Caves and Steep Mountains (Sunday, November 20)

We devoted the next day to Phang Nga province, which is across the bridge that connects the northern tip of Phuket Island to the mainland. In combination with Phuket to the southeast and Krabi province to the southwest, Phang Nga province forms a semicircle around the bay that is named for it. Both the province and the bay are famous for steep-sided limestone karst formations — mountains on land, islands in the bay. (The word mountain perhaps suggests something too big: in western North America, they might instead be called buttes.) The karst formations, both land and sea, cluster around the northern end of the bay, which puts them all in the area of Phang Nga province.

At K's suggestion, Prasert took us first to Wat Tham Suwankuha ('Heaven Cave Temple') near Phang Nga town. The wat is next to a high karst butte and has its main shrine in a large cave inside.

A tangle of trees and bushes covers the nearly vertical sides of the butte and is home to a population of monkeys. The monkeys hang around the entrance of the cave temple begging food from the visitors, who are usually well supplied, thanks to a nearby banana stand that does a thriving business.

We entered the cave shrine through a plaster arch decorated with painted figures in bas-relief. At the top was the Buddha, seated lotus-fashion on a cloud, flanked (a little lower) by two reverential monks. Lower still, one on each side of the entrance, were crowned heavenly figures whose eyes were piously raised toward the Buddha, but seemed also to be watching the monkeys scrambling or sitting on top of the arch.

The entrance led us into a huge ground-level "room," smoothly floored with cement, that held many Buddha images, the largest a very impressive reclining Buddha about 50 feet long. A short flight of stairs led to a smaller shrine. We also went into another cave, impressively large, but darker and less finished than the shrine. It had a small image on one of its large rock formations, but was otherwise unpopulated except for a colony of sleeping bats that speckled the ceiling high overhead.

K told us that Phang Nga town was famous for its satay, and had always been one of her father's favorite stopping places for that reason. For lunch we followed his example, eating in a small restaurant on the main street while the monks (who had eaten their meal before we left Rawai in the morning) had soft drinks in the van. K, Dorothea, and I consumed a large order of chicken satay, similar to what Thai restaurants serve here at home, and very, very good. The order included pieces of toast to help us take in even more of the spicy peanut sauce.

Afterwards, we visited a local park that comprised a small karst butte with a natural tunnel through it. Walkways were built through the tunnel, which branched to emerge at two different places on the other side of the butte. One of these paths was under water, thanks to the recent rains, but the water was less than a foot deep. Tan Punnyo chose to take that route, providing another demonstration of the practicality of the rubber flipflops that are standard footwear for forest monks.

At an inlet on the bay that is part of Phang Nga National Park, we followed a raised wooden walkway that led through a mangrove swamp. The tangled trees were interesting though not extremely photogenic, and we were amused by the sometimes mangled English that translated the Thai signs pointing out various natural phenomena.

Waterways of various sizes wound through the swamp. They must have been useful to smugglers over the years. Legitimate traders may have used the same inlet, at least in the past. Near a couple of small docks on the main waterway we had seen a Thai customs office, but it was closed and had an abandoned look. Whether it was there to deal with smuggling or lawful international trade, the services it once provided are perhaps no longer needed.

While we explored the swamp walkway, we could hear, from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque, a male voice singing its way through a long religious text. The quality of the singing; even the tones and intervals of the melody, reminded me of the Latin singing I used to hear as a boy in Catholic Churches on certain solemn occasions. The mood was very peaceful.

The southern part of Thailand runs down the long Malay peninsula. At first only the eastern side is Thai, while the west is Burmese, and then, further south, Thailand occupies the whole width — this is the part where Phuket and Phang Nga are. Well to their south, Thailand finally stops at the border with Malaysia, while the peninsula continues southward and widens out to form the body of that country. The five southernmost Thai provinces were once part of the Malay kingdom of Pattani, and the majority of the people there are Muslims, many of whom consider themselves more Malay than Thai.

Phuket is north of this area, and although many Muslims live in the vicinity there isn't much evidence of religious or ethnic tension. Our explorations took us past a good many mosques. Ko Yao Yai, the island we'd be going to the next day, has a mostly Muslim population. The Buddhist families who supported Jayanto during his stays there are a small minority, but everyone gets along well.

