After work, Benita and I went with Pitoon to the hot springs. At least that was the original plan. I flung a towel and camera into my bag and we set off. The road down south from Khao Chong into Phattalung is incredibly beautiful, tall limestone cliffs are covered on all sides by a sprawling forest that danced along as we sped by. The roads are set into cliff faces along much of the way, so the lanes can have as much as a ten foot difference between them as they carved roughly into the hilly landscape. On one side you can see the cliff face with its staggered edge, cut into the rock face through years of work to make this road, and on the other, the entire forest structure is revealed, with tall trees fully exposed from the bottom to the canopy. The road cuts cleanly through the forest, leaving a naked slice on either side. I watched the trees whip past as we chatted to Pitoon.
We were driving in Herbert, the beat up BMW. Inside it was totally rough, with spare parts on the floor, dashboard imploding around my feet and insides ripped from the doors. There was also a TV screen set into the console that did not switch on but just glared blankly at whoever was sat in the passenger seat wondering how on earth it got there.
We were almost there when Pitoon asked if we had seen the cave, we replied that we hadn’t, so he slung the wheel round, and took us through the gates and through a driveway of deepening, darkening forest. We rounded a huge pillar monument in the roundabout and drove through, the first thing I noticed was the sheer volume of dogs here. They raced alongside the car, doing that bark/smile thing that dogs do when they want to be in charge and also want a cuddle. About fourteen followed us down and into we pulled in beside a huge statue of Buddha, with an umbrella. I never found out why he had the umbrella.
It was a Buddhist monastery, run by monks who live here, cleaning the cave, taking care of the dogs, training young monks and counselling the countless many who had come to seek spiritual guidance. Downstairs in what appeared to be the open cafeteria of the monastery, these students sat around talking, young men and women in white robes. They smiled politely as Benita and I, obvious foreigners walked past but did not engage. Pitoon and I found our gaze drawn to two strikingly beautiful Thai women who had just emerged from the river in translucent robes, but we remembered it was a monastery and we walked briskly on toward the cave.
The cave was huge and airy, without the characteristic stuffiness of holes in the ground. We walked through, I fell behind taking photos of the stalactites and tried to follow the faint footfalls of Benita and Pitoon. The floor of the cave had been replaced by stone tiles and in every nook or recession stood about seven Buddha’s and a life size portrait of the king and queen. I found this unsettling, as for one the cave had been refurbished beyond the point of any spookiness, and I didn’t understand why the monarchy was being idolized the same way as Buddha. I understand that the role is supposed to be sacred, but hitching religion to any system of government just seems clumsy and obviously calculated. We stopped in our tracks when a huge brown Labrador strode confidently into the chamber where we stood. He approached me, sniffed my palm quickly and looked at the three of us. He then turned tail and walked back to a monk, who had appeared in the cave with from some obscured entrance. The monk gestured toward the dog and they disappeared in silence, as though it had never happened.
We kept going, past more Buddha’s and other gods, bright yellow faces lit up by the candles and flowers on the mantle in front of them. The cave got a bit wet, but stayed well lit, with floodlights bolted to the stony ceiling. When climbed some stairs and looked up at the real cathedral of the place, tall and echoey, with a stunning ebony Buddha sitting cross-legged in a huge, glass case. Crevices around the huge chandelier of stalactites in the ceiling looked deep black and distant, hinting at further tight passages reaching into the depths of the rock. Behind us a gate led outside to another part of the monastery so there was none of the normal claustrophobia of being inside a cave.
We walked on and out into the sunlight, where a monk, in his deep orange robes swept the court yard with a palm broom. We got in the car to leave but after going a few hundred yards down the road, our attention was drawn to another, larger cave system to the right of us. Pitoon smiled and got out of the car, and we followed him into the dark.
