Saturday, 5 January 2013

Buddha on the hill side

The branch feels reassuringly solid as I lift it from the masses of leaf mulch on the forest floor. Three foot long. As wide as my thumb. I instantly feel better defended against my opponents.

Not one of whom stands taller than my knees.

Phetchaburi, 50km south-west of Bangkok, doesn't feel firmly planted on the tourist trail. There are more monkeys in town than Westerners. Macaques cavort along the rooftops of the town, swing from the street signs, and are wont to steal anything not tied down. More than once I witness some hapless visitor losing his soft drink to determined, tiny hands.

They are bold. They are crafty.

And they are everywhere.

Local shopkeepers, long used to the furry onslaught, arm themselves with wooden staffs to protect their goods. It's all bark and very little bite, of course. Any time a monkey gets too close to the tempting snacks, the shopkeeper waves his stick around. The animal backs off, and tries again three minutes later. It's a furry Mexican stand-off, both sides eternally hoping the other will finally get distracted.

But it's the forested hills just north of town, home to the Khao Luang caves, that are monkey central. From the town, reaching the caves involves a motorbike taxi or a steep, sweaty hike in the tropical heat; I foolishly elect to go on foot. The route passes a steady stream of simians. I've never seen so many monkeys. They're sunning themselves on the winding track that connects the caves to the main road. They're clambering through the trees. And the pattering of little feet behind me makes me think they might be following me as well.

I should, at this stage, point out that I'm terrified of monkeys. I have been ever since once leaped onto my shoulders - and wouldn't let go - during a long-ago visit to Gibraltar. Much running-around-in-circles-shrieking-get-it-off-me had ensued.

So with the example of the local shopkeepers fresh in my mind, I grab a one of the dead branches that litter the forest floor.

I'm pretty sure the monkeys know I'm bluffing, though, with my don't-mess-with-me stick. It's still a nerve-inducing hike, being surrounded on all sides by more critters than I could, well, shake a stick at.

By the time I reach the cave temple, I'm a sweaty wreck. Visitors are leaving offerings of flowers, bottled water or fresh fruit at the feet of the oversized, golden Buddhas. Worshippers press sheets of impossibly-thin gold leaf onto the Buddha's face and hands. Incense wafts through the air. Shafts of sunlight from the cave entrance catch the drifts of fragrant smoke. It's cool and peaceful in the caves, and the deeper I pass into the caverns, the quieter it gets. I can't get into the appropriate, contemplative mood, though.

I'm worrying about the hike back down, past all those monkeys again.

Outside the main entrance to the caves, a teenage boy in a red and blue plaid shirt is sitting on an old motorbike. He puts his bike into gear as I walk past, stick still clutched in my sweaty fist.

"Where are you from?" he asks me, riding at walking speed alongside me as I start back down the track. I tell him.

"We don't get very many English tourists," the boy says, still matching my walking pace. "We used to get more, and more Americans. But not the last few years. Things are bad there, yes?"

He's talking about the credit crunch and the resulting global financial problems, I realise. "Things are bad for some," I tell him. I ask him what it's like in Phetchaburi.

"Things are bad as well." He speaks about the drop in tourist numbers they've seen over the past three or four years, and how it's been hard for the town, especially for those who rely on visitors for their livelihood. He tells me how everyone hopes the tourists will come back soon. He asks me if I'm enjoying my trip, if I like Thailand.

Very much, I tell him.

"You don't need that any more," he says, gesturing at my stick and grinning. "No more monkeys."

And I realise we've already reached the main road at the base of the hill, that he's ridden beside me the whole way down. Because I was scared of monkeys. Because he could tell that I was scared, and he didn't want me to feel that way.

I toss my branch into the undergrowth.

I don't need it.

The boy gives me a wave, and rides off without another word.

This article was originally written for the Bradt Guides / Independent on Sunday 2012 travel writing contest, where it was awarded highly commended.

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