Day 4: Monkey antics appear


To be fair, the monkeys would have been much more interested if they understood my unbelievably funny banter... then again maybe not. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.

AS A magician staying only 15 minutes away from the Monkey Training College in Surat Thani, there's only one option for the day: do as scientists once did – practice on the monkeys.

So, after a few hours of figuring out how to re-size an entire batch of photos for uploading and catching up on my writing – including a dive column for the Gazette – I rob the dice.

I steal their chance to dictate my destination of travel. All I want to do today is witness what this monkey school is all about. The ideal situation would be to go to the monkey school and then spend a few hours in the saddle, but my room still looks like it's been ransacked with my stuff strewn across it, and it's past checkout time.

I pack magic tricks, cameras and a book in a day bag, then zip over to the school.

Amusingly, the same small road that is marked with signs for the Monkey College also boasts signs for the local government administration (OrBorTor). If the OrBorTor here operates anything like the ones on Phuket, I wouldn't be surprised find out that the government officers regularly join the classes at the Monkey College.

The school in fact is a sprawling, Thai-style farmhouse, with 13 dogs in kennels and barking in the yard. A strong gate with a sign in English asks me to buzz in or call a local phone number. I park the bike and hit the buzzer. I wait. I hit the buzzer again. I wait.

I don't see anyone. I call the number. A middle-aged woman with a kind voice answers, but what she says is mostly droned out by the chanting monks on her end of the line. Her English is exceptional though, she says someone should be there to let me in, but if not, she'll be back in an hour.

I'm happy to wait, though I give the gate another buzz. A farang man appears, he has tools in his hands and doesn't see me. There is something in his rounded shoulders, thinning hair and even the quality of ruddy, sun-burnt skin that makes me believe he's deaf. Mostly, it's the fact that he ignores the buzz from the door – not that I can hear it either.

Across the street is a three-sided shophouse with a stand for hot coffee.

They don't have hot coffee.

They do, however, have bottled coconut nectar. Two young boys, who look to be between 12-15, are loitering at the shop. I put my tank bag on a rickety table, before digging into it for some magic tricks.

It's not a performance, it's more of a random splattering of tricks.

The older of the two boys, 19-year-old Nan, speaks English, so I hold a naked light bulb out to him, showing him exactly where to press to make it light up. Of course, when he tries it doesn't work. I quickly show him that it can light up green and red, as well as white. He just has to pay close attention to where I'm pressing. He pays attention, but it won't ever make a difference.

I do a little dice magic with some fun gimmicks before switching to disappearing foam balls and then a little card magic. My hands still get slight tremors when I go for my double-lifts.

They are unbelievably sloppy. I get triple lifts and all sorts of issues – I've not really practiced in a month and I forgot to grease the magic machine before turning it on. Nonetheless, there are big smiles and it's all a laugh. It's good to be out doing some magic. An aunt-like figure joins for a few tricks, then an uncle-figure shows up.

We do the dice tricks again, then the foam balls. He wants to do the foam balls again, so I mix it up and stuff “three foam balls”. As he opens his hand, a large red foam penis and two balls firm up in his palm. The gag gets some laughs.

Out of tricks that I'm comfortable trying to perform, I check the time. I still have time.

The uncle-figure tries to sell my 50 Yuan for 200 baht after I mention that I might end up in China – pending a sudden, unexpected influx of money. Giving the slim shot I have of sneaking into the cave of the Sleeping Dragon, I turn down the offer. Conversation dies down and I fiddle with my phone.

I cross the street and buzz the gate again. Nothing. I call Somjai Saekhow, the woman who owns the school, she's on her way.

I find myself fiddling with my phone instead of really trying to strike up more of a conversation with Nan. However, he's happy to jump in, as well as let the conversation drift.

Nan is clearly a young, carefree kind of guy. He's easygoing after having spent the last four years working as part of a fire performing troupe on Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi on the Andaman coast. When he first started performing in Koh Lanta, he couldn't speak a word of English; he'd always skipped his English classes in school. His eyes sparkle with the kind of clever, intelligence that hints at the kind of trouble a fox with a good heart likes to dabble in.

He chain smokes thin cigarettes that he hand rolls with dried banana leaves as we talk.

“I want to show you something. Maybe you've seen before,” he finally says. I expect him to come out with a magic trick of some sort. Instead, he walks out of the room he's staying in, which is connected to the shop with a large model longtail boat.

It's made of some incredibly light, fibrous material, something that he has collected from his home town in Nakhon Si Thammarat. It's not balsa wood, but its close. The details of the boat are incredible: the the boards of the hull gently curving together; the engine and propeller swinging freely; even the extra gas tank is marked with “PTT”. He's exceptionally proud, and should be. We spend a some time fawning over the details, the craftsmanship. It took him about a week to build. After a quick photo shoot with the boat, we set it aside.

