A Rather Hairy Business
Updated: Jan 28
Bangkok, Thailand, 1992. Heading into the monsoon season, the Festival of Songkran over for another year. Hot. Very hot. Mercury searching for a way out of the end of the thermometer & humid beyond belief. The kind of weather that can easily send a man ‘troppo’. Or a woman, for that matter. As much as I loved the ‘City of Angels,’ I was desperate to escape.
The opportunity arrived with a friend from Hong Kong. She had left the concrete jungle behind in search of the real thing. Easy to please. A short trip to the province of Kanchanaburi and a boathouse high up the River Kwae Noi. That’s the ‘little’ River Kwae as opposed to the ‘big’ one spanned by the infamous bridge. Scenically stunning, plenty of greenery, reputedly good food. Close to the border with Burma so demographically interesting. Possibly not the safest place in the Kingdom at the time due to cross-border skirmishes between insurgents of different factions, but there is nothing like the possibility of a little danger to add spice to an adventure.
Unusually for Thailand we departed on time, early on a Thursday morning, in a small white minivan that was overloaded, noisy and smelt of gasoline. No rear view mirrors nor air conditioning, somewhat bald tyres and a driver with a penchant for speed. Of both types. His eyes were so bloodshot it was a miracle he could see through them; his foot glued to the throttle. It took a while for the landscape to stop moving when we paused for a tea break. Needless to say we arrived at our destination early, a little the worse for wear, a kilo or two lighter due to the sauna-like conditions in the van but in one piece. And that was all that mattered.
The location of the houseboat was breathtakingly beautiful. A tall rocky cliff rising from one side of the swirling brown river, draped with vines and creepers and trees. On the other bank, a narrow floodplain that carried the dirt track we arrived on. Backing that was undulating jungle in a myriad of textures and shades of green. Birdsong echoed in the wind. Hot sun, but not so humid. After the traffic jams and pollution of Bangkok this was surely the closest thing to paradise that could be found without a plane ride.
Accommodation was simple but adequate. Natural materials. A small bedroom with a terrace on the river and in an adjoining room, a large earthenware jar held water for washing. Company around the dinner table was lively and interesting. A polyglot of nationalities, all well travelled and with plenty of tales to share. The die was cast that first evening over a fair few beers. Daytime in our separate groups, night time all of us together. A dozen or so new friends, eating, drinking and laughing.
Sunset, day two. A jungle walk with a local guide. Just he, my friend and I. Simple instructions,
“Watch out for snakes – wear heavy boots and socks. Beware the legions of mosquitoes – drown in citronella or DEET and wear long pants and a shirt with long sleeves or prepare to be a mobile blood banquet. Take a camera and put a torch in your pocket. Oh, and by the way, duck if you hear a fast, whistling kind of a sound. It could be a bullet.”
On that cheery note we set off into the bush.
As the sun set so the sky pinkened, a delicate blush that deepened to rose and then strawberry before darkening into a clear golden blueness. Creatures of the daylight gave way to those of the night. Out came the flashlights. Off I wandered, lost in thought as I followed in the footsteps of the two whispering shadows in front of me.
As a child I was always chastised for not looking where I was going. Evidently nothing changed as I got older because in my reverie I walked smack bang into something. Warm. Furry. Large. And very strong.
A monkey. Swinging from a branch by one hand. I don’t know who was more surprised, me or he! No doubt whose reactions were the quickest though. Upon contact with me he wrapped his back legs around my neck and wound the fingers of his free hand into my long wavy blonde tresses, pulling me into him and yanking down hard on my hair. You do not need to be an expert in monkey anatomy to figure what part of this animal’s body my face was now firmly clamped to. Trust me. It was most definitely a male.
I couldn’t scream. I wasn’t able to open my mouth, not that I would have wanted to anyway. All I could do was stamp my feet and then only a couple of times as my monkey captor saw this as a signal to pull my hair even harder.
My friend and the guide returned and on seeing the scene before them burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter. No thought of rescue. Oh no. Laughter and then photography. Unbelievable but true. And not only did my friend take pictures with her camera, she carefully removed mine from my belt and took even more, just to make sure that I, too, had a record of this wonderfully funny event for posterity.
All in the meanwhile the joke was wearing very thin as far as I was concerned. And so was my hair. I wanted out. We are only talking about a minute or two here, maybe not even that long, but when you have your face thrust into a monkey’s genitals a couple of seconds is a lifetime. I reached up and began pulling at the fur and skin on the monkey’s back. I have a wonderful black and white photograph of this moment. I look at it now, more than a decade on, and I laugh. I laugh out loud until my sides hurt. But at the time I was scared. Very scared. Because the more I pulled, the more he thrust. Seriously unpleasant I can assure you.
My admirer eventually released his grip on me after being hit several times about the body with a stick. I am not one who likes to see cruelty to animals but at this stage I cared not what they did to this monster to extricate him from me.
With nary so much as a backward glance he swung up into the tree and was gone. I fell to the ground in a state of shock and began to scream obscenities at my friend and the guide. This, of course, served no purpose but to rekindle their laughter and as we all know, laughter is contagious. It didn’t take long before my screams changed to giggles, and from giggles to belly laughter. Tears streamed down my face as I gave thought to what this monkey business must have looked like to an observer. A comedy scriptwriter surely couldn’t have penned the scene any better!
We dined off this encounter that night on the boat and at many dinners since. It’s brought laughter to lots of people. And that’s a wonderful thing.
It just goes to show that every cloud has the possibility of a silver lining, even though we might not see it at the time. And that we never know who, or what, lies around the next corner as we journey through our lives.
One thing’s for sure though. Be prepared to be surprised!