Day 13: What's this? Drugs you say?
The coral bleaching surrounding the island is frighteningly clear from above. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
AND that's how you end up doing drugs.
It's late afternoon by the time the tide pushes far enough under the house for our longtail boat, which is tied up at the back of the house, to scoot away from the muddy bottom and the island tour to commence.
Earlier this morning, I spot Tar at Homestay Par Mous and ask about the boat, which she was able to quickly organize. We then launch into a lovely game of “What are you trying to say?” Covering everything between logistics for the day to the premise of Dice Travels. It's fun to explain Dice Travels without the usual verbosity.
I open a map and point to different locations in Thailand, showing a side of the die each time I point. I roll, and then explain that would be my next destination. She loves the idea.
Tar, who it turns out is the mother of the sweet, shy girl I gave a necklace to the first night (Kanthong), is a quintessential neighborhood girl. Her fresh, beaming face and interest in the world reveals her youth, while at the same time she seems to lack that sexual allure. It's not that she isn't pretty, she is. It's just that such things don't cross the mind when enjoying her company.
But back to the drugs.
Skirting the rocky coastline and a number of secluded beaches in the boat, Tar reaches into the cooler and hands me a full Sprite bottle, not a bottle of Sprite.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Drink,” she says.
So I drink. And that, as I've mentioned, is how you end up doing drugs.
“How's it taste?”
“Good,” I say. It tastes a little bit like a mellow “ya dong”, which is an herbal Thai moonshine that tastes similar to Fernet when had with coke.
“Krathom,” she says. It takes a few minutes for me to understand exactly what she says. “You know?”
“Oh! Krathom,” I say, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. I take another little sip and hand the bottle back to her. She puts it away.
It's the boat man's beverage of choice apparently, not something for her. The boat man, let's call him Al, is a scrawny man with disproportionately large forearms and an deceptive amount of raw strength. He gives me a big thumbs up and an even bigger grin.
From working at the newspaper, I know a great deal about kratom. We wrote dozens and dozens of stories about krathom dealers and users being busted. On several occasions, reporters even covered officers being dispatched to forested areas to chop down krathom trees that had gone unreported. In fact the topic was a serious enough issue that we did in-depth story about the drug and the culture around it.
However, up to this point I've never tried it.
In small doses, the drug is a stimulant, though in larger amounts it is a sedative. The drug's history is complicated because it contains mitragynine, which is an opioid agonist. Basically, krathom can very gracefully ween people off of opium, which is exactly why it was banned Thailand. The Thai government was losing money from the taxation of opium, as local preference had moved toward kratom, hurting the opium market. So, despite the tree being native to Southeast Asia, the leaves were made a controlled substance, in the same category as cannabis, with the Kratom Act in 1943.
The specific beverage in the Sprite bottle had just took sip off, was actually the popular krathom cocktail known as 4x100, which consists of krathom juice, coke, ice and cough syrup.
Two sips of it and, well, I didn't really know if I felt anything or not. Nothing is more confusing than being a hyper-aware, non-drug user who suddenly can't tell if it's the sun, dehydration or krathom that he's noticing.
Squinting at the islands as we pass, my head does feels a bit maladjusted, but it could easily be from they heavy squinting. I'm jealous of Tar's hat, shading her face and eyes. Despite the heat, she's covered head to toe – doing her best to avoid “going black”.
As we approach one of the floating piers in the Mu Koh Chumphon National, the water below is suddenly shallow, very shallow. The coral reef bombies, which should be vibrant and dancing with marine life are a ghostly white. Hundreds of heads of coral surrounding the island we are approaching are dead, killed from the coral bleaching due to heightened water temperatures in the Gulf of Thailand.
There is a strange beauty to their bleached calcium carbonate exoskeletons, the same beauty one can find in scattered bones in a desert landscape. However, with the reef, the contrast between the electric blue water and the white is even more dramatic.
A handful of Thai tourist are already at the island, snorkelling with life-jackets on, seeing what marine life there is to see – and there is still some, despite the bleaching.
A national parks officer greets us as we land, helping us off the boat.
I don't have my wallet, and am already preparing how to explain this to Tar. How to explain that I'll pay her back for any park fees, I just don't have any money with me. At the same time, I'm praying she does have cash, if we need it.
Thankfully, we don't.
The park officer, a stern looking man in his early 40s doesn't seem entirely pleased that I've brought the drone along. Though, to be fair, I didn't bring the drone. The dice did.
