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Travelogue: Zombie monk island

Zombie monks, rocky waterfalls, distressed elephants, phallic landmarks and dodgy caiparinha cocktails … welcome to the Thai jungle paradise of Koh Samui.

Coconut island. Or so it used to be. Now the coconuts are imported-on jets from Australia, the UK, Italy, Germany, Japan, mainly.

They’re looking for sun, snorkelling and Singhas. One thing to know, just quickly, is when you get on the turps in Samui, check you’re not drinking real turps, or ethanol as might be the case.

The young fraulein next door at my Fisherman’s Village resort wasn’t so judicious, and copped two bouts of home-brew poisoning from cocktails. Should have learned the first time.

The caiparinhas still taste okay to my mind. A bit odd maybe but the cachaca they’re usually made from can be pretty dodgy anyway. And as my octogenarian Brazilian gynaecologist mate Dr Mario often told me: “Caiparinha can cure a lot of ills but it can create a lot of ills, too.”

Why they’re even selling Rio caiparinhas in Samui’s a fair question but, hey, it’s the tropics. Why not? It’s hardly the only oddity.

My Samui oddities actually start on the plane. The MA128 redeye. Poor Indian bloke lost his shoe, which he’d kicked off before falling asleep. Found it up the other end of the plane after a rigorous search aided by a strident Probus toastmistress telling anyone not blessed with deafness that this poor chap had lost his shoe.

“How could that possibly happen?” she repeats over and over as if an answer would materialise if she asked often enough. But a dozen times doesn’t do it.

My missus, laughing into her airplane pillow almost enough to accident (my new verb), confesses in whispered hysterics: “I kicked it on the floor when I went to the toilet in the middle of the night. I thought I’d keep kicking it and see what happened.”

Ha, ha, yes very droll, I think as I congratulate the poor sable sap on his shoe’s eventual return. He seems buoyed by the feigned concern masking the fear my significant other might burst out laughing. Or worse.

The peculiarities continue apace. At the ethanol bar, Coco Tam’s, I see two young blokes belting the suitcase out of each other shortly before midday. I think it’s part of a promo stunt as a truck-load of midgets drive past bellowing “Tonight, tonight!” to advertise a Muay Thai boxing tournament. It’s something else. They don’t want to discuss it with me.

Strikes me as odd, too, to later see a bullfight on local tellie with excited locals spilling over the fence as two bloodied buffalo rammed heads and horns in a nasty test of testosterone. Drags on for half an hour, again with a screeching harridan beseeching her wager to take out the other beast.

In the end, one bull just ambles off. He’s had enough. So have I. My taxi driver proudly points out the stadium, a dirty paddock, the next day. Certainly no Spanish matador’s gilded arena but I’m warming to the Samui strangeness.

At Wat Kunaram, in the island’s south near Ban Thurian, I find Buddhist devotees praying to Luang Phaw Daeng, a monk who’d predicted the day of his death at age 79 back in the 1970s. He fasted and fed himself a special diet that’s purportedly responsible for his body’s mummified state ever since.

The monk’s corpse sits upright in a large glass case, his head assuming a rock star aspect because of the sunglasses shielding his no doubt spooky-looking eyes from scrutiny.

Yeah, it’s zombie-creepy but the religious ectoplasm floating about lends the show a nice Zen aspect. Monks chanting in the temple to the rear, and another bright and colourful new temple next door again extend further gravity to what’s patently a con.

Not so sure about the jovial monk at the Big Buddha temple at Bo Phut. For a few bob, he happily half-drenched me, splashing water over my head and repeating “Goolark, goolark!” at great pace for a couple of minutes. Tell him I’m on my honeymoon and he nearly falls off his perch laughing.

The “goolark” seems to come to fruition the next morning with a phone call from home with a tidy new contract. The financial reporting season also turns up a larger-than-expected return on a few stocks I’d squirrelled away.

I keep smiling and drive south to Lamai’s Hin Ta and Hin Yai — two rocky protruberances loosely resembling a penis and a female pudenda. Grandpa Rock and Grandma Rock are an immensely popular tourist drawcard with stalls, spielers, restaurants and hotels all around.

