According to us tourists, at least, Chang is the national beer of Thailand. It's cheap, comes in large bottles, and is universally available. I'd estimate that Chang is responsible for more hangovers in Thailand than any other alcoholic beverage. This particular beverage was consumed at the restaurant bar of a new and rather lavish set of bungalows set well off the beach and up in the jungle-filled hills. I was early for a dinner buffet - which itself was an incredible deal hosted in celebration of its recent opening - and thus had plenty of time to drink glass after glass of the national pastime.
What I thought was an access road leading from the Ton Sai beach instead becomes little more than a path, and eventually an unmarked and tricky jungle trail. End to end this provides a little-known point of connection between Ton Sai and Raily West. Though you can't see it, that private road actually winds through the jungle in the foreground of the picture, with my bungalows being a mile or so through the dense trees and hills due left.
Now you may know that at the beginning of this trip I had, well, a phobia of the outdoors. Get me in the water, under the water, and I'm fine. But if I can't see a paved road or 7-11 on land, I get really antsy. Or, got, as I've made very good progress in overcoming my fears in this respect. This back-woods trail, the trail about which only I apparently knew, would prove to be my ultimate test. See, those of us staying on the Ton Sai beach (where all the cheapest housing can be found) must brave the rocks or time the tides nightly to return home to bed. However, after discovering this trail and attempting it in the day, I discovered it was much quicker to take the "back route" through the jungle. I resolved to take this trail by night and conquer my fears.
First, however, I needed equipment. Thankfully there are several well-equipped rock-climbing shops in close proximity, and before long I found myself a comfortable headlamp. Think like you might see on a coal miner, but much more high tech and more expensive. Much more expensive. Thus equipped, I spent a relaxing evening enjoying my tea and beer (not at the same time), and at the appointed hour, set out to meet my destiny.
I start at East Raily, where the tide is in and lapping at my feet as I finish off the last sips of beer and put away my laptop and all its commensurate funny stares. I walk up the beach, past a long string of bars matching every shape and description, turning in on a hand-poured cement path to an access road skirting the cliff's base. I walk past the huge trees where earlier that day a Puerto Rican oozing machismo attempting to pick a fight with a band of large monkeys, spinning fists-up in his best pugilist stance when his friend yelled "Look out, behind you!", past the entrance to a large cavern complex where I struck up a conversation with two girls from Portland visiting for the week. I walk past the entrance to the resort with the pictured Chang, along the two-inch-raised walkway where a girl I didn't recognize addressed me stating authoritatively that we met in a place I didn't remember. Overhead lights have become footpath lights, which give way to nothing more than starlight to show my way. Far away from the beach and well off the trail I walk to the jungle wall where exists the opening to the trail - an opening only visible to the learned few (of which I am one) that know for what to look. I flip on my headlamp and enter the jungle, alone.
Perhaps a year before this night I first began hiking alone. I picked a short, wide, clearly marked, and extremely well-traveled trail up in the foothills near San Francisco. On this trail I never earshot of the nearby road, never walked for more than an hour without crossing paths with another. I had continuous cell-phone coverage, two liters of water, a compass, and enough nuts and dried fruit packed away in my hip-hugging hiking gear to keep me alive long enough to walk home, if need be. My how things have changed.
My first steps in the jungle put me on a steep incline and I'm immediately scrambling with hands and feet. Deliberately and carefully I place hand after foot, eyes scanning every direction for the constricting snakes and poisonous spiders that doubtlessly are watching my every move with lascivious interest.
Surprisingly, I find my headlamp grants me a type of superhuman vision that comforted me enormously. See, normally a spider or fly would appear to my eye as nothing more than a black dot amongst a cluttered background of rocks and leaves. But given how the lamp is positioned directly over my eyes, every creeping, crawling creature in the jungle that looks at me betrays its presence with a point of light reflecting off its retina, like a military HUD pointing out threats and dangers in a hostile environment. Accordingly, my scanning is quick and efficient, my steps sure, and my path true. It's a hard trail and the sweat beads and drips from my skin as I pull myself up each lunging step using every vine, tree, stick, and rock at my disposal.
Almost to the top, or perhaps barely started - it's hard to say in the black night filled with beady stars - I pause on a natural landing to catch my breath. Though I'm in perhaps the best shape of my life given the miles I walk every day, I'm breathing hard and it takes a bit for the thudding of my heart to loosen in my ears, freeing me to the luxurious sounds of the night jungle. Breath and heart under control and strain my ears to hear the swaying branches high above, the distant thud of the partying beaches, the happy chirping from all around, and the oh my god something very big is standing right next to me staring at me in the night. Adrenaline dumps into my veins and I'm juiced for the most tense motionlessness of my life as I ponder my impending doom at the claws and teeth of what can only be a man-eating mountain lion or Bengal tiger hungry from an unsuccessful night of hunting and looking to bring home a large catch for her mewing kittens. After a full second of continued life I begin to think that maybe my life has been spared as I do not hear the leaping roar of an approaching feline, but actually hear nothing at all. Granted, my triplicated heart rate and the commensurate over-oxygenation of my brain has obscured most of my senses, but as best as I can tell, a furry ball of death is not in the works for me tonight.
Best to play it safe. I haven't moved for at least two seconds, maybe if I stay still it won't notice me. Then I remember that I have a huge light on my forehead and that my "hide in shadows" roll would have to be very high to avoid notice by a creature trained over a billion nights to hunt that which is distinctly more camouflaged than a moving campfire in the darkness.
Next I start to second-guess my reaction. Maybe there isn't some hungry predator right next to me. I slowly turn my head and see a glimmer of orange in return. Maybe it's a bug. Maybe, maybe it was the light of my distant bungalows peeking through the foliage. I turn more to get a better look. It doesn't look like distant lights. Really, it looks like two big eyes. Eyes.. that just blinked. Something is looking at me, and it just blinked.
A lifetime of five seconds has dragged by and the chemical soup of my bloodstream is beginning to wear off. Increasingly confident that I'm not about to die a horrid death in the jungles of Thailand (though strangely wistful as it would actually be a dramatic way to go), my fear is slowly replaced by curiosity.
I'm looking at it looking at me with a prolonged sideways glance because I don't want to frighten it away by turning my headlamp to it directly (though it'd serve the bugger right). I can see nothing but the eyes, just two orange glowing orbs about six feet to my left floating amongst the vague outlines of vines and branches. They're round and pretty and give an air of incredible friendliness and curiosity. They do not appear afraid, and they do not inspire fear. They're just looking at me, looking at him.
I begin to shiver as a result of my spiked-fear hangover and I force myself to look back up the trail, pick out my steps between the stars, and climb back to my bungalow to dream of floating eyes in an infinite universe.