Not knowing if we were going to touch land or spend the whole day in the boat, bringing the drone along was an iffy situation. The temptation of getting beautiful island footage would come a the cost of attempting to land the damn thing in a small longtail boat, which I'm sure I can't do. So I gave it a 50/50 chance.
The dice said bring it. Then, about ten minutes before we set off, storm clouds started to build on the horizon and the wind picked up.
Sigh... cahoots, I say. The weather and dice are in cahoots.
Nonetheless, the die had spoken, the fucking drone was coming, rain or no rain. I wrapped the entire box in a black plastic bag and threw my backpack water cover over it.
Once the drone was loaded into the boat, Al put a ripped up tire tube over the box as a third layer of protection from the elements. Miraculously, the weather and light rain cleared within ten minutes of our departure.
However, I am not about to try to explain this to the park officer.
In English, he welcomes me and explains the issue with the coral bleaching.
After a bit of snorkeling at the with the pier beach, the three of us, Tar, Al and myself, start a barefooted trudge on a little jungle path to Beach Two.
I feel a little colonial with Al carrying the drone in both hands for me as we walk. However, he had insisted on carrying it, despite my protests.
The second beach is a long, empty pebble beach. Not much sand. I hate sand. I love pebbles. I love this beach.
In the shade of a thick leaved tree, I start setting up the drone. Both Tar an Al are excited to see it in the air, but I can't get it to connect to the WiFi. They both lose interest and wonder off, Tar yelping after spotting an enormous iguana scamper out of a cave.
I stick with the drone, eventually getting it ready for take off – turning things on and off a few times can produce miracles. Once up in the air, we all wave for a picture.
Al comes and looks over my shoulder as it scoots across the skyline, then way up out of sight. On my phone the swaths of bleached coral reef just below that ocean's surface are devastatingly clear.
Al calls out just before I crash the drone into a thicket of trees toward the peak of the mountainous little island. Delicately, I maneuver it away from the foliage.
Nearly crashed the drone again... Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
With the drone safely back on the ground, I pack it up and go for a splash in the water. Fully clothed, long sleeves and all, Tar comes out of the ocean dripping wet with an enormous grin.
It's like three friends out on a little adventure.
Back at Beach One, I ask about sea horses. It being one of the few Thai words I know, I've been asking about them since my arrival at Thong Tom Yai, but it appears they simply aren't to be found this time around.
After a bit of back and forth about what to do next, Tar sends me with the parks officer to Beach Three, which is just around the bend. It's a longer sand beach, with a few cement homes situated back away from the coastline. They are for the officers, who sleep on the island.
He points toward a wrecked, rusted pontoon boat on the beach.
“Not good,” he says. Walking past it, he lines up a few photos.
His face is beaming with pride from the beauty of the view, the beauty of the park. He walks further down the beach to show me the perfect shot. It's a stunning view, though it doesn't seem to be making the best photographs – no subject matter to hold my attention.
Nonetheless, I snap some photos. It's a little heartbreaking to think about how loving he looks out on the park and how helpless he is to fix the destruction just below the water's surface.
We arrive back to the house an hour before dark. Just as the boat pasts the pier, hundreds of tiny white and yellow butter flies come fluttering out of the jungle. Most fly in pairs, their wings beating as they filter past the line of stilt houses out over the bay. It's not an overwhelming flurry, but subtlety beautiful dusting, like the first snow of the year.
Back at the house, I linger for a moment, waiting to see if I need to pay anything yet.
I've not paid for anything these last two days.
In fact, I've not even asked how much anything is – just going with the flow on this one. They're good people and I at least have a ballpark figure of what I should be expecting to pay.
Restless, I consider consulting the die about what to do, but then realize that I'm in Thong Tom Yai; there is pretty much only one thing to do: walk down to the pier.
Pa Mour asks if I want dinner, as I head out the door. I smile and nod.
At the pier, I order an Issan sausage and a grilled egg as a snack. However, the eggs are three for 20 baht, so I end up with an Issan sausage and three eggs.
Just after I order, a young foreign woman drives by on a scooter, then four more foreigners scoot by, parking next to the sea horse. I saw two few foreigners on the island earlier today, but they were older and we didn't speak. This group though fit right in with my age group.
The girl with wavy brown hair, held my eyes. Even at a distance of 15 meters or so it was possible to sense her magnetic personality. She disappears into the small shop for beers, while the rest of the group loiter outside.
A tall girl with dirty blond hair, who still has the kind of slouch that girl who hit puberty and zips into the clouds at a young age, leaving all the boys behind, develops, is the closest to me.