Sex might sell in the fleshpots of nearby Chaweng but here it sells in the diluted version of geological anatomy.

A fat Japanese bloke poses on the ground, prostate, with grandpa strategically positioned to emerge from his midriff. Giggling European girls pose with fingers pinching poor old pop in the background. The Muslim girls are up for a laugh, too.

Others place their young children in front of grandpa for a family happy snap. Camera tricks and dick tricks corroborate in a tropical puppetry of the penis.

The Samuis like their rocks. My hotel, the Beluga, is built around them. In addition to its fluorescent indigo, lime, blue and red lighting, the hotel features smart, glazed rocky faces metres high and metres long in the walls of its rooms. My bathroom is a rocky cavern with a shower and a dunny and a few tiles. Quite remarkable, too, if not especially sexy.

It’s Greek-inspired Thai contemporary architecture. All blazing white stone, sparse vegetation – a central frangipani and a palm or two only – and designed by a Frenchman named Roman. Go figure.

Nearby is local tourist trap Valentine’s Rock, which you can pose beneath for 100 baht, alongside hosts of heart-shaped sculptures. Get your toes nibbled by fish in a pond, too, if you fancy. Or pose by the two-metre wooden penis central to the park there. Someone got through Samui Tourism 101 with flying colours.

If you like your rocks hot, you can climb up the hill to a café with a balcony lookout over Lamai and its ever-encroaching palms and jungle, and fishing boats out to sea. A fistful of wooden hashtag signs await your photo-selfie opportunity: #lovely #viewpoint, #hi and the likes.

The German honeymooners who ask me to snap a photo of them have a #inlove sign. Where’s a #frankfurt sign when you need one, I wonder.

A wobbly funicular with cheerful giggling guides, and consignments of coconuts for the café, will take you up upwards if you’re thinking rugged be buggered. Whatever you do, don’t take the car. The grade is ridiculously steep.

Night falls and my neighbours have erected a pair of wooden teepee frames, adorned with fairy lights, and a swag of turquoise bean bags, atop the granite tor adjoining our two hotels. So we sit on the beacon rocks as the sun tumbles behind us into the jungle and fishing boat lights emerge on the horizon. Frosty Singhas complete the scene.

Full-body tattoos, G-strings and bare-butt wide-crochet skirts, hotel staff in white cotton trousers, tees and waist sashes seem the order of the day in this part of the world. If you’re wearing anything, that is. One thing I spy are scars which it unfolds are painful stinger tattoos left on those silly enough to swim in the ocean waters at night. Vinegar and raw alcohol help but best you don’t harbour any such ambitions.

The barman making me a caiparinha, Wun Chai, is a father in waiting. Any day now. His wife and first child are in Myanmar, where he was born. He’s hoping to see them in four or five months, when next he gets shore leave. Long and anxious wait. He shows me pretty photos.

I discover a strange bar among the giant seaside boulders beside Grandpa and Grandma. It’s a reggae bar cum tree house cum memorial to Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Not a straight line in the place and two beers under your belt you become a serious leg injury liability. Drop a match and you’d all be toast.

But the place is rather brilliant. Cushions galore, ladder steps everywhere, crooked branch handrails, red and yellow lighting… it’s a kind of deranged Peter Pan Lost Boys cubby hut meets Pirates of the Caribbean Isla de Muerta bar.

It’s called The Rock Bar, of course. Looks like an underground bar buried under dried palm fronds until you delve inside, whereupon it takes on a high-rise aspect from its tangled base between several shoreline boulders.

The scent of cannabis glides up, over and through the bar’s multifarious levels. A Thai-Jamaican band has set up just inches above the incoming sea. I natter to a pleasant young English couple freshly out of India, and its food poisoning/starvation/disease horrors, and now optimistically eyeing Angkor Wat and old Saigon.

I tell them to play it safe in Australia, that our shark-snake-scorpion-spider terrors are greatly overrated. Maybe one day, they suggest. They’d rather take their chances just about anywhere else.

