I slunk into the hammock, letting my tired limbs flop heavily out of the canvas. Bloodshot, baggy eyes stared back at me in the reflection of the iPad. I felt tired and frustration gnawed at my mood. All I wanted to do was sleep, but also be productive? I wanted to do two things at the same time, and the impossibility of this lowest common denominator of emotional state frustrated me further. So I chose to be unproductive and found the new Woody Allen film, Magic in the Moonlight. This worsened things considerably.
I love Woody Allen films, ever since I saw Scoop, the depth of character and intermingled with the slight frigidity of dialogue like a stage play, his mixes of emotion are awesome and feel Noel Coward- like in nature. Match Point was amazing, To Rome with Love was ok, Midnight in Paris was great, Annie Hall was brilliant, I could go on. I think I’ve watched everything that he’s made. But half an hour into this feeble flick and I felt depressed, on a hammock, in Thailand. Quite a feat Mr. Allen. The dialogue was crap and tepid, stitched up in its own pretentiousness to the point that it was tangled and cold. The characters were just caricatures of English snobbery and the ‘magic’ was boring. I’m not usually this cynical, really. But this film almost made me angry with disappointment. In its favour however, it made aware of my surroundings, that I was sitting in a hammock, wasting away my hours in Thailand, when I could be out, seeing the country. So about forty minutes later, I found myself sitting in the bus station, waiting for the minivan to the island of Koh Lanta.
Arriving in Koh Lanta, I thought for a bit about what to do. I had been pretty impulsive getting this far, but figured it wasn’t a big island and I was bound to find Benita on it somewhere. It was a lot more expensive than Trang and tourists whisked by on scooters, tight shorts revealing the lines of paper white against ham red, singed things. The full moon party was the following evening, so the place was filling up with travelers and tourists.
Check out the plants growing reassuringly through the hull.
I got a taxi further down the island, after a fruitless negotiation with the driver, a Muslim woman with a cool leopard skin pattern baya. We chatted in limited English and Thai about living here and the cheapest places to go, and she dropped me off, rather perplexingly, next to one of the most expensive hotels on the island. I hopped off the tuk tuk taxi and went in to ask about the price. On the way in, the waiter grabbed my drone case, presumably out of awkward courtesy but it came as a surprise and I pulled away, saying “No. Thank you its fine.” I took of my flip flops to walk inside to ask about prices and three people in the foyer yelled at me that it was ok to leave them on. It was oddly tense as I walked into the clean interior and they told me to wait while they fetched someone. I had no idea what was going on but felt that it was way above my price range. “500 Baht?” I asked. They laughed and I just walked out. On the way out, the waiter inexplicably went for my case a second time and I held my hand up in protest, saying “Kap.” Which means thank you, yes, or can actually mean whatever inflection you place on it, in this case it meant sod off.
Exasperated and confused by where the taxi driver had left me, I walked on down the street but it was dark now and I was in the middle of nowhere. After about 15 minutes’ walk I came across a woman in a ramshackle house called ‘Tourists Information’. I walked in and she greeted me warmly, asking what I was doing wondering around here at this time. I laughed and she showed me the map while her daughter peered at me from beneath the kitchen table. I asked where the cheapest place was and she beckoned me to her tuk tuk and drove me down the coast a little more. I was knackered at this point and expected another goose chase for last minute accommodation, however she pulled up at the beach and chatted rapidly with a large woman in a nearby shop. A few minutes later and no longer attempting to hide my expression of exasperation, she pointed to the row of neat little bungalows and pointed, “400 Baht.” She said with a smile and dropped me off without another word.
I collapsed onto the bed and napped on the nice, cool hard mattress while the fan whirred and shuddered above me. After couple hours I woke up, not sure what time it was and went out to get some water from the shop down the road and also just explore. the beach was a narrow row of restaurants, clubs and dive shops, all colourful and loud, not what I was expecting and very different to quiet, rural Trang. I walked down until I found a shop with bottles of water, hefting six of them on my shoulder for the walk back. I was about halfway there when I saw I figure running toward me from down the road. The lanky frame bounded down the road, until a few feet away I recognized Benita, laughing in surprise.
She hadn’t got my message to say I was coming, only a Snapchat a few minutes ago, and now stood shocked that I was here. We grabbed a beer and caught up on what had happened since she had left. It turned out that the guy she was going to sail to Malaysia with following her work at Trang was a bit of a creep and she had chosen to jump ship, rather than spend three awkward weeks with him. I talked about how things were going in Khao Chong and it seemed to reignite her love for the park and the people, mainly the people. We said we’d explore the island more tomorrow and I collapsed back into bed.
