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Myristica fragrans

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View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

At the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore I bought two postcards of old maps of southeast Asia. One dates from 1574, according to the postcard, and depicts India, China and the Orient, with Latin and Portuguese names. The postcard does not say who made the map, but I think it is by Ortelius, who was following the map drawn by his friend Mercator in 1569.

The map makes the errors usual for the time. Southeast Asia is too big in comparison to India and China. There a pars continentis Australis just south of Java, which is itself too round. Persia is too big, Borneo too small, Sumatra too wide. Timor is too far north. Sulawesi is cigar-shaped and roughly the same size as Halmahera. Surprisingly, Singapore is on the map; it was then but a backwater, in decline after its golden age.

Most informatively, the Spice Islands are too large. Seram, inaccurately labelled “Ambon”, is huge. Banda is listed as being southwest of Seram – in fact it lies to the southeast – and it is far too large.

The "1607" map shows southeast Asia alone. It is, I believe, by Hondius in 1606, created for Mercator's Atlas. Its plan of Indonesia is in general similar to the earlier map, but the Philippines have improved, and so have Java, Nusa Tenggara (although Lombok is missing) and Borneo. The Dutch had, after all, established operations in Tidore, Ambon and Banda by then. But Indochina has got worse; and Singapore is far too large.

Seram seems to have been duplicated, and Banda is now south of the correct Seram, which is labelled Cenaon. Banda Besar, Run and Ai seem to be shown, although only Banda is labelled. Again, the Bandas are far too large.

This is so for a reason. Maps are social statements. The map is a bit like the famous New Yorker map of the world: it depicts importance from a particular perspective. By the time the map was produced, it was known that the world’s entire supply of nutmeg and mace came from the tiny Banda Islands, so they had to be shown. Their surface area is only 180 square kilometres – a fraction of that of London. On a modern map to the same scale they would not feature at all.

Why was nutmeg so important? Spices were in demand, mainly as medicines. Cloves, for example, were worth their weight in gold. Columbus sailed west in order to find their source. Nutmeg was also a preservative (slowing the oxidation of meat) and a medicine. The Romans used nutmeg as a preservative; so even 2,000 years ago there must have been a complex chain of trade stretching from the Bandas to Rome. It was used as a cure for flatulence and the common cold. In Elizabethan England medics began to claim that it protected against plague.

Although it was not known in Europe until the Portuguese arrived, the nutmeg grew only in one tiny archipelago between Sulawesi and New Guinea: the Banda Islands. Each of the islands occupies only a few square kilometres. The central island is a volcano, Gunung Api, a perfect green cone 650 metres or so high. It is periodically active, and was so for much of the islands’ Dutch history. Today you can see a couple of lava flows down the mountain, where things still do not grow.


Just across a narrow channel, curving slightly around the volcano, is Banda Neira. The main town of the islands, Neira, faces the volcano. It is in fact part of the caldera of Gunung Api.


The other side of Neira, to the south and east, is the largest and hilliest island, Banda Besar (Great Banda). This is where much of the nutmeg was grown, as it still is.


To the east of Banda Besar lies a small island known in the seventeenth century as Rozengain, and now called Hatta after one of the heroes of independence. A few miles to the west – crucial miles, when ships could not sail against the wind – is Pulau Ai. A few miles west again lies Pulau Run. Ai and Run also had a lot of nutmeg plantations.

I visited the Banda Islands in December. After a very bad start – my wallet stolen and my trousers slashed with a knife – I grew to like them very much. They are your archetypical tropical islands, covered in green trees and surrounded by white sand and coral reefs.


Many of the trees are nutmeg. As described by John Cameron in 1864, the leaves of the nutmeg tree are like bay leaves. The tree is thirty feet high and thirty feet wide at the crown, and flowers all year round. The blossoms are small, thick, waxy bells. The fruit looks like a peach. When it ripens it splits open and reveals the mace. Eventually the nut and its surrounding caul of mace fall to the ground.

The mace is dried in the sun. It is an attractive dark red reticulum.


