Thailand, one does not necessarily need to head to the great outdoors
to get the full nature experience. The great outdoors, in point
of fact, comes to visit you.
My home in the rural province of Chiang
Rai, in the far north of Thailand, is the perfect example of this
it is for my wife and I, a 365-day, 24-hour sound, smell,
and sight-fest of "Wild Kingdom" and "Green Acres" up close and
personal, filled with incoming and outgoing specie and sub-specie
of insect, lizard, and bird.
this closeness to nature is quite different from my experiences
in the mostly hermetically-sealed Eastern United States, especially
in Washington, DC, in which seemingly everything that lives outside
has been killed, moved to the outskirts, or persuaded through heavy
chemical applications by stocky men in white overalls, not to enter
human-land. In New England, my home for 20 years, I was used to
seeing most insects and animals during the springtime and summer
when they had thawed out of their blocks of ice; indoors was the
exclusive domain of the domesticated.
This doesn't mean I have no appreciation
or knowledge of the natural world, however, for I grew up in a diverse
family of birders, biologists, and ardent conservationists. During
my childhood, I spent several weekends every summer at my grandparent's
house in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, canoeing, hiking, camping, and
helping clear trails through the forest, while an hour of every
Saturday was spent crushing cans and sorting plastic in my garage
in preparation for the family's recycling runs. There is more than
a tinge of green in my blood.
With all these streams feeding my past,
I am faced with finding a way to float on the challenging river
of this boisterous Thai ecosystem. I am a man who, after six years
of living here, can count himself as both Asian Buddhist and American
control-oriented, an environmentalist in essence who still wants
to keep some elements of Animal Planet at arm's length. In short,
while I enjoy the diversity about me, I am also damned tired of
cleaning the gecko shit that accumulates randomly all over the house.
Breakfast with the
Birds, and Fish Tank Buddhism
It begins in the pre-dawn darkness.
Around 4 a.m., I wake to the sound of
field mice scratching away in the attic and walls. This goes on
for 15 to 30 minutes, before they quiet, apparently scared by the
oncoming sun or the hellish yowling of a neighbor's cat in my yard.
An hour or so later, another neighbor's rooster jumps onto my compound
wall, scuttles to a place just underneath my bedroom window and
gets into a crowing match with a friend of his several miles away.
This is rural Thailand's version of an alarm clock, an appetizer
of sound before the daily main course of nature's symphony.
it's annoying as hell.
While my wife sleeps soundly away beside
me (all Thais seem to have a general ability to sleep through anything),
I flop about the bed, willing it to shut up, hiding my head futilely
beneath the pillow; finally I take direct action, running downstairs
to drive the flapping rooster off my wall with a hail of pebbles
from my yard. Luckily, it gets the idea that it's not welcome on
my wall, moves to another location not under my window and begins
all over again. I log at least a few more minutes of blessed sleep
as dawn breaks.
The avian theme continues into the morning.
As my wife and I eat breakfast on our porch, enjoying the morning
mist over the mountains in the distance, woodpeckers, swifts, warblers,
and other birds begin calling to each other in the trees next to
the house. Compared to the preceding cacophony, these mellifluous
chirpings and cheepings are a tonic to my soul. There are any number
of bird species around our home, (about 10% of the world's known
species live or migrate through Thailand), and there is even a caged
peacock several houses away which caws sadly off and on during the
This is the reward for living in the country,
the natural music of the day which drives me forward with its rhythms,
the direct antithesis of the painful pre-dawn screeching. For me,
birdsong is to animal noise what blues and jazz are to music, soulful
and a little mournful, with bits of emphatic guitar and bass (the
lively chirps and the caw of the peacock) to drive the beat. It
also brings memories of having breakfast in my grandmother's kitchen,
and watching the chickadees flit about the bird feeder on the windowsill.
