By Connor Newson
Here in the bay of Laemsak village, the fine seabed gradient slopes almost unnoticeably towards the open waters of the Andaman sea. As the moon pulls its metaphorical leash on the tide a shallow chasm appears, leaving a thick layer of mud to stretch across the expanding open space of the bay. Then, as the evening sun retreats behind the mountainous horizon, a palette of explosive orange shades form a thin yet marvellous mirror on the film of water left behind. Twice now I have spotted a small silhouette of a man, far out in the distance, gliding effortlessly atop the glassy surface. In the stillness and silence of his movements, a captivating narrative is painted right there in front of me. One in which the mysterious figure is the protagonist escaping to the tranquillity of his vast reflective canvas to dig for shells and shrimp. It is a story that is almost romantic in nature, his elegance awakening my curiosity. So evening, when I come into possession of a large plank of wood identical to the used by the silhouette, I decide to attempt my own version of his story.
In all it was about two metres in length and a lot heavier than one person could easily carry – much larger than I expected. It too k the three of us – Teo, myself, and a local boy called Nigh – to haul it fifty metres to the edge of the bay. The tide was a further two-hundred metres out, and we needed to be somewhere in between where the wood can skim easily across the surface. So we hoist the overweight surfboard above our shoulders and begin tiptoeing across the broken-shell shoreline until we reach a thin layer of wet mud. My feet slide momentarily before submerging slightly beneath, simultaneously allowing the waterlogged seabed to rise and squeeze through my toes. I cringe at the sludge as it consumes my feet, lifting each one in the hope that this would somehow relieve the slimy texture. However, after a minute of hopping from one foot to the other the gluey sensation begins to feel comfortable.
We march ahead towards the glimmering sunset, sinking deeper into the marsh as we advance. My steps become more difficult as the earth swallows my feet, and then my ankles. We drop the plank of wood that is now contributing to our gradual descent, and instead decide to pull it using the rope attached to the nose. It slides with ease. We push on, deeper still, and soon my white knees are peeking out of the concoction of green and brown sediment. I feel the vacuum sucking my right leg beneath as I attempt to pull it out – unsuccessfully. I point my toes and pull once more in the hope that it will ease my leg’s escape. It does, however I fall onto my hands from the excess force.
I look at my limbs that are now half caked in sludge before standing again. All of a sudden my right foot feels significantly lighter, so I lift it only to find it is now sockless. The earth has eaten my sock. It seems that nature is beginning to show its almightiness. I turn back and throw my arm elbow-deep into the hole that was left behind by my foot but feel nothing besides the squelching mud enshrouding my arm. It is lost. Nature wins this time. And as I step forward with my right foot it claims another point with the second sock as it too disappears into the depths. And then a third point is won as I fall face-first and undignified into the dirt.
Having successfully transformed into a muddy and faceless creature, I decide that the most logical course of action is to embrace the territory and my new form. I bury my hands deep and pull out a mass of thick black marsh, black as coal and as viscous as crude-oil. I lather it on every visible inch of my body, with Teo and Nigh following suit. Then we throw ourselves forward and begin crawling on our fronts like soldiers.
After fifteen arduous metres of attempting to swim through the sludge we stop for a break to catch our breath. I look over to Nigh who seems unaffected by the rigorous exercise, and seeing how he is now plunging his hands below the seabed to pluck out shells and shrimp confirms just that. Then Nigh’s face seems to express concentration, or maybe confusion as he feels below once more. With one swift movement, he retrieves his hand from below with a thick rope-like creature clutched in his hand. It falls limp and we stare for a moment before realising its slight movements as it slithers through Nigh grasp.
“Snake” he shouts.
He launches the snake a metre in front and we dive in the opposite direction, desperately hurling ourselves forward despite gravity making our attempts relatively futile. We stop after securing a bit of distance, but the thought of snakes and other unknown creatures lurking just below the sloppy surface makes me shiver. So I decide its time to attempt the mudboard. The three of us climb on, each with one knee resting on deck, two hands clutching the sides and the other foot digging into the dirt to push us forward.
Immediately the nose of the board digs down and thick gunge buries to wood. We are forced to get off and pull it to the surface, fighting against the vacuum that sucks from below. Once again we mount, and once again we sink. It seems that the weight of three people is too much. So Teo and Nigh climb off to rest, but I remain on top, determined to be that silhouette and glide across my squishy sanctuary. I reposition myself at the rear of the board to allow the tip to hover an inch above the seabed in order to avoid cutting into the mud and piling on extra weight. To my surprise this works. I am suddenly liberated from the powerful grip of marshland gravity – more so than two minutes previous to this anyway.
I fly forward, skimming over the bay, faster with every deep push of my right foot as I grip tightly onto the board’s edges. And there in the distance I see the same figure that I have seen twice before. Once again he glides elegantly, stopping occasionally to pluck a shell from the bay and put it in the bucket that rests on top of his board. I beat my foot down hard to catch up with him, feeling now the burning ache of my muscles as I travel another fifty metres on top of the two-hundred we had already crawled through. Finally I reach him, and watch as he moves swiftly past me. I try and keep up but fail miserably as the nose dips once more into the mud, halting my board and causing me to eat the dirt once more. I lay on my back exhausted and defeated, watching the silhouette in the burning mirrored sunset as he sails away.
Slowly, I return to Nigh and Teo. We are two-hundred metres away from where we began. Although out here it’s impossible to gauge any distance really, and moving anywhere takes enormous effort and time. It feels much further, and to return the same way would mean getting home after dark. I wasn’t prepared to stay out here that long with such creatures hidden beneath me. So instead we agree on an detour. Pulling ourselves an extra fifty metres to the sea and swimming around.
As we heave ourselves into the Andaman sea, I can’t help but feel my attempt at becoming that mysterious protagonist on the sunset-coloured seabed wasn’t quite as tranquil and effortless as my mind had made it out to be. And despite the quest being incredible messy and fun, I guess that this filthy paradise is best watched from afar, and left to the professionals to conquer.