The Birds of Betong

A dispatch from Thailand

By / February 2014

Betong is a sleepy little town in southern Thailand, less than 10 minutes from the Malaysian border. With its relaxed pace of life and abundance of cheap food and massage parlors, it acts as a respite for visitors that want a break from the clamor of the big cities nearby. And it really is a respite most of the year. But things get a little crazy in the wintertime, when throngs of birds flock to the small town. For that reason, I wonder if Betong, which means “bamboo” in Thai should actually be called “bird poop.”

It also contains another superlative: It’s home to the world’s largest mailbox. I’m pretty sure that the 30-foot mail receptacle isn’t responsible for bringing repeat visitors to Betong, but maybe the birds like it? In fact, winter after winter, flights of noisy swallows descend upon the town in search of a warm place to winter. Their permanent residence in Siberia is far too cold.

However, right now, as the sun sets and I sip an iced coffee, all is serene. Behind my chair hangs a large photo of the King and Queen of Thailand, safeguarded behind glass and surrounded by an ornate golden frame. Hotel California begins to play, one of a series of classic rock songs coming from the large speakers in a corner behind me. Don Henley strains to be heard over the nearby sound of jackhammers and a large tractor, which is scraping the top layer of pavement from a side road.

Photograph by Aaron Goccia

A myriad of smells, mostly pleasant, are carried along by the hot breeze past my table. From across the street wafts the smell of fragrant oils from the massage parlors. There is also the sweet smell of pork being grilled over charcoal in restaurants to my left as well as my right. Coffee from the grinding mill and brewing machines behind me mingle with the burning smell of incense, an offering to the spirits, coming from the Buddhist-owned shop nearby. The majority of the vehicles slowly passing the shop are small motorbikes, many of them heard before they are seen, the high pitched staccato of their small 100-125cc motors announcing their impending arrival.

Yet, as I near the bottom of my iced coffee, I feel a change in the air. Nearby, a trained caged bird whistles the theme song from The Bridge on the River Kwai, a World War II film set 700 miles farther upcountry. The bird’s song, more like a tremulous whistle, is a harbinger to the arrival of more birds, many more birds. As twilight begins to fall, the other sounds are drowned out by the chatter of swallows descending upon the small town.

As countless fowl fly overhead, diving, circling, and looking for a place to perch, the sky grows dark, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s chilling tale The Birds. The feathered friends begin to settle on nearly every available horizontal surface – power lines, awnings, signs and roofs. However, their endless chirping is not the only herald to their arrival – gravity carries their watery white calling cards onto the tops of cars, roads, sidewalks, unsuspecting pedestrians and anything else lingering beneath.

Photograph by Aaron Goccia

As you might’ve guessed, Betong’s residents have mixed opinions regarding the prolonged, annual visit of these feathered friends. Many are excited to be one of the few areas to host the birds. They consider the mass of swallows a beautiful sight — and even a draw for visitors. Others, however, find the abundance of avian excrement unsightly and possibly even a health hazard.

As the sun falls and the shopkeepers lock their doors for the night, a cool breeze begins to blow and a drizzling rain begins to fall. I decide to head for my car parked across the street. I eye the power lines bordering both sides of the street. They are teeming with swallows. Several are looking down at me, perhaps making wagers on which one will be able to hit me. I take a deep breath and then charge across the quiet street like a baseball player trying to steal home plate. The chirping birds seem almost to cheer my mad dash. Perhaps, for a season, the threat of a soiled shirt is a minor cost to share the streets with such winged, singing things.

 

Aaron Goccia is a writer and photographer in Kuala Lumpur.

 

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