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Where Scorpions come out at night

We woke up early that morning in Khao Sok National Park, to the sound of gibbons singing their strange love songs across the verdant jungle.  After a quick breakfast of the ubiquitous hard-boiled eggs and toast and good strong coffee, inky black until mixed with thick white condensed milk in the Thai style, we were on our way to the meeting point for our 3-day trek into the deep parts of the Park, those that could only be reached with guide and long tail boat and a long driving journey south.

We were rushing now, almost late for our appointment down the dirt road from our tree hut.  I turned around to say something to Deon, my traveling partner, and turned back just in time to avoid stepping on a large black and silver blur moving underfoot.  Too stunned to pick up my camera, completely cognizant of my flimsy running shoes, I backed up slowly and grabbed Deon’s arm as I exclaimed the obvious:  A scorpion!  We bent over to examine the thing, enchanted and horrified by its marbled armor and stout pincers, and watched it amble toward the jungle’s edge.  Now we were late, now we were running, and we jumped into the minibus that was already started, already filled with our trekking companions. 

Cheo Larn Lake

There was Rita, the Russian living in Australia with the indefinable accent.  There were the swooning newlyweds from Belgium, Nico and Hilda, one of the many honeymooning couples we met in our two months in Thailand, who held hands and hurriedly ran to each other’s side whenever one of the pair stumbled on the trek.  And then there were our guides, the mischievous brothers Lim and Dam, who spoke quiet Thai to each other the whole 2-hour drive and periodically punctuated the silence in the back of the bus with their exclamations: “Not far now!”

After what seemed like a long enough drive later, we reached Cheo Larn Lake and scurried into our long tail boat, to be transported to the floating camp where we would bunk for the next two nights.  In these loud boats we saw no wildlife, but the lake itself was stunning enough, as Lim piloted our small craft carefully through the eerie tree cemetery – bits of tree tops poking up from the lake bottom.  This used to be a forest, I thought.

Later at the camp, as Dam put our lunch in front of us, I asked him a question that had been on my mind since the morning: “Are there many scorpions around the camp?”  He laughed, and responded as if he had been hoping for this very question, mysteriously, eyes sparkling:

“The scorpions only come out at night.”

For now, we had bigger things to worry about.  We were scheduled to take make our trek that afternoon, but Lim and Dam held quiet and nervous conference about the river levels.  It might rain, they explained.  Only a year earlier, a Belgian woman had drowned on this same trek, as the hiking party entered Namtaloo cave, the main attraction, and was trapped by the rising water levels after a quick jungle downpour.  Rain was coming – you could smell it as you can in the jungle, coming first on the wind as a cool scent and a nipping breeze.

Whatever the risk, Lim exclaimed: “We go!”  Then he looked us up and down. “You wear short pants.”  Now we peered at each other’s legs, all clad in similar hiking pants, the kind that tie at the ankle to deter the river leeches that were sure to be waiting for us.  Hadn’t we all read in our guidebooks that we should wear long pants?  That long pants were the answer to the slimy promise of leeches?  Hadn’t we all felt proud of our research, of our preparedness?

I piped up.  “What about the leeches?”  (My questions on the trip would continue in this tangent – what about the snakes?  What about the spiders?)

Lim chuckled and wagging his head, explained:  “If you wear short pants, we can see leech on your leg and pull it off you.  If long pants we not see it and leech climbs into your underpants.” 


Floating Village

Now none of us liked the prospect of leech filled underpants.  But it seemed that none of the five in our party had packed shorts, except Nico, who fiddled with secret zippers and then theatrically detached the bottom half of his pants.  The rest of us spent an extra few minutes laboriously rolling up our pants to over our knees where they cut off our circulation.  But at least our underwear would be leech-less.

If only I could show you a picture.  There we were, ready to go, the intrepid adventure travelers that we fancied ourselves to be, with hiking boots and backpacks, long-lensed cameras and khaki hats, water bottles and bug repellent.  Lim had passed around life jackets earlier and said we had to wear them.  So we set off with our arms slightly raised, awkward with the extra bulk of the oversized life vests (if there had been a flood, I am sure I would have slipped through mine), flashlights stowed and cameras at the ready.

And then Lim ran by us, wearing nothing but boxer shorts.  No shoes, no shirt, just a tiny pair of red boxer shorts, patterned with the Sponge Bob logo.