As I continue to crunch through my muesli,
yogurt, and fruit, my neighbor walks his cows out to the charred
rice stalks of the local field. The bovine bodies waddle along in
rhythm to the pleasant tinkling of bells, adding to the sense of
morning serenity that has begun with the birdsong.
This is where I feel most in tune with
In the mid-morning, I feed the fish that
swim about in the giant red stone tank next to the entrance to the
house. The water is so murky (and has been that way ever since I've
owned it) that I never see the fish, but after I put some food in
the tank, I catch a glimpse of tiny mouths coming to the surface
long enough to gulp down pellets of food. These are the only "pets"
that we have, and one of the only interactions I have during the
day with animals that I actually control.
It is also very instructive, for this
simple action, reflective and quiet, is my morning reminder of Buddhism,
the driving engine in the subconscious of most Thais, who believe,
"thou shalt not deprive any living thing of breath." However, monks
are the only ones that carry this to its logical extreme, going
out of their way not to hurt any creature.
I learned and practiced Buddhism when
I stayed at Suan Moke Temple in the south of Thailand, attempting
a Buddhist 15-day meditation retreat, and saw plenty of signs advising
me on proper Buddhist etiquette. Among other things, the billboards
reminded people to watch their step (to avoid trodding on ant trails),
to clean their cells carefully in order to avoid hurting any dozing
snakes, and to wave attacking mosquitoes off their arms instead
of squashing them. I could see the Albert Schweitzer-like beauty of
this thought, but found it difficult not to kill the mosquitoes
that landed on my skin, and either flicked them off, or crushed
them silently without making a loud slapping noise. It seems I can
only go so far with my monasticism.
I can see the parallels at my home. When
changing the water on my fish tank, my landlord will spend hours
making sure, through the use of nets and his own hands, to save
each and every fish, no matter how small. This is the noblest ideal
of Buddhism in action, the essence of Suan Moke. I try to imitate
this, but I also find when I transfer the fish from the old water
to fresh, that I often can't stop the smallest and the weakest from
whirl-pooling down the drain. I have tried to rescue as many as
I can, but there are a lot of them, and they are very small, only
the length of my fingernail. I can live with the fact that I haven't
saved all of them.
For me, I have attempted the ideal of
Buddhism and added the Western practicality of Darwin, and this
forms its own compromise. I have yet to explain this to the landlord,
and the Need to Feed
The challenge continues with the heat
of the day.
From the late morning to the late afternoon,
every creature does its best to avoid the sun in Thailand. The best
places to go, apparently, are the cool areas of our home. Thus,
as I prepare my coffee and wander about during the day, I come across
lines of ants making their way into cracks in my walls, gecko lizards
sprinting about the ceiling, long-tailed skinks darting into our
kitchen, and the neighbors' mangy dogs trotting about our yard looking
Since I'm occupied with other things,
I'm all for the "live and let live" philosophy during the day. The
creatures that run around at this time aren't waking me up or trying
to draw blood from me, so the daylight hours are a time for peaceful
coexistence. But there are exceptions to this. On more than one
occasion, I've caught a neighbor's dog digging through our kitchen
trash, and I've had to chase it out of the house and close the gate,
shutting down the borders to my house. This only keeps the big animals
out, however, and thus only marginally effective.