I wonder on, gently buzzed with caiparinha and Chang. I trip over a glass artisan busy fire-blasting a blue-eared sausage dog. Then a coach-load of Japanese tourists descending on a massive timbered seafood eatery. Then a snapper in tamarind sauce at a humble adjoining beachside restaurant where alluring chargrill scents mix uneasily with sewerage pongs. The tamarind wins, just.

The cats and dogs are plump, their pelts thick and clean, and their demeanour strangely amicable. The cat doesn’t even chase a mouse I spot on the sand. Just looks and moves on. The mouse shits itself, mind you, and whips out of its path.

One more oddity. The place doesn’t look so prosperous that the mutts shouldn’t be mangy and distemper-afflicted. And I wonder what’s happened to rabies, nature’s way of keeping the animal kingdom from taking us over.

Inland at Na Mueang waterfall, an 80-metre cascade in a pretty jungle hideaway, visitors skid and slide over slippery rocks as they seek out their perfect snapshot. Auto apertures can’t cope with the dark foliage and brilliant sunlight, though, resulting in indistinct silhouette shots.

Long-suffering elephants, swaying sadly in their chained misery, are coerced upriver to the falls with loads of tourists on their backs. The river’s anything but a sandy passage. It’s rocks, rocks and more rocks. One slip by the pachyderm and everyone’s cactus.

The island’s centre, a mess of hills covered by palms after earlier being denuded of the trees, hosts a criss-cross of roads, back-tracks and short-cuts to avoid the coastal towns. Lamai to Mae Nam takes me little more than 20 minutes in a brand-new cab with an enthusiastic driver keen to test the brakes at speed.

Mae Nam, looking out across the turquoise to Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Toa, is a mess of hotels and resorts, dusty roads, shops and houses. And tourists seeking out Family Marts, 7-Elevens and stores with cheaper meals, snacks and beers than the hotels offer.

Inside the hotels, visitors sunbake, drink, swim and eat between yoga downward dogs, deep-tissue massages and self-pedicures walking the abrasive beachfronts. I splash about for a bit, laze about and scoff a pad thai from a neighbouring beach restaurant before sidling up to a prospective drinking buddy at the pool bar.

We bang on about San Diego and Sarawak golf courses, kangaroos, Thai food, Bangkok, the Frankfurt Motor Show, Italian and Brazilian thieves, Japan and a rambling agenda of loose travel-related stuff. Caiparinhas and Changs. Great conversationalists the two of us, hic!

 

charango

While my charango gently weeps …

Charango: It looks like a wooden armadillo. You know, those critters always getting skittled on South American back roads. Anteater-like, shell-dwelling rodents that musicians like to behead, gut, slap a fretboard on and then a poultice of nylon or gut strings.

Well, no animals were hurt in this musical experiment, if that’s any consolation. Perhaps an endangered timber or two — I can’t vouch otherwise. What happens in Bolivia, where this was made, is all mystery to me.

Not that that’s where I found this charango — the 10-string fake armadillo. I brought it for $US300 on the streets of neighbouring Cusco, high up in Peruvian Andes. Pig of an instrument, too.

I’ve fooled around with guitars, mandolins, bouzoukis, banjos, citterns, fiddles, mando-cellos, ch’ins, bandurias, balalaikas, instruments I couldn’t even name.

I’ve re-tuned them, de-tuned them, battered them with brass, glass and chrome slides, distortion pedals, wah-wahs, tube-screamers, samples and patches . . . all sorts of nonsense. Tortured the neighbours a good bit too, I confess. But this charango’s a tricky proposition.

I’ve watched all manner of Andean pan flute band and thrash-strumming charangeur, I’ve seen some remarkable jazz and tango extracted from the instrument. It gets me dabbling about with the creature. Confused as all get-out, mind you.

The instrument has 10 strings in sets of two, four of them in unison, one an octave apart _ in the middle of the sets. The two sets either side are roughly in the same high-pitched settings.

Rather than climbing from low to high in pitch, this thing starts high, descends and then rises up again. Basically, two sets are tuned like a mandolin, or tenor banjo, or violin _ in fifths, reconciling on the seventh fret. Four sets, one of them overlapping, are like the highest four strings of a guitar. Go figure.