The next day we found a randomly French cafe called Shanti Shanti, run by a Parisian guy who had lived on the island for over 20 years. We had amazing coffee and a fruit salad the size of a punch bowl. I thought it was a little expensive, but remembered that this was Thailand and it was still only ten pounds between the two of us. We hopped on the scooter and headed away, down the coast.
The island was hilly and steep and you needed a scooter to get around on the wrinkled, rugose and folded landscape. Houses on stilts perched over valleys, on level with the tree canopy only a few metres away. Monkeys crowded the roads. I love monkeys and have grown up around them so generally I know how to behave when they are around. However when people are around, they get fed and often end up being aggressive to people that don’t offer them food. Another example of how people are great at screwing up animal’s ecology. So as I drove along, II kept a watchful eye on the monkeys that sat, often in the middle of the road, brown eyes tracking us as we passed them.
We went over another hill and came past a young elephant. I don’t think I had seen an elephant up close before so we got off the bike to take a picture, upon walking up however I saw that it was chained to a tree. The chain was about two metres long, and attached to its front foot so its range was reduced by its body length. There was a big tank of water but it was out of reach, even if it extended its trunk. A woman sat in the shack in front of the elephant looked up and smiled- “elephant trekking?” She asked sweetly.
“Mai Kap.” We replied- no thank you. We pointed to the water bowl- “nam?” (water) we asked. Her smile dropped and she returned her gaze to the Thai Miss Universe competition on the TV. We asked again and she ignored us, incredibly, even when we came up to her and waved our arms, literally a few feet from where she stood. However she knew that we didn’t want to buy a trekking tour so as far she was concerned, we were no longer relevant or worthy of attention. Benita and I walked up to the elephant and stood just within its reach. I had never one so close but knew how strong they were and how they should never ever be taunted.
It approached slowly, then without hesitation, raised its trunk up and brought it softly down on my face. I didn’t move, but smelt the hot clovery puff of its breath against my nose, and the rubbery, leathery, hairy touch of its trunk. It touched my face with the dexterity of a hand, lifting my hair, smelling me and touching my cheeks. I couldn’t resist taking these pictures of its trunk in my face. It did the same to Benita, inspecting her face and smelling her. It whipped the trunk down and caught her hand, giving it a tug, she pulled her hand free, aware of the strength of the animal, it did the same to me and commanded our respect. Even though it was a juvenile, it was still incredibly strong and could have broken my arm easily. From then we kept our arms by our sides and watched it as it trundled along the restrictive radius of the chain around the eucalyptus tree. Benita then walked around the other side of the cabin where it was chained and turned on the hose. The elephant turned around quickly and came over to her, gulping in the water and tugging the hose, as if to get the liquid out faster. It was a very hot day and it was incredibly thirsty. It took a huge gulp through its trunk and sprayed it over its back, cooling it down. All the while the woman in the shack didn’t even glance in our direction as we gave it water. It was clear she didn’t give a shit about it, and I was worried she wasn’t observing what we were doing- what if other people, with less benign intentions approached the elephant to perhaps tease it, would she even care?
Eventually the elephant quenched its thirst and laid down on the muddy dusty ground, dissolved into a soup by the spraying of the hose, and let us spray water over its hot, sunburnt skin. We gave it a pat on the head and turned off the hose. We got back on the bike and pulled out of the driveway, “Happy in your work?” I asked the woman, her gaze at the TV didn’t flicker.
Elephant tours are often the by-product of the logging industry, as they were used to drag fallen trees out of the forest and over to trucks, usually when clearing land for the cultivation of rubber or palm oil. When they are no longer needed, they set them loose, whereupon they become pests because they do not have the skills to forage in the wild, having been raised by people, and are often shot. Or they are taken in by ‘sanctuaries’ where they are trained to take people on tours. Not all elephant tours are like this, some places genuinely are rehabilitation sanctuaries that focus on the welfare of these animals, really. But in most cases they are for- profit and involve a painful and traumatic training process known as ‘breaking the spirit’. There are some places that are genuine in their respect for these animals, but they are very few, so all in all, please avoid taking elephant tours, as you will be funding the abuse of these wonderful animals.
