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 😉


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.

The Death Railway, Elephants, and Finding Work

Jolly Frog Guest House, base of operations for our Kanchanaburi explorations, turned out to be a lovely place.  The rooms were simple little cubes with bucket toilets and cold showers, but the grounds were nice.  The rooms all faced out to a cool green garden with hammocks, loungers, and a beautiful view onto the river.  Every night a gorgeous sunset reflected off the river and clouds and made the whole place glow a shade of pink and purple.  A set of stairs lead down from the garden onto a pontoon floating in the river with tables, chairs, and more loungers; a perfect place to bring a beer and watch the long-tail boats and floating discos go by.  The food was good as well, with a kitchen that served everything from hamburgers to Tom Kha Gai (Chicken Coconut Soup), and thankfully at backpacker prices.

Sai Yok Waterfall without tourists

For about 12 days we stayed here exploring the area.  Mostly we ventured out on our own, renting a motorbike in town and stumbling through new and interesting parts of town.  I don’t really fancy the package tours that so many tourists opt to join, however we broke down eventually and joined a daytrip that explored half a dozen of the major tourist spots in the area.  About 8 of us jumped into a minivan in the morning and drove off to Sai Yok waterfall, a very beautiful (and popular) cascade with swimming about 30km out of town.  Next we drove to the “Death Railway” memorial, set near one of the old prison camps along the railroad.  The spot was called Hellfire Pass, one of the more notorious camps with a grizzly history.  Summarizing briefly:

During WW2 Japan, occupying much of SE Asia at the time, needed to build a railway from Thailand to Burma to resupply it’s forces in India and other areas.  They used prisoners of war as laborers, mostly Dutch, Australian, and British, as well as a million or more conscripted laborers from occupied SE Asian countries.    Much of the route that wasn’t already built was very remote and inaccessible to heavy equipment, so these prisoners had to work with incredibly primitive tools to build the rails.  In addition to the difficulties of the terrain and lack of equipment, the Japanese army treated the prisoners as if they were already sentenced to death…a relic of the Samurai code that still dictated much of the Japanese army’s behavior.  A lot of prisoners died to build the railway, to say the least.  Hellfire pass was a particularly difficult section of blasting and digging, and the memorial there is especially poignant.

Overlooking the valley along the Death Railway

After walking along the old rail bed for a few kilometers and visiting a particularly depressing museum, we got back in the van and headed farther into the country.  We stopped at a hill-tribe village, although really not a tribe at all but rather a minority nomadic people that live between Thailand and Burma.  Here we went riding on elephants through the woods along some old trails and jeep roads, eventually looping back to where we started. Riding on the back of an elephant is bizarre, although I’ve very little experience riding on the back of anything.  There is a platform strapped to the back of the elephant with hand rails for riders, but Jennifer convinced me to ride on the neck of the elephant.  Apparently elephants are hairy…hair like little bristles of a comb.  I sat on this elephant’s neck, with my legs hanging down behind its giant ears (which flap like wings), and held on for dear life.  The fall from the top of an elephant is akin to falling off the roof of a building…a building that could then step on you as it walks by.  The ride was fun though, and if you’re sitting on the platform it’s actually quite comfortable.  The big loping steps of an elephant are more bearable than a horse’s crotch-numbing trot.

Next the tour dropped us off at a cave-temple with some impressive gold-leafed Buddhas inside.  The cave itself was decent, but the location was more impressive.  Set into the side of a cliff right along the River Kwai, the cave is accessible only by walking along the railway trestles that hang precariously over the river 50 meters below.  Here we caught the train, still operating on this stretch of the death railway, all the way back to Kanchanaburi to finish the day…a beautiful ride along the river and cliffs and through the countryside.

Trestle over the River Kwai

Funds were getting to a critical point at this time, so employment quickly became priority one.  During all this sightseeing of Kanchanaburi, we were also chasing down a few prospects for teaching positions at local schools.  In fact Stuart, the shady proprietor, connected us with one of his English teacher friends, who in turn connected us with a school that might be hiring.  After one interview we were called back for another the next day, this time with the big boss in charge of 6 different schools.  The second interview was bizarre, and a bit intimidating, but we came away from it with a job.  Jennifer was offered a full time position immediately, even though there were no official openings.  Young, female, native-speakers are a hot commodity in Thailand since most of the farang (Thai for foreigners) are 50-something retired alcoholic geezers.  The school offered me a full-time position at the start of the next term, although it turned out to be a lot sooner after one of the teachers pulled a runner over Christmas holiday.

