"By all that's wonderful it is the sea, I believe, the sea itself..."
I'd decamped to my favourite island near the Thai-Burma border to do some work and get out of the smoggy hellscape Bangkok had become as a result of the coal-fired plants powering the city.
The air quality index was at a level where the WHO would recommend that everyone ought to be wearing pollution masks. Khao San, which is sinister at the best of times but that a friend and I decided to visit, against our better judgment, was cloaked in a street-level smog. Cigarettes were rendered superfluous, it was damn-near all we could do to breathe.
After a night train and a bus and a slowboat, I was on the island shortly after midday.
I rented a tent at the medicine man's place on the east end of the bay, which was riddled with holes and spiders.
A woman who was staying at the bungalows was there on a mission to integrate her Bangkok mall-bought pet squirrel into the wild.
I did some work and read a lot of books and swam and ate good food and lost my wallet somewhere along the way. This presented a problem: I had money, but no way to access it. I was racking up debt at the medicine man's place, as well as the bike rental.
At some point earlier in the week, I'd met some boating types who were moored in the bay. One of them had a spot going, with a plan to sail out to the Surin Islands, then down the Thai coast through Phang Nga Bay and onward to Railay and Krabi. I had to decline, given my wallet predicament.
I was feeling pretty glum, aware that my story sounded implausible and like I was on the grift. I realised I was going to be that asshole lurking around and trying to convince strangers to let them transfer money in return for cash. There's always one. Fortunately, a friend on the island was good enough to help me out. The spot on the boat hadn't yet been filled, and so — at the eleventh hour — I was in luck. The evening before we set sail I raced around clearing the various debts I'd accrued.
The next morning we got underway: four people, two boats.
Aboard S/Y Chaos.
The Surin Islands were bullshit-beautiful. We spent a couple days off the grid. We snorkelled in water so clear you could see ten metres down. We took the dinghy to the little beaches dotted around the place, explored the boulders and looked for shells. One we got out at had you knee-deep in baby-powder-fine sand at every step.
We swam at night in the bioluminescence, and spent hours lying on the bow looking for shooting stars. We cooked and drank rum, too much rum, but never woke up with a hangover. We cranked our favourite music, full-bore, and heard it dissipate into the silky night.
As we emerged from the mobile deadzone of the Surins, I got an email saying someone had found my wallet.
We had a line out as we made our way down the coast, and managed to hook this bad boy. That night I ate fish for the first time in years.
My not eating it is more to do with supply chain issues (slavery, etc) than overriding concerns about pelagic sentience. I'd always said that if I were to look the beast in the eye as the life drained from its flapping form, then it would be rude not to consume it.
I was very much complicit in this Mackerel's demise, and we had it cooked up at the Navy Wives' Association: fried with garlic and pepper, and a green curry.
We sailed into Ko Panyi, a Muslim fishing village where some 3000 sunburnt tourists go each day to eat subpar seafood buffets. We explored the back alleys of this labyrinthine set of interlinked jetties and shops. As I was walking along a weathered old woman in a headscarf flung herself forward through a doorway, with her hands out, begging. I was gripped, for a second, by the irrational notion that I was in one of the internment camps of Rakhine. The Surins suddenly felt a million miles away.
Ko Panyi has a floating football field and is reputedly one of Thailand's more successful provincial clubs. As we walked through the school to the pitch, children circled us begging and trying to sell us shit. I guess tourism brings job opportunities, even to those under ten.
After a bumpy day of sailing into the wind, and one motoring through glassy waters with the sun sapping our energy, we made it down into Phang Nga Bay.
Exploring karst systems.
This here's Bat Valley. To the right of this little beach is a cave entryway, which leads through to a Hong, a natural amphitheatre.
It opened out into a self-contained biome where trees grew up, down, sideways. Enormous bats with a wingspan like mine screeched in the canopy. It felt primordial and it smelled like guano.
We watched the sun roll out on its downward arc and exclaimed rapturously as it sank directly into the groove between the humps of two limestone formations in the far-off distance-- something it might do at most a couple of times a year, and we were there for it, the boat in precisely the right spot. What a world.
In the morning I woke before sunrise. I lay back and floated and heard the bats' crescendo faintly echo out of the cave and the clifftops.
We sailed on, stopping one night on Railay. We'd rationalised that once the longtails turned in for the night, the boat would settle. It didn't. We had dinner ashore, somehow clambered back aboard in a manoeuvre that felt like something out of a video game. We then enacted a plan to drink enough that we'd knock ourselves out in a bid to sleep through the boat's bucking and all the noises that come with it.
We sailed into Krabi and cleaned the boat and fell apart a bit, then had a sleep and a hot shower.
The next day or so I made the 350km journey on buses back to where I'd started, in order to collect my wallet. Back to Bangkok, back to Babylon.
"... and tell me, wasn't that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks—and sometimes a chance to feel your strength ..."