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Karstic Memories

The Andaman Sea spread out below like a coruscating, inviting mirage, tempting us to sample its warm, estival waters. The plane banked towards the west and descended over a myriad of deceptively small limestone islands jutting vertically, hundreds of feet into the air. A classic tropical karstic landscape of a thousand verdant uninhabited rocks floated like pumice stones on the turquoise ocean and I gaped in childlike awe at the magnificent beauty of the image now burning itself into my memory.

We had just jetted down the snaking backbone of Thailand’s southern provinces, a 500km jaunt from the nation’s capital, Krungthep Mahanakhon, more familiarly known to the western world as Bangkok. To the east of us the Gulf of Thailand spread its expansive waters to the shores of Vietnam and Cambodia. To the west Myanmar, the Andaman Islands and the Nicobar group heralded themselves as even more exotic locales for future travel. Down below, the refracted vision of Phang Nga Bay loomed larger in the window of the Thai Airways A320 as we descended for our final approach into Phuket airport. This glittering bay and its surrounds are world-renowned for the stark beauty of its towering island limestone monoliths and picture-perfect white-coral beaches; the pin-ups of a thousand, glossy travel magazines. To the west, Phuket Island sheltered the area from the Andaman Sea. To the north and east, Phang Nga and Krabi provinces marked the border with the mainland. And to the south the large Yao group and the hoped-to-be-visited Phi Phi Island, the emerald jewel in the region’s encrusted natural bijouterie, acted as a gateway to the Strait of Malacca.

We landed abruptly on the tropical isle. A few hundred feet more and we would have been sampling the Andaman’s waters a bit sooner than I had expected. We disembarked the plane, sauntered down the metal staircase, onto the tarmac and into the steaming humid tropical air. We knew full well that for the next couple of weeks the armpits and backs of our t-shirts would make us look like competitors in the Hawaiian Ironman. It was unfortunate, however, that in my current physical state the only tournament I’d be allowed to compete in, if it existed, would be the flabby couchman.

We hitched a 120 baht ride in a minibus driven by one of Phuket’s superfluous manic drivers. With us for the hair-raising ride was an Arabic couple. The husband was dressed in shorts and t-shirt and a baseball cap. His wife was covered from head to toe in a black burqa. She occasionally glanced over at Renae, quixotically perusing her pastel-coloured airy singlet and Billabong surf shorts. I wondered what she was thinking and whether her look was one of approval, disdain or simple indifference.

We got dropped off at Coconut Village. A crumbling, cheap hotel full of nasty décor, it was only a couple of blocks back from Patong Beach, Phuket’s busiest and, some might say, tackiest tourist mecca. This place was obviously recognisable as a hotel, but its heyday was somewhere in the 1970s. The moog-synthed elevator version of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ piped out through the PA system of the hotel lobby. The only visible concession to the international sophisticate was the outdated collection of clocks on the wall displaying the time in London, Tokyo and New York. Unfortunately, however, there wasn’t an Armani-suited investment banker in sight waiting to check the closing value of the Dow Jones index on the NYSE.

This place was for low maintenance tourists like myself, whose only fiscal desire here was for a reasonable trading price on the fake Ray Bans down Patong Beach Road. Soon we were treading the pavements trying to find out for ourselves how much they would cost.

Patong Beach is itself a bustling resort town on the southwest coast of Phuket Island. Its west facing sandy plage affords spectacular sunset views over the Andaman Sea. The beach-front road runs for about a straight mile or more and is a continuous throbbing maelstrom of street traders, fake designer stalls, saliva-inducing Thai restaurants and seedy pick-up bars. If you want Nike gear, then no problem, you’ve come to the right place. Your only uncertainty is whether it’s real or fake, as the original product is manufactured in Thailand as well.

