Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

Given the events leading up to my final day in Thailand, it could easily have been a wash, however, the small non-tourist town of Surat Thani still had some surprises up it’s sleeve, and I managed to end this holiday on a beautiful high note. It’s my goal to publish all the stories from one holiday before I take another, and I’m barely achieving that by finishing off this post with three days to spare before I hop on a plane to visit the US for the first time in 18 months. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the journey as much as I enjoyed writing about it.


Adventure Hangover

Although the Wangtai had transport out to Khao Sok, I couldn’t bear the idea of waking again in only 6 hours and vowed to sleep until about an hour before breakfast ended, then eat and sleep some more. It was sad to give up on my elephant excursion, but when I woke up the next morning I realized how important that decision really was. I felt weak, as though I had just come through a severe illness or fever. My limbs shook as I walked and even as I held my phone. I had no strength and no speed, but found my way down to the breakfast buffet where I positively stuffed my face after days of light or missed meals.

Mentally, I felt clearer for the sleep and food and I began to realize based on the way my body felt that I had pushed myself a good deal farther than I had known. It was likely not any one thing, but a combination of poor sleep, poor diet, excessive heat, lack of water, physical exertion and the coral injury (which can be known to cause fatigue and other symptoms). I had hoped that I could make it just one more day, just one more activity and then sleep on the plane and of course back in my flat in Korea, but my body was just finished. If I’d tried to force myself to rise early and head to the elephant, I would likely not have had a pleasant day, but only another day of crammed vans, heat, dirt, hunger and dehydration, worried about what standing around in muddy water with an elephant was going to do to the probably already infected open wound on my foot.

Instead, I slept some more, watched some movies, ate lunch, admired the view of the river, took a nap, and read up more on Thai culture.

Spirit Houses

20170125_150240Since arriving in Thailand via Koh Lipe I had seen these tiny ornate houses on posts everywhere. I saw them on the remote islands around Lipe, near the caves of Bor Tor, in the cities, at gas stations, and in the front yard of homes we passed on the road. Some were simple, others like miniature mansions. Some had tiny model occupants while others were uninhabited. Nearly all of them had offerings of food, sweets, alcohol, or incense.

The houses are a throwback to Thai folk beliefs in spirits of nature and the land. The tiny houses are built to be homes for these spirits. They may be built near special trees, bodies of water, mountains or natural formations to house the spirits of the land. And they may be built by homes to attract spirits who will inhabit the house and aid the family in exchange for lodgings and gifts.

I have seen similar spirit houses in Japan, but at the time I completely failed to make the connection because the architecture is so different.

Night Market

The clerk who had checked me in the night before had mentioned the floating market was within walking distance, and I had also read online that one of the few cool things worth doing in Surat Thani was the firefly boat ride. Around 5pm, I set out on the short walk down to the river where the maps indicated I would find the market and the boat rides.

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The river front park is small, however there is a large island in the middle of the river called Ko Lamphu that does not allow cars past the carpark near the bridge. Under better circumstances, I would have loved to explore it, but I was still a bit woozy wobbly and didn’t want to push myself into illness or another breakdown, so I stayed on the near bank and enjoyed the small corniche.

I read some articles about the floating market that seemed to indicate it was only open on Sundays. Surat Thani is not a tourism hub, so there is a limited amount of information, but what I can gather is that there is a night market more often than a “floating market”. The floating part is supposed to be where some pontoons are set up on the quay side and vendors sell wares on these ersatz rafts. When I went, nothing was on the water, but there were plenty of stalls selling all kinds of tasty treats and some live music at the far end. If you’re in Surat Thani and Google says the floating market is closed, ask a local about it because there’s nice stuff in Si Tapi Park.

Street Food

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I first browsed the whole selection of stalls, checking out the food on offer. I passed a woman making fresh juice (very common in Thailand), and at first thought she was using limes because the peels were so green, but the juice was a bright almost neon orange! I don’t mean like a little tinge of green that you get on your organic oranges, seriously lime green. It turns out that this is what oranges look like in Thailand and Vietnam. And a glass of that fresh squeezed neon was a delicious treat. I passed some foods I was familiar with and others I was not. I was briefly tempted by a stall selling horseshoe crabs, but in the end I chickened out and got a serving of pad thai served up fresh on a banana leaf.

There were carpeted areas with low tables where people could doff their shoes and sit down on a clean patch of ground to eat. To westerners it’s a picnic style, but sitting on the floor is common all over Asia. I had a great view of the river and the large island park. And although the sunset was a little obscured, it was still a beautiful night.

