We rode a longtail boat from Ao Nang Pier toward the east side of Railay Beach right as it got dark. Millions of bats that live in the forested tops of the mountains that rise from the Andaman Sea came out to feed. Railay is a peninsula only accessible by boat located in the Krabi province of Southern Thailand. Known for its majestic limestone cliffs, vibrant nightlife, and recalcitrant monkey gangs, it’s a wildly popular tourist destination.
My mom and sister Meg came to visit me for Christmas during my break from teaching English in Bangkok. I was slightly hesitant about the trip because my sister’s direct nature and my tendency to be overly sensitive often cause us to butt heads. Even with both of us in our late thirties, Mom can’t stand to see us fight. I knew that she would be in a heightened emotional state with the jet lag flying from Louisiana to Thailand. She’d already cried numerous times in Bangkok just from the kindness of the hotel’s concierge. Now, upon seeing the cliffs tower over the water, the stars shimmer in the sky on a cloudless evening, and Meg’s smile as she cracked open her third beer of the twenty-minute boat ride; Mom wept again.
The following morning, we left our hotel bungalows to explore the area. Meg and I kept our distance from one another, keeping the peace as much as we could for Mom’s sake. Railay is divided into two sides: the east, where the boats arrive at the floating pier and a brilliant line of dive bars, and the west, home to the swankier, sunset-facing resorts and drinking establishments of less ill repute. There’s a dirt walking path cut between the limestone that takes you to either side patrolled by filching macaques that will steal anything you don’t have glued to your body. Meg noticed a small bar at the head of the path, a little bigger than your standard roadside Thai eatery, serving cold beers, sticky mango rice, and hallucinogenic mushroom shakes mixed with your choice of fresh fruit.
The look on her face told me all I needed to know. She told Mom that we were getting one, drinking it, and seeing what happens. Mom protested as moms would typically do when presented with such a scenario from their grown daughter. Usually, I would refuse too, but I’d read about the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin—the chemical responsible for these mushrooms’ psychoactive effects—and thought that was just what this trip needed to calm the waters and get us all on the same page. I was too reactionary with Meg and Mom, and I wanted to work on it, so Meg and I—despite Mom’s futile opposition—went to order one large shake to-go.
The young woman behind the counter went to her cooler and pulled out a plastic container the size of a bread loaf filled with mushrooms. She proceeded to dump the entire thing into the blender with some mango slices and a scoop of ice. I’m not an expert, but that seemed like a lot for one shake. I asked Meg if she thought that was excessive, but she shrugged her shoulders, assuring me that this nice Thai woman knew what she was doing. She blended the shake for us, plunged in a straw, and I handed her a crisp five hundred baht (about $15) banknote for services rendered.
Meg took the first sip, made a face, but took another. She then handed it to me. I took a long drink. Not surprisingly, it tasted like someone blended a pound of dirt with mangoes and tried to pass it off as a smoothie. It was horrid, but much like vegan bacon, it’s not about the taste; it’s about the benefits. I then passed the drink along to Mom. With some trepidation and prodding from Meg, she took what looked like a hearty swig. Shake in hand; we decided it would be prudent to go back to our hotel’s pool and wait it out.
I reclined in a chair and stared out at the bay on Railay’s east side. I was anxious because I didn’t feel anything yet, but the anticipation was making me fidget. Would I float upward and converse about the complexities of the universe with an intelligent alien race, or would my lips fold back over my head? Meg took a dip in the pool, surfaced, and immediately lamented her decision to drink these shakes. I asked Mom how she felt, and she confided in me that her sip was fake and she actually didn’t have any. Suddenly, Meg jumped up like she had a spider on her neck and ran toward our bungalow.
I was okay until I looked at Mom and saw her framed against the lush vegetation hanging from the limestone behind her. I wondered how I never realized that she was the essence of the sacred feminine encapsulated in an eternal garden dangled from a droplet of pure consciousness. It felt like something I would have noticed before. I sat with her in a crystalline sphere beyond time; her voice echoed, and the veins in her arm glowed with tracers of blue and red light. Mom, suspended in a sunbeam at a point beyond time, looked through me, her only son, and it was my turn to weep.
It was then that Meg returned from the bungalow. I turned around and saw her bathed in translucent orange liquid, and she looked at me, tears streaming down my face, put her hands up and said, “Nope.” She took off like a shot toward the jungle path leading to the west side, Mom, in all her glory, calling after her. I wanted to hold Mom’s hand forever, but she told me it was time to get up and go after her. After a few minutes of wondering what my toes were for, we were on our way.
The sun sets quickly in this part of the world, and we were losing daylight. Being unfamiliar with the region, Mom had to rely on me to show her how to get to the other side of the beach. I knew that I knew the way, but somehow the concept of knowing felt foreign and rather arrogant to me. “I mean, does anyone really know anything?” I replied when Mom asked if I knew the way to the other side. She wasn’t in an especially philosophical mood and instead requested a lovely German couple passing us if they could point the way.
We made it to the small row of tourist shops, restaurants, and bars next to the west side beach. People were making their way to the sand to watch the sun dip into the sea, and Mom was getting worried because we couldn’t see Meg anywhere. I asked a group of young women enjoying banana daiquiris if they’d seen my sister. They didn’t know who that was and asked if I could describe her. I told them she has courage but might be processing profound emotion in an unfamiliar headspace. Surprisingly, they couldn’t put a face to my description.
Mom decided it was best to head back toward the bungalow and wait for Meg in case she showed up. We struck out down the dark path, and I looked up. The monkey gangs gathered overhead, hanging from the twisted power lines. They hopped down on top of a fence running parallel to the walkway, never breaking eye contact with me. One of them appeared to have a switchblade, and another menacingly snapped his fingers in rhythm with my rapidly increasing heartbeat. Their leader, a corpulent macaque missing a sizeable chunk of his face, chewed some trash and pointed straight at Mom. His intentions were no doubt loathsome, so I shielded her from his gaze, and we made it safely to our side of the beach.
Mom was beside herself with worry; I started to come down and tried to comfort her as best I could. We sat on the porch of the bungalow, and I said, “Wait, did you text her?” Mom ran inside, grabbed her phone, and sent Meg a text. We both heard a familiar dinging notification sound a few yards away, looked over the shrubbery in front of our room, and there she was, headphones on, staring up at the massive cliff by the hotel.
Meg had been fifteen feet from our room the entire time. Mom and I ran over with relief and sat with her on the cool grass. She said that when she went back to the bungalow, she walked into the bathroom, and the toilet sounded like a crowd of people booing her. Knowing she wasn’t having a good trip and then seeing me cry, it was more than she could handle, and she decided to come back and chill with some music.
I laughed until I cried while picturing Meg getting booed by a toilet. Mom regaled us with her side of the story dealing with her two grown children under the influence of a powerful hallucinogenic. Our laughter echoed off the cliffs, and while they took us in an unexpected direction, the mushrooms did what nature designed them to do and brought us together as a family under Thailand’s starry sky.