On a hot tip I heard that cheap housing was available on the Ton Sai beach, back down a long trail. Though housing is really so cheap that it just doesn't matter, everyone is constantly seeking the best prices out of a competitive force of habit. It's a great feeling to say "Yeah, 200 Baht a night is pretty cheap... though my place only costs 100 and I wake up every morning to gibbon calls out in the surrounding jungle." So with this in mind, I take up the trek to Ton Sai beach.
Getting to Ton Sai is its own adventure: when the tide is out you can scramble amongst the sharp boulders at the base of a cliff between it an Raily West. When the tide is in, however, you must climb up and over a small mountain or abandon the trip altogether. Or you could hire a long boat, but that's a bit like cheating.
I scramble along the base my first trip around and find Ton Sai beach to be the rock-climbers haven. (My second trip I attempt over the top and find myself stranded a long drop from the sand in pitch darkness.) You cannot reach the Ton Sai Experience - the first bar on the beach - without walking directly under what looks to be an incredibly difficult climb. That is, difficult for most mortals but apparently no challenge to the Malaysian rock-climbing team that was practicing there that day.
I step up onto the low terrace surrounding the bar, which doubles as a resort reception area, and ask about a road leading off the beach. A petite Thai girl behind the counter points me to what appears to be the Ton Sai's only access road, and I begin my walk up the way.
The sun is pouring heat upon me like a thick syrup, and sweat is dripping from every pore of my body. At some point I pause on the long trail to strip to the waist, hoping evaporation will work to my favor, as two Norwegian girls come from the opposite direction. I ask from where they came and if they know of the place I'm looking for, but our conversation is interrupted by a leafy rustle to our left: not ten feet away a monkey is ambling along its own path, pausing on a hanging vine under a ferns shade. Just as my surprise wears off, the monkey continues on its way into the underbrush. The Norwegians and I then agree to meet later on the beach (they are equipped with towels and look to be maintaining a robust tan) and we each continue in our respective directions.
Off to my right is a row of modern bungalows aligned along the cliff's base, connected by their own private path. The road turns left, and on my right is now a wide open space with three rows of less-impressive bungalows, protected from the sun by a high unbroken canopy of trees. A monkey, possibly the same one as before, darts across the trail and towards the bungalows to join perhaps a dozen others of various sizes, all of which scamper about the roofs of the many mini-houses, hooting intolerably. As I approach, they quiet and eye me warily.
At this point I realize a monkey goes from friendly to scary in a surprisingly quick time. Determined not to show fear, though inwardly very conscious of how unfortunate a monkey bite would be, I continue along my path undeterred. The few monkeys in the road part with a careless shrug, making a great show of finding more of interest in a clump of leaves than my presence. The rough dirt road enters a T-junction, with forward presumably leading back to the beach, and I turn right.
The ground gets increasingly steep and rutted, and I leave the monkey-infested bungalows behind. Another complex comes and goes on my right, but still the road - now more a path - continues on. At long last I come to a collection of hand-built bungalows that match the name for which I search. With my fears and doubts set overcome, I have arrived.
A woman walks out to find me on the road and waves me up to her family's bungalow, where another woman is washing laundry in a large basin. Using the international language of money I acquire a bungalow of my very own, along with a complementary bunch of the smallest and sweetest bananas that I have ever tasted.
Each bungalow is made of bamboo and other materials scavenged from the jungle, making for a very rustic appearance (and fragile feel). The bungalows dot haphazardly over a cleared hill crest, surrounded by jungle on all sides. With the overhead branches cleared, I can now see that I've walked well away from the beach, in a small valley between imposing, sheer limestone faces. The sounds of the beach's natural and unnatural thudding bass have died completely away, and I'm left with the quiet whispering branches and distant calls of jungle fauna.
The next morning I wake around 9am and head to the large-yet-abandoned restaurant for French toast, bananas, and honey, fresh fruit salad, fresh squeezed orange juice, and a pot of Cha Jean. Breaking fast like a king every morning is a habit I take to quickly. The restaurant is rustic, like the bungalows, but built from larger debris so as to give it a more sturdy feel. It's an open-air, high-ceiling building arranged into three stepped terraces, and I'm on the lowest near the road. It's a sunny day and all around me is the silent chirps of the nearby jungle. Between sips of orange juice and tea, I gaze around my private village at the surrounding cliff faces.
Imagine Martha Stewart were to arrange her back-yard garden with a careful tussle of chaotic foliage, vines and leafy branches covering the walls in alternating swaths of green and grey. Now imagine these walls hundreds of feet tall surrounding a garden the size of ten football fields. Next add the sight of two man-sized gibbons two hundred feet in the air, easily pulling themselves up a vine, hand over hand, swinging to the right to grab casually at a nearby branch, and swing into the cover of leaves. It's hard to beat a breakfast with such company.