A curious island of cashew bombs

With my final exams done and dusted in Taipei, I flew in the dark hours of the night to Bangkok.   I would miss the people, the food, the mountains, the sunsets over the city. But it was time to move on and having been stuck in a routine for half a year, my mind was aching for rest, randomness and potentially some chaos.

A sticky heat saturated every pore as I exited Bangkok airport. A sense of adventure followed me as I hopped into a neon pink taxi. My fifth time in Bangkok. I recognised the cluttered streets, charming rivers and narrow alley ways. After having to navigate the taxi driver, I seemed to know more than he did, I arrived at a bustling hotel. Slinking as gracefully as I could past the queue of sweaty travellers at reception with three bags, one a broken back pack swinging wildly,  I headed up the dirty stairs. I gently rapped on the ajar door, hoping I had got the right number.  And there she was. My little Ivana. I had not seen this Czech beauty for over a year.

I dumped by backpack down and lay on the bed. Having  not slept more than six hours a night in Taipei, our windowless hotel room knocked me out for twelve solid blissful hours. Architectural valium.

Later we headed out onto the streets for an ice coffee, Thai style saturated in condensed milk and in a plastic bag stuffed with ice. This trip was to be defined by the amount of ice coffee (and  inadvertently fructose) drunk. We spent the next day avoiding the heat by temple hopping followed by a river cruise down the winding canals.

 

Ivana and I planned to head to a tiny island named Koh Phayam the next day. Two years ago we had met a Japanese rasta called Tomo on the tropical island of Koh Tao. We had been peering at him from a hidden seat above in a reggae bar.  Ivana, in her excitement, leaned over too far and had spilt my only beer of the trip (we survived off one meal a day then) on his lengthy dreadlocks. From then on we became close friends. He ran a bar in Koh Phayam, a small cashew nut shaped island which lay just off the West coast of Thailand next to Burma. He had enthralled us with tales of an island with no cars, no ATM, and at that time it was not in the Lonely Planet. I  knew that The Beach did not exist in Thailand anymore, but I was intruiged and enticed. We planned to stay for ten days and then spend the other four weeks island hopping seeing Thai friends.  Little did we know we would end up trapped for a month on Koh Phayam….

That night we almost missed our bus down South after being taken to the wrong station. Fortunately we decided to chance a different taxi and, with some GTA style driving, we made the bus. Full of adrenaline and sitting with our second hand snorkels that we had brought in the city, we were off. The bus journey was no where near as horrific as some of the epics I had endured in China. Chinese transport really pales most travel stories into comparison.  Decked out in neon lighting, the seats on the bus went back enough to at least entertain the notion you were horizontal.  After a stop off to buy some decor matching neon glowing fruit, we arrived on Thailand’s South West coast 8 hours later. A new destination, an old friend, an air of mystery.

Wizzing through desolate streets as the dawn approached in the back of a 4 x4, I felt my tiredness slip away. We were in awe of the beautiful sunrise projected in the sky above on our way to the pier.  Lazy looking palm trees whizzed by, ushering us closer to the reality that a white sandy beach was imminent.

At 5 pounds a ticket the speed boat ride was a bargain. The other passengers  were an eclectic mix, and I was pleased to see not one full moon party t-shirt in sight.  As we neared our destination, the island looked deserted.  There were no touts there to greet us at the pier, and I started to feel I was really and truly wandering off the beaten track.  Dumping our cargo in a tiny shack of a cafe on the beach, we gazed out at the deep blue sea.  When a sleepy, rotund Thai lady finally did emerge we ordered two noodle soups and of course a round of ice coffees. We kept an eye out for our friend’s flowing dreadlocks. But it was still only 9am and Tomo is a rasta, so we expected a fair wait.

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The loud rev of a Yamaha heralded his arrival. Tomo parked his bike and casually wandered over, rollie in mouth, his often deadpan face harboured a hint of joy in seeing two old friends. Let the adventure begin I thought as I wedged myself and my gigantic backpack onto his bike.  I surveyed my new surroundings.  The island was tiny, a brisk hour and a half would cover the length of the land. As we bumped along the road  and I tried not to crush Tomo, I was intrigued by these weird looking fruit hanging from nearly every tree.  In a variety of colours and shades they had the warped appearance of chubby peppers. “But peppers do not grow on massive trees,” I pondered.

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Arriving at Tomo’s bar, I prised my sweaty backpack onto the dusty ground. The bar was a hand built wooden structure, with a courtyard punctuated by a squat little palm tree in the middle. Amoungst many cigarette butts I saw hundreds of these fruits scattered on the floor. Some had survived in tact and some had squished with a creamy like substance oozing out. On top of each fruit was a crescent shaped thing. Then it dawned on me. These were huge cashew fruits, held fragile to the tree by spindly branches.

