3. Phuket The road between Phangnga and Phuket was rough. I had two flat tires, a record, but we still made excellent time in the morning because the hills were balanced, meaning the ups equaled the downs. We stopped at the Seventh-Day Adventist Hospital to have my stitches removed … met the Andersons, a pair of missionary doctors, who gave us a place to stay, fed us delicious vegetarian meals, and took us snorkeling at a beautiful beach. Peggy had a hard time getting used to the mask, which fitted over the eyes and nose, and to the tube through which she breathed. She had to keep reminding herself to breathe through her mouth. We swam quite a ways from shore (Peggy and I both wore life belts), so that we could see really beautiful fish. The Andersons were close to our age and had only been in Thailand for two or three weeks, which helped us bond with them.
Our baby gibbon’s dislike for me seemed to grow, as his dependency on Peggy increased. When he couldn’t be sitting in her lap or hugging her neck, he cried, especially when he saw her. Apparently he’d still be riding around his mother’s neck because he wanted to spend all of his time around Peggy’s neck. It was really awkward for her trying to do everything (not to mention somewhat painful: her ponytail offered the best grip). And he made terrible screeching and crying noises when she put him down. She couldn’t stand to listen to his cries and he cried even more if she tied him somewhere nearby. He liked to sleep in her lap. He’d curl up in her lap and gave a little squeak every time she moved. We hoped that that would change and that he’d become secure enough to play by himself and stay with me.
When we rode our bicycles, Chanee rode around Peggy’s neck or, if he got tired, in a small basket tied onto a carrier on her handlebars. No one complained or questioned us about him when we took him everywhere, into hotels and restaurants. Instead people along the way asked us, “Where you go?” and those who saw Chanee usually began with a comment about him. We hoped that it wouldn’t be long before he got big enough to be interested in what was around him.
4. Phuket In Malaysia we were quite disappointed that we saw practically none of the people’s religious ceremonies, their festivities, their dancing or their drama. But we were really lucky in Thailand. On the island of Phuket the population was largely Chinese, and the week we were there was one of the big Chinese festival times. The morning after we got there we saw one of their big parades. What interested us most were the holy men who had metal spikes stuck in various parts of their bodies: in their arms, through their upper lips, and through their cheeks. These men were in trances, dancing around, and shaking their heads. The trances kept them from feeling pain and somehow seemed to protect their bodies. We saw only one man who was bleeding, and local people told us that no sores or wounds were left when the spikes were removed.
The next night we saw fire walking. When we got to the temple, a large area had been fenced off, in the center of which was a bed of red hot coals, about 15 feet square and 1 ½ feet deep. After a while, holy men came dancing out barefooted and already in a trance but getting deeper and deeper as small boys beat drums. Men then made offerings at various altars inside the fenced areas, conferred earnestly with each other, and used swords and spears to write in the sand. Then we noticed that most of the men … there were about 25 … congregating in one place. Suddenly several ran across the coals. Others followed … some as fast as they could, others more slowly, one jumping … until all but one ran through. (Apparently he felt something was wrong.) They continued dancing around on the coals for several minutes, and two men sat in the coals. Then they went into the temple where they reached a very high pitch, prior to being brought out of the trance. None of the men showed any signs of having been burned, and a Thai doctor said he examined their feet afterwards and found no evidence of burns.
The climax of the festivities was the next night when they sent spirits to the sea. So we went about 10 o’clock to see the procession. Wow! So many firecrackers! We thought part of the original purpose of the fireworks was to frighten away evil spirits. But most of them were thrown under the feet of the holy men in the procession, who went out of their way to dance in the thick of the explosions. The noise was so loud that it was difficult to shout loud enough to be heard, and the smoke was so thick at times that we could see only a few feet. The firecrackers weren’t the kind that could blow an arm off, but they were big enough that when one landed in Peggy’s lap it burned a hole in her dress and raised welts on her legs. Yet the holy men could walk in procession a couple of miles long with people all along the way throwing firecrackers under their feet and not get burned. It was something that defied medicine.
We learned that the purpose of this weeklong festival was to chase away evil spirits, which came down from heaven about this time of year to kill sick people. The holy men, or priests, get the spirits in them. Then the spirits are driven out by these various means and sent to the sea: back to heaven. The Chinese who held this festival were basically Buddhists, but the festival was from China and had no connection with Buddhism.
Peggy and Randy Ford