So Long, Khao Chong

I don’t really do goodbyes. When I finished my job as a research assistant at the University of Bristol, I left without a word to anyone. I spoke to some of them afterward, but not all. `in hindsight this was a quite rude, but at the time,  didn’t want to make the promises of meeting up again when I didn’t know when I would next be back, but most of all I hated the summarizing a person into a short sentence about how great it’s been to work with them. I feel that by describing someone back to themselves in that kind of “It’s been such a pleasure to work with you” kind of way, compresses the whole working relationship into some passing remark, an anticlimax. I left without saying goodbye, and now I left Khao Chong on the other end of this notion entirely, hugging Pitoon and Janya goodbye on the train, and struggling to find words for my feelings. Khao Chong has been such a fantastic, spontaneous, happy, painful burst of experience and I really, really want to come back.

I spent Sunday catching up on emails and scouring the net for my research proposal. It was my last whole day in Khao Chong, but it was pouring rain, and I had had my formula for productiveness two hours earlier- three cups of coffee and no breakfast. Being hungry makes me work harder, I feel soft and useless after eating so I held out until lunch. Rain pounded against the tin roof and did that invasive thing that rain can sometimes do, of being blown right into the room where you are, despite the roof and ten feet between me and the elements, on the upstairs balcony. Whilst I worked I thought about where I was going next, Huai Kha Khaeng, the forest monitoring plot in Northern Thailand, established by Dr. Sarayudh in 1993. It was about six hours away from Bangkok, so I would travel thee and get a lift with the researchers going back into the field. I leapt at this opportunity because it was the only time I would be able to see this pristine piece of forest, with a different, more mammal- driven ecology. I decided to take the train to Bangkok instead of flying, as I could save a night’s accommodation by sleeping on the way and I would get a chance to see a lot more of Thailand.

I went out with Pitoon later that day to get my ticket, a second class with a bed for 741 Baht, not bad, 15 pounds for 800km. That wouldn’t even get me to London from Bristol in the UK. We stopped off at a market and got a load of food for that evening. Pitoon and I split up, I went to get vegetables and he went for the chicken. It occurred to me as I walked through the stalls and the many different and not always pleasant smells they emitted on that hot, rainy day, that I had learned a decent amount of Thai. I could do the numbers, ask for stuff, knew most vegetables and fruit, I could even muster a bit of fruitless negotiation. I bought everything green and fresh, a big pineapple, loads of leaves and eventually came past a bowl of insects I recognized. They are called something which sounds like Meh-a-Kong, and are a kind of water beetle. They were huddled, dead and drying in the basket. I bought three and looked them over. They were very big, fitting squarely in the palm of my hand, and had thick, meaty legs. I put them with the baby corn and kept on shopping.

Back at Khao Chong, I washed my clothes and started hauling out the junk I accumulated in my room over the course of my time here. As much as I try to fool myself, I am not a tidy person. I realized the far end of my bed was peppered with bat poo, so apparently there had been a bat in my room with me for quite a few nights. I wasn’t aware of this. Eventually I got all my gear together and threw it in the washing machine. It clunked and groaned with the effort while I groaned and tapped on the humid keyboard of my laptop.

A few hours later I went downstairs to start cooking. Bel, an entomologist and probably the toughest of the crew, was sat with a tall brown whiskey, shouting about the football match. Nok sat at the table, smiling chatting to Janya whose face had already lit up with the flush of drinking.

I tinkered in the kitchen, chopping things up but not sure what to make. After about ten minutes I went off to the shops to get some more booze, as I anticipated tonight may be a heavy one. To get to the shop, you can go about 100m out of the gate and then come back down the road, or you can cut straight through the flower bed and down a ditch that leads straight out in front of the shop. I walked through the flowerbed, hands outstretched in the dark and guided myself through the mass of spiky palm fronds. After getting three bags of whiskey, beer and ice, I walked back down the road, considering how to get back, as walking the whole 100m clearly was not an option. I walked down the road to find a less step gap in the side of the road to walk up, as I was carrying a lot of stuff. I stepped onto the curb and lifted myself and the bags up. My sandal flipped over and something stung my foot.

I pushed through the palms and made it back onto the path. I had that sinking feeling of having inflicted some damage on myself. My foot didn’t hurt as such, but I could feel that it wasn’t ok. There was something extra on my foot, a little baggage that pressed against the sole of my flip flop. I limped back, water from cold dark puddles splashing onto my feet and stinging more. I got back to the kitchen and sat down. As a rule, it doesn’t hurt until you look at it. I didn’t know what was on my foot or why it felt so delicate, so I kept my gaze ahead, and sprayed the hose on the muddy limb. I was putting it off as much as I could, the last thing I wanted was to get hurt right before I went to Huai Kha Khaeng, where I would be hiking all day. I lifted my foot up and looked into it. A clean, curved gash circled the ball of my foot. The skin was cut and some weird, white strands that I assumed were tendons or something important, were poking through. Great.

I showed my foot to Pitoon and he chuckled, shaking his head, which is exactly what I was doing. Of course this would happen right before I leave. Mr. Noi took the iodine and squirted it beneath the flap of skin, which was quite painful. He wrapped it in cotton and pressed down. This also hurt. I looked down in exasperation, wondering whether it would be ok to put it back in my shoe for the next seven days. Pitoon was thinking the same and asked if I wanted to go to the hospital to get stitches. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to get stitches, but the alternative of having this thing fester in my boot seemed all too real. We piled into the car, me eating cookies to dull the pain and Pitoon wearing his ever- calm expression.

