Today was one of monks, monkeys and mountains. Monks and mountains are two of my favourite things about Thailand – monkeys are not.
Any intrepid mountaineer will tell you that a hearty breakfast is essential to maintain the energy required for the ascent, so we went to May and Mark’s House café around the corner from our hotel and I conquered the Full English. As ever Hollie went for a more modest selection, opting for the omelette – which she’d come to regret later in the day when it failed to provide the calorific content to get her to the top of the mountain.
After stocking up we wandered the streets and quickly located a songtheaw with the words “Tiger Cave Temple” emblazoned on the side. The songtheaw was being driven by a beaming old man who charged us 100 baht – he took the note from my hand and passed it to his Mrs, who was sat in the passenger seat preparing various fruits for their lunch. They were both well into their seventies and appeared to be very happy with their lot in life, and in a way I envied the chilled out lifestyle that they’d carved out for themselves, cruising around Krabi with the windows down, taking 100 baht here and there for making journeys that they’d probably make anyway just for the pleasure of it. We climbed into the back and they drove us out through the suburbs towards a formation of karst mountains that loomed large in the distance beyond Krabi. As we passed a posh-looking gated house, a stray dog with teets the size of udders was barking at someone’s pampered pet pooch which lazed around on the driveway behind the gate. I imagine their conversation went something like this:
“OI! OI! OI! OI! OI….OI! OI! OI!………………………………OI!”
“You wanna go out? I’ve found a pile of bones behind the butchers that we can share…”
“No thanks, my owners feed me.”
“OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI!”
We turned off the main road through a golden arch and stopped in a car park next to some souvenir shops that sold little statues of the Buddha – something which is technically illegal in Thailand, but happens absolutely everywhere. We agreed to meet our driver back at the car park at 3pm – something which took some time to communicate. After a couple of minutes of him speaking to us in Thai and us smiling politely without understanding a word, our driver got out the van and pretended to be a giant clock, using his arms as the hands, before raising three fingers. We nodded our agreement and shook his hand to seal the deal.
The wealth of the Buddhist religious establishment in Thailand can’t be understated. Buddhists can make merit and secure themselves a superior reincarnation in their next lives, or even achieve enlightenment (liberation from the cycle of life and death), by being a giving and generous person. As a result, vast sums of money are donated to temples and monks. Some of this untraceable cash seems to go in to funding the decadent lifestyles of rogue monks, but equally vast sums go in to building elaborate new temples. The cynic in me feels that the money would be better off going in to building schools and hospitals, but there’s no denying the beauty of the temples that they build. Before getting to the Tiger Temple itself, we craned our necks to look up at a huge tower which is under construction in the grounds. Whilst the ferocious tiger statues that guarded the front gate had been painted, much of the shopping mall-sized temple was still a concrete skeleton with construction workers crawling around in it’s ribcage. It looked like a giant airfix model, half-painted and half put together.
We walked on and caught today’s first glimpse of monkeys. A gang of them had surrounded a little girl with an ice cream and proceeded to circle her until her Dad picked her up and carried her inside a café. We took our shoes off at the entrance to the Tiger Cave Temple, placing them in a rack and wondering if we’d ever see them again. The temple was dimly lit with candles and the aroma of incense hung heavy in the air. We allowed an elderly lady with a shaved head to place a cotton bracelet on our wrists in return for a donation. I didn’t have much change, and as her arthiritic hands struggled to tie off the knot I felt increasingly guilty that I could only shove 20 baht in her tin. Across the room, on a platform in front of a sheer rock face, four monks sat in silent judgement.
The Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suea) is so called because it is built around the entrance to a cave in which a tiger used to live. In 1975 a wandering monk went in the cave to meditate and found that he was surrounded by tigers. Rather than running away screaming never to return, he decided to build a temple on the site. The tigers haven’t been seen for decades, and the only evidence that they ever existed there is the footprint of a tiger which seems to have become something of a holy relic. We climbed some steps into the heart of the cave and peered through some bars into a shadowy corner, where we squinted to make out the print of a tiger’s paw. Out of the hundreds of temples that we’ve visited in Thailand, I have to say it was up there with the best in terms of atmospheric, spiritual vibes.
We returned squinting into the daylight and were delighted to discover that our shoes hadn’t been nicked by thieving little tree-dwellers, which was good because we were going to need them for the hike that followed. Above the Tiger Cave and up a flight of 1,237 steps, perched on the top of a caast cliff, is a second temple. The quoted figure of 1,237 is probably an accurate figure – my brain became starved of oxygen and I stopped counting after about 200 – but what’s not taken into account is the varying height of the steps. Some of them were bordering on 3 feet high and not deep enough for you to place your foot on. Even as we climbed up into the shade of the jungle canopy, the sweat was running down my forehead into my eyes.
After about 200 steps Hollie stopped and announced that this was ridiculous. She was still recovering from earlier poorliness, and the calories from the morning’s omelette were running out – she should have had the full English, but I didn’t tell her that because it seemed inappropriate. “Okay love” I said. “But I cannot let the mountain beat me. I’ll be up there in ten and back in twenty.” Then I leaned on the railings and watched her, wondering whether other husbands abandon their wives on their honeymoon to go mountaineering.
I pressed on to the 800th step. The sweat was starting to drip off me as I walked, and wiping my eyes with my t-shirt became impossible because that was soaked too. I paused on a ledge for a breather and tried to spot Hollie. I could see tall, multi-coloured dots surrounded by tiny brown dots on the concrete, but I couldn’t make her out. I hoped that she hadn’t been taken by the monkeys.
