Out of the silence in Southern Thailand
For the Appeal
The world had gone berserk.
This according to a recent issue of the Bangkok Post. Sipping a large house blend in Thailand’s capital, I was scanning through the world page when a headline caught my eye.
“Soldier Urinates on Tourist” came the headline out of Fiji. Below it were two separate stories announcing that “Rabbis in Israel had classified marijuana with beans and lentils,” while Muslim clerics in Malaysia had outlawed “genies, ghosts, and other supernatural beings.”
“Coincidence?” I muttered aloud, “I think not.”
This prompted a strange look from a woman sipping her latte.
I folded the paper and set it down.
I had little time for the world’s insanity that morning. This because I had plenty of my own. For months I’d piled undue expectation upon this leg of the journey. As if somewhere along Thailand’s white-sand beaches I might find an answer. A key to something I carried inside – something I felt deeply, but had yet to define.
Before I’d find that answer, I’d first have to cycle out of Bangkok.
This was anything but soothing.
In fact, it was the closest thing I’d imagined to cycling across the surface of a collapsing star. Cars, buses and tuk-tuks hurled from every direction, while motorcycles rocketed through the spaces in between.
When that space filled, they simply spilled onto the sidewalks. Just short of a nervous breakdown, I cleared the city limits.
There I began to pedal. Seriously pedal. Up to 10 hours a day, in the 90-degree heat.
In the mornings I began to perspire. By noon, this broke into sweat. By the time I reached my destination in the late afternoon, my body dripped like a candle engulfed by a flame thrower.
Three days, and 300 miles later, I wobbled into the working-class city of Chumphon. There, beneath a sign that read “World Toilet 2006,” I nearly collapsed. I needed a place to cool down.
A day later, I rolled my bike onto the coconut-palm island of Koh Tao. I found a bungalow, stashed my stuff, and made quickly for the sea.
Moments later, I stood overlooking a boundless blue horizon. I drew my breath, then plunged.
This marked the beginning of a 2-mile swim. Gliding through the liquid, arm over arm, I was half-way across the channel – that which separates Koh Tao from the nearby island of Nangyuan – when it occurred to me I might have been a bit too ambitious.
Popping my head above the surface, it seemed to shrink to that of a pin. I looked around.
“Dude … you’re way out here,” I thought to myself, then poked my head back underwater. I took a moment to trace the shimmering shafts of light as they plunged into the deepest depths below me.
Then, bam! Straight out of nowhere came this indescribably large school of fish. They moved in and surrounded me like some living, luminous curtain.
Thousands of palm-sized fish – all moving in a choreographed explosion of silver and phosphorescent yellow – all beaming against a canvas of deep liquid blue.
When I reached out to touch them, they disappeared just as they’d appeared – like a dream.
Running rich on that experience, I returned to the mainland and charged across a landscape peppered with Permian limestone and dense tropical foliage.
Two days later I pulled into the driveway of the Tiger Muay Thai training center located just outside of Phuket. This after I’d received an invite from the owner Will McNamara.
McNamara, it turned out, was a story unto himself.
Built like a bulldozer, Will got his start as a professional football player, crushing opponents for the Miami Predators. After this, the defensive tackle became a journalist for USA Today, then retired in his mid-30s. With that he moved to Thailand and started a modest Muay Thai training center. It held one ring, six bags and two trainers.
Six years later, Will turned that center into a full-service training facility that includes: three rings, a mixed martial arts cage area, 30 bags, 16 professional Muay Thai Trainers and full accommodations.
The next morning at 7 I showed up for my first session.
The workouts were full throttle, well-run and nearly nonstop. They started with jump rope, stretching, and shadowboxing, followed by heavy-bag work, one-on-one training in technique with target bags, then high-intensity aerobic work until the session ended at 9 a.m.
This only after we’d done 200 sit-ups, 50 pushups, and some final stretching.
After the first few days of training, I donned gloves and headgear and climbed into a ring. There I stared down my sparring opponent: a 225 pound Canadian with murderously thick arms and neck.
When the bell rang, I moved in quickly, keeping him off with a left jab. Utilizing my advantage of reach, I held him off with that jab long enough to surprise him with a couple of combinations, (jab, cross, hook).
As I connected, a glare came to his eye.
With that he began advancing, absorbing my jabs like mosquito bites.
“Uh-oh,” I remember thinking, then blam! He landed a right cross so squarely upon my face, it nearly knocked me back into the stone age.
This process of issuing him combos in exchange for his singular hammer-fist lasted two rounds. When we were done, we shook hands and stepped from the ring.
On my last day at Tiger, I switched things up a bit by attending a mixed martial arts training session. There I met the instructor “Magical” Ray Elbe. With 35 fights under his belt, (19-11 as a professional), Elbe had fought in Ultimate, cage and mixed martial arts matches on HBO, Pay Per View, and held the Rocky Mountain State welterweight title.