Then the nut itself is split. The nutmeg is the kernel. A good tree yields six hundred nuts, or eight pounds in weight, per year.


Dotted around the islands are kenari trees, Kanarium commune. They provide shade for the nutmegs. They are fine, very tall trees, with dark red dipterocarp buttresses, producing nuts that taste like a cross between an almond and a hazelnut. These can be eaten raw, or chopped and baked into delicious bricks with sugar or honey. The best local dish is baked aubergines in a spicy kenari sauce, which is also lovely.


Alfred Russel Wallace, who visited in 1857, 1859 and 1861, found few interesting animals in Banda, and his chapter mostly comprises an extremely eccentric defence of the Dutch monopoly system. (He is not remembered for his economic analysis.) But he wrote of the fruit pigeons which “eat the nuts whole and digest the mace, but cast up the nut with its seed uninjured.” He had earlier seen the same bird in the Kai islands, to the southeast. By the time he wrote The Malay Archipelago he had described the species. In his entry on the Kai islands he writes of it as

A magnificent bird twenty inches long, of a bluish white colour, with the back wings and tail intense metallic green, with golden, blue, and violet reflexions, the feet coral red, and the eyes golden yellow. It is a rare species, which I have named Carpophaga concinna, and is found only in a few small islands, where, however, it abounds. It is the same species which in the island of Banda is called the nutmeg-pigeon, from its habit of devouring the fruits, the seed or nutmeg being thrown up entire and uninjured. Though these pigeons have a narrow beak, yet their jaws and throat are so extensible that they can swallow fruits of very large size.

There were plenty of large pigeons on the islands, but I cannot now remember if they were the same species; I had lost my Wallace and could not check. I suppose they were.

For a few days I stayed in a guesthouse in the main town of the islands, Neira, on the island of the same name. Also staying in the guesthouse were Vera, Niek, Hans and Bruno, all from Holland, and Robert, from Austria. These were the people who lent me money and thereby saved my skin.


(It is a mild paradox, although not unexpected, that I found the best social life on the trip in the most remote places. In Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia you are rarely far from tourists. Where there are crowds of tourists, they do not acknowledge each other or talk to each other very much, any more than you would if you happened to bump into an Englishman in the West End of London (which does happen sometimes). East of Lombok, though, if you see a white face you probably talk to it. So I spent most of my time in Vietnam on my own, while in Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara and the Moluccas I was rarely alone.)

The guesthouse was near the port and the water was a little paraffinny, but it was nevertheless worth dipping in with a mask. For under the piles of the house next door were mandarinfish, a most extraordinary goby. They are rather shy but tend to come out around dusk. Some people travel a long way to see a mandarinfish; when I saw a mandarinfish in Malaysia my dive guide said he had dived a thousand times before seeing one. Here there were dozens. Robert took photos and we discovered that behind the adults, which we had seen, were lots of juveniles hiding in crevices.

We went snorkelling at several locations around the islands. On one occasion, as we returned from snorkelling, the captain of our chartered boat caught a beautiful fish of the mackerel family, possibly a wahoo. He was delighted, and gave us half of the fish, which we ate barbequed in the evening. It was extraordinarily tasty, possibly the best fish I have ever eaten.


We ate wonderfully on Neira. On another occasion, returning from Pulau Ai, we ran into a man with half a dozen lobsters in a bucket. He was going to Neira to sell them, so we bought them and Data from the guesthouse cooked them. They were, however, nowhere near as good as the wahoo.


Nutmeg is also used for food, as you might expect. The fruit is used to make jam (aromatic, spicy, moreish) or turned into a spicy cordial. Or you can eat the fruit dried, as I am doing right now. It tastes almost like a panforte, with flavours of nuts, spice and dried apricots.


Neira town faces Gunung Api and consists mainly of two streets running parallel to the sea. Until the 1960s the road by the sea was an attractive gravel street shaded by trees, but the trees were cut down, and now it looks much like any other road. Farther inland are the villas in which Syahrir and Hatta resided during their internal exile. Another colonial villa held the expats’ social club. There is a single block on the islands where a mobile signal can be found, so people congregate on the verandah of a public building to use their phones.


