We packed our pens and notebooks for a grown-up field trip. With our hats donned and cameras poised, the destination was Koh Panyee, in the inlet of Thailand. I had been here before with my family. This time however, a writing assignment was on my mind.
The village of Koh Panyee is surrounded by shadowy, fingerlike mountains. Reaching up from calm waters, they are serene, yet evocative and mysterious as they entice visitors into their enclave.
As our longboat glides into the harbour, we circumvent fish lines and crab traps, and groups of traditional longboats. This is how one arrives in Koh Panyee…for it’s a village that resides on bamboo stilts.
Sturdy longboats have long been the desired mode of transport in these waters. A solid column rises from their prow like an upturned tail. Adorned with vibrant tassels of cloth, I’m told they protect the safety and spirit of the vessel.
Thai people believe that each mode of transport possesses a spirit, so best to honour and respect it. The swishes of cloth compliment the often brightly painted vessels and provide a grip for fishermen to drag their boats home into shallow waters.
Koh Panyee’s population is descended from just two seafaring Muslim families. Settling here at the end of the 18th century, the fishing trade that they established is still evident as we disembark on the simple dock. Bamboo fish traps rest on knotted planks, tangles of nets cluster on poles and colourful netted piles lay at the ready.
A puzzle of spartan homes and shop fronts greet visitors to Koh Panyee. This once secluded island has welcomed tourism. ‘James Bond Island’ is nearby which attracts sightseers and snorkelers alike.
After disembarking, we wander the humid labyrinth that offers the usual array of elephant printed skirts, frocks, sarongs and slouchy bags. By day five in Thailand, we’re a little more discerning and hope for something unique.
And we soon find it. Fresh water pearls are here in abundance with their milky shades of cream, lemon and white, on offer for a pittance.
A vast array of sea shells is also displayed, much of it having been fashioned into jewellery, key chains and tinkling chimes. It crosses your mind…does it eventually all get sold?Perhaps stuffed into suitcases and carried off to other lands where it’s appreciated…or sadly, perhaps not?
And then there is the abundant coconut merchandise, carved into spoons, bowls and combs or left in its organic form of cooling coconut juice. Hollowed coconut shells appear stuffed with orchids, hanging here and there, thriving in the sultry air.
I notice slivers of bamboo that have been coaxed into welcome mats, baskets, water buckets, paddy-bins and rice vessels.
Rice is vital to daily life; what with carrying, threshing, winnowing and measuring of its vital staple. Pliable cane is also abundant and forms the basis of many kitchen essentials.
Most of all the bird cages speak to me. Intricate strips of bamboo have been crafted into round, square or hexagonal enclosures. They’re not gilded, but somehow the earthy material seems less restrictive for the ruffled birds that inhabit them. Cages hang in most store fronts, between narrow strips of buildings and in shady corners of simple homes.
The lyrical chirps and serenades seem to lighten the lanes and distract from the still, suffocating air. I ask about the cages as I approach a shop.
“Sawadee-kaa,” a man greets me as he comes forward from the shadows of his home to his shop front. His batik sarong is knotted at his lean waist and he seems open to conversation.
“Bird competitions very important in Southern Thailand,”he tells me with a knowing smile.
“High status to have winning bird. Which bird can sing best, longest, maybe happiest.” The affection for his feathered friends radiates from his eyes.
“What kind of birds do you have,” I ask, noticing multiple cages in his home.
“Red-whiskered Bulbul,” he says proudly, “the best, sing better, ka? Must have tropical fruit first, no sing without sunshine.”
“Hmm, I didn’t know,” I admit, and it dawns on me that I’m surrounded by more than just pet birds. They’re performers, competitors, even prize winners. And they’re discerning.
“Rainy day very bad,” the shop keeper assures me, motioning to the patter of rain on the tin awning above us.
I discover that competitions are cancelled if there’s rain, for seemingly the birds are only willingly to serenade when the sun shines. Competitions are held in open fields with the location only revealed to those who enter, and maybe to those who want to bet a bhat or two. And perhaps not surprisingly the earthly competitors are men…it seems it’s a man’s pastime.
I linger at the cages, watching the birds flutter and flit. It’s easy to adore these delicate aviary homes and appreciate the valuable species inside them. I check the latches of their tiny doors; and yes, they’re most certainly locked.
We make our way out of the covered market street, desperate for a breath of air. The chatter of school children greet us as they slide into their shoes that await outside the classroom doors. The open-air school transports me back to schools that my sons attended in Qatar and Oman with their hallways open to the elements. As here, I find it creates a joyous, uninhibited atmosphere as children go about their studies and play. Happy memories of my children’s early school days flood back to me and I am transported by the familiar scene.
This island school is awash with colours of pink, baby blue and sea green; uniforms for both girls and boys alike are a soft pink. The youngsters play tag, giggle for photos and gather for after-school band practice. It’s difficult to pull myself away from their carefree presence.
But the moment is soon lost as yet more tourists pace through the school yard. I peek down a side hallway for quiet. I delight in a scribbled note on a chalkboard in both English and Thai. I gaze out to the calm of the scenery that encloses Koh Panyee. Yet more boats crammed with eager tourists are edging their way towards the stilted settlement, eager to see the sights – part of me is dismayed with our intrusion.
I imagine there is a serenity that returns to this community at nightfall, when the tourists retreat and the waters are silent from boat engines. Around 1700 souls live here and I’ve been welcomed into their unique way of life. For the villager’s sake, I hope their culture is preserved despite the continuous curiousity of tourists.
Today, I was yet another of those tourists. I took away some strands of pearls and appreciated the ‘little things’…like intricate bamboo bird cages, smiling children absorbed in their school day and the camaraderie of fellow writers on a field trip that we Phuket Paradise Writer’s, happily found ourselves on.