I recently had the chance to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” again. One of his creepiest. You remember, of course, that the film is all about what happens when our feathered friends, the birds, decide to swarm and gang up on the human race. I used to enjoy the film, but nowadays I find that it gives me the colly-wobbles. That’s because of my own experience with swarms of things when I came to Thailand as an ESL teacher . . .
I am not normally squeamish when it comes to insects, as long as they keep a respectful distance from me. My philosophy with all creatures is, you stay away from me and I’ll stay away from you. Bugs have their own lives to live and as long as they don’t do it in my bed or on my food I say live and let live. I’m not going out of my way to swat ‘em or spray ‘em. They usually extend me the same courtesy.
But this doesn’t hold true when it comes to flying termites.
The flying termites in Thailand do not swarm in the same manner as the more familiar flying ants that I knew as a child back in the USA. In the States, of a summer eve, you might see a dozen or so flying ants fluttering around a street lamp, vainly looking for a place to land and mate. They were no more of a nuisance than a summer sun shower.
But the swarming of flying termites in Thailand is more like a Biblical happening. I spent my first several years in Thailand in areas that did not have flying termites, so I never heard about them. Then, when I moved on down to Ban Phe, on the Gulf Coast . . . BAM! They exploded on me one rainy evening.
An early evening storm had moved in from Koh Samet, drumming on the dry thatch of the roof where I was eating dinner, sounding like tiny firecrackers. Like all good meals in Thailand, this was a leisurely one. I had ordered crab fried rice, and while waiting for it had gone across the street for some grilled chicken thighs from a cart. My mango smoothie had some rather large ice chips in it still, so I asked the proprietor, a young women with two mewling brats hanging on to her sarong, to stick it back in the blender for a bit longer, which she willingly did while abusing her infants, threatening to tie bricks around their necks and throw them into the ocean. I like crab fried rice the way Thais make it, because it’s like watermelon; you take a big bite and then instead of spitting out seeds, you spit out bits of crab shell. I was dining al fresco, under a canopy of thatch, so I could spit out into the dust to my hearts’ content. All in all, I spent probably 3 hours at that little café, waiting for the rain to end and the street-side sewers to subside.
As I strolled back to my room I noticed the usual gang of bugs circling the street lights, or so I thought. There are always bugs flitting about in Thailand, whether in the midday sun or the evening murk. I’d grown used to being hit in the head by an errant flying cockchafer from time to time, so I had no foreboding of what lay ahead.
Flying critters seemed rather thicker than usual around the front door of the place where I roomed, but I was unprepared for the horror that lurked in my bedroom – for I had unwisely left my light on, and the flying termites are great lovers of light, seeking it out with suicidal determination for their mating rituals.
My bed was covered with a pulsating blanket of them, writhing and shedding their wings, to become mindless little slugs crawling about my most cherished private space.
I sprang to the bed, ripped the coverlet off, and vigorously shook it outside on my balcony. Bad mistake, because in going out to my balcony I had to turn the balcony light on. This attracted a million more flying termites, which began landing on me and invading my bedroom by the thousands.
With a wild shriek I raced back inside and shut the balcony door. The flying termites were doing tangoes down my backside and the rumba in my hair. They did not bite or pinch, but their slow crawling on my body was exquisitely nauseating. They were all over the floor, and I began to slip as I squashed them by the hundreds, inadvertently making a gooey flying termite paste.
I retreated from my room, a gibbering wreck, and sought out the proprietor. He merely smiled and said, yup, those flying termites come out pretty thick this time of year after a good rain. They’ll be gone in a few hours, he assured me. Then, in the morning, he’d send the maid upstairs to my room to vacuum up all the dead, brown corpses.
I gave myself one last shake, like a wet dog, and settled into a leather chair in the darkened lobby – they knew enough to shut off the lights to keep the flying termites to a minimum. I slept in that chair that night, with no regrets – only an occasional flying termite blundering down on me from the ceiling.
The next day my room was spic and span, as if there had never been any creeping horror there the previous night. The proprietor cheerfully informed me that for the next two months, every time it rained, we’d get a new swarm.
Believe me, I never left my bedroom light on again when I was out.
And if Stephen King reads this, I’ve got first dibs on the story rights!