The rusted sunburned skeletal remains of a marooned tin dredge
greeted me and my driver as we crossed the Phuket bridge. Still
spewing oil from its hold, it must of been one of the last casualties
of that dieing industry. I thought of its brothers laying abandoned
like tombstones in the nearby Andaman sea- relics of an industry that
had for years been there. But Phuket was growing; the residents wanted
to be a tourist hub. The government agreed. But not because they
cared about tourism. They wanted to control all the illegal mining
I was watching the rows of equally spaced columns of rubber
trees flash by as their equally spaced illusion started to make me
dizzy when my driver pulled over into the driveway of an open air
I pinched my eyes and looked at him.
"You have many friends in Bangkok. Yes?" he asked.
"A few," I said.
"Here you buy treats for them. Best in Phuket," he said.
All I saw was a dried packaged fish market but he pointed and I
put whatever it was in the basket: jars of shrimp paste, packages of
dried baby shrimp, dried octopus, dried silver dollars, dried squid,
dried clams....By the time I was done, I was ready to scold him.
"I came down here with a back pack and now I'm going to have to buy
a duffle bag to get all this stuff home."
He smiled and touched me on the shoulder, "When you go on vacation
and have a good time but still think enough to buy something for your
friends they know you were thinking about them. Not a good idea?"
"You're a smart old fucker, aren't you?" I said.
"No. But I used to be a monk," he said.
The old guy, I never asked him his name. He dropped me off in
front of my hotel and refused to let me buy him dinner. He was just
happy with the mangosteen, lamyay, coconut juice, grilled octopus, ***128
and barbecued pork skewers I had bought him during the day. All I
could do was leave him a big tip for his advice and wish him a safe
trip on his long ride home.
If Chai had never asked to look at my ticket before I left, I
never would have even known that I had a Phuket hotel reservation. I
struggled with my extra bags as I walked down the long winding steps
through the forest to find the reception desk.
It was a hotel of bungaloos built into the side of a cliff
overlooking a private beach. Between the bungaloos was a series of
wooden walkways sewn together with and attached precariously by ropes
anchored into the limestone face. The main lobby and restaurant were
at the center of the web.
After discovering I had no hot water or air conditioning, just
a big fan over my bed that might fall and kill me in my sleep, I
grabbed my camera and a towel and headed for the beach. The sunset
was ruby red. The water was warm. The salt burnt my eyes. Damn, I
forgot to buy batteries for my motor drive.
As the sun melted into the horizon, I thought about what the
old man had said about friends. I laughed thinking about duffel bags.
Maybe by tomorrow night I'll need two. I got up and walked to the
stairs leading up to the restaurant wondering what unperishable
treasures I might find tomorrow for anyone I wanted to know I was
thinking about. Good thing my round trip ticket home and this hotel
are paid for.
Sitting at a corner table garnishing the last bits of light,
I switched out the old batteries of my motor drive. I wasn't going
to make that mistake again. I had bought two extra eight packs.
There was still a bit of light. A sail boat was drifting by with an
island in the background. Gulls were in a frenzy all around. One
last shot. A 35mm 1.4 lense I bought special set to infinity at one
eighth of a second would catch the shot. I leaned against a post
and held my breath. "Damn mosquitos," I shouted as I slapped my neck
and almost dropped my camera off the balcony.
They laughed. A young couple had been sitting nearby sipping
champagne and watching the same sail boat. I just smiled and
raised my hand for a waitress who came rushing over with a menu. I
didn't need one. I knew in Thai exactly what I wanted. She took my
order, courtseyed, and walked away.
I tried not to listen but having learned Thai I hadn't forgotten
all my French. My black bean sauce simmering fish arrived. Followed
by a crab fried mixture that made my nose squint. Then the baby oysters ***129
and fried garlic dip. I motioned to the waitress. Enough.
They were still watching, talking, and drinking. Then their
food arrived. They didn't order it. I ordered them a copy of mine.
