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Flaming Bedbugs and Fighting Monkeys

PHETCHABURI, Thailand   Teak is a lovely wood.  Deep chocolate colored
with a vulnerability to wear in pleasing ways, grooves where keys rub on a door
or a subtle indentation where a cup of tea rests on the arm of a chair, it was
once the building block of Thailand.

A graceful hundred-year-old teak house overlooks the muddy Phetchaburi River
and has, in one of its many incarnations, been converted to a guesthouse and
restaurant.  The rooms are small and cell-like with restrooms down a narrow
hallway and wobbly fans screwed into the ceiling.  The guests are young Thai
women and shifty-eyed, bad teethed, hung-over old men, Dutch, Scandinavian,
German, American, with coarse laughs and harsh humor.  
Shoe-horning our bicycles into of our tiny
room we walked into the sweltering night,
sweat pouring from places where sweat is
not known to pour, shoulders, calves,
earlobes, fingertips, all dripping with thick
streams.  At the night market Thais
gathered around folding tables illuminated
by naked bulbs dangling from a single cord
while wearing long-sleeved shirts and long
pants.  They consumed bowls of steaming
glass noodles seasoned with eye-watering
spicy hot little chilis.  Yet they show not the
slightest inclination to perspiration.  How
can that be?

Fist sized plastic cellophane bags full of
pineapple-halves, papaya strips, and bell
shaped maroon colored fruits were
stacked in ice on a vendor’s cart.  Amanda
pointed to a pineapple bag and held up
her index finger to alert the stringy vendor
that she wants one.  The young man with
smiling eyes lays the bag gently into his
palm and deftly chops the pineapple with a
large knife using just enough force to
separate the ripe fruit into delicate pieces
without cutting through the cellophane.  As
he takes her twenty bhat bill he hands me
two long wooden sticks to use as forks.  

Back at the hotel we wedged ourselves
into our sheet-less twin beds for the night,
sweating under the rickety fan that seemed
ready at any moment to disconnect itself
from the ceiling and chop us to bits.  
Amanda tosses and turns for hours until I
ask, “Is everything OK?”

Sitting up at the side of the bed she
whines, “No, I’m itchy.  I don’t know what it
is.  Are you itchy?” She tries to scratch a
point on her back that is nearly impossible
to reach.   “Do you feel anything, like bed
bugs, jumping on you?  I feel something’s
eating me but I don’t see anything.”

I didn’t feel a thing and told her so and then
said, “Try some of my DEET.  That should
keep them off.”  Throughout the night she
sprayed half a bottle of 99% DEET on
herself but the bugs continued to get her.

In the morning I woke just before dawn and
dug out our camp stove for the first time on
this trip.  Using the stove all summer on our
ride down the U.S. west coast I became
adept at folding out the legs and
connecting the fuel tank, so the darkness
of the teak-walled room posed no real
problem.  The petrol was a concern.  
Unable to read the Thai script on the gas
pump at the Bangkok station, I simply
waited for a car to fill up, smelled the fuel to
make sure it was not diesel, then filled the
little gas bottles.  

After pressurizing the bottle with the small
plastic pump I turned the safety valve on
and allowed a tiny squirt of fuel to spill into
the bottom of the burner bowl.  With a flick
of the lighter a burst of flame filled the bowl
and then leaped out onto the tile floor.  

Instantly the fire grew into a two-foot puddle
of flames reaching up toward the ceiling
and filling the room with light.  I yelled as I
grabbed the cover off of Amanda as she
lay in bed and swung it over the spreading
flames.  

Startled awake, Amanda screamed, “Oh,
my God, oh my God, we’re on fire!” as she
waived her arms in the air and jumped
from one bed to the other.
Flames licked up the dry teak wall and wrapped around the liter bottle of fuel.  I
shoved the stove aside but the flames followed.  “Gasoline must be spilling from the
tank!” I yelled as I flapped at the fire with the bed cover, stomping on the flames and
smothering the fuel tank while Amanda whacked at the flames with the other bed
cover.  

