Day 11: Dice, weather in cahoots
Music "Nigt Owl " by Broke for Free... Let the song play out on this edit.
I COULD be heading north, outrunning the cumulus clouds that are turning dark and nasty, promising to unleash the weight in their bellies on the world below. Instead, the die sends be back south, just an hour and half south, to a homestay in Thong Tom Yai.
“When the water is clear, lucky visitors can see the seahorses that in habit the stilts that support the houses,” writs The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Lindsay, a seahorse specialist, who has just finished an extensive study of the sustainability of the seahorse trade in Thailand, threw the option in the hat for me when she saw I was in Chumphon.
Originally, I was set on it – who can pass up on seahorses? However, nobody answered my email inquiring about the homestay and Thong Tom Yai was in the wrong direction, which were two strikes against the idea. I don't need to be out of the country until July 9, but it would be wise to get my visas for Myanmar and possibly India sorted in a timely fashion, which makes doubling back to Thong Tom Yai a less than ideal choice.
I give it to the die: 1) Drive North 2) Go to seahorse homestay 3) Travel by destination (northward) 4) re-roll. The dice stubbornly lands on four two times in a row before settling on a two. I finish up my coffee and work at a seaside cafe and return to the Pathiu homestay with a clear plan.
After writing that Somphon wouldn't standout in a crowd, I wondered if in fact I just hadn't looked at him – really looked at him. When I arrive back at Bangson Natural Home, he's kneeling next to the flowerbed with the man who was planting marigolds the day before.
Somphon gets up to greet me. His cheeks are a bit gaunt, his front two teeth are missing giving his smile a unique shape and there is a whisper of a mustache over his top lip – where one typically keeps a mustache. His eyes are bright today, maybe they've been bright the days before and I just didn't notice.
I inform the men that I'm heading to Sawi, which gets a sound of approval – Sawi is the closest town on a map to Thong Tom Yai. At first they think I'll be just going for the day. However, I ask to settle my bill and they realize I'm taking off.
Somphon invites me back for New Year and says I'm always welcome, says that I'm family. Or maybe he said family was coming from Bangkok.
I give Somphon 500 baht for the room and 100 baht for dinner and breakfast. However, he insists that the dinner was only 50 baht, and is hell bent on me taking my change.
Though a bit reserved, he's been a wonderful, kind host. When I woke up this morning, he had two pieces of toast already in the toaster waiting for me to get out of bed and was quick to fry up two eggs. Additionally, he had bought me a chocolate milk and a chocolate-cake toastie from 7-Eleven – he really does seem like a single father trying his best to make his 12-year-old kid happy, which is a good fit with where I'm at with my mental development. Though I wouldn't normally touch the cake and chocolate milk, I am grateful. The only conceivable way to communicate this is to simply enjoy the food put in front of me.
Just as I pullout from under the arbor, Somphon pops up, asking me to wait. His daughter just arrived from Bangkok. A plump little woman with glasses, she must take after her mother. I sense that she probably speaks fairly good English, perhaps another day with Somphon would have been a good choice, but the die was cast.
She takes a couple quick pictures of Somphon and me with the bike. (I'd already given Somphon my name for Facebook, so hopefully they'll send the pictures.)
Enormous, fluffy cumulus clouds are blossoming above in the sun as I start. I breath and smile: this is what being on a motorcycle is all about.
Flying along the well-paved road, the bike feels just as happy to finally have dry roads beneath it's tires.
Less than 10 minutes into the drive, before I even make Highway 4, the clouds to the south start to darken, like a foul mood rising up from somewhere deep in your heart. The north is clear, enticingly clear.
I sigh. It's becoming apparent that the weather and the dice are in cahoots.
I barely make the highway before a light drizzle commences. Pulling into a little gas station that looks stuck in the 1960, it takes about five minutes for me to wriggle into my rain gear.
Everything is ready to go when a misty light emanates from my tank bag. I consider ignoring it, then think better of it – I wish I hadn't.
