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My One Day Trying to Do Nothing

We spent two weeks in April on the small island of Koh Phayam in Thailand. The goal during that time was to relax and enter a semi-vegetative state. As I have always struggled to shut down my systems (I get tense when relaxing…..which is sort of silly), this fortnight was a good challenge in helping my overworked Productivity Drive temporarily stop.

Koh Phayam Beach at Sabai Sabai

Plenty of locations to not do anything

For the first ten days I was still productive, but mildly so: I wrote, I read, I swam, I ate, I walked about and rescued two fish from a tidal pool. I studied the sand crabs and gave them monikers. But finally the day came when I decided I would do nothing, apart from eating and showering. I would lie in the shade on the beach and let my mind wander, following every thought and eventually just absorbing the world without any conscious intentions. A sort of sponge-like meditation.

With this great sense of purpose, I started out the morning lying under a palm frond umbrella under a coconut tree, fully shaded and cool. After a long while, my eyelids fell and a light doze swept me away. Bliss. After some fragmented and desultory dreams, I woke certain I was in an oven – and I was. The damn sun had moved without prior warning or notification, and my left side was frying. Time for a quick dip to cool off and then apply some sun cream.

Back to my sun bed, dragged back into the shade. I was covered with SPF50 and had draped a skirt over my midriff. Right. Back to not doing anything.

Beach cat Koh Phayam Sabai Sabai

This beach cat who invaded our room and climbed through the mosquito netting to have a nap on our bed did not struggle to relax

Another glorious passage of time, with my thoughts freely wandering and not coming back. Then suddenly I felt the need to cool off as doing nothing was hot work. I set aside my skirt and walked all the way down the exposed beach and into the sea.

During the morning, a stiff breeze had come in off the mainland and continued to whip up the water like a children’s swim class. There were decent-sized waves and huge rafts of mangrove sticks and leaves, rocking up and down in the chop. The detritus had washed out of the small, mangrove-laden estuary nearby. The wind made the water nice and cool after the baked air of the shore.

Mango debris on Koh Phayam

Check out that wash line of mangrove sticks and leaves...

I swam out past the worst of the plant debris and enjoyed the up and down of the water. Down in my tummy, though, I felt the familiar knot of worry I always carry when in the ocean: am I about to be eaten? I’ve seen Jaws, I know things lurk below the surface. I had also been reading about the various deadly jellyfish that speckled the coastal waters of Thailand, such as the Box Jellyfish which will kill you within three minutes of its touch. Letting one’s mind wander while in the ocean is not always the cleverest choice.

I decided to breast-stroke away from my thoughts and nerves, not allowing myself back to shore just yet. With a big kick, I pushed forward and my right foot was suddenly in prickly agony. I was almost certainly being eaten by some creature with spiky teeth. Panicking, I pawed at my foot with my right hand with the hope of startling away whatever predator was trying to dine on me and also determine how my appendage was faring. My hand was suddenly on fire, and as I held it up to my face I saw dozens of fine white spikes protruding from my skin like an albino porcupine. With a whimper, I swam hard for the beach, vainly hoping whatever sea monster had flung these spikes could not swim faster than me.

Safe on the berm. I looked at my foot and saw it too was a pincushion, and my hand retained its new spikes. My heart and lungs were burning with adrenaline and my burst of exertion – or maybe it was some toxin that was working its way through my body. I had read about that.

I hobbled up the beach and cursed the soft sand which pushed the spines further into my foot. At last I reached our beachfront cabin and weakly called for Vien. He instantly realised something was wrong and half-carried me to the beach bar area where the staff and owners were watching a football match. The British owner had lived on the island for eight years, and his girlfriend was from there.

“Do you know what these spikes are? Have you ever seen them before?”

“Nope, no idea,” both he and his partner said. “In all our time running a beach resort, no guest or resident has ever had anything remotely similar to this. It certainly doesn’t look like sea urchin spines, and we can’t think of anything else it could be.”

Just what we were hoping to hear.

“We should remove the spikes, though, in case there is a toxin going into you,” suggested the owner. Later research revealed this is the correct thing to do, which is comforting. Nervously, I assented and tweezers were brought out. Vien stopped Googling ‘white spikes Southern Thailand toxin treatment what to do urgent what to do help help help’ and tried to tease one spine out, but it was extremely brittle and snapped off between the tweezer blades, leaving the base firmly lodged in my hand and a ferocious pain. Okay, maybe not.

