Pak Chong, Thailand – April 1992
In the late afternoon, my sister Pebby and I arrive at an isolated guesthouse in Pak Chong. Our room consists of two single mattresses on the floor. We drop our backpacks next to them and head out to the patio. Two young men are already there with Tom, the safari guide. The bald one named Bones is also a guide. He’s an American from St. Louis. The other is a British boy who’s doing a gap year trip around the world.
When we say that we’re American, he says with a slight sneer, “Oh, yes. The colonies.” He chuckles and shoots a conspiratorial look at Tom, who’s Swedish. Confusion flickers across Tom’s face. The boy stops chuckling.
Pebby and I look at each other and then we get what he means. We shake our heads and snort in unison.
Soon another couple arrives. Tall, thin, dreadlocked Basil and little Natalie. He is British and she is Algerian-French. They buy clothes in Asia to sell in London.
In the late afternoon, we climb into an open-sided pickup truck and head to Khao Yai National Park with another guide, who’s from England. It’s his last day doing this safari. He leads us up a trail to a hole in a cliff. We wait at the bottom until a family of three climbs down. They speak a language that I don’t recognize.
“The Dutch language is phenomenally ugly,” the guide says.
When I start to giggle, he shoots me a so full of contempt that I flush and look down at my feet. It’s no use to explain that I’ve never heard a regular person use “phenomenally” in a sentence. Americans don’t use such colorful words, unless they’re imitating British people. And they don’t often do that. If I tell him this I’ll come across as a moron. Because I am an moron.
We climb to the mouth of the cave and step inside. We follow behind the guide as he leads us through darkened passages. His flashlight illuminates little shrines. Adolescent monks glide by us in silence.
Back at the entrance, we sit on the ledge and wait. As the sun begins to slip behind the mountains, a procession of bats flutters out in a long steady stream. We watch as millions of little entities fly in formation in one unbroken, undulating ribbon stretching to the horizon.
At dawn the next day, we are awakened by a knock on the door. I jump in the shower and rinse off the night’s slime. I’ve been in Thailand for a week and still haven’t gotten used to the heat. My legs are mottled with huge red mosquito bites. When I make an appearance on the patio, everyone is already there. The British boy looks at my legs and gasps. His hand flies to his throat. “I do hope you’ve taken malaria prophylactics.”
“No.” I smirk. Like I really care if I get malaria. I’d like nothing more than to escape in a delirium. Forever. “Anyway, is there really a risk of malaria here?”
Bones nods. “Some”
“There’a also Dengue fever,” Natalie says. “I had that once. It was horrible.”
I look around at everyone else. “I’m the only one who got bit?”
They shrug and nod.
Bones says, “I’ve heard it has to do with taking showers.”
I snort. “Yeah, I suppose I should take a shower every once in a while.”
“No. It’s from taking too many.”
I introduce myself to another couple who have just arrived. He’s from New York and works on Wall Street. She’s a Nepalese-Canadian. Her dark skin has a blue tint, like incense smoke.
We are split into two groups. Bones, Pebby, and I will take the longer trail. Tom will take the others to a different trail. We’ll meet up at a waterfall in a few hours. On the way to the first trailhead, the truck narrowly misses a cobra that’s crossing the road. The truck swerves and then screeches to a halt after it passes. We turn to look. The cobra is now standing at attention, ready to strike.
Tom grins, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a cobra in that position.”
The truck pauses from time to time next to families of gibbons and other small wildlife. When we reach the first trailhead, Pebby, Bones, and I climb out and wave to the others. As soon as we hit the trail, Pebby takes out two joints and passes one to me. She asks Bones if he wants one.
He shakes his head, but takes a hit off of mine. “Tom and his wife were freaking out last night because they smelled marijuana. They didn’t know where it was coming from, but I guessed it was you. Please don’t smoke it there. They’re worried about the police.”
I inhale deeply as we trek through the jungle. It’s the hottest, driest time of the year, so the streams have vanished. Even so, Pebby looks nervously at the withered underbrush and flinches at the slightest rustling. She’s terrified of snakes. I zone into my footsteps until my pace becomes a glide and my mind hits a strange plateau. Open, empty, entire. A clean, pure high that’s better than any drug I’ve ever tried. I pause for a second as realization hits. So this is how it feels to like myself.