To get to Phang Nga we had had to drive the full length of Phuket Island from our quarters at the southern end, and of course we had to drive it again to get back. This time, however, we stopped on the way in Phuket town to see K's flower shop. She brought her parents and sister, who live upstairs, down to meet us, and we all sat for a group portrait, which Prasert obliged us by taking. Her parents were delighted to be visited by the monks, and K's father conversed energetically with them about the Dhamma. On the way back to Khun YS's house, we stopped to pick up our laundry.

Later in the evening, leaving the monks at the house, we went with Prasert to a Rawai restaurant where we met Khun C, who wanted to take us to dinner during our visit. K  was with us, and translated for Khun C as he told us how important Jayanto has been to him as a teacher. He showed us the two videos of Jayanto giving Dhamma talks that he keeps on his cell phone. The restaurant was bigger and classier-looking than Prasert’s wife’s place, and the food was reasonably good. But, as we told Prasert afterwards, it was no match for the food we had at Duan Sook.

Islands in the Bay (Monday, November 21)

Our plan was to spend the next night at Ko Yao Yai, where the small Buddhist "congregation" was eager to honor Jayanto and his parents with their hospitality. We decided to hire a boat for the whole day so that we could  explore the remarkable seascape of Phang Nga Bay before going to the island. We hired a dual-outboard cruiser with a crew of two, big enough to carry a good many more passengers than just ourselves, K, and the two monks. We got pretty much the standard tour, which was fine with us since Dorothea and I hadn't seen any of it before.

Prasert drove us to the marina near Phuket town where the boat-rental company had its headquarters, and we arranged that he'd pick us up the next afternoon at the dock where the ferry comes in from Ko Yao Yai. We boarded, and the boat crept cautiously down a channel to the open water, where the boatman opened up the engines and we began to bang over the waves toward the distant karst islands that we could see rising out of the water at the northern end of the bay. The bouncing made it impossible to take a picture, and once we asked the boatman to slow down temporarily in the service of Art. The view became more and more spectacular as we neared the steep-sided islands, and we saw that we hadn't really needed that pause. Once among the islands, the boat slowed to a speed that was no hindrance to picture-taking.

We cruised close to some islands whose nearly vertical sides were eaten out underneath by the salt waves, leaving dramatic overhangs. In some of these were tunnels leading through to the other side of the island, or sometimes to a hidden bay that formed an island's hollow core. People were paddling inflated sea canoes into these watery caves and tunnels.

One standard point on the tour is Ko Khao Ping Kan ('Leaning on Itself Island'), better known on the tourist circuit as "James Bond Island" because in 1974 it played a role in the film "The Man with the Golden Gun." Just off the island's shore stands a sheer limestone pillar, smaller at the bottom than the top. It looks like a huge spike — close to 200 feet high — and is named Ko Tapu ('Nail Island'). In the movie, this was where the villain (Christopher Lee) hid his secret weapon. At the height of the season, tour boats dump passengers on the shore in their hundreds and thousands. This was not quite upon us, but we saw plenty of boats, and the shore (which offers little to see apart from souvenir shops) looked crowded enough. We declined an offer to stop.

We went from there to an island named Ko Thalu Nok (something like "Outer Pass-through Island"), which is especially rich in caves and tunnels. A number of companies keep large ships moored here, from which they sell sea-canoe rides. Dorothea and K decided that they'd like to take one of these, but I opted out when I saw that the passengers had to sit cross-legged, and would need to bend backwards going through low places. Our boat moored alongside one of these "mother ships," and after arrangements were made, the two women got into a little rubber boat, sitting in front of a wiry man wielding a double-bladed kayak paddle. While they had their canoing adventure, I sat in a comfortable chair on the mother ship and read Proust. I didn't miss that kind of thing altogether — at another island, the boatman had taken us through a tunnel high enough to let our large boat through.

We went on to another standard tourist stop: the Muslim fishing village of Ko Panyi. The island itself (whose name I can't find a translation for) is a huge rock too steep for anyone to live on, but the village is built entirely on stilts in the shallows at its foot. During most of the year the people support themselves by fishing, but during tourist season they cater to the thousands of tourists who arrive every day. One whole seaward side of the village is lined with long-roofed seafood restaurants and souvenir shops. We were put ashore there, and K, Dorothea, and I ate a dinner-sized lunch while Jayanto and Punnyo explored the village. Afterwards we met them and did some more exploring. The village school was next to the mosque, fronting a square that was small, but had room for the boys to play football, which they were doing while we looked around. Tan Punnyo chatted with the schoolteacher, who showed him the inside of the big single-roomed school.

