Sunday, March 09, 2014

Khao Yai National Park

8 March – 9 March

Our "tent"
This is the most half-assed camping we've ever done in our lives. And this where Thais are paying 1000 baht apiece for industrial-sized, industrial-strength, camouflage dome tents. We've been carrying around almost all of our Appalachian Trail camping gear for two months, an aluminum boy scout pan and alcohol stove, our Golite tarp and insect-repellant-impregnated sleeping bags and a sleeping pad. Finally, in Bangkok, we dumped almost all of the stuff in Bangkok, sick of the extra weight we'd probably never use. They have camping gear for rent at any National Park anyway, I rationalized. It never rains when it's not rainy season, K. rationalized.

We packed, instead, a tent-shaped mosquito net, which we'd been planning to hang inside our tarp as an additional layer of bug protection if we ever decided to camp. On the Pacific Crest Trail we barely used our tarp, there was so little rain. We just slept out in the open air, beneath the stars, guerilla-style, even at 10,000 feet, although everyone acted like we were crazy homeless people (and they were not so far from the truth). It's hot here, and there's no rain. So won't we be just as happy sleeping outside?

Our decision to finally come here to a National Park and camp was half-assed, too. We checked out of our hotel in Pak Chong, took the sohngtaeou to the park, and hitchhiked in, not exactly sure where we were going or if there was even camping available. As always, though, when we take things on faith they tend to work out magically and perfectly. We arrived at a sward of green grass, shaded by large trees, perfect for camping. There was no food, but we'd had the foresight of bringing fried rice in boxes (I've finally learned how to order Thai food to go).

I found a deserted clay barbecue, tossed over into a ditch, so even though we've been unable to buy alcohol for our pepsi-can stove (which K. is still carting around), and although fires aren't allowed, we'll be able to heat up water for ramen noodles. The only problem is embarrassment. When we hang our pitiful piece of mesh from a tree it is immediately clear to everyone just how clueless we are.

The big buck, and also visible are the National Park camoflaged tents
The rental tents are four-season and indestructible. The Thais that show up bring similar elaborate setups, indestructible, with mammoth plastic containers and free-standing foyers. Our tent is a completely transparent fabric curtain. We have no privacy and nowhere to change and no protection from the extremely wet dew. As we set up, we are stalked by an extremely unfriendly monkey, either a gibbon or a pink-tailed macaque.

Evil monkey, stalking our camp
He bares his teeth at us, makes attempts at our food. In the morning, after freezing all night—yes, camping in the mountains in Thailand with no waterproof barrier in a soaking wet bag-liner is cold—K. went to the bathroom, leaving me alone to protect our gear from the monkey with a big stick. I wasn't too worried, till he jumped to the tree from which our “tent” hangs. He's fascinated by us, somehow, maybe because he can see inside our tent, maybe because it hangs from a tree, one of his trees. He lifted the string from the tree and flicked. I waved my stick, ineffectively. He flicked the string again, and boom, our tent collapsed around me in my sleeping bag, shrouding me.

So we repacked everything in our bags and moved to the other side of the campground, where hopefully there are fewer, or at least less interested, monkeys.

I'm rather impressed by how wild everything is, how remote this feels, how natural, even though we're in a highly ranked attraction and Thailand's most-visited National Park. The services are well-kept and impressive, as is the rental gear. But if you squint, you could be in the middle of nowhere. I didn't expect so much wildness, so many animals. There have been monkeys and deer roaming the campground since we got here, something I don't remember at all from when I was a kid. Wild animals were few and far between then. Maybe it's a just testament to preservation, that whatever steps they've taken here have paid off in the last preservation.

Even if it means we quake in fear at the bared-teeth monkeys. I guess I understand the sturdy house-like tents, just meaning that the Thais think we're even crazier than I thought they would. Sometimes I crave the “crazy farang” label. It gives us an excuse for all of the insane things we do, gives us a refuge, even though we're crazy enough that most farangs would find us so.

