Dateline: Lonely Planet days.
The real ones where entries included tips on traveling.
Real tips: how to skirt this or that border, which crossing had more visa friendly officers, where the ‘off the beaten path’ truly was.
I was armed with the first edition LP Thailand, which was about 3/4 of an inch thick for the whole country, and followed a lead to an island in the Gulf which was about a hundred kilometers south of the capitol. It was called Koh si Chang.
There was a rumor of a partially built Royal palace that had been abandoned in the late nineteenth century when the French had short lived dreams of occupation. I didn’t need much provocation for an adventure.
There was no regular transport to the island that I was aware of, but I managed to finagle a ride on a fishing boat. The boat driver gave me a bit of a concerned look and said; “but nothing there for you” — meaning no hotels or restaurants.
I said that he just sealed the deal. I had my backpack.
I managed to get a local motorcyclist to take me into the jungle to the site of the old palace. I also let him know it was ok to leave me there. Crazy Falang.
Truly a remarkable sight, an incomplete royal residence that was now, one hundred years later, being ingested by the surrounding jungle. The marble floor of the grand entryway, where i eventually spent the night, columned balustrades lining a swimming pool that had never been filled with anything but rain water, and mysterious stairways that led to nowhere — or maybe some Hobbit world only accessible by wearing a certain ring.
I awoke rested and unmolested by anything larger than a mosquito. Filled with wonder I set out on foot for the coast. It was an island after all, how lost could I get?
I was crossing a bit of arid midlands when I came upon a rock face. It looked to be an easy climb, and far more promising than the long slog around it. I hefted up the rock and was about twenty feet up when I threw my hand over the top. Ready to hoist up and over, I saw and then felt a thousand fire ants racing down my hand and arm.
They live in boxes made of leaves which are held together by their spit. They are virtually undetectable to the untrained eye — especially a blind one lifting over a ledge. They bite and it hurts. I had to fight my natural instinct to pull my hand back in retreat, as I would have plummeted to certain injury if not more. Mind over matter works until the adrenaline wears off, so over the top I went.
Brushing them off and gathering my wits I headed off again, this time on a slightly more elevated but no less arid plain. But now I could see the Gulf.
About twenty minutes further I turned and noticed a saffron robed monk standing in the openness. He had appeared out of nowhere. He smiled at me and then disappeared into the ground.
I am prone to hyperbole, but not to illusion.
I ran to where I had just seen him and found a hole in the ground. Peering into it my new monk friend was suspended in the darkness and holding onto a vine. He smiled again and gestured me to follow him.
Of course I did.
It was a cave entrance. The cool dank moist air was a relief from the dry arid air I had been breathing. There were recessed buddha images carved into the limestone, and Buddhist adornments all around.
I followed him in amazement until reaching a cathedral, as they are called in the spelunking world; an expansive high-ceilinged part of a cave. I looked up with my mouth agape in wonder.
The monk slid to my side and gently reached up to my chin and closed my mouth. He smiled and pointed at the roof of the cave and mimicked the flapping motion of bats.
He gave me the international symbol of “he who looks at cave roof with mouth open, eats bat guano”.
Continuing my tour of this subterranean temple, we wound up at a horizontal opening with an expansive view of the Gulf.
Entered by descending into a field and exited onto a seafront vista.
There were many monks there laughing at unknown things and completely unsurprised by my presence. One was peeling hard boiled eggs and tossing them to what i took to be their pet monitor lizard.
I didn’t know one could domesticate them but hell, they were monks. Just some more magic I supposed.
Like an idiot, I went over to pet it. THWACK went it’s prehensile tail to my inner thigh, about 2 inches from Vienna Boys’ Choir destination. I had a welt for years from that.
Somehow, my new injury endeared me no end to my new hosts. We sat there without a word in common for awhile. And then with no discernable signal, save maybe some high pitched ‘monk whistle’, they all stood up and then gestured that I should enter a previously unseen chamber in the cave.
