How an Island, an iPhone, and a Backwards Tattoo Changed My Life, Part II

Thailand's Andaman Sea and Phang Na Bay Limestone Karsts and Waters

The first time I saw the Andaman Sea’s waters, it gave me chills — all of those blues. I sat in the sand and tried to categorize the shades of blues and greens and aquas in front of me. I settled on turquoise, but that’s too generic and being unable to classify the shades is still giving me anxiety.

Thailand's Andaman Sea and Phang Na Bay Limestone Karsts and Waters

Weird Pantone color system complex aside, this landscape gave me goosebumps. But as much as it was the water and its blues I fell in love with, it’s what was surrounding and enclosing and towering out of it that really got me: the limestone karsts of Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, all imposing and vegetation-laden and filled with striations of history and geologic stories and all sorts of nerdstuff I don’t know the terminology for.

I wrote about it here.

I wrote about how I destroyed an iPhone in those waters, and how being without this digital crutch changed my travel plans; how I jumped off cliffs into that water and acquired lessons learned and an impressive massive bruise. I wrote about how I learned to take it easy. Most importantly, I wrote about how I let raw experience and the feelings it left me with guide my purpose. Instead of the other way around.

I say it changed my life. That was a year ago.

Now I know I say Chipotle burritos change my life, what with their proportionate sour cream to cheese ratio and expertly marinated meats and the spontaneous, always welcomed bites of cilantro (or coriander for you non-Americans). All in a shell of soft, warmed goodness.

But this is different.

The events that made up that perspective-shifting experience a year ago, just reoccured! In exactly the same order! Though different place and time. Not kidding: I destroyed another iPhone, I cliff-jumped again without abandon, and I let scenery steal my heart, again.

I was motorbiking around a village in northern Vietnam’s Cat Ba Island, an archipelago with some of Southeast Asia’s best scenery. I biked for hours that day, stopping off at every view. It was one of the first times I’d ridden a motorbike. That first experience stands to be one of the most thrilling things I’ve done lately.

Motorbiking at Vietnam's Cat Ba Island

Because when you’re on a motorbike, you’re in the scene.

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
– Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (Thanks forever for the recommendation, Dan.)

You feel the temperature of the air and direction of the wind as it sways your bike. You lean and hug the curve of a road and monitor your acceleration on inclines and declines. You brake for a family of slow goats passing in front of you. You try to maintain concentration, never staring too long at the scenery on your right and left and hey, even behind you.

But sometimes you do stare too long, and you get a little lost in the moment, and find the inevitable hard brakes or quick turns (Mom and Dad, they are extremely uncommon hard brakes and quick turns). And on one of those brakes (again they are very rare, Mom) your iPhone will fly out of the compartment it shouldn’t have even been in in the first place, onto hard, unforgiving pavement.

Hence, I destroy another iPhone.

And when you destroy these seemingly integral, but truly artificial components of your life, you also throw out the insensible logic that you usually use to govern your days, and see what happens.

So I go cliff-jumping.

Actually, I go deep water soloing in the Gulf of Tonkin, on the limestone islets that dot the archipelago.

Deep water soloing in Cat Ba Island Vietnam

But unlike climbing I had done before – with ropes and anchors and harnesses – I was unsupported. If you fall, you’re falling with whiplash into a mattress of water. And that was, somehow simultaneously, the easiest and hardest thing I’ve ever physically done.

Asia Outdoors Matt Deep Water Soloing in Cat Ba Island Matt

The boat pulls up to a route on the rock face and Matt, the 20-something bearded American climbing guide who scales walls like an amphibian, sets me up with good handholds and direction. Then the boat pulls away, and I’m left clinging to the rock.

The first time is always exciting. The rock feels sharp but secure in my hands. The handholds I’m starting with aren’t great but my feet have found a notch to balance on. I scramble up, grabbing any hold without forecasting direction. I’m just trying to get high and butterflies and adrenaline take me there. I make a poor attempt at a dynamic move. An oh shit and a slip and seconds later I’m in the water. It’s warm and I’m treading and embarrassed of my failure. But I’m also thinking that was fucking awesome.

We climb all morning. The grey clouds we had seen in the distance are now above us, and it’s starting to rain. Then pour. Matt tells the boat driver to head to climbs opposite the rain’s direction, where the limestone will be dry. I’m already tired and ready to check out.

“Hey pansyass,” I have to say to myself. “How the hell are you going to forego climbing and cliff-jumping in the pouring rain in the most beautiful place in Vietnam?”

I point out a route to the boat driver, get a grip, and the boat putters away around the corner. No one will see if I fail and fall. I feel my way up, placing way too much emphasis on handholds and clinging to nubs rather than doing anything with my legs. My hands, scratched and bleeding, are now shaking. I’m wondering if I can even feel my fingers. I look down. It looks like a far drop, and I start to fear the fall and the ascent.

