Saturday, May 22, 2010
Lords of the Jungle
In the summer of 2004 I went to Thailand for the first time. Together with my ex, her sister and her sister's boyfriend, we spent 4 frustrating days in Bangkok before flying south to the Pacific island of Koh Samui. A tropical paradise greeted us (and I learned to go directly to the islands first and finish up any Thai vacations with a few nights in Bangkok).
We spent a relaxing night on the east side of Koh Samui, drinking on the beach until midnight while we buried our feet in the sand and made up a trivia drinking game. The next day at 7 am we took a rusty ferry to the island of Koh Phagnang.
This island is famous for its Full Moon Parties in the town of Hadrin, but we weren't interested in being with crowds of people. We were on vacation from our teaching jobs in Seoul and we were all sick and tired of crowds, so we rented a "water taxi" which took us around to the east side of this tropical island and dropped us off at a non-descript resort tucked into the jungle along the beach.
The resort had no name but the Thai owner was called "Kaih", so we simply called the resort "Kaih's Beach".The "resort", and I use the term loosely because it was nothing more than a dozen or so wooden bungalows perched on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with heavy jungle at their backs, had a central dining area which consisted of an outdoor patio with a grass roof and a small kitchen tucked in the back. There were no seats; instead, guests reclined on incredibly comfortable mats with triangular pillows at one end set around low tables. It was amazingly comfortable and relaxing. We lounged on that patio all our first day.
There were a few other guests there. A large, hairy Australian man with his stunningly-beautiful Thai rent-a-girlfriend sat privately in a corner while a tall and very-fit American sat next to us. We began talking to the American.
After some jokes he joined us at our table, and we learned, over the course of many drinks and delicious homemade potato chips, that he was from Houston but hadn't been home in years. He had spent the past 5 years travelling Asia and had recently been living in Nepal. He claimed to have met and spoken privately with the Dalai Lama, a claim which we believed.
Mr. Houston was, well, strange. He spoke slowly and clearly with confidence. He was in fantastic shape: lean, muscular and athletic, as if though he had been climbing mountains all his life. It was his eyes, however, that kept his drunken Canadian English-teaching audience held captive. Set beneath a shaved head, Mr. Houston had deep, crystal blue eyes that spoke of things we could not imagine. There was so much wisdom and philosphy in those eyes that had seen mystical things that when he calmly recounted his story of meeting the Dalai Lama, after we pressed him, we readily believed him. Although I have never seen him since, to this day I still believe that this wanderer from Houston, Texas, had been engaged in deep conversation with the Dalai Lama in Nepal.
After a while we enquired of Mr. Houston where we could get some pot. He calmly called over Kaih, who said "Grass? No problem!" and promptly delivered a big bag of green weed to our table. Mr. Houston then said "If you want, I know where we can get some mushrooms." My ex's sister's boyfriend, Mr. Korea (although he's not Korean, he ended up marrying a Korean girl so the moniquer fits), looked at me and we both said "Sure!"
Mr. Houston then explained to us that on the next beach, over a jungle hill, there was another resort which grew their own mushrooms. He told us that a few years ago he and a group of tourists used to trek through the jungle every day for mushrooms, and that there was a well-worn trail to follow. He offered to take us there if we wanted.
Nicely intoxicated with alcohol, Mr. Korea and I readily agreed. The girls decided not to go so Mr. Houston, Mr. Korea and I, garbed in shorts and flip-flops, set off into the jungle.
Things quickly went wrong from Mr. Korea and I. We had been living fattening lives in Seoul and although we spent time on the Seoul Metro, we didn't really do anything athletic. Pale, slightly overweight from too much beer and sticky rice, and desperately out of shape, we tried to keep up with Mr. Houston. The trail he had talked about had been reclaimed by the jungle so gigantic branches, vines and very prickly bushes constantly clutched at our t-shirts.
At one point I stepped out over a small decline in the ground which I couldn't see because of the flora and immediately slid down a muddy hill, feet first. A strange bush with millions of thorns snatched onto my t-shirt and I was left dangling in the air, held up by this torturous bush with my legs kicking in the air over a steep ravine. "Help!" I cried. Mr. Korea didn't have the energy to laugh, he simply struggled through the bushes towards me and began snapping the branches off. After a few moments he freed me from the last set of thorns and I tumbled down the hill.
We looked up and saw Mr. Houston standing on another hill far away. "What's taking you guys? Come on!" He shouted. Mr. Korea and I looked at each other, panting with effort. Mr. Houston didn't have a scratch on him. He wasn't wearing a shirt and he hadn't broken a sweat (Mr Korea and I, by comparison, were drenched in sweat, blood, dirt and bits of branches). Mr. Houston simply glided in and out of the jungle. "Hang....hang on!" We panted as loudly as we could. "We need a breather!" Mr. Houston shrugged and called back "It's only a few more kilometres. I'll meet you at the beach!" and then he gracefully disappeared into the jungle.
Mr. Korea and I sat down and lit a cigarette (it seemed like the only thing to do at the time). After ten minutes we stood up and set out again, trying to follow the direction Mr. Houston had gone.
The going was treachorous and painful and exhausting. At one point we came across a massive snake skin that had been shed. It was at least 10 feet long and very thick. We shuddered at the thought. Soon, night began to fall and the jungle took on terrifying proportions. Bushes rustled next to us and strange creatures called out from nearby as we stumbled and crashed and swore our way through.
Finally, just as the sun dipped below the horizon, we emerged from that suffocating hell onto a beautiful beach with several bungalows dotted around. The journey had taken us nearly 4 hours!
Mr. Houston was nowhere to be seen so we approached the Thai staff at the dining patio and, sweating profusely and covered in grime and blood, asked "Do you have any mushrooms?" The old Thai woman we asked didn't answer; she simply stared at us with her mouth open. I suppose we were a sight to see, crashing out of the jungle at night, looking the way we were, and demanding mushrooms.
She collected herself and practically backed away from us, yelling for someone to help her. A large-set Thai man appeared, stared at us intently for a few moments and then said "What do you want?"
"Mushrooms" we replied. "We want mushrooms."
"I don't have mushrooms." He stated, with finality.
"Look, just give us some mushrooms. We'll pay you double." Mr. Korea demanded. After everything we had been through to get here, I was willing to sell my girlfriend if I had to.
"Oh, you mean mushrooms!" The man smiled. "Okay! Okay! I get you mushrooms!"
He disappeared and then reappeared with a large ball of tinfoil. He peeled the edges off and opened the package and inside were dirt-covered slips of purple, orange and blue mushrooms, sparkling under the bare light bulb that hung above us. "Perfect!" We cried and paid the guy some money. Then we turned and looked back at the jungle.
We turned back to the man. "Umm, how much for a boat ride back to our beach?" we asked (he knew where we had come from).
"Alot!" He replied. Damn. Okay. We accepted whatever price he was offering because we sure as hell weren't going through that jungle at night.
Thirty minutes later his boat pulled up on Kaih's sandy beach and, clutching our package triumphantly, we leapt over the side and waded ashore. Our girlfriends were waiting for us. "What took you guys so long?" They asked. We recounted the story and then began to eat the mushrooms, sitting on Kaih's Beach under a large moon as a soft surf licked our feet. Later, Mr. Houston appeared out of nowhere, unfazed and perfectly calm. "Hey guys. You made it. Good for you!" He declared, and then disappeared again.
We never saw Mr. Houston again.