M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo


I left my heart in the jungle

Jennifer and I have recently rediscovered our love of camping and hiking.

Our second camping trip this month took us to another national park in our province, one much closer to home.  The last camping adventure was numbing affair for my saddle (4 hours by motorbike), however this most recent trip was only an hour and a half.  A few small highways due north of town took us to Chaolaem Rattanakasin National Park.  On the way, only 10km out of town, we (I) hit a massive rock with the motorbike and promptly flattened the back tire.  Amazingly only 2 minutes passed before 3 cars in a row stopped to help us, a true testament to the kindness and generosity of Thai people.  We loaded the crippled bike and cargo onto the back of a pick-up, Jennifer climbed into the front and I, brave soul that I am, saddled the bike to hold it steady as we drove to the nearest mechanic.  The total time lost from our trip was only 30 minutes, from flat to fixed.

The highways wound through open plains and flat bottomed valleys, papaya plantations and rows of sugar cane and baby corn.  The last stretch of road took a sharp turn west into the now looming hills and rounded mountains of the park.  The climate changed immediately as we entered the claustrophobic spaces of tropical jungle.  Clouds rolled over our little highway and a misting rain announced our arrival.  We rolled into the park in the afternoon and found a large grove of banyan trees, under which we pitched our tent.  The humidity was maxed out under the lush canopy of the park and mosquitos the size of small birds were hovering menacingly as we raced to set up camp.  After a while we found that a healthy combination of citronella, Deet, and burning incense seemed to keep them quiet.  The humidity, however, was not as easy to get used to.

Our tent is that tiny little blue speck in the bottom left corner.

In total we spent 3 days and 2 nights in the park.  We had planned for another night; however the torrential downpours from the monsoon that occurred twice a day and twice a night soaked most of our clothes by the third day.  In addition, one of the aluminum tent poles broke and the splint I put on it failed after only a day.  Unlike the previous national park we visited, this one had decent trail access to the plethora of waterfalls and caves within its boundaries.  My favorite hike was on a trail that led for nearly 2 kilometers along a stream within a huge cave.  The trail emerged from the other end of the cave into a completely different world.  Enormous prehistoric palms with serrated edges and jagged thorns; vast canopy trees with buttresses splaying grandly across the forest floor; all of them towering over us and instilling a distinct awareness of our feeble stature.   Even the insects seemed to taunt our preconceptions of appropriate size.

The trail continued along the stream and quickly began to climb the valley, passing gushing cascades, waterfalls, and pools in which we bathed.  A wooden staircase formed the trail here, decrepit, slimy, and treacherous in places.  As my legs started to pump battery acid from the ascent, the trail entered a landscape too complex and erratic to describe properly in words.  At first we were squeezed tightly between massive boulders draped in a complicated latticework of roots, after which we emerged underneath a great waterfall, and then followed the trail up and along the back of it before opening the world into some kind of fantastical scene dreamed by Tolkien.  Here at the top of the stream, our dark little canyon continued forward yet the sheer cliffs and crags of the mountain still towered over us.  Then I could see…that the trail and stream actually go right through the mountain under a colossal arch a hundred meters above us.  Bats swooped around in their restless dance below the dripping stalactites and limestone ripples of the impossible architecture.  A small shrine had been erected under the arch next to a small strip of dirt for walking meditation.  Strangely, one of the statues on the shrine was of the Hindu god Ganesh.  On the far side of the arch, through another winding trail of jungle and stream, was a small temple where we stopped and had lunch.

That night, with sore muscles and a thirst unquenchable, we found a small shelter near our campsite with a bamboo platform.  Here we took shelter as another monsoon downpour soaked our peaceful glade.  Fortunately we planned ahead and carried with us a bag of freshly purchased beer and our travel game of Yahtzee.  A group of Thai travelers with a similar idea for shelter and fun joined us and the night transformed into a loud and hysterical session of Thai/English butchery and drinking games.  They drank us under the table with modesty.  When we were forced to drink by some roll of the dice, we’d take a swig; however, when it was their turn, down went cups of whiskey soda and whole liters of cheap beer.  A few of them succumbed to a kind of liquid self-destruction, and then the night was over.

Our last day was spent hiking trails in search of waterfalls and a fabled 20 meter waterslide called the Slider Waterfall.  We followed a few trails and blundered through signs written in Thai script, crossing our fingers that we took the right turn in the fork.  After 3 or 4 kilometers and peaking anxieties, the falls were before us.   A series of cascades tumbled down into pools at various levels of smoothly rolling granite, forming a continuous slide to a final drop and plunge at the bottom.  I could hardly contain the childlike giddiness that bubbled over as I stared out at the waterslide.  After scouting the route from top to bottom, then methodically testing each section like the adept scientist that I am, I calculated the risk of fatal concussion or mangled body to be slightly less than the perceived reward.  For some reason Jennifer refused to act as guinea pig for the full test run, so I volunteered.  Doing as I heard the locals do, I wedged myself into the slide at the top, damming the water and filling the pool behind me.  Then, just as the water was about to top over my body, I sat up and let the pool drain in a big rush.  I pushed off and rode the great flood, careening down the slick granite and through the turns.  I flew through the air off a lip in the rock, landing on my back with legs splayed in all directions like some kind of apprehensive break-dancer.  No time for dancing though, as my body was hurled again off the last ledge and into the deep pool below.  The process was repeated a dozen times with subtle variations, some of the more daring ones leading to painful scrapes and bruises.  Mostly though, the water and rock took us where it wanted and laughed at our petty attempts at acrobatics.

As the sky darkened and threatened more storms, we put our clothes on and turned back the way we came.  Our time was up:  the tent was in a sad shape, our clothes stinky and molding, and we were tired.  Completely satiated with our long weekend, we packed and left.  The winds whipped up as we broke camp and agreed with us that it was time to go.