I show this box of mystery to a mate who’s handy with all manner of musical critters. His eyes light up: “Murph, what a gem!” Yeah sure, I think.

“I can’t scratch a tune out of the swine. It rolls about, jumps octaves, tricks you every second note. Sounds great until you play three notes in a row,” I reply.

My mate smiles back, inscrutably. He then proceeds, gently — you don’t rush these things — to work his way through  Rondo á la Turk  on the charango.

I slide back into my seat for the ride. I don’t know what I was expecting.  Duelling Banjos, The Devil Goes Down to Georgia , some O’Carolan . . . anything but Mozart’s impossible  Rondo á la bloody Turk.  Last time I saw anyone playing that on strings it was Phil Emmanuel, Tommy’s brother.

But, nope, this was a Tuesday night, at Geelong’s Irish Murphy’s pub — barely anyone around — and a bloke sitting in the corner.

Take a bow, Geoff Sinbeck.

On the road to Machu Picchu

TRAVEL: Inca Trail wraiths on road to Machu Picchu

MACHU PICCHU: The wraiths slide down the cliff, clinging to the blue mossy granite, slinking toward the eerie stone structure that is Phuyupatamarka.

Chilly tendrils of mist reluctant to give up the earth, they whip down and over its ancient concourse, scrubbing it with a ghostly ether. They then race up the yellow grassy headland towards me.

The tendrils launch themselves at me, enveloping my throat, my arms, my body, and whispering threats I can’t understand. I freeze as they race past me toward a soaring cliff’s edge and more interlopers who have invaded their ancient enclave.

In the rarified air of the Andes, 10,000 feet above sea level, the ghosts of the ancient Inca kings are reminding me they don’t like visitors. Or so I think. Suddenly, an updraft, born far below _ a mile below, in a small town anxious to scrawl its destiny in the sand _ shatters the icy fingers and blows them to the four winds.

Maybe it’s the lack of oxygen but my imagination’s running riot. It’s been like this for days as I trudge past rocky ruin after beautiful rocky ruin, in the cloud forest of Peru’s High Inca Trail.

Looking down at faraway Aguas Calientes, I wonder if the vapours stalk its townsfolk too, mistaking them perhaps for shades of the marauding Spanish man-horse beasts who whipped the Incas into submission with arquebus, religion and disease 500 years ago.

Not all of the Incas succumbed, though. Learning of the slaughter at Cuzco and elsewhere, and fearing their own, many withdrew to the faraway reaches of the mountain jungles.

The most famous of their abandoned hideways is where I’m headed. The lost city of Machu Picchu. Spirits willing.

Discovered in 1911 by a professor from Yale, Machu Picchu is hard to get to. Five days by foot across stony frozen passes, along vertiginous crevasses, past brightly-coloured wild orchids, in the shadow of serrated snow-capped peaks, suspension bridges, wild rivers.

The trail is beautiful going but tough. Treacherous rocky paths and staircases — one foot wrong and you’ll do an ankle, knee or worse —  are constant pitfalls for the unwary. I limp in, up and over the Inti Punku/Sun Gate ridge, knees considerably worse for wear.

It’s little wonder the wicked Pizarro brothers never found Machu Picchu. Outsiders would only ever find it by accident, which is exactly how Hiram Bingham did so a century ago.

In 1911, Machu Picchu was an overgrown ruin Bingham mistook for Vilcabamba, believed the last stronghold hideaway of the Incas. His stunning find sent an electric shock through the world of archaeology.

The day I arrive, it’s still red-hot _ a favourite in a huge world-wide 100-million vote for the New 7 Wonders of the World. The place is buzzing with hundreds of tourists pouring over the site, 2350 metres above sea level.

Down in Aguas Calientes celebrations are in full swing. Cusqueno beer, pisco sour cocktails and cachasa caiparinhas you might drive your car on are all disappearing fast. Raucous Santana riffs are stripping the lurid paint from the town’s walls, so too the village brass band and classical music blasting from the town square’s stage. Even builders are dancing on the church roof.

The following day, it’s officially listed as a maravillo  —  in company with the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Rome’s Colloseum, the ancient city of Petra, Rio’s Christ Redeemer statue and Mexico’s Chich aacén Itz aacá.