In the same area are the remains of the two forts, Nassau and Belgica. Fort Nassau, built in 1607-09, is in a romantically ruined state.


It was destroyed by Captain Cole, an Englishman, in 1810. He captured Fort Belgica first and then turned its guns on Fort Nassau. This is Fort Belgica, built in 1611 in the form of a five-pointed star, and extensively restored. I kept on meaning to undertake the ten-minute walk to see it, but somehow never got around to it.


The day after being robbed I tried to book a ticket on the weekly plane back to Ambon through the headman. In the event, however, the plane did not fly owing to bad weather in Timor, so I stayed on the islands for a little over a week. There used to be three flights a week to the Bandas, but the religious violence that hit the Moluccas in 1999 also disfigured the Banda Islands. Churches were burnt, and Wim Van den Broeke, the ‘last perkenier’ was killed in the violence along with five female members of his family. (He was a descendant of Pieter Van den Broeke, a governor of the Bandas in the early seventeenth century. His portrait, painted by Frans Hals, hangs in Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath.) Most of the Christian population fled to Seram. Tourists stopped coming – partly because the government would not let them, I suspect – and the tourist trade has almost disappeared.

Down the coastal road to the south is the old governor’s residence, known as the Istana Mini. It was originally built in 1611. It is not in bad shape, but it is unused. The doors are locked. It stands next to a barracks – half the buildings in Indonesia stand next to a barracks – which was, perhaps, the VOC Authority headquarters. There is a sign warning that the maximum penalty for trespassing is ten years, if I remember rightly. So I walked up to the guard post and asked for permission to enter, and the captain accompanied me to the governor’s residence. We walked around a bit and he offered to unlock the place. What is inside? I asked. ‘Kosong’ – ‘empty’. I declined. If there was any significant tourism they would do well to turn the building into a museum.


Wandering around the back of the barracks, next to the soldiers’ bikes, I found the old bust of Stadhouder Willem III. It was thrown into the sea during the Dutch-Indonesian conflict of 1950, but later retrieved.


Down the road in the other direction is a set of three large square openings filled with sea water. It is a sort of aquarium. It is in a sad, dilapidated state, and the water level is very low. This is a black-tipped reef shark.


Like Indonesian, Bandanese Malay contains a lot of Dutch loan words, but it also contains a few Portuguese words. But there are more Portuguese words in the dialect of Ambon, where the Portuguese had a more permanent presence. As Wallace recorded:

The following are a few of the Portuguese words in common use by the Malay-speaking natives of Amboyna and the other Molucca islands: Pombo (pigeon); milo (maize); testa (forehead); horas (hours); alfinete (pin); cadeira (chair); lenco (handkerchief); fresco (cool); trigo (flour); sono (sloop); familia (family); histori (talk); vosse (you); mesmo (even); cunhado (brother-in-law); senhor (sir); nyora for signora (madam). None of them, however, have the least notion that these words belong to a European language.

After a few days we all relocated to Pulau Ai. To a Brit this island is even more historically significant than Neira. It was here that the English, on several occasions, bought the entire crop of the islands from under the noses of the Dutch. It was the scene of the fierce battles of 1615 and 1616. Nutmeg used to cover the island entirely.

Ai is a lovely place. There is no mobile network, no internet, and almost no tourism. There are probably three guesthouses, all apparently run by the same family (try getting permission to do anything if you are not related to the headman). Four of us stayed at the Green Coconut, which looked out on to the sea.


There is nothing to do. You can wander around the village and see the old cemeteries, tended by goats.


And next to the remaining corner of an old plantation mansion is the bastion of a fort, all that apparently remains of Fort Revenge. That is about it. So we spent most of the time snorkelling or sitting and staring at the Banda Sea.


The snorkelling in the Bandas varied from the excellent to the terrible. Even the same site varied from the interesting to the dull.