As she hit the flames she yelled, “Dios mio,” whack. “Fregado,” whack.  “Con
ganas,” whack.  One by one she killed the flames while I held to the tank.  When the
last flicker finally died out I tightly screwed the melted plastic top on the fuel tank.  
Dazed and exhausted we plopped ourselves on to the lumpy mattress and stared
down at the tile floor where the fire had just been.

I inspected the bedspread and was surprised it showed no sign of being burnt but
Amanda took it from me and spread it wide to look closer at the evidence, “Well,
that oughta kill the bed bugs,” she said.  A faint smell of gasoline lingered in the
room but somehow we escaped without doing any permanent damage.  

Setting the stove aside we decided to have tea and breakfast at the restaurant.  
The plates of sliced pineapple and papaya were exactly what we needed before
pedaling across town to Khao Wang to the famous temple monastery at the top of
a steep hill where monkeys rule the roost.  At the guard shack half way to the top we
locked the bikes and continued to the top in the company of hundreds of wild
monkeys sitting on the stone railing.  With most of our packs locked in the hotel
room we carried only one pannier each and the handlebar bags Amanda likes to
call our lunch boxes.

Lugging the bags up the hill, trying to keep from slipping on the slick brick path, a
large monkey hopped down from the railing and grabbed a brightly colored yellow
plastic bag hanging from Amanda’s pannier.  

Monkeys must have some sort of sixth sense in choosing their victims.  They see
Amanda coming and go for the kill knowing she is good for an outrageous,
unpredictable reaction that will liven their already exciting day.  

The coveted plastic bag contained a small batch of toilet tissue that Amanda had
herself “borrowed” from the hotel.  The thief was halfway back to the wall with its
prize when Amanda’s overwhelming thrift kicked in.  She gave chase, took hold of
one handle of the bag and pulled it back from the monkey with all her might.  

The monkey gave a yelp of surprise (I didn’t know monkeys yelped!) as Amanda
yanked it backward while pulling the bag from its tight fist.  The monkey swung at
Amanda with a sharp claw toward her eyes.  Missing the mark the swipe left a long
scratch across Amanda’s neck, not far from where an African green monkey bit her
several years ago in a remarkably similar incident.  But she got the toilet tissue
back.  

After that, we strolled through the Wat with Amanda on guard, watching each and
every monkey as it came within a fifty meters radius.  “Richard, look out for that
one.  He looks like trouble.  And him, over there, with the fuzzy red butt.  He’s trying
to sneak up on us.”  It seems the devilish monkeys, not the historic Wat, are the real
attraction to this lovely mountaintop.  And the slippery cobbles too.  We watched
with malevolent mirth, along with many of the locals, as visitors after visitor slipped
on the steep bricks and skidded down the hill on their rear end.  

Early the next morning Amanda wheeled the bikes from the teak guesthouse into
the street as I carried the panniers and duffle bags.  Clipping the packs in place we
realized that we had brought far too much gear.  The bags were too heavy and we
had not yet worked out how to distribute the weight evenly.  Twenty minutes of
packing and repacking left us both frustrated before we had even set out for the day.

With the first few pedal strokes of the overloaded bicycle I vowed to myself to leave
something behind at each guesthouse we stayed until I found a proper balance.  As
if reading my mind Amanda yelled from behind “I can do without half of this stuff.”   

Soon we settled into the rhythm of the road and the weight became second nature.  
The humming revolution of pedals, the drumbeat locomotion of legs, the deep easy
inhale and exhale of breath, and the sleepy-eyed gaze into the middle-distance a
few feet ahead of my front wheel, all filled me with a feeling of numb, unconscious
meditation. Wandering back to the mishaps of the day before my mind worked on
the incidents, mistakes that could have easily ended our journey right at the
beginning.   

A high-pitched “beep, beep” brought me back to reality.  A family a four passed just
a few feet to my right, all of them somehow clinging helmetless to a moped scooter.
The father tooted the horn while the two young children and mother, clinging to one
another on the back, all waived and smiled.  

I smiled back with true contented happiness.  
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