Namtaloo cave and Rachabrapha dam have a story, as all dammed lakes and secret caves must.  In 1976, the Thai government decided to damn the Phra Saeng canal in order to generate hydroelectric power.  But dams displace people as they enclose water, and some students, who identified themselves as communists, took up the cause of the residents of the valley who would lose their homes to the deep waters of the new lake.  These students needed a hiding place, a base where they could regroup after sabotage missions on the fledgling dam construction.  They chose a cave that was not really a cave, since the literal definition of a cave implies one opening, something that is hollow with one mouth.  Well this cave had two mouths, so if attacked from the front by the army that was on their heels, the students could make their secret exit through a series of tunnels, a river, and finally out the back of the cave. This was the exact journey we had signed up to make, a simulation of their escape. 

The official account of what happened in the four years from 1976-1980 that it took the dam to be completed is listed on the Khao Sok Park official website.  It goes like this: Communistic students failed to make the changes they wanted in the community, and ended up being considered outlaws…These conflicts made part of the human population in Khao Sok disappear and the rainforest had a chance to breathe.  

“What about the snakes?”  I could never help asking such questions, I guess because I didn’t want to be surprised by some spitting cobra and only then ask – what now?  I have never professed to be brave.  Anyhow, this was the wrong question to ask Lim, as was the question about spiders the wrong question, and he spent the rest of the trek sneaking up behind me with hands gently cupped together, only to open them in front of my nose so that I could get a close look of the huge golden orb web spider cradled there. 

“You hold?  You want to kiss spider?”  I let out a nervous laugh, determined not to reveal the severe arachnophobia that has followed me across four continents.  I vowed to tip Dam a little more than Lim, considering he hadn’t shoved any arachnids in my face.

But it wasn’t all fooling around.  Lim knew that trek by heart, and in his bare feet he would run up a slight incline ahead of us and appear with his arms calling us, gesturing wildly to hurry.  And we would arrive at a spot off the trail a ways where Lim would look around and then gesture up quietly as if divulging a sacred secret and there we would see a pair of stick insects, confident in their most cunning camouflage.  Or a green tree snake, the color of the freshest grass, or once a monkey that climbed higher and higher from our sight.  Sure, Lim liked sticking spiders in my face but he did not then squash them as I remember my brother doing when I was young, but stood on his tiptoes and set them gently on a high branch of the very tree where they had built their enormous web, the web from which he had gently disengaged them.  He did not even want to inconvenience these awesome spiders.  Unlike so many guides and tourists, Lim did not inflict himself on the jungle.

Khao Sok park entrance

Throughout the ensuing 45 minute hike to the cave we had a leech buddy system in place, in which each member of the hike watched the legs of the person ahead and yelled out to Lim or Dam when a slimy brown thing had started to suck and grow on our naked legs and pumping blood.  Once or twice we missed the leech altogether, only finding a telltale trail of blood running down our legs afterwards, from a tiny wound where the blood would not coagulate.  Rita handled the leeches in stride, saying the sand flies on Ko Jum were so much worse than these bloodsuckers that left no pain behind.  Hilda the Belgian tried to remain calm as Nico looked at her calves lovingly and attempted to fling off a leech, which then just stuck on his fingers.  Me, well, I only had one leech on me that whole trek, so I was feeling increasingly safe in the knowledge that I just must not taste so good.

Finally: the cave.  Here we stopped for a pep talk.  The major points went something like:  Do not touch the spiders.  They bite.  Watch your step, the rocks are sharp and you will cut yourself if you fall.  Do not shine your light in dark holes, since the king cobras love this cave and do not like lights being flashed in their eyes.  In fact, they will follow a light that is shined at them and then strike.  Watch out for king cobras.  When we enter the river, hold on to the rope that we will have stretched out between us.  Go slowly so you do not slip and bump your head and drown.  But hurry as much as you can, because the rain is coming.  This was mostly Dam talking, looking a bit nervous.  We found out later that he was afraid of snakes, and of this cave.

As I was nursing feelings of nervousness about the safety of such a foray, a giggling group of identically dressed Korean girls came up behind us with their guide.  As we stood dropping our cameras into waterproof bags and checking the batteries in our flashlights, they passed us in their white t-shirts and red shorts, white schoolgirl socks and low-cut running shoes and plunged right into the cave, still giggling.  That was that.  We followed them in.