The primary reason is simple. The environment is excellent for marine life, but whole stretches of the coastline have been dynamited. You drift over dead and shattered coral, devoid of life, an underwater desert. Dynamiting a coral reef to obtain fish is like chopping down an apple tree for the apples. It destroys the reef and the corals and algae that live in it; as a consequence it takes away the foundation of life in the reef. It seems amazingly shortsighted (although it could just be a consequence of common ownership of a resource). But people all over Indonesia actually believe that they have to harvest coral. They believe that unless it is harvested, it will grown to block navigation channels. In fact coral regrows painfully slowly, over decades, even without the hindrances of global warming and carbonic acid.

Where the snorkelling is good, it is very good. The best soft coral I have seen anywhere was on Pulau Hatta. There are several nice drop-offs; not far from the Banda Islands the sea is 6.5 km deep.

Pulau Hatta: notable for the best soft coral I have ever seen. Not very good for large fish though. I saw five different kinds of unicornfish in large numbers. Five Napoleon wrasse. Huge numbers of black triggerfish and many pink-tailed triggerfish, lots of titans and clown triggerfish. Lots of bluefin trevally, and few bigger ones. Some crocodile longtoms, and lots of yellow trumpetfish. Lots of black snapper and big yellow snapper and sweetlips. Blue fusiliers, yellow fusiliers, batfish, bannerfish, only one starfish, very few sea squirts.

Pantai Panjang on Pulau Ai. Strong currents. Didn’t see much of interest except for an eagle ray, 3.5 m long, 1.5 m wide. It came past a couple of times and the second time is came close enough to frighten me. Its head extends forward; the head is shaped like a cuboid with a bullet projection in front, which functions as a sandshovel. It had a strange alien face, with an open mouth, and gave me the creeps.

North of the jetty at Pulau Ai: a brilliant swim. Three barracudas, a biggish Napoleon wrasse, 1.2 m or so, lots of batfish. Forty schooling cornetfish, and a weird sea snake in very shallow water as I waded back. Then half a dozen big bumphead parrotfish swam past, the biggest in the lead. Five minutes later, in only three feet of water, I saw even more: a school of 27 by my count. The adults were patrolling the perimeter, and the smaller ones were feeding on the coral. The patrols displayed aggressive defensive behaviour, swimming straight at me and raising their dorsal fins.

Pulau Run, very strong currents, two small turtles and a barracuda.

Pulau Neijalakka, little of interest.

Pantai Panjang again: not very interesting. Clouds of ebony triggerfish, black with white margins like piscine guillemots. A very large dark green moray. A few red-tooth triggerfish. Lots of snapper, some very large, and some large groupers.

Pantai Panjang again, two turtles, including a good look at one, 10m down, male, illuminated by bright sunlight. Orange masked pufferfish, three crown of thorns starfish, several bluefin trevally, yellow cigar wrasse, a small Napoleon, two bumphead wrasse, lots of big snappers and plenty of small batfish, a spiny lobster, lots of yellow-margin triggerfish, lots of humpback and brown unicornfish.

Two more snorkels on the village side on Pulau Ai, both fairly poor. The coral has been dynamited to smithereens.

By the lighthouse at the top of Pulau Gunung Api: some scorpionfish, and crabs, and a flatworm.

And in the evening the people who owned the guesthouse would cook for us. And we would each suck on a bottle of warm beer. It is illegal in the Banda islands – regarded in exactly the same way as illegal drugs, and listed as such on a poster at the police station - but one or two guest house owners will buy it. Electric power was intermittent, operating only for a few hours in the evening, so fridges were little use. We drank beer with slushy ice that melted almost instantly. On Neira we could buy beer from the Chinese shop. In principle we could also buy arak, but this was harder to get hold of as the police were cracking down. When we did get hold of some, we drank it with a nutmeg fruit cordial, which worked very well.

On 5 December it was Sinta Claas day, and Niek and Vera exchanged presents: traditional Dutch spice biscuits and hot chocolate.

In the village 100 yards away from the Green Coconut were two longboats in a shed. They were kora kora, racing boats. They are supposed to be raced annually, but in fact there had been no races for 15 years, until a race was held two weeks before our arrival. Apparently it was held to celebrate the reopening of a well. Children around the island were obviously particularly excited by the event, as we saw several kids trailing wooden kora kora toys.


