Creepy Things in Southeast Asia

Putting down the usual introspective musings and dusting off the memory cells (what’s left of them) for a little storytelling inspired by Halloween 🙂

As someone who has travelled to a few off-the-beaten path tracks in her life (both geographically and metaphysically), I’ve confronted several unpleasant creatures in my wanderings.

Some of them have been creepy men. Some have been creepy women. Some have been entities from other dimensions. Some have wielded machetes & bad intentions (that story here). Some were on Tinder (that story here). 

Most of them have been things that do things like scuttle, arch, hiss, and jump. They show up in only the most intimate locations of course, like my shower and my bedroom, but occasionally they come between me and my coffee (about the only thing that can besides the odd fleeting resolution).

People who don’t travel much always ask me (especially the young women) how I deal with the creepy crawlies. They don’t mean the greasy guys in bars I don’t go to. They mean the insects, the spiders, the roaches, the snakes, etc. Good question. It’s one I’m glad I didn’t ponder for too long before ditching my cushy life in Canada to backpack in Southeast Asia.

My answer was usually that my boyfriend takes care of them. Except that’s not entirely accurate because, upon reflection, for most of my nomadic life I’ve been single (which is occasionally risky business). In fact, I’ve only ever travelled with a man for a shortish time (thankfully?). And spiders seem to show up a lot more often when you’re alone, strangely. 

So, here’s the real answer. Following is a collection of all those times I had unpleasant confrontations with Southeast Asia’s arthropods and how I managed.

But first, I’ll begin with the thing that inspired this post:

I was having dinner with an Aussie friend the other night. He told me of a time he was driving and observed a spider appear from between the dashboard and the windshield and walk across the glass, right in his line of sight. Walk. He said it walked. As though it had on a pair of trainers and a backpack and was going some place. 

Normally we say that spiders crawl, which sounds rather innocent and harmless, like we’re talking about a cooing infant crawling across a floor. So when we talk about a spider that walks, it denotes something involving a bit more coordination than I think most of us are comfortable knowing spiders have. Something with more advanced motor skills. Something with intention. I don’t like the idea of spiders with intentions, do you? I also don’t like the image of them walking anywhere within a mile radius of my head, especially ones with sophisticated motor skills, because at any moment, walking may become running and running may become pouncing. And when spiders pounce they can either hide from you very quickly or land on your face. And the only thing worse than a huge visible spider is a huge hiding spider because you can’t track their movements. 

This following story sticks out most in my memory bank of run-ins with unpleasant creatures.

The largest spider in the world & snake in a tube.

Back in 2017, I was staying in southern Sri Lanka for a month in a place called Unawatuna, which has the same number of syllables as “leggo-my-Eggo” (for anyone who remembers that ‘80s waffle commercial) and rolls off the tongue with a similar delight. Here I met the #1 largest spider in the world. 

I mean we didn’t shake hands or anything (or legs), but he hissed and I screamed so that’s almost the same thing. 

It was 6 a.m. and I was walking into the kitchen via the jungle-ensconced terrace (I love that tropical island living requires me to go outside to get from one room to the next). As I stepped foot into the threshold, coffee makings mere micrometres away, there it stood, splayed out like it owned the place (it kind of did at that point). I froze. 

Here’s a description of the thing that held rights to my next movement:

Body roughly the size of a large orange, though less bulbous.

Legs thick like pencils, bent at the knees and ready to pounce.

Hair. The coarse wiry kind, similar to unkempt pubic hair.

Eyes. 8 of them, located strategically across the body for 360 degree viewing.

Fangs. (This was a new discovery for me – I didn’t know spiders have fangs).

But the problem isn’t always with appearances. It’s how spiders move that causes all kinds of involuntary neurological events to occur within me. It arched its body (somehow) and came up onto its hind legs (until then I didn’t realize that spiders had hind- or fore-anything).

Betwixt me and my coffee, it seemed to be asking me to leave the kitchen. So, I obliged. I waited outside for my dear friend Delphine to wake so she could shoo the thing out to its rightful home (we had an agreement: I deal with cute little cockroaches and she deals with terrifying spiders).

