21??) to name a few. There's also this pad thai place near our hostel called Thipsamai, a legendary pad thai place that is probably a better landmark than the Grand Palace - think queues that lead to the side of the road - but we, or at least I, never have the patience to wait that long for my food. So we just had pad thai at a neighboring little street stall, and that was pretty fucking dank already. Basically, all street food is dope, and you never go wrong with pad thai.
We left Once Again hostel on New Year's Eve for the airport to hop on a flight to Ho Chi Minh. When we went to the check in desk, the guy takes a look at Garson's American passport and goes, "Where is your visa?" Awkward pause. "Visa?" "Yes. You need a visa to go to Vietnam. You can apply for it online." I guess that's what happens when you've gone to war with another country in the last 40/50 years? We do a mad dash to go find an Internet cafe, having only an hour left to go back to the check in desk, only to find out that it takes about 1-2 days for the visa to be processed (there is no visa on arrival for Americans) and because it was NYE, even if we chose the same day option, the embassy or whatever wasn't even going to be open until January 4th. We were fucked, basically. After a lot of sitting around and twiddling our thumbs and dry laughing at our predicament while crying on the inside, we eventually accepted that we weren't getting on that plane and headed back to Once Again Hostel.
Life pro tip: always check if you need a visa to go to a country.
New Year's was fun though; we joined in the celebrations on the rooftop deck of the hostel, met some really cool people, drank a ton (of free drinks heyyy) and watched fireworks go off all around us. Wouldn't have changed anything.
We spent 2 more nights in BKK. By then we were ready to head out of the city, so we (read: Garson) decided we should go to Koh Samed (read: I'm not keen on beaches).
We spent a day snorkeling, drinking beers and chillin' hard. We found a pretty cool vantage point on one of the islands nearby and at some point I found myself remarking that tourist beach towns aren't so bad... at least for a day.
Towering over the rest of Bali at 3,142m, the stratovolcano Mt Agung is the tallest peak on the island. In 1963, the volcano erupted and devastated the villages around its vicinity. The lava that flowed from the volcano narrowly missed the Besakih Temple, a Hindu temple nestled snugly in the bosom of the mountain at 1,000m. Because of this, the people took this as a sign from the Gods that the temple was godsent and to be preserved.
Batuhan and I took a quick weekend getaway to Bali to climb this beast of a mountain. A very curious pairing - he was shooting for a documentary project for class, and I was scouting for Montaña, A Pilgrimage.
We stayed at Sasha's while in Bali, a guy Batuhan hit up on Couchsurfing. His house was conveniently located in the middle of the Sayan rice fields in Ubud, and I was very very delighted to find a vegan raw food place called Alchemy nearby - delicious huge salad for cheap (relative to Singapore/Austin)!!! We also met Nathan, a New Zealand transplant who now owns his own little organic farm with goats, puppies and ducks!
I knew this expedition was going to be hard, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I've climbed mountains before in Colorado and Montana (Batuhan - alpine mountaineer extraordinaire - scoffs disdainfully every time I mention this, "But you didn't actually climb them right?"), so another mountain can’t be too hard, right? Turns out I was pretty fucking wrong.
The 6.5/7 hours spent climbing up the volcano in the dark has blurred together in my mind. It started off being a rather flat trail, and then it became straight vertical. Because soft volcanic ash covered the ground and made it slippery, everything was twice as hard. I remember climbing on all fours, using ropes to help hoist me up to the next level, and so many times falling, struggling to not slide back down the mountain, and having to crawl painfully up on all fours. It was pure mental strength that kept me pressing on; I remember thinking that it doesn’t matter how slow I am going as long as I keep pressing on and making it to the summit.
There was a little white dog that followed us up the mountain! She would trot along the trails with us, occasionally disappearing to sniff out some curiosities but would always come back to the trail to us. As Batuhan and Gede went on ahead (they were much faster), for the most of my climb up the mountain, I found myself completely alone in the pitch black darkness of night. This little dog would follow the rest of my party up ahead, but double back to walk with me!
The terrain eventually evolved from sandy volcanic ash to bigger pebbles and rocks, and eventually into gigantic boulders that you had to climb over. My Ahnu hiking boots saved my life, and once again I was reminded of how important adequate footwear was – the grip on my boots allowed me to easily move from rock to rock. The goal was to reach the summit before sunrise, but because of my slower pace, the sunrise happened while I was 30 minutes away from the summit.
It was an ethereal experience, seeing the sunrise from the mountain, even though I was only close to the peak and not on it. As I walked towards my goal, the sky lightened up and I could see everything... Every. Thing. The sea, the towns, the curvatures of Bali. It was an illumination from the Universe. That's when I started tearing up; not when I was struggling to ascend, not when I ate shit a thousand times, not when I was exhausted out of my mind and felt like my legs could never take another step. All I remember while sobbing to myself as I continued to climb, was the constant thought of how amazing this Earth was, how humbled I felt, and how a universal love was swelling up within me.
We sat at there as the sun slowly rose up to greet us, waiting and caring for nobody yet providing life time and time again.
The way down is arguably harder than the way up. Descending is hard on your knees because of the impact it has to take, and because of how steep and slippery the volcano was, everybody took a tumble every couple meters. It was definitely more dangerous and technical than ascending, which just required body strength and will power.
It took 14 hours to ascend and descend this beast of a mountain. It was an approximate 2,000m elevation rise, and it was easily the hardest and most technical hike I’ve ever done. I remember sleeping for 14 hours when I got back to my room, passed out and dead to the world.
The next day we hit up the hot springs neighboring Mt Batur to soak our tired muscles. Although we did get into a heart attack inducing, albeit minor, car accident on the way there, it was a pretty tight day trip. Note to self: if you are renting a car for $15 a day, it's gonna be old as shit and the brakes probably won't work!!
When you’re on a mountain that high up, you realize that all the good and evil of the man-made world are of no consequence towards the vast magnitude of the Earth and its orogenesis. Nature is its own; nature grows and evolves and dies and it is a cycle of energy recycling itself organically. We have and are living a life of irresponsible hubris on this Earth but the only beings we are killing are ourselves; our lack of respect towards the universe is our own downfall, for this planet will go on far beyond us, and so will this galaxy, and this universe. Environmentalists and preach about our planet that needs saving are wrong – we need to save ourselves and live in awareness.
Bali is beautiful, but Ubud specifically is gorgeous. The rice fields that reaches the horizons are actually a product of an ancient water irrigation technique called Subak; the water from Mt Batur literally provides life for the people through feeding the rice plants! However the gentrification of the area as of late is actually killing the rice farming culture. Garson and I go back to Bali in December to explore this intricate relationship between mountains, water and the Balinese rice farming community for our documentary. So excited to get this little passion project kickstarted.
Watch this space for more updates!