Friday, September 25, 2009

Koh Samui

For years I had wanted to spend some time resting and rejuvenating in a spa on Koh Samui and finally here I was sitting on the veranda of my wooden bungalow overlooking the peaceful yet constantly changing Gulf of Thailand. I had arrived earlier in the day, flying in from Bangkok together with other tourists, backpackers and Thai families. The 50-minute flight from the capital took us straight south-southwest across the Gulf, landing on Samui airport on the tropical paradise island off the eastern coast of the Kra Peninsula, a long and narrow strip of land that separates the more protected Gulf of Thailand from the Andaman Sea. Because of its fortunate location on this side of the peninsula, Koh Samui had not been affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 that killed so many people and destroyed coastal areas in countries as far apart as Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Somalia. In Thailand, the damage was done only on the west coast of the Kra where resort islands, such as Phuket and Phi Phi Islands suffered immensely. As the plane approached, I watched all the small islands rising from the shining sea. Most looked still quite pristine with densely forested mountain cones in the centre and lined with half moons of white coral sand that glittered in the sun. Yet the pressures from booming tourism and development were mounting, as evidenced by the densely built towns and resorts in the coastal zones.

My own purpose for being here was purely selfish. I had worked hard throughout the spring and summer, actually moving to a new and more demanding position in the organization. I was feeling tense and somewhat stressed out. My wife claimed that one had to tip-toe around me for the past few months. Apparently, I needed some de-stressing. Although my eating habits are normally relatively fine—I do finish my veggies and eat fruits daily and my diet is generally somewhat tilted towards Asian cuisines—the pace of modern big city life isn’t really conducive for taking care of oneself. So here I was, staring at the raw salad sitting in a wooden bowl in front of me. It was served with a delicious apple vinegar, honey and garlic dressing. It would be the most substantive single meal I’d eat for the coming week. In fact, I was preparing for a brief fast for cleansing purposes under the supervision of the knowledgeable staff of The Spa, Samui’s first and most famous health resort. Since 1992, the owners, Toi and Guy Hopkins, a Thai-American couple run this place (and since lately another one inland up on the hillside), which I’ve seen referred to as ‘hipsters’ paradise,’ with a full set of options for cleansing, from a simple liver flush to full-scale fasts with all the associated accoutrements. I had modestly (or perhaps ambitiously) chosen an option somewhere in between. To make the fasting easier, there are other activities one can engage in, including steam baths, massages, yoga and Qigong practice on the beach, and of course meditation every morning. On top of that, the restaurant I was sitting in, Radiance, has been included in the list of the fifty best restaurants in the world (not that it would matter much to me)!

Apart from the healthy stuff, the island caters to the more common type of tourist. In fact, when tourism development started, it was probably foreseen that Samui would become another Phuket or Pattaya. The beaches are beautiful and clean, although in the high season I am told they can become very crowded especially in the most popular locations. Diving is decent and there are coral reefs to snorkel around. Some towns have developed into veritable party centres, with notorious nightlife and weekly shows of all female Muay Thai kick boxing—an apparent attraction to gawkers of many a variety. In addition, the lovely natural setting, lively yet relaxed ambiance and proximity to Bangkok and other major cities in the region (there are numerous flights to the Thai capital daily on the hip Bangkok Airways that also operates daily direct flights to places like Singapore and Hong Kong) has also made the island attractive to businesses in the free and creative sectors, such as information technology. These alongside tourism are transforming the Samui economy from its traditional subsistence base of agriculture and fisheries. The major cash product for centuries used to be coconuts that were exported from the island to the mainland.