I get back up the mountain by 7am to beat the rush, which I do by about 10 minutes.

 

A Bali volcano, a witch queen and a palace mystery

TRAVEL: DOUBT if living in the shadow of a Bali volcano is everyone’s cup of tea. Especially one that’s  properly blown its stack in ready living memory and poised to do so again any minute now.

When you’re a peasant farmer living a subsistence existence in eastern Bali your residential options aren’t many, though. Even so, the grey Gunung Agung, set to erupt again, 50 years after its last eruption — about 15 seconds ago in geological terms — is revered rather than feared.

The gentle Hindus living in the shadow of Agung believe it was formed from a fragment of the cataclysmic splitting of Mount Meru — the cosmological spiritual axis of the universe — by the god Pasupati. At 3140 metres in height, 10,000 feet or so, that’s a fair fragment.

Geologically, Agung is impressively known as a stratovolcano. Standing at its base, driving about in its penumbra, basking in the sun in the rice fields around it — however you interface with it — its omnipresence is undeniable.

Visitors arrive by bus, motorbike and chartered taxis to witness its towering attitude, many of them happily scoffing banana fritters for breakfast before launching into a bike ride back to Bali’s cultural heartland, Ubud.

Pea-green rice paddies, terraces and palms, villages and villagers, it’s all very picturesque. The bonus is bugger-all puffing because it’s all downhill, for the main part anyway. And at the bottom, there’s invariably a Bintang or two awaiting the desiccated pedaller.

And really,  who’s normally going to worry about a volcano in Bali? Ummm, yeah. Of course, the recently smoking Mount Rinjani on neighbouring Lombok was of concern, too, and with good reason. But it’s funny how it, and other ash and pumice-belchers in Indonesia, don’t generally stop the tourists or locals going about their business. Go figure.

First time I encountered Agung was 20 years ago, climbing a multitude of steps in the blazing heat at its Besakih foothill temple. Its impressive nature drew me back recently, as did the surrounding countryside with its glistening terraces, sighing palms, snake-fruit orchids, forests and humble villages. I’d forgotten the rocky, tortuous roads, which have improved markedly but with a commensurate increase in traffic.

I headed south and east in Agung’s shadow, searching for a royal water palace I’d once visited in Amlapur. My old photos showed exquisite stone sculptures, a multi-tiered fountain, terraced gardens, stone bridges — a gorgeous collision of colour, art and water fed by natural springs.

When my taxi ushered me to the site, however, I was bewildered. Nothing seemed the same. Not a skerrick. The buildings were unrecognisable, the entire shape of the water palace totally unfamiliar.

But the hydro-folly, which dates to 1919, was remarkable nonetheless. It boasts exquisite floating pavilions and carved stone walkways, palms and lotus ponds, flowers, grassy terraces, arches, statues, royal furnishings and photographs of its builder, the King of Karangasem, with all his 24 kids. Prolific bloke, that one.

It was built around a pool, the Kolam Dirah, once part of a punishment site for black magic practitioners and named for a legendary witch queen who fought it out with the king of what’s now East Java back in the 14th century. These days, the only detainees in the water palace appear to be dozen inquisitive and out-of-place deer kept coralled in pits. It’s considerably more salubrious than in the past.

Like the surrounding countryside, it was battered by the 1963 Agung eruption along with an earthquake in 1979, which all but destroyed the place. World Bank funding has helped restore the palace to its original glory and a steady succession of taxis and tourists keep the turnstiles clicking. Visitors can stay on site in villas if they so wish. With Agung to the north and the sea and Lombok’s Rinjani to the south, its outlook is spectacular.

I couldn’t for the life of me figure how I’d got it so wrong, though. This was not the water palace I visited at Amlapura before and, with precious little Balinese in my kitbag, no-one I met could understand my confusion or offer an explanation. Back in my hotel, at neighbouring Candidasa, I consulted a couple of dog-eared guidebooks and Dr Google before finally getting to the bottom of my mystery.

