When the sun starts setting over the moon-shaped beach in the north of Koh Chang island, the commotion starts. The Thai masseuses hurry to fold their towels, the waiters in the nearby restaurant clear the remaining plates and put chairs up onto the tables, and the bartenders, whose voice is the only thing revealing she was once a man, puts all the bottles in order before closing.
They all move like ants. They know that once the light of day is gone it will be too late, because except for several chains of multicolored Christmas lights, the beach will be consumed by darkness. On the other side, down where the waves mark their territory, a few tourists stroll calmly. Most walk hand in hand, absorbing the last rays of sunlight, ignorant to everyone else’s struggle to outrun the sun. It is the evening before my departure and I am sitting on the porch of our bungalow, thinking of the few days I have spent here.
We came to Koh Chang from Bangkok with our rented driver, Sanun, whose name meant happy in Thai. It fit him well, as it would most everyone in this country, where no matter the circumstances we were always greeted with kindness and wide smiles. Sanun was patient and met all our expectiations about the seven-hour ride. He was short, with typically Thai dark hair and eyes, tanned, weathered skin, and a loose watch that would clank every time he moved his hands on the steering wheel. In his broken English, he explained that he spent most of his days on the road, even though his family lived in Bangkok.
‘The job take much time, but it good. Other not so good. I have money, I give food to my children. Once a week I go to massage, very nice,’ he said, and then quickly added, ‘but don’t tell my wife, she kill me if she know I waste money.’
When we arrived at the dock to catch a ferry to the island, he parked his car and went to greet a group of other drivers. After a while, they disappeared somewhere on the upper deck, each with a beer in hand. We already knew this was another thing we should never tell his wife, should the unlikely event of us meeting her ever occur.
Jungle-covered Koh Chang looked deserted from the terrace of the ferry, but as we came closer single cars started appearing on the coastal roads.
We soon arrived at our hotel consisting of numerous wooden bungalows scattered along the narrow paths leading to the beach.
‘Kob Khun Ka! (thank you)’ we cried, bidding farewell to Sanun, and in response he pressed his hands together as if in prayer, bowing respectfully.
I went to the beach and looked around. It was filled with wooden swings hanging from the palm trees, empty now, and ended abruptly at both sides replaced by a dense jungle. That made the beach seem like a haven, a precious secret hidden from curious eyes by a wall of trees. The waves crashed rhythmically and the air was heavy with the lingering heat of the passing day.
At first sight, it was paradise.
Next day we decided to go for an eight-hour jungle trek. It was no easy task, as our target was to climb the island’s two highest hills, and once we entered the dense gloom of the trees and lianas, the humidity of the air made sweat trickle down our foreheads almost immediately. After five minutes our clothes were completely drenched in it. First, however, we passed through a rubber plantation, and something was strange about it, although I could not put my finger on it. I looked at our two Thai guides, both nearing their fifties, with graying hair and tired faces, but still lean and strong silhouettes from regular excercise. They were gesticulating toward the tall, thin rubber trees covered with beige bark, planted every few meters. Then it hit me; except for us the plantation was deserted, no one was tending to the trees. I rushed to the front of our seventeen strong group and turned to the seemingly older of the guides, who’d smiled at me before:
‘I wonder, why is there no one here but us? Is the plantation not working?’
We walked together side by side at the front of our little procession, holding long wooden climbing sticks, and he leaned closer to me, as if what he was about to tell me was a matter of national security.
‘The farmers are in trouble. Just a few years ago the market for natural rubber started booming and the price for a kilogram was something between 100 and 150 baht. Everyone started expanding and planting rubber trees in place of other crops. Then, the global demand decreased so quickly, that a kilogram now costs only something about 30 baht.’
‘How long does it take to collect a kilogram?’ I asked, wondering what this meant.
‘Two weeks.’ And now I knew what it meant. I started calculating; a small bottle of water in this part of Thailand cost three baht ($0,08). ‘It’s all over for them,’ he confirmed, studying my face.
‘But…isn’t the government trying to support the farmers somehow?’
‘The government does not care. The only farmers that matter to them are those who grow rice. Thailand never kept the rubber on their own market, we exported it, so why take care of your own people if there is no profit in it anymore, right?’ As his words started sinking deep down into my chest, I realized this man spoke the best English I have heard here so far. He looked at me with a familiar bitterness of disillusionment, his eyes sharp and wise; a look one does not see here often. Then, as if by sudden realization that he’d revealed too much, a smile crept back onto his face. The mask was on again.
Suddenly I felt a painful sting right over my left elbow, and automatically pressed the spot with my other hand, hissing. When my arm started swelling, I realized it must have been some bug. The guide silently took off his backpack, reached inside and pulled out a small glass jar. It was filled with an orange ointment, which smelled of fresh herbs and menthol. Without words, he gently took my arm and put a bit of the ointment on the sore spot. It was cool on my skin, and the pain gradually disappeared.
‘You’ll be okay.’ He smiled again and waved at the group to follow him up the steep path.
We continued our trek until we arrived at a river waterfall. It was a clear, sunny day, and the water flickered with light, joyfully flowing over the big stones. The jungle would awake in its full grace during the night, but at this time it was still and quiet. Feeling tired and dirty, we welcomed the water with gratitude, following the first courageous man who dived in.
The stream, the sunlight and the trees reflected in water did not fit with the silent, gentle smile the guide gave me before. They were too careless, too eternal, more like Kerouac’s buddhist mountain adventures rather than reality.
