The sultry Thai breeze lifted Paul’s curls as he gazed out at the tropical islands to the west bringing with it a cool clarity. He had been reading Virginia Woolf on the beach and it had put him in pensive mood, some would say a pretentious bent, but Paul had stopped listening to life’s small minded critics, whose mission,it seemed, was to chip away steadily at the confidence of others in order to prove their own small self-worth. They seemed meaningless to him now as the burgeoning sun began her swift descent towards her crimson pillow. If he wanted to be pretentious that was up to him.
He gazed at the four erratically shaped islands which lay on the dreamy horizon and imagined the comings and goings on their peculiar shores. He knew three of them to be ‘Bird’s Nest Concession’ Islands. A phrase he had not come across until a few days earlier when he and Andrew had met a charming Swedish couple on their arrival at their ever so laid back resort. In fact, for days, it had just been the four of them sharing the windswept beige sands which looked across to the national marine park of Koh Phetra and her rocky companions, so he had learnt a fair deal from them concerning what went on amid the mysterious limestone outcrops.
Although the islands were part of a conservation project and therefore had no population, there were a few temporary residents. Some fisherman who made use of a paradisiacal bay, which far outstripped the beauty of Leo Dicaprio’s beach in the well-known film, along with a band of intrepid climbers, whose job it was to scale the shard like cliffs in order to reach the sky caves of the island’s only permanent inhabitants, the multitude of Sea Swiftlets. These oceanic mountaineers were not keen ornithologists hoping to catch sight of a rare bird, but rather keen businessmen with a sharp eye for the nests the darting creatures created.
‘Bird’s Nest Soup’ was apparently a thriving business in southern Thailand. The homes of the tiny birds were collected and sold to make the famous oriental delicacy.
The market in China alone brought in over a hundred million pounds a year, Paul understood why the lithe sun-burnished athletes risked life and limb hauling themselves up ropes hundreds of feet in the air.
The rewards were sky- high.
The nests themselves were formed from the dried saliva of the Swiftlets and he couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for the poor avian creatures who must have flown back to their roosts too often to discover themselves homeless. Made destitute, just so some fat businessman in Shanghai could salivate over a dish of hideous soup.
Paul, who had swallowed many an odd concoction in his time, could not think of anything worse than eating a bowl of bird spit. But it seemed he was in a minority in the east. The fashion was so profitable that he and Andrew had been warned not to visit the Islands for fear of being shot at. Heavily armed guards were another of the islands itinerant residents.
Paul looked again towards the western seascape, the islands now silkily silhouetted against a pink backdrop. Their beauty seemed to him less romantic now, with the plight of a million vagrant birds hatching in his mind. He had initially wanted to row the five kilometres to the nearer Koh Laoliang, but he knew that after the drama of he and Andrew’s previous nautical escapade, he would have trouble convincing his husband to take up oars. The thought of being picked off with a long-range rifle, like a clay pigeon, also held limited appeal. Therefore the enigmatic islands would for now, have to remain just that.
Besides the island on which the boys were now residing was quite gorgeous enough. Home to a small Muslim population, who made their way growing rice, rubber and luscious watermelon. The place was incredibly friendly. The few tourists who endeavoured to find the beautiful isle were treated more as close friends than ‘farang’.
Paul had discovered the island on an esoteric website specialising in the lesser known nesting sites Thailand still had to offer. He and Andrew had made their way south from the stunning Koh Mook on a local form of transport known as a ‘songthaw’. This was basically an open truck with two rows, (the literal meaning of songthaw), made up of a duo of uncomfortable wooden benches. They reminded Paul of the forms on which pupils had been made to sit at junior school. Of course with senior buttocks, they were far less accommodating.
