Saturday, September 20, 2014

Guest Blog. John Fengler. Ko SiChang.

I fell in love with the island a few years back and had the unique chance to meet David who runs, in my mind and my family's mind the best place to eat in Thailand - Pan and Davids Restaurant. David has lived in Thailand for fifty years and remembers when Pattaya had no nightlife, but there was a little island that had. Nightlife, that is. That place was Ko SiChang. Now the nightlife has left the island and it is one of the untouched wonders swept aside by travel book writers. Untouched , well, maybe not. But undeveloped by tourist ventures the island remains mainly a place of commerce - fishing and import / export by ship.  No bars nor late night entertainment are to be found here. It's a Lonely Planet oddity. A place that has not been over developed and one that has reversed the cycle of the typical drunk expat deceleration of "You should have been here ten years ago."  Where's the fun in writing or indeed talking about a place that was once decadent but now is not? This interests me. David would watch the neon lights blinking from Si Chang and now the neon lights have gone, disappeared, perhaps forever. We mused about the island becoming another tourist mecca. "It'll never happen," David told me after the fourth glass of wine. "For one thing they don't allow cars on the island. The Hiso won't buy it." There was once plans to build a bridge to the island from Si Racha. Thankfully these plans have been abandoned by the new Happy government.

I bumped into a friend and a writer John Fengler who had written something years ago about the island. It was too good not to share.  So I present to you John's take on Ko SiChang. Please enjoy, but don't go there...It may go full circle. Please don't go there. There are only two foreigners living on the island and she has her own immigration department which means basically that it is the best place in the world to live if your book is turned into a movie and you want to write Bond type books. There's even talk of a secret tunnel.

I hand you over to John.

Koh si Chang 

Dateline: lonely Planet days
Author: John Fengler.

The real ones, where entries included tips on traveling, real tips. How to skirt this or that border, which crossing had more visa friendly officers, where the 'off the beaten path' truly was. Another time.

I was armed with the first edition LP Thailand, which was about 3/4 of an inch thick for the whole country.

I followed a lead to an island in the gulf of Thailand about 100 kilometers south of the capital.

There was a rumor of a partially built Royal palace, that had been abandoned in the late 19th century when the French had short lived dreams of occupation. I didn't need much provocation for an adventure.

There was no regular transport to the island that I was aware of, but I managed to finagle a ride on a fishing boat. The boat driver gave me a bit of a concerned look and said; 'but nothing there for you', meaning no hotels, restaurants etc.

I said that he just sealed the deal. I had my backpack.

I managed to get a local motorcyclist to take me into the jungle, to the site of the old palace. I also let him know it was ok to leave me there. Crazy Falang.

Truly a remarkable sight, an incomplete royal residence, that was now, 100 years later, being ingested by the surrounding jungle. A marble floor of the grand entryway, where i eventually spent the night, columned balustrades lining a swimming pool that had never been filled with anything but rain water, and mysterious stairways that led to nowhere, or maybe some Hobbit world, only accessible by wearing a certain ring.

I awoke rested and unmolested by anything larger than a mosquito. Filled with wonder i set out on foot for the coast. It was a  island after all, how lost could i get?

I was crossing a bit of arid midlands when i came upon a rock face. It looked to be an easy climb, and far more promising than the long slog around it. I hefted up the rock, and was about 20 feet up when i threw my hand over the top. Ready to hoist up and over, i saw then felt a thousand fire ants racing down my hand and arm. They live in boxes  made of leaves and held together by their spit. They are virtually undetectable to the untrained eye, especially a blind one lifting over a ledge. They bite and it hurts. I had to fight my natural instinct to pull my hand back in retreat, as i would have plummeted to certain injury, if not more. Mind over matter works until the adrenaline wears off, so over the top i went. Brushing them off and gathering my wits i headed off again, this time on a slightly more elevated, but no less arid plain. But now i could see the Gulf. About twenty minutes further i turned and noticed a saffron robed monk standing in the openness. He had appeared out of nowhere. He smiled at me and then disappeared into the ground. I am prone to hyperbole, but not to illusion. I ran to where i had just seen him and found a hole in the ground. Peeking into it, my new monk friend was suspended in the darkness and holding onto a vine. He smiled again and gestured me to follow him. Of course i did. It was a cave entrance. The cool dank moist air was a relief from the dry arid air i had been breathing. There were recessed Buddha images carved into the limestone, and Buddhist adornments all around. I followed him in amazement until reaching a cathedral, as they are called in the spelunking world. An expansive high ceiling part of a cave. I looked up with my mouth agape in wonder. The monk then slid to my side and gently reached up to my chin and closed my mouth. He smiled and pointed at the roof of the cave and mimicked the flapping motion of bats. The international symbol of 'he who looks at cave roof with mouth open, eats bat guano'.