Nowadays the perken are still producing nutmeg, but they are all owned by a single government-owned company. Nutmeg does not command the prices it used to, and income per head in the Moluccas is well below the Indonesian average.

Posted by Wardsan 04:03 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


I have been eating cheese and drinking ale.

Excluding nights spent on trains, planes, boats and coaches, in apartments and in random buildings in Papua, I stayed in 101 different hotels.

Range: 98º E (Phuket) to 141º E (Jayapura), 22º N (Sapa) to 8º S (Ende).

Books read on the trip: at least 72.

  • **

I mentioned how difficult it was to find a decent bookshop in Singapore. In one large bookshop I found: eight shelving units devoted to home and gardens; twelve to cooking; six to travel; eight to parenting; sixteen to health; twenty to self-improvement; five to new age/feng shui; five to religion; and… three to science.

  • **

Some websites I have been enjoying recently:

- Bad Science
- spEak You’re bRanes (don’t follow this link if you are going to be offended by bad language, or are thick or illiterate)
- The rotating skyscraper in Dubai.

  • **

The last books of the trip.

Adam’s Navel, Michael Sims. As John Banville said in a review, “a witty and erudite jackdaw’s nest of a book.” And it’s brilliantly written. Did you know for example:
• Burned skin peels because the sun’s UV attacks and kills the skin cells. A good sunscreen does two things: the inorganic molecules help scatter the radiation, while the organic molecules absorb it.
• The body may have evolved its hairless state to assist in the functioning of sweat glands.
• The human foetus grows a moustache four weeks after conception, and by the end of the fifth month it is completely hairy. During the last few weeks of pregnancy the foetus usually sheds the hair, which joins mucus and bile to form the meconium, the baby’s first bowel movement after birth.
• We have an average of 5 million hairs, 100,000-150,000 on the head. Even aquatic mammals are hairy as embryos.
• Hair, like nails, rhino horn and skin itself, is made largely of keratin, and it’s insoluble in water.
• Samson was a lifelong Nazirite. So was John the Baptist, and so was the judge and prophet Samuel. The Black Jews of Ethiopia, the Falashas, are Nazirites.
• The head is the first part of the embryo to differentiate, and is more developed at birth, which is why development of the newborn baby moves down the body from the head to the feet.
• We recognise human faces more easily than chimp faces, and faces in our ethnic group more easily than others. Newborns prefer moving faces. Only after two months can they learn to recognise static faces.
• Prosopagnosia is the inability to recognise a face. From Greek prosopon, face.
• The word pupil comes from Latin pupilla, little doll, referring to the image you see of yourself in another’s eye.
• The eyebrows are raised primarily by the epicranius frontalis, pulled down by the procerus, drawn together by the corrugators supercilii. Supercilious refers to someone raising an eyebrow to express contempt.
• In ancient Greece and Rome, women prized monobrows, and painted them on if their brows were separate.


    Flashman’s Lady, George Macdonald Fraser
    Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
    Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Giles Milton
    Everyman, Philip Roth
    Arthur and George, Julian Barnes

Posted by Wardsan 12:22 Comments (0)


sunny 31 °C
View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

Ovid yearned for an end to his exile, which may have been provoked by his Clintonian inability to keep it in his trousers. I don't feel the same way, but I am returning home anyway at short notice for a job interview. I'll probably continue to blog a little bit, since I have written little or nothing about Biak, the Papua trip, Bali, Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Tana Toraja or the Moluccas.

Some statistics

How many seas and oceans have I seen, o Muse? The South China Sea, Gulf of Thailand, Melaka Straits, Sulu Sea, Celebes Sea, Java Sea, Flores Sea, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Banda Sea and Andaman Sea. Possibly more.

Countries visited: 6.

Distance travelled since arriving in Bangkok: 39, 387 km. That is measuring point to point, and is an underestimate. It is approximately the circumference of the Earth, and more than Wallace travelled in eight years in the region. But his journeys were hard.

