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Dream Job: An REI Staff Photographer's Climb and Paddle Adventures in Thailand

Editor's note: You know you have a great job when you get sent to Thailand to take pictures of people having fun in gorgeous places. REI staff photographer Paul Lebel is one of those lucky guys. Just take a look at his story and see his photos (warning: you may get hooked on Thailand) displayed below:

My name is Paul Lebel, and my job is to film and produce multimedia content for REI... all over the world!

Paul Lebel in ThailandI didn't get here by chance. I started 26 years ago as a freelance still photographer, amateur filmmaker and musician and have been honing my skills ever since. When the opportunity arose to work full time for the REI photo team, I couldn't pass it up. Here, I am highly encouraged to get outdoors as much as possible where I can combine my life's passions and skills into telling stories that move people.

Hopefully you are thinking "this guy is pretty lucky" and you're right, I am! But it gets better, an adventure in Thailand better. My assignment was to shoot video of the REI Adventures Thailand Multisport trip and test out some REI gear. I also arranged to do some climbing and paddleboarding afterwards.
Iris and Paul with garlic farmerAllow me to introduce my colleague Iris. Iris works at the REI Denver store. I admire her character, charm and charisma to no end. We met climbing years ago and have been wonderful friends ever since.

We have so many things coming up for us on this trip that we can barely sleep. In a few days we are going for an elephant ride. We get to hike through the jungle to reach a remote hill tribe village. We will be mountain biking and kayaking, too. On our own, we are hoping to find a boulder or 2 along the way as we are itching to pull down on some Thailand limestone.  

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First I had to pack as an adventure participant and as a filmmaker and that takes an amazing behind-the-scenes group of people to make this trip go smoothly. Producers, technical advisors, art directors and travel agents; all of them made sure I had the right tools and knowledge to be successful. And what is a filmmaker without his equipment? I did this quick intro to the gear I am taking only hours before I left the studio.

Northern Thailand

The city of Chang Mai is vibrant, lush and very friendly. You can get anywhere on a tuk-tuk and we visited as much as we could.

The nighttime markets were filled with sights, smells and sounds. We were content to wander around aimlessly in awe of the thousands of visitors and locals buying and selling everything you could think of. I especially wanted to hear some traditional Thai music, and I was not disappointed.

From Chang Mai, we headed for the remote hilltop villages located in the dense jungle. On our way we stopped at an elephant preserve to learn about these massive working animals that are such a part of Thai history. We witnessed segments of their bathing ritual and were allowed to touch and feed them. The greatest honor was riding on their enormous and strong backs through the jungle. Our trainer was super playful and very kind to our elephant named Bunme.

It was inspiring to see and understand how the hill tribe villagers live very simply and close to the land. We made friends with a group of kids as we walked through their tribal area on the way to a spectacular hike on a ridgeline above their village.
Iris (who is always the bravest) even tried some local moonshine. After I saw that she was still standing, I had a swig myself and it was delicious.

Photographing the kayakersJust in case you were wondering "when does this guy actually work"? We were up well before dawn every day to get to our shooting destinations.

Here we are sitting on the front of a longtail boat so I can film the kayaking portion of the REI Thailand Multisport adventure. Iris and I trust each other with our lives every time we go out climbing, so it was no big deal to ask her to hold me on to the front of this boat.

Iris and I were so surprised at all of the rock faces we encountered in the north of Thailand. I thought Iris was going to jump out of the back of our moving truck one day because there was so much exposed limestone.

Bouldering in northern ThailandWhile still in the north, we found a small boulder with some fun problems on it and we took full advantage. This was just enough to whet our appetite.
Southern Thailand

At the conclusion of the REI Adventures trip, Iris and I headed to the south of Thailand where the real climbing starts. We were both beside ourselves at the insane amount of sheer rock faces jutting up out of the sea. The phrase "holy s%$# look at that line" could have been a record skipping for how often we blurted it out.

The climbing in Koy Yao Noi, which is a small island in Phang-Nga bay, is only accessible by boat so we did all of our scouting from the prow of a classic Thai long tail. With the help of our guides, we identified 4 main islands that we wanted to do routes on in the 3 days we had to climb.

Local knowledge is key down here as the bird nesting industry folks are fierce about climbing in areas where you don't have permission. Dut (pronounced dude.... I'm not kidding, we got to say "hey dude" as much as we wanted), our main guide, started retrieving nests when he was 6 years old. This amounts to soloing over razor-sharp rock ascending 30-foot-long bamboo poles often to a tiny cave opening and squeezing through to the coveted prize. It's seriously dangerous work and these guys have nerves of steel.

Iris and Dut had a whole other connection, Thai boxing! This clip is a great representation of their many impromptu sessions about how Iris would make an amazing Thai boxer.

Iris resting after a fallAnother totally unique aspect to climbing in these islands is the amount you have to do right off the boat. Meaning there is no beach or anyplace to sit and belay, it's all water. Catching a climber's fall while standing on dry land takes skill and trust. Doing it from a floating boat brought that to a whole other level. Because loads of these routes have only been climbed once or twice, there is lots of loose rock that can still come raining down. Helmets are highly advisable. Iris is resting here after a huge bomber-looking hold broke.

One of the biggest differences I noticed about climbing in Thailand versus so many other parts of the world is the humidity. It always felt like it was 1% away from raining. I used so much chalk, I even wanted to put in on my arms!

Sunrise on paddleboardsClimbing wasn't the only thing we enjoyed in Phang-Nag bay. We also did some paddleboarding around many of the islands. I'm what you'd call a water baby as I grew up being in the ocean constantly. Whether underwater looking at fish or on top of it surfing, I'm certainly in my element. I was in heaven paddling over this gorgeous water. The bay is teeming with life, from massive 3-foot wide jellyfish to whale sharks (though, no, we didn't see any of those). It was a delightful contrast to the climbing.

At the end of every day of our trip we had smiles so wide our faces actually hurt. Iris and I will remember this adventure the rest of our lives, and we both have vowed to come back and keep exploring.

Have you been to Thailand? What are your favorite memories?

Posted on at 5:59 PM

Tagged: Climbing, REI Adventures, Thailand, Travel and paddleboarding

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macdanny Staff Member

Outstanding, Paul!

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