Siam I Am

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Siam Chronicles 7 - Shark Bay? Okay!

Things You Don’t See in San Francisco, Part I:

Even more disconcerting than finding a swarm of black ants immured in your toilet at three in the morning is the rebarbative omnipresence of kamikaze cockroaches attempting to end the Kafkaesque nightmare of their own existence by plunging pell-mell under your trammeling hooves. Or at least skitter up your leg to parse out the pain and get a good laugh in. Their quashed carcasses litter the streets come morning amidst the chicken bones and fruit parings, a somber memorial to the die-hard death-drive of the world’s most ubiquitous beetle.
It’s something I never fully understood - some claim it’s the constant chill, others aver direct divine intervention – but one of San Francisco’s greatest benisons is to be somehow roach-free. The lucky bastards.

Huge Lizards
In our peregrination I’ve become accustomed to the wee speckled ones that wiggle through the sugar packets at breakfast, or the quotidian skinks and geckos a hands-breadth across that officiously divest your bedroom of moths, or even the larger iguanas whomping their way through the rushes of the roof. But it was a close-call to a coronary in Koh Phangan when I nearly trod on a moniter lizard protruding its long snaky neck from under a step, it’s sharply elongated talons gripping the stone below, a saturnine beast balefully basking and fully two arms across. As luck would have it, this was a rare moment when I left my camera in the bungalow but take my word for it, it was THIS BIG and it looked hungry for toe.

Family Danger Mobiles
Although there are souped-up ghetto-sleds aplenty in SF that may risk imminent threat of spontaneous combustion, something you will never see is a full family of five crowded onto a single rusted motorbike, sans helmets and carrying a six-pack of live geese strung up by their feet and slung over the handle-bars. Another thing you will not see is a pack of eight year-olds invidiously tearing their way through town on motorcycles, also sans helmets but plus big buggy smiles.
This is common in South East Asia, where, like L.A., walking is viewed as an atavistic past-time for the less evolved - sort of a coprolite litmus test. Even before a child takes their first steps they are taught to bike. I even witnessed a lady letting her poodle drive one through the crowded streets of Haad Rin - my husband can attest to the veracity of this claim - it happened although we both wished vehemently that it had not.
This mentality is evidenced all too clearly in the circular side-walks constructed as mandalas that go nowhere, or end abruptly at busy intersections with no possible cross-way. This leaves the intrepid constitutionalist with two viable recourses: to scurry over concrete barriers and dodge merciless motorists, or turn around, go back and try again with at least a unicycle. These ersatz walkways are purely meditative exercises, allowing the fatuous wanderer who would willingly walk and eschew the wonders of the wheel to ruminate over the immortal question: do you cross the street or does the street cross you?

Turtle Island, Shark Bay, Tiger Temple
It takes balls of brass and a head of lead to elicit another sunburn on an all day snorkeling extravaganza after finally healing from a second degree toasting. All the expense for covered boat and super fancy all-day waterproof sunblock (reapplied every hour on the dot) went for naught and I fricasseed my fanny but good. Luckily, this was a regular run-of-the-mill burn, different intrinsically from it’s savage cousin, and has amenably achromatized to a swarthy sienna.
It was worth it.
Koh Tao (Turtle Island), according to local lore, was recently rich in turtles but no more. There is apparently one courageous fellow who pops up every once in a while, but given the concupiscent native need for sucking up turtle flesh, I believe this plucky survivor story to be outright mendacity. We were beginning to think the same about Shark Bay, as we snorkeled through the crackling of the castellated coral reefs, emblazoned with bright anemone plumes and outrageous clouds of variegated prismatic fish, kinds I thought just grew in aquariums from seed. We had already surveyed the susurration of the still and cold blue depths, waiting patiently for a stealthy shape to swiftly coalesce out of the tenebrous murk, but with no luck. We finally decided to pack it in. While waiting for a French matron saddled with acute embonpoint to waddle up the rickety ladder, I felt a something banging insistently against my leg. I refitted my mask to sneak a peek, and lo and behold, there was a baby black-tip reef shark, two hands from fang to fin, head-butting my leg over and over again. I dubbed him Fortesque, the Moron Shark of Koh Tao, and wished him some much-needed luck.
Soon we were off to shabby Krabbi, and, following the advice of the illustrious Alyssa Hamel, made our way to Tiger Wat, which (like Turtle Island) no longer has any tigers. But there are many, many crazed monkeys.
The big draw is a mountain-top wat reached by an hour-long hike up a steep set of friable steps, totally irregular in shape and 1,300+ in number. At first I ignored this obviously grueling ordeal, as the pitiful penitents who came sopping down the torturous track, gasping and clutching trees for support, were proof enough for me to relinquish any delusion that it may be a fun time. Instead we opted for a circular hike through the dense jungle of the valley caves.
This turned out to be an unprecedented entomological cornucopia. I didn’t even mind being eaten alive by, well everything with six legs or more, as I gaped slack-jawed at specimens I’ve handled with reverence at the Smithsonian Insect Zoo ruling their dark and irriguous world. There were spiders big as your hand, brightly bedecked in crimsons in golds, waiting watchful in huge spiraling webs trimming the path. We even found a walking stick over two hands across – this tricky relative of the preying mantis is almost impossible to see usually but propitiously this one chose to station itself on a case that was (inexplicably) displaying a human skeleton at the mouth of a cave. I took photos anyway but - of course - it just looks like a stick. Huge black pollinator beetles clumsily banked through the trees with a low drone as their small fire red cousins stood out starkly on the slick green of the dense undergrowth. It was a radiant dazzle of elegantly animate jewels inset into the hushed lush of dripping jungle.
The prehistoric forest explored, we found the tiger cave and listened to the mellifluous monotone of the monk's incantations. This left only the steps, and I succumbed to the pernicious temptation to try them. Around step 600 I felt strongly that it was time to turn around and go back. At step 1000 I was dizzy and doused, but like an automaton up, up, up, the legs moved, and I wondered in high dudgeon why everything interesting is always at the top of a mountain.
It was worth it.
The newfangled temple was ringed round by the soaring vista of farmland receeding into a brume of onrushing rain one side, the glittering etiolation of the sea, harboring dark banks of islands on another, and armies of tall jungle-coped mesas filled the third. Lack of oxygen and latent vertigo helped contribute to the swooping certainty that this was a heiratic and sanctified place, the home of light and wings high above all things, with scattered songs rushing with the wind and a hint of plumeria from far below fulsome and fine in your exhausted lungs.
The monkeys were also cool.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Siam Chronicles 6 - The Hop Began in Koh Phangan

