My watch read 10.40pm. Eleven hours to go. I’d boarded the Boeing 777 at Heathrow.
Its engines had lifted it to cruising height and thrust us eastwards into a night sky devoid of moonlight.
My wife’s parting words came to mind… ‘Don’t forget you’re nearly eighty now. No climbing mountains, parasailing, deep-sea diving and silly things like that…promise’? I’d agreed.
The eleven hours seemed to be influenced by Einstein – each one dragging, as if in some time warp. Nevertheless, we landed on schedule.
Bangkok’s new airport is cavernous, yet its size doesn’t detract from its architecture, decoration and abundance of orchid arrangements.
Mid afternoon, found me lounging under a brightly coloured parasol alongside the swimming pool of a hotel a mere 2 miles (oops…sorry but metric is not natural for me) from the airport. I’d decided that there was no need to spend hours in taxis negotiating the inevitable, chaotic traffic heading in and out of the city. This trip to Thailand was to experience sea kayaking off the coastline of Krabi, so I’d decided to break the journey, spend one night near the airport before taking an internal flight to Krabi the next morning.
My plan worked well. Two days spent shaking off jet lag, relaxing, enjoying the facilities of a small boutique hotel and exchanging conversations with other guests. After arranging my day’s kayaking, I was ‘ready to roll’. “What’s your name?” I asked the young man who was to be my driver, guide and kayaking partner. “Please to call me ‘Tip’. My Thai name is very imposs for you to say” he answered in halting but understandable English. “Tip it is then,” I agreed, climbed into the car and we set off towards the Andaman Sea.
Having donned the hire company’s certified life jackets, we stepped into our designated kayak, sat with somewhat of a ‘wobble’ (me at the front) and paddled away. Quickly we became a team, our double-bladed paddles working in harmony, Tip easily matching my slow, methodical, strokes.
Leaving the vast sea-water lagoon behind, we entered a narrow channel lined with arching mangrove roots. I slowed the pace and eventually stopped paddling altogether. Tip copied. Nothing was moving. The water surface was like melted demerara sugar, the air still and the forest of roots seemingly devoid of wildlife.That was my initial observation anyway.
Tip whispered something – I swivelled to face him and he pointed to a spot where the roots met the water. With hardly a ripple, a 10 foot long monitor lizard glided effortlessly between the tangle, its tongue flicking, sensing what lay ahead. I wasn’t expecting that!
Moving again, I realised how much I was enjoying this, shrugging off the aches my aged bum’s muscles were protesting about.
Tip said, “After one more kilometre, we turn to right side and go into mountain.”
Mountain? my mind puzzled. There were high mangrove trees as far as the eye could see in all directions. Still, I couldn’t argue, could I? So we paddled on.
Soon, Tip indicated the turn, and I steered into an ever-narrowing and twisting channel of dark, still water. Trees blocked the sun’s rays. It was like negotiating Hampton Court maze, wondering where the exit was. Suddenly the ‘maze’ came to an abrupt end. Ahead, was a vertical wall of limestone hundreds of feet high. Tip had been right, it was a mountain, albeit a tiny one.
Turning my head our eyes met and he pointed to our left. In the gloom, I could just make-out the shape of a black hole perhaps 5ft across and less than that in height. Tip made a ‘shooing’ gesture. I obeyed, dipped my oar into the water and paddled slowly ahead.
No Orlando theme park could mimic this journey. The only sound was the feint ‘slap-slap’ of our kayak’s bow as we edged forward, the only light, that spilling into the tunnel from behind us.
“How much further?” I asked, straining to see what lay ahead. “Maybe ten more minute, Mister Brian,” Tip replied, his tone reflecting some concern. “You OK?” he asked. I told him I was fine.
I was though, reminiscing in my mind, about the time I canoed through an old British Waterways canal tunnel – the same ‘pin-prick’ of circular light ahead. I guessed Tip’s estimate would be proved right.
No way I could have conjured-up the sight that lay before me as we slipped from the confines of the tunnel and into bright sunlight. We were on a small lake – one about the size of a soccer pitch. A lake of black, still, water – a lake totally enclosed by precipitous faces of limestone towering upwards hundreds of feet, trees and shrubs of indeterminate age, clinging to crevices in the sheer rock.
The ambience was one of mystery. Tip didn’t speak and neither did I. Perhaps the very nature of this place was affecting us both? The whole vista looked pre-historic. I half expected to see a Pterodactyl come sweeping over the cliff tops and dive, its talons snatching me from the kayak as a tasty morsel for its awaiting young.
We stopped paddling, rested our paddles across the kayak and let the calmness of this wonder of natural evolution envelop us. Time seemed to stand still.
“We go now?” Tip eventually asked in a soft tone, breaking the silence. “Yeah, OK,” I replied, but asking a question before grasping my paddle. “How many times have you been here, Tip?” “Oh, maybe sometimes every day when many tourist come. I like, it is how you say, peaceful? “Peaceful! Yes, and beautiful too,” I added.