The cave: spiders extended, crouching above jagged rocks, spread as big as my hand.  Jagged stalagmites that glimmered in the fading daylight like buried jewels.  Rocks that seemed to move, covered as they were in a layer of writhing cockroaches.  A king cobra high above us in the crook of a boulder, Dam urging us the move quickly away from such a threat.  Flashlights off!  The Korean girls giggling, holding each other’s hands to steady their steps.  And the cold water of the deep little river, which seemed more like a frightening place to die than a way out, a bottomless well, our hands on the rope spread from each boulder that formed the deep water’s bank, almost floating in our too-big life vests, no bottom for our feet to brush.  Now the quiet shrieks of the Koreans, Lim’s urging hurry hurry.  Ah, we were out.  And it was, indeed, raining.

We were in that cave for all of 30 minutes.  But coming out was like sunlight glimpsed after solitary confinement in a nightmare, and the rain felt cool and good and right.  We checked each other’s backs for spiders that had fallen there and finding none turned our chins up to the rain.  Sometimes while traveling, often actually, you find yourself in a place and think: why am I here?  Why have I voluntarily, paid even, to put myself in this situation?  I had thought that in a claustrophobic moment in the cave, wondering: why do we fly across the world to put ourselves in such tight spots?  Well, coming out of that cave was something, something accomplished, and perhaps something understood.  Dam had a huge smile spread across his face as we started back to the camp.

“I hate snakes,” he said.

After a big dinner of red curry and papaya salad and basmati rice, I struggled up the hill in the crepuscular light, toward the outhouse.  I scrutinized every step, remembering Lim’s ominous promise: the scorpions only come out at night.  I found none and returning to the floating camp that had turned into a little party, squeezed myself in to a seat between Lim and Deon, across the table from an old Thai man with a wrinkled grin. 

Lim asked: “You see any scorpions?”  And then laughed, along with Dam and a few other Thai guides who were hanging around the place. 

“No, thankfully.”  I replied.

“You will soon.”

Fast transport on Thai long-tail boats

My curiosity peaked and a few drinks later, I was expecting scorpions to crawl up to our little party from underneath the huts.  Every time I looked at the dirt path that started from the floating bar’s edge, I expected to see a scorpion circus.  The drinks kept coming as each of our group bought a little bottle of Mehkong whisky, a close cousin to rum, and then a few Coca-Colas so all of us could share in that popular whisky and Coke concoction.  The old man across from me spoke only one word of English: “Hello!” he would yell as he threw back a drink.  I quietly asked Lim for the equivalent of “Cheers” in Thai and before the old man could down his next class I yelled, glass raised “Chug Dee!”  He broke into an infectious laugh and responded “Hello! Hello!”

I had forgotten about the scorpions when Lim got up stealthily and gesticulated to a woman sitting off in another room of the floating camp.  Suddenly we heard music, the opening bars of a familiar song.  The woman wheeled a TV out and set it in front of our little party.  We all watched, a bit drunk, suddenly getting the joke.  Dam and Lim were holding their sides, laughing tears to their eyes. 

It’s early morning
The sun comes out
Last night was shaking
And pretty loud
My cat is purring
And scratches my skin
So what is wrong
With another sin
The bitch is hungry
She needs to tell
So give her inches
And feed her well
More days to come
New places to go
I’ve got to leave
It’s time for a show

Here I am, rock you like a hurricane
Here I am, rock you like a hurricane 

“You see,” said Lim, “the scorpions only come out at night.” 

This Scorpion’s video (think aging men in berets and leather pants with V-shaped guitars) would be the continuous soundtrack of our next two days at the camp.  We had to laugh every time the song started anew.  But I suppose the joke isn’t so obvious if you don’t know of this German band, the Scorpions.  They had one “hit” song, and Rock you like a hurricane is it.  Someday I would like to do a study of how certain music makes it to certain places (think of the German obsession with David Hasselhof’s music).  Somehow, this mediocre band from the Eighties had seized the imagination of Thailand now, in 2004.  We were to hear this one song over and over again, in the market, in guesthouses, on the TV at a curry shop on the beach.  We didn’t see another scorpion in the whole of Thailand, but we heard them everywhere. 

Story by Sarah O’Brien

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