Jasmine woke from a strange dream. She couldn’t recall what the dream was about, only a sensation of running lingered. Exhausted beyond belief, but still running.
Leonie stirred in the bed beside hers. Her best friend pushed herself up on her elbows, briefly opened her eyes, and retreated back into the mattress and restless sleep as if the glare of the morning sun was an actual weight pushing her down. The strong light shining through the paper-thin curtains turned the heat in their bamboo bungalow up to levels most would consider unbearable. The girls, covered in sweat, slept through it unperturbed, deep within their fitful dream.
Eventually, they rose from their tossing and turning. The girls lay in bed a while longer, engaging in sporadic conversation. Slowly, they got up and dressed, and made their leisurely way to their favorite breakfast spot where they took their time, and then some, enjoying a coffee and a fruit-filled bowl of cereal.
After breakfast, which they finished well after noon, they ambled down to the travel agent. “Could they change the date on their ticket to Koh Lanta, again? They’d decided to stay just one more day. So, tomorrow?” The man at the desk knew what was coming the moment he saw the girls walk up. Again. Long before Jasmine had finished unhurriedly articulating their request, the ticket agent had written them a new voucher. “I give you open ticket now, kráp,” the man said. He was doing his best to stay polite with the annoying westerners. They’d come back with the same question four days in a row, not even seeming to realize that the boat they were supposed to take had left hours ago.
The girls were fine with getting an open ticket. Though they didn’t see the point, they were definitely leaving tomorrow. Just one more day at Tonsai, because it was so nice. Now, they had a whole extra afternoon to lazy away on the beach.
Jasmine woke with a start. Her first inclination was to jump up and run. Why was she lying down in the first place? There was no time to rest, never any time to rest. But she was so tired, just a short stop, only for a moment. No. They had to keep moving. For as long as they could.
Jasmine blinked and noticed she was at the beach. She was lying on her travel-worn beach towel, a half-finished coconut in the sand beside her head. She sat up and looked around, taking in the lush green palm trees lining the sandy beach, the impressive limestone rock formations that separated the peninsula from the mainland, the boundless sea stretching toward the horizon, and the warm, heavenly light of the sun shining down on it all. Tonsai looked and felt glorious as ever. She just couldn’t get enough of this place.
A soft moan escaped from Leonie’s lips, lying close beside Jasmine on her own well-worn beach towel. Leonie was panting hard and was covered in sweat, even though they’d been lying in the shade. Jasmine gave her friend a gentle nudge to wake her.
Leonie’s eyes sprung open, fully alert and wide with fear. She jumped up and made to run away. Leonie took two quick steps and then noticed she was at the beach. She felt the warm sand soothing her feet. She looked round, taking in the calm ocean and the rows of palm trees lining the beach. Trees that never swayed in the wind, protected against any storm by the mighty, indomitable rocks rising up above them. Leonie lay back down, completely relaxed, not comprehending why – and soon forgetting that – she had been so stressed.
The girls didn’t leave the following morning. Or the next, or the one after that. They stayed at Tonsai, lounging on the beach or at a restaurant. Sometimes they were too lazy to even leave their room.
Many others came and went during the girls’ stay. Caught up in the feeling of serene, peaceful relaxation that seemed to permeate the beach and its surroundings, every visitor to Tonsai stayed more days than at first intended. Unlike Jasmine and Leonie though, everyone else eventually left.
When Jasmine and Leonie ventured out of their bungalow, everyone took notice. The girls, being particularly attractive to begin with, had been catching the eye of most passerby since they hit puberty, but this was different. Every eye was drawn to them. Both men and women were captivated by their beauty, which seemed to increase with each new dawn. As more days passed, their beauty took on an ethereal quality, simultaneously mesmerizing and flustering all who saw them. They seemed unreachable, almost not of this world. After a while people started to shy away from them. Jasmine and Leonie were all alone yet surrounded by others.
Of all this the girls took no notice. During the day they lingered at Tonsai.
During the night, they ran.
The dreams had become vivid, more real than the world they walked upon waking. Neither Jasmine nor Leonie thought this odd. The fact that they now shared the same dream also did not faze them. In fact, they searched for, and found each other in every dream. Holding hands, helping each other up when they fell, giving each other strength as they and their sisters ran.
Ran from the tireless hunters. As Jasmine found Leonie each night, and Leonie found Jasmine, it didn’t even occur to them to find it strange that they were unrecognizable from their daytime selves – that they didn’t even look human.
They were Calinnaei, the most graceful creatures to ever walk the earth. If the girls had to find words to describe themselves, they’d say snow leopards with human-like form. Creatures with long muscular limbs, walking upright, covered with a velvety smoky-gray fur dotted with spots of the clearest white, with small pointy ears and long curving whiskers.
