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When Someone Builds a House on Koh Phayam

The delivery barge has beached itself to unload concrete beams and a small Bobcat. Someone is building a house on the other side of the road, further into the mangrove swamp, but by the length and quantity of the beams, it looks more likely to be a mansion or a hotel. The boat arrived in the wind last night, after dark, lowering its ramp into the high tide with the hollow thump of iron. It was still far away from the shore, an anchored boat whose gangplank went into the sea. Today the tide has withdrawn, revealing empty sand marked only by crab caves, dug hurriedly the moment the water went, and a beached boat. The gangway is twenty metres away from the sea. A normal-size backhoe is spinning back and forth on the berm, as if it is torn between sea and land; each spin delivers one more rod to the beach, with a slow urgency. The backhoe is frantically served by barge workers pushing and shoving the goods into position, into piles, into hook-sized loads.

House Building Barge Koh Phayam, Thailand

The boat’s hull has been painted by an array of differently-minded contributors, each with firm ideas of how a Thai inter-island delivery barge should appear. The bow painter clearly was faster than the rest, as a large swath of the boat’s hull is a lovely turquoise, the same blue as a clear summer’s sky just after dawn. Further along the boat, though, there is evidence of a slower but more adventurous school of thought. There are hatches painted the dull red of a grandmother’s lipstick, other bits as orange as the inside of a strawberry. The keel is a dirty black with red squares whimsically added by the same daredevil who did the hatches. The black was perhaps chosen to match the tyres suspended from the rails where they hang as insufficient bumpers, but its time in the sea has given it a charcoal tinge. The propellers hang suspended above the water, fondled by a few of the bolder waves.

I am surprised that the boat is here. Late last night, when it reversed across the bay until hitting our shore, I was so perplexed by what I saw I went down to the water’s edge. At first glance, this may seem unremarkable. However, I was carrying a full set of dirty dinner dishes to the kitchen at the time, was ready for bed, and had no intention of a midnight foray. I had also locked my husband in our tiny bungalow and did not want to leave him trapped for too long. Still, the draw of a large blinking boat landing on the resort beach was enough to change my plans.

According to a fellow observer, who was less plussed than I, the pier is too far away and the delivery barge too short to enable unloading. The only solution was for a beach landing at the resort.

Night time barge delivery

Today the boat has lost the impressive and perplexing visage that had enticed me last night. Today it looks a little resigned, as if it had never desired regular beachings but understood that houses in mangrove swamps need to be built and it had a necessary role to play. The contrast remains, however: looking out there is a comfortable expanse of greyish water with underlying tones of jade, and this water comforts the shores of several bushy islands whose vegetation makes them look top-heavy. To the right, the sand fills in an achingly precise crescent, cliché with one fallen palm tree and an almost-straight line of shells and coral. Further along, there is a rocky headland with a small footpath, used by anglers to stock their restaurants and feed their families. Running along the beach is a dense forest of palms and beach pines, as well as a few fruit trees with their glossy leaves. Then a few bungalows on stilts appear, each with a hammock and brightly coloured plastic chairs on their front porches.

Closer to the barge is the resort’s common area, which is comprised of a raised platform filled with Thai cushions, hammocks, pillows and regular cushions. There are sun beds scattered between the coconut tree trunks and even a six-person swinging platform in the shade.

Sometimes music wanders out from the bar area, but most of the hours are only punctuated by the motors of longboats as they hop across the bay. The most constant noises are the waves as they reorganise the sand and the breezes as they comb the palm fronds – a very organised bunch. And now today we have the arrival of industry and diesel and the throat-clearing of engines as they rev back and forth. Its presence is incongruous with the Danish and Chinese families splashing in the sea, the semi-tipsy guests reclining semi-naked on the sand, and the lack of roads and routes that I would have thought necessary for such a delivery. Looking at the barge, I can make sense of it. Looking at the resort, I can make sense of it. Zooming out so they are both in view becomes like living in Photoshop.

Part of me wishes the barge had not arrived and was not here. This disrupts the tropical idle that only outdoor cushions and hanging lanterns can engender. The other part of me, though, is happy this small window is open, however briefly, so I can peer through and see a non-sybaritic activity even while I drink my mango smoothie. Beyond that, the contrarian part of me (I am not proud of it, but cannot wish it away either) imagines that the other guests are unhappy with this disruption, and therefore I am going to appreciate its positives.

Of course, the tide will rise again, the boat will float off its sandy dock and I am unlikely to ever see it again. So worrying about who is happy it is here is a surplus exercise that I should leave to someone else. I will set that aside, and also try to ignore the surreal nature of this big event. The boat was not here, now it is here, then it won’t be here. The sun rises, and vanishes, and reappears. There is nothing more, no thought to be added. It is, it simply is, like the beaches and mangroves and backpackers and cushions and waves and little crab houses.

UPDATE: It’s back! It beached itself again! Should we help it or does that break some sort of journalist’s code?!

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