Something is setting the magic light bulb off. I shuffle it around to make it stop, eventually getting it so I can zip it all up without the light going off.
The zipper busts.
Fuck this tank bag.
I wrap the rain cover over the bag and hope that will be enough to stop everything from spilling out onto the highway as I spend the next hour on the road.
The drizzle gives way to hard spitting rain, which hits the tarmac and recoils into the air.
The heavy rain eases, then resumes. It becomes torrential rain.
Under cover at Suzuki dealer ship, near the smoking area, I pull off a sopping wet glove and check my phone for directions. A mechanic saunters over, lights a cigarette and inquires where I'm headed. I say Bangkok, but explain Sawi first.
We look at the rain.
I need to find more words to describe the seemingly endless variety of rain that I've already come across. I can only imagine it will get worse, as I'll be entering Myanmar just in time for its annual lashing from countless storms.
Not waiting for the rain to ease up, I yank on the wet glove, mount the bike and head back out.
A green Kasikorn Bank ATM sign appears at a PTT Gas Station and 7-Eleven. I pull in.
I spent my last few hundred baht in cash on fuel when I got out my rain gear; better to have some local currency in hand before I arrive at the homestay. Only a few days ago Arjen, from the First Monkey School, had railed on some Americans for having poor travel etiquette by showing up and trying to pay with Euro or US dollars, instead of baht.
The keypad for the ATM doesn't have any letters on it. I sigh.
My pin number is “DICE”. I have no idea what the numbers are.
In my typical half-assed way of thinking things partially through, I guess what the numbers are.
I guess again. I'm wrong.
I guess a third time. I'm wrong.
This is not going well.
I cancel the transaction before my card is canceled. Inside the 7-Eleven, there is a keypad near the register with numbers and letters. I take a peek, trying to remember which letters go with which numbers.
I could simply just logically think it all through; take a breath and get it sorted properly, but that's not what I'm doing.
I enter the number. Wrong. I try again. Wrong.
I go back in 7-Eleven, I come out mumbling “1234”, which I realize isn't a good sign, but I give it another go.
“Your card has been cancelled. Please take photo identification, bank book and card to the nearest Kasikorn Bank Branch,” the machine tells me.
I pray there is a branch in Sawi.
In Sawi, there is are pink, light blue, dark blue and yellow colored bank branches. Even a couple banks I don't recognize. There is not a Kasikorn. I drive by a bank offering to exchange money, but it's still raining.
I don't want to get off the bike.
I don't want to take my wet glove off.
I don't want to even get out my phone.
I guess which road to take out of Sawi to Thong Tom Yai. There are no signs.
After traveling for the better part of 20 minutes, I finally pull over, pull of a sopping wet glove and check my phone. The next turn off is just a few kilometers up on the right.
The main road curves sharply to the right, but a small road continues straight, directly under a pointed arch and through a monastery. Past the arch there is a large gold painted pagoda and a crematory. Further down the road, on the far side of the monastery grounds, there is the occasional home, mixed into plantations and forest.
It stops drizzling as I slowly roll down the only road in Thong Tom Yai. I pull over and get death starred by a woman, realizing that despite the open door and sign in Thai with a phone number below it, the place isn't a homestay.
The road is several hundreds meters long with narrow, wooden-paneled stilt homes on the bay side and a house-less forested slope on the other. The horizontal panels, wood weathered to a gray in many cases, make me think of Alaska, though I've never been.
Everyone's front door is open. If you look, you can see all the way through the body of the long houses to the gray glimmering light of the bay out the back door.
I travel the road until it concludes in a cul-de-sac and pier. Just beyond the cul-de-sac towers a seahorse statue with a baby seahorse by its side. Most likely a father seahorse; the curious marine creatures are the only animal in the world where the males gives live birth. The dull silver bay behind the statue is dotted with lush, green islands, like turtle shells. One elongated one, however, looks more like a whale magically rising well beyond the ocean's surface.
