Its that lazy time in the afternoon and the air is full of the sweet tangy smell of rotting fruit and Thai palm cigarettes. I’ve been in Thailand almost two weeks now, and only just realised today. Time is flying by and I’m scrambling to make the most of it.
Firstly, the drone is down. Well, its working fine but after a crashing into a tree, the gimbal which holds the camera steady during flight, has been bent so the image is off centre. I’ve been trying to fix it over the past couple days, taking it apart and putting it back together, but a thick metal bar in the centre has been bent and bending it back will damage the circuit, so pretty frustrating considering the amazing footage I could be getting from around here. In the meantime, I’m waiting for some plates to arrive from China, into which I’ll be putting legs from a huge collection of insects, gathered during the course of hundreds of hours of biodiversity surveying here. They’re due to arrive at the beginning of next week, so essentially I’ve just been dossing around since then.
My previous experience has been with insect collections an order of magnitude smaller than these, so I understand the level of care taken when working with them, as taking time to be methodical and consistent will save having to repeat a catalogue of work due to some small mistake. So people prefer to work on one task by themselves, to reduce the window of human error, working in silence behind furrowed brows of concentration as Thai Jack Johnson drifts through the lab. I heard Thai Bohemian Rhapsody yesterday, seriously, it was awesome.
So, where to begin? Last week I went to Railay beach on the southwest coast. Railay is a peninsula, so its attached to the mainland but there are no roads running to it, so you need to get there by boat. It s an incredible coastline, like Bathsheba in Barbados but on a much large scale. Limestone cliffs have been nibbled and sculpted by thousands of years of relentless waves, leaving jagged cubes of naked stone jutting out of the sea.
Benita and I left Khao Chong early on Friday morning and waited for the bus. We had been there for around half an hour before a green pickup truck which drove by, stopped and reversed. Out of it came the biggest Thai man I think I’ve seen here, about six foot tall and very heavy as the truck wobbled as he got out. He beamed a smile at us and said “Where you go?” We told him we were headed to the bus station in Trang and said hop in, pointing to the back of the truck, filled with a few bags of soil and coconut seedlings. He was a professor of agriculture at the local university and on his way to teach. “You from England? My sister lives in Shoreditch.” We laughed out of surprise and jumped in. About ten minutes in he stopped the car again to hand us each a bag with fresh barbequed chicken, rice and fried onions. Slack jawed in amazement at the level of kindness we smiled and forgot to how to say thank you in Thai. He drove us all the way as we ate and let the landscape slip by from the back of the truck.
Arriving at the bus station, we found the minivan going to Krabi the nearest town to Ao Nang on the coast where we were headed. We jumped in beside two beefy Americans, one teacher who had been working in Thailand for a year and his friend who had just arrived. We chatted for a bit, then the soporific effect of driving made me doze off. I woke to a shaking in my side and looked up to see Benita, rocking with silent laughter. I was leaning against the bearded, bald American, my head rested on his meaty, tattooed shoulder and his head was plonked on top of mine. Apparently we had been snuggling for about an hour. He woke up when I did and we sat in amused, slightly embarrassed silence. After a sheepish wave goodbye, we got out of the bus and into a tuk tuk, going to Ao Nang. I was amazed at how many palm oil plantations there were, homogenizing the landscape.
We got to Ao Nan and hopped on a boat to Railay. The coastline was too beautiful to seem real.
The first thing I noticed, apart from the rain, was how torn up the beach was. Tractors had been destroying the beach and all the shops and hostels had moved back onto the land. A western coroporation had bought the land, and the locals hadn’t recieved much recompense for it. Talking to some travelers who had come back to Railay every year, they said that it gained in popularity as a destination for climbers around the world and as a beautiful place in general. With it there’s been a lot pf proposals to build here, and now they’re actually doing it.
Benita ran into Kevin, an Alaskan she had met last time she was here. He was unbelievably happy, clapping and laughing as he spoke. We went out for dinner it turned out he had worked in Antarctica. Dinner was great but I got pretty sick that night from a combination of squid and beer, and spent the next twelve hours hunched over the balcony, redecorating the delicate little orchids suspended on the base of the palm tree next to the stairs.