Fishermen still practice their trade, as I could see from my vantage point on the second storey terrace in the restaurant. A small cluster of colourfully painted boats—red and white, orange, bright blue, more faded green—were moored in a small lagoon protected by a jetty. Many of the boats were open with just an outboard motor in the aft. A few had closed cabins built on them allowing for the captain to stand up while steering the vessel. The harbour was shallow enough for the fishermen to wade across to their boats from the sandy beach in front of our compound. As they were preparing for their nightly expedition, the sea kept changing. The afternoon sun had faded into the thickening clouds and the colour of the sea shifted from blue to a deep green reflecting the darkening sky. The wind was picking up and blew moist air from the gulf. After a while, the gusts were rather heavy and speckled with a few large drops of rain. Despite the mounting gloomy clouds that hung low on an outcrop jutting to the sea a few kilometres north from us, the threatening thunder storm never materialized. I watched as one by one the boats headed out from their peaceful harbourage towards the open sea their engines’ putter mixing into the steady sound of the waves. Soon it was dark and the only light from the sea came from the fishing boats blinking romantically in the thick tropical night. On the shore, a few restaurants lit up muted lights on their beachside terraces.
Samui, the third largest island in Thailand, has been inhabited probably for 1.5 millennia. It was likely used as a base by fishermen from the Malay Peninsula and southern China. The island is named on a Chinese map dating from 1687. Where it got its name is unclear, but likely candidate explanations could be that Samui simply refers to a local tree called ‘Mui’ or it might be a transmogrified version of the Chinese word ‘Saboey’ meaning safe haven. Either way, the island stayed safely and happily isolated for most of its history until the 1970s. Until then, people were minding their own business, fishing, farming and growing coconuts as their only cash crop. Then it was ‘discovered’ by outsiders. The first ones to arrive were backpackers. The white sands, blue sea, coral reefs, fresh seafood and unspoilt interior all conjured up images of paradise. Today that paradise still exists, although much of it has been lost to development. Fortunately, most of the tourism development is relatively small scale—spas, boutique hotels, guest houses for backpackers—and major resorts that completely modify their surroundings are not that many and concentrated in few places, like Chaweng Beach. Still, all the development leaves its mark, especially on the coastline, which today is virtually fully occupied.

Naturally, it also changes the economy and the way of life of people. Apart from tourism which directly is a huge employer and source of income, many locals benefited handsomely from selling the land they had owned for perhaps generations to developers. These people do not need to work in the tourism industry. Most of the employees in the innumerable hotels, restaurants and other establishments come from the poor northeastern provinces of Thailand, Isan, as far away as physically possible without leaving the country. I have been told that the dialects are so different that the immigrants from Isan have a hard time even understanding the southern natives when they speak their own dialect.

On my second day while still on my pre-cleanse, I rented a car, a small Suzuki Caribian (sic), a puny off-road vehicle commonly referred to as ‘jeep’ on the island. The rental agreement stated that the car was fully insured, except for the sound system. Needless to say, there was no sound system. I turned left from the spa gate joining the traffic towards southwest (my plan had actually been to turn right but the traffic flow looked so discouraging that I decided to make the island tour in the opposite direction). The Spa is located in the community of Lamai in the southeast of the island. I had started the drive carelessly without checking everything and after a few kilometres noticed that the petrol gauge indicated an empty tank. By that time I was on a smaller side road heading towards the beach. Having no idea where a filling station might be located, I suddenly noticed a sign that clearly said ‘gasoline’ in front of a small open food stall by the roadside. The kind woman in charge only had four litres contained in plastic bottles. I told her to pour them into the tank and headed out looking for a filling station with a larger supply (I found one just a couple of kilometres further on the main road; this one had what seemed like antique hand-operated pumps connected to two petrol barrels standing loosely on the pavement).

I decided to head inland, following signs to an elephant trekking operator, a waterfall, and a high viewpoint. The small road passed through coconut palm plantations where buffalo were grazing. Soon it started to climb, challenging my little Suzuki. I soon realized that I needed to stop and connect the four-wheel drive lest the poor vehicle start rolling back downhill. Before that, however, I had been overtaken by three military coloured open off-road vans travelling uphill at considerable speed. They belonged to an ‘adventure’ tour operator and were hauling young Western ‘adventurers’ up the mountainside with horns blaring to warn off potential others using the road.

The road was paved but narrow and curvy. After several kilometres during which my vehicle almost stalled in a couple of the steepest slopes I found myself on the tallest peak of Samui island. Climbing to the altitude of 635 metres from literally the sea level in a matter of a couple of kilometres was no mean feat and was proof of how steep the road’s gradient actually was. Several of the island’s peaks rise above half a kilometre, but this was the absolutely highest point. The interior of the island is still largely impenetrable rainforest and luckily hard to develop because of the topography. Here however, there was a restaurant, called Peak Eye View, from whence a fabulous panorama over the entire island in all directions far to the sea opened. For a second I was tempted to join the tourists (who included the ‘adventurers’ from the three trucks) for a cold beer, but I stayed firm on my pre-cleanse regimen and resumed my drive after admiring the view. The restaurant also kept a troupe of gibbons in front of it. They were tied to long leashes but were able to jump and frolic in the trees, which they do with amazing skill and flair. Unfairly to my mind, gibbons are also known as ‘lesser apes’—as opposed to the great apes (chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, orangutan and us humans). To me, they are only lesser in size.