The narrow boardwalk alleys that serve as village streets (especially the ones nearest to the seafood/souvenir complex) had many little open shopfronts from which people sold refreshments. Nothing that contained alcohol, however — this is a pious Muslim community, where alcohol, pigs, and dogs are all banned. (Looking on the Net to try to find out why dogs are on this list, I learned that there's a longstanding tradition in the Islamic world that dogs are impure, although some Muslims contend that the Qu'ran provides no support for this attitude.) The shopkeepers were all friendly and showed due respect to the monks in spite of not being Buddhists. (I have seen a couple of tourist web sites referring to Ko Panyi as a "sea gypsy village," but this is incorrect. Like other Muslims in the area, the people of Ko Panyi are Malay to whatever extent they are not ethnically Thai.)

Jayanto and I stopped to buy cool drinks from one of the villagers, a pleasant man whose daughter, a cute 5 or 6-year old, looked at us shyly. I was surprised, but not too surprised, when I noticed the words on the little girl's faded T-shirt: "SEX INSTRUCTOR — Free Lessons." Jayanto had already told me that Thais and many other Asians love to wear T-shirts with English words on them and often have no idea of the meaning: it's sufficient that the words are English. One day at Wat Pa Nanachat (where international student tours often stop) he saw among a group of Japanese students a demure young girl whose T-shirt bore the proud legend "Fuck off, wankers!" Nice talk for a monastery — but she obviously had no idea what her shirt was saying.

Leaving Ko Panyi, we headed south again toward Ko Yao Yai ('Big Long Island'), where the crew were to drop us off before returning to Phuket. It was some distance off the standard route, and the journey took us about an hour. Rounding the west coast of Ko Yao Noi ('Little Long Island'), which lies north of Ko Yao Yai, we turned eastwards into the strait that separates the two islands. The smaller northern island has more tourist accommodations and gets more visitors, but Ko Yao Yai is still undeveloped (or unspoiled, depending on one's views). Following Jayanto's directions, the boatman took us past the ferry dock and right up to the beach where the families who had supported him during his two stays on the island were waiting for us. They own a restaurant and a row of small thatch bungalows. The boatman brought the boat as close as he could to the beach without grounding it, and, taking off our shoes, we debarked as gracefully as we could manage into the shallow water and waded ashore, where a row of greeters assembled on the soft, clean, perfect sand.

The thatch bungalows were lovely but somewhat deficient in western comforts, and Jayanto had always supposed that it would be impossible to bring us there for a visit. However, when he was in Phuket at the beginning of 2005 helping Khun YS with tsunami relief work, he visited Ko Yao Yai and found that they had added a new bungalow with solid walls, a tiled roof, and sleeping and plumbing facilities more familiar to over-60 Americans than what the other bungalows could offer. It was even air-conditioned. And so Ko Yao Yai was added to our itinerary.

In spite of its closeness to Phuket, by the way, Ko Yao Yai suffered very little damage from the tsunami, which came from a direction that hit Phuket Island first. KYY was sheltered behind Phuket, which took the full shock of the tidal wave.

The bungalows' owner, Khun M, was away when we came. She was very disappointed that she couldn’t be there, and phoned Jayanto and K several times to check on how things were going. Khun H was our primary greeter. She seemed to be the cook and manager of the resort. Khun S, who had made all the rough-hewn furniture for the porches and dining room of the resort, seemed to be involved in managing it as well. Khun L, his wife, took quite a liking to me, although, having no language in common, we were unable to converse.

Others were there as well, including an elderly lady who said very little. Although everyone else wore western clothes, she had on an ankle-length, wraparound, sarong-like skirt that is probably what all women in that region wore a generation or so ago. Dorothea thinks she may have been the mother of Khun S and either Khun H or Khun M, but the details of the family relationships remain somewhat obscure to us.

We all went up the hill to take the monks to the place where they would stay. The kuti the islanders had built for Jayanto a few years ago has been reclaimed by the jungle, so he and Punnyo stayed in the sala — the small building that contains the shrine and is where meals are offered. Near it is a dirt-floored kitchen and a hut with a hole-in-the-ground "toilet." Other monks sometimes stay there, and Tan Punnyo was wondering whether he might want to do that sometime. This type of monastic residence is called a sumnuk, which means something like 'hermitage,' and refers to a place where one monk stays by himself, usually in a forest. (Perhaps more than one monk can stay sometimes, but it isn’t a solid establishment like a monastery or temple.)