These cashew fruits were everywhere. And I mean everywhere, above and below and often in mid air decesending menacingly. The constant sound of splattering was to become a soothing sound the longer we stayed, a hypnotic beat that echoed the rhythm of the island. ‘Warning. Cashew bombs’ said a make shift cardboard sign in the bar. This was no exaggeration. These fruits were heavy and acidic. Tomo informed us that the the locals  wear gloves to pick the nuts, otherwise the skin on their hands is a goner. These bizarre and abundant fruits were to symbolise my experience on the weird island that would do it darnedest to never let us leave.

Our first day turned out to be a very long day indeed.  We finally laid our heads at 6am. The day we had arrived was the weekly jam session night on the island in Tomo’s bar, Irie Island. All of Tomo’s staff had bailed. We were getting a free place to stay so we offered up our inexperienced help. Chucking a few Chang beers and people could not be that hard right?

For a small island there seemed to be a lot of people.   And that night they all seemed to have graced Tomo’s bar with the aim of getting trashed on cocktails I knew nothing about. Tom Cruise I am not. I have no photographic evidence of how many people there were because I was chained to the bar all night. 8 hours laters, 500 or so cocktails made, beers spilt, raucous heckling, we crawled into our bungalow in a daze.   I slowly fell into a humid sleep as the cashew bombs sporadically splatted upon our bamboo roof.

The next day we were awoken by the midday heat. Head pounding from all those dregs in the shaker I had downed the night before, a quick breakfast of mangos and a desire to explore revived me. The island was beautiful. The main beach, inventively called Long Beach, was the busiest stretch and closest to Tomo’s.  It was especially  gorgeous at night, a gaze upwards and you were suddenly under a blanket of stars. We took the challenge to swim the length at sunset, half floating, half power running on the soft sand between ends.

The sunsets were phenomenal.  Menstrual red, lotus pink, tangerine orange. Swimming into the sunset is my  time. I feel alone yet connected. Blissful yet overwhelmed as my sense of identification with my self melts away. In the city we always worry about plans, what is ahead, commitments. Worrying about what we should be doing, what you should not be doing but you do it anyway. In the sea, under a brilliant sunset I feel  suspended in time and nature. I see and feel the earth turn, and my soul awakens.

The following nights flew by in a whirl of gipsy jazz, folk and punk music in a bar that was also our home. During the day siestas were impossible in our sun trapped bungalow, so we lazed around playing darts, sipping on coconuts and getting irie.

By the second week Ivana had tired of the island. Not a drinker, she was bored of the bar lifestyle.  So we opted for a few days of luxury and booked ourselves into a little bungalow on the beach front called Coconut Beach Resort. We adored Tomo’s hospitality, often watching him in the back of the bar strumming Gipsy jazz for hours, but an early nights sleep was needed.

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One day we did manage an epic hike. Following our instinct we walked across the island, shielding our white skin against the sun with umbrellas, much to the super tanned Farangs’ amusement.  “Why you walking?”, “Its not raining”,  we frequently got asked by passing motorbikes. We walked the length of the island with relative ease, but by 1pm the heat demanded that we hitch hike back to our abode. The little motorbike/truck that stopped for us  only had space to stand in a huge cement pipe tied on by string, yes string! It was moving ominously, threatening to crush our legs. Our screams every time a bump or turning moved the concrete mass around us created much laughter from the tattooed driver. Terrifying yet hilarious.

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During our stay we had made friends with a Burmese man named Lin who worked in one of the restaurants. After several years of working on the island he now spoke fluent Thai, and had even built his own house amongst the canopy of the tree tops.  He offered to be our guide for the day. This Burmese version of Johnny Depp, was also a jungle survival expert. Early one morning after a couple of iced coffees, Lin picked us up. Hair in a bun, shades on and lean muscles on display. We crammed onto his bike and with a flick of his wrist we accelerated hard along the bumpy track.

Weaving and skidding on the sand between the cashew nut trees that threatened us with an acidic beating, we  eventually arrived at a beautiful secluded beach with a coral spit leading to a tiny island. Lin patiently watched as we swam. His reflective Ray Bans hiding any emotion. Dashing, cool and kind. Ivana and I both fell a little in love. Lin guided us to the small island, but the 50 metre stretch took me about 10 minutes to walk as  razor sharp shells tortured my soft feet. Lin seemed unfazed by the texture, stopping momentarily to allow us to catch up or to laugh at our shreiks of pain. I gingerly turned over my soles to see the damage. To my astonishment they were pink but unmarked. “You will toughen up”, said Lin with a mysterious grin.