I dive straight in.
“Where in the US are you from?” I ask, it was obvious that she was American from the way she spoke.
“New Jersey,” Trisha says.
I offer her some of the Issan sausage, which I'm delighted to see her try. One bite, and she's ready to order one for herself.
The girl, who floored me when they pulled up returns with beers for the group, she's clear about getting into everyone's business. In a town that rarely sees skin as white as mine, she's bumped into two other foreigners today. Highly irregular.
Trisha returns with a the sausage and holds up her phone.
“Are you this Isaac?” she asks. For a brief moment, I'm hoping it's connected to Dice Travels. It's not. It's Tinder, which is equally serendipitous.
Trisha and I have been chatting on Tinder since yesterday, yet managed to cross paths in the most organic way possible.
There is, of course, that fleeting moment of embarrassment – Tinder is often just used as a hookup app. However, I forge ahead, as Trisha doesn't seem the slightest bit bothered by it, and in fact, I'm not using it for hookups anyway. At least not at this point.
Andy, the brunette, who seems to be the ring leader of the gang invites me down the pier to watch the sunset with them.
I plop down between the two boys, Jack and Allen, halfway down the pier.
“Want an egg,” I ask, realizing even in the moment that it's a bit of a daft question. Nonetheless, it seemed rude to be peeling and eating my egg without offering.
“Yes, that's perfect,” he says to my surprise. It isn't often that you offer a grilled egg to a stranger and they so enthusiastically take to the idea.
Allen, who is half-Thai, but grew up entirely in the UK, is recovering from a massive hangover, in fact, most of them are. The egg apparently it exactly what he needs.
Four of them are teachers. Katelyn, who is a bit subdued after having had a minor motorbike crash earlier this today, though you wouldn't know it by looking at her, is in town to visit Andy.
Allen is a complete pleasure to chit-chat with, with a light voice and a soft British accent, he's clearly a clever chap. He's recently thrown in the towel as a political policy adviser for a small company in the UK that focused on helping oil-rich companies look into a crystal ball at their future economic destiny once the oil runs out.
It's relaxing to converse completely unhindered by language barriers, getting to just enjoy some of the subtleties of the English language.
There is a lull in conversation when I suddenly remember that I hadn't offered Jack an egg, which seems doubly rude, especially since Allen was so keen.
He turns toward Allen and me. I hold up an egg.
“Want one?” I ask, probably with higher exceptions than are reasonable.
“What? An egg? Ah, no thanks,” he says with much heavier, lower-class English accent.
We all then have a bit of a laugh about how ridiculous it is to offer someone a grilled egg, Allen apologizes for accepting the offer so readily, which is a bit daft given that I had offered it and had two extra eggs.
Jack, who is a wide shoulder, heavy set guy – the sort who you might call Buba back in Indiana – is ready for dinner. They're going to grab food then meet up at Andy's beach bungalow directly across the bay from the pier.
Andy drops some pins in Google Maps on my phone and invites me to come along.
I say I might, though I mean “yes, of course”. I pass on joining them for dinner, however, as Pa Mour already has food on the table for me.
It turns out that Pa Mour doesn't have food on the table for me. She and Laung Dong have gone somewhere for the evening, Tar explains.
The fried fish and yummy food this time was prepared by Tar.
Before I'm settled in at the house, one of the younger girls, Ice, who is a neighbor and friend of Kame the young girl living at the house, comes bounding up to me.
She wants something. Something to do with magic, but beyond that I'm not sure.
We go into the room and I dig around in my magic tricks to figure out which ones she's talking about.
The pink foam balls is a must, though I grab the linking rings and color changing scarf, which I haven't share with them yet. I launch into a impromptu magic show for Ice, Kahtong and Kame.
The disappearing foam balls sets Kahtong, Tar's daughter, off. Her little face splits with a raucous laugh, her body shaking as she jumps up and down with pleasure. No longer shy at all, Kahtong is a bottle of pure joy.
(This morning, she told Tar that I had a perfect face and was very, very handsome – the little girl knows how to make a Leo go all soft on the inside.)
Kame has her phone out to record everything and we all have a good laugh with the linking rings, which so easily connect and come apart in my hands, but seem impossibly stuck together when I hand then to the girls or Tar.
With a sharp eye, Tar immediately figures out the color changing scarves, so the girls all give it ago, sporting big, goofy smiles as they turn the scarf from yellow and blue to red and green.