We reach the waterfall about a half an hour before the others. The waterfall has dried up. The water in the pool at the bottom is murky and full of sediment. Pebby doesn’t hesitate to jump from the top. Ten meters high. She climbs back up and does a back flip. It’s her job to jump off of high things. She works in the Great American High Dive Show at Safari World in Bangkok. She has talent, and so she deserves to have a fascinating life.
One by one, the others jump off, except for the British boy and myself. I climb down a couple of meters and jump from a lower ledge.
All at once, the plateau vanishes and I’m back in the abyss. I’ll never have an interesting life, because I don’t deserve it. I have no talent. I am a loser.
We gather up our things and head back to the truck. One more short trail awaits. At the end of this trail, the jungle opens up to a cliff. The trees that seemed to lofty from below now look as tiny and frail as matchsticks. I walk to the edge, and then back away in panic. Jump off, a voice whispers in my mind, C’mon. Do it.
“Over one thousand meters,” I hear someone say.
I sit down at the edge of the jungle and put my head in my hands. My impending return to Los Angeles looms before me. Back to my pathetic cocoon. Taking refuge in the impersonal impermanence of temp jobs. No need to form attachments to people and places. Because we all know what happens when people get to know me. Rage clouds my vision. I don’t deserve to be here, either. If I want to die so much, now is the perfect time. Run and jump into oblivion. Do it. Do it. Why don’t you just do it?
Bones touches my shoulder and stares into my eyes. An ember of peace flares up inside of me. “Come on.” He leads me towards the edge of the precipice. “I want to take a group photo. You’ll be fine.”
I sit among the others, with my back to the edge, and smile.
Dinner and then a stroll into the jungle behind the restaurant. A single flashlight beam pierces the curtain of night in front of us. We walk with our hands on each others shoulders to guide us. Pebby’s feet scuffle the dirt and every few seconds she gasps. I stride confidently into the darkness. The plateau reappears on the horizon of my mind, almost within reach. We stop on a bridge, because the animals won’t venture here. The flashlight is switched off. A tiny flicker of light emerges from the night and then another. Fireflies pirouette around us. Their dance is accompanied by rustling in the underbrush and eerie cries.
The grand finale of the safari is night shining. It’s rare to spot an elephant in Khao Yai. “If we spot an elephant, do not get out of the truck,” Tom warns us. Just in case. A Buddhist monk was just killed in Khao Yai, because he insisted on trying to get a photo of him next to a bull elephant.
We watch in silence as the truck creeps along the road and the spotlight beams deep into the jungle. Deer. Monkeys. Gibbons. The end of the road approaches. We all wear smiles nonetheless. Suddenly: a large gray mass. The truck glides past it, halts, and then backs up. A bull elephant is moving alongside the road, maybe ten meters from the truck. It bulldozes through the small trees, moving its tusks back and forth.
Whispers erupt all around. “Holy shit oh my god where’s my camera do not get out of the truck don’t shine the light in its eyes.”
Tom sticks his head out of the passenger side window, a huge grin on his face. “Hey, I think it’s the one that killed the monk!” He shuts off the truck.
Bug-eyed, frantic looks. Flashes go off. The beast pauses and glares at us. “Stop shining the light in its eyes!” someone says. I collapse into nervous laughter. He could easily demolish this truck. But he turns and crashes away into the jungle.
During the ride back to the guesthouse no one speaks. Expressions of exhausted contentment all around. I can’t remember when I’ve felt so comfortable around anyone, let alone near strangers.
The next morning, as we disperse, we hug each other and say, “See you around.” Somewhere out there in the world someday.
**A much abridged version of this post appears in my still unfinished memoir, Wish I Were Here. In this group photo, which I took, my sister’s (far left) face is blurred at her request.
While I was writing this, I researched Khao Yai online. Like most of Thailand, it has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. There are now golf courses and luxury resorts in Pak Chong. When you go night shining, there are dozens of trucks ahead and behind you and it’s rare to see any wildlife at all. I found no trace of Tom’s safari and guesthouse. It probably couldn’t compete with the slick tour companies that now operate in the park. I still have the safari flyer that Pebby picked up from Khaosan Road. That’s how you found out about such things in the days before the internet. **