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Published: August 20th 2007
This guy was hanging out by the jeep trail that snakes through Kaeng Krachan National Park, 2nd largest in Thailand, where my non-English speaking guide and I got lost in the jungle for 2 hours.
I arrived in Thailand on August 1st and took a bus straight to Petchaburi, an ancient temple town 2.5 hours from Bangkok and the most non-touristy place I have seen thus far in the Land of Smiles. This was an alteration on my original itinerary, because I was now to meet up with my friend Paul, also teaching English at a university in Taiwan, on August 5th in Bangkok. Having been to Bangkok 4 times previously, I wanted to begin the solo leg of the trip with a place I had yet to explore. Lonely Planet made it sound enticing, so I headed there.
Petchaburi was the most authentic Thai town (I hesitate to call it a city) that I have visited in my (now) 5 trips to Thailand. I didn't see any 7-11's or McDonald's (tho there was perhaps a KFC somewhere on the main drag -maybe), but more than the absence of western chains, it was the lack of high-rises and the presence of (possibly) hundreds of ancient temples and stupas, some crumbling under the weight of time and weather. A slow river meanders through the heart of town here, and at night dragon boat-like rowers chant anthems
monitor in a tree
Another monitor lizard, this one chilling out in the top of a dead tree, also Kaeng Krachan
as they paddle up the waterway. One afternoon, while having lunch in Rabiem Rim Guest house, where I stayed for US $3 a night, a monitor lizard swam across the river to just under the restaurant window.
Several notable caves (containing large Buddhas) can be found in and just outside of town, all crawling with macaques. I made it to only one, getting lost on my rented bicycle on my way to the 2nd one.
And it was from Petchaburi that I struck out to Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand's 2nd largest. I started out early on my 2nd morning in Thailand, struggling with a hangover from all that good Singha Beer in the guest House the night before. I asked my driver to stop at a roadside stall so that I could buy us some breakfast. For US $2 I purchased 3 baggies filled with hot and spicy seafood rice soup -which was quite possibly the best breakfast I have ever had in my life. That wiped out half of my hangover, and some hot coconut fritters that my driver picked up a couple blocks down the road helped too. By the time we were out in
the rice paddy countryside with the mountains in the distance and the fresh rural air blowing in my face, I was completely recovered.
I was told that Kaeng Krachan is 2,900 square kilometers, the majority of it being raw jungle. For the first 10 minutes or so when you enter the park there are small villages and even a school; once you pass the (artificial, i.e dammed) lake and start climbing in elevation, that's when wilderness comes into sight. Very soon we were dodging piles of wild Asiatic elephant dung in the road. I hopped into the back of the pickup truck for a complete panorama. My guide, who's name escapes me (couldn't speak English), spotted a monitor lizard hanging out on the side of the rough road (1st photo), which didn't even blink when we stopped the truck next to it.
We drove for about 45 minutes through forest, much of it secondary, I think (the virgin evergreen section of the park was an area I did not get to see -all the better for an excuse to visit again!), though there appeared to be very healthy-looking jungle-writhing mountain sides across some of the valleys. Finally
we came to a base camp, and from here we had to wait for a ranger to take us further in on foot.
I protested to waiting around for him, so we set out on a short hike (45 minutes) which yielded a very lucky find -a group of 3 dusky langurs hanging out in the trees on the other side of the stream (which I swam in later). Dusky langurs are a very pretty monkey -silky, dark-gray fur with long black tails, white hands and white circles around their eyes. We pursued them for a while beneath the canopy, and the grunted in anger. Finally they had scrambled too far above and it was time for my swim.
When we got back to camp, the ranger still hadn't arrived, and my guide seemed content to sit around and watch Bollywood films with the park employees. Again, I had to put up a fuss to do something; I didn't pay a not small fee (solo) to hang out watching stupid movies. They suggested he take me to "the cave".