There was a wooden platform raised about a foot off the ground. I was instructed to take my flip flops off and sit on the platform. I sat there with a goofy smile for a few minutes when the Grand Poobah came in. He was straight out of central casting where they call for a wisened seer. I wanted to rub his belly.
He sat across from me, a little bit higher on a second platform. He crossed his legs, assessed me for a moment, and then in decent English said; “what do you want to know?”
I was in my early twenties, a post Sartre infused graduate, and a traveller. I wanted to know everything.
Why are we here? What is the difference between sin and crime? Is there life after death?
My mind raced. I knew I had stumbled onto a great, seminal moment in my life. No time to question the why’s of it. Boots on the ground. I wanted to ask something accessible, linguistically as well as philosophically. I didn’t want to squander this opportunity, but didn’t want to come off as an idiot either.
I said, “I want to know how to meditate”. That’s the best I could come up with.
He beamed back at me. It was the right question.
He then scooted a bit closer to me and reached over to adjust my posture. He then lowered his eyelids partially, into the Sukhothai pose, and slowly, beautifully, rhythmically inhaled, all the while drawing out the sound ‘Booooooooo’, and then at the apogee of his breath he exhaled and chanted; ‘Daaaaaaaaaaaaa.’
It was a seamless breath, much as the circular breathers of the didgeridoo have mastered.
I practised in front of him for a bit until he gave me a ‘too late for you, grasshopper’ look, and released me to my previous hosts. I ate rice with the monks for a day, taught them a few words in English, and fended off their great attempts to tattoo me.
It was a monastic hermitage I found out. It was a particular destination for true disciples from temples all over the country and I had found it by accident, or providence.
The next day I took my leave and headed over to the other side of the island, much the same route I had taken to get where I was.
I walked for several hours across the same arid expanse as before. I then caught sight of the farthest shore right before the walls of the path obscured the coast with a sharp descent. I followed a now curiously well worn trail, came around a final blind corner and encountered the next most extraordinary vision.
On either side of the trail, which had suddenly turned tropical, were two lovely Thai sirens wearing long traditional silk wraps. Each was holding two halves of a freshly cut pomegranate. They gave me warm smiles that betrayed no surprise at my presence. Quite the contrary, as it seemed they had been expecting me.
They both then turned and ushered me to a teak home which jutted out over the water, with its Gulf end supported by wooden piers. There were buckets of crabs, fishing nets, a steaming pot of soup suspended over a charcoal fire, and a couple of teak fishing boats. They sat me down in what I suspected was the living room. It was the closest comparison I could make being that the whole place was more or less open air.
I waited for the next surprise. A short while later a man came over and sat across from me. He was about ten years older than me and had a gentle but concerned look about him. He had things on his mind.
I was his guest as is the Thai way, but an uninvited one. I looked him in the eyes, pointed at myself and said, “Johhhhnnnn,” and then smiled.
He paused, gave a sardonic smile and said, “Name’s Paul. I used to be V.P. of BBD&O advertising in L.A.”
How? What? Why? And who were those girls?
“It’s a small island. We knew you were here three days ago. Expected you to turn up sooner but we guessed you found the monks,” he said.
“I’m Thai by birth and this was the family homestead,” he continued, his tone becoming forlorn.
“Dad was a crab fisherman and I inherited the place so I’m stuck here.”
“Stuck?” I exclaimed. “People would kill to be stuck here!”
He gave a deflated smirk and said, “Yeah; you want to buy it?”
“Um, well, no, but…”
“Yeah, nobody else does either. It’s a golden albatross. Anyway let’s eat some crab and you can tell me about the world. I’ll have one of the girls ferry you back to shore later. It’s the only way out of here unless you want to hike across the tundra again.”
We talked until the sun began to set. He said he had to tend to his traps. I thanked him for his hospitality and wished him good luck.
One of the sirens had changed into Thai fisherman’s pants and a Chinese shirt.
She smiled that enigmatic Thai smile and silently steered me back to the world.
First appeared on James Newman’s website