Equator crossings: 6.

Most internet connections: Vietnam and Singapore. Fewest: Indonesia.

Locations dived, thirteen in four countries: Nha Trang, Ko Pha Ngan, Sipadan, Redang, Perhentians, Tulamben, Gili Lembongan, the Gilis, Komodo, Bunaken, Lembeh Straits, Ambon, Similan. That is quite a list.

None of these was a bad place to dive. The best reef dive sites were Sipadan (turtles, sharks, barracuda) and Komodo (large rays and giant trevally). Most honourable mentions: Bunaken; Pulau Tiga, Ambon; Similans; the Perhentians and Redang.

The best muck dive sites were Lembeh Straits and Ambon Bay.

Number of dives: 80.

Places where I swam: 27.

Take-offs and landings: 31. Flights with Air Asia, 12. As I may have said before, Air Asia is like Ryan Air, except without the psychopathic attitude. A company partly owned by Air Asia and partly by Richard Branson is to open a route between Kuala Lumpur and Stansted on March 11. Tickets for economy seats start at £99. Hopefully it will introduce greater competition into the market for flights between Europe and Southeast Asia.

Things I’ll miss:

    - Cheap, tasty food, especially seafood
    - Sunlight
    - General friendliness and courtesy, especially in Thailand, Laos and Indonesia
    - Meeting a wide selection of interesting and downright weird people
    - Effortless slimness
    - Diving
    - Swimming in the sea
    - Free Premiership football
    - Big butterflies
    - Frangipani, bougainvillea, Heliconia and hibiscus
    - Seeing completely incomprehensible things
    - Not having to wear shoes
    - The aromatic leaves of Thailand and Vietnam
    - The wai
    - Cheap laundry
    - News blackouts
    - Eagles
    - Geckoes, chameleons and skinks
    - Street food vendors (kebab death vans don’t count)
    - Trains that cost 30p for a two hour journey; buses that cost £1 for a five hour trip.
    - Cheap motorbike taxis. They should have them in London.
    - Vietnamese and Indonesian coffee
    - Not fearing physical violence
    - Well-behaved schoolchildren
    - Nam pla, belacan, sambal, tom yum, roti canai, ga xao sa ơt, beef rendang, Penang curry, dried broad beans, fried rice, bananas with coconut cream, rice with every meal, and a lot more.

Things I won’t miss:

    - Drain smells, especially in Malaysia
    - Being hassled on the street all the time
    - Gastric flu
    - Lugging a camera everywhere
    - Noodle soup (except cáu lâu in Hội An and khao soi in Chiang Mai)
    - Cold showers
    - Cockroaches, big spiders, mosquitoes, cicadas
    - Durians
    - Being served the starter with or after the main course
    - Sweet fizzy beer
    - Sweet soya sauce
    - Sweet bread
    - Fluorescent yellow pineapple jam
    - Banging my head on lintels
    - Hawking, sniffing, spitting, loud eating
    - Living out of a rucksack
    - Brushing teeth with bottled water
    - Tuk-tuks
    - Being stared at
    - Being woken an hour before dawn by an amplified call to prayer
    - Filthy Thai coffee
    - Having to wear a hat
    - Being unable to express myself
    - Illiteracy (mine)
    - Trying to balance heavy British plugs in Asian sockets
    - Wearing the same five t-shirts all the time
    - Dairy cravings
    - Markets – I’m so over them
    - Deet
    - Asian plumbing
    - Being foreign
    - Open storm drains
    - The process of getting from A to B.

Looking forward to:

    - Seeing some people
    - Frost
    - Visibly deciduous trees
    - The Thames
    - Walking along the pavement
    - The bookshop on Gower Street
    - Having a debit card
    - Cooking
    - London tap water
    - Wearing jeans
    - Some really good French wine, French mustard, sherry, cheese, English family chocolate, English ale, bread, HP sauce, Lagavulin, limoncello, black pudding
    - Arabica coffee in Covent Garden
    - The British Museum and the Natural History Museum
    - The Economist every week.


