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Getting Lost in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand

By Greg McCann

November 22, 2007

Before landing in Bangkok I had decided that, for once, I wanted to skip the capital. It's not that I don't like “Bangers,” as I've heard it called; quite the contrary. The situation was that I had five days to kill before my friend arrived to meet me for a trip to Laos and I wanted to hit one spot that I had been reading about (or trying to read about, as I had a hard time finding good info on it) for awhile: Kaeng Krachan National Park, an enormous stretch of jungle at the beginning of the Malay Peninsula bordering Myanmar and just 2 hours from Suvarnabhumi Airport.

My flight from Taipei landed at around 11:30am, and I was hoping to be out of the airport and on a bus by 1pm, that way I might possibly make it to the town of Phetchaburi –the launching point for Kaeng Krachan- before 5pm, check into my guest house, then sawngthaew it to Khao Luang cave temple in time to watch the setting sunlight trickle down through the ceiling chasms in what Lonely Planet describes as some kind of Messiah-return experience.

I made it through Immigration by 1pm , and jumped in a taxi for the Southern Bus Terminal.
“Where you go?” My driver asked.
“Very far,” I replied.
“Where?” He was all true Thai smiles, as they say.
“China,” I answered.
“OK,” he laughed. “But where you go?”
“Petchaburi,” I said.
“I take you there, yeah? 2,000 baht.”
“That's too high,” I countered. I had a feeling that his would happen, and I honestly wanted to keep costs down on this trip. The prospect in being in Phetchaburi in less than 2 hours, however, was quite tantalizing.
“1,500 baht” he offered.

I accepted, then took off my shoes and watched the urban landscape begin to fall away to shrimp farms, banana plantations, then finally some wicked mountains rising up in the distance –limestone outcrops backed by higher and higher green hills that go all the way west to the border with Burma .

I asked the driver to put on some Thai music, then stop at a rest stop so that I could buy a couple of beers.

The driver used his cell phone to call the owner of Rabieng Rim Nan Guest House to get the exact address, and very soon we were navigating the streets of Phetchaburi, which is, without a doubt, the most charming and authentic traditional Thai town I have ever had the pleasure of visiting in my five trips to the Land of Smiles. After getting dropped off and checking into my 120 baht room, I jumped in a sawngthaew and set off for the Indiana Jones-eque cave temple.

Sitting in the back of that pickup, watching the Thai school kids laughing and walking down the sidewalks in their uniforms totally oblivious to the many dozens of macaques clambering on the telephone wires and fences all around them was surreal. I sipped on my cold Singha beer and took in a “city” –if it can be called that (pop. 36,000) without 7-11s or McDonald's or any other chain that I could espy, for that matter. (On my third day in town, I did bike down one of the wider boulevards somewhere, and there might –just might have been a KFC…but I don't think so).

After dropping off a couple of passengers, we made a turn up a hill on a narrow road swarming with simians. The driver had to honk his horn several times to get the monkeys to move out of the way.

I was the sole passenger at this point, and the driver agreed to wait for me. Khao Luang was pretty cool. I'm not going to get into cheesy descriptions of golden shafts of light streaming in (though there were) and daunting buddhas looming in dark corners of the cavern: Khao Luang should be seen if visiting Phetchaburi.

I had a feeling, on the way back to the guesthouse, that there would be an attractive waitress working in the highly-recommended restaurant. Her name was Teem, and she made sitting in that high-ceiling teak dining room right on the Mae Nam Phetchaburi River that oozes lazily through town all the more enchanting.

“Does she have a boyfriend?” I asked the owner, a very easy-going and likable Thai woman.
“No,” she said, shaking her head with a knowing smile. “She used to. Not anymore…he lie her.”
“I like her,” I said.

Things stayed merely playful, like that, but I found myself liking Teem a lot.

Soon a man named Choke arrived. He ran a tour agency that handled excursions into Kaeng Krachan, which is Thailand 's second largest national park.

“Are you a birder?” He inquired.
“Do you work for Discovery Channel or something?”
“I just want to see the jungle. I want to see true, huge jungle.”

Beer after beer continued to arrive at the table.

“We cannot find anyone else in Hua Hin or Phetchaburi to go into the park with you. This is the rainy season, you know. Nobody comes here at this time. In fact, you might be the only person in the entire park, with the exception of the rangers.

I was sold (though clearly, he wasn't selling). A deal was made. I would have to pay 2 national park fees –for my guide and myself, plus truck rental, gas, food and a ranger fee. It was more than I wanted to pay, but, my beer figured, fuck it.