We wandered into the maze of roadside stalls and shops. It was definitely fake-o-rama here. Any product with a label and any intrinsic value sitting in an immaculate store window on Oxford St or Fifth Ave had its bogus doppelganger for sale here. I had first been introduced to this boom business over a decade ago in the shopping nirvanas of Singapore and Hong Kong. While taking a walk down Orchard or Nathan Rd in either city, sooner or later those inimitable words -‘copywatch!’ – would waft past your earlobes in a whispered, I-could-get-arrested-for-this, sort of tone. If you feigned an interest, you’d be whisked off into a disused part of a building, whereupon a sliding unmarked door would reveal tables full of imitation Rolex, TAG and Gucci watches.

We glided in and out of stalls and shops, idly watching the entrancing scene. We picked one of the restaurants, had a fine green curry, then strolled back to the hotel, past all the hustle and bustle of the night time bargaining. It was all a big distraction however, for tomorrow we would be inconsequential minions amongst the giant limestone cliffs of Phang Nga Bay.

A decade ago I awoke from a sound sleep, halfway through a 40-hour train journey from Bangkok to Singapore. Something outside was calling me to take a look. The sunlight splattered through the large carriage windows of the couchette on a February morning in 1990, forming fleeting patterns on the musty pleated curtains. I pulled them back and was astonished at the scenery being left in the wake of the train’s dated rolling stock.

I recognised it immediately as karstic. The three years I had just spent studying for a degree at London University were not in vain, although my identification was based on geomorphology, not my chosen field of geology. To quote from the Concise Columbia Encyclopaedia:

Karst, barren limestone plateau, W Slovenia, extending c.50 mi (80 km) southeast from the lower SoCa (Isonzo) Valley. Characterized by underground drainage, caves, sinkholes, deep gullies, and other features associated with dissolution and collapse of carbonate rocks, the name has become a generic term used to describe any area where similar landforms occur.

This scenery, however, was quite unlike pictures I’d seen of the Dinaric Alps, where the Karst plateau resides. It had more in common visually with a poster I saw in a travel agent once of the Guilin region of China.

I rubbed my eyes and stared out of the window. The landscape was quite flat with rice paddies shimmering like golden ponds in the morning light. Incredibly and impressively, rising out of the sodden farming plains like giant mossy fingers pointing to heaven were countless enormous limestone monoliths, hundreds of feet in height. There was no gradual inclination in the altitude of the land. No comparison to be made with other mountainous areas I had encountered in my then limited travelling repertoire. The countryside was an impossible conjuction of extremes, which I had thought could not occur in such close proximity to each other and which my bleary eyes were now trying to cope with. I scrambled for the old Russian Zenith SLR my father had given me some years before, manually searching for a reasonable f-stop and speed with which to capture the scene. I walked to the end of the carriage and hung my head out of the window. The warm sticky air blew around my face as I shot a couple of quick frames from the roll of Kodak Ektachrome in the bulky camera. One shot in particular of the train carriages snaking into the background and the verdant white and green limestone peaks cascading into the distance is as fixed permanently into my memory as it is onto the slide’s emulsion.

As quickly as this unique montane apparition entered my vision, it disappeared from view and I was left with a rare moment in time. A moment and a place, however, which I then made a promise to return to at some undefined point in the future. It is sad to think that you will never visit a place again, especially one which makes such a strong first impression. I made an unspoken pledge to return and recapture that moment.

After ten years, this moment has arrived. It is however, arriving a lot faster than I had anticipated as Renae and I discover that every driver in Phuket seems to hold a licence to speed and overtake at the most inopportune moments. Thankfully we arrive in one piece at a boat ramp in a mangrove-ridden wharf on the northeast side of the island and are ushered onto a type of wooden long boat. Joining us are a few more tourists. John, a youthful English guy from Hull, lights up a cigarette and finds a spot on the bow. He has just spent a year’s working holiday in Australia and is homeward bound. A quiet, balding Spanish man in his late thirties and three middle-aged Germans – two guys and a spiky-blonde frau – make up the small contingent of visitors.

