Phuket, Thailand: The scent of the sea air was so delicious, I wanted to lick it. It came on a light breeze that tickled the fronds of the rain forest and wafted over my tired and achy body, renewing my spirits, after being held captive in a seatbelt for more than 16 hours. I was a week and a half into a nearly 2,000-mile-long drive from Singapore to Bangkok. I had been on new-car test drives around the country, on 4wd adventures around the globe and had even raced in famed and exhausting desert races, but, a drive from the mouth of "Lion's Head" to Thai's "City of Angels" had challenged my sensibilities.
Our journey had been crammed from the start with a pace and schedule that would have made biking across Canada or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro an easier task, I postulated, as I found a cozy niche among the gear secured onto the top of a Land Rover Discovery and stretched out my legs.
During our long drive from the border of Malaysia to the island of Phuket, we had evidence of the rich juxtaposition of cultures, watching the ancient ritual of men guiding tethered oxen through rice fields, adjacent to majestic gilded palaces, with fat-bellied, smiling Buddhas guarding their gates. We had fought for wheelbase room for our quartet of "Drive Around the World" logo-ed SUVs on a two-lane motorway, where we were often one of three vehicles abreast at the same time--not including the scooters to each side, often ferrying entire families and their household goods, along with modern motor coaches traveling at dizzying speeds.
We had seen lumbering elephants and swerved to avoid a Komodo dragon, as we radioed from car to car, deciphering signs with hieroglyphic markings that had to be continuously looked up in the "Lonely Planet Guide." The last thing we were was lonely and, in fact, we longed to be!
For days now, we had motored in our Discoverys and moved our gear from to hotel room to hostel, eyeing wonder to even greater wonderment, in this culturally-diverse and teeming-with-life quadrant of Asia. We had visited with Parkinson's patients at a leading research center; toured the Singapore waterways by boat, learning legend and lore of the region; and indulged in the drink named for this large city that also makes up small this country.
Moving north to Malaysia, we walked the plank between the famed Petronas Twin towers, the world's tallest since 9/11; visited with villagers in the remote and beautiful Cameron Highlands; and peeled leeches from our ankles after a night walk in the rain forest with Royal Geographic Society researchers, hearing about their study of the Malaysian jungle's flora and fauna.
Now, for the first time in days, I felt quieted. Soothed, with a cold local brew in one hand, I scanned the jungle below, moving my night vision goggles in slow, widening arcs taking in the skeletonized leaves of coconut palms and rubber trees in the foreground, panning the thin strip of sandy beach below and moving out to a vista so majestic it pulled at my heart and softened it. A full moon sprinkled gold dust on the Andaman Sea. Atolls were charcoaled into the backdrop; I could see why this was called the "Pearl of the South."
Unexpectedly, an anxiety-provoking thought crept into my brain and sent adrenalin pulsing through my palms. Peering through the night goggles that turned the world a garish green suddenly brought flashback memories that opened a drawer in my gray matter, which stored a host of haunting thoughts.
I recalled scenes from two movies, "Proof of Life" and "The Beach" (which had been filmed, in part, in Phuket). In both, quiet and seemingly-safe journeys in remote parts of the world-Peru and Thailand-had gone awry. Frighteningly wrong. Suddenly, I remembered one of the top news stories of the day about uprisings and a beheading that had taken place in a small village, within 30 miles of Phuket. "Chandra, do you think we're safe here?" I asked the wife of the expedition leader. Sitting next to me, cushioned against a sleeping bag, she smiled an affirmation.
It was nearly 10 p.m. when we arrived at this lookout, scoped out earlier by our camera men and resident expert surfers, Adam, Colin and Neil, along with Justin, the team's chief scribe, who was a quick study on languages and a whiz at stand-ups. Reporting back, after checking out the surf along the tropical island's west coast and doing some filming, they described it as the perfect place for us to set up camp for the night, either sleeping under the stars or unfurling the awnings of our Hannibal tents that became beds and provided privacy atop of the vehicles.