Less than a hundred of their once-great tribe were left. And the hunters kept on coming.
So, they ran, ever onward through the dense, humid forest. They’d run beneath so many sunrises and sunsets they’d lost count. The running would never end.
Over the days and nights of running the remaining pack had gradually shrunk in size as one by one their sisters collapsed from exhaustion and were unavoidably left behind. Jasmine and Leonie were the ones lagging at the tail of the pack now. Their aching lungs and trembling muscles telling them that soon they would also falter, and collapse into the hands of the merciless that pursued them.
Up ahead, they heard several of their sisters utter a loud, anguished cry. They ran on and arrived at the spot the cry come from moments later. The forest abruptly ended, and they were out in the open, on a barren stretch of sand. Before them lay the sea. There was nowhere left to run. Too weary to even cry out, Jasmine and Leonie sagged down onto the sand. Behind them, in the distance, but far closer than they had hoped, a savage roar rose up, as if the hunters sensed the end was coming.
The girls woke to what would be their last day at Tonsai. More energized than they had been for a long time, they made plans to do something active. Today, they would go for a walk.
Jasmine and Leonie once more made their leisurely way to breakfast, and afterward strolled along the shore. At the far end of the beach, shaded by the high, imposing rock, they took the one and only path they could see. It wasn’t much of a path, they had to navigate around branches and bushes as it swerved left and right and gradually rose up to meet the rock wall. The entrance to a cave loomed in front of them, almost twenty feet high.
Jasmine and Leonie walked into the cave without hesitation. They followed the winding path, climbing up, over, and under the rock formations they came across. The cave went on for a long time, burrowing deep into the rocks. Jasmine and Leonie did not consider this odd. Nor did they realize that they had not brought any lights and were walking unerringly forward through a pitch-black cave.
Their minds were elsewhere, in the world of their dreams.
On the beach, Jasmine and Leonie held each other tight. They were trembling all over despite the heat. The cold, hard feeling of approaching death pressed in on them as the hunters came near.
So close now, the end. They did not even have the strength left for tears.
A deafening rumble came from beneath the peninsula, drowning out the hunter’s roars. The ground started to shake, tipping Jasmine, Leonie and their Calinnaei sisters over. They were too dejected to react to whatever strange feat of nature might be occurring and just sat or lay where they had fallen. Those that still had their eyes open stared in disbelief at the forest they had come from. Disbelief that quickly turned to joy.
The earth groaned as if it was about to break. The ground bulged upward. Hundreds of massive trees were uprooted and flung aside as if no more solid than stalks of grass. Bursting up toward the sky was a wall of massive rock. Higher and higher the rocks rose, until they towered far above the remaining trees and the awe-struck Calinnaei. The wall of rock completely isolated the peninsula from the land. And separated the Calinnaei from the hunters. The rocks turned the dead-end peninsula that would have been their doom into a place of peace and safety, where the Calinnaei lived for generations.
In a cave deep beneath Tonsai, Jasmine and Leonie no longer woke. They walked on through the darkness, and when they reached the end, they lay down to an eternal sleep. A sleep without dreams. A sleep beneath the Goddess of the Rocks. A long way behind and above them the cave entrance sealed, once again only the smooth rock surface it had been moments before they’d walked in.
She does not know time, the Goddess of the Rocks. She does not know the Calinnaei have long since faded from existence, as have the savage beasts that hunted them over a thousand leagues. She does not know that eons later a completely different species, a species that call themselves human, comes to her sanctuary – a place they call Tonsai. All she knows is the Calinnaei’s plight woke her from her slumber. She remembers rising up to grant them a haven. And for this place of peace, beauty and comfort, occasionally, the Goddess requires a sacrifice.
My own story of Tonsai
I have visited Tonsai seven times now. My first visit, in late 2015 was by far the best. Hidden behind impressive rock formations and only accessible by boat, it is the quintessential tropical paradise. The area is famous for rock climbing, a sport I’m very passionate about. Living in the world’s flattest country at the time (not ideal for rock climbing), I was excited to go to Tonsai and try my hand at outdoor climbing. I spent two weeks there, and every day was wonderful. The atmosphere, an amazing group of people, the climbing, it was one of those times in life that everything was just perfect.
Nobody wanted to leave, and almost everyone stayed longer then they’d at first intended.
Tragically, that was the last time there was magic in the air at Tonsai. Also in 2015, before I got there, a huge chunk of land – almost the whole area lining the beach – was sold to an international hotel chain. The existing guest houses, restaurants, and everything else was pushed back and a wall was built to keep the land private.
Up till today, this cordoned off piece of land lies undeveloped behind it’s wall. Most everyone avoids Tonsai now, choosing nearby Raileh to stay. Over the course of my other visits, I have watched this former haven for backpackers and climbers slowly fade away.