Early in the afternoon, as we eat lunch,
I usually see one of my neighbors ambling out toward the nearby
woods with a long-barreled rifle, intent on the prospect of flushing
small game and birds out of the brush and gunning them down for
The gentle world of the Thai temple thus
meets the all-too-human grumble of hunger. Thai culinary prowess
and appetite dictate that most things can be eaten and should be
tried at least once, especially if they are combined with a nice
curry sauce or are deep fried. The most outlandish example of this
are the scorpions, crickets, and other insects, which are caught,
tossed in hot oil until crispy, and then displayed in neat rows
under heat lamps in most Night Bazaars. One province is famous for
eating dogs, and then there are certain nationwide Chinese predilections
for "health" items like tiger penises and bear gall bladders which
are resulting in whole species being hoovered into extinction across
I have never been that adventurous with
my eating, having never tried dog or tiger penis, but have downed
insects on occasion. One time as a volunteer, a student of mine
showed up at my door with a bag full of beetles, which he proceeded
to clean and then toss in a frying pan (as a special good-bye treat
in celebration of my upcoming departure). When I closed my eyes
and forgot what I was eating, they tasted like chips, a few of them
gooier than others. It's also not necessarily what you eat as how
you eat. The "Lao-version" of the ever-popular Som Tam dish (papaya
salad) includes salty field crab and fermented fish paste which
I can barely stomach. I try to eat vegetarian as much as I can,
and I have never tried an exotic Chinese cure, other than herbs,
so I count these as positives. But I do eat meat, and therefore
contribute to the carnivorous route of the animals of the world.
Also, I notice that while the overall
"live and let live" approach of Thais does seem to carry over to
the care of most house pets, (villagers let their dogs, cats, and
chickens do their own thing, fornicating with each other at will,
and visiting neighbors' houses at any time of the night or day),
there are certain species that are not included in this gentle philosophy,
namely large snakes and poisonous insects, because presumably these
creatures are capable of taking breath away from people (forming
essentially a Karmic self-defense "get-out-of-jail-free" card).
Snakes, especially, receive no love from the Thais and are the cause
of most phobias in this country. If a cobra or python is sighted,
neighbors will band together, form a stick-wielding posse, corner
it, and take turns clubbing it to death.
While I'm not terrified of snakes (I'm
more of an arachnophobe), I have seen my share and thus have developed
a healthy respect for them. My kitchen seems to be a popular area
for most wildlife, and one night, after I paused "The Last Samurai"
on my DVD player and went to get some water, I opened the screen
door and almost stepped on a foot-long garden snake taking a stroll
across my kitchen floor. I have also found them in my water tank,
underneath my patio door, and out by the spirit houses. Another
time, as a volunteer in the deep south, I turned on the light as
I entered my house, and saw a two-foot long cobra shimmying away
from me. I could have just as easily stepped on it if I hadn't bothered
to turn on the light.
The afternoon ends with a symbolic act.
My landlord, after hours of careful maintenance of life in the fishbowl
over the weekend, will leave bits of poisoned field crab shell about
the house in the late afternoon for the field mice, probably reasoning,
as I've heard before, that if the animal "chooses" to eat the poison,
then you haven't actually killed them. I feel better about my actions
with the fish each time I see this. I don't hunt the mice myself,
but I also don't stop the landlord.
Evenings of Entomology
It ends with the evening.
The tone is first set by the sounds of
the insect orchestra out and around the house that picks up just
after dusk, a million-body menagerie of hums, buzzes, whirrs, and
drones. During TV Prime Time, a colony of black ants makes a diversionary
thrust on our downstairs bathroom, swarming the toilet bowl and
white tile, collecting God-knows-what, while another colony leads
the main assault on our kitchen.
the walls, the giant tokay lizard couple, which we've nicknamed
"Lunky" and "Lunkette," and their myriad lizard children, kick things
into high gear, flitting about the periphery of our house, lunging
and snatching at the multitude of bugs that are banging on our screen
windows, trying desperately, as all bugs do, to mate with our fluorescent
lights. We have not invited these lizards into our house, of course.
They have simply crawled in from the outside, after a long afternoon
sleep, part of the parade of zoology that makes our Casa Su Casa.
I've got mixed feelings about this. While
I encourage their help with insect control, they often jump out
of places and scare the hell out of us, and they also shit all over
the place. The tokays and geckos are not toilet-trained and they
usually release little bits of black scat (with a distinctive white
bubble at the end) all over the house. The tokays in particular
seem to have chosen the porch as their bathroom of choice, leaving
a pile of scat behind them for us to find in the morning. The bird
song is beautiful, but I often have to close my eyes to enjoy it
to avoid seeing the mess on the railing.
