A Man and His Dragons in Southern Thailand
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

On a Thailand tour that's supposed to highlight pristine, unpopulated islands, the highlight turns out to be a man-made attraction created by a driven artist who turns roots into mythical creatures.

Trang travel

There was little fanfare when we parked in front of Wang Thep Taro and the advance info on our itinerary billed it as a non-eventful stop. This was supposed to be "an ordinary house of a local villager where he runs his home business based on self-sufficiency economy with the local wisdoms by using Theptaro wood as the main material." It was clear from first glance though that whoever created this place was no ordinary wood carver.

Flowing off in both directions from the front gate were intricately built dragons fashioned from curving tree roots. They snaked around the grounds and wove into one another like a school of frolicking sea creatures swimming together and striking fear in the heart of sailors. I got out of the van, stood a few seconds gaping with my mouth open, then maxed out my camera's memory card.

The big draw of this tour was supposed to be island-hopping in the Trang and Satun regions of Thailand. We would be landing on beautiful secluded beaches and seeing the kind of turquoise waters that grace magazine covers and make people drool. We would lounge on hammocks drinking from a coconut and take photos that didn't require any filters to look perfect. A few hours south of Krabi and Phi Phi but with far fewer tourists, this was going to be dreamy. Our woodcarver stop was just something to fill up some time after breakfast near the Trang capital city.


Smog in Paradise

When we arrived, however, it became a dream without much clarity. Further south in Borneo and Sumatra of Indonesia, farmers had been burning their fields for weeks after harvest time. Every year there's a respiratory emergency in a huge section of the globe. This year the haze was big enough to obscure satellite photos of the land and the carbon output was estimated to be greater than the entire output of the United States. As usual, everyone complained, but the ineffective Indonesian government was unable to do much more than send some firefighters to keep things from getting worse.

The smoke rolled across Singapore, Malaysia, and all the way up to Ko Chang in Thailand, making our trips between islands like boat rides in a permanent fog. We were just two kilometers away from the island of Ko Muk before we could even see it. The boat anchored and we swam into a dark cave, coming out on the other end into an area that made us forget all about the air outside. After following a guide with a headlamp, we emerged onto a beach surrounded on all other sides by sheer limestone walls. This natural hideout is protected Morakot Park, also known as the Emerald Cave. In this little enclosed space with its green water and dramatic entrance, we could forget for a while about the soupy air outside.

Emerald Cave

Over the next couple days we zipped from one island to another, but the view above the water was seldom the kind that inspired anyone to reach for their camera. Instead we chatted and daydreamed, looking forward to landings where we would go snorkeling among the colorful coral underwater, where the haze above didn't matter.

The Old Man and the Dragons

The sign in the center of the sculpture park reads "Pay respect to the Earth" in Thai. Others scattered along walking paths offer words of wisdom in two languages, including "Be powerful like a dragon." I'm didn't feel so powerful in this tropical heat, just five minutes in the sun turning my shirt into a sweaty mess.

Holding court in a shaded pavilion was the man behind all this, Mr. Jaroon Keawla-eiad. ("That's probably not a perfect spelling," my guide explained. "Some Thai words don't translate very well into English letters.") He is a retired local school teacher that took over this land of theptaro trees many decades ago and made a dragon from the curvy tree's roots. Then he made another, and one after that, then kept going. There are now 88 of them on the property.

Trang Thai dragon

He keeps the sad original dragon he created first on display, very close to his most recent incredible creation. The original is like a child's drawing compared to an adult masterpiece, or in monster terms, like the original 1954 black and white Godzilla creature compared to fierce Smaug in The Hobbit. The progression of his skill is amazing, with the dragons evolving over time into fluid designs that almost look like they're moving. They look vividly different from alternate angles and seem to change shape as the arc of the sun moves the shadows.

"I had all these roots on the land from taro trees that had been cut down," he tells us through a translator, and I thought one of them looked like the head of a dragon, so I made the first one from just a few pieces." The next one was a bit bigger and better and as his skill grew they got more ambitious. He points to one near us in the pavilion and says it was carved from an especially large root that was at least 300 years old.

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Read this article online at: http://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/1215/trang.html

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2015. All rights reserved.

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