For some of us, it’s addictive. The discomfort of physical experiences where the strength required is mostly mental. Where you have to ignore yourself or at least the majority of your thinking – because our capabilities and potential are mostly predicted by the type of belief systems we’ve put in place.

And for most of us, those systems are skewed as hell. Our bodies and minds are expert of far more than we think they are, but we spend too much time persuading ourselves otherwise. Lying to ourselves; because it’s easier not to try.

Deep Water Soloing in Vietnam's Cat Ba Island with Asia Outdoors

Splayed out barely ten meters above the water, I must look pitiful, I think. What if I hit that crag on the way down, I wonder. I question whether the muscles in my forearm are more akin to an al dente lasagna noodle or steamed cabbage. I settle on the cabbage.

“You are absolutely incapable of another reach,” I tell my left and right forearms. “You guys haven’t helped at all,” I tell my quads. I convince myself I can quit, because I’m happy with what I’ve already done today.

It’s funny because deeping is easy climbing. You’re tired? Easy. Give up and fall into a safety net of sea. Swim around in the rain, that’s more fun than pushing yourself.

And that’s exactly why it’s hard. There’s no ropes or belayers to let you take a break, bounce away from the rock and hang till you’re ready to continue up. In deeping, you have no choice but to push past the mental barriers you’ve set up for yourself. And when you do – when you surprise yourself and put your right foot higher than your hip and use your left arm to swing you over, and that was actually stupid but it worked and you didn’t fall – it becomes a brick in the type of foundation of proactive, positive thinking we all need to have.

While poorly adhered to the rock face, I talked to that limestone. Limestone, you so sharp and jagged and porous but strong. Unlike granite and sandstone, (thanks for the breakdown on sedimentary rock composition Casey), it leaves you bleeding and swollen and sore. Climbing that rock has become the ultimate mental and physical workout. Because when you get close to it like that – where it pits you against yourself – it’s the hardest opponent you’ll ever face.

Climbing in Vang Vieng, Laos

And so I fell in love – or further in love – with a rock. In a different way this time though. Over a year ago, before I first started climbing, I loved it in observation; its physical, historic beauty, as I stared at it from beaches and boats in southern Thailand. Now, I love it for the challenges it puts in front (and above) me.

After I left Cat Ba Island that weekend, I found myself going back. Actually I just got back. And I started reading about that rock, developing a near perverse obsession with Southeast Asia’s limestone karsts. About the geological processes that created them, the weathering that’s modified them, the people and problems that, today, are destroying them.

Limestone Rock in Vietnam's Ninh Binh

Limestone outcrops in Ninh Binh, Vietnam

What I’ve discovered gives me goosebumps. But it’s not just about me this time. It’s about a precious ecosystem that’s home to some of the world’s most diverse and endangered endemic flora and fauna, a region that has the highest rate of habitat destruction in the world, a people who aren’t aware of and ignore the consequences of the environmental damage they’re doing. The most worrying part is that it’s largely going unnoticed.

So how’d it change my life? Well I didn’t quite get another backwards tattoo, but I did decid I needed to do more than adventure for adventure’s sake. Travel can be a selfish thing. It’s about you – the perspectives and insights you leave with, the cuisines and culture you experience, the temples you trek all over; all eventually degrading.

How much of our travel actually deposits the sort of worth we take away from it? How often are we leaving a destination in a better condition than before our footprints? If you’re going to trek and trod and use and waste, you have an obligation to that area and its people.

Just like last year, I’m at a turning point in my career, a sort of intersection. But this intersection is more like one of those roundabouts within roundabouts in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and I’m an Ohio driver still struggling with my rights and lefts.

My contract as a tour guide in Southeast Asia is nearly finished. I can leave the two years of exposure and insight I’ve garnered about this region behind, or fulfill an obligation that I have as a traveler.

Roundabouts within roundabouts aside, I’ve decided my obligation is to that rock, to limestone karst conservation through the empowerment and enlistment of local communities. What could be one of this environment’s greatest tragedies, I think holds a very unique opportunity.

Stay tuned.

Limestone Karsts in Vang Vieng, Laos



  1. Great writing, liked to read it. All the best from Ao Nang

  2. […] traveling the perimeter of Ireland this year. I’m changing the face (pun not intended) of limestone karst conservation in Vietnam. I’m becoming a motorbike taxi driver in Thailand; a scorpion wrangler in […]

  3. […] blog. Find out how an island, an iPhone, and a backwards tattoo changed her life (Parts I & II), and join her for 30 strange minutes on Khao San Road, or 12 hours in Hanoi, […]

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