• Author: Jim Toner
  • Date: Jan 30, 2014
  • Location: Thailand


We’ve entered the Vortex of Delight, and we’re not leaving.


It began a few days ago. We’d returned from a couple of days on Phi Phi, an island on the southwestern coast of Thailand that was far from the idyll that the guidebooks had depicted. Too much debauchery, too much blasting of music on the beach at 3am, too expensive for ragged bungalows, too much debris in the water—all in all it was a relief for us to return to the mainland of Au Nang near the larger town of Krabi. We returned out of necessity—Dolora had left the passports in an Au Nang drawer—and out of a need to restore ourselves.


Our friends the Lovgrens in Sweden told us of their year-long journey around Africa and the need at one point to just stop for a week. They holed up in a hotel in Cairo and watched movie after movie. Somewhere outside that room were the pyramids and the Nile but for one week none of it mattered. They had to push it all away, push away the stimulation and push away the stares and push away that mix of bewilderment and amazement and fear that occupies the world traveler.


Maybe that’s what’s happening here. For the past week, first at Au Nang and now here at Koh Pah Ngan, we’ve stopped our usual peripatetic ways and slowed down to a halt. In Au Nang I could touch the need, so palpable did it feel. Or rather, the Need pushed me down onto a bed in the heat of the afternoon and didn’t let me rise. I told Dolora and Liam, both of whom were itching to get moving to a more scenic spot, that I needed an extra day to do nothing. To plan nothing, to feel no pack on my back, to not worry about our next night’s lodging, to not feel the low-grade fear that I was ruining my son’s life. Instead, I needed a Cairo.


For that one day I wrote at a seaside café from 8-11; I then lay down from 11 to noon that became 1 and then 2 and before too long it was 4 and then 5. How’s that for a day? I imagined myself an iguana, still as a stone. In my defense I was feeling sick enough to start taking a course of antibiotics, but still, this was a day dedicated to air, to emptiness, to Cairo. I did arise to write for a few more hours and even jumped into the sea at sunset, and I did take a stroll after dinner at a pace that was so slow that vines were starting to twine up my legs. Put it all together, and on this day I burned twelve calories.


The next day I awoke with enough newfound energy to encapsulate the whole history of evolution in a flash: from the iguana emerging from the sea, to Homo Erectus wobbling on his legs, to Homo Sapien able to form a sentence: “Today, we kayak.” And we did, renting a 3-person kayak and paddling out among the limestone crags that are familiar to anyone who’s seen photos of Thailand. It was gorgeous, it was ecstatic, it was—as the kids over-say—awesome! From the close vantage point of a kayak we could stare straight up

Limestone formations hanging over our heads as we kayak under

Limestone formations hanging over our heads as we kayak under

at the sheer cliffs of these micro-islands. We could come eye-to-eye with green iridescent crabs scuttling across the sides of the cliffs. And above us were birds that we’re sure were eagles. Beneath us in the sea that rose and fell, rose and fell, we could stare down onto flashes of brilliant fish.


We paddled to a crowded beach with a cave at one end that seemed to draw a lot of attention. Curious, we pulled our kayak onto the beach and walk over to it. The cave, it turns out, was full of penises. Do you need to read that sentence again? Go ahead, I’ll wait, I’m in no hurry. Ok, yes, the cave contained an ancient shrine

Yes, a cave devoted entirely to penises (the ultimate man cave)

Yes, a cave devoted entirely to penises (the ultimate man cave)

to birth and fertility with dozens of erect penises of all styles and colors jutting out of the sand. I didn’t know where to look, whose eyes to avoid. The Russians, however, were at ease among the penises. One woman after another would pose next to a phallus at about her height and strike a pose of naughtiness, with her knees bent and her fingers to her lips and her eyes skyward. Young Russian women, old Russian women, little girl Russians—no matter the age, this was a photo op not to be missed. Who cares about the Taj Mahal, the canals of Venice, the Empire State when there’s a cave of penises to photograph.


We spent another hour snorkeling but only found a few non-descript fish. I’d read that the tsunami of 2004 destroyed most of this area’s coral reefs, and without that protection and camouflage the fish have disappeared. No matter. The joy was in floating on the surface of the sea, our arms and legs spread like we were parachuting through a sky of infinite blue.