A motorbike and a house seemed like the next logical step in the equation, so again we asked around the backpacker’s ghetto and we weren’t let down.  A Swiss guy that runs an Italian pizzeria apparently also owns some property south of town with some bungalows, so we got a ride on his 3-wheeled motorcycle (basically a motorbike with a side-car holding 2 little benches to sit on) to check them out.  The property, maybe 7-8 acres, is large and open with a pond in the middle and 3 bungalows around it.  A large house, built in the style of a Thai temple, sits towards the front of the compound and is used as a house for guests and relatives of the Swiss guy, Kinet, and his Thai wife, Thong.  The bungalow we looked at, and soon moved into, was built only 6 months ago and had a great vibe.  The outside is painted a fresh green color and the inside sky blue.  It’s one very large room, a large bathroom, and a very large front porch, all freshly tiled.  We moved in the next day.  Living next to us in the adjacent bungalows are a young tattooed Frenchman and his lovely, albeit quiet Thai wife, and a retired Australian ship’s captain.

The last item, the motorbike, was a breeze to get a hold of.  Kinet and Thong went out of their way to help us get a good deal, and for 15,000 baht (about $450) I bought a second-hand 125cc Honda motorbike.  We’ve been riding her for the last month and she hasn’t let us down yet.  Now with the big 3 accomplished…a job, a home, a ride…the pace of life has settled down a bit.  We’ve slowly been decorating the house, buying this and that to fill the empty space.  Driving is always an adventure here; navigating the chaos of Thai traffic is no easy feat, and a “close call” happens on a regular basis.  Unlike most of the Thais, we do wear our helmets, and with the straps actually connected.

Coming up: A trip to the Andaman Sea for Christmas holiday, the adventures of teaching English in Thailand, and border hopping for visas in Laos.

Waterfalls, Glorious Waterfalls

As our train bound for Kanchanaburi rattled through the Bangkok suburbs and emerged at last into the Thai countryside, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the scenery.  We passed little villages built on stilts and wooden plank walkways to keep above the monsoon floods.  We passed lotus ponds and rice paddies where huge flocks of Asian cranes would erupt and soar alongside the train.  Beautiful white egrets gathered en masse in the small trees surrounding the ponds and lakes, like odd feathery fruit trees.  I turned to Jennifer, sitting across from me also enthralled with the scenery, and said “I’ve got a pretty good feeling about this, like, I think we could live here.”

We pulled into Kanchanaburi through the back door, as trains often seem to do, avoiding the congestion and bustle of the main roads.  We had arranged to stay at a small B&B style place outside of town, a quiet base of operations for exploring the area by motorbike and bicycle.  Stuart, a Canadian burn-out from the 60’s generation, was the proprietor.  Not exactly the savviest host, he was nonetheless a colorful and entertaining character.  We bunked up at his place in an open air bamboo loft and relaxed into a much slower, quieter pace of life since we arrived in Thailand.  Stuart had a couple bicycles and a motorbike on hand so we explored our surroundings dutifully.  An afternoon of peddling took us winding through a couple small villages, through farmland and along the beautiful River Kwai.  At one point we lost ourselves in a university campus, passing dormitories, athletic fields, classrooms and college kids chatting in little groups: A familiar scene yet still strange to see in Thailand.

The following day we opted for motorized transport and extended our exploration much farther up the river valley towards Burma.  We heard of a national park with beautiful waterfalls about 50km up the valley, so we packed our swim suits, towels, and camera and zipped along the highway shoulder at a blistering pace.  Avoiding massive trucks overladen with sugarcane and trying to keep the little put-put engine from overheating, we climbed higher into the hills and into lush jungle and canopy.  The river, on our left for the duration of the drive, was stunningly beautiful.  We watched it as it wound and braided its way through the hills, slicing into banks and then widening again into an immense green plane.  The trees started to lean into the river from the banks as they grew larger, the river now offered only brief snatches of its deep green mystery.  The road became windier and steeper, the temperature cooler, and the clouds more substantial as we climbed into this hill country.  Too soon we arrived at the gate to the park and found the trails to take us to the waterfalls.

