attack_of_giant_leeches_lc_01I’m a big fan of rain. Rain, you’re awesome and I would totally hound you for an autograph, write you heart-bursting poetry, take you home to meet the parents if only you would look at me and see how true and deep I am, not like all the others.

I melt with you, rain.

I melt with you, rain.

I love you, rain, in the happy sun shower times. I love you even when you are angry and all hurricane-y. I even think it’s cute when you piss down on everyone, like how you do to the English all the time.

And then dear rain, in Thailand, you turn on me. You bring leeches with you.

Rain in Huay Pakoot.  How could you, rain?

Rain in Huay Pakoot. How could you, rain?

In my second week in Huay Pakoot, the rainy season finally kicks in. Clouds move into the village and start pushing people around. It begins to rain several times during the day. The storms can be as short as ten minutes. Overnight, heavier rains give the jungle a good thrashing.

That means that it’s party time for the leeches.

Leech.  The stuff of nightmares.

Okay, maybe not ‘giant’. But look at it. It’s horrifying.

Bugs I can learn to deal with, leeches just don’t have any good qualities. They’re sticky, slimy, and stubborn. And they turn me off of Italian food. The reason is because they look like cooked spaghetti—sickly gray-black cooked spaghetti that has come to life and wriggled out from the bottom of a trash heap.

Worst of all, their primary trait is a particularly nasty one: blood-sucking. Leeches are the closest real creatures that the jungle has to zombies. Like zombies, they glom on to you as they start sucking out your life force—only they suck out blood instead of brains.

Zombie eating brains.

Zombie eating brains.

While zombies are cool in books and movies, let’s face it, a real-life zombie attack would kind of suck. Leeches in the jungle are a real-life zombie attack. They slither out of the dead leaves and the mud, moaning as they swarm your feet and ankles.

Okay, maybe not moaning, but seriously, they grope for you… I have watched their little wormy torsos feeling for me, twitching and stabbing at the air for just a little piece of me to grab onto.

A groping leech.

A groping leech.

Our first hike with the leeches we have to stop every five or ten minutes, because someone has a leech squirming on them.

Contrary to popular belief, their favorite hangout isn’t water, except for the leech that rose up and took Chuck Norris down in Braddock: Missing in Action 5, The Leechening. They are most commonly creeping around in fresh mud or dead, moldy leaves.



Even leeches can't stop Chuck.  They can only hope to contain him.

Even leeches can’t stop Chuck. They can only hope to contain him.

Their first move is usually to hug the back of your shoe. That’s why on a hike when there are leeches prowling around, everyone looks like they’re checking their feet every minute or so to see if they’ve stepped in dog shit.

From the back of the shoe, leeches can worm in anywhere. Some like to slither into your shoe and go spelunking in there. Others burrow into your ankle—at least you can usually spot them there at some point.

One volunteer comes well-prepared for the leeches: good hiking boots protected by gaiters, which are worn over the lower leg and ankle. They’re usually meant to keep snow out of your boots, but he uses them to keep out the leeches. I think it’s a brilliant plan.

An hour into the hike he stops, unfastens the gaiters and begins to peel them away: three leeches in there. They writhe spastically as their secret hiding place is exposed. I scream. This guy is lost to the zombie leeches. I pull out my gun, before he turns into one of them.

–Okay, I’m getting carried away. But you get the idea what these creatures do to me.

They can be sprayed off with a DEET chemical repellent, kind of like using a flamethrower to remove a mole. This method gives leech and victim instant cancer, but at least the leech curls up and drops off.

The mahouts make a game of leech control, flicking them off with a machete, toying with them for minute like a cat with a mouse, and then severing the little bastards in half.

I laugh and laugh. I guess I’ve found my limit to loving all creatures.

On this first hike with leeches they get all of my fellow hikers. They drop, one by one. Somehow I escape. I slam the door of the Outhouse-Plus, sweaty, tired, and leech-free, with the music on the soundtrack crashing into silence. I am safe.

Now I can celebrate my leeching near-miss by dumping polar ice cap-cold water over my head for a ‘shower’.

I start peeling off my clothes. I notice that my khaki pants have flecks of red in them.

Uh oh. I tug the pants completely off. The ‘flecks’ are actually large red blotches. I rip off the rest of my clothes like I’m on fire.

There he is.

A leech is wrapped snugly around a section of my upper thigh, sucking face on my leg. He is glistening and plump, and has grown from a cute little spaghetti into a strapping young penne pasta… because now he’s full of my blood.

I pause for precious blood-siphoning seconds, not because I’m unsure of what to do, but because I am terrified of doing it: touching him. I actually have to touch this slimy baby alien monster if I want to rip him off.

I know—he’s already touching me, because he’s eating my leg for lunch—but at least he’s not moving much. If I try to peel him off, I’m sure he’s going to wriggle around and… here’s where my brain goes: He’ll jump into my mouth. Ahhhhhh!… okay.

I have to do it.

I grab hold of him.

Sure enough, he wriggles and hugs me even tighter. I pry, scrape, fumble, juggle, and flick the fat little bastard from my leg to my finger to my shirt hanging on the wall, back to my finger—before I finally jettison him out of an opening in the Outhouse-Plus.

I take a breath, feeling very Sigourney Weaverish. She kicked an alien off a space ship, I bounced a leech out of an outhouse.

I run my hands all over my body—and I mean all over, dreading the feel of another slimy bloodsucker. When I find no more leeches… I check my body again. Five more times.

A leech eating me.

A leech eating a person.

