I recently had a great day in Thailand’s Rayong Province – an area where tourists are thankfully as rare as nine baht notes. I travelled there with my ex-pat friend John and his heavily-pregnant wife Pla, and on the way we stopped at Khao Chee Chan, which also goes by the name Buddha Mountain. Standing at nearly 400ft tall, it’s the biggest Buddha image in the world, and was carved into the cliff using lasers and then filled with gold leaf.
Later, we saw a couple they knew, who had built a beautiful house on a piece of land overlooking lily fields near Rayong. When they bought the land it was completely overgrown and home to a pond that the neighbours had stocked with fish. They cleared the jungle and left the tallest trees, and built a prefab house in the middle of the plot.
I was very jealous. Although they were cut off, Jim and his Thai girlfriend Fi were living the good life and had filled the garden with vegetables and fruit tree saplings. Two years later, they were living off the land, eating bamboo shoots, lemon grass, basil, galangal, tomatoes, aubergines, bananas, huge mushrooms grown in boxes, and eggs from their hens and ducks.
When they fancied a change, they caught a few fish from the pond and fried them in breadcrumbs or made Thai curries. They were living there happily with their three huskies and two cocker spaniels, and no children.
As I say, I was very jealous and envied the fabulous climate they lived in and the oranges they picked each morning from the trees. Until they told me about the snakes, that is. They were being plagued by cobras from the wet lily fields at the bottom of the garden. They had put up fine mesh fencing, but still they came in.
Only the day before, Fi had screamed as they were letting the dogs out and Jim turned to see a 6ft black cobra a few feet from them. Jim had killed quite a few with his hoe, but this was much bigger. He threw a heavy stick at the snake, but missed, and it rose up and made lunging motions at them. Fi kept screaming and eventually it slithered away into next door’s garden.
The dogs had been less lucky at times. Despite their size, the huskies gave snakes a wide berth but the bravest cocker spaniel liked to grab them and shake her head violently, and batter the reptiles to death. A couple of months before she had run into the house howling in pain and pawing at Jim’s leg, her eyes swollen after an encounter with a spitting cobra. They had just got her to the vet in time, but she still lost an eye.
But it was the stories of the king cobra that most worried them – and whether it had any offspring. Years before they moved in, the neighbours said they had seen a 20ft-long monster near the pond. They were alerted by the sound of frogs being eaten – apparently frogs make a particular shriek when eaten by snakes. Knowing how deadly and fast the world’s biggest venomous snake is, and its enormous striking range, they took no chances and blasted the thing with a shotgun.
Jim and Fi were clearly still shaken by the cobra encounter when they showed me round their land, but then I suppose it was one of the downsides of living in a beautiful country so close to nature.
We fed the fish and I promised to catch a few and barbecue them that evening. Then we packed up the cars and headed out to Khao Chamao National Park to visit the waterfalls. We stopped on the way to buy food for the trip – beautiful roast duck and rice that came with bags of satay sauce and soy sauce with chillies, and dried, salted pork similar to biltong, with parcels of rice, minced pork and lily seeds wrapped in leaves.
But when we got to the park, the guards on the gate spotted the food and confiscated it. They were flabby and greedy-looking and looked like they hadn’t bought a meal for years. We handed over our delicious food, and my beloved ice box full of Chang beers, and the guards went through the motions of writing down our number plates saying they would return it on the way out. They even said we weren’t allowed to take water in, which considering the heat was ridiculous.
We paid the entrance fee (which was seven times more for foreigners) and prepared for the steep ascent into the jungle. Thai families were openly carrying water bottles and huge picnic hampers up there. Some even had ice boxes. I thought about those guards and my lovely ice cold beers. The buggers would probably be on their second one by now – can in hand, munching on a duck drumstick, waiting for the next farang to arrive.
I hadn’t come prepared and had to walk through the jungle in flip flops. After 20 minutes of climbing over rocks and vines, the sweat was pouring off me, and I thought about those lovely cold cans again. Ten minutes later, I had a pounding headache from dehydration and began to lag behind after stubbing my toes numerous times. I tried not to think about cobras. If they were that common in Jim’s garden how many would be out there in the jungle? They’re not in the trees – they ARE the trees! Flip flops would offer no protection. If I was bitten, I’d be dead by the time I got to the bottom.
Eventually, we got to the Khao Chamao waterfall, stripped off our clothes and plunged into its deep ponds. The water was filled with black fish, which I found out later were a species of carp called tor soro. There were so many of them, you brushed against them as you swam, and if you sat on the rocks by the side they came up and nibbled your skin. Some must have weighed 6lbs and would easily have fed a family of eight.
But their numbers and size were down to the fact the Thais didn’t touch them. The locals said if you eat the fish you become dizzy, which is how the waterfall got its name Khao Chamao – meaning “to get drunk” in Thai. The fish apparently eat berries from overhanging trees, which don’t affect the fish but cause humans to hallucinate.
Now, I’ve always considered myself an adventurous cook, and it would have been easy to catch one of those fish. And I did think about getting some wood together and cooking one by the side of that waterfall just to see what would happen. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Maybe someone a lot madder and braver than me, like Anthony Bourdain or Bruce Parry, would have done it. Or at least have got one of their film crew to try it first. But I was too worried about getting back in flip flops as it was without running around being chased by imaginary cobras.
Lennie Nash is a journalist writing a book about his failure to make it as a professional chef. Now eating his way around SE Asia on the advance, in between Barton Fink writing sessions in cheap hotels.