Squatting is my catnip. Fun. Fulfilling. It is the perfect synthesis of adventure, ideals, camping, stealth, nesting, and the total joy of one’s labor directly meeting personal needs. I remember my first squat – not just sleeping in an abandon building but really owning it and making it a home – years ago at The Crumble. I remember how the little fibers of my body and tissues of my heart all sang to me: bringing direct action and tangible change to long-held personal beliefs on property ownership and at the same time the thrill of living outside the law and having a very active relationship with the place I lived. That was five years ago, and I haven’t paid a dime on rent since.
But never have I ever had a squat like the Lizard Palace…
The story I heard was that it was abandon because of transportation difficulties – being only practically accessed by boat. I heard that the Thai family who owned it were now just holding onto the property, waiting to re-develop when a road is eventually built to that side of the island. Whatever the story, I got the hottest tip of my life from a drunk Australian lady one day. “Oh yeah,” she slurred. “There’s an abandon resort at the very eastern pinnacle of the island. It’s really hard to get to, though, it takes like an hour hiking over a really steep footpath – so nobody really goes out there.” And I was sold.
What is this abandon resort? Let me explain… The hot sweaty climb through jungley bird sounds and swingy vines to hop roots and ruts on a washed-out footpath drops to a deserted bay with crystal blue waters. Hugging the hillside are a dozen wooden bungalows, and near the waters edge a large concrete hotel with open-decked beach bars and a breathtaking rooftop patio. All abandon. All deserted. All mine.
A few years of dilapidation leaves its regular marks: colorful graffiti which blends so well with the bright jungle and a confetti of broken glass in the big hotel. Broken boardwalks and completely lost pathways to the bungalows. But here in the tropics, a different kind of disintegration is rapidly engulfing the building: the jungle’s green is eager to devour. Vines twine and roots wind – claiming very clearly that this is a wild space.
Above it all, overlooking it all from the hill, is the old presidential suite. The LIZARD PALACE. My squat. On the third-story shady balcony I pitched my tent and scavenged furniture – light breeze tinkling chimes of seashell and bamboo. The second story is my kitchen, and first thing every morning I pick a fresh bouquet of tropical flowers.
The island is Koh Tao – a tropical mecca in Southern Thailand where cheap diving, cheap drinking and good coral have created the busiest dive resorts in the world. I came here because I was broke and it seemed like a good place to try to hustle some magic tricks, but its really not my cup of tea: TOURISM is God: the island is overrun with expats and one hardly sees an Asian face. Aussie Pub crawlers rule streets and for nearly-Western prices you can get sub-par pizza, Indian, Mexican or pot-roast, but no where serves good Thai food. The beaches are crowded and dirty and the coral is dying from the high acidity of surface run-off.
But not my beach!
My beach is private. I swim around naked and scream at the top of my lungs because no one can hear me. I build bonfires and smoke my snake skin.
A friend gave me a scuba mask and I spend my days eating mushrooms exploring the weird underwater world of bizzaro-land: neon itty-bitties swirl around doofy big-lipped Parot fish while bright Seargant Majors zip from Trigger Fish, Nemo lurks in the anemones, Mooray Eels hide in the rocks and the occasional Blacktip Reefshark glides through big shoals of flickering silver bellies. When I work in town I overhear the divers talking to one another: “No waaay! You saw a sea turtle?? I dive every day and I never see sea turtles! They’re so rare!”. And I laugh and smile to myself… because on my side of the island, I know exactly what time of day the sea turtles cruise by and where they like to hang out. My side of the island.
My side of the island also has rocks. The pinnacle itself is a rocky outcrop with deep coral below, and perfect for cliff-jumping. Occasionally tourists book onto specialty charter boats or sign up for the “Rock Climbing Adventure Hike!” where a guide hikes them out to jump off the rocks – but usually I have it all to myself. Big rocks, big jumps: big enough to make me nervous, then give me butterflies, then give me a moments pause to think, then smack me hard plunging down down down into the world of octopus and alien fish. That’s my shower..
My toilet is the Bat Shack: one of the bungalows with the best view where all the Flying Foxes (bats as big as cats) hang upside down: I ripped out some floorboards and let the stilted architecture take care of the rest while I enjoy the view.
I have a dreamy, slow life. I wake up with zero dollars in my pocket: climb around on some rocks, swim with sea turtles or explore the jungle. Cook some lunch, put on my ratty magic clothes and hike a peaceful jungle trail into town, do some magic, make a few dollars, eat some food, get drunk if I feel like it (getting drunk for free is the easiest thing in the world when you’re a magician in a tourist town: people will happily buy you 15 $2 beers before they tip you a dime…), then eventually make my way back down the spooky jungle trail with bats eating the bugs out of my headlight, and just enough adventure to feel good without being scary.
Its so damn cool to wake up with nothing, put faith in the fact that the day will work out, have the day work out, then go to sleep happy with nothing. If I wasn’t in such a damn hurry to try to find a way home, I could live this paradise life for a long time. So in the end I only stayed at the Lizard Palace for about a month.
But in that time, one day…
Journal entry from… oh wait, there’s no date on it. From early September, maybe:
I just saw a cat. I JUST saw a cat. A BIG cat. I was reclined on my mattress sofa drawing the above picture (this is all written underneath so snake doodles). I turned to grab the snake skin, to try to look at the markings, and a strong wind rippled across the balcony, scattering my papers. I was noticing at the moment how silent everything was, I was really just thinking that, slipping down the stairs in bare feet.
There, on the landing, a huge thing dove into the brush. It was big enough that my first thought was “Water Monitor!”. But the way it moved couldn’t have been more different. It shot like a phantom through the green tangle and dry leafs hardly making a sound. I didn’t see it’s head – in the flash of the moment I have no idea how bit it was – but just as it flew past me and disappeared, I saw a long, beautiful tail. It was golden, thick, with gorgeous, wild markings. And unmistakably feline.
I’ve never felt so awed before. I stood breathless, mind racing for a moment before a timeless, numbing wave of gratitude and happiness crashed over me. I just stared into the silent bush for a long time, everything seemed so surreal like some amazing drug. It seemed like all sound had been sucked out of the world.
After some time I climbed the stairs to find that the page I was looking for hadn’t flown over the balcony at all.
I scoured the free guidebook listing all the mammals on Koh Tao: no wild cats. I nonchalantly asked around: “no no,” I was told by the adventure tour guides down on Pub Street, “absolutely no wild cats.” “No no,” the Thai boat guys told me. “No cats.”
But they’re all wrong.
I don’t know what I saw and I don’t care: all I know is that I’ve never felt so lucky in all my life. Ever.
And it gave me a profound hope for all wild beauty – the endangered and the ‘extinct’ and the Big Foots, too. The crumble of the Lizard Palace proved to me that the earth heals and reclaims itself – its just waiting its chance. And when it does, I’ll be there enjoying the view.