    Not seeing Angkor.
    Not visiting Sarawak; Ternate and Tidore; the Kai islands; Sumatra; southern Laos; Alor; northeastern Thailand; the national parks east of Bandung.
    Not finding the time to return to Luang Prabang.
    Not climbing Fansipan or the peak of Rinjani.
    Not seeing Mt Merapi, near Solo.
    Not persevering with Indonesian.
    Visiting Kon Tum.
    Not getting to order spider or dog.
    Not seeing mola mola in Nusa Lembongan.
    Too many temples; not enough national parks.

Posted by Wardsan 04:30 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Khao Sok

sunny 31 °C
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In Khao Sok National Park I oscillate in a string-vest hammock, assaulted by the shrieking of cicadas. Butterflies small, large and immense dart about in the garden in front of me, and within fifty yards there are probably a hundred species of plant. It’s a good spot from which to contemplate the diversity of life, and one of the men who explained it. The four In Our Time programmes on Darwin (Radio 4 podcasts) are first-rate broadcasting.


Here is a lizard that lived in and around my bathroom.


The first thing to do in the park was a night walk in the jungle. I am by now no virgin noctambulist and I know that night walks are hot, sticky, and somewhat stressful. You can’t see much, the noises are loud, and things with too many legs land on you. (The noise is mainly the susurration of insects, the bark of frogs and the hoots of owls.) Sometimes you see nothing all walk.

On this occasion I walked with Nit, who used to be a hunter of tigers and elephants, but became a guide 13 years ago and much prefers his new job. We were relatively fortunate, I suppose. Nit showed me discarded carapaces of cicadas, several spiders, a huge moth, and two mouse deer. Their eyes reflected grey-green in the torchlight, and their bodies appeared grey and very small. They didn’t seem too concerned by the torchlight.

Mouse deer are even-toed ungulates, in the same sub-order as deer, giraffes, cattle, goats, sheep and antelope; but in a different infraorder from all of these. Their stomachs have only three chambers.

I did not see: gaur, benteng, clouded leopard, tapir, civet. Few people see any of these except the last.

The following day I joined an organised trip to Lake Rajaprapa, which was created three decades ago by a dam. Over a hundred new islands were created, and many animals were literally isolated. A rescue operation was mounted at a cost of 1.8 million baht, and 1,346 animals were saved. Most, I imagine, died shortly thereafter, stressed by their capture and homeless.


The lake is big – about 165 square kilometres – and highly fractal, so it would be easy to get lost. The lake is fringed and penetrated by unreal Leonardoeque molars and incisors, much like Hạ Long Bay and the area around Ninh Bình.


There were about ten of us from the UK and Australia. We took a longtail boat for about an hour to a floating guesthouse.


I paddled for an hour in a tubby canoe and eventually came across some monkeys. In shape they closely resembled proboscis monkeys, with pot-bellied bodies and long, thick grey tails. Their backs were black and their bellies light grey. They were dusky langurs. I could not get a decent photo.


The view from the canoe.


We ate a grand lunch of river fish and various curries, and then took another longtail boat to another part of the lake. We walked for half an hour and saw two chameleons. The guide, Dicky, managed to get hold of one, but it escaped while being transferred between custodians.




Then we took a bamboo raft to a large cave with stalagmites and stalactites. I’ve seen too many caves. It is a general problem, which afflicts all long-term travellers. You’ve seen something like it before, so you are inevitably less impressed. The same is true for temples, jungles, diving - everything, except perhaps food. The only cure is not to travel - which is worse than the disease.

Two nights ago I dined on orchid tempura; yesterday lunchtime on salad, made with the furled heads of young ferns. (A furled fern head is a crozier, which I think is a wonderful description.) A Thai salad has only two essential ingredients: lime juice and chilli, and huge quantities of both, so that to call the Thai salad hot and sour is like calling Pele a bit good. You very often encounter some combination of green papaya, cashews, coriander, celery stalks, onion, garlic, shallots and green beans, but anything goes.