The spider returned each morning to block my efforts toward securing my morning cuppa joe. We never established a first name basis, so that routine persisted the whole month I stayed there. Believe me, I tried to coach myself through its morning visits. Although I didn’t succeed, I came away with a deeper acceptance of my limitations (and major self-kudos for staying in that place the whole month!).

Right now you’re probably wondering if the spider was poisonous. Please understand that’s not the point.

Don’t worry, it’s not a poisonous one, I won’t kill you holds no weight with me. In fact, if it lands on my face then I might wish that it could kill me –– fast –– to spare me that horrible predicament. If that sounds ridiculous, I might ask you how comfortable you would be should a nonpoisonous snake harmlessly wrap itself around your neck even if it wasn’t the killing kind, and even if snakes don’t bother you.

Here’s the thing: most things can kill you (even made-up viruses it seems). Others just scare the shit out of you. Here, the fear of fear trumps the fear of death, for me anyway. But that’s not going to stop me visiting places that house scary creatures. I’d rather know and see what scares me than be constantly (and unconsciously) running from the insidious threats of everyday ordinary life.

But you’re wondering about the snake in the tube…

I saw a snake just once during that time in Sri Lanka. A silvery viper of sorts, just slightly longer than my ex-boyfriend (his body, that is). It was far enough away from our home to pose any kind of problem for us. 

However, upon our arrival when the owner was showing us around, I asked him about the possibility of snakes paying a visit. He confirmed it was highly probable. Awesome. He showed me a long tube stowed behind the washing machine out on the terrace –– the solution should any snakes appear on the terrace. 

How does that work? I asked, naturally. 

You just coax the snake into the tube, he said, like he was explaining how to flush a toilet.

I was puzzled. Do I look like a snake charmer? Thankfully the tube rested against the wall, unused for the month.

We also observed scorpions on our busy terrace. They have a saucy tango type of crawl. A slight twitching of their deadly tail, as if to say come hither to anyone brave (or stupid) enough to be in their path. Quite cute if you’re far enough away.

The peeping Tom in my shower. 

During another tropical island stay, this time in the Togian Islands of North Eastern Indonesia, I had a peeping Tom spider that regularly appeared in my shower each evening. The first time I found it, it was after my shower. There it was, fixed to the piece of bamboo just above the showerhead. A perfect view –– for him, not me. I shuddered at the thought that I’d just spent 5 minutes standing directly under that monster, naked, no less. At full splay, it was the size of my head, and much like the spider in Sri Lanka, thick, hairy, and all-seeing. 

And there it appeared every night. And every night I’d call the guy that worked at the guesthouse to remove it. And every night he’d clutch the thing with his bare hand and chuck it over the wall into the jungle beyond. And every night I would ask him kindly to please pick it up and walk it 5 miles into the jungle (there’s a lot of this sort of repetition in Indonesia). It never happened (there’s a lot of that sort of thing in Indonesia too). So, I completed my stay with this unpleasant arrangement, which meant I was forced to take my middle-of-the-night pee outside on the beach front yard where it was safe. Ah well.

The hind-legged hissing beetle.

Once, while in Bali, I observed a very interesting looking beetle on my porch. It had a metallic red, turtle shell-like body, long twitchy feelers, and a few spikes sticking out its legs. It was kind of cute and I wanted to see its face. I knelt down and rested my chin on the ground, so I was face to face with it. Perhaps I frightened it because suddenly it rose up on its back legs and hissed at me. Hissed. Like a cat hisses at another cat. I guess that’s a fair defense against something 100x your size staring you down an inch from your face. But if you’ve ever witnessed an insect hiss, then you might also know that the hiss contains a clear message to get as far the fuck away from it as possible.

The one crawler here in Thailand that doesn’t bother me, besides the cute roaches, are the lizards. There are about five in my apartment at any given time. They dart in and out of my makeshift rock garden. They shimmy up the windows with suction cup feet. And they leave sweet little poops randomly around the kitchen countertops, which sounds gross, but I find it endearing. It means I have company, and they’re comfortable enough in my home to let loose.

Of course, I’ve had far more incidents with house-sized spiders than I mention here. Through these experiences I seem to have developed a spidey sense –– an instinct that fires when I’m in the presence of an unseen one. I’m undecided about whether I’m grateful for this ability. 

Photo: Art on the door of a tattoo parlour in Chiang Mai

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