The butting joints on the boats hull were outstanding. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Shortly after, Somjai arrives. She has a broad, round face and a pleasant smile. Inside the gate the dogs are barking up a storm and the Dutch man, Arjen, who I spotted earlier shows up.

He doesn't understand how he didn't hear the buzzer, so wanders over to the gate to take a look. Somjai, who just returned from a funeral, is kind enough to start setting up all the props necessary to demonstrate fascinating teaching process at the school.

The Monkey Training College was founded by Somjai's father, the renowned Khai Nui, more than fifty years ago, in order to train monkeys to work on coconut farms. His parents were coconut farmers, who were part of the ancient tradition of training and using Pigtail Macaques to pull down coconuts from the the iconic frowns that crest the variety of tall coconut tree common to Thailand.

At that time, it was common to for monkeys to be beaten when they failed to preform correctly. Between watching the beatings and listening to his Buddhist teacher Khai Nui developed a new method of training monkeys, opening Thailand's first monkey training school.

“Training those who don't know should not involve beatings. Beating comes with anger that interrupts the wisdom that is much needed during the learning process,” he has been quoted as saying when speaking about his training techniques.

Though it originally looked like his famous show, as well as the school would be completely shutdown after he died in 2002, his daughter Somjai eventually picked up the reins.

While she prepares the demonstrations, the Arjen and I walk through the property.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“America.”

“We've had lots of problems with Americans in the past,” he says, going on to explain that those who have visited wanted to pay with credit card or USD and then threw a fit when the price jumped due to the hassle of dealing in USD.

I don't like when people immediately attacking the place I'm from, but his sharp remarks quickly soften as he points out that it's simply been their experience so far.

I explain that I've been living in Phuket for the last five years.

“I'm sure you're okay then,” he says. (Or something to that affect.)

Either way, as we walk the grounds, his sincerity and disappointment about why they turned hundreds of rai of unused forest into palm plantations was written across his face. The annual doubling of taxes on the unused land had reached the point that they were forced to do something. He spent weeks researching what option would be best for the environment and possibly provided some return on their investment.

They spent millions of baht. He regrets the decisions. They made the best decision based on the available information, but it ended up not being the best choice.

The school isn't a dainty tourist attraction, it is a place of work that was doubling as a tourist attraction. It has the farmyard feeling of countless uncompleted projects lying among the many completed ones. The grass has been quick to recover after nearly six months of no rain until just this week, the pineapple crop, however, is still clearly unwell, he points out.

Somjai calls us over. She's almost ready.

The first monkey she brings out is a hyperactive youngster by the name of Kung Fu.

The little guy is all over the place, flipping and rolling in the air. Bouncing around with boundless energy.

I hold out a small red foam ball. He turns his back and pretends not to be watching. Slyly he reaches out with his back leg and attempts to snatch it from my hand. I pull it back. Just out of the reach of the soft furred spaz ball, I again hold the ball out so he can see it.

“Watch,” I say. I appear to be slowly placing the ball into my left hand, while actually palming it in my right. He has his back to me again, but is paying attention, or at least as much attention as he can muster.

I hold out my hand left hand. He spins around and starts trying to pry my fingers open. The hand opens and the balls gone – I've already shown him the trick a couple of times, but this time it really gets him.

Holding my hand he rears back on his hind legs and starts jumping up and down, up and down, with a big, mouth-open smile on his face. Out of pure joy and energy, he somersaults in the air. The little ninja is beside himself.

The first time I did the trick, he clearly enjoyed it, raising his eyebrows in disbelief. Even Somjai smiled with the happiness of being fooled.

“When we were students, the whole class was so happy when our teacher came in and taught us magic,” she says, admitting that it wasn't only Kung Fu who had been pretending they weren't paying attention to the trick.

[The video footage of Khung Fu watching the trick is shockingly bad. My skills with a video camera and the DSLR have so far been a relative disappointment. Thankfully, I've got several hundred days to make improvements. – Ed]

I put the magic away, so Somjai can walks me through the clever monkey curriculum designed by her father. It starts with the basics: teaching the monkey to recognize which coconuts are ripe. She gently holds the monkey between her legs and arms, they spin a brown coconut on a spigot in a box together. She is like a mother playing baby games with a toddler. The monkeys are taught to spin the coconuts on their own, and then taught how to use their teeth to quickly cut down coconuts that are hanging by just a few fibers.