A few urgent conversations later, it was decided that I should go to hospital and the doctor could deal with the spines. Happily, my heart rate had slowed somewhat and I wasn’t feeling dizzy, nor were my appendages losing feeling. I just had spikes coming out of my hand and foot. Probably not lethal then. We were then faced with the issue of transport. As the island of Koh Phayam has no cars, the only transport is via motorbike and we didn’t have one nor did we know how to drive one. In the end, the owner’s solution was for me to ride behind him on his motorbike, and for Vien to ride as passenger on his girlfriend’s. I was given one flip-flop to protect my other foot from the hot sand, clumsily tied my skirt around me and then began the long hop to the parking area. Part of me took the time to realise the left half of me was as red as a chilli, leaving my right side an incongruous white thanks to my morning’s doze.

What a good excuse to have my first ride on a moped! We putted along the concrete roads and over the bridge and finally into the hospital’s overgrown yard. It was a single-storey white building with a big front porch, a large main room and an examination room. One doctor and one nurse were on duty; while the doctor was caring for another patient, the nurse came out to have a look.

“Have you ever seen this before?” I asked, hoping for a comforting answer.

“Never, never ever. But I don’t think it’s sea urchin,” she replied.

I hopped up the steps and sat down on the veranda to wait. The doctor was just finishing with his patient inside, and the patient’s mother was waiting. She was an American woman with a gruesome line of stiches running from her hairline down across her cheek, a torn-open shoulder, a cast on her ankle and legs covered in scrapes and scabs.

“What happened to you?” I asked, suddenly feeling less sorry for myself.

“It turns out I can’t ride a motorbike. And I am also the worst mother in the world. Also, always wear a helmet. And don’t try to learn with your daughter on the back.”

She then looked at my delicate white spines. “Looks like a sea eagle to me. Is that the word? Sea eagle? Am I speaking English right now?” Her husband and bruised daughter joined us, and he gently corrected her: “It’s sea urchin – sea eagle is German. But those aren’t sea urchin spines.”

At least I was well enough to know which language I was speaking. Things definitely could be worse.

The doctor waved us in to the exam room. It had high ceilings, big fans and two exam tables. The lights were off as it was afternoon and bright outside, so it was cool and shady. I struggled up onto the table (not wanting to use one foot and one hand and trying to hold my skirt over my bikini made it less than graceful). Vien, the nurse and the doctor all peered down at my spiny appendages; the doctor also had never seen anything like it before either. He’d worked in the island’s hospital for twenty years. Not sea eagle.

Using forceps, the doctor attempted to withdraw the spines, but they kept snapping off. In the dim light he couldn’t see much, but with great foresight Vien had brought our daypack, which contains a brilliantly bright torch cum mobile charger. Pulling that out, they suddenly saw dozens more spines and they continued with renewed vigour.

At long last, all the spines that they could see where removed. Frustratingly, the walk through the sand had removed/broken a lot of spines so the main issue was my right hand, which hadn’t been the initial victim. (The perils of trying to help defend my foot have been noted for future reference.) The bill was 300 TBH (roughly $8) and they didn’t have change, so while Vien was visiting the convenience store down the road, the doctor took the opportunity to ask about our flashlight.

“I could use something like that. Very useful for examinations,” he said to us. Then, while Vien was paying the nurse, he said to me, “You have a very good man. Very good man.” What a perceptive doctor!

Breakfast at Sabai Sabai Koh Phayam

My Very Good Man

We then headed home on our respective motorbikes (the owners of the resort had stayed the whole time), and I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to the crocodile of curious guests who came up to find out what had happened to me. I also feverishly restarted the Googling of ‘spines’, ‘spikes’ and ‘stingers’ to discover what had attacked me. Although I never found a totally conclusive answer, I am 90% convinced it was a piece of fire coral that had broken off the reef up the coast during the storm and washed into my foot. However, I didn’t have the fiery pain which is requisite for such a verdict…but perhaps it was dead? And that could explain that it was stiff spikes, not soft tentacles?

So in the end my day of doing nothing became our most exciting day of our entire journey: first shockingly uneven sunburn, first ride on a motorbike, first experience as a wannabe sea urchin, first visit to a Thai hospital. But at least it wasn’t productive.

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