At the stern are two young local Thai boys. They seem to be in charge of the monstrous B52 bomber engine, which appears to be attached to the back of the boat. Ingeniously they have also managed to weld a three-metre long propeller shaft to the rusting goliath. Sadly, the propellers themselves seem to have more in common with a Moulinex egg-beater than the propulsion system of a nautical craft. A little while later we were quite literally whisking our way into Phang Nga Bay, leaving a frothy puree of concussed marine invertebrates in our wake.

A bunch of us sat at the bow, hoping to act as a counterbalance for all the weight at the rear. However, this only seemed to be an effective way of getting saturated with seawater, to the endless delight of our multi-talented minibus driver-come tour guide. We decided to sit in the middle, covered, part of the boat to dry off and have a shouting conversation with John. One of the older Germans decided to take his turn up front. He looked like Herr Oktoberfest; a rotund balding jolly giant of a man. I could picture him with a stein of Beck’s lager in each hand, dancing the schottische as his beer belly wobbled in 2/4 time. Then again judging people on cultural stereotypes is not a good idea; he probably drinks tea and listens to gangster rappers.

Powering into the bay, a distant vision of cascading layers of vertical peaks jolted my memory. We were riding the waves in brilliant sunshine but, further ahead, swathes of ominous steely grey skies hinted of possible changes in the weather. I recognised these metamorphosing shapes that were looming larger beneath the inclement cumuli; the dark shadows dancing across their verdurous summits and striated, calcareous pillars. They were old friends I hardly knew, but promised I would meet again. They were voices from my past, muted through time, but now able to converse once more. Most of all, though, they were an evocation of youth; a recollection of a moment I desired to recapture.

After about forty minutes of being tossed around like rubber ducks in a bathtub, we slowed to a more pedestrian speed. In front of us was a towering island of sheer white limestone. Through a gap in the rock wall at sea level we caught a fleeting glimpse of a turquoise lake, trapped in the centre of this calcareous mass, like water in the bottom of a teacup. The whole base of the cliff was undercut substantially, with innumerable stalactites of varying sizes hanging down, some touching the water, like the teeth of a petrified leviathan.

The hybrid engine idled, making a metallic rattling noise as the two boat handlers pulled the propeller out of the water.

Our guide, Fred, filled us in on the days activities. Although his grammar wasn’t perfect, his command of the English language was a lot greater than my knowledge of Thai, which amounted to the word baht.

‘I will tell you about your trip today first.’ ‘We are got the boat from Bang Rong Pier.’ ‘This is the first island. This is Phanak Island, Phanak Island.’ ‘After Phanak Island we are going to James Bond Island.’ ‘And then we are going to Crystal Cave.’ ‘At the Crystal Cave we are get through with the boat to the other side.’ ‘And then we are going to lunch, to get lunch; to eat.’ ‘After lunch we are going back to Phuket for swimming at the Nakka Island and then we are back home.’ ‘This is your trip today.’

The sun dazzled on the surface of the crystal waters. Bill and Ben at the back of the boat grappled with the possessed B52 engine. At slow speeds it looked impossible to manage and was balanced on some sort of fulcrum. It needed both of them to alternately place all their weight on it, to lift the egg beater out of the water and shift it to the left or right. You see – it was also the rudder. They shouted to each other above the constant ear-perforating chug-chug-kershink-kershink-chug-chug, as it idled, ready for action. Fred shouted to them as well in his native tongue – ‘We’re about to hit this 1000ft rock wall, you f***ing idiots!’ – at least that’s what I imagined he was saying, as we were about to, well, smash into a 1000ft rock wall.

As far as the eye could see was an incredible vista of sheer-cliff towering limestone islands, projecting out of the turquoise waters. It was an other-worldly place; one of many visually arresting images we hoped to see on this trip.