Thong Nai Pan Noi
Being forbidden from going into either the sun or the sea while shacked up on a tropical island is akin to being allergic to butter and sugar while walled up at a confectioners. I’d picked up the parlous prohibition at an immaculate Bangkok hospital, which was replete with gimcrack oils of a blond and hortatory Jesus assisting doctors in various operations and also, oddly, in tabulating patient’s bills. I’d been forced to go – the blisters from the burn bloated so badly that it appeared to my gimlet eyed fellow man (while slipping willy-nilly over themselves to put distance between their persons and mine), that I was wearing a double-layer of bubble wrap for socks. I still felt this move may have been precipitate, but the pallid look of panic on the doctor’s face as I hiked my hem revealed I had indeed chosen the most salubrious course.
I was harangued into waiting a week off my feet, all hammocks ahoy and docked in sick bay. I made it five days before I succumbed to my prurient thirst for the cooling tincture of the azure ocean and I was romping rubicund through its welcoming waters. I was a lambent, laughing waterspout until I noticed we had splashed into a dollop of exquisite carmine jellyfish covered in white polka-dots. They were stunning, I got stung. I slugged sheepishly back to shore and so ended my premature nautical peccadillo.
The previous five days had been long and hot - reading, sketching, voyeuristically watching other people swim and skip and kick each other repeatedly in the head (accidentally witnessing Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is unavoidable it seems, even if you really, really try). I also got to see an English expat held at knife-point by two toddlers - he assured me this happens regularly and is their normal way of expressing their boyish enthusiasm. This display of affection was accompanied by their impressive farrago of obscene gestures, culled from around the far points of the globe, in time to one phrase bleated over and over: “big boobies.” Kids just do the cutest things.

Bottle Beach
This small sandy stretch was filled with naked European families. The babies were fevered and covered in sores, screaming and sick, the parents totally unclothed and even more unconcerned as they smoked their cigarettes and lolled about in all their flabby over-tanned splendour. My muttered imprecations at their deplorable comportment did not prove to be useful.
As dusk fell I rapidly learned how to say in Thai, “there are many, many mosquitoes here” (Hyung MAH-mah). Although true, this phrase also turned out to have a limited range of use. I slapped myself silly and ran for cover under a nice fort of netting.