Turns out I Gusti Bagus Djelantik, the King of Karangasem, built not one but two water palaces. I was at the Taman Ujung water palace. The one I was missing was Tirta Gangga. Both of them are in Amlapura and only a few kilometres apart. My driver had simply gone to the palace he thought I wanted.

So go figure. Two of the things. I suppose it’s a kind of royal equivalent to stumping up a couple of cars for your teenage kids. When you’ve got two dozen fractious rug-rats, why wouldn’t you build two swimming pools? You can’t throw them in a volcano if they’re acting up, can you?

Then again, when you’re a king …

belugarocks

TRAVEL: Rocking the tourist trade on Koh Samui

There’s tourist dollars in stones, stoners and supernatural oddities in the jungle paradise of Koh Samui.

Soughing palms, sun-scorched beaches, waterfalls, elephants and croc farms might be the island’s ostensible attractions but it’s giant granite boulders and plain weird that underpin the tourist trade too.

At Wat Kunaram, in the island’s south near Ban Thurian, for instance, I find Buddhist devotees praying to Luang Phaw Daeng, a monk who’d predicted the day of his death at age 79 back in the 1970s.

The monk’s corpse sits upright in a large glass case, his head assuming a rock star aspect with sunglasses shielding his no-doubt spooky looking eyes from scrutiny. He fed himself a special diet that’s purportedly responsible for his body’s mummified state ever since.

It’s zombie-creepy but the religious ectoplasm floating about lends the show a nice Zen aspect. Monks chanting in the temple to the rear, and another bright and colourful new temple next door, extend further gravity to what has to be a con.

The jovial monk at the Big Buddha temple at Bo Phut is a different matter. For a few bob, he happily half-drenches me, splashing water over my head and repeating “Goolark, goolark!” at great pace for a couple of minutes. I tell him I’m on my honeymoon and he nearly falls off his perch laughing.

His “goolark” seems to come to fruition the next morning with a phone call from home with a tidy new contract. The financial reporting season also turns up a larger-than-expected return on a few stocks I’ve squirreled away.

Driving south to Lamai, I find Hin Ta and Hin Yai — two rocky protruberances loosely resembling a penis and a female pudenda. Grandpa Rock and Grandma Rock are an immensely popular tourist drawcard with stalls, spielers, restaurants and hotels all around.

Sex might sell in the fleshpots of nearby Chaweng, the island’s capital, but here it sells well in the diluted version of geological anatomy.

A fat Japanese bloke poses on the ground, lying on his back with grandpa strategically positioned to emerge erect from his midriff. Giggling European girls pose with fingers pinching poor old pop in the background. The Muslim girls are up for a laugh, too. Others place their young children in front of grandpa for a family happy snap.

Camera tricks and dick tricks corroborate in a tropical puppetry of the penis.

The Samuis like their rocks. My hotel at Lamai, the Beluga, is built around them. In addition to its fluorescent indigo, lime, blue and red lighting, the hotel features smart, glazed rocky faces metres high and metres long in the walls of its rooms.

My bathroom is a rocky cavern with a shower and a dunny and a few tiles. Quite remarkable, too, if not especially sexy. I feel a bit like Fred Flintstone.

The hotel is Greek-inspired Thai contemporary architecture. All blazing white stone, sparse vegetation – a central frangipani and a palm or two only – and built by a Frenchman named Roman. Go figure.

Night falls and my neighbours have erected a pair of wooden teepee frames, adorned with fairy lights, and a swag of turquoise bean bags, atop the granite tor adjoining our two hotels.

So I sit on the beacon rocks as the sun tumbles behind into the jungle and fishing boat lights emerge on the horizon. Frosty Singhas complete the experience admirably.

I discover a strange bar among the giant seaside boulders beside Grandpa and Grandma. It’s a reggae bar cum tree-house cum memorial to Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Not a straight line in the place and two beers under your belt you become a serious leg injury liability. Drop a match and you’d all be toast.

But the place is rather brilliant. Cushions galore, ladder steps everywhere, crooked branch handrails, red and yellow lighting … it’s a kind of Peter Pan Lost Boys cubby hut meets Pirates of the Caribbean Isla de Muerta bar.