We drove for about ten minutes until Pitoon turned off down a dark alleyway. Having realized it was the wrong dark alleyway, he pulled and carried on until he found the right one. The familiar, twice life size portrait of the king stood at the entrance of the hospital, expressionless as we pulled in. I swallowed hard and hobbled out of the car, careful not get the gutter water in my foot. I hobbled up the stairs and Pitoon explained the situation to the nurse on call, it didn’t need much explaining after I raised my foot, and they pointed toward the cold light of an operating theatre. Fuck.

Inside the nurses were cheerful and spoke a little English, Pitoon filled them on the details and I provided the foot. They cleaned it up and drew over a small tray with iodine, water, alcohol, stitches ad a rather large syringe. I couldn’t believe this was my Sunday night. The doctor cleaned away the flecks of cotton and mud and poured icy water over it, which was surprisingly pleasant, am I a masochist? The following, injection of anesthetic right into the wound was the farthest thing from enjoyable, and confirmed that no I was not. The injection was excruciating, but I’m glad they did it, as after that I couldn’t feel a single thing. I felt the sponge dabbing cleaning it gingerly and the unnerving tug of stitches tightening but there was no pain. So I took a few pictures with my GoPro and watched the process happen.

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Once I was stitched and bandaged up they gave me a wodge of pills and a bill for 500 Baht, I was happy to pay the ten pounds for the great treatment I had received but after some chatter they took the bill back. I asked Pitoon what happened and he said that they don’t need to charge tourists, as the government covered tourists in emergency. This was unbelievable, literally I didn’t believe it because the hospital I had gone into was empty, whereas a private one I went to earlier in the month had been ram packed with people, using private medical care as an alternative to the standard of government care. Why then would they provide free medical care to every pillock, like me, who has fallen off a scooter and needs piecing back together, if the standard of treatment drove people to pay for it? The paint was peeling a bit here, but was otherwise fine. Still, they wouldn’t accept payment and even handed me a ziploc bag, with more alcohol and sterilized q-tips to clean the wound. Another example of the beautiful kindness of people here. I went back to the house and applied further alcohol to my wound, internally, I’m trying to say that I drank a lot of whiskey.

A diversity of dishes covered the table, Janya had already got through half a bottle of whiskey by the time we got back and his face was reaching that roasting pink tint. Janya is a one man pantomime. He tells his stories in Thai with his hands mostly, as his upper lip, whilst concealing a lump of chewing tobacco, recedes up and up his face, until there is just gums and teeth. The stream of traffic into and out of his face is constant; chatting a stream of noise out, drinking in whiskey and spooning in som tum. His face is alive with expression as he is caught, totally in the moment and happy.

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Pitoon has an innate calmness about him, his furrowed brow shows his constant thought process whirring away, but it rarely surfaces. I have never seen him express anger or disappointment, just happy or neutral. Across the table from me, his eyes tracked down to find Clong, the cat, sitting in his lap. He hugged the cat close and it purred, falling asleep. One afternoon I came out to the kitchen to find Pitoon asleep on the bench in front of the TV, hugging Clong fast to his chest like a soft toy. It doesn’t get anywhere near what I would consider cold here, but Pitoon brushes off this display of affection by saying he’s chilly, and a warm cat belly is the perfect solution.

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We watched videos of Thai music videos which are fantastic to watch, but run on pretty restricted themes. Usually its boy meets girl, falls in love, has to win over her father, wins over her father and they hold hands. Or there’s the broken hearted guy, recollecting the times he had with his girlfriend, whilst he watches her get into the car of another richer guy. There all pretty similar but they are super low budget and are shot in villages with the people there. I watched one set in a shopping mall I had been in earlier that day. They also usually feature a clip of someone harvesting rubber and working in the heat, illustrating the cultural importance of the crop.

As we were drinking, Noi pointed to the ground and laughed, as a huge scorpion walked in.DCIM106GOPRO

After a few glasses of whiskey, the throbbing in my foot seemed to settle and I rested it up on the chair. I thought about my time here and how tomorrow I would be heading away. Most of all I didn’t want to say the familiar “I’m definitely coming back” When in reality I have no idea when I would come back, or if I would get the opportunity.

The next day I woke early, with my hangover throbbing in my head and packed my bag. It didn’t take long and I spent a while in the hammock thinking about my trip as early morning rain drifted onto the verandah. I took some photos of the place, and piled into the car with Pitoon and Janya. On the way out I saw Yun and gave him a hug through the window of the truck, he’s such an incredibly nice and genuine guy, I already miss him.

We drove into Trang, past a fantastic roundabout of dugongs I didn’t have time to photograph, reminding me of how different and great every moment was out here, and how valuable every minute you kept your eyes open. They dropped me off at the train station and we sat together for a few minutes, waiting to go. I mumbled about how great my time was and how I’d love to come back, thanking them for being so accommodating and friendly. Words kind of paled at this point, and when they left me in the train I felt drained as much as happy, grateful for the opportunity to meet such fantastic, warm people. The engine started and I watched them disappear behind me as the train moved on forward.

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