Khao Lak, Thailand is an unspoiled beach paradise. You can take a fast boat ride to visit the Similan Islands, where there is warm, blue water and coral reefs that are absolutely teaming with fish. Most of the fish seem to have beaks, and brilliant colors that shine through in the clear water and contrast notably with the dark corals that grow around the large boulders you see underwater. And the fish, by the way, could absolute care less that you are there. You are just another big, stupid, slow moving animal as far as they are concerned.
There a a handful of open air restaurants on the beach at Khao Lak, but mostly what lies above the sandy shore is just jungle, packed with squalling insects and enchanting birds that seem perfectly harmless.
It became immediately obvious this morning that looks are deceiving. A group of three birds with gorgeous plumage and bright, unsettlingly intelligent eyes perched above our table. They commenced a series of vocalizations that could only be one thing: complex verbal communications. There is no reason on Earth why nature would bestow such a range of sounds on any animal's vocal chords EXCEPT to communicate abstract ideas, filled with symbolism and purpose and deviant schemes. Schemes such as "how to steal the idiot tourists' toast this morning".
There can be no mistake. They were studying us and making plans and debating options. One bird would warble and raise his (or her) crest and flap once. The other two would look at one another, chirp and bicker for a moment, and then bob their heads and squeal and click at the first bird. A low whir and a whistle from one bird, another bird responds by flapping one wing and making a clicking sound. This went on more or less the entire time we nervously (and increasingly quickly) ate our toast. Eventually, one of the birds did finally swoop down to snatch a big beak full of some omelette that we unwisely left unattended on our plates. The other two whistled and cackled in triumphant glee, did some behavioral displays and then sailed off to the next table at breathtaking speed to weigh odds and assess options.
There are also some open air structures under which you can enjoy some Thai massage. It's 400 Baht for one hour. Imagine the salty breeze blowing off the ocean, palm leaves clacking as the shallow waves break rhythmically on the sand. Ahhhhh. What better place to enjoy a deep shoulder and back massage for an hour?
But first, let me back up. Interestingly, it seems many people who work around Khao Lak wear name tags, and most are single syllable, western adaptations of what are normally far longer Thai names that are exceedingly difficult for most westerners to pronounce. You see name tags with names like "Sky", which apparently must be the English sounding equivalent of Thai names such as "Udomratchaniwet".
The lady behind the folding table was named "Ann" according to her name tag. She was a very sweet looking, very petite, and very beautiful young woman with long, slender fingers and delicate little hands. I asked for a shoulder and back massage, and she showed me to a massage table under one of the palm trees with the gently rustling leaves. Then....
It was like falling under the sudden influence of a Vulcan nerve pinch, accompanied by a shuddering pulse of unpleasant electricity down my spine. I had been lying on my stomach but somehow managed to burst into the air like a fish flapping around on the dock. Who would believe that those delicate little fingers were capable of, well, of THAT?
Ann laughed very gently and apologized and explained to me in broken English that I need to relax my back, and I said I would try. Some nice rubbing. Hmmm. Very nice. Squeezing my aching shoulders. Ahhhhh. Very nice. I was just starting to understand why all the fuss about the whole Thai massage experience. Waves lapping, sunlight through the thick green leaves, tension releasing and then...
Bzzzzzzzzzzz!!!!!!! It was like someone jabbed a pair of steel chop sticks hooked up to a tazer... right into pressure points on my back that I never knew existed. Alarming as an unexpected bumble bee materializing right in your face, if you can imagine that.
Once my convulsions subsided, and Ann stopped laughing, she reminded me to relax.
I assured Ann that my back was perfectly relaxed. "This is just how my back is."
"Oh. Very strong back." Seemed like a nice compliment, so I offered my own best attempt at a compliment.
"Not as strong as your hands. You must be able to break coconuts with your bare hands."
"Oh no." Ann is clearly someone who likes to laugh a lot. In fact, it's fair to say that Thai people in general have very robust senses of humor and enjoy laughing often. "Not coconuts."
"Not coconuts? Just femurs, right?"
"Oh no no," she said in her lilting giggle. "Not femurs."
Do you know how sometimes after you hear an initially reassuring response, you pause to reconsider and then realize that the response is actually ominously incomplete? But by the time you realize, it's too late?
The last thing I remember thinking was "if not coconuts and femurs, then what?" The elbow noogies commenced, and those mighty, evil little hands locked onto my shoulder blade with the crushing power of eagle talons around a frightened bunny. But for all that uncompromising power packed into those elegant, porcelain-fine hands, nothing that Ann could do seemed to work to get my back sufficiently "relaxed". Finally she experimented by applying a stinging, searing hot/freezing cold ointment that smelled like a genetically enhanced strain of weaponized mint. I suggest that the next time you want to break up a political protest and tear gas and military grade pepper spray won't do the trick, try using whatever it was Ann splashed on my back.
When that approach failed, Ann summoned over a coworker. I heard some rapid Thai back and forth behind my back, turned to look and saw that Ann had done the Thai massage equivalent of hauling out the big guns.
The coworker's name tag said "Wort." I doubt that was her Thai name, and what sort of Anglicized name that would be, I can't even guess. I prefer the sound of names like "Ann" or "Sky", frankly, and by now was extremely apprehensive. Wort was probably my age, built like barrel filled with concrete, thick ankles, hands like mallets and that unblinking, no-nonsense expression that you find on a headmistress of an authoritarian military school. Or a carnivorous reptile eying some raw hamburger meat rotting in the sunshine.
I had only just enough time to think "oh crap" before Wort went to work on my insufficiently relaxed back. But surprisingly, and completely contrary to every expectation I had, it didn't hurt one little bit! In fact, the experience was sublime. It was a very relaxing, stress-relieving massage that left me feeling like overcooked noodles by the time it was done. The good kind of overcooked noodles, of course.
Looks can be deceiving in Khao Lak.
Tomorrow we are going to a temple that is supposed to be infested with wild monkeys. Should be fun, but I'm half tempted to blow it off and go back for another back massage from Wort.