Not far from the peak I found another attraction marked as Namuang waterfall. A field had been cleared for parking but I was the only visitor. Luckily the girl who was apparently in charge of collecting 30 baht (approximately US$1) per vehicle was lying flat on a bench and only lifted one eyelid lazily when she saw me pass. I was glad to note that the midday heat gets even to the locals. I followed a path clearly marked with a formal sign that said 'Pointview.' It led down a deep slope where I could hear water—but not enough for a waterfall. Indeed, when I reached the bottom there was a small trickle falling between rocks into an almost dry riverbed. I took this to be proof of Samui’s water shortage. I crossed the creek skipping precariously from one uneven and damp boulder to the next thinking whether the girl at the parking lot would hear my cries should I break a leg. On the other side, new signs appeared, this time hand written on a piece of paper but more correctly stating 'viewpoint.' I followed the narrowing path climbing steeply before coming to my senses and turning back. The signs were probably leading back to the mountain top where I had just been. I got my exercise walking up and down the gulley in tropical heat and was drenched by the time I got back to the car.

It is easy to forget that this is officially a paradise island when one drives on the main road circling it. The traffic is constant with cars, lorries, motorbikes and mopeds, often with entire families on them the little one riding in between mom and dad. And there are foreigners—Aussies, Brits, Germans, Swedes, Finns, Japanese, Americans, you name it—riding their rented scooters and small cars. Apparently these farang can be such a traffic hazard that the Samui Police Department had found it necessary to post a large sign on the roadside warning people to remember to drive on the left side! Driving on the circular road also confirms that the entire coastline is by now occupied, largely by the tourist industry. One can still see undeveloped plots of land for sale to anyone with the will and capital. There are some original towns but the locations of major resorts have also developed into villages with a variety of services targeted to the visitors, from Thai massage to ‘Deutscher Bierhalle.’ The sides of the road have been overtaken by sprawl nearly completely.

I stopped at Ban Nathon, the largest real city on Samui and its main administrative and commercial centre. Upon entering the town I detected a large open air market: always a sure attraction for me. I thus parked and went to explore. The vegetables and fruits looked fresh and delicious (so many different kinds of greens), but the most interesting part was the fish market, clearly owing its existence to Nathon being the port of the largest fishing fleet in Samui. There were buckets of freshly caught fish of different sizes, shrimp, squid. Some fish where displayed on trays already in a fried state.

Wandering deeper into the town, I was relieved to discover it indeed was a real commercial centre for people who actually live here. There were grocery stores, clothing outlets, motorbike repair shops, law offices and several doctor’s offices of different specialization. There was also a pleasant, if somewhat dilapidated seafront boulevard lined with tempting looking seafood restaurants, small hotels and, just on one side street, a row of massage parlours.

Nathon is located on the west coast of Samui, diagonally on the opposite side of the island from where Lamai lies. I’d about had enough of sightseeing for the day, especially of the continuous strip mall lining the road. I still had to drive north following the coast before heading back south on the other side. The traffic was getting worse as I had to drive through a series of conglomerations: Bang Por, Mae Nam, Chaweng. I was hot and tired of keeping an eye on my unpredictable co-travellers, constantly shifting gears to keep the little car that pretended to be an SUV moving up and down the hills. Then it stopped. At one junction when I slowed down pressing down the clutch, the engine just died and refused to start again. The battery was dead: not a single breath of life left in it. I have no idea what killed it, as I had been driving most of the time, not using the headlights or air conditioning (there was none). It just had had enough and died. Luckily I was already just a few kilometres from Lamai and could call the rental car service. They didn’t even sound surprised. A smiling employee soon appeared and matter of factly connected the cables between the batteries of his and my Suzukis. Kawp khun khrap—thank you very much—and he drove away. Jai yen yen—don’t lose your cool, as they say here. Things work out.