A small sign, with the words 'Kata Noi" was the only sign of life, as we turned off the winding roadway near the south end of the island and traveled approximately 5km along a dirt track over which the jungle was encroaching in spots and was gullied, with gaping holes and drop-offs. It required 4 LO for traction and control. This was a bonus! Now, we could film some off-road driving in the morning and clearly, this wasn't a frequently-traveled trail.
We came to a stop at an overlook that was hundreds of feet above the ocean. A fenced compound lay in the distance below, with the looks of a small hotel under construction, with a patch of white sand beach. It looked deserted, but it was the guard fence, the glaring night lights that cast a foggy-yellow steam into the night that concerned me from the start. "It looks deserted. Let's go swim," said the guys.
Cold "Changs" opened and tunes selected to on the CD to add to the ambience, Nick Baggarly, the expedition leader and the guys trotted to the beach. Other expedition members, Nancy and Todd, found an "abandoned camp" further down the track into the rainforest and set up sleeping bags on the deck, while Chandra and I hauled ourselves to the top of the Land Rover to take in the view and quiet the day still running inside ourselves.
First was the barking. Ugly barking, the kind that steels your heart and makes you aware of individual cells in your body. Before I could finish saying, "Chandra, I don't like the sound of...," we heard a gunshot. Or, was it a firecracker, I questioned? Next was a volley. On full alert and with a pre-programmed Rolodex of survival skills' tips running through my brain, I was on the ground and running. Calling out for Nancy and Todd. Bumping into Colin and working on a "game plan" in the midst of the melee, while throwing unpacked gear back into our cars and stilling the music.
As the gunshots drew nearer, we could hear the high-pitched voices of our teammates coming closer, as well. Foreign-sounding heavy voices called out from the trail, "You Go Now!!!!!" No translation was needed. "We Go Now!!!" yelled our guys, as they rounded the corner, at a labored pace.
The men that came out of the thick jungle after them looked like Viet Kong, sporting red bandanas around their thick, jet-black hair. They were holding shotguns in the air, with gloved hands. "We Go Now" and the international "Okay, Okay, Okay" became a loud mantra for all nine of us, as four drivers climbed behind the wheel of our Discos, with passengers and gear akimbo. There was no sweeter sound that night than the Land Rover's Tdi kicking in, blessing us with the aplomb to ascend the aggressive track, with deep washouts to each side.
This was something like the movies, I thought, as we reached the tarmac and celebrated our escape. I'd always wanted to be in a movie, but this was a part I didn't want to play. It was like a scene from "Proof of Life" or "The Beach," only this wasn't a movie. This was a drive from Singapore to Bangkok. A drive around the world to raise money and awareness about Parkinson's disease. A drive to answer 10,000 questions from schoolchildren who wanted to know more about adventure and travel and the wonderful wide world that we live in. What would we say to them about Kata Noi?
It was nearly 2 a.m. before our tired bodies came to rest. Some chose open air and the white sand of Patang Beach for their bed. Despite my fatigue, I put up a Hannibal tent and closed the screens to collect my thoughts. Before long, the distress of the evening subsided and I opened the front flap, tying it back just enough to let in a slice of the moonlit night.
I thought about people around the globe struggling with Parkinson's, about the schoolchildren who were following this expedition of merit for nearly a year. I decided I'd tell them about all, but especially about the smell of the salt air and the beauty of a moonlit night on the vast Indian Ocean.
Post note: We learned the next day that the owner of the entire peninsula, where we had attempted to set up camp, was a Thai Oxford graduate who inherited it recently from his family. The Dane, who told us, said that, in Thailand, landowners have the right to do what they like and that the guards could have cut us up into little pieces and thrown us into the water and the police wouldn't do anything. But, he added, this guy was really nice. The actual beach is public but the land to get there isn't. We decided to meet the enemy. Filming as we returned, we came to the gate for the beach compound. Stout and tanned, full of tattoos was our man, surrounded by his black and red-clad Viet Cong workers. After chastising us for our stupidity, he welcomed us warmly and invited us in to his compound.