There were no lights in this cave, unlike the artificial luminosity of the previous one, but natural light penetrated deep into the bowls of the structure. The light had begun fading with the onset of evening but it still traced the white walkway a good 10 metres in. The path led over black water, surging and gurgling beneath us. A toad the size of a jack russell leapt indignantly out of the way as we passed. Eventually we turned a corner and lost the light of the sun, so Pitoon and Benita switched their phones on and used the blank screen to cut through the blackness. It was beautifully quiet in the cave, a few drops of water somewhere back in the recesses of the darkness, rang out as they clanged against the ground. We walked through to the other side, a good distance, where sunlight flooded a second chamber. On the other side of this chamber however, it was totally dark, so I set my camera to flash and let loose a burst of scorching light. It dissolved the dark, and my eyes were left with the hazy impression of a row of Buddha’s, crouched at the end of the room. I took another and saw it again. Turning around I saw that Benita and Pitoon had disappeared, so I flashed the light into the cave, letting it reflect against a pair of legs, shiny as they passed into another of the cavern. It was like using echolocation, seeing this way. As I would see the image a few seconds after the flash, rather than directly perceiving it. They had walked up to an opening with a small row of stairs, I walked up to them and found their heads angled toward the ceiling, mouths open and silent. I followed their gaze to see a huge orchestra of bats, peppering the vast interior of the cave, clung to the crispy bits of limestone. Their ears swiveled, following the sound of our voices, and a few dropped don into the void, swooping deep into the pitch black distance for a quieter nap. It was still very dark, so I took a flash photo, revealing the masses of them, staring starkly at us, with deep brown eyes.
We made it through to the other side of the cave and walked out, into a tangle of vines that wove themselves around a concrete balcony. Steps led out and down, Pitoon was quiet. I could see this place meant a lot to him. Pitoon study to be a monk for a brief period, and comes here occasionally to meditate. He talked about coming here with us again, if Benita and I were here for longer, to meditate for a few days. I would love to do this, and hope to at some point in the future. It made me think about religion again, but not in my usual, critical way, but in terms of what it means to people. I could really feel the value of it, looking at the people here, walking around the sacred grounds in silence.
This place is a retreat, a sanctuary. Many of the women here have come from abusive relationships, and can study Buddhist texts, meditate and consult with monks in revered safety. This is a safe place because Buddhism is so deep rooted here, and there is a common understanding of the value of this kind of refuge, and people come from all over to be here, to share in the silence.
We walked along the balcony until we stood in front of a huge Buddha, its obsidian black eyes looking down on us. Benita and Pitoon said a short prayer while I photographed them. Benita explained that Buddha, or the image of him, actually came from ancient Greek. This little fact wrapped me in thought, as this sacred entity, held in such solemn regard by the people, was like most religious characters, a construct of older deities, but it didn’t seem to matter to anybody. It doesn’t matter really, how arrive at the point whereupon you regard something as sacred, it’s the value of what it gives you. People came from all over the country to bask in the silence of the place, and it didn’t matter where they came from, or even really their understanding of the religion, just that they respect it, and it serves a singular, beautiful purpose.
We clambered back into the car and drove to the hot spring. Pitoon didn’t know where it was exactly, so we whizzed around country roads for about an hour, dipping the headlights, when a clattering scooter hurtled out of the woods. After a while Pitoon gave up and pulled up at a shop, where a little boy, who can’t have been much older than four, was pushing a little tricycle along with his feet scraping the ground. In Thai, Pitoon asked him if knew where the hot springs were. Benita and I were laughing, as the kid responded in the minutest tinkle of a voice, where to go. Pitoon thanked the boy and drove off, and soon enough we arrived at the hot springs. I thought it was hilarious but also great that children have the same kind of responsibility as adults, and actually respond accordingly.
We drove down the long dark lane and screeched to a halt as a motorbike, carrying two passengers, stopped dead in front of us. We looked at them for a whole twenty seconds without saying anything. Then they reversed and drove away, dissolving the oddly tense standoff.
“That was weird.” Said Pitoon.
We walked down the path to the hot springs. It was completely dark now, and I flashed my camera down the path to see where I was going, the bulb etching an imprint on memory, then wondering forward with the brief imprint of my surroundings on my mind. I fell over a couple times, and thought about cobras that were probably around.
We eventually made it down the slippery slope to the bank of the river, and we had arrive, but it wasn’t what I expected at all. This was a very basic, natural hot spring without paths or pools. It was just a river with a few wells. There were a few wells in the river too, and we slunk into the cold water, feeling our way in the dark like some deep sea fish until we found the hot spring and sat in it. Benita, Pitoon and I laid in the water and stared up at the stars, unfettered by any lights, and chatted about life the universe and everything.