As I climbed to the top of another staircase the path evened out for a few metres. There were a couple of German lads leaning on the railings. Not wanting to show weakness I decided to soldier on past them so that I was out of sight when I collapsed in a heap for a breather. As I put my foot on the first step of the next flight one of the Germans shouted “Monkeys on ze path!” and I froze. The steps clung to a cliff on the left hand side and fell away to a sheer drop on the right. Sat sunning themselves in the middle of the 2 foot wide walkway were a dozen or so monkeys. I considered turning back – I was almost at step 1000 now and that was a pretty good effort in the heat. But the belligerent bastard in my head said “No. You’ve flown halfway across the world for those little knobheads to stop you doing what you want? You’re not going to take it Tommy.” Another more sensible voice in my head said “You’re more use to Hollie without rabies”, but the belligerent voice replied “You’ve had your jabs – bring them on.”
I flipped my backpack from my shoulder and removed anything remotely nick-able from my pockets, zipping them into the bag. Then, standing as tall as I could I marched up the steps with purpose. The monkeys didn’t move. I came to within three steps of them and they remained impassive – it became clear that I’d have to pass within biting distance of the lot of them if I wanted to continue. Not wanting to show weakness, I planted my foot on the step next to the biggest and powered past it – it watched me nonchalantly then returned to picking parasites out of it’s fur. I climbed on past the rest – big, shifty-looking blokes with balls like ping-pong balls. I held my breath and tensed for the attack, but none of them moved. I passed the last of the group and unclenched my buttocks, but the relief was short-lived. As I tried to put some distance between myself and the monkeys I heard the pitter-patter of tiny feet on the steps. I turned round just in time to see a baby monkey slap me on my calf with it’s toddler-like hand. I did a little girlish yelp and leapt on to the next step, raising my fist. The baby stood up and pushed it’s chin forward – it was offering me out for a fight. I stared at it intently, then glanced briefly at the sheer drop beyond the path. My aim was to communicate the message “Touch me again, and there will be one less monkey on the mountain” to it. After a staring contest that seemed to last an ice age, it turned it’s back on me and returned to the group. Resisting the urge to fling a boot at it, I carried on up the steps.
At step 1,200, I was near enough hallucinating. Every rustle of a bush was a king cobra, or a monkey come to implant the rage virus in my neck with it’s rancid fangs. I felt a bit like Frodo Baggins as he climbs to the summit of Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. As I leaned on the railings to catch my breath before the final push, a stocky Thai gentleman from Bangkok engaged me in a conversation about weight-lifting. He asked me what I could lift, and I said “Well I’ve managed to move fifteen stone up this mountain” but he didn’t understand. I let him take my spot on the railings, and climbed the final set of steps. Setting foot on the threshold of the temple was a definite Rocky moment, but there were a few people around and I didn’t want to throw my arms in the air incase I looked daft.
The view from the summit was mind-boggling. I took my shoes off and climbed up a little set of steps that led to a platform. A huge golden Buddha sat surveying the land, and I decided to stand in front of him and look out to see what all the fuss was about. Thick jungle surrounding the mountain gave way to a patchwork of paddy fields and perfectly square forests of rubber trees. I could see the river widening into an estuary, and Krabi Town nestled in the armpit of land between the river and the sea.
As I watched, a shadow began sweeping in from the sea and over the land. The wind whipped up prayer flags and rang bells all around me, and it became obvious that a storm was approaching. It was an ominous, anxious feeling to be watching the sky on the move. As amazing as it was to see the clouds chasing shadows towards the mountain, it dawned on me that I was at the highest point for miles around, and that lightning tends to find the quickest path to the ground. I filmed the storm approaching until the rain drove into my face, then legged it down the steps to take cover. There was no lightning, but the storm drove in at right angles and soaked anyone who went close to the edge of the roof.
Getting down was less of a physical effort, although I don’t recommend that kind of steep descent for anyone with dodgy knees. The monkeys were nowhere to be seen – perhaps driven under cover by the storm – there was a tense moment when an extremely rabid-looking dog came running up the steps towards me, but it passed without trying to bite or lick me.
When I reached the bottom I was a sweaty mess, but Hollie took a photo of me next to the “1,237 steps” sign so that I can add it to my scrapbook of “Achievements that mean a lot to me but would actually be a simple task to anybody who exercises and doesn’t drink too much”. We sat in the shade with a coke and gazed upon the religious trinket shops that seem to pop up on the perimeter of any significant holy site in Thailand.
True to his word, our driver arrived to pick us up at three, and we were back in Krabi Town for half past.
To finish the day we had an early tea in a restaurant across the road from the river front. I ordered the biggest tiger prawns I’ve ever consumed and immediately regretted the decision – they stared up at me with throughout my attempts to cut in to them with a knife and fork, and I finished the meal feeling guilty and hungry. Hollie went for chicken with cashews – always a winner. The ambience was spoiled not only by the busy main road that the restaurant was situated on, but also by an over-zealous traffic cop who enjoyed blowing his whistle at the passing public and placing traffic cones in an apparently random order. We ended the evening by taking a turn around the market before walking back to the hotel with a chocolate crepe each.
Tomorrow we’d be heading to Koh Phi Phi to explore the island on which a certain Leonardo Di Caprio film was shot…