We drove on and the landscape became hillier. Birds and insects buzzed, squawked and whirred from the forest and monkeys descended from the trees. Monkeys. I looked at one, emerging from beneath the road barricade with a tin can. Its eyes followed me and I noticed another, sitting in the middle of the road, itching its balls whilst directing a steady, unfaltering gaze on us as we passed. In this moment of awkward eye contact, I lost track of where I was driving. I was steering us off the road. “Shit!” I yelled, helpfully. I swerved the other direction and felt the scooter groan with the incline of the hill. Quickly I changed into first gear and tugged down on the throttle. Whoops.
The scooter screeched and reared into the air, doing a massive wheelie. “OOF!” I heard as Benita fell off the back. I followed, collapsing heavily onto my tail bone as the bike twisted and clanged down onto the road beside me. I turned around to see Benita, shaken but ok. We sat for a while, fortunately there was no one around so we could sit in shocked silence and check to see if we were ok. We were fine but the scooter had a very bent license plate because of the impact, but otherwise, surprisingly it was fine. I got up, pulled out the key and hauled the bike up. “Shall I drive?” Said Benita, the rhetorical nature of the question rang sharp in her tone.
Being out here has spurred my thinking about conservation and the value of things we don’t yet know the extent of. We don’t know how many species tiny epiphytes populate the branches of trees here in Khao Chong, or the true number of beetles combing the forest floor. Whether or not we are there to hear the tree fall, it doesn’t matter. Things are happening independently of us have every right to be protected, even if we aren’t there to observe it.
This notion of things happening without us really came home to me the first time I scuba dived to about 100 feet. Down in this landscape of cliffs, fan coral and blue deepening into the distance. Fish carried on, looking past me as I swam, and a plume of bubbles rose to the surface, disappearing tracelessly into the distant surface. This landscape is here, functioning, all the time. An ecosystem we can only visit with a heft of equipment, making us comical in our gracelessness. The first time I scuba dived I was about 14, and it was around this time I started to think more about God. I didn’t really believe that this could have been made with any one species in mind, its so hostile to us, it has nothing to do with us, yet it exists here, whether or not we care about the private doings of trees.
Talking, burning foliage, arks and resurrections just pales in comparison to the complexity of reality here, unfettered by clumsy philosophical flounderings. It just seems unnecessary when we have this beauty, and we are allowed to see this. The train of logic of this scuba diving trumps religion theory isn’t a clear one, but when you are down there, witnessing the seamless motion of ancient and present ecosystem that has formed completely independently of us, notions that this was created for us, or essentially created at all just seem absurd. If the writers of religious texts could have been given a mask, tank and BCD, they would have realized that their arguments were being made in a vacuum. Natural systems on land can be intuitive, we have been part of the land for so long that we have had an understanding of many of the systems for some time, and can anticipate what the weather is doing, the idea of a seed, and other things, part of a greater system, the individual elements can be roughly translated for pragmatic purposes. But when you put yourself in the water, away from air and the conjecture of people using it, you get to glimpse a system that is far larger than on land. The first thing I understood when I saw the almost otherworldly nature of life below the surface of the sea, was one of humility and quiet awe, exposure to something with no regard for the introspection and industriousness of a particular species of primate on the rocks above.
Benita and I went diving at Hin Daeng Hin Mang, one of the best dive spots in the world. It was about an hour and a half away by speedboat so we had to leave very early, which meant getting up at 5.30. I dragged myself out of bed and stomped down to the road where the dive crew was going to pick us up. It took a long time to wake up, but the wind and familiar salty spray of sea brought me to my senses. I thought the site was two islands, but in fact one of them is still submerged beneath the sea, and the other only just breaks the surface, exposing enough rock for the skipper to sling a rope around. I hadn’t dived in about three years so I had to think about how to descend and ascend and any no-no’s I could recall. Happily this was easy, because as my dive instructor had said once before, if you can swim and you can breathe, you can dive- there’s nothing to it. I sucked the mask onto my face and strided heavily into the sea, the warm water filling my wetsuit with a satisfying ‘sshhtuk’. There was nothing beneath me as far as I could see, just the pale white traces of sand. We raised the BCD hose to the sun and sunk down into the warm water.
In Barbados, where I’ve done most of my diving, you can find some soft coral, tucked in among the brain coral and in crevices of the rocks. Here they literally covered the surface of the reef, light blue and purple. I’ve never seen such a healthy reef. Unfortunately my GoPro casing wouldnt have been able to withstand the pressure so I couldnt take any pictures, but believe me, it was otherworldly, beautiful and quiet. After two magnificent dives, I hauled myself back onto the boat, fell sleep on deck and got a horrendous sun burn. Worth it.