We met Ulrich Morgentaler on the island of Ko S. in October 2016.
Can’t forget the date in view of what happened.
We went there for the same reason as him: because we were interested in finding an island which was undeveloped – a tall order in Thailand. We became interested in Ko S. when we found out that it wasn’t easy to reach in comparison with other Thai islands, most of which were linked by regular ferry services.
The only way to get to Ko S. was on a long tail departing from a small fishing village on the mainland and it wasn’t always an easy trip…….
The long tail is a long, narrow, wooden boat with an automobile size engine at the back, uncovered. The engine is mounted on a swivel with a long metal handle in front and behind, a far longer metal stem with a propeller at the end of it. This peculiar arrangement means that the propeller can be easily raised and lowered or turned to the right or left; in the hands of an experienced person, the boat is very manoeuvrable. It can be motored through shallow water and over sand bars and reefs – commonplace on the coasts and islands of Thailand. But the long tail is completely unsuitable for traversing rough open seas and strong winds.
This was the situation we encountered when we made the trip out to Ko S.
The monsoon had been heavy that year and even in late October, normally a time of fine weather, there were bouts of heavy rain and wild winds.
We got on a long tail boat crammed with passengers and supplies and motored out over a series of reefs. As we entered the open sea, a bank of cloud appeared over the horizon and was soon upon us. Torrential rain fell, visibility fell to maybe a hundred metres and a wind blew up. Normally the trip out to Ko S. took around an hour. It took us much longer, closer to 2 hours, and it was a hell of trip. There were times when we thought the boat would capsize.
When we pulled up at the wharf at Ko S., we were completely drenched and cold but glad to be alive. It seemed almost dreamlike to be back on land and confronted by the task of finding somewhere to stay the night. In any case, that was an easy decision: there was only one place to stay. There were two other places but they didn’t open until the week before Christmas.
We got into a small motor rickshaw and off we went.
Ko S. was not a big island – 12 square kilometres – and it had no mountains. There was one road looping around the island which began and ended at the main town near the wharf.
As we sat in the rickshaw and took in our surroundings, it became immediately apparent that our gamble in coming out to this small island had paid off.
On either side of the road were small shops, stalls and houses. Between these dwellings were trees and bamboos and stretches of tall grass. Everything was spread out. There were people on the road standing around chatting. Others were on bikes and small Honda motor bikes. There were no cars, no hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, banks, ATM’s or 7/11’s.
A greater contrast with the typical Thai island party/tourist scene could not be imagined.
The motor rickshaw chugged along a deserted road, passing rows and rows of rubber trees before taking a right turn to the tourist resort. We got out and grabbed our rucksacks, paid the driver, and took in our surroundings. It was late afternoon and the sky was cloudy.
On the ocean horizon there was a long large island, mirage like, seemingly hovering above the water and nearby several smaller islands, more like icebergs of rock. On our right was a row of five thatch huts surrounded by palm trees and behind them, a cape enshrouded in rainforest. Before us was a series of steps leading down to a dining area, open on all sides with a thatch roof.
Entering the open dining area we were met by an incongruous sight: there was a multitude of wooden tables and chairs, all of them unoccupied, except for one where a single tourist sat: a big man, thick set, with short brown hair and a tanned whiskery face wearing a faded tropical shirt and baggy shorts. He was smoking a cigarette and he had a glass in his hand and a bottle of Thai whisky in front of him, along with a used plate and spoon and fork.
He looked up as we approached.
We were tired and wet and bedraggled. He greeted us with a cheery, bluff manner:
‘Hello! Now there’s three of us!’
It seemed incredible but it was true: three tourists on the island.
We sat down next to him, ordered a meal, and began chatting.
His cheery mood soon gave us a lift in spirits.
And so did the glasses of whisky which he poured for us as darkness descended like a curtain on a stage.
For the first night or two, we drank his Thai whisky. Then it seemed to us that it was time we bought the whisky.
Where did he buy it?
Ah! There was a protocol involved.
Most people on the island were Muslims. Many religions frowned on alcohol but none were as adamant on this point as Islam. It was true, as we discovered over the following days, that the Islam on the island was of a very relaxed kind. Some women wore headscarves, some didn´t. None of the men had beards or wore white caps. Men and women mixed freely. The lingua franca of the island was Thai and framed photos of the Thai king could be seen in some of the shops and stalls.
The inhabitants of the island were Thai Moslems – very different to the many of the Muslims on the mainland, especially on the south east coast, who were Muslim Thais.
Only one shop sold whisky and you had to surreptitiously ask for it whereupon you were taken down to the back of the shop and handed the whisky in a paper bag, which you then immediately stuffed into your day pack.
