I can only recall snatches of what transpired on the morning that I found her. Even the days-long road trip, interspersed with Southern Thai meals so spicy they left a metallic tang in the mouth, receded into a half-forgotten dream left more remote the more I tried to remember.
The boat ride to our final destination was longer than expected. Along the way, what I can recollect: Vertiginous crumples of limestone furred by trees that clung to life through cracks in the stone. Opaque, secretive water, the color of malachite. A great clouded sky that could turn on a dime from blue to black with rain.
But after more than an hour, we were there. Known as 500 Rai, this self-described “floating resort” sits like a great ornamental chain of rubber ducks on Chiew Larn Lake, which is ringed by a jagged array of mountains picturesque enough to earn it the nickname of “Thai Guilin”. On the way to the resort, tourists get a breathtaking tour of the Khao Sok National Park, where Thai bison cavort at the edge of the water and elephants are said to feed on bamboo amid the trees, far from the prying eyes of humans.
But legend has it that Khao Sok has its own dark history, my husband told us on the night before departing for 500 Rai. Sounding like a grizzled old gas station attendant warning teenagers away from the local summer camp, he said that the area got the name “Khao Sok” or “Body Mountain” after the mysterious death of an entire village. When asked about this story a few days later, my husband claimed to have not remembered telling us anything. But by then, it was too late. Everything had changed.
One of the things about 500 Rai (motto: “Disconnect to reconnect”) is that there is no cell phone reception, and that WiFi is deeply discouraged. More than an hour away from the mainland, the resort is that rare thing, a secluded little patch of planet, where isolation reigns over the outside world. I had been looking forward to finishing my book, Tana French’s “The Likeness”. I had even entertained ideas of taking the free kayak out for a spin, or partaking in the early morning boat tours in the mist that shrouds the lake every dawn. Those things soon fell by the wayside, once the food — included in the price of the stay — intruded upon our little bubble of complacency.
We could not help ourselves — we partook. We partook of it all. Happy hour at sundown; chilled midday champagne with yoga. A kanom jeen (fermented rice noodle) buffet with curries for breakfast, or a do-it-yourself feast of khao yum (Southern rice salad). Serving upon serving of soups and stir-fries, local catfish smothered in chili paste and prepared in various ways, even a buffet of fresh Surat Thani crab. All you can eat, of course.
And yet, it was still a surprise to find her, crumpled along the edge of the lake, clothed in an orange muumuu that I counted as among my very own favourites. It was just after daybreak and the mist had just started lifting from the water, the sky already glowering, bruised on the edges, threatening to pour. My husband, his voice choking, implored me to leave my coffee at the dining table as he led me back to our bungalow.
Her face was turned to the mountains, which resembled an old Chinese painting, sharp and verdant; in contrast, her skin was grey, her stomach grotesquely distended. I could not help myself, turned her head, and gasped. The face that looked back resembled my own.
“I thought it was you,” my husband cried. “Thank God you are alright.”
But was I alright? Who was this woman who looked just like me? Did she also love food? Could she also do a tripod headstand, or almost put her leg behind her head? Was she also working on a Thai food cookbook? Who was this woman, if not me?
Because of the remote location of the resort, it took hours for the police to come. When they did, they came as a duo, in plain clothes instead of in uniforms. One, a dark, petite woman with a cap of curls, was strangely silent, but the other, a red-headed tall man in aviator sunglasses, spoke enough for the both of them. They took me to a side room to take me through the discovery, solicitously fetching coffee, offering to bring me my book as they left me for hours on end, returning with bowls of stewed local banana enrobed in thick salted coconut milk.
It took me the entire day to figure out that I was in fact suspect number one. By that time, it was almost the end of our intended stay, and 36 hours since the body had been found. Despite their best efforts, the insistent, probing questions — it turned out he was the bad cop, she was the good cop — nothing could be traced back to me, nothing at all. As I got on the boat to return to the mainland with my bags, I could not help but feel like I was getting away with something, even if there had been nothing to get away with.
“Chalk this up as an unsolved mystery,” the red-headed detective said of the woman’s real identity. “But we all know what did her in. When you don’t have wifi, you can only read so much of your book before you go crazy. Food was the only alternative available.”
As the closing strains of the Who’s “Won’t be Fooled Again” sounded over the loudspeaker, temporarily displacing the electronic dance music that had been the daily soundtrack of the resort, the detective removed his glasses. “This woman literally ate herself to death,” he pronounced, powerless to stop us as we beat a hasty retreat back to civilisation.