Locals fish for squid off the pier at Thong Tom Yai village on the Gulf of Thailand. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The fishing community of Thong Tom Yai is blessed with an exceptional diversity of marine life, with countless small seahorses allegedly clinging to the clam shell plastered stilts of their homes.
Though expats in Thailand are well-known for bitching about Thais not caring about the environment, this is an especially common gripe on Phuket, what we often fail to see is that like everywhere there will always be some people who put money at the top of their priority list and others who don't. Places such as Phuket, which are ripe with the opportunity to cash in on the tourism industry, are going to attract people with a money first mentality.
In Thong Tom Yai, however, the mentality is completely different. For generations the fishing community has built “sang”, which are simple artificial reefs, in the bay. The substructures attract marine life, which use the shelters for spawning, as well as as nurseries.
In this way, the community ensures an abundance of marine life in the area for their grandchildren, even their grandchildren's grandchildren – okay given global warming and an assortment of other serious marine issues, I might be getting a bit carried away with the local community in-tune with nature thing, but their general drift flows in the right direction.
As I park the bike, a handful of middle-aged locals loiter by a mom-and-pop store next to the pier. A man is cooking Issan-style pork sausages, while the woman next to him grills finger bananas and eggs.
I saunter over to buy a sausage.
Buying something is the easiest way to break the ice. The sausage is chopped up, the pieces dropped into a plastic bag with sweet-and-sour sauce, pickled ginger and some cabbage. I sit on the ledge next to the store and eat.
The locals explain that the homestay is just down the road, I had actually seen two signs for homestays, but neither was the name I saw on the website so had pressed on to the end of the road. A woman makes a call and tells me to wait.
By my feet is a Giant Forest Scorpion. It's tail is hooked, large pincers pushing head of him as he scratches across the cement floor.
I'm nearly petrified with delight: five years in Thailand and not a single live scorpion has crossed my path.
The small-town charm of the place had already won me over, but this was without a doubt a good omen.
The large arachnida seemed to be in a world of its own, it's body such a dark blue that it could be mistaken as black.
I make a grunt, pointing with a smile at the creature. Grunting and pointing gets the job done more often than people give it credit for.
A woman behind me alerts the man at the grill. He comes around with a metal spatula. It's not uncommon for people to grill and eat scorpions, especially in Issan, northeastern Thailand. I passively wonder if he'll kill it and grill it or just kill it. Seems a shame for the lovely little guy to die.
Gently the man manages to scoop the critter up and flings it out into the cul-de-sac, next to a very imposing goose. The goose isn't remotely interested. The scorpion get his barrings and then starts heading to the far side of the road, near my bike.
Unbashfully, I get out my phone and chase the scorpion down for some photos.
The man calls out.
I nearly jump to my feet, the damn goose is just a foot away, clearly intent on interacting with me.
Pigeons, short people with umbrellas and geese all scare me. They are not phobias, they are justifiable fears.
I back off. The man laughs.
The goose later pays the grill master a visit and gets a light, playful bop on top of his head.
An older middle-aged man with shiny gold watch and a face that was once very handsome arrives on a scooter and leads me back to his place. His stout wife and the assortment of kids aren't home yet.
We walk through the open doors.
It's disorienting. So accustomed to a house being laid out in a certain way, I struggle with the long, open style of the home.
There is a feeling of rooms, but in reality they blend from one to another. Further down, what I would mistakenly call a hallway, a small wall is built into the common area, jutting out and blocking off a room for guests.
The man, Lung Dong, shows me my room. It's musty, but clean and has an air conditioner, even its own bathroom. I help him make the bed, and then, not knowing what else to do, go for a walk.
With the rain having come to a stop, just over a dozen people spread out across the pier, most wearing cheap, brightly colored rain ponchos and an odd assortment of hats from brimmed bennies to boonies. They are steadily jigging long fishing rods with string tied to the very tip. The poles gently move up and down, up and down as their owners attempt to snag squid in the murky water below.