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OK That’s Creepy

One especially strange thing that happened while I was wandering around: there was a PA system that had been piping out a low volume background music. This is not too weird because it’s nice for public gardens or parks to have a little ambient music and I hadn’t been paying too much attention to what was playing because it was in Thai and low key. Then suddenly as I was walking back toward the food stalls from the far end of the park, I noticed that everyone around me was standing up and not moving. Up until now, the park had been a bustling active place with people strolling along, taking selfies with the statues, kids running around and everyone munching on snacks. Now, it was like some kind of internal evil robot switch was activated and the whole human population stopped and stood straight, staring ahead, gazes fixed but not on anything. I drifted to a halt as I realized I was the only one moving, not wanting to cause offense but also deeply creeped out.

When the song came to an end, everyone began going about their business once again, resuming their casual chats and picnic dinners. I realize of course that robot overlords is not the real story, but it was very eerie. I’d been in Thailand for a few days and hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Language Barrier

I spend most of my time living, working and traveling in countries where English is not the native language. I’m used to working through a language barrier, but Thailand was the most challenging linguistic obstacle I have ever faced. (That includes Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, French, German, and Czech). The rest of the Malay Peninsula had been far easier for me to manage. In Singapore, everyone speaks English (national education tests are administered in English). In Malaysia, most people spoke English or Chinese (which I’m not fluent in, but can get around). Nearly everyone there is bi- or tri-lingual, speaking their native Malay and at least one of the other two. Plus, even though I can’t speak Malay, it’s written using the Roman alphabet (the one we use in English), so I could sound things out, and got good at recognizing the words for “bathroom” and “coffee” (priorities). However, Thai is written in it’s own special alphabet. It’s beautiful. It’s arcing graceful curves and swirls. But it has 6 different letters for the sound //, and I can’t read it.

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I imagined as I wandered around the less touristy parts of Thailand that this must be how my friends felt exploring China with me, or how the teachers here in Korea who can’t read Hangul must feel every day. It also makes me appreciate how much of a difference having even a tiny understanding of the language can make.

Firefly Boat

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As the sun went down, the sign I’d been looking for appeared. Near a tiny dock, a young lady set up a folding table and a cute sign advertising for the firefly boat tours. If you have read my blog up till now you will know that I am a sucker for glowing lifeforms, so the idea of taking a nice riverboat trip and watching the fireflies was enticing, especially at the bargain price of 50 Baht (less than 2$ US). The boats don’t leave on a schedule, they leave when they have enough people, so I did my best to express my desire to go to the ticket seller, and then pulled up a nearby bench to wait.

After a number of people wandered over to look at the sign and wandered away, a group in matching t-shirts expressed some interest and stood off to one side while a single member of the group approached the ticket seller. This looked hopeful to me, because they were obviously a group, and after some back and forth, they decided to go, at which point the ticket seller gestured to me and made sure that I could take my trip with them. One of the group, the designated talker, happened to speak excellent English, so we were able to chat along the way. She told me she was from Surat Thani, but now lived in Phuket and had come back to see her family (the other members of the group).

As the longtail boat pulled away from the dock, we sped down the river passing the buildings of the city and toward a forested area of the delta. Looking at a map of Surat Thani, you can see that the city is built along the main part of the Ta Pi river. Just east of the dock, there is a little fork in the river and while the main branch continues along the urban areas, the side branch goes off into a green and verdant delta.

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Local Knowledge

Along the way, as I was chatting with the English speaking girl who asked me to call her Monica, I ventured to explore the bizzare robot occurance I’d seen earlier in the evening. Trying my best to be tactful and circumspect, I described what I had seen without the cyberman elements, and she told me that it had been the national anthem playing. Is that something that happens often or is today some kind of holiday? (It was Lunar New Year, but I understand that’s not often celebrated in Thailand outside of Chinatowns). She told me that it happens every day, twice at day at 8am and 6pm.

I thought about the ostentatious displays of portraits of the recently deceased king that I had seen around town. In Koh Lipe and Krabi, I had seen these only in government buildings, like the immigration office and police stations. But in Surat Thani, they were everywhere. And more than just paintings, they were like shrines with ornate decoration, bunting, flowers and other accouterments of borderline worship. Even taking into account that the mourning period for his death will extend until October of 2017, there was a marked difference in the way that residents of Surat Thani were carrying out that mourning from how the more tourist oriented towns I had seen before were.