Continuing my tour of this subterranean temple, we wound up at a horizontal opening with an expansive view of the Gulf. Entered by descending into a field, and exited onto a sea front vista. There were many monks there, laughing at unknown things and completely unsurprised by my presence. One was peeling hard boiled eggs and tossing them to what i took to be their pet monitor  lizard. I didn't know one could domesticate them, but hell they were monks. Just some  more magic I suppose. Like an idiot i went over to pet it. THWACK went it's pre pre-tensile tail to my inner thigh, about 2 inches from Vienna boys choir destination. I had a welt for years from that. Somehow that endeared me to no end with my new hosts. We sat there with no words in common for awhile. With no signal that i could sense, they all stood up and then gestured that i should enter a previously unseen chamber in the cave. There was a wooden platform raised about a foot off of the ground. I was instructed to take my flip flops off and sit on the platform. I sat there with a goofy smile for a few minutes when the grand poobah came in. He was straight out of central casting where they call for a wisened seer. I wanted to rub his belly. He sat across from me, a little bit higher on a second platform. He crossed his legs, assessed me for a moment, and then in decent English said; 'what do you want to know?'.

Really? REALLY?

I was in my early twenties, a post Sartre infused graduate, and a traveller. I wanted to know everything. Why are we here? What is the difference between sin and crime? Is there life after death? My mind raced. I knew i had stumbled onto a great, seminal moment in  my life. No time to question the whys of it. Boots on the ground.  I wanted to ask something accessible, linguistically as well as philosophically. I didn't want to squander this opportunity, but didn't want to come off as an idiot either.

I said; ' i want to know how to meditate'. That's the best i could come up with.
He beamed back at me. It was the right question.

He scooted a bit closer to me, reached over and adjusted my posture. He then lowered his eyelids partially, into the Sukhothai pose, and slowly, beautifully, rhythmically inhaled, all the while drawing out the sound 'Booooooooo', and then at the apogee of his breath he exhaled and chanted; 'Daaaaaaaaaaaaa. It was a seamless breath, much as the circular breathers of the digereedoo have mastered. I Practised in front of him for a bit, until he gave me a 'too late for you grasshopper' look, and released me to my previous hosts. I ate rice with the monks for a day, taught them a few words in English, and fended off their great attempts to tattoo me. It was a monastic hermitage i found out. It was a particular destination for true disciples from temples all over the country. I had found it by accident, or providence.

The next day i took my leave and headed over to the other side of the island, much the same route i had taken to get where i was.

I walked for several hours across the same arid expanse as before. I then caught sight of the farthest shore right before the walls of the path obscured the coast with a sharp descent. I followed a now curiously well worn trail, came around a final blind corner, and encountered the next most extraordinary vision. On either side of the trail, which had suddenly turned tropical, were two lovely Thai sirens, wearing long traditional silk wraps. Each was holding two halves of a freshly cut pomegranate. They gave me warm smiles that betrayed no surprise at my presence. Quite the contrary, as it seemed they had been expecting me.
They both then turned and ushered me to a teak home which jutted out over the water, with it's Gulf end supported by wooden piers. There were buckets of crabs, fishing nets, a steaming pot of soup suspended over a charcoal fire, and a couple of teak fishing boats. They sat me down in what was i suspected, the living room. It was the closest comparison i could make being that the whole place was more or less open air.

I waited for the next surprise. A short while later a man came over and sat across from me. He was about 10 years older than me, and had a gentle but concerned look about him. He had things on his mind.

I was his guest, as is the Thai way, but i was an uninvited one. I looked him in the eyes, pointed at myself and said; 'johhhhnnnn', and then smiled.
He paused, gave a sardonic smile and said; "name's Paul. I used to be V.P. of BBD&O advertising in L.A."


How? What? Why? And who were those girls?
"It's a small island. We knew you were here three days ago. Expected you to turn up sooner but guess you found the monks?!"

"I'm Thai by birth and this was the family homestead." His tone became forlorn, continuing with; "Dad was a crab fisherman and i inherited the place so I'm stuck here."

'Stuck' i exclaimed. People would kill to be stuck here!

"He gave a deflated smirk and said; "yeah you want to buy it?"

Um well no but...

"Yeah nobody else does either. It's a golden albatross. Anyway let's eat some crab and you can tell me about the world. I'll have one of the girls ferry you back to shore later. It's the only way out of here unless you want to hike across the tundra again."

We talked until the sun began to set. He said he had to tend to his traps. I thanked him for his hospitality and wished his good luck.

One of the sirens had changed into Thai fisherman's pants and a Chinese shirt. She smiled that enigmatic Thai smile and silently steered me back to the world.