We picked up speed once more and after about fifteen minutes we approached a very unique-looking island. A number of vessels crowded around a wooden jetty on its western flank. Then it dawned on me that this was the fabled islet of Khao Tapoo. Part of Ao Phang Nga National Park, it was a beautiful marriage of lithology and hydrology, which was more famously, and somewhat dubiously known as ‘James Bond Island’.

We circled around the one-time movie set, with not a sign of Scaramanger, his midget waiter or the golden gun for that matter. They had long since departed and been replaced by what looked like a flea market crammed onto the tiny beach. Khao Tapoo was actually a sandy isthmus about a hundred metres squared, bounded by a couple of limestone monoliths. There was little space to moor, it being a popular day trip from all the resorts dotted around Phang Nga Bay. We had to risk serious injury jumping from the bow of the boat onto a slippery mat of algae which clung to the rock face. After that we negotiated a tight passage of overhanging ledges which crept around the base of one of the limestone monoliths until we arrived safely at the sandy isthmus in the middle.

Standing at the edge of the sand, looking north, just 100 metres or so offshore was a narrow and tall limestone column rising up from the turquoise depths. This vision I recognised from many photographs, and if you want to watch Christopher Lee battling with Roger Moore in “The Man With The Golden Gun” you’ll notice it’s the limestone tower where the fictional laser gun was located.

The only thing we were getting blasted by however, was the wind, as it seemed to pick up and swirl around the base of the two cliffs. Then a horrendous squall blew up and it absolutely chucked it down for half an hour, as only it can in the tropics. We hid underneath one of the overhanging walls of the western limestone block, trying to avoid buying a keychain or spoon with ‘James Bond Island’ written on it. This gave me a chance to look at an overhanging wall at the base of this calcareous monolith which appeared to have been man-made, such was the accuracy of its planar surface. It extended at least 100 or more feet into the air and was tilted at an angle of about 20 degrees to the vertical. Drawing on all my geological knowledge I concluded that it had been ten years since I retired my geological hammer and therefore I didn’t have a clue how it was formed, nor did I have the right to have a clue. When in doubt however, blame it on a fault – they’re pretty common.

We scrambled back to the long boat and Bill & Ben started up the motor. We scooted onwards, deeper into Phang Nga Bay, passing fishermen and sailing boats, locals and tourists. The scenery did not lessen in appeal the longer our journey took, but as we approached Panyee Village, it seemed to get a whole lot more interesting.

Most human communities seem to have adopted the view that it’s a good idea to build your house on terra firma. Like Charles Darwin’s fabled Marine Iguana experiment, during which he seemed to derive endless fun while on the Galapogos Islands from repeatedly tossing a hapless lizard into the ocean, we humans also feel most at home on dry land. As with the Iguana, some of us might have to hunt the seas for resources, but when it comes to the crunch, our security is on the land.

That’s why it’s a bit of a surprise as we approach nearer and nearer to Panyee, to find that it is an incongruous collection of wooden houses on stilts huddled together in the middle of the sea. Its only neighbours are the limestone towers, one of which looms over the wooden hamlet like a sleeping stone giant. It is a bizarre sight and diametrically opposing my cultural preconceptions of what a village is and should be. Then again, one of the wonders of travelling is to be constantly challenged by this sort of thing, as you are sometimes made to feel as though you have stepped through the looking-glass and have landed in Wonderland.

We disembark on a short jetty, which also just happens to be the end of the restaurant where we’ll be having lunch. The water here is only about 20 feet deep apparently and as we sit down on the wooden stools at the round tables, I can see the saltwater sloshing around below, through gaps in the planks of the dining-room floor.