One major danger is the monkey's leash being tangled in the frowns, so the monkeys, who are always on their leash when harvesting coconuts, are taught on the ground how to slowly backtrack and untangle the leash. The mental capacity needed to disentangle a foreign object attached to you from another foreign object is outstanding. I've seen countless smart dogs wrapped so many times around a tree that their 10 meter lead has nearly become a choker chain, and here are this talented monkeys slowly working their way back along the line.

One of the final courses in the class is riding a motorbike. Somjai climbs onto the bike and is quickly followed by her monkey, who stands up on his back legs and holds onto her shoulders as the two drive through the green grass of the yard.

It's a six-month process, that eventually will see them scrambling to the top of 10 plus meter tall coconut trees, locating the ripe coconuts, tearing them loose and then taking a home with the modern convenience of a motorbike.

The monkey she takes for a ride to demonstrate is her monkey – not one currently enrolled at the school.

I assume that the larger, mature monkey with a serious demeanor will be calm enough to watch the foam ball trick all the way through. I kneel down and situate my camera. I wave the red foam ball in the air to get its attention – monkeys appear to be forever distracted.

“Here...” I start to say, smiling big – a standard way to get a human to be a bit more at ease and ready to play, also the exact wrong way to begin performing for a monkey.

The monkey sees my teeth and hears the “Heeeeee” sound and recognizes that it is being challenged. His lips curl back and he bares his teeth, his vicious canines gleaming. I jump back, despite him being on a leash and well trained. He wouldn't actually attack me, but so rarely in my interactions with people am I confronted by the same primal aggression that contorts his face. We give him a minute to settle down and I try again, this time he simply points is swollen, red ass at my face – clearly he's not impressed.

The First Monkey School in Thailand, is absolutely worth the visit. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The monkey school experience should be enough for a day, but I feel unsatisfied. The dice made no decisions and I'm restless. I start typing up some options for the dice and then delete them – I can't even think of interesting options in Surat.

Julia calls –we've spoken everyday since I've left. Despite hearing her voice, I'm still despondent. I'm distracted by reading up on the quagmire that is travelling into Myanmar and beyond. I feel the imposing presence of both China and India as they loom over Myanmar, making any escape from the country north or west infinitely more complex.

She admits to not knowing exactly know what to say. I know I'm not really listening. It's a conversation lost in the sounds of waves breaking across the beach.

Perhaps it was just the wrong time, perhaps it's just hard to find the right words. Nonetheless, I know I'm looking forward to calling her back and really connecting before falling to sleep tonight.

I hang up the phone. A mild loneliness settles in. Maybe not loneliness, but I'm bit lost about what to do. Surat isn't exactly bustling with options. These lulls are exactly where the dice are supposed to come into play, making up for not having someone around to help push me. But they can only help me make a final decision, I need to take the first step.

I find myself hoping a bigger Canadian girl I messaged on Tinder will get back to me. She's only a couple miles away and it's close to dinner time. It would be nice to share a meal with someone.

Back in the States, Tinder is a dating app basically designed for hookups. But I used it up until Julia and I got together for pretty much whatever I wanted. Often enough, I was simply flirting or doling out travel advice – plugging my favorite bars, such as Zimplex. I even used to talk some adventurous ladies into joining completely platonic climbing trips. I think of Tinder as a tool, similar to a hammer: you can use it to nail things, but you can also use it to pry things open – hell, you could use it to make watermelon mash if it so pleased you.

Nothing comes through on Tinder, so I'm off to a dinner alone, again. Listlessly, I find my way to my bike and start driving. I pass a Thai-Foreigner themed cafe restaurant called August. It looks 'okay'. Nothing too special, but also not street eats. I keep driving. My mind comes back to the restaurant because it seems easy and convenient.

I pull over. The red die bounces on the black, wet asphalt. Odds, I go back to August. Evens, I keep looking. Giving August a 50% chance seemed too generous, 1 in 12 seemed much better. The die lands a three.

I park down a side soi and walk past a restaurant bustling with locals, but the die said I was going to August. Six staff are sitting around a table behind the counter. Two foreigners are finishing up their meal, the rest of the small place is empty.

The dice order dinner for me – noodle with hamburger and an espresso. I chat on my phone until it dies, then open up a copy of The Castle by Franz Kafka. The title was mentioned in the last novel I read, Kafka on The Shore by Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite authors.

I read for a bit, then pay my tab and head back to the room. My Place lacks the social space that I'm craving. I wonder through the small lobby up the stairs.

I pack my back my bags and prepare for an early departure tomorrow. There is, after all, a Kung Fu monkey that needs another taste of Simonelli's Traveling Magic Show.

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