Couchfish Day 228: Keepsakes and hornbills

Don’t be a vandal

  
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Yes, I’m back! After a longer than expected hiatus I am back in front of the keyboard. I’d planned to re–start yesterday, but still wasn’t quite up to it, and it felt better to restart with a free post for all readers. So while this is a part of the paid–for itinerary series, I hope it appeals to all. My heartfelt thanks for the kind comments over the preceding month—much appreciated.

Phetchaburi is a temple town. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Phetchaburi was the first “off the pancake trail” town I ever visited in Thailand. It was, and still is to an extent, a scruffy third tier Thai provincial capital a few hours by train south of Bangkok. I don’t recall why I decided to get off there that first time, but since then I’ve returned on many occasions.

Phetchaburi is a squat, slither of a low rise town, bisected by a grotty river. With a keen eye and some patience, you’ll see monitor lizards swimming in it, back and forth from one bank to the other. Like many Thai cities, Phetchaburi is a temple town with historical vestiges. There’s a hilltop royal retreat, an interesting cave, bats and a gaggle of mediocre beaches by the sea. Famed for a sickly sweet deserts—and also hit–men if you believe what you read in the papers.

No need to restrict yourself to sweet things. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

This is the type of town that is easy to give a night to, or three if you’re travelling slow. A place to linger and wander in, do laundry and catch up on your reading. The sort of place that you’re unlikely to meet other travellers.

Until better accommodation appeared, Rabieng was where I’d stay. A fall–down wooden house wedged between a busy (by Phetchaburi standards) road and the river. Run by locals Nit and Tom, it was the backpacker haunt. Music from the 70s and 80s, backpacker menus from the 90s, affable owners, and, if there was another backpacker in town, them too.

This is a flattering photo of my room at Rabieng. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Nim was the one who really ran the place. Charming and friendly, Tom more looked after the entertainment side of things. He was musical and liked his yaa dong and was ever happy to share. He ran jungle tours to Kaeng Krachan National Park, and at that he was quite apt.

The rooms, well, they were simple, to say the least. The rock hardest beds on earth, not a straight corner in the place. The traffic noise piped in to under your pillow. These quibbles faded though, sitting on the deck in the late afternoon gazing for monitors. From memory there were posters of musicians, and a vast musical collection—Leonard Cohen springs to mind. We’d pass the afternoons and evenings, boozing, eating and listening to Tom’s tales. Looking back, there was probably a fine line between being a fun host and derangement. Still, my memories are fond.

The Buddha image in question. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Tom’s speciality was the jungle, but one late afternoon, killing time, he took us to Khao Luang, a vast cave complex not far out of town. As caves go, it is far from Thailand’s most spectacular, but it felt like a healthier proposition than more yaa dong.

There’s a vast central chamber stacked with Buddha images, where, at the right time of the day, light pours in bringing the images to life. On that day, walking down a row of seated buddhas I found a far smaller statue that caught the light just right. I snapped a single photo (this was back when slide film was the norm and every photo counted—and cost money). Later, it formed the cover image for a guidebook I co–wrote to Thailand in the mid 1990s.

There are plenty more buddhas in the cave though. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Some years after the books’s publication, I revisited the cave, looking for the same image. My guide, watching me, asked if I was looking for the “Buddha on the guidebook”, when I nodded, he led me down to it. It was still there, though seemed unlike the one I had photographed. Memory is funny like that, yet I was thrilled that someone, somewhere had used my book to find the image.

A little over a century before, an account from 1884 talks about two missionary women visiting the cave. In their account, they saw stalagmites near the cave entrance, and so broke off a few to take with. Quoted in Descriptions of Old Siam, They wrote:

“At the mouth of the [Royal] cave we found some curious rocks, and succeeded in breaking off several good specimens.”

Sadly they are not there for others to admire.

Wandering Kaeng Krachan. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The next day, Tom took a few of us into Kaeng Krachan for a trip. We’d walk and see what we could see.

I remember following a riverbank, it felt like we were in the heart of the jungle—after all we’d been walking for hours. Kaeng Krachan though is a park so vast, we were not even scratching the surface. It was hard going, and Tom’s machete came in handy. We sat on boulders, drinking, enjoying the silence. At a swimming hole of sorts we cooled our heels. The outside world felt like a lifetime away.

Hello hornbill. Photo: David Luekens.

As the hours lengthened, we climbed to a bit of a rise. It wasn’t a view point, but some large flat stones, slightly raised in a valley. Forest rose on both sides. There was the hubbub of the jungle—birds and butterflies—no monkeys, tigers or elephants. We chatted, making small talk.

Then Tom waved us to be quiet and listen.

Hummph humph hummph.

I don’t know how to write the sound of a helicopter, but that was what it sounded like. Distant, and reverberating off the ridges and trees above us. Hard to place. Getting louder, but only ever so slightly. I’d never heard anything like.

When driving in Thailand, you always should give way to size. Photo: David Luekens.

Then Tom pointed, “there, see?”

We all craned our necks. Nothing.

Hummph humph hummph.

Then we saw it, or rather, them.

Hornbills.

First one, then three, then I don’t know, perhaps a dozen or more. They flew over, oblivious to us, on the way to somewhere else. Their enormous wings buffeting the air, the sound like nothing else I’d ever heard.

The sun was low and five minutes later, they were out of sight. We lingered, hoping for more, but we’d had our moment, and started our long walk back to the ride home to Phetchaburi.