I'm buzzing by the end of it, filling up with everyone's excitement and the pure unhindered joy from Kahtong.
On this kind of high, is it really necessary to bother meeting up with the teachers? They seemed like an interesting lot, but it's hard to imagine a better ending to an exciting day then the magic show.
I buckle down and don't even let the die decided.
Andy seemed particularly interested in Dice Travels. More importantly though, it seems too serendipitous of a situation to pass on, or even give the chance to pass on it. Though I doubt they would, you just never know when you let the dice decided.
There is a little mental back and forth about whether or not bother with bringing any magic tricks to Andy's place. After having just razzle-dazzled the kids, I am not sure I really want to go through it all with the teacher crew.
It's a perfect decision for the die. But, I just jam the a couple fun tricks into my bag. On the way out, I pass Al and Tar hanging out where Laung Dok and Por Maur usually are in the living room.
“He wants to know when you come back?” Tar says.
The whole homestay experience is a bit like being an adult child back home for an extended stay. The old habits of child rearing kick in for parentals: I'm asked what I like to eat and eat what's served; I have my own little room in the house; and I've also got a curfew. Of course, it isn't really a curfew, they just want to know when I'll be back.
It's about 9pm, I say 11pm. It seems like both enough time to hangout with new acquaintances and still a reasonable time to get back and bank enough sleep before departing for shrimp fishing at 4:30am.
They nod their approval, so the black beast and I take off into the night.
The stars above are bright, the kind of bright that you forget about after having only seen them through the light pollution of a populated area. It's hard to keep my eyes on the road; I keep glancing up at the constellations. Scorpio, with its hooked tail is the first one I spot. It's beautiful.
I want to layout on the beach with a joint and look at the sky. I hope that's the plan.
In general, I don't smoke anything, though when I do it's a social joint. Right now though nature is so big and beautiful, I just want to let my mind drift out into the darkness; the only light coming from earth being the burning embers from from the tip of splif.
Methodically, I review talking points for my arrival. I'm not sure if this is a new habit I've developed with the trip or if it's something I've always done.
Andy mentioned three failed blog attempts. Trisha and I can talk math, she'd made a fun comment about “learning to add” again. Allen is easy enough with the political stuff. When it comes to Katelyn, Andy's friend, there is the bike crash. However, I can't really think of anything to speak to Jack about. It's amusing when I realize that I'm running through the points as if I'm about to speak at a press conference.
A King Cobra that just crossed the road ahead of me rears up at the sound of the bike. My legs, pop up around the tank, despite the small – a meter long – snake being way out of striking distance.
Andy's map points are perfect, I make a turn down a cement road that quickly becomes a dirt track.
Out in front of one of the four bungalows behind a row of trees along the beach there's a pack of scooters.
Jamming my flip-flops under the kickstand so the bike doesn't fall over again – it fell one morning at Casa Luna, after the kickstand sunk a few inches into the muddy sand out front.
Andy comes down to greet me.
“Wow, that's a real bike,” she says.
I love my bike, but feel awkward when people compliment it. It's as if the compliments about the bike are in some way transferable to me simply for having bought something, which of course seems uncomfortably superficial. She pokes about the bike, taking it all in in the dark, just beyond the reach of the porch light.
I defer the compliments as best as I can, throwing in some mechanical advantages about the bike that I learned about a couple days ago from Adventure Rider Radio.
Seat space is limited on the porch with Allen already sitting on the floor. I jump into the hammock, which knocks a bottle of Yoo-hoo! chocolate beverage on the floor. It's mostly, empty – still not the best start.
Thankfully, they tease me, as any good friend would, after I hesitate to clean it up. I must have become a bit of a slob over the last couple of weeks, because the hesitation is a total lack of understanding that the few drops of chocolate beverage on the floor needed to be attended to.
Tony, Andy's dog, is quick to get down to work. He's on a try anything with his mouth frenzy, grabbing crisps right off the low-lying table everyone's seated around and happy to do a little mopping up for me.
Settled in, it's time for Yahtzee.
Trisha is the game master, patiently waiting for people to sort themselves out. Only a few of us knew how to play, and apparently the game I call Yahtzee is something entirely different. However, the basic strategy behind the real game is pretty straight forward, so I'm not missing a beat.
The rest of the group can't focus on Trisha long enough to actually grasp the rules. Jack's played before and is pretty sure he hates the game – in a good-natured way. Outside of that only Trisha and Andy really know how to play. Andy, however, is buried deep in her phone.