Choke left and I sat at my lovely little table alone, watching the river. A team of what I can only describe as Dragon Boat racers, paddled upstream, chanting. An attractive middle aged woman sat at the table opposite me, and after babbling some ridiculous comment about the paddlers to her, she came over and sat with me.

The woman, whose name escapes me, turned to be in Thailand for two months on a Fulbright Scholarship. She was studying or researching Thai culture, apparently.

“Did you go to the temple today?” She asked.
“Khao Luang? Yes, I did.”
“Were there monkeys there? I want to see the monkeys. ” She said.
“There are monkeys all over Phetchaburi. Even right in town. Haven't you taken a walk around?”

She ignored this question, and repeated that she was dying to see the simian circus raging outside the famous temple.

I tried to convince her to take a full day trip into Kaeng Krachan with me, but the Fulbright scholar wasn't interested. I brought one beer up to bed with me, and passed out.

***** ***** ***** *****

My driver, who spoke no English, showed up an hour late the next morning, which suited me fine because I was struggling with a serious hangover from all that good Singha Beer in the guest house the night before. I asked him 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 erased even more of it. By the time we were out in the rice paddy countryside with the mountains ever closer and the fresh rural air blowing in my face, I was almost 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, whose name I cannot remember, spotted a monitor lizard hanging out on the side of the rough road, 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 primeval jungle 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 three dusky langurs hanging out in the trees on the other side of the stream (which I swam naked in later, completing my hangover cure). When I first saw that long black tail flapping on a tree branch I thought it was a panther (which do live in this jungle). Try as I might, I could not get a clear view of the entire body, and my guide and I could not communicate.

I made claw-scratching motions with my hands, trying to imitate a big cat. He nodded that yes, it was that. My heart raced as I thought we had stumbled upon a large jungle cat taking an afternoon nap. I was not disappointed, however, to finally gain a clear view of three langurs.

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 they grunted in anger. Finally they had scrambled too far above and we gave up chasing them. 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 steep fee 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 to a small sign written in Thai which pointed to a 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 rugged limestone upthrust, which we scrambled up carefully, sweating, swatting away bees and dodging spider webs manned by venomous-looking monsters.

The limestone hill hollowed out on the back side and led down into a cavern, which contained a stalactite that bore a real resemblence to an elephant. Sunlight seeped down through large pores in the black coral-like stone ceiling, creating the feeling that a Neanderthal might come home to nest dragging his wife by the hair at any moment. 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 guide had no clue. In one hour, even he was beginning to show signs of panic -excessive sweating, worried facial expression, 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 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 spider webs 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.

Well, at least I'm getting to see some areas of the jungle that most visitors never see, I tried to tell myself. My optimism was very short lived, however, and real panic began to set in. Even my guide rained sweat from his hair and face, as it seemed like the harder we tried, the more disoriented we became.

We hiked up yet another mountain, which yielded no clues whatsoever. I began to imagine how we would have to sleep in the jungle, how many thousands of mosquito (glad I took an anti-malaria pill) and other insect bites I would incur, and how long it would take Choke or someone to realize that we were lost.

I began to curse out loud and I actually started to feel dizzy from all the circles we were hiking.

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. 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 third 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 films. I only needed about ten minutes of that to motivate myself for another hike.

When I suggested we get a move on, he made a pouting face. I insisted, and soon we were back in another section of the forest. The ranger 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." He also pointed out numerous mushrooms, mosses, spores, fungus, and I have no idea what else. Some of this stuff was said to be able to cure obesity. I imagined overweight Americans toughing it through this tropical forest in order to devour these plants.

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 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.

When we arrived back in town Phetchaburi seemed even more magical than when I had arrived yesterday. As we drove over the small town bridge, passing old teak homes and centuries-old urban temples, I promised myself that I would spend a month of my life in this wonderful little backwater town.

I found myself back at a riverside table, with Teem as my waitress. A large monitor lizard swam from across the river and scaled the side of the restaurant. This was the most delightful places I have ever been in my life.

I asked Teem if she wanted to go to Koh Phang-Ngan for the weekend. She said she had never been there. We made arrangements, and then, the following morning, remembering that I had a wife, I cancelled our plans.

“FOOL!” my friend Paul, standing at Immigration in Taipei bellowed into his cell phone.

Fool was right.

Anyone who thinks that Thailand has burnt out its soul to tourism as never been to Phetchaburi.

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