It’s called The Rock Bar, of course. Looks like an underground bar buried under dried palm fronds until you delve inside, whereupon it takes on a high-rise aspect from its tangled base between several shoreline rocks.

The scent of cannabis glides up, over and through the bar’s multifarious levels. A Thai-Jamaican band has set up just inches above the incoming sea.

Inland at Na Mueang waterfall, an 80-metre cascade in a pretty jungle hideaway, visitors skid and slide over slippery rocks as they seek out their perfect snapshot. Auto apertures can’t cope with the dark foliage and brilliant sunlight, though, resulting in indistinct silhouette shots.

Long-suffering elephants, swaying sadly in their chained misery, are coerced upriver to the falls with loads of tourists on their backs. The river’s anything but a sandy passage. It’s rocks, rocks and more rocks, and they’re working for peanuts, and bananas.

One slip by the pachyderm and everyone’s cactus. Except the operator.

Nearby is local tourist trap Valentine’s Rock, which you can pose beneath for 100 baht, alongside hosts of heart-shaped sculptures. Get your toes nibbled by fish in a pond, too, if you fancy.

If you like your rocks hot, you can climb up the hill to a café with a balcony lookout over Lamai and its ever-encroaching palms and jungle, and fishing boats out to sea. A fistful of wooden hashtag signs await your photo-selfie opportunity: #lovely #viewpoint, #hi and the likes.

The German honeymooners who ask me to snap a photo of them have a #inlove sign. Where’s a #frankfurt sign when you need one, I wonder.

On the way back down the hill I realise I missed the Valentine park’s central sculpture — a two-metre wooden penis. Punters are milling about for photos and selfies.

Seems some smart cookie got through Samui Tourism 101 with flying colours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camino

The Camino: A pilgrim’s grisly sojourn

Demons, holy wars, sex, blood and gore, torture and fire, sacred bones, con artists — there’s nothing like a good walk on the wild side to highlight the fevers so closely tied to religion.

And there’s no better place to find all of these charming elements of faith than the Camino de Santiago, the famed pilgrim foot-slog across the north of Spain.

In fact, it’s fair to say it’s no place for the squeamish, physically or mentally. Just ask Ballarat author Kate Simons.

Simons has gathered a startling catalogue of forgotten tales of the Camino – curious, bizarre, terrifying — in forensic style in her new book Medieval Wanders and Wonders.

Her account starts out with a grisly story of sex, self-mutilation, demonic intercession and zombie-like resurrection. A sorely-tempted ascetic, Gerald, and his manhood part ways in the nastiest of ways.

But he’s only one of innumerable pilgrims who have made their way to Santiago to venerate the holy relics of the apostle Saint James, or Santiago as the Spaniards know him.

Simons delivers an incisive, arresting catalogue of everything from the machinations of popes, bishops, kings, knights and nobles to inquisitions, reliquaries, rituals, ascetics, art and architecture.

It’s a brutal story and a rollicking ride for what, by rights, is an academic discourse. Simons proves time and again that history, especially religious history, is every bit as shocking as any modern-day front-page screamer.

And then some. Like ISIS on steroids.

Dr Kate Simons, a research fellow at Federation University, trekked the Camino under the blazing Spanish sun, not knowing she would fall under the spell of its treasure trove of religious history, fervour, persecution, manipulation and well, horror stories.

Her Medieval Wanders and Wonders details in glorious fashion life and death, Heaven and Hell, crusades, warfare, monasticism, witchcraft, medicine, fear – the whole gamut of medieval thought and practice underpinning the pilgrim mind, body and soul.

Medieval minds weren’t exactly the greatest intellectual sponges about and Simons is quick to highlight the charlatans so willing to exploit religion, and pilgrims, for their base ends.

Simons pokes, prods, even parodies, the medieval mind with a healthy dose of cynicism in a critical — at times withering and at all times entertaining — scrutiny of the Camino.

A riveting, historical tour de force, Medieval Wanders and Wonders shines fresh light on the Camino de Santiago that will enthral travellers, lovers of intrigue, history and real-life thrillers.

Medieval Wanders and Wonders

By Kate Simons

www.austinmacauley.com

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