I take out a flask of Chivas 12 Year Old and pass it around. After months of cheap Thai whiskey, notably Hong Thong, the Chivas produces some genuine smiles.
Trisha, incredibly analytical, pretty much helps everyone make the right choice as we start slogging through the game. It's fun, though the game often stalls out on Andy, who remains distracted by her phone, or the entire group gets sidetracked by Tony when he starts trying to eat the dice.
“It really is just going to be a game of pure luck if you keep giving everyone the optimal strategy,” I eventually point out to Trisha. She agrees, though you can visibly see the pain on her face as someone crosses off the short straight option instead of Yahtzee when they end up with a busted roll.
Long live those who take the long shot, even if we all miss.
Someone calls Andy out for being lost in her phone, she apologizes, but returns to it. Despite the painfully slow game, it's still just a laugh to be a round some good people who speak fluent English.
“This game would be so much easier if I could just use my own dice,” I say.
“What? What is it with American's and Yahtzee,” Jack asks, as others join in about the absurdity of me having my own set of dice.
I don't point out that given I'm on a project called Dice Travels, it really makes a great deal of sense. Instead, I pull out the magically organizing dice and do a trick. I follow up by producing a light bulb from my bag.
“Who carriers a light bulb around with them,” the group seem to ask in unison. I do. I carry a light bulb, more than 20 decks of cards, fire juggling clubs and a sword around with me – because that's how I roll.
They play with the magic light bulb, all failing to get it to light up besides for Katelyn, who seems mildly pleased as I help her, and not too disappointed that it fails again as soon as my hands move away from hers.
I've still got a few more tricks up my sleeve, but it doesn't seem like the right time for a much longer intermission. We still have a tepid Yahtzee game in motion.
Finally, the game ends. Nobody really know who won. Nobody seems to really care, though Trisha has been diligently keeping track of the rolls the entire time.
There's a call of a new game.
I consider going home, it's nearly 11 already. However, if it's just the boatman and Tar at the house, it doesn't seem necessary to be on time.
As I was leaving the house, I had to double-back for something and caught Tar sneaking a little spliff by the kitchen window. The air smelled of weed and their was a puff of white smoke in the air, her right hand tucked behind her back – she thought I was Pa Mour or Luang Dok when I walked in.
“I've got a brilliant game,” Jack says with boyish grin. Andy wonders off. Katelyn also slips away – the pain in her knee is too much.
The rules of the game “Can I put it in your box” are established.
Basically, there is a big invisible box that one person will put something in. We then try to decided what's in the box by putting other things in the box, the first person tells us whether or not such items, feelings, thoughts or people will be allowed in the box based on the criteria of what he put in the box.
It's a hilariously clever game. The first round is going poorly though as nobody can put anything in the fucking box.
It clicks, at least it clicks for me.
Jack always rubs his head before he puts something in the box. Once on the inside of the puzzle, it's a riot to watch the others struggle.
Trisha is clearly frustrated, while Andy doesn't seem to be totally engaged, though has put down her phone.
Jack and I can't get enough of it.
I start up a fresh round once everyone starts rubbing their head and jamming all sorts of strange things into Jack's box.
“I put a two-way dildo into your box,” Allen tells me. That's the sort of opening I can't pass up on, though the dildo isn't allowed into my box.
I get out of the hammock and crouch down next to his chair he managed to commandeer after Yahtzee.
I place a red foam ball in my hand and then one in his hand – magically mine disappears and is in his hand. The reaction from the group is much better than the monkeys'.
“Okay, okay, but I actually have three balls,” I say digging into my bag. I produced the three balls and have him close his hand around them.
“Now think hard, really hard about the first thing you thought when you saw me. Don't tell me, just think about it. Okay, slowly open your hand.”
There in the palm of his hands is a giant red cock and balls. Yes, I carry a foam cock and balls around with me too.
I then do two quick, powerful card tricks.
It's past midnight. I've got to be up by 4:30am to go shrimp fishing, it's time to bow out of the party.
I feel like an enigma. Perhaps I am one, perhaps not. But, fuck me it's fun to just roll into people lives in a very literal way, and then bring something very different to them, even if it's just for a moment.
I slide the gate of the homestay closed, but don't see a lock. Guiltily, I see Luang Dok with a towel wrapped around his waist come out with a lock. It's nearly 1am.
Pa Mour is asleep on the mattress on the floor in front of the TV in the living room area.
I get to my room, and hit the lights.
Three hours of shuteye before I'm off with Al and Tar for some local shrimp fishing.