A day or two after we arrived, all signs of the monsoon vanished. The wind dropped, the sun shone, and we found ourselves surrounded by a spectrum of rich colours; the intense blues of tropical ocean, the greens of the palm trees and the jungle, the rich browns and blacks of the islands on the horizon.
Our lives settled into a routine. We were ocean swimmers. Early every morning we went for a swim and again late in the afternoon. During the day, we walked into the town to have lunch at one of the stalls. It was a pleasure to walk on an island with no traffic.
Ulrich was a fisherman.
Not your usual kind. He didn’t care too much about catching big fish. Didn’t seem to care much about whether he caught anything. Fishing was his way of travelling. He and his fishing rod were old friends. They had been to the lakes and coasts of Europe. One time in Canada. But their favourite destination were the coasts of Southern Thailand. Four times.
Generally we saw Ulrich in the evenings. He’d been on the island for a two weeks before we arrived and he had settled into his own little routine. He stayed up late and got up late and during the day disappeared on his small, rented Honda motorbike and went fishing somewhere on the island. At this point, we knew nothing about the island. We walked everywhere. We were only familiar with the stretch between the resort and the town.
He seemed to have no problem sitting for hours under the shade of palm trees and casting his line into the water, listening to music, and drinking. We never saw him return with a good catch, leastways as far as the fish went; a few small ones, which he called ‘sardines’ and which he got the cook in the kitchen to fry up for him.
His biggest catch were stories.
He was one of those people who had a natural ability to mix with others, even when the range of the vocabulary was very limited (though sometimes, the misunderstandings were as entertaining as the facts gleaned). He could tell a story, an art in itself, and he had a keen sense of humour.
In the evenings he would relate little episodes which he had experienced during the day and together they offered a rich cameo of life on the island. He walked around the little hut settlements where the fishermen and their families lived, their long tails moored in the shallows. He met villagers who on the far side of the island lived by growing rice and not rubber trees. He was invariably invited into huts and homes. He was invited to a mosque as an honorary guest; that this big rather unkempt European man with his Honda and fishing rod and bright tropical shirt and baggy shorts (not to mention he being stoned and drunk) was invited to the mosque was surely a mark of tolerant strain of Islam.
We were always glad to hear his evening reports of his day’s adventures.
He was a traveller and a fisherman, but he was also a raconteur and comedian.
He was an easy man to spend time with.
One night he told us that he had a fishing licence.
We thought he was joking.
But it was true.
‘In Austria, you know, you can’t catch a fish without a licence.’
‘A licence? A licence to catch a fish?’
‘Ya, fishing licence. Not easy to get.’
He had never had any interest in fishing until one day his best friend suggested that the two of them obtain a fishing licence and on the weekends, go fishing together in distant, wild streams in the mountains. Sounded exciting. To do that though, they needed a fishing licence. There was more involved than filling in a form and paying a fee. They had to attend a series of lectures covering such topics as the species of fish and their ecological environment, areas where it was permitted to fish and those that weren’t, legal sizes for catches, how to use a rod and reel, basic survival measures if one was caught by bad weather.
He chuckled: ‘You wouldn’t believe how much was in that course. Shit, we had busy jobs and were having to study for the fish licence as well.’
Afterwards they had to do a test – and if they passed, then they had to apply for a licence and pay for it. If they failed, they had to wait for another 6 months before they could do the test again. If you went fishing illegally and were caught, you had to pay a large fine and were banned from fishing.´
He showed us his licence.
Ten days passed and no other travellers appeared, which surprised us. T
he owner of the resort told us that he expected most of them would appear a week or two before Christmas.
The problem he said was that there was nothing to do on the island.
Only people who liked peace and quiet were interested.
It didn’t seem to bother him too much.
He had a hut and an area of land back from the coast, where he had a few rubber trees and grew vegetables and fruit and kept a few chickens.
He was a typical islander.
We were living in a kind of idyll there for a while.
Far from everything, just the three of us.
Then one morning Ulrich approached our hut with his phone in his hand and a grimace on his face. It was strange to see him up at that time of the day and looking decidedly unhappy.
He mounted the few steps to our small balcony and handed his phone to us.
He said nothing.
Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States.
The night before I had confidently predicted that Hillary Clinton would win.
Ulrich was angry.
It surprised us. It seemed out of character. Amongst the many topics we had talked about in the evenings, politics had been one of them, but it was generally in a detached, cynical way.
Cynicism: it was a necessary inoculation against the world’s incipient madness sometimes.
Ulrich’s inoculation seemed to be ineffective.
For a few days, he seemed to lose his normal good hearted and humorous manner.
He seemed depressed.
And perhaps this was behind the sudden change in his daily routine.
Donald Trump as it turned out, was ultimately responsible for Ulrich landing a prize catch.
Not a sardine.
A damn big fish!