Late the first night, a bit dazed from staring into the mini-barbecue fire, I walk to get water by myself. It's dusk, and there aren't many people at the campground. As I walk, I see shadows moving, off to my left. I stop and they stop. I think it must be an optical illusion, a trick of my imagination, light from the bathrooms striping my vision, but when I move again they move, too. They're small black humped animals, moving close to the ground but smoothly.

I chicken out and go back to our “camp,” back to the fire, hoping I'm not crazy. I say they looked like badgers or turtles, maybe skunks? But there are no skunks in Thailand. K. scoffs. How could something look like both a turtle and a rodent?

We go for a hike the second day to a waterfall and go swimming (breaking prohibition #82 given to us by our travel doctor: no swimming in fresh water!), leaving our gear at the head office. We don't get fed on by leeches or worms. We bask in the sun. I swear I've been here before, maybe even to this same waterfall, decades ago.

That night, K. sees my mystery animals, too, some kind of hedgehog or porcupine, humped black below with white quills on top, quills that graze the ground and seem to lift as we stare at them. So I'm not crazy. Just another brush with wildlife. (No photographs, unfortunately.)

The morning we leave, we have another crazy encounter. We're basking in the sun, all packed up, in no hurry to leave. I start videoing the deer, taking photographs of them, two young bucks with shaggy shedding fur. Then another one, a bigger older buck, comes forward, out of the woods. This is his turf; we've seen him already.

Unbelievably, almost in slow motion, so slowly that it doesn't quite seem possible, the old buck locks horn with the bigger younger one. The third buck gets out of the way. At first I think they're playing, helping each other shed. But no. It's slow as they grapple, both trying to aim the points of their horns in the other's eye. Most of the fight is impassive, immobile, as they stay locked, but then one gains purchase and aims at the other's exposed neck, and I note bloody fly-infested wounds from previous battles. As the battle increases in intensity, I start hearing squeaks of grief, of pain coming from the deer. It's shocking, in such a civilized campground. I have visions of watching a deer bleed out. But finally the younger deer surrenders and turns tail. The older one finds a tree and collapses against it, exhausted, nursing his wounds.

Bucks fighting, a lot more violent than it looks
As we leave, I see the younger deer come up again and challenge, and the fight begins again. We want to leave nature to itself, preserved, but it's always shocking in its violence. Its bloodiness. Nature, red in tooth and claw.

We hitch out, and I use my broken Thai to say that we're going all the way back to Pak Chong. We sit in the bed of a truck with a kid and a pregnant girl and two guys drinking beer and homemade whiskey, all out for the day to “pai teou,” to go and have a good time. We (and our backpacks) barely fit in the back of the truck with them, but they're so sweet and they're going all the way to Pak Chong, too. They take us as far as they can, stopping at the temple on the way to the park gate, and I go in with the driver, my first time at a Buddhist temple with an actual Buddhist, a temple that's not a tourist attraction but a working temple.

The pavilion is crowded with shoeless Thais burning incense and praying. I go closer to get a glimpse inside, and am shocked to see that the gilt statues of priests inside are all wearing gaudy, chintzy cowboy hats. Of all things. I don't have the nerve to go inside to see them close-up, nor to take a picture.

I ask, when we're tucked back into the truckbed, as well as I can: what's with the cowboy hats? My friend, the girl, when she understands says: they wear cowboy hats around here. As if that explains it.

This is what I love about Thailand, about travel, how it constantly shocks you with how inexplicably alien it is.

They drop us off less than a half-mile from our hotel, in the care of a barbecued-pork street vendor, so that the sohngtaeou into town doesn't charge us more than 10 baht (30 cents) to take us the rest of the way. How kind they are to us, and how good it feels to be veering away from the tourist trail, if only for this, these brief, thwarted connections with genuine, good-hearted Thai people.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I love this post so much. The evil monkey had me laughing out loud. The deer story is super intense too!

I wonder if you saw a Malayan Porcupine:

I love the Song Thaeo to the park story! This trip is really making me jealous now. Wish I was there with you guys.