The waitress told them what I had told her to say." Courtesy of the
"Mr. Tom? I wanted to confirm your seat on our 9am tour of the
island tommorrow," the girl who had walked over from behind the counter
"What tour?" I asked.
She put her hand to her mouth to try to hide her smile as she
looked back at the young couple gulping down the last of their food
and seeing me look over gave me a thumbs up.
No way, I thought. "Get me another bottle of whatever it is
they're drinking," I said.
I walked over to their table. "Good, heh? My name is Tom," I
"I'm Gunther. This is my wife, Evon," he said as he motioned me
to take a seat.
"How'd you know?" I said.
"I didn't. It was Evon," Gunther said.
I looked at Evon. Having just finished her bowl of rice, she
dabbed her napkin to her lips. They were both tall, slim, and young.
With their brown hair and green eyes they looked like brother and
sister. Gunther was wearing khaki shorts and a burgandy sports tee
shirt flipped up at the collar hiding his long hair slipping down
his back. Evon was still in a patterned two piece with a scarf tied
around her waist. She twirled her shoulder length hair as she looked
up at the ceiling making me wait.
"Tom. Not TJ?" she said.
I didn't say anything. I couldn't. My mouth was wide open.
"Your wife is named Ta?" she continued.
"How...?" I started.
"I worked with Ta in Germany. I'm a branding manager at
Helena Rubinstien Cosmetics," she said.
Bug eyed and shocked, "No way," I said.
"I still have the picture she gave me of you two together. I
talked to her on the phone before we came down here. She's the one
who recommended this hotel and said we might run into you. When you
bitched at the mosquito we could tell you were American. But she
didn't tell me you could speak French. I didn't know at first that
you were listening to us," she said.
"Gunther? You feel safe being married to this woman?" I said.
Gunther laid out open palms and shrugged.
"I know when you decided to buy us dinner," Evon smirked.
"Yeah when was that?" I said. ***130
"When I said you were cute," she said.
"No it wasn't," I protested. "It was when you winked at me."
"You winked at him?" Gunther said.
"Twice. The first time he didn't notice," she gave Gunther a
The bottle of champagne I ordered arrived. "Well, if you guys
have stuck me on a 9am tour tomorrow. Guess this is all yours. See
"Two years of being married. Two years of coming to Thailand.
Two bottles of champagne. Good night, TJ," Gunther said.
Gunther and Evon missed the last call for the tour bus. I
wasn't going to be on it that long anyway. I just needed a ride to
the other side of the island to catch the ferry for the hour and a
half ride to the Phi Phi Islands- six small islands in the Andaman
Sea. But they weren't the only ones. There were the meteorite like
shards of 200 foot shear limestone cliffs that stood out like
icebergs along the way.
The deck was rocking with tourists, music, and beer. I found
the air conditioned lower deck with a choice of comfortable
reclining velour seats. My eyes were sandy. I needed to catch up
on some sleep.
Suddenly the boat started to heave back and forth. The cliffs
weren't islands they were the heads of warriors waiting for the
signal to rise. They had been dropped like indian arrowheads in the
puddle of the sea millenia ago by a cosmic force to sprout and grow.
The predictions of the Thai mural paintings had come true, except
there were no monkey gods, nymphs or fairies to help the human race.
The oceans were lost. By tomorrow Mumbai and New York would be under
water and forgotten. The US naval fleet would be swallowed up in
"Sir? Sir? Please. We have arrived in Phi Phi," the deck girl
said as she tried to wake me up.
The small harbor in the cove of Phi Phi Don-the largest island
in the chain-was alive with activity catering to mainland ferries,
diving barges, twin engine speed cruisers, and sailboats. Other
passengers had all ready started lugging their luggage down off the
pier and onto the sandy beach to queue up for one of the long
motorized canoes working as taxis between the islands. But before I
was going to take off my pumas and roll up my jeans to wade into ***131
the water to board one of them, I wanted to roam around the nearby
village. There was plenty of time to get to my hotel and I didn't
know if I'd have time on the way back.