We lounged on the beach, smoked and collected beautiful spiral shells that wound  intricate patterns of infinity. “Want to see some monkeys?”, questioned Lin casually. In whirl of dust we were off on the road again across the island. Lin was taking us to his jungle house and a beautiful beach where his half finished bar remained, halted by lack of official paperwork.

My legs ached from gripping the bike tight and tender pink feet protested as I forced them to carry me up a narrow hill of steps bordered by brilliant pink flowers. My lack of breath and lactic acid was rewarded by a epic bay that dropped sharply below.  White flat sand gradually turned to rocks of all angle and sizes on the beach. A large red and green long boat sat sunken in the middle. “This is my boat, but now I can not keep building my bar and the boat has broken”, said Lin with a  solemn tone. A sign ‘ Super 8 Bar’ hung above the half finished bar. Lin still had hopes to finally open this business, though Thai bureaucratic odds seemed stacked against him.

“Coffee?” Suggested Lin. I did not see any other sign of life as we followed him strolling into the dense jungle. Up a steep hill we arrived at a beautiful teak wooden house. “I built this myself” said Lin as we got a guided tour through a cosy balcony and into a large room with a king size bed and functioning toilet. “So coffee?” he again asked as we looked on in awe. Lin produced a large cauldron and filled it with fresh water. He then proceed to start a fire without any matches. He winked as he clocked our wistful stares. With mugs of coffee and also strong Thai tea, my now empty stomach propelled the caffeine straight to by blood steam. And with the tone of a magician Lin informed us, “And next the monkeys”.

Walking slowly and silently through the foliage, Lin suddenly ushered us to stop. He let out a low, trill cry which was echoed back from the jungle. In the darkness of the canopy several round shapes appeared. Blinking at us white creatures through the gloom were a group of ash coloured monkeys.  As curious as we were of them, they gazed on chattering. And all of a sudden they vanished as quick as they had emerged. Lin turned and walked back to the path as it was time for our amazing adventure to draw to a close.

Lin dropped us at the front of our bungalow after a thrilling  cruise down the hard wet sand of Long Beach on the bike. His hair that smelled of a Herbal essence shampoo cast an exotic spell over the setting sun.

Satisfied and tired we sat on our porch. We had been here almost three weeks and finally had seen the whole island. Every day we had planned to leave, then something would sway us, a bad nights sleep, my hangover, the promise of a guided tour. The issue of our visas expiring loomed over us. We still had 3 weeks left but as Thailand  grants tourists 30 days we needed to sort out an extension. Ivana had been wanting to escape the island, but with the Burmese border across from the next town Ranong so close, it made sense to do a visa run here. It cost just 10 US dollars and would be the quickest way.

But it was not that simple. Another visa extension saw me with 30 days, but Ivana, due to her nationality would  only would be given another 2 weeks. Or so we were told. Conflicting information left us confused.  Enless afternoons fatigued by the heat and this dilemma darkened our third week. We decided to stay another week, do the visa run, the head to Koh Tao. Where we had planned to be two weeks ago.

However, I felt a looming sense of entrapment. The more people we spoke to on the island the more there was a common theme of  “I came ‘er 6 years ago for a week and never left” occurred.

We had met a rowdy group of Spanish that liked to party from dusk till dusk.  Our last week on the island went by in a swift whirl of playing darts on the beach, Chang beers, cooking squid over the fire and much merriment. We planned to get an overnight boat from  Chumphon to Koh Tao with them once our visa had been renewed. The Spaniards did not want to leave Koh Phayman, but we assured then Koh Tao, the island of coconuts, was a beaut and the snorkelling there was incredible.

Our last night was an emotional farewell to our friends, Tomo, Lin, and all the colourful array of characters that propped up the bar every night. A BBQ of squid, Spanish omelettes and whisky led us into the night.

The Spainish were running unsurprisingly late in the morning for the 7am boat. We waited nervously as the clock ticked. Swearing in Spanish they arrived at our bungalow in the nick of time. The cascading cashews seemed more abundant than normal as we whizzed to the pier, as if there were trying to jeopardise our departure. The boat was just pulling away as we ran down the wooden jetty.   “I am never going to leave” I thought.

But we made it. As I stood on the deck and watched the island fade into the level horizon, I was deeply sad to see her go. With every lash of a wave I felt her hypnotic hold over me lessen and I realised that there is so much out there to see. Farewell Cashew Nut Queen.

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Ivana and I with the legend Tomo. This was our favourite photo, the hazy image captures the spirit of our time on the island.

(This year I returned. Again a few days turned into more and I almost never left. Everyone I remembered were still there. God bless Koh Phayam)

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