There are some 55,000 permanent residents on this small round island just some 15 kilometres across. However, the number of locals is dwarfed by visitors. Statistics show more than 670,000 annual arrivals at the Samui airport. Granted, not all of them would be tourists and many would be locals returning from trips to Bangkok or abroad. Yet the bulk is bound to be visitors from further away. Such numbers of people and feet on the ground inevitable leave footprints. Even if the people come to Samui in search of the pristine paradise—and Samui has managed to preserve some of it relatively well, much better than say some of the hotspots around the Mediterranean—every part of the natural environment will be transformed. Roads get paved over, coral reefs face pressures, the ocean itself suffers. One of the most critical resources is freshwater. This is a common problem for most small islands and Samui is facing it, too. The Spa has signs that ask patrons to conserve water because there is a critical shortage of it. Not a convenient factor for a spa in the tropics. Although the island is surrounded by water, it’s all salty. The freshwater is generated by rainfall and streams in the central mountain. The aquifers are replenished there, but the rapid development on the coast has brought with itself a hugely increased demand. The supply just isn’t enough, thus threatening the sustainability of the entire development model.

The coastal development itself poses particular risks. When the protective natural vegetation is removed for development, habitats are lost and the coastline is rendered vulnerable. This was dramatically demonstrated during the tsunami: in places where mangroves and other coastal habitats were intact, the destruction by the tidal wave was significantly moderated.

During the days of the fast I took it easy. I talked with other patrons who had taken the challenge. They came from many walks of life and from around the world. Although the spa has a distinct New Age feel, most of the guests are far from the sandals-and-lentils crowd. There was Paul, a British businessman in his late-50s who has spent the past twenty years in Dubai, with his tall and beautiful Filippina wife. There were the two Australian sisters, Claire and Stephanie, who started the fast together with me. They were cheerful down-to-earth girls still in their 20s, spending their days on the beach. We would compare our sensations daily as the fast progressed. There was also Roland, a long-haired Malaysian fellow with a ring in his lower lip, whom I met in the steam room on the day I was breaking my fast. Roland, who worked in advertising film production in Indonesia, was a fasting veteran: this was his fifth trip to The Spa! We agreed that the biggest problem here was boredom, as apart from the treatment there really was nothing to do except to walk or lie on the beach. By 8:30 pm life in the restaurant was definitely slowing down—not that it really mattered to us fasters.

The feeling of hunger never came, thanks to the heat and the various detox drinks, diluted vegetable juices and broth fed to us at regular intervals. But the energy levels went down and the degree of listlessness would very from day to day. Early in the mornings, I would walk along the beach. It was very peaceful and the sea was calm. I might meet one or two other people taking their morning walk, but normally the only sounds were the numerous birds starting to sing and an occasional puttering of an outboard engine from further away in the sea. The fishermen were already at work, a few of them wading into the bay and throwing in their fine-meshed hand nets. On some mornings women would be walking the waterline with nets and plastic bags collecting shellfish. From one resort I could hear a distant radio playing soft Thai pop as the staff were preparing the place for the day. From another sounded the familiar chime of Windows starting as someone opened his laptop. The beach itself was open to anyone and one could walk for miles to either direction without being blocked. The land right behind the beach, however, was strictly partitioned into private properties.

Small crabs scurried on the sand, their spindly legs a blur as they hurried towards their holes. As I stepped into the warm and clear sea, schools of tiny fish would dash to give way to the huge intruder. In places, the sand was soft and soothing to the sole, while elsewhere it stung with billions of tiny pieces of coral and shell that had washed to the shore. In a bend in the bay there were curious boulders, some as tall as a man, clustered on the shore and into the sea. Here and there, coconuts had fallen and now lay half buried in the sand in the shade of the mother trees that lined the shore. One morning, I sat for a long time in the shade of one such palm tree and watched a black heron go about catching breakfast. It waded gingerly in the shallow water, turning its head left and right, observing the goings on beneath the surface. Every now and then, it would rapidly stretch its long and narrow neck, dip its head suddenly into the water, emerging with some poor creature in its sharp beak.

Or I would indulge myself in the steam room (as if the natural heat here just north of the equator wasn’t enough!). It was located in a secluded corner of the compound. I would sit there wrapped in a sarong and let the hot steam infused with 32 traditional Thai herbs sooth my body and mind. In between sessions I’d cool down in the shady garden decorated with playful Buddhist statuettes. The sweet attendant had prepared a pot of exquisite jasmine tea served in thimble-sized Chinese cups decorated with blue and white dragons.