After an hour of warm-up and training, it occurred to me that Ray was not only smart and articulate, but entirely capable of delivering a solid pasting from almost any disposition.
Just after that, Ray called me to the mat and told me to come at him.
“But I don’t even know what I’m suppose to be doing,” I admitted.
He explained that submission holds grappling, is just like it sounds – grapple with your opponent until he submits. Submission if signaled by three taps on the mat.
“Just pretend your wrestling your little brother,” he assured me.
I didn’t want to tell him that I only had a sister.
He again signaled me to come at him.
So I dove.
To be honest, for the next 30 seconds I had no idea what was going on, but felt fairly good about the strength I exerted upon him.
Then he went to work.
Moving like a serpent, he quickly maneuvered around my strength. When he was done he’d cinched his arm around my neck in a noose-like throat lock.
Seconds later, I felt as if I were wearing a boa constrictor for a necktie. When the last puff of air exited my windpipe, I tapped.
With that came a two-minute break.
When the break was up, Ray called for me to come at him again.
This time I stepped it up. I went at him full force. Once again I felt fairly confident. Confident that was, until he again out-maneuvered me, then cinched me into a bone-wrenching arm lock.
Suddenly the nerves at the back of my arm began sending a spectacularly painful message to my brain. This letting me know that the tendons in the back of my arm were about to snap. Ray offered up a small
smile, and a look that said, “Make a wish.”
Again I tapped.
This marked the completion of my training at the camp, and the end of any hopes for a cage-fighting career.
Before I left, I thanked Will and the trainers, said my goodbyes, then boarded a boat bound for the beachside hamlet of Au Nang. There I devoted my final week in Thailand to quiet meditation.
Tucked within the comfortable confines of a mountainside cottage, I began to slow down, quiet my body, watch my breath, and focus on the indescribable ball of emotions I’d held inside.
Through this simple act of meditation, I began to recognize the various layers of emotions within my mind. There was sorrow, judgment, anger and blame; rage, vengeance, confusion and shame. While some of these were the products of primary conditioning, others were reactions to the things I’d seen along the way.
I owned and acknowledged each of them, looked for forgiveness, then let them go.
Then, one afternoon, as I repeated this process, I dropped into a profound silence.
Out of that silence, came a powerful image. A memory.
A simple scene I’d witnessed on the Island of Koh Tao. It was that of a boy, and his dog playing in the sea. This triggered the memory of another boy and his dog.
An inseparable pair that frolicked in the crystal-blue waters of Lake Tahoe. It was a memory of myself and my beloved Labrador Tucson. After his recent death I realized it was a scene I could never go back to.
In that realization came the recognition of that which moved within me.
It was mourning. I began to weep.
I had wept many times on this journey, and realized that as I expressed this sorrow, some would look upon this as a weakness, depression or insanity.
But I knew the truth. These tears I wept matched the depths to which I’d loved. They measured the extent to which I’d opened my heart and looked unflinchingly upon the world.
My tears seem to usher in the rain: a dense tropical downpour of near Biblical proportions.
On the third day of flood, I traveled from the monkey-strewn beaches of Au Nang, to the ancient Buddhist monastery at the base of Tiger Cave Mountain.
There, in the inky darkness, I climbed 1,200 steps as they ascended nearly 2,000 feet into the sky.
Forty-five minutes later, I crested the mountain top, and stumbled upon an immense statue of a Buddha overlooking the valley.
For some time I stood upon that mountain, contemplating this rock-solid image of Sidartha, as he sat in quiet meditation amidst the driving wind and rain.
It has been said that on the morning of his enlightenment, he looked upon the universe with newly awakened eyes. As he did, tears began to roll down his cheek.
I carried this image of surrender down the pitch-black descent. Then I came upon something remarkable. There, in a dark grotto of trees, flew myriad of fireflies – tiny winged angels, glittering in the night.
That scene sparked another memory. Another story of fireflies as written by author Jack Kornfield.
He wrote: “How improbable and fantastic, how unlikely to have beautiful insects with soft blinking lights – yet this no more unlikely than our loving hearts. Our hearts shine in the same way as the fireflies, with the same light as the sun and the moon. Within us is a secret longing to remember this light, to step out of time, to feel our true place in this dancing world. It’s where we began, and where we return.”
Where in the world is Rick Gunn?
WHERE: Thailand – Trat, Patthaya, Bangkok, Cha-Am, Thap Sakae, Chumphon,
Koh Tao, Surat Thani, Au-Leuk, Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Au Nang, Koh Lanta, Trang, Satun
WHEN: April 1-May 4, 2007
MILEAGE LOG: 14,902-15,850
ELEVATION: Sea level-300 feet
• Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.
To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.