No, this was not a Cairo day, a hiding out in a bunker without even the sun permitted to visit. But it was a cousin of Cairo, a day of ignoring the impulse to move on, to pack up and venture onward into the great unknown. It was a day for us to relax and to give Krabi one more chance to convince us that she’s as spectacular as everyone says. All in all, Phi Phi was a dud; Krabi and Au Nang were shabby and overcrowded. But this one kayak ride, which ended with us on the beach admiring the sunset like all of humanity before us, reminded us of the radiance of this region.




Early the next morning a van picked us up at our bungalow to begin the long journey to the other side of the peninsula. Most tourists know this area for Koh Samui but we opted for the smaller island just above it, Koh Pah Ngan, because of the advice of an Irishman we’d met along the way. It was also the advice of the German woman back in Sri Lanka who cut Liam’s hair, but we misplaced the paper with her specific recommendations. It was only after we unpacked, only after we arrived at the remote beach of Thong Nai Pan Yai and knew that we’d arrived at someplace holy, that a paper fell out of Dolora’s backpack. On it, the words of Marta: “Go to Koh Pah Ngan, go to Thong Nai Pan Yai.”


Now that’s amazing.




It was Dolora’s idea to come here. I wanted to stay closer to the pier, closer to the night action and closer to the methods that could get us out of here in case it was another Phi Phi. But she insisted that we take a taxi across the spine of the island to this horseshoe bay, to Thong Nai Pan Yai, and to stay in a resort called “Dreamland.”


Dreamland? Isn’t that the creepy place where Michael Jackson slept with little boys? Or is that Neverland?


Either way, I had my suspicions. And the word “resort” put me on alert. We’re not the resort kind of travelers, the isolated enclave that sells mai tais for $15 and that keeps all the natives far away. Plus, don’t resorts cost $280/night, or close to triple our entire budget for a single day?


Turns out that the Dreamland Resort might need some work on its language but is everything we could ask for. For a mere $27/night we get our own bungalow with a porch and the sounds of the sea and birds. This is a solid bungalow that doesn’t sway with our movements; its mattress is thick and vast, and its shower delivers real hot water. Ours is one of maybe 20 bungalows hidden among the palm trees and other fragrant trees, but of the 20, only a handful are occupied right now and most of them are families. No drunken Russians, no speakers blaring in the deep of night, no detritus washed up on shore that makes you look away. No, this is paradise in every sense of the word, and it’s exactly what we needed as we turn the corner onto month 6 of our odyssey.


Hello, Cairo.


We’ll be here for a week, and no force of nature can pry us from Dreamland. We are the barnacles on a ship, the mussels on a rock, the three of us fastened tight to this intermission in our trip. All here is gentle and quiet, all blue and turquoise, with very little road traffic and even less need to venture beyond this patch of beach to witness that road traffic. Get this: There’s a pool right up against the beach! And get this: The air is a perfect 85 degrees, the sky clear and the water a turquoise color of your dreams. And get this: The food is fabulous and cheap, and when you add the bill for food and lodging at the end of each day, the total might come to a whopping $70. And get this: There’s a library of paperbacks. And chaise lounges on the beach. And coconut milkshakes. And a staff of sweet young people from neighboring Burma who take an English lesson from Liam each morning.


“Do we deserve this?” I asked Dolora and Liam at dinner last night. “Can we justify this life for a week? Aren’t we supposed to be on the go, devouring cultures and suffering a little?”


Dolora looked up from her bowl of coconut Thai soup, and she said to me, “Oh just shut up.”


She didn’t really say that. Her tone, though, conveyed that I needed to chill out a bit, relax, luxuriate in this discovery of a place we’d been searching for and the place we needed as a family. I know I know I know, from the outside this trip of ours must look like pure decadence, a jaunt by the Rockefellers to outposts around the world. But amid the obvious joys and riches of traveling comes a level of stress—a stress that probably contributed to my getting sick this past week. Liam can’t articulate the turmoil of his psyche, but he can become a brat, and that brattiness is the overload that comes from travel: the uncertainty, the mystery of languages, the new beds, the stares, the strange tastes. He’s been a brat lately; I’ve been sick lately; Dolora’s been weary lately.


Enter Dreamland, and watch the tide take away the brat and the snot and the fatigue.


A week of Dreamland. A week of Cairo.




Come here. Closer. Come closer. I have a secret to tell you but you have to promise not to tell anyone.




Yesterday I walked on the beach for about twenty feet to the right of Dreamland and then walked up the steps to a wooden platform with a thatch roof and no walls. I lay down on one of the six cushions. A Thai woman about my age knelt down beside me, and for the next hour she gave me a massage. This combination of pleasures—the sound of the surf, the breeze off the ocean, the rustle of the palm leaves, the woman spreading coconut across my back—brought me to a very clear realization: It don’t get no betta’ than this.