***Reminder: Click on any of the images in these blog posts to view a larger and higher resolution version.  Highly recommended 😉

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20 reasons I smile every day
August 17, 2010, 4:22 am
Filed under: Teaching, Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , , , ,

Teaching here can be incredibly frustrating, but every day I get to look at these mugs and I can’t help but smile my way through it all.



More photos from Tom Pha Phum National Park

Camping near Burma

This is the time of year where the normal plethora of Thai holidays seems to thin out and the weeks seem to drag on.  You can feel it at school, the tension between admin and teachers building with little annoyances like when to turn on the AC in the teacher’s lounge.  Everyone seems noticeably more tired and irritable.  I guess you get used to a holiday every week in Thailand, but unfortunately most of the first academic semester is void of them.  So thank Buddha for this past long weekend, Asalha Bucha day, which marks Buddha’s first sermon in Deer Park and the beginning of Buddhist “lent”.

Jennifer and I have been antsy to do some camping in Thailand, and after doing some research on nearby National Parks in our province, we picked one and committed.  The only caveat: it’s 200km away, we don’t have a car, and it’s the monsoon season.  I’m not one to worry over petty minutiae, the solution was simple: Strap as much gear as possible to Jennifer’s back and call it a motorbike road trip!  The destination: Thom Pha Phum National park, in the misty and mountainous rainforest along the Burmese border.

We started a day later than we had hoped due to a birthday party and a long night of drinking and dancing, so on Sunday we made our getaway.  The ride was long, at least 4 hours on a little 125cc motorbike/scooter with far too much gear hanging off it.  The last 50km were stunningly beautiful; a slow, steep, and winding paved road that delved deep into the thick of it, sporadically gaining a vantage of the dark green expanses.  The weather changed dramatically as we climbed the foothills, the temperature dropping from 35C to 20C and the weather from partly cloudy to misting rain as we entered the clouds.  At least a couple times the rain came down too hard to ride and we pulled into coffee houses or shelters along the way.  We were prepared for the rain, but not for the cold.  One measly little blanket and a sarong was our bedding for the duration.

Leaving the park fully loaded

The National Park is huge but access is very limited due to the rugged nature of the terrain and flora.  There is the one paved road that runs through only a small part of it, and many more miles of 4×4 and high clearance roads, but even those are nearly inaccessible due to the rain and mud of the season.  We camped in a small wooded area on a ridge that had been cleared and some areas leveled for tents.  The view on this knoll was spectacular, sweeping north into the lush mountains of Burma and East to the massive Khao Lem reservoir.  After we arrived, I explored the campground the get the lay of the land…this is my camping tradition.  1) Do a preliminary scan and select the best spot for the tent taking into consideration view, shelter from weather, and access to water or wood, in that order.  2) Set up the tent but hold off unpacking  the rest of my stuff until I 3) Do a thorough survey of the entire campground and surrounding area.  During step 3 of my OCD camping routine, I was dive-bombed by a huge bird, the Thai name sounding something like “nooh nguuak”, or a Giant Hornbill.  This bird was in fact very large, and the sound of the wind rushing through its feathers as it dives inches above your head resembles jet fighter.  I wasn’t expecting it, so yes I screamed like a girl and jumped.

The massive Hornbill that haunted our campsite

The next few days we explored by motorbike as much as we could of the surrounding area, and when we found roads impassable by mud or rocks we just got off and hiked.  One highlight was a beautiful waterfall at the end of a long and windy dirt road turned mud luge.  We had to walk this.  By the end our boots were soiled and our legs were sore, but the waterfall was stunning and worth it, even for the leeches.  After a short swim and photo shoot in front of the falls, the ensuing foul weather chased us back up the ridge to our motorbike.  Later we ventured into the tiny village of Pilok, basically the end of the road.  On the other side of Pilok and a mountain ridge was Burma.  After exploring the sleepy little village and having a hot meal at a streetside restaurant, we scooted closer to the border.  Our curiosity was piqued about where exactly Burma was, if there was a fence or wall or whatever, and how difficult would it be to cross the border.  After getting lost on some tiny winding roads, we eventually steered our motorbike to an overlook where two flags, Thai and Burmese, stood side by side.  The clouds had closed in at this point, and the view from the overlook was into a wall of mist.  The clouds parted for only quick a moment, revealing an immense expanse of mountainous rainforest and nothing else.  Just visible below the overlook was a large natural gas pipeline from Burma going right through the mountains into Thailand.  We walked a little further and found the border gate into Burma, a crappy gravel road in Thailand fading to a worn dirt footpath in Burma.  A Thai border guard gestured us to follow him across the border, and dammit I couldn’t say no!  So we ducked under a fence and around some razor wire into Burma, legality unknown, and walked down a path to another vantage point.  A hundred meters was enough for me without a Visa, so after a few photos the guard escorted us back to Thailand.

But a glimpse of Burma and the gas pipelines.

The nights were all very rainy, as were parts of the day, but we didn’t let it rain on our parade.  The tent and rainfly did their job, as did our ponchos and boots, so we stayed dry.  It was a beautiful few days camping in the cool misty jungle near Burma, and as we returned to lower elevations the weather dried off and warmed up.  I’ll never forget the sounds at night as we were camping.  You could stand out on an observation platform near our tent at night and look out over the jungle and mountains and valleys, and just listen to the wild and bizarre symphony of sounds echoing forth.  I could only imagine the sources of the noises, the myriad of creatures playing, hunting, and communicating in their way.  If you looked long enough and adjusted your eyes, sometimes you could see short pulses of blue-green light as bioluminescent insects danced in the night sky.