What can I say, but what a weird sensation, eating at a Thai restaurant in the middle of a tropical bay surrounded by Sugar-Loaf Mountain-type rocky plinths rising out of the water. After our spicy feed, we take a wander around this precarious floating island. At one end, the minaret of a white mosque forms the high point of the most dominant building in the village. Its white curving balcony from where the muezzin summons the masses to prayer, looks arabic in style and therefore oddly out of place. Walking along the narrow alley way, that is the central thoroughfare of Panyee, the scene is a colourful melee of shops, domicles and the occasional basic restaurant. This place has an organic feel and has obviously grown naturally over many years. The alley way itself has been constructed mainly out of concrete slabs, which gives the impression that you’re walking on dry land, as if in a busy market laneway somewhere in Phuket. But glancing to either side between the gaps in the long houses, which branch out perpendicularly from the alley like short vertebral bones, you see glimpses of ocean and limestone which jolt you out of this false sense of the familiar.

A cockrel crows from within its bamboo cage; village elders in their green cotton sarongs laze on wooden stools and banter in their native tongue; a dress shop allures Renae with its kaleidoscopic ensemble of fabrics of a hundred textures and designs; a tourist stall displays its collection of beautiful shiny conch shells, pillaged from the sandy islets in the bay; a constant tinkling noise from the mother of pearl wind-chimes reverberates through the alley; a pepsi logo with Thai writing assaults my preconceptions of pop culture’s international reach; two babies swing side by side in metronomic unison, hanging from the gables of a corrugated roof by strong white mosquito netting, safely tucked inside their basket-cots, looking as if they’ve just been delivered by a pair of storks.

Above the doorway at the residence of the family of these two infants, there are pair of old framed photographs of a regal looking couple. Recognisable from the bank notes, the man is King Bhumidol Adulyadej, the bespectacled head of this country’s constitutional monarchy, next to him is the Queen. It reminds me of a timely piece of advice provided by a taxi driver in Bangkok back in 1990 – don’t ever drop a bank note and step on it, because in effect you’re stepping on an image of the King. If a policeman sees you, you’ll be jailed immediately, as this is a terrible faux pas in Thailand. I have never been too sure how true this anecdote was, but I’m not in any rush to test the veracity of the story either.

We leave Panyee Village with the familiar kershunk kershunk of our rusting mechanical motor and head for Nakka Island. After half an hour or so of riding the waves of Phang Nga Bay we arrive at a spacious coral-sand beach. We have time for a swim and to reflect on the day. In the distance the limestone giants sprout from the sea and I feel as though some promise has been fulfilled. I feel as though I’ve been to an exotic place far removed from my everyday environment, something which provides me with a bit of a rush.

I remember when I was a child, on the top tier of the bookshelf in our living room, there was a big old dusty book full of black and white travel photographs. It was a second-hand gift to my mum from her grandparents back in 1951, and it was just about my favourite. It was a huge, heavy volume and I had to stand on top of the old linen chest to get to it, risking permanent impairment on my mother’s knitting needles if I happened to fall down onto the couch. But it was worth getting down. Called “The World’s Greatest Wonders” and bound in a hardy red cover, its pages were filled with hundreds of grainy photos of the most unbelievable natural scenery and man-made structures. It was in this book that I was probably first introduced to the Taj Mahal, the Egyptian Pyramids and Mount Rushmore. There were other sights, ones which were truly amazing and really captured my imagination. One of these were the stone statues of Easter Island, a place I still hope to go to. The other was an enormous glacial boulder sitting a top a mountain in Burma, looking as though the slightest push could bring it rolling down the hillside. Perched on top of this boulder and only accessible by bamboo ladders was a Buddhist pagoda, the whole thing apparently balanced by one of Buddha’s hairs. I’m not too sure whether there was a photo of the karstic giants of Phang Nga Bay or Guilin in China, but it doesn’t really matter. My sense of satisfaction at the moment is probably related to the fact that my subconscious thinks it’s been to one of the places in that fantastic, dusty old book.

©2001/2002 Adrian Walsh The Anglo-Australian author is currently writing a book about a six-month trip he took around the world. He lives and works in Sydney.

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