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

Thailand was a military dictatorship with a figurehead monarch, but the late king was instrumental in moving the country into a constitutional monarchy (some say democracy, but … king, so I disagree). It’s been shaky, but he was enormously popular, and has apparently left in his wake a movement of “ultra-royalists” and there is some concern that populist nationalism / military dictatorship will return (which is funny cause you’d think the ultra-royalists would respect the king’s wishes to create a constitutionally run society, but hey). This political struggle will never be in the western news because Thailand is poor and can’t really impact life and economics in the West. *sigh.

My best guess is that tourist towns tone it down to protect the revenue stream, and that there is almost surely a regional difference in how much the population supports royalism or democracy. Surat Thani is clearly royalist. It probably also explains why in place of a Gideon Bible, my hotel had this book of Buddhist teachings in the night stand.

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Magic on the River

Once we turned away from the main river course, it didn’t take long for the lights of the city to fade behind us and for me to start feeling like I’d stepped into a ride at Disneyland. The river was wide and slow running. The night air was a perfect temperature that could not have been achieved better with climate control. We passed by some houses on stilts that was surely the Surat Thani version of the suburbs, but they were so picturesque with bright lanterns hanging from the porches and architectural flourishes on the rooftops, they looked like life-sized versions of the spirit houses. Don’t get me wrong, reality is often an amazing place and I will take the real thing to a theme park replica any day, but this boat ride was so perfect that it seemed like there must be a secret team of imaginieers behind the scenes making it work.

As we approached the first firefly spot, the guide slowed the boat down and directed our attention to a shadow just ahead. I did not know what to expect. I had read blogs that touted the tour as amazing, and seen about a hundred descriptions of the experience as being “like Christmas lights”. As a child, in Maryland, the fireflies came out on summer nights and let us chase them around the yard, and put them in jars for an hour or so before going on their merry way. My childhood may have been excessively Norman Rockwell from time to time. Nevertheless, my image of fireflies is a couple dozen in a field or meadow flying around and looking for a mate. I imagined something similar, but on the banks of the river amid the dark sillhouettes of the brush and trees. Nope.

I don’t know if it happens elsewhere, or to what degree, but in Surat Thani, the river fireflies occupy trees.

As we drew closer to the shadow our guide was pointing to, the shape of the tree became more distinct and just after, the glow from hundreds of fireflies reached my eyes. Although every bush and tree around it was dark, this one tree was home to a firefly colony of massive proportions. I didn’t even know fireflies lived in colonies. But I now know that the berembang (also known as the mangrove apple, or crabapple mangrove) is a big hit with the firefly population. Because the delta near Surat Thani is abundant in these trees, they get more than their fair share of firefly light shows.

There is no hope of a photo or a video. The light emitted by these little bugs is just too faint. But to the naked eye, far from the city lights, the twinkling of hundreds of little bodies against the lacy black outline of the tree is a sublime experience. I could understand why so many people described the flashing as Christmas lights, becuase in addition to their huge numbers and single tree occupation, the fireflies blinked in unison. Ok, not every single one, but I’d say 65-75% of a tree would blink on and off together in perfect synchonicity. I was able to find a few more examples of species that do that, but not a single explaination for the behavior. I had always been taught that the light show was a mating display, and it seems counterintuitive to blend in with the crowd when trying to get a potential mate to notice you. Whatever their evolutionary imperitive, the synchronized twinkling was amazing to watch.

And it was not just one tree. Our boat was out for around an hour, and close to 40 minutes of that was spent in the dark mangroves drifting along from apple to apple, each tree laden with it’s own colony and sparkling like a glitter bomb under a disco ball. We passed tree after tree of glowing glimmering lights, up one side of the river banks and back down the other and I will never get tired of looking at that. No one goes to Surat Thani except to go somewhere else, and I very much understand why, because the town is not a tourist easy place, but if you find yourself there, take a night out to do this tour.

Let the Good Things Happen

Despite the fact that the night before I had been at the lowest imaginable point in this trip, the fact is, I had a lovely and unique experience on Saturday. I rested, gave myself permission to “miss out” on the elephant, and found a small local activity that was suited to my tastes and my energy level. Bad things happen on holidays. People get sick or injured or run into culture shock mood swings, but it’s important not to let it ruin everything. I’ll say it over and over, the key to maximizing a good vacation is to do something great at the beginning and the end, and I’m glad that my final memory of Thailand was something so beautiful.

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And so ends my final day of this all too brief foray into the three countries of the Malay Peninsula. Will I go back? Well, it’s hard to resist the siren call of Koh Lipe, and I still have some ethically treated elephants to visit, so I’m sure I’ll go back one day. On top of that, I think Singapore will make a great destination to bring my niblings to get them adjusted to traveling abroad. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out the Instagram and Facebook for daily slices of the life of a Gallivantrix. ❤

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