Haad Rin Nok
Climbing into a hammock four feet off the ground requires the sacrosanct integrity of the true believer. Lummoxing into position, the aged ropes creaking their antiphonal alarm, I wiggled my toes at the bay and swaddled in to reminisce.
Six years ago I was here - not in this shabby new bungalow, a blue plywood gewgaw set high over the ocean, surrounded by trees teeming with butterflies and the occasional pack of sleek gray monkeys, sitting Buddha style munching leaves, watching us watching them – but in a beautiful tree-house style bungalow sculpted of curling natural boughs red-stained and raddled together in symmetry, using the rock of the mountain for walls.
Things have dramatically changed for this place since then - no longer a glut of huts several stones in diameter, but instead a hard concrete slab town, ramshackle and rubbished, trendy and distrustful, distinctly unlovely.
Things have dramatically changed for me since then – I hear my darling husband’s deep voice at the back of the porch. Feeling the acute temporary loss of our coddled special-needs Chihuahua, he has adopted the local lizards. I hear him soothing a friendly gecko, saying supportive things as it chirps its calisthenics on a sun-blanched stone, communing in a nurturing murmur.
But here I swing as this place and I mirror each other again, both more capitalist and expansive than when we last plumbed depths. The clouds wading over this same weary bay, watched by the same eyes wearing a few more creases, still and stall in thrall of a brief elegiac interlude and buying respite for mottled legs sporting a shiny new coat of sterile white gauze.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Siam Chronicles 5 - Out With a Bang in Ban Farang

A Litany of the Unlikely
In retrospect, the stunning sunburn was ineluctable in the circumstance. I had carefully cultivated it four days before, directly after disembarking from the atrabilious elephant that was ruefully resigned to cavort my copious bulk through the jungle preserve. At this pivotal juncture, in the least likely event that has ever occurred in the history of creation, I willingly wobbled into a kayak for a four hour haul down the Nam Khong. Besides my eminent mistrust of physical exertion, my malaria meds were positively plastered with exhortations to stay out of the sun for the love of god - but god was spiteful, the sun was strong, the sun block was in the bus, the bus was long gone, and there was nothing for it but to row, row, row.
In the second least likely event in the history of creation I was discovered to my chagrin to have a natural knack for the kayak. The guide gladly sat back, put up paddle, and sang a simple Hmong love song while I jolly well put my all into it. I was alive with angelic afflatus get that damnable dingy downriver as we flew over the protean swirls and past cascading crags while I noted that my legs began to radiate angry red heat of their own accord.
At the end of the day, dreggy and doused with encomiums about my hereto nonexistent but suddenly superlative strength, I realized that my legs were so badly burned that the bones ached.
I liked the elephants.

The Road Less Travailed
The bandanna Brit in back was apparently attempting to regurgitate his lower intestine - again. The dainty Dane to the right was more demure, vomiting quite as capaciously but much more quietly. The tiny Thai family guy in front was genteel enough to run to the “bathroom” at the back of the bus (read: hole in floor) between goes. At this moment, with total and complete impropriety, I reveled in my rare fortitude over my fellow man, took a strong sniff of tiger balm and watched with wonder as the drenched protuberances of erratic peaks paraded past the sickeningly snaky road. The occasional village of thatched huts on stilts, some with massive satellite dishes stuck precariously to the side (making one wonder how it kept from toppling down the mountain with a sigh), kept time as we lolled and lurched our way to Vang Vieng.

Black Sock a Go-Go
The sheer severity of the sunburn precluded me from going whole hog in Vang Vieng, called Ban Farang (foreigner’s town) by the locals as it swells and shrinks temporarily based on the tides of the tourist trade. My crimson husk had taken on the cracked texture of an avocado, adorned with numerous fetching fallals of gleaming blisters. Abjuring the local nostrum of scorpion in whiskey, I parted with an over-exorbitant ten-spot for a tube of questionable cream that I kept thick and drippy over the injured legs. I felt pretty.
We did make it to a vaulting cave and sacred spring where the fish found my boils beguiling bait. The daedal butterflies thronging the bushes were quite the sight, and I stalked them mercilessly with my camera, capturing the souls of the more fearless for a later date with brush and paint.
Armed with the winning combination of thick black socks and sandals, I bravely assayed a tubing foray the following day. The least graceful of all water sports, tubing involves throwing oneself into the river and drifting peacefully past stunning vistas until you reach one of the riverside bamboo bars. At this point, the proprietors will push a pole at you and the real flailing begins, wiggling with all your might in your over-sized inner-tube. In recompense for the hilarious wounded musk ox impersonation it takes to reach shore in the high fast rapids of rainy season a bottle of lao lao is planted at your table with a shot-glass made from a sawn-off plastic bottle, along with a slew of fresh lychees and of course the ever-present beer. At this point you can opt to be flung from rickety swings off dizzying cliffs into the river - ostensibly for fun - or amble over to the cool caves and immerse into the still pools hiding hugger-mugger behind the warding stalagmites. There are also volumes of voluble bronzed backpackers flitting about sporadic bonfires, sharing in the comic observation that you are the only one wearing wet calf-length black socks.

Tomorrow we leave Laos until September, and migrate south in search of a beach-side bungalow in a soul-searing delve for all possible meanings of that most magical of words: "gadabout."