The sandy wooden boardwalk winded up a hill of diving schools
and souvenire shops. A beauty shop was doing a booming business of
African-style braided hair ornamented with strings of multi-colored
beads. Local fisherman were sorting their morning catch while their
wives tended to mending nets strung up on lines like freshly hung
laundry. Roosters and chickens under bamboo domed cages cackled-
scratching and pecking at the dirt. In front of a magazine stand a
group of locals watched on as two of their friends engaged in a
battle of Thai chess. Finally, I spotted what I had been looking
for-a tourist survival kit- a combination drug store and Thai-style
Sliding up onto the sandy beach, my taxi dropped us off
right in front of the hotel. Besides the porters running out barefoot
to grab up all the luggage, young bronzed girls in tribal island wear
came out to greet us with a variety of local fruit drinks. As if the
virgin-white sandy beaches weren't enough, there was a tropical
waterfall emptying into a swimming pool of sunburned tourists in
front of the reception area beside an open-air restaurant. Through
the coconut palm tree grove I could see the thatched grass roofs of
randomly scattered bungaloos.
Still missing the comforts of hot water and air-conditioning,
I dropped off my gear and decided to explore the island. It wasn't
long before I ran out of beach and stood facing a jungle covered
cliff with a small path leading away into the brush. Just as I was
getting a bit tired and thinking of turning back the path opened
up onto the other side of the island and the front door of a local's
fishing camp. The smoke of a charcoal fire burned my eyes as a
barking dog ran up to investigate. I heard a grottal yell and it
stopped just short of my leg.
Beyond the smoke, in front of a palm tree leaf leanto, rows
of fish were strung up between trees to dry in the sun. A long
boat danced in the waves just off the beach as a fisherman anchored
it securely to a tree. As he walked past his strung up nets swaying
in the breeze I could see that he was old and grey with wirey hair
as long as his matted beard. His mummylike shorts were just strips
of cloth wrapped around his legs and waist. The wrinkled leathery
chocolate-colored skin of his half naked body made his eyes look ***132
like they were ready to pop out as he tilted his head and limped up
holding a spearlike cane wondering what his dog had discovered.
Not quite sure what to do, I waayed him with folded hands and
greeted him in Thai. He smiled a toothless smile and motioned for
me to come join him for some fresh fish. By late afternoon the three
of us had become friends.
Beyond his cove there were two of those wedged shaped peaks
like so many I had seen on the ferry ride over. With the sun now
behind them producing a halo effect, I pulled out my camera to take
a shot. But the fisherman suddenly jumped up shaking his hands no. He
grabbed me by the arm to follow him as he ran down to unanchor his
boat. Still holding the anchor line he motioned for me to get in.
I tried to say never mind but he just threw in the line grabbed his
dog and started the engine.
Before long we were out of the cove and heading around the
island cliffs away from the peaks. He pointed at a shear cliff facing
the sea with steps up to a Thai spirit house. After the long climb,
he had been right. It was indeed the perfect shot.
Quite pleased with my smiles and jubulent ranting, he had one
thing left to do. He drove me all the way back around the island and
dropped me off at home. I tried to give him money for gas. He just
waved his hand and asked me, if I had time, to come see him again
before I go.
After a nutritious breakfast of papaya, mangoe, a cigarette,
and a coke, I ran down to the beach for an all day trip around the
islands in a speed boat. As I crawled up the ladder set between the
twin inboard engines I eyed three couples who were also coming along
for the ride. With their zinc-oxide covered noses, flip flops, sun
glasses,and fancy hats modeling wildly colored Hawaiian shirts, and
spagetti tops, they made for a touristy bunch. The two crew members
were still down in the galley prepackaging a picnic lunch but as
soon as they saw me arrive they were ready to go.
While one pulled up the anchor, the other revved up the engines
and slowly guided the boat out into deeper water. As he speeded up
he followed the same path I had taken with the old fisherman the
evening before. Past his cove and the spirit house on the cliff we
sped. I could feel the bow rise as our pilot opened up the throttle
and headed away from the endless island cliffs for open water. He
leaned back and pointed at a dot on the horizon. That, he said, was
where we would go first.