And then another realization: I can’t write about this on the blog. This hour of pure contentment, this stepping into an inner circle of deeper bliss here on the island of bliss, this is something best kept to myself.




It’s become one of my favorite sights of the entire trip. Each morning a handful of the young Burmese workers here at Dreamland circle around Liam and he teaches them an English lesson. Dolora and I watch from behind a nearby palm tree at our boy on his own. My young Socrates, my very own Jesus.




Our yoga teacher is from Canada. She has tattoos running up her back and her hair is tied in a tight bun and her age is probably near 40. Her name is Mel, “as in Melanie but don’t call me Melanie. It’s Mel.” Her face resembles the actress Frances McDormand, the sheriff in “Fargo.” During the deep relaxation at the end of the yoga class, a fly landed on my nose. Should I shoo it away, or is that the point of yoga and meditation: to reflect on the life in front of you? As proof that I fail at all religious systems, I swatted it away. What do flies do after being swatted away? That’s right, they return, and return, this time with his brothers and sisters who thought it’d be a jolly good time to abuse this white guy with the massive white head.


After yoga we went next door to Mel’s vegan café. Well, “café” is too ambitious of a term for what was more of a campsite in the jungle. Regardless, the concoction she cooked up wins the award as the best food we’ve eaten in Thailand—no small achievement, that. It was a peanut-sauce concoction on brown rice with all sorts of green things that my body sucked up out of some desperate need. While there we chatted with Mel about her life. I love this type of conversation, this running into a Westerner and coaxing out of them the story of their lives. Mel is from Toronto, would never return there, thinks the social system favors the rich and the poor but sucks taxes out of the middle class at a rate of 50%. She traveled to Peru and thought she’d settle there until she decided to give Southeast Asia a chance. Mel meets Thailand, Mel meets the island of Koh Pan Nong, Mel meets the remote beach of Nai Pai, and goodbye Toronto forever.


I wonder if Liam will ever do this, move far far away and disappear from our lives. “What do your parents think of your moving so far away?” I ask Mel, and I can tell by the way she sighs that there’s a story and a grief behind those parents.


“Let me just say this,” Mel says. “My parents never traveled around the world with me when I was little.”


She married a Thai man who is off to the side painting an elephant. No, not applying paint on the hide of an elephant, though that would make for a better story. He’s an artist who paints images of elephants and tigers and also psychedelic tableaus with a naked white woman in the jungle, snakes coiled around her loins.


“My parents,” Mel said, “are waiting for me to get a job. Yoga, this café, painting—those aren’t jobs to them. Get this: My mother sends me job notices in the Toronto newspaper. She’d like me to be a secretary who rides the bus in the snow every morning.”


Everyone has their story.




I’m certain that behind the scenes, someone has tabulated the votes for the “Coolest Family at Dreamland” award, and we have come out on top. The committee will cite all the games we invent and play in the pool and in the ocean. “We on the committee bring special attention to the Slippery Olympic Games you created, plus the bopping of a ball from head to head, and of course, your Home Run Derby in the pool is worth special commendation. There’s Frisbee, and bouncy ball, and paddle ball both on the sand and in the shallow surf, and jumping off the side of the pool to catch both a Frisbee and a ball that brought the Committee to its feet in admiration. For these and other reasons, the Committee is proud to announce that the award for the Coolest Family at Dreamland for 2014 goes to…. Yes! Toner/Dossis, come up on stage and collect your coconut smoothie.”




Lest you think we never leave the bosom of Dreamland, we have crossed the street to go to yoga, and we’ve walked along a path that led to a Buddhist temple, and I’ve ordered a latte from the café in town.


So there.





I’m going to close up now and join Dolora and Liam. They’re down the beach where a tire is attached to a limb by a long rope. Liam loves to swing on it, and I love to push him like I’ve pushed him on scores of swings his whole life. The sun is setting. In the golden light that is dreamland I’ll push my son higher and higher still.




  1. katie Slocum

    I think that you shouldn’t be worried if you deserve this kind of treatment or if you would writr about having an hour long massage on your blog because relaxing and indulging is part of life and that’s the purpose of the trip is to just live life and in different parts of the world let the great world spin right? 🙂 love you guys

  2. sheila

    Why not spend the time you intended to spend in India enjoying this place without hassle , planning , pollution etc etc .
    Why not spend a week or so a with a collection of penis . What is the collective term for penis…is it penii?X

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