In the afternoons I would lie under a tree reading or dozing off. I’d go for an occasional swim. Later after all the cleansing included in the program was done for the day, I’d lie down in an easy chair on the porch of my bungalow and watch the tropical night get dark. One late afternoon I observed a succession of honey suckers attend to a bush with little white flowers next to my chair. First came a swarm of small bees that busily worked each flower. After they were done, a tiny hummingbird, truly the size of my thumb, continued the task, hovering in front of the flowers keeping in place by the enormously rapid flapping of its wings while it stuck its needle-like beak into the blossoms. Finally, a butterfly arrived, it too sucking into the flowers. I hoped there was enough honey left for her.

One afternoon I decided to go driving again. I had received a refund from the company for the unfortunate ‘jeep,’ which had died on me earlier (twice, as it is, because it had been returned to me the following day supposedly repaired, but the battery was still dead and, once we got it started, it was clear that the engine had lost all its traction). I was somewhat distressed to see that the same ill-fated vehicle was again presented to me, but was assured that it had been thoroughly fixed. This turned out to be true and I could hit the road again, heading southwest through Ban Lamai towards the Samui Aquarium and Tiger Park, which appears to be a major tourist attractions. Now, I am not keen on seeing animals in captivity and all kinds of zoos, especially in the developing countries where their conditions tend to be dismal, depress me. Yet, zoos do play a role in conservation—better an endangered species in captivity than extinct in nature—and if this aquarium can convince any visitors of the value of preserving the wildlife, I’m all for it.

It turned out to be quite a complex, although the surroundings were a mere dusty parking lot in front of which a group of men tended to two elephants that stood languidly in the shade of a cluster of big trees. There was a price list: elephant trekking (Baht 800), photo with elephant (Baht 300), feeding the elephant with bananas (Baht 80). I went to the aquarium entrance and asked about the program and the price. There would be a tiger show in an hour, I was informed. Trained tigers would jump through hoops of fire and the like. There was also a show with sea lions (which I could briefly observe through a crack in the fence; the sea lions were small and cute, like their handlers). The entrance fee was Baht 750 (US$22!), which I found excessive (although many other farang riding in on their mopeds or vans happily seemed to dole out the asked price). Instead I headed towards the beach, which in this part looked very different from that in front of our compound. The tidal flat reached at least a couple of hundred metres into the bay, which shone bright blue and turquoise in the afternoon sun. When I returned to my car I found a truck full of local school kids had been just hauled in to see the elephants. Rows of plastic chairs had been arranged so that they could sit down and each in their turn feed and pet the pachyderms. I hope each of these children will become an animal lover (or rather, remain as such, as most children naturally love animals).

I returned to Ban Lamai and stopped at the busy part of town around a market where huge durian were sold at the fruit stalls. This popular fruit in these parts of the world is banned from many hotels and other closed public spaces because of its pungent smell. I have friends who love the fruit but I have never learned to enjoy its overly sweet flesh. The town also has a Buddhist temple—Wat Lamai—and cultural centre. It’s a relatively modest affair, albeit decorated with all the colourful paintings and statues typical of Southeast Asian Buddhism. As I entered, a row of monks—approximately ten of them—was sitting in front of the Wat chanting sutra for a group of mostly older villagers sitting in the dirt in front of them.

Thailand is multiracial country with several religions, although Buddhism tends to dominate in most places, except the south bordering to Malaysia where Islam is the predominant religion. In recent years there have been regular clashes between Muslim insurgents demanding regional autonomy often in violent ways and the Thai authorities who equally have been known to use excessive force further aggravating the conflict. In Koh Samui, the two sides have lived harmoniously since the beginning. The Moslems are a small minority on the isle, but one can see men with their Islamic beards and women riding on motorbikes with their colourful headgear flowing in the wind. Southeast Asian Islam is not equally restrictive than it is in some places further west.

On yet another morning, I drove north through the sprawl until I reached the north coast. I noticed an entrance to a community marked with a gate above the main road leading to it: Bophut Beach Fisherman’s Village. It looked tempting enough, so I went in. The road ended in a t-junction with the main street that ran parallel to a beach with the whitest sand imaginable. The bay in front boasted numerous boats moored in it, ranging from traditional fishing boats to luxury sails and speed boats. A lone windsurfer was riding the waves beyond. At the pier was an utterly dilapidated vessel named ‘Fortune’—its best days were clearly far in the past and it wouldn’t be anyone’s good fortune to clamber onboard.