The return journey was uneventful and made without hardly a word spoken. Unlike the flight from UK, the past four hours seemed to have condensed into mere minutes.
After climbing from the kayak, Tip led me to a small local restaurant, where a delicious array of Thai food was being placed on the table almost as we sat to it. ‘Jungle telegraph’ or just perfect timing? It mattered not. We chatted as I drank an accompanying glass of cool beer. Then it was time to go. “Many tourist like visit local market,” Tip announced as we walked towards the car. “You like see?”
I’d visited many Thai markets, but why not let the guy have his way? So I agreed – and with a broad smile, he drove us away, perhaps hoping that I would make some purchases, which would result in commission for him. If I did and it did, then so be it, I’d no problem with that.
Inland some 3 or 4 miles we reached the market. Not really a market, more like a motley collection of stalls manned by smiling locals, each using their well-honed skills at bartering with tourists, of which, I guessed, some fifty had arrived before us. ‘Must be popular’, I thought.
Tip stayed close as I wandered from stall to stall, only stopping once to examine and buy some hand-crafted silk skirts, anticipating the look of pleasure my wife would display when I handed them over. Once wrapped, Tip insisted that he carry them.
Leaving the stalls, I sauntered alone along a broad path, which meandered between the local flora. Tall Palm trees rustled their fronds in the light breeze, vying for space against trunks of Teak, Jackwood and the ever present clinging vines.
Eventually I came to a flight of wide, steeply rising stone steps, noticing immediately that local people were both ascending and descending but not coming from, or going to, the collection of stalls, instead using a path leading in the opposite direction.
Tip appeared from behind me holding my purchases. “What’s up there?” I asked him, pointing to the steps. “Temple” he replied. “Very important temple for whole area. You want see?”
Before answering, I took a good, long look at the flight of steps, wondering if could manage to climb them and now regretting the decision not to bring my walking stick.
“How many steps, Tip?” I asked.
“Ah!…these first ones seventy-five, then more same number,” he said, his voice kind of ‘apologetic’ but with a hint of a challenge in it too. Problem!
Do I take fright at the thought of climbing hundreds of steps? Steps, probably just as steep and uneven as the ones directly ahead, or…do I ‘let the Devil take the hindmost’, shrug-off any thoughts of defeatism and show this young chap that even at my age, no challenge should be dismissed?
Yeah, you’ve guessed it…I took a deep breath and placed my right foot on the first step.
By the time the last flight came into view, sweat poured from my brow and was running into my eyes. My legs felt like the proverbial plate of jelly and I was puffing like an old steam train. “It’ll be a lot easier coming down”, I murmured, as I clambered onwards and up.
Tip’s dark brown eyes glistened – the only sign of fatigue I could see. Oh to be twenty something again.
“Please you will sit, Mister Brian,” he pleaded, offering an outstretched hand as he indicated a stone bench just visible inside the entrance to a cave. I ignored the offer of physical aid but willingly accepted the chance to sit.
Now, having adjusted my eyes to the gloom, I could see that the size of the cave was truly staggering. Years earlier, my wife and I had enjoyed a fantastic evening at the Royal Albert Hall…the ‘Last Night of the Proms’. With consummate ease, that wondrous building would look small if transited into this cave.
Statues of The Buddha were prolific. Most were of stone but others made from semi-precious metals and some even layered with gold leaf. Hundreds of incense sticks protruded from sand-filled urns – their spiralling smoke-trails emitting a heady perfume.
About 30 feet in from the cave opening, was a dais some 2ft above the ground, its frontal stone surface polished by decades – or perhaps centuries – of visiting human feet. On it sat three monks, two wearing saffron robes, the middle monk dressed in a red one. Each sat cross-legged like the nearby Buddha statues.
There was an air of tranquility about the place and I couldn’t help but note, that Thais of both sexes were grouped nearby displaying extreme inner devotion and patience. I watched as folk, in turn, invited by who seemed to be the head monk, to approach the dais.
In quiet voices, the devotees spoke to the monk – he totally still, focussed and listening intently until, what seemed to be a period of reflection by the holy man before he performed some ritual and, with his two juniors, chanted in semi-monotones, a message of comfort.
For the first time in many years, I felt a calmness wash over me. It triggered thoughts of an event that had tore at my family like a ravenous wolf. The effect of that dreadful time had affected us all – and still does.
Why, after so many years, those times of distress, pain and anguish were flooding my mind, I couldn’t explain then – and I cannot to this day. Somehow, Tip must have sensed all was not well with me. He asked… “Mister Brian, are you sick or is it the tired from the steps?” It was my turn to display glistening eyes. “No, Tip, I’m not sick. It’s this temple and what’s going on. It’s made me remember a very sad time in my life.” His face softened as he fixed his almond shaped eyes upon mine. “I too suffered bad time when father and mother die in big accident,” he told me. “After that, I go into monastery – become monk for more than ten year. Now better, The Buddha understands and shows way to feeling better.” That bit of news came as a surprise, I can tell you. Anyway, I did attempt to give him a sensible answer.