We walked for about a mile back down the road we had driven in on until we came
Bridge over the River Kwei
Even with my shoddy knowledge of this particular slice of history, I did feel a certain pull of emotion when crossing the bridge
to a small sign -which I missed driving thru- written in Thai which pointed to a small hole in the jungle in the side of the road. This was the trail head to the cave. We hiked for about 25 minutes till we reached a craggy limestone outrcop, which we carefully scrambled up, sweating, swatting away bees and dodging spiderwebs manned by venomous-looking monsters.
The limestone hill hollowed out on the back side and led down into a cavern, which contained a stalagtite that bore a real resemblence to an elephant. Sunlight seeped down through large pores in the coral-like stone ceiling, creating a true Indiana Jones aura, and in a few minutes we were on our way out.
Somewhere, somehow, someway, we made a wrong turn on the way back. This was easy to do because the trail, if you could call it that, was criss-crossed by innumerable animal paths -many of them formed by elephants (evidenced in their huge footprints and dung) and gaur. After about 30 minutes of making some shaky re-traces and attempts to find a way to the road, I realized we were lost. In 45 minutes, I began to think even my
country road in Kanchanaburi
I followed this road to a buddhist monastery on my rented motorbike. Lucky find, as the signs were in Thai
guide had no clue. In one hour, even he was beginning to show signs of panic -excessive sweating, worried look on his face, mumbling to himself. Those animal paths became a labyrinth from which we simply could not find a way out. At an hour and fifteen minutes he pulled out his machete and bush-whacked a path to a hill that we climbed up so that we might reach higher elevation and they espy the road.
No luck, as the road was a one-lane dirt path covered by jungle on both sides. Back down we went, and for the next 45 minutes or so I began to really panic, realizing that we didn't have much water on us and that there was only about 3 or 4 hours of daylight remaining.
Wearing a tee shirt and shorts, my legs and arms became slashed and bloody from all the bush-whacking. We plowed right through inhabited spiderwebs as if they were clouds of smoke. How far from the road had we strayed? From my calculations, we could have easily dipped into another valley altogether, putting us far out of range from the road, and probably very difficult to find.
rich Bangkok-based Thai's come out to Kanchanaburi on the weekends and dance till they drop on these party boats, which blast techno music
We did, finally, at long last, find the road, of course, and we both laughed nervously when we spilled out onto it.
On the way back to camp he spotted another monitor lizard, this one perched up in the top of a broken tree (see 2nd photo). Also on the walk back, something growled at us from behind the impenetrable underbrush. I jumped back, and so did my guide. We never figured out what that was.
I had some rice and the 3rd baggie of morning soup back at camp, and by that time the ranger showed up, who, like the others, was content to sit and watch Bollywood.
When I suggested we get a move on, he made a pouting face. I insisted, and soon we were back in the forest, in another section. He could speak English, thankfully, and began pointing out animal tracks -civet cat, sun bear, elephant. He explained the flora and took us across several streams, all of this deemed "leopard habitat."
Birders (Kaeng Krachan is an ornithologists' paradise, apparently) have supposedly reported spotting leopards in broad daylight in this park. It's a huge park and it's contiguous with another enormous
saw this while I was wandering around Chinatown killing some time till Paul arrived
forest in neighboring Burma, so I don't doubt the reports of healthy fauna in the park. So nice to know that there's still real nature left out there.
After Petchaburi, I headed back to Bangkok for a night (big mistake, for several reasons; things were really getting cozy for me in Petchaburi). After one night near Th Khao San Road, I jumped on a bus and went to Kanchanaburi, which was delightfully chilled out. The tigers were a bit a disappointment, as they are now on chains, but renting a motorbike and riding around the countryside the following day more than made up for that.
Then it was back to Bangkok to meet up with Paul. I had a little time to kill, so I wandered around Chinatown taking photos (above). I think this is my favorite neighborhood in "Bangers" now. Lots of decaying, ornate homes with a mix of Thai and Chinese inscriptions and decorations.
At 8:30pm we crawled into our sleeper cars for the 14-hour journey to the Lao border.
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