As they made their way through rural lanes and stopped briefly at remote farms to collect passengers on route, the vehicle became somewhat crowded. A young girl on wooden crutches; an old girl with wooden teeth; an entire family with what appeared to be their entire worldly belongings filled the truck making Paul and Andrew decry their long greedy western limbs. They shamelessly fought for space alongside greedy toddlers and smiling pensioners, eventually succumbing to the cramped conditions and moulding into one like hot sardines in a can. They were practically family by the time they arrived at the tiny pier to take the small boat across the Andaman Sea. The passengers had shared everything. Their lunch, their conversation, their scent. The sheer humanity onboard the wagon had been tangible and it touched Paul. He thought how different it had been to the starchy underground journeys one takes in London. The passengers had become one, not like the separate sullenness exhibited on the miserable tube. It is true it had been rather cramped, but the human spirit had not. That had soared way overground.
On their first full day on the island Paul and Andrew hired decrepit bicycles and pushed on towards a village near it’s centre. They made a sweaty pit stop and hoped for a beer at a bijoux local establishment. The old lady, who had a look of a toothless Mother Theresa welcomed them warmly. She brought her snivelling grandson from the back room to meet them – he was not at all amused. The boys had to settle for water, it being a Muslim enclave, but they were sated. The liquid bringing life back to their liquidated limbs. The amiable old lady even made them some banana fritters, on the house, she wouldn’t hear of taking payment. It was more than refreshing. Both Andrew and Paul thought it might have been the friendliest part of Thailand they had yet visited. And they’d certainly been around.
Later on in the sweltering day they looked towards the island of Koh Libong as they climbed an unmarked hill on route back to their lodgings. This was where the mystical Dugong made their home. Strange aquatic creatures related to the sea cow. They nested in the rare sea grass that covered the ocean floor nearby. Paul thought he spotted a large shape gliding slowly beneath the sapphire surface, but Andrew informed him it was nothing, just a shadow. He was quite obviously delirious from the stifling heat and the outmoded set of wheels with which he was struggling. As they hit the crest of the hill relief flooded them both and they careered downwards towards the rubber plantation below. It was not the most opportune of moments for Paul to discover that the stopping mechanism on his bike was non-existent.
‘Ding, ding!!! ‘ He screamed at Andrew as he flew past his lover as swift as the swiftest Swiflet, taking the bend faster than Lewis Hamilton and just managing to avoid a stray water buffalo meandering gently through the trees at the bottom. Both the buffalo and Andrew made their displeasure known. In no uncertain terms! Neither seemed to approve of the drama which had just unfolded as Paul had almost taken flight.
‘Why is everything a bloody performance with you?’ Andrew chastised.
‘It’s not my fault if I’ve got no buggery brakes!’ Paul shouted back.
He considered it most unfair for Andrew to fly off the handle when he had almost gone headfirst over his.
They cycled on through the shimmering green and eventually came to another idyllic spot. A charming resort of wooden cabins directly on a perfectly deserted stretch of beach. They were joined only by two ice cold beers. It was pure perfection.
As Paul gazed across the Emerald Andaman Sea towards the other islands in the Trang Archipelago, and the geography beyond which imperceptibly became Malaysia, he felt very lucky that he and Andrew had decided to make their temporary nest where they had. It was an unspoilt heavenly place.
Even if the bikes were crap.
Arriving back at their own nesting ground he sat on the tawny beach alone. His thighs smarting from the unintended work out which they had been given. Andrew was already unconscious inside their roost.
A warm wind unlocked Paul’s locks and he once again picked up ‘Mrs Dalloway’ to continue his literary discovery. He certainly wasn’t afraid of Virginia Woolf. But he was a little fearful of revealing the dazzling island he and Andrew had discovered. Thinking, egotistically, that doing so in his leanly read musings would lead to it’s discovery. The package cuckoos would arrive and fling them from their secret hideaway.
Would he let his small flock of readers in on the destination? And Pigs might fly, he thought. He had, after all, already given them more than enough clues!
He lay back, solitary on the deserted beach, just him, a lone eagle swooping the sky, and the high flying literature of Woolf to keep him company. Pretentious he knew. But who cared? There was no one to judge him. Not until the other snow birds came flocking.
And that could take a while.