On the final day at Khao Sok I went for a stroll. I believe that the only way to walk around a jungle, unless someone is shooting at you, is alone or in a group of two. A guide is mildly useful for showing you elephant tracks and telling you stories about how local people use the palms to make alcohol or obtain resin from certain dipterocarps, and extremely useful for ensuring that you do not get lost. But I think I see more animals on my own. I walk quietly, stop frequently to look or listen, and cover two km or less in an hour.

Among other things I saw a few more chameleons.


One was eating a bug, very slowly, as if under doctor's orders to chew 32 times.


Among the many birds was a largish bird with a long tail, an orange-red breast and navy blue head and wings. It had a beautiful, babbling, varied song.


Beside the paths were large tornado-shaped webs. A fanged spider lurked low-slung just inside each funnel, waiting to envenom trespassers.


I saw two troupes of long-tailed macaques. The second was not at all shy. Twin babies play-fought. Harold Wilson smoked his pipe.


A mutton-chopped adult showed a disturbing obsession with my camera.


As I came back along the path, most of the family were on the ground. Three of them crouched on one of the information signs, apparently in submission to the only God (and perhaps there is a gibbon God and a langur Lord). They were hoovering insects.


Posted by Wardsan 20:49 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Khao Lak

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My expenditure has crept up in the last few weeks, and I think this is natural. Most people have a blowout at the end of the holiday.

This raises the old question: what is money worth at the moment? If I go back six weeks early, I have six weeks more money to spend, right? Wrong: those six weeks don’t disappear; they will probably be spent in London, which is more expensive. That suggests spending less out here. But the determining factor is when I get a job. If I get a job earlier because I returned earlier, I have more money to spend. Trouble is, I don’t know.

Anyway, I feel like spending a little more money. Before diving I stayed at a fairly posh resort in Khao Lak. My room cost a third of the bungalows, and I still got to experience the manicured lawns.

Khao Lak is a tourist resort. There are souvenir shops, guest houses, restaurants. There are a score of opticians in a half-mile strip, and two ‘Irish’ pubs. It is a bit Benidorm on the Andaman Sea. German is very much the dominant language. I just spent three nights on a dive liveaboard in the Similan islands, and I was the only guest without German as a native language. (It’s the following morning and the world is still swaying.)

The food in Khao Lak is poor, although you can probably get a decent Hahn mit Knoblauch. Proper Thai food is a balance between sweet, spicy, salt and sour. Usually you find four pots of sauces and sugar at the table, so that you can adjust this balance. Not here. Nor in the centre of Chiang Mai. And there is little spice. I suppose this is because Germans do not have the constant exposure to chilli that we do in Britain and so do not acquire the taste for it. (I should emphasise that this is an observation, not a criticism.) Actually, the Thai restaurants in Britain are remarkably authentic, down to the bitter little pea aubergines in the curry, something that is not true of Indian and Chinese restaurants.

Khao Lak was hit very hard by the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. Four thousand people died or disappeared in Khao Lak alone. The main drag is on the main coastal road north, well above the sea, but there is a road right by the coast, and the wave was five metres high when it swept over the road. That road is well above the beach; the tsunami was 11 m high. All the buildings on the coast were destroyed, of course, so nothing by the beach is more than four years old. But there are a lot of buildings; you can’t see any evidence of damage at all and the tourists are back in swarms.

Now there are tsunami warning signs everywhere: "you are now in a tsunami danger zone". There are also tsunami evacuation paths, also known as roads. I walked up one, and it terminated in a padlocked gate. So much for that.

On my penultimate dive yesterday I saw three octopuses. One was walking slowly, backwards, and darkened itself and forced itself into a tiny niche when I got too close (they have no skeletons). The other two looked like a single one. At first I saw the limbs, and each limb seemed to be wrapped around another, as if the cephalopod had severe pruritis. Then I saw a head peering out of a hole eighteen inches way. Gradually the limbs resolved themselves into two octopuses (or octopodes), one trying to escape. The octopus whose head was visible had its tentacles wrapped around the escapee. It looked like a case of unwilling mating. The clingy octopus was coloured dark fox; the other a sickly pale celadon.

Posted by Wardsan 09:08 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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