“Maybe, Tip, maybe. But, I’m not a Buddhist and not even a very good Christian.”
“This head monk,” Tip said in a quiet voice, “he very wise man. Many time he know what to do. All people say that he can do many good things and make people happy again. You tell me what is this big sad thing you have and I can go explain to head monk. Maybe he has good answer to help you?”
Surprise number two. However, his invitation ‘hit the spot’ and before I could have second thoughts, I rattled off the whole story.
“I had a granddaughter. She was beautiful and very clever. She was only two years old, when, her mother, my daughter, took her shopping into the town. My granddaughter had a heart attack, fell to the ground and her heart stopped beating.
The ambulance rushed her to hospital but it was too late. She had virtually died. The doctors connected her to machines and then, like a miracle, her heart began to beat and she started to breathe again. Then everything changed. The chief doctor told us that because her heart had stopped beating for such a long time, her brain had been badly damaged and would never get better. For seventeen long years we watched as she withered away. Seventeen years of not being able to see, or hear, or speak.
Each of those years ripped part of our family’s humanity away. We could not understand what suffering the poor girl was experiencing. It was if she was a vegetable.
When she reached nineteen years of age she died a second time…but this time was different – it was for ever. Her mother was grief stricken beyond words…the rest of us not able to feel the pain of a mother losing a daughter in such tragic circumstances.
That’s what happened, Tip. That’s what happened” I repeated, trying to choke off an audible sob. “That’s what I’m remembering now and I’m still sad, even after so many years.”
To give the young man credit, he’d not once interrupted me. Just how much of my outpouring of grief he understood, I’d no idea. He sat still, holding his cheeks in the palms of his hands, his eyes closed, his body language expressionless.
Without warning, he stood and faced me. “I go tell monk this about you,” he stated. “Please you wait here.” Soon, he returned and held out a hand. This time I took it and he guided me to a position directly in front of the centre monk. The old man gestured for me to sit, which I did, with Tip kneeling at my side.
The monk reached down, took my right hand, turned it palm uppermost and then let go. Somehow I knew that I had to keep it like that during whatever was to happen. The monk began to chant, his unintelligible words wafting over me like a cloak. My eyes closed without my instruction and I felt a drop of warm liquid hit the palm of my opened hand.
After some minutes, I sensed the other monks joining in with the chant but their voices were of very differing tones and pitches. The warm drops kept coming – regularly, like a metronome set to its slowest beat. This might sound a little crazy, but I was feeling like I was in a trance and somewhere else in the Universe. My eyes refused to open as I soaked in the sounds and the atmosphere.
When still in this deepest state of ‘nothingness’, I was roused by a squeezing of my hand which now held a tiny pool of fragrant oil. I looked up to the old man. He pointed first to the small golden vessel he was holding and from which the warm drops of sweet smelling liquid had come…and then down to my palm. At that very moment the last drop left the spout and, like some slow-motion replay, dropping downward to land with a gentle splash, the chanting ceased. ‘What to do now’?
The old monk indicated that I should ‘wash’ my hands in the liquid and place my palms on my own forehead. What else could I do but to obey?
All three monks were looking straight at me and smiling. That I didn’t get. I didn’t feel like smiling. In fact, I didn’t know what to feel. Without taking his eyes off mine, the old monk addressed Tip, nodding slightly at me as he did so.
What was going on? I thought… am I the centre of some theatrical set-up? When the old monk stopped speaking, Tip touched my forearm. “The monk first wishes to know your granddaughter name, please.” “Samantha,” I replied, “her name was Samantha.”
The monk and Tip exchanged many more words before Tip nodded his understanding, followed by his explanation to me of what the old man had said. “He instructing me to tell you these things,” Tip began. “You want to hear?” “Yes,” was all I could say.
“He say that when you were with closed eyes and feeling drops into your hand, he see into your mind and into your heart. He say, he saw the little girl, Samantha. He want me explain that when she die number two time, she change into bird.
He say bird in your country is called Dove and every time you see one alone white Dove, it is Samantha. She fly and visit all your family so you never be sad again because she still around. He say that she not want family to be anymore sad and when not anymore sad, she fly down to your side and make singing to you, then she be happy too. So when you see one single white Dove and it is singing, it is the little girl. Is that understanding, Mister Brian?”
I felt numb as the words drilled into my head and remained firmly fixed. “Yes,” I answered, but this time with a calm voice, “I understand. Please tell the monk that he is indeed a very wise man and that his following of The Buddha will never be lost upon those he helps.”
Now you know why this story is entitled, ‘On the Wing’.