It wasn't long before the island seemed to grow out of the sea
before our eyes. The tall shear cliffs seemed to be pushing the last
of the beach into the sea. All that was left was a few shrubs, a
marooned log, and maybe enough room for all of us to lie out and work
on our tans. I gave the pilot a quizical look to which he just laughed,
pointed and said, "Look up."
In a flurry of red, blue, orange, and green a flock of parrots
seemed to be bouncing off the cliff walls where they had been tending
a condo of nests in the outgrowing trees. "What are they doing here
so far out at sea?" I said.
"At sunset there are huge black clouds of mosquitoes. The birds
like it here because they have lots to eat," he said.
Looking forward to a better view, I sat up with the pilot as
he gunned the engine for the next island. It was a while before he
"It looks like a white whale sunning itself," I said.
"Better not be a whale. It's what me and my buddy here call
'Ladies Island'," as he looked back at his partner and they both
started to laugh.
"Why do you call it that?" I said.
"Well, it's really just a big sand box in the middle of the
ocean. Not much is on it except for a couple of trees and a few
shrubs. But after a few hours of bouncing around on the waves in this
boat, most ladies are grateful for a pit stop; so we added a couple
of outhouses up under the trees." he said.
"But that's not the funny part," he continued. "When you tell
them there's a bathroom on the island, some of them are in such a
hurry to get off the boat, they jump into the water without their
shoes and they're half way up the 100 meters of beach to the middle
of the island before they realise the sand is hot. And wow can some
of them dance."
The pilot was right about the dancing. As we approached the next
island I asked him if I was in for any more surprises. He just shook
his head as he pulled up to the pier.
Walking down the landing, I could see that this island was
different. Men were walking back and forth out of a cave carrying
crates that they were loading onto waiting working boats. Huddled up
together, we all walked inside. It was like a carved out bird cage
with multiple caverns and thousands of swirls flying around. Their ***134
nests covered every inch of the walls like matted wallpaper and young
boys on single pole bamboo ladders hanging precariously 200 feet
overhead were collecting old ones that they scraped off the wall and
tucked in their packs.
Made from the saliva of the male swift, these nests would make
their way into some of the most expensive restaurants in Bangkok as
'bird's nest soup'-a mixture combined with chicken broth, ham, egg
white, and spring onion.
The next island was a limestone fortress watching over a
blue-green lagoon tending a coral garden as it lied on a pillow of
white virgin beach in the shade of a tropical forest tapestry-an
island paradise cacooned in a wall of stone. As our pilot navigated
through the small opening between the walls, he yelled down to his
partner to fill up the picnic basket and hand out the snorkelling
gear. It would be here that we'd be spending the rest of the day.
I had gotten up early the next morning thinking I could catch
the first ferry back to Phuket. But first I had to make the trek
back to the old fisherman's camp one last time. I had bought him a
present-a Hawaiian shirt.
His nets, his dog, his boat, and he were gone. But seeing the
smoking fire and the drying fish, I knew he would be back soon. I
left the shirt hanging on the leanto. At least he'd know I kept my
promise. I dropped in to say goodbye.
Catching a tour bus out of Phuket, I slept through the 60 mile
ride up the coast to the deep water port of Thap Lamu, which was
the home of the Thai Navy's 3rd fleet and the main gateway to the
nine island cluster known as the Similan Islands.
Not being in the mood for a four hour ferry ride, I checked
into a small hotel near the pier and went looking to rent a motor
bike. Khao Lam Pi National Park with two waterfalls, tropical
evergreen forests, and granite dome shaped mountains was just five
miles away and I needed the exercise.
Hiking up the steep mountain trail I could feel the moss like
a wet rug under my feet. The thunder of the 300 meter high waterfall
was deafening as I turned to look down at its crashing waters from
above the ravine. With every coughing labored breath the air smelt
fresher. With every muscle burning step the air smelt sweeter. No ***135
longer the smell of salt, it was the smell of green oxygen. I kept
climbing higher. This was only the first of two waterfalls. And it
was the one above that had the caves and the deep water pool.