The street was lined by old Chinese style wooden houses on both sides, virtually all of them now converted into shops, restaurants and guesthouses. There were numerous bars that under other circumstances would have beckoned me irresistibly. I noticed that there were many signs in French, some promising fresh croissants and the like. I later read that this village had been popular with the French tourists for several years now (nevertheless, I only heard English and Finnish spoken on the street). In the same Samui guide I also read that Bophut is “easily the most charming village on Samui.” Based on my brief visit, I probably would agree.

But I continued towards the Big Buddha that is one of the most popular attractions on the isle. The northeast coastline was heavily developed. New bungalows were sprouting up on the hillsides, contrasting with the shacks of the fishermen on the beach and the makeshift stalls of the elderly street vendors. Soon I turned onto the causeway that connects the mainland to the tiny island housing the Big Buddha. I found a shady place to park under a tree on a plaza lined with shops attracting the foreign tourists and Thai day trippers alike. As I headed towards the Buddha and the Wat Phra Yai temple, a Bangkok Airways ATR-72 turboprop roared past the statue just above our heads on its final approach to Samui airport.

The temple complex is not particularly old or historical. In fact, the local community built it only in 1972 to cater to the spiritual needs of the visitors. I suspect they also had in mind that the Buddha would attract more such visitors and bring economic benefits to the island just when it was being discovered by the outside world. I climbed the steep steps on top of which the 12 metre tall gilded Buddha sat (there was a sign that stated, pragmatically, that from 10 am to 4 pm when the steps get hot in the sun it was ok to keep your shoes on). In the side pavilions on each side of the steps, monks in saffron robes were administering blessings to the Thai visitors.

On the top it was mercifully cool, as had been apparently discovered by the four dogs that lay flat in the Buddha’s shadow, and the view was quite stunning to all sides. The Big Buddha was surrounded by many smaller images, including two smaller, reclining Buddhas shining golden in the sun. Small gilded monkeys were offering their respect to the gods.

Although not by any means a haven of tranquillity, I was pleased to have visited Wat Phra Yai as I continued my drive south towards Chaweng on the east coast. This is the largest centre of tourism on Samui. It contains some of the biggest and fanciest hotels and the longest beach on the island. Behind the beach, there is a long shopping street that has a seemingly endless row of shops and restaurants. There are the usual souvenir shops and clothing stores, tattoo parlours (in my books, getting a tattoo while backpacking in the tropics rates among the more thoughtless things to do), and art shops (selling the kind of art—orange sunsets over a turquoise sea where dolphins skip and large eyed girls gaze sadly—that is available in any town from La Jolla to Goa where tourists of a ‘spiritual’ persuasion gather). Luckily, Chaweng also boasts by far the best bookstore on the island, Bookazine, in which I rummaged for a good while. The fast had made a dent, not only in the toxins in my body, but also my reading materials. I was well into the third and last book I had brought with me and was in a desperate need for replenishment, which I was able to find in this small but rather well-stocked shop.

The morning to break the fast finally arrived. I prolonged the pleasure by first indulging in the steam bath. Afterwards I swaggered to the beach garden of Radiance radiating the confidence of someone who has just pulled off a major deed—and ordered food. I couldn’t quite decide whether I craved more for fresh fruit or a raw salad, so I ordered one that contained both. It tasted good, but I realized that it was mostly the relief of not having to swallow the various healthy and cleansing liquids that came with the fast.

I lingered for another couple of days just to get adjusted to solid food and to get ready to face the outside world. In the end, I was ready to leave and truly looked forward the hustle and bustle of Bangkok that lay in wait for me. As I watched out of the airplane window at the small island in the blue sea, I though how lucky it was that the tropical nature is so powerful. Its resilience is such that immediately when humans leave the lush vegetation, with its infinite number of creatures small and large, quickly takes over again. That’s why we haven’t lost all of the paradise, the flowers with striking colours, the pleasure of hearing so many different birds singing such rich coloraturas. And the chirping geckos on the walls whose ample insect dinners I watched enviously every night of my fast.