One of our other trips was snorkeling on three smaller islands near Koh Chang. Thailand is known for its coral reefs, full of rare fish and safe even for inexperienced swimmers. We were assigned two guides for only three participants, and those spoke only several basic words of English. They picked us up by motorboat with a deck so hard, that everytime it crashed on a bigger wave I could feel the impact in my lungs. On the first two islands we swam, admired the underwater world, and made a game of following tiny sand-coloured crabs running away from us through the beach. The choice of the third island, however, was a mystery. As we were slowly making our way into it’s little bay, it seemed pretty. But when the guides finally threw their old, rusty anchor out and I stepped down, I realized that everywhere around me was garbage. Plastic bags in the water, plastic bottles on the beach, plastic boxes between the trees. I glanced back at my companions, seemingly as puzzled as me. I noticed a man sitting in a hammock chair on the beach, and from afar he seemed Western. I started toward him, feeling the water’s resistance on my calves. When I came close he rose to his feet and I waved, smiling. We started talking. He was tall and pale, probably in his sixties, and his accent was English.
‘Hi, what are you here for?’ he asked, but there was no hostility in his voice, rather surprise.
‘We are on a snorkeling trip. Our guides took us here to swim and have lunch,’ I answered.
‘I can’t imagine why. There is nothing on that side of the island, and the water is so dirty you can’t really see anything. Besides, there is nothing there to see anyway. And for some reason, they brought you here? Did you ask them why?’
I looked around. He was right. The beach was tiny, and behind the few palm trees I could see a small yard with several rugged huts. A man sat by a table full of coconuts, and behind him a little boy, around three years old, played with a goat roughly five times his size. A young woman stood beside him, smiling. I guessed she was the boy’s mother, and the coconut man his father. Everywhere around was garbage.
‘Well, I tried, but they don’t really speak any English, so it was quite hard,’ I said.
‘You know, I usually stay here a few months in a year, at a bungalow on the other side of the island, right over that hill.’ He pointed in the direction of the jungle, but no hill was visible there. I assumed it was hidden by the trees. ‘I come down here every day just to buy a coconut from this farmer, cause I feel sorry for him. He sells them only for three baht each and they are delicious, but no one really comes here, there’s nothing around. I guess he stays on this side only because he needs to be close to his farm. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t bother, the sight is not very pretty with all this rubbish around.’
‘That’s true,’ I had to admit. ‘But why is there so much of it here, if no one but them lives on this side?’
‘Well, it’s the mentality. They use this place as a waste bin, and the children grow up with the sight. They think it’s natural, that all these empty bags just grow and belong here. I don’t know why they would destroy something so beautiful that has been given to them, but I guess they just don’t see it that way. It’s what it is.’ He gave me a sad look. ‘I’ll be going now, it’s a long trek to climb back over that hill. If you eat your lunch here, please don’t let your guides throw the empty packaging on the ground, take it back with you. We have to start somewhere.’ I nodded and watched him go.
Once his silhouette disappeared between the trees, we tried snorkeling in the water. He was right, however; it was pointless. The water was so muddy I could not see farther than two meters ahead, and even if I did, there was nothing except a few empty chip bags flowing near the surface. I did not understand why we were brought here, but I knew our guides would not be able to explain.
Soon we were provided with a tray full of sweet, fresh pineapples and watermelons, and a box of vegetable rice each. I sat down on the same hammock chair the Englishman had sat before me and ate, enjoying the sun shining down from a straight angle. The little boy and his goat were closer now, both looking at me with wide, curious eyes. I smiled at them and lit a cigarette. Once it was finished, I remembered to mindfully put it down in the empty food box, rather than throw it on the ground. After a while we were full, but the tray still held lots of uneaten fruits, and I offered them to the farmer’s family. They took them eagerly, smiling and nodding their heads with enthusiasm. The little boy blushed and pressed his face against his mother’s hip, avoiding my sight. At an impulse I wanted to stroke his thick hair, but then I vaguely remembered it was rude in most of Asia to touch a child’s head. I took the empty tray back, bid them farewell, and came back to the boat.
When we started backing away from the bay, I looked back. The man, the woman, the boy, and the goat were all standing in line on the beach now, watching us. They started waving and I waved back, thinking how genuinely kind and simple they all seemed. They were all living off the soil they inhabited, and seemed content.
I also thought what a shame it is, that this soil will eventually stop giving back, if all it ever gets in return for its fruits is plastic.
I shake off the thoughts of the previous days, and I am back on my porch at the beach. The sun is now gone over the horizon, only an orange glow above the sea giving away that it has ever been there. As the day gradually becomes a memory and the shapes lose their sharpness, the darkness slowly creeps up from the jungle and sets over the sand, enclosing it from all sides. In that moment, it seems as if that tiny, remote, moon-shaped beach was just a scene closed in a glass snow ball, separate from everything else that is out there. For a while, it does not belong to the world.
But then I remember it does belong to it in more ways than one would like, and that awareness is a burden of sorts. The snow ball has a crack.
The ant people are now slow, more relaxed. I see their shadows retreating from the beach, heading home. Some of the tourists are still wandering around, but soon enough they come back to their bungalows. The first few stars start flickering on the indigo sky, and as always, they announce that it will be a clear, beautiful night over Koh Chang, filled with the sighs of the waves and the distant cries of the awakening monkeys.
At the blissfully ignorant first sight, it is paradise.
At the second sight, it is also reality.