Erawan National Park is a popular attraction for both Thai and foreign tourists alike.  Despite the popularity it’s easy to find your own quiet spot by a waterfall here, as there are seven of them.  Rather, there are seven major waterfalls and dozens of smaller ones between them.  The trail climbs high into the hills, passing one series of cascades after another until you come to the seventh and final cascade.  The majority of visitors stay down at the first couple cascades, so the farther you climb the more seclusion you’re rewarded with.  As I made my way towards the first set of falls I tried to clear my mind of all the waterfalls I’ve seen over the years and the doubts that these wouldn’t compare.  As it turns out I wouldn’t have been disappointed either way.  The falls here are in fact the most beautiful I’ve seen in my life.  As I climbed the trail higher I felt my jaw dropping lower.  Unlike waterfalls I’ve seen before, these ones are created from limestone deposits.  Like stalactites in a cave, the dissolved limestone in the water slowly accumulated in massive cascading formations of solid rock.  The rocks appear as waterfalls in their own way, and combined with the turquoise water flowing over them the picture is surreal.

Determined to obtain a little seclusion, Jennifer and I set our course for the top.  At the bottom we passed a Thai movie set and crew in the midst of filming in the falls.  We stopped and gawked at the scene: A bunch of African’s dressed in loincloths holding spears and bows, faces painted and dancing (or fighting).  As if this place wasn’t surreal enough, we just shook our heads in confusion as we continued up towards the top.  On our way up we passed every imaginable form of waterfall: Fat ones, tall ones, big ones, little ones, round ones, sharp ones, ones stacked on top of each other, and ones hidden under dense canopy.  At the top we were hassled by “fierce monkeys”, as the sign declared.  Unaware that food is forbidden after the second set of falls (for obvious reasons now), we had a group of macaques snarl and lunge after our little packet of crackers.  At one point I even had a monkey jump on my back to get at the cracker I was hiding.  Still I hold a prejudice against macaques because of this, and I’m seriously planning on bringing a sling-shot or a pellet-gun next time I enter “fierce monkey” territory.

Fierce monkey showing his stuff

On our way back down, determined to shake that strange sense of humiliation by monkey, I found a lovely waterfall and went swimming.  Apparently the fish at Erawan like to nibble on your feet (harmless I’m told, they like the dead skin), however I wasn’t aware of this so as I waded into the water and felt little nips and pinches I freaked out and screamed like a girl.  After watching my escapades, it took a good 15 minutes of convincing before Jennifer followed me in.  It was a lovely swim, a big, deep blue pool to paddle in and a huge waterfall to climb behind.  Standing under the waterfall, letting it pound into my head and shoulders with tremendous force, I felt exhilarated and completely aware of how alive I am.  By this time the sun was starting to get low and we still had a good hike and drive ahead of us.  Shivering the whole way back on the motorbike in wet clothes, I still felt alive but not quite as exhilarated any more.

The longer we stayed at Stuart’s place, and the more we talked to him, the shadier he appeared to be.  Besides being the only people staying at his place, which could easily house 20, many other little things started to pile up.  Conversations seemed to steer in the direction of why he can’t enter the US, his connections with Thai mafia, and other topics you don’t want your host to be talking about.  When we mentioned his name to people around town, there seemed to be a unanimous response of an awkward nod and shifty eyes, and something like “yeah he’s interesting…oh yeah I know Stuart, haha…” etc.  The final straw was a night out drinking with him, where he insisted taking us to a girly bar.  After about 30 minutes he disappeared. Waiting for him awkwardly, surrounded by older guys trying to hit on young Thai women, we decided to mosey on down the road to a bar that doesn’t revolve around sex tourism.  We had a good night, met a couple backpackers from Australia and the States, and eventually had to get home.  Stuart’s place was about 15km outside of town, and although he said he would give us a ride home, he was nowhere to be seen.  After trying his phone for a while with no luck, we took a taxi.  Alas, the gate was locked and he never gave us a key, so we had to climb the fence to get in.  Finally settled in and ready for sleep, we hear Stuart pull up in his car, plastered, and with a prostitute in tow.  In the middle of the night we hear some shouting, confusion, a car with a Thai guy pulls up and walks inside Stuart’s, more commotion, and the guy and girl both leave.  The next day, as we’re trying to decide what to do, his caretaker/maid quits without warning.  At this point our unanimous decision is to move to a guest house in town.

After such an awkward ordeal we were relieved to finally be amongst other backpackers in a central location in Kanchanaburi.  It was here at the Jolly Frog guest house we would spend the next 12 days setting our roots in the city.  Soon enough we would have a job offer, a house of our own, and our own means of transportation.