The next day we went climbing on a trip called the deep water solo, where you climb a cliff face and jump off, into the warm sea. We went with a group of American teachers working in Myanmar, another American couple, two Austrian genetics students doing a year in Thailand and Belgian woman, escaping winter in Bruges. I was so tired and hadn’t had anything to eat as I couldn’t hold anything down, so when I got onto the actual wall, I just fumbled and slipped off as my hands scrabbled fruitlessly across the smooth surface of the marbled rock. Benita and the Austrian girls pulled themselves up the wall and jumped into the water. I burned with jealously watching them jump, as this is one of my favorite things. The rain was pouring down heavier and heavier so I sat beneath the biminy and chatted.
I had a spooky interaction with a guy called Colin, it was his first time climbing but he was quick and strong, reaching one of the highest spots on the wall pretty easily. He clambered onto the boat and I asked him what he did. He had studied environmental economics, a field I had never even heard but was extremely interested. He used to work on red tide, studying the economic impact of the event, the result of a massive bloom of toxic phytoplankton occurring annually across the states. It was a predictable event and little work had been done in terms of research into reducing its impact. His work since then had been as an economic advisor. He then added, that now he had moved into the private sector and now didn’t care who worked for. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that before, like effectively saying, yeah so I died inside. He said that he had been working with Shell since. It was just odd to someone say that they didn’t care what the impact of their work would be.
Anyway, we got back and the next day went up to the viewpoint over the whole of Railay, then to the lagoon.
We walked along the beach, trying to find a beach with a good cliff to climb, which doesn’t take long in Railay. On the way, Kevin asked “Have you seen the phalluses?” What?
Apparently they’re a good luck charm for fishermen, who knew?
We made it to the wall and went climbing. Benita went ahead of me, leading, which involves clipping a rope into a caribena along the wall so that a rope can be attached. Once at the top, she clipped the rope through a ring at the top of the wall and unthreaded the rope from the rest of way, so that no equipment was left. She belayed down and it was my turn.
I haven’t climbed in ages and it felt good to pull myself up the wall. I got about halfway up and had to switch sides. I bit my shoulder for comfort but the insect repellent I sprayed on stung and numbed my lips. I wiped my brow and my eyes stung. I was only about 10 feet off the ground but I felt the familiar fear I remember from indoor climbing. In the end I made it to the top of two climbs, and it was great.
The next day we headed back to Khao Chong. The plates still hadn’t arrived but there was another project to do. Benita had been given about 100 plasticine caterpillars to place on leaves. We had to place them in a grid and come back each to day to see if wasps or other animals were predating them. This is important because it shows the level of predation pressure that seed eaters like caterpillars are often under. This data can be used to determine the level of species diversity in the next generation of trees across large tracts of forest. At least that’s my understanding of it. If you find yourself hiking kilometers through rainforest during a storm to glue plasticine caterpillars to some leaves you would hope to have a pretty good fucking reason for doing it.
Whilst gluing playdoh worms to the sides of leaves, a little movement on the ground caught my attention. I t was something I have always wanted to see, a mantis catching and eating its prey- alive. Probably sounds a bit sadistic but its just the way the mantis does it, catching the defenseless insect and happily munching away on it, the face first. This might seem awful and evil even, to not dispatch prey quickly, but not for the mantis, its alien like eyes swiveling to face the rude lens of my gopro looming over its morning meal, as strange feelings of disgust and fascination welled over me. The mantis just continued doing its mantis thing and plucked out the multifaceted eyes of its violently twitching prey.
Yesterday we went to the market with Janya. I heard that they liked to sing karaoke from the cab of pickup truck, so I contented myself sitting in the back on the beautiful, contextualizing myself with my surroundings. Khao Chong is a big botanic gardens, but from within the lab it can be quite a bubble so its nice to remember where I am.
Today Janya, Benita and I did some cooking, or rather they cooked and I got my gopro in, trying to take some aerial shots of cooking, so heres bamboo curry, shot at some weird angles.
So there it is! I’ve probably missed out a lot of stuff, definitely need to post more regularly! Headed to Janya’s home in Phattalung with Benita tomorrow. Its next to Songkhla Lake, home to the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin. More soon =)