Tokay lizards are interesting creatures.
Not only are they always in a bad mood (an official lizard collection
society page on the internet called them "aggressive"), they are
huge (at least 12 inches in length) and most importantly, noisy,
as they scream out the word "tokay" to each other at random points
during the day and night (Vietnam-era GI's apparently interpreted
this sound as "fuck you," and thus named them the "fuck-you lizards.")
Lunky prefers the shelving behind the TV for some reason, and enjoys
appearing suddenly and lumbering along the wall to some nearby wall-hangings
as we are watching a movie. The sight of a 12-inch lizard crawling
out from behind a TV is a jolting experience that I've learned to
live with and even anticipate, yelling at Lunky after he tries to
He is also, again, my reptile ally in
my ongoing struggle with the insects.
Thailand is an entomologist's dream-world
(there are 6,000 species here), and one can almost delineate seasons
by what they are doing. The rainy season is their turn to run the
show, and anything that can crawl, walk, slither, and slime comes
in to escape the flood waters, creating a veritable Noah's Ark of
shared sleeping quarters. For the seasoned observer, there are stages
to the rainy season. The beginning of the "Big Wet" is marked by
the flying winged creatures, which cluster at doorways and light
bulbs and die by the end of the first week, while the midpoint is
a potpourri of visiting snails and frogs and a cloud of mosquitoes.
The final stage, the grand aria of the insect opera if you will,
is manifested by the ant colonies that have come into your house,
and the rice-like ant egg sacs that have been carried out of the
rain and into your clothing.
The two sides of my nature are at a crossroads
here. I have spent the day appreciating Thailand's myriad connections
to the natural world, the inside/outside scheme of things, and the
grander Buddhist concept of "not taking breath" away from living
creatures, but I still fight like the devil against the insects.
I'll feed the fish, ignore Lunky, let the dogs wander in and out
of the yard, but in the end, I draw a firm line with them, the American
stepping boldly to the foreground ahead of the temple monk.
The battleground has often been fierce.
One time in the south, during the rainy season, I came home to find
an entire colony of ants building a nest on the inside of some shutters
in my living room area. I sprayed the entire area, and the nest
of ants rained to the ground, the sound of their bodies hitting
the floor in some David Lynchian syncopation with the rainfall outside.
Another time in the south (insert "during the rainy season" here),
I came home to find flood waters moving through my house, and quickly
moved my shoes onto the stair landing. In the process, I turned
one shoe over, and a big, black mother scorpion plopped out, with
her brood of white, translucent baby scorpions on her back. I turned
the shoe back over, and pounded the life out of all of them. It's
a vicious war, and I only manage to draw even most of the time.
And yet even against the insects, I find
signs of compromise, of trying to develop a peaceful strategy with
the multi-legged creatures. While my more assertive nature turns
to a large family-size can of insect spray in the most desperate
circumstances, dousing incursion routes into the house and nuking
emerging ant-holes and egg way-stations, the Buddhist side of me
washes dishes instantly, puts garbage bags well away from the house,
and also hides, covers, and refrigerates the food, denying my fellow
creatures this temptation.
The two worlds of man and nature, of me
and nature, collide, co-exist, and spin off each other from the
morning to the evening, and in the middle of the night, I find my
balance, as we go to bed.
I lie awake briefly after we have turned
the lights off, ruing the expected pre-dawn feathered alarm clock,
listening to the chewing of the mice in the attic and Lunky's reverberations
about the house, and feeling the itch of a random ant crawling on
my leg. I swat the ant, and toss and turn for a while, lying awake
(as my wife moves into deep REM), trying to affect an American's
peace with the over-stimulated Animal Kingdom. And then, all of
sudden, I'll hear the lonely caw of the peacock again, a Blues song
in the night, I am at peace with things, my mind moves back to the
porch in the morning, and I find myself in harmony with the world