I plop down next to one women, throwing my legs over the edge, letting them dangle. She has an indigenous look to her, as if she's part of one of the hill tribes in the north. She smiles, a big nasty smile her gums and the spaces between her teeth red and oozing with betel nut.
We talk, or we try to talk.
I look into her bucket of squid and nod approvingly. She snags another one, lifting the tiny creature from the water.
The squid is marbled in dark pink and purple, panicking and gurgling black ink. It lets out a sharp squeak before being taken off the hook and put in the bucket. Within minutes, the color drains from its body, its guts now visible, it's perfectly round eyes glassed over.
We sit for awhile. I'm getting good at being present without necessarily imposing my presence, or at least I'm comfortable with it – I can't for speak to the strangers I sit down next to.
Fishing, like treasure hunting, is exciting because there is discovery. Even if it's mostly expected, like a an object at geocash coordinates, there is something wondrous about any type of discover, from what's at the end of your line to what's inside a buried treasure chest.
Back at Lung Dok's home, his wife, Pa Mour, has returned and offers to make me dinner.
I say yes, or I try to say yes. It becomes a bit complicated as she gives me questions that I can't answer with a smile and yes. Eventually, a young lady by the name of Tar comes to me rescue with some basic English.
A plate of fried fish is put on the round wooden table that has six chairs around it. The fish is accompanied by a clear-broth soup with two small tuna fish, some fish cakes (tod mun pla) and half of a watermelon. A single bowl of rice is put down in front of my chair.
I hesitate to start, keenly aware of the empty chairs around me. Then I realize that this enormous meal is just for me. They've already eaten, or are eating somewhere else, or eating after me.
It's as if a I've walked into a random persons house, demanded that they give me a bed, demanded that they make me dinner and then been like, “Don't you touch my motha' fucking food!”.
I of course, would prefer their company, but dining alone is a trend at the homestays.
I've got stop mindlessly agreeing when they offer food to me. Otherwise, they'll just keep piling things up and I'll feel guilty for having asked for so much. I hunker down and do my best to eat as much of the food as possible, not wanting to insult them by leaving anything.
Slowly I go at the watermelon, it's fresh and sweet. So lovely, but so much. I can't do it. I simply can't do it.
“What is your name?” says a child's voice from further down the house. There is burst of giggling when I turn to look. They've scampered off.
“Hello,” the voice says again.
“Ma ma ma ma,” I say, flapping my hand up and down, which basically means come here.
A little boy, a very shy little girl and two older girls, who are probably about nine years old, approach the table, fluctuating between being bold and shy as quickly as a fish's scales catch the sunlight in a clear stream.
I'm prepared. Knowing that children were about, I had stuffed my pocket with some magic tricks.
I spread my empty hands in front of them, then make a fist with my left hand. Plucking a little magic out of the air, I sprinkle it into my fist, then jam in in further with my thumb and pointer finger. There is not point in the usual banter, so I just smile.
The small girl, Kantong, holds out her hands. I start tapping on my empty fist. The silver colored necklace that has magically materialized is stuck, but eventually it comes free and falls into the girls hands. I again show them my empty hands.
I run through a few more basics tricks, the kids of course loving the foam ball disappearing in my hand and appearing in their clenched fist.
For the little boy, I pull out a small die and place it on the table counter. On the count of three, I smash the die completely flat with my bare hand. His eyes grow wide with disbelief, picking up the flat die and turning it over.
That's it. That's magic: the wonder in his eyes is so pure, unhindered by the fear of being tricked or fear of being judged for not knowing how it works.
Children at this age are so special to work with because they don't lead with logic, their minds don't jump to why what they saw can't be, they simply enjoy the wonders of what happened.
The kids bring Tar over to watch the tricks.
Tar speaks a little English and, coupled with the desire to trudge through misunderstandings, we are able to converse at a very basic level. I show her some tricks as well, she's more impressed than her mother or the other adult who the kids drag over.
Eventually, I succumb to the volume of food put in front of me, and crawl into bed.