Feeling Trapped In Tonsai
Tonsai held a promise. A promise of a laid back, barefoot, hippie, rock climbing, Bob Marley-esque paradise. It sounded perfect for our next destination after Krabi. We were heading to Railay because we wanted to try rock climbing, you know, on actual rocks for the first time.
There are different areas where you can stay in Railay, including Railay West, East and Tonsai. Tonsai is so different, and so isolated from the others that it doesn’t even seem like part of the island. It feels more like the black sheep, rasta, weed-smoking, happy mushroom shake-drinker kid of the family.
Getting there wasn’t easy, fact that, for most people, probably adds to its magic. After an overcrowded bus ride to Ao Nang from Krabi, a long tail boat took us directly to Tonsai. The tide was really low, though, so we had to walk, backpacks on, waist deep into sea to reach the boat. Forty minutes later we were pulling up in Tonsai, where the tide was also low. Here, what was supposed to be the beach was really just a big puddle of mud.
It was useless putting our shoes on after that, so we walked barefoot the length of the town until, at last, we reached the bungalows we’d previously booked. (Note: This was a mistake since we ended up paying more than if we’d just pulled up on arrival and asked for a room.)
Pretty quickly we learned that Tonsai only has electricity a few hours a day, wifi is pretty much nonexistent, and everything’s more expensive than on mainland, including drinking water.
After settling in, I started reading about Tonsai for the first time. And that’s when I first heard about “it” and it hunted me every single second after that: Tonsai Tummy.
Apparently, most people who stay in Tonsai get sick. And I mean, 5-straight-days-puking-your-guts-out sick. If you google the term yourself you’ll find that at least the first 10 results are blog posts talking about this disease with phrases like: “Shitting Myself in Tonsai” “a cute sounding virus that knocked me on my back”, “nasty fever, complete with nausea, whole lot of throwing up, diarrhea and uncontrollable shakes”, “no one avoids getting sick.” “No matter where or what you ate, or how clean you tried to stay, almost everyone fell victim to the rumbling, explosive, raging belly-demon”. You get the picture.
After being ill myself the first day we got to Thailand I had zero intentions of getting sick again. I still wasn’t healthy, and for someone who likes to take care of herself, this was taking its toll on me.
Nervousness crept up inside me immediately and settled, hard like a rock, in my chest. Suddenly every bar, every stall, every restaurant seemed dangerous and menacing. Far more than the endless cliffs we were climbing the next day.
For a moment, I didn’t care that I found Tonsai so attractive that I wanted to explore every corner of it, that it invited me to get to know it beyond the surface, and that in the few hours I’d been there, it had managed to get beneath my skin.
I wanted to get the hell outta there, pronto.
We’d already payed for four nights at our bungalows and they were non-refundable. I was stuck. And it’s one thing to stay somewhere because you want to, and a whole different thing to stay because there’s no other choice.
That night Isaac suggested we could walk back to Railay to get something to eat, since I refused to eat in Tonsai. It was already dark and even though the hike isn’t difficult-just some scrambling over rocks, and slippery parts- there was no way we were doing it in pitch blackness. So we had to turn back.
I was in a sour mood by then and I was being an impossible brat. I admit it. In my defense, the prospect of getting sick in a smouldering hot bungalow of questionable cleanliness, and missing out on climbing just put me on edge.
We sat in a beach-front bar where Isaac was brave enough to eat. It was actually quite nice: comfy cushions on mats with the waves crashing just a few feet away. I lay down, and as I was trying to shut the whole world out, Isaac said something or other about not being able to remember the name of a song, and I thought about my mom and how she had the worst short term memory ever, and then about her cooking, especially her risotto, and what I would’ve given to eat one of those just one more time, and how I didn’t want to be in Tonsai anymore. And just like that, looking at the tip of Railay’s limestone cliffs, framed by a star-lit sky, next to the ocean, tears started to come out. Soon, I wasn’t able to stop. I sobbed. First quietly, then in a can’t breath-can’t-stop-shaking kind of way. And Isaac held me in silence, as if he understood just exactly what I needed.
And after a while I felt better.
I still didn’t eat anything, though.
The next day, on my first climb of the day, when I reached the ring that signaled the end of the wall and I turned around to look at the views. I froze.
I couldn’t believe such a beautiful place existed and that just a few hours earlier I had been so desperate to leave. I reminded myself how lucky I am just because I was there. I wasn’t entirely healed; Physically I knew I’d lost even more weight as I’d lived off steamed rice and water for the past week, and emotionally I still had a lot to process, a lot to try to accept. But being up there, feeling strong and yes, kind of a badass, I was free.
That night, Isaac, wise and understanding as always, told me that the beauty of it all was that there was nothing written on stone. If I thought two months in Thailand was too much, or if I wanted to go back to Australia to nurse myself back to health before continuing where we left off, or just leaving Thailand for good the next day, we could do it. We don’t have a ticket to anywhere, nor a home to get back to. It’s scary, but it’s also kind of magical.
It happens that when making plans we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make them work. We forget that it’s okay to, sometimes, just tear them apart and start again.
I was liberated. So, I decided to stay. Not because I wouldn’t get a refund of the room but because I wanted to be there.
It changed my views of the place, and from that moment on, I enjoyed my time in Tonsai.
During the day I curled up in beanbags with an amazing book: The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
We walked around town admiring the art on the wall.
I wrote, Isaac worked.
We hiked to Railay.
We watched the more experienced climbers create art with their bodies at dusk.
We met amazing people and spent our nights chilling to Raggae music, in sand beach bars, playing board games, and slacklining.
We went to Phra Nang Cave, and couldn’t help a fit of laughter at its…interesting… shrines.
We walked to Phra Nang beach.
We scrambled over some Jurassic park rocks to find a secret beach.
Did one of the most fun hikes up to the Viewpoint in Railay.
And I found Tonsai to be fun, painfully beautiful, and yes, liberating.
I don’t know if I’d go back. Tonsai Tummy was an ever present threat, one I never could escape completely. I’m glad I didn’t leave when I wanted to, though. I ended up enjoying its vibe, crossing rock climbing in paradise off my bucket list, and understanding that it’s okay to not want to be somewhere at a particular moment in time, but that it’s also okay to give that place a chance just the same.
Who knows, you might end up loving the place.
Have you gotten sick while traveling? How did you manage? How did you got healthy again? Have a place you wanted to leave surprised you? How?
Let me know in the comments below.