Reaching the top, I could glimpse the ocean through the cut made
by the waterfalls through the forest. The Similan Islands were too far
away to see. I wondered if the five days I had booked were too few
or too many. After all, there were no cars, roads or stores out
there-not even a hotel-just hot-humid tents and moldy-sleeping bags-
cold-water showers and squat-down toilets. They have a cafeteria but
it's empty except for what supplies the boats bring in every day.
And I heard about the bats. They're like leaves in the trees.
Walking down the montain I had one redeeming thought. So what
if I have to rough it. As long as the water is clear and deep, I've
got five days of diving to look forward to. By the end of the day
I'll be too tired to care.
A ranger who had floated up in a raft the minute we came off
the ferry was looking for anyone interested in an afternoon dive.
So, I and four others jumped at the chance to be first. Just as I'd
hoped the water was warm, clear, and deep. Not even ten yards from
the shore it dropped down to forty feet. But, with just flippers, a
mask, and a snorkel, I hadn't expected that he would paddle around
to the other side of the island, drop us in the water, and leave.
If I hadn't been wearing a diving watch, I probably wouldn't
have known how long he'd been gone because the underwater world of
Similan was a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. Giant haystack coral
formations created orange clay indian abode cities. A huge maze of
shear steep coral cliffs stretched out as canyons of high-rise
apartments for every color of fish. Even the seabed covered itself
in such a floral jungle of ghostly shapes that I couldn't even see
When the ranger came paddling back, he didn't come alone. He
had brought along one of his local divers because Similan had many
underwater secrets that if you weren't aware of them, you would never
find. His diver didn't waste any time in showing off his skills.
Right off the boat he dove straight to the bottom and within seconds
of searching through the floral underbrush of the seabed, he was
wrangling a two foot long sea turtle.
Spinning and turning, the stunned creature tried every manuever
to break the divers grip. It sped along the ocean floor. Then it
would dart left and then try right. It tried to sneak into a hole
in the coral canyon wall but the diver wedged it back. Finally, ***136
tired and in desperation, it pulled hard one last time racing for
the surface, pulling the diver along on the ride that he had been
waiting for all along.
Laughing and panting, the diver let his scared and stunned sea
broncho go. According to my watch it had been a 43 second rodeo.
"You want to try?" the ranger asked, still laughing at the
stunned look on my face.
"Maybe later. Who knows what I might grab if I stuck my hands
down into that algae muck. Don't those things bite?" I asked.
"Only if your slow," he said.
I spit out a gulp of sea water. Pulled down my mask. Waved and
headed back for the deep. I wanted to see if I could reach the bottom
and how long I could hold my breath. The floral floor tickled my feet
as I checked my watch-1:16, 1:17, 1:18... my lungs started to ache.
I shot for the surface through a rainbow swirl of dancing fish-a
tunnel leading up to the light. Coughing and gagging I sucked in
air- one minute thirty two seconds. Maybe I could ride a turtle.
The ranger disappeared again just as it was getting dark. Not
knowing when or if he might be coming back, I swam for shore and
walked across the island through the forest until I found the
campsite and the ranger now buzy unloading the dinner boat. It
seems he wasn't worried that I might have ended up as something
I didn't make it through the first night in that tent. It
somehow reminded me of one of those indian sweat boxes where they go
in and get so dehydrated they imagine they just visited their long
lost ancestors. And not being in such a hurry to see mine, I spent
the rest of my nights with my sleeping bag down on the beach.
The cool pliable sand molded around me like I was sleeping in
a waterbed with the ocean breeze working as my own personal air
conditioner. The millions of lights in the sky with their shooting
stars became my late night tv where I could always trust the alarm
clock of the sun to wake me up by six.
The five days went by too fast. I never did catch a turtle. But
I'd spent five days in another world. It was like I had spent my time
travelling through space. Now I had just one thought. I wanted to buy
an underwater camera and learn how to scuba.