After this trauma, I feel heavy dread every time it rains. Although to my credit, I never pass on a hike when it’s raining, so I am constantly coming face to face with my bogeyleeches.

I Agent Orange my hiking shoes with DEET before each hike, acquiring instant cancer.–It’s okay, once I get back to L.A. a shot of wheat grass juice will knock that right out.

I wear shorts so I can see the leeches sneaking up my leg. I stop often to carefully examine my boots (dog shit check). And I develop a sixth sense for detecting leeches. I can spot them from yards away and many of them I can avoid, even if it means taking huge circling detours.

Days later I am on another hike, helping a girl perform a health check on an elephant. She is checking off something on a clipboard. Fwop. A leech plops onto the clipboard, practically dotting an I.

She freezes. Looks up.

Shivers run down my spine. Not much I can do when they’re falling out of the sky.



This is a bug of Thailand.  He's very cuddly.

This is a bug of Thailand. He’s very cuddly.

The bugs are everywhere. They include flying ants, moths, mosquitoes, flies, bees, beetles, centipedes, millipedes, ants, and on and on. Butterflies are easy to get along with, obviously, and thankfully they are common as well. The worst are the flying ants. They come out in swarms at night after a rain, and their huge papery wings have a creepy rustle as they whap into the walls, lights, the mosquito net, and my face. But if I’m going to get along here in Thailand, I just have to let go of my ick factor and accept them as my neighbors. Once I do this, things get a lot easier.

Flying ant.  Each morning I would find my bedroom floor littered with their wings.  I crafted a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

Flying ant. Each morning I would find my bedroom floor littered with their wings. I crafted a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

Mosquito net surrounding my bed.  Note the gecko poop on the top.

Mosquito net surrounding my bed. Note the gecko poop on the top. It’s a good thing.

Until I meet the beetle that hisses at me when I try to flick him off my sweatshirt. I flick again, he spits at me and digs his legs defiantly into my shoulder. I wriggle out of the sweatshirt and run away. It’s his now. There’s a USC logo on it, so maybe the other beetles think he went to college. It’s possible–with that hissing he practically talks.

View of the bug entrance to my bedroom.  I would find flying ant wings on the floor each morning.  I made a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

View of the bug entrance to my bedroom. If I turned the light on, they had a neon sign guiding them, and they could invite all their friends.

In Los Angeles’ more temperate climate, applying the ‘live and let live’ philosophy with bugs is quite a bit easier. A few wayward ants in my office back in Los Angeles and I can rush to the rescue with my sheet of paper, fast-walking the little critters to the other side of the building and the exit outside.

Another bug of Thailand.  Adorable.

Another bug of Thailand. Adorable.

But in Thailand, there are red ants that rather enjoy gnawing on your flesh, so when they do get on you and get busy, it’s hard to resist screaming, “Die, fucker!” as you slap your body like you’re putting out a fire, trying to squash the little bastards.

And there’s the bees. In my experience, if you meet one bee in Thailand it won’t sting you but it won’t leave you alone… ever. You can hike three miles and he’ll still be circling your eardrum, taking off and alighting on your arm. Might as well offer him some lunch, he’s not going anywhere for a while. If you meet more than one—well, I guess they don’t want to look like pussies in front of their friends. So they sting the shit out of you.

After careful observation, and getting zapped myself, I learn that the bees have a thing for rotting logs that are alongside or partially submerged in rivers or streams.

eye butterfly 1

Butterfly. There are many different species in Thailand, and they’re everywhere. They are good bug role models.

During one hike we are walking along a river and I am behind a girl who is heavily fatigued. Her pack hangs low to the ground, unbalanced, and her steps are leaden and clumsy. I spot a fat, moldy log just up ahead of her, half in, half out of the water—potentially a creepy little haunted bee house.

Before I can say anything, this girl tries to scale the log, swinging her leg on top of it, and I hear a loud fwump. The girl’s entire leg sinks into the rotted log, the moldy wood swallowing her up to her waist. I offer my hand to help her out, breaking out in a fresh sweat, as I imagine a cloud of stirred up bees glomming onto her leg, stingers angrily tattooing her flesh.

Nothing happens. I’m thinking, Get her!

–No, not really. I am actually pleasantly surprised that there appears to be no one home.

Slowly she extricates herself from the log. The moldy wood reluctantly gives up her leg with a heavy sucking sound, pieces of rot cracking and falling away.

I look up to see the mahout wildly gesticulating at us.

Come on!” he’s panting, in heavily accented English. “Hurry!”

I’ve watched this scene many times. One or two times I helped to make a scene like this, since I used to be a movie trailer editor. I start running forward—we are all running forward—only I can’t help but stop to look back over my shoulder.

More rotting wood is splintering from the log, and the sizable amount of wood that is falling away–as well as the sizable amount of movie scenes stored in my head–suggest to me that this is a horror way more terrifying than mere bees. That some…thing… has been disturbed… awoken… and it is bursting out of the rotting log… 

My mouth opens.   I’m staring.  My fellow hikers run by me.  I’m that idiot in those horror movies who freezes and is the first to go, staring stupidly up at the huge thing as it springs and devours me.  I’m forgotten a half hour into the movie. 

Alien, I’m thinking.

Nope. Bees.

They stung three people, including the mahout. I was left alone this time. The girl who had served up half her torso for the bees to tenderize when she fell through their roof—she also walked away unscathed.

Tracks photographed near the river.  Frog... or baby alien?

Tracks photographed near the river. Frog… or baby alien?