Beautiful Are The Fireflies
Our guide sunk his comically large paddle into the bank and pushed us away.
While I half-expected us to gracefully sink into the river like Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl, we stayed afloat. Once we gained distance from the raucous restaurant, a peaceful silence settled over us as the boat cut through the silken black water. The river air was cool, a much-needed respite from the persistent humidity of the island.
There were at least 20 of us crammed excitedly into the tiny boat, which had an obvious capacity of 10 at most. I mentally added this excursion to the list of questionable things humans will do to look at light-up bugs, which so far also includes tubing through ice-cold cave water to see worms that do nothing but sit on their glowing asses.
It was December, and my grandparents and I had exhausted both ourselves and nearly every possible activity the tiny Thai island of Koh Chang had to offer, dodgy space cake in Mary Jane’s questionable psychedelic hut included. I’d spent so long in the ocean that I was a salt-soaked, human-sized prune.
The Irish pub next to our hotel was fast becoming a usual haunt, and it was there we heard the legend of the fireflies. Buy any meal at a particular local restaurant, and a boat trip to watch them in their natural habitat was yours for free. Naturally, we jumped in a tuk-tuk and headed off that evening.
To my disappointment, upon arrival, we discovered the restaurant primarily served seafood, and it was pretty expensive at that. I reluctantly pushed a heart-stoppingly expensive fish meal I’d mistaken for one of the only available chicken dishes around my plate for a good 40 minutes, but my disappointment soon faded as we set out on the river.
After the length of our journey had passed the point of welcome serenity and was approaching the realms of boredom, I inquired with our guide about when we might see the elusive fireflies. I was more than ready to know what Owl City was so enthusiastic about.
“Patience, please, madam. They have their own territory.”
I’d never known fireflies to be territorial, rather expecting them to meander wherever they pleased, but I accepted this without much of a second thought and settled back into my slightly cramped spot. After a few more minutes, our guide excitedly shook his paddle at the dark silhouette of the bank that was coming into view.
“Look, fireflies! Over there!”
We searched the fading skies for the first signs of the small, twinkling creatures as our endearingly animated guide gestured toward a specific cluster of trees. Suddenly the bank and the surrounding trees lit up with small yellow orbs. After we all made appropriate noises of admiration, someone asked if we could row the boat in any closer.
“No, madam. Scare the fireflies.”
So we watched the bioluminescent beauties from afar. They flashed on and off in a frenzy, having a firefly rave that I decided I wanted to grow wings and join. Once they tired of this strobe lighting, they twinkled on and off more slowly, and we watched in awe as they performed their tiny light show.
In retrospect, the night would have been perfect if we’d turned the boat around there and then, and headed back to land, oblivious to the truth. But our guide allowed us to linger for a bit too long, and that’s when my grandfather grew suspicious. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I thought the fireflies were acting a bit weird.
“Why haven’t they moved?”
He was right – while flashing on and off in quite an impressive manner, these fireflies hadn’t actually really flown anywhere the entire time. Our guide overheard him and quickly chimed in.
“They are tired, Sir.”
My grandfather and I exchanged weird looks at this but didn’t say anything further, although by then we were both suspicious. After a minute he leaned to me and mumbled,
“Must be bloody well-trained fireflies, if they’ll sit there like that.”
Our sharp-eared guide once again heard this, and let out an awkward, too-loud laugh.
“You are very funny Sir! We train fireflies, like dog!”
By now, the fireflies were through their fourth alternation between fast and slow, and something was definitely up. They’d stayed clustered around the same tree, and by this time we’d been watching for a while.
After seeing us exchange further dubious looks, our guide was looking more and more uncomfortable and kept a sharp eye on my grandfather, while at the same time attempting to evoke “oohs” and “aahs” from the rest of the group, flailing constantly at the same tree.
“So beautiful are the fireflies!”
It was about the seventh time we’d watched them repeat the same fast-slow pattern, embarrassingly enough, and the penny not only dropped but hit the ground with startling speed.
We’d avoided paying exorbitant amounts of money for something worth only $2NZD at the street markets, and we’d said no to the suspiciously cheap tuk-tuks. We’d successfully navigated Bangkok and its many confusing back alleys, and had only been on the wrong train once or twice. We outsmarted pick-pocketers and found the best street food. But as street-savvy and knowledgeable as we liked to falsely assume we were, we’d still been well and truly scammed.
I wanted to slink away and never mention it again, willing to accept the situation as an inevitable rite of passage, but my grandfather decided to announce our realisation to the entire boat. He’s the kind of man that just does not allow any time for bullshit. While I respect this, I’m more averse to confrontation of any kind — not totally spineless, but pretty close. I looked away, suddenly incredibly interested in a dark cluster of trees, preparing for the awkward boat ride back to the land that would most likely follow.
Our guide turned to us, a desperate smile on his face. His eyes begged my grandfather not to say anything, to just let it be. I held my breath and realised everyone on the boat was now listening. I hoped he wouldn’t be too ruthless, because while he’d scammed us, the poor man had also rowed us all the way here.
The thing about Thailand is that most genuine vendors, as well as every hustler or scammer, tell you they’ve got children at home and a wife to support. I never quite want to deny anyone like this their apparently much needed money, even if it means I end up with a pretty useless collection of magnets and knock-off Ray Bans. This was the ultimate dilemma — maybe this guy did have children at home that relied on our custom. Or perhaps he was content making a quick buck from the tourists with his scam. I will never know.
“Sir, don’t you just love the fireflies tonight?”
“Those aren’t fireflies, mate. They’re fucking Christmas lights.”