We walked farther up the hill to see the place where the kuti used to be. Only a few sticks are left on the ground there, and the path for walking meditation that Jayanto had worked hard to make out of stones and dirt has mostly crumbled away. What surprised and dismayed him, however, was that the trees on the hillside above his kuti site had been poisoned and are now leafless and dead. Someone (presumably by bribing an official) had obtained the use of this land, even though it's in a protected conservation area, and had killed the trees in order to set up a rubber plantation. We could see rubber tree saplings planted amid the devastation. Because they used poison, the stream and well near the kuti are probably poisoned too now, as well as the nearby reservoir where Jayanto used to swim for exercise.

Khun S and Khun H invited us to come to the thatched, open-air restaurant for dinner. K served as our translator. They had prepared a feast: tom yum soup, big crabs steamed, little crabs in tamarind sauce, huge shrimp steamed, sauces for the steamed crabs and shrimp, stir-fried vegetables, cucumber. Khun S cracked crabs industriously and kept placing crabmeat on our dishes. It was our second seafood feast in a few hours, both featuring large piles of steamed shrimp. I think I ate more shrimp that day than I had in the previous two or three years.

Travels by Land, Sea, and Air (Tuesday, November 22)

At 7 the next morning (while I was in the shower) Dorothea joined Khun S, Khun H, and Khun L in offering rice to the monks, who had walked down from the hill on pindabat. At 7:30 Dorothea, K, and I were given pancakes and honey in the restaurant — good pancakes, too — and then everyone piled into a songthaew to go up the hill and offer the meal to the monks. The songthaew is a small truck that serves as a bus; you see them all over Thailand. The back part is a van containing two facing benches, like an army truck or paddy wagon. The back is open — sometimes the sides too, but when they're closed they have no windows. The name means "two rows." It's pronounced "sawng taeow" — the sound of the last vowel sequence is what you might hear if you pinched a Cockney (though you'd probably hear a good deal more as well).

After offering the meal to the monks, we went over to the kitchen to share the copious leftovers, including a delicious whole fish, and then went back to the sala to sit and talk with the monks. Dorothea and I made an offering to the community of 1,000 baht (about $25) which she suggested they might use to help build another kuti, but Khun S thought it could be put to better use in improving the monks' toilet (which — it would have been hard to dispute — could stand improvement).

At 9:30, transportation arrived to take us to the ferry dock: a four-seater pickup truck. In accordance with Thai custom, the monks got to ride inside, and as the only other male passenger I got to ride with them, sitting in the front seat with the driver. Dorothea and the several women who rode with us had to sit cross-legged in the truck bed. The road was in poor condition, and although the driver, with no other traffic to worry about, swerved all over it seeking out the smoothest patches, Dorothea was glad she had her inflatable back-rest cushion to sit on. The men who came to see us off traveled on motorbikes.

The ferry, which had already stopped at Ko Yao Noi, was a small wooden boat. A roof, under which were several rows of benches, covered the middle section. In the open bow area was a space given over to two or three motorbikes, and in front of this a raised platform where several young westerners were sitting and lying. There was also a bench along one side (the other side was where people got in and out of the ferry) and a short bench on either side of the door that led into the roofed central area. I sat inside at first, but then at Jayanto's suggestion moved outside and found a seat on one the the short benches. Jayanto had room to stand beside me and point out some of the landmarks we passed. Tan Punnyo sat inside, as did Dorothea and K, surrounded by elderly Thais, who all watched quietly as the young Westerners in the bow, visible through the wide doorway, rubbed suntan lotion on their seminude bodies.

The ferry took us to Bang Rong pier, near the northern end of Phuket Island. Prasert soon arrived to pick us up and drive us back to Khun YS's house. Our only remaining business was to collect the rest of our luggage and leave presents for our absent hostess. We also took time to shower and rest a bit. Before long it was time for our final ride in Prasert's van, all the way up the island again to the airport, where we emplaned (isn't that a lovely word?) for Bangkok. For the first time on the trip, we were going to stay there long enough to do some sightseeing.

This section last updated 3-5-2007