Thursday, May 9, 2013

Adventure to the Savannah

Let me set the scene; I’m the volunteer intern for the MAP Asia office. I was sent to the remote Island of Koh Phra Thong (pronounced Goh Pra Tong – this isn’t exact but Thai to English doesn’t translate very well) or “Golden Buddha Island” in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of Thailand. I wasn’t banished or sent away because Jim and Ning were needing a break (at least I don’t think I was…); I was asked if I wanted to help out Barry – an associate of MAP’s – with some Sea Grass monitoring around the island. Being the dutiful intern I am, off I went for a week.

The monitoring didn’t go too well on my part; I managed to cut my toe open on an oyster shell on the very first day, leaving me land-bound to do some “administrative” tasks instead. However, I did have the opportunity to join an educational day out to the Savannah of the island for the local children.
The day started off well; the sun was shining and when I arrived there was anticipation in the air. The kids had been gathering excitedly outside the house of Pi Noon (a local islander and our main guide for the day) for at least an hour before we were due to set off in the tractors or “duk-duks” as they’re locally referred to, due to the sound of their engines. The children had a mixture of Moken (sea gypsy), Thai and Chinese heritage which encompasses all the cultures found on the island. They ranged from the age of four where the idea of going on the tractor out of the village into the relative wilderness is rather overwhelming, to teenagers attempting a nonchalant attitude that was easily seen through to find genuine enthusiasm for the activities to come.

I was one of seven “Farang” (foreigner) joining the children and adults. We made our introductions and started the inevitable conversation amongst travellers to find out who we were, where we were all from etc etc. Myself and Katie were interns for MAP and Andaman Discoveries respectively and Kuntum is a friend from Indonesia who is doing research about coastal communities. There were also three Americans with us and Barry (who has been on the island for enough years that he’s considered more of a local than a foreigner now).
Pi Noon driving one of the “Duk duks” to the Savannah
Mid-way through our chat (and without any obvious signal that I could discern) the children all piled onto the trailers attached to the tractors, giving us our queue to follow suit. Homemade ice-slushies and snacks from the local store at the ready for the journey ahead, the engines were started and black smoke was soon choking out into the faces of anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves nearest the exhaust. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I suggested that those tractors were quite a few years older than me.
Within about 5 minutes of leaving it started chucking it down. It was the kind of rain that soaks through your clothes in a minute leaving you feeling ridiculous as you try your best to sport the “drowned rat” look. I was definitely unprepared for the onslaught and had to quickly shuffle my belongings into other people’s dry bags (I had mistakenly used a handbag which was no match for the pelting down pour). The children loved it.

We took cover at  bar Sammao and had an early lunch as the rain didn’t look like it was going anywhere any time soon. Fried rice with egg (and chicken for the non-veggies) served in banana leaves was handed round and we found space where we could to sit and tuck in. Our conversations were punctuated with deafening thunder overhead and each boom was accompanied by a squeal of both delight and terror from the children.

Eventually though, the rain started to ease, so we went back out into the drizzle (somewhat cold and reluctant I’ll admit) to continue our way. Soon we had to leave the concrete path and venture into 4x4 territory with vehicles that were definitely not 4x4. The wheels got stuck multiple times in the soft sand which meant that us bigger folk had to jump off and lend a hand. The little ones helped by screaming their encouragement from the trailers we were pushing.

A Melaleuca tree
The drivers clearly knew where they were going but to me it seemed there were multiple paths into this wilderness and I soon lost my sense of direction. We came to a stop in front of an area that didn’t seem especially significant or different from the terrain of the last 5 minutes, but as the children sat down on the ground the weather was kind enough to have stopped raining and even offered some sunshine.
Drischidia major
Pi Noon and other adults explained some of the more unique aspects about the wildlife of the Savannah. He talked about the orchids that grew on the Melaleuca or “Paper Bark” trees, the Sambar deer that are on the island and the mushrooms that locals come to collect after the rains.  One girl piped up that she’d lived on the island for 17 years and hadn’t seen a Sambar deer once; she jokingly asked if they were actually real.

Pi Noon also spoke of the importance of this unique habitat for them as local people because of the resources they use from it. He emphasised the importance of nature to them and how it must be looked after and sustainably used so it may be there for generations to come.
After the chat and discussion the children went scrambling about exploring the area. We Farang got to quiz the adults about some of the plants. We were shown Drischidia major which has hollow leaves that hold ants nests, some of the orchids and were told that the thatch roofing and walls of the houses in the villages is usually made from the treated bark of the Melaleuca trees.
A couple of group photos to mark the activities were taken and we were back on the road, this time towards Golden Buddha Beach resort.

Having recently read “Out of the Blue” by Kimina Lyall, I gained some visual context to the setting of the book which is about her experience of the 2004 Tsunami when she was at the resort. It was quite sobering to see some of the houses mentioned and realise that the tiny mounds of “Hornbill Hill” and “Monkey Mountain” were the salvation of the lucky ones who reached them in time.
The customers at the bar didn’t know quite what to make of us. Interrupting their peaceful lunch, their smiles as we arrived quickly faded as they realised the 30 rowdy children with us were stopping to play at the beach. The children ran to the sea and I fear the middle-class holiday makers ran back to their bungalows in the face of such chaos. A quick exploration of the area and we Farang settled into the beautiful wooden Yoga Sala near Hornbill Hill.

The wind and the rain soon started up again with a vengeance so we ran back to the bar, avoiding falling palm tree branches and coconuts (the helpful sign hanging from the bar “Watch out for Falling Coconuts” duly noted). There was some consolation in that the rumour of pizza came to a reality, so we all got to tuck into a slice or two as we looked out forlornly at the rain once more.

Unfortunately we couldn’t hide forever, so with the children armoured in make-shift bin-bag ponchos (they ran out of bin bags before we could get covered) the tractors started up again and we headed back, managing to keep in good spirits despite getting soaked again after only just having dried off.
Jumping off as we reached the concrete path and the motorcycle/side-cart, I waved good-bye to the children and the other Farang as Barry, Kuntum and I headed back to Ban Lions for a good cup of tea after a good day out.

Group photo to celebrate the day
By Sarah Carson, MAP-Asia Volunt

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