If you know me you know that I like everything to be chronological, organized, and in order. And to my great chagrin, this post isn’t. Mai-pen-rai, ka. (means ‘no big deal’ or ‘it doesn’t matter’ in Thai).
A few weeks ago, over a three-day weekend, I went with a few friends on a grand adventure to Khao Yai National Park.
The adventure began right from jump. To get to the park, we had to take a bus to a small city that was closest to the North Entrance of the National Park. The city was called Pak Chong. We boarded a night bus to Bangkok and were told that it would go through Pak Chong. Side-note-- busses in Thailand are incredible! It was like flying first class. Big chairs that leaned all the way back, small individual TV screens, and free food. Not quite as smooth a ride as flying is, however. All of us slept a bit, but tried to keep our eye on the time. We knew it was about four or five hours to Pak Chong. Though we asked the driver to tell us when we arrived in Pak Chong, we weren’t sure that request was communicated perfectly. After about four hours, the driver told us that we are at our stop, so we all proceed to schlep our backpacks off the bus, and the bus whizzed away. We gathered our surroundings. There we stood on the side of the highway at two in the morning under a ‘Khao Yai Outlet’ sign. By no means were we anywhere near the center of the city where we were planning on sleeping before heading to the park the next day. We tried calling the number of the cheap motel where we had made reservations, but the call wouldn’t go through. There seemed to be not a soul around. Luckily, on second glance, we saw a small security shack that lay a few meters back from the highway, and by some small miracle, inside the security shack was a security guard. The poor poor man must have been more than a little alarmed when a mob of young Americans were knocking on his window asking in Tenglish (Very poor thai/English) how to get into the city. We certainly looked desperate enough, so he tried calling a taxi service for us. Of course in a small city, there was none running at 2am. Finally he communicates that he got us transportation and it will be by shortly to pick us up. Ten minutes later, a car probably two-thirds the size of a Toyota Prius rolls up. I am almost certain the security guard had just called a friend to come get us because he didn’t know what else to do with us. The man requests 700 bhat (probably 4x the normal price) to drive us to our motel in Pak Chong, and so the EIGHT of us agreed, and crammed into his tiny tiny car.
Once we were in Pak Chong, he drove us down an alleyway, and lo and behold, there was our motel/hostel. The rooms smelled so strongly of sewage it was almost unbearable and the two mattresses stacked in the corner on the floor were covered with a stained sheet and a moth-eaten blanket. Mai-pen-rai! It was only to get a few hours of shuteye until the next morning when we would take the song-towe to the national park. However, I was immensely thankful for my little cocoon-sleeping sheet that I had brought along from America that made a small barrier between the ratchet bedding and I.
The next morning we made it, with a little less drama, to the park entrance. Four of the girls who already had planned to camp in the park continued on in while myself and the other three friends I had traveled with sought out accommodation. After several failed attempts we ended up staying in the accommodation closest to the park; what was six neon bungalows all in a row. They were clean and had air conditioning—all we needed.
After dropping off our bags, we proceeded to the park entrance, paid, and then asked the attendant how to get to the visitors center/ park headquarters that was 14kilometers away, the place we knew all the hiking trails branched off of. Casually she remarked, ‘hitch-hike.’ We asked again, and again she said ‘you hitch-hike.’ Surely, I thought, there must be a bus! But no… We hitch-hiked, and ended up having to hitch-hike in the park any time we wanted to get anywhere. Though the first time we were very reluctant, it ended up being a blast and only adding to the adventure! It never took us too long to catch a ride, and several times the folks that picked us up spoke English. It was neat to get to meet so many different people this way. We met a business man from Bangkok who had a free day and wanted to just drive through the park and soak up some of the nature. We also met a Thai dad and his son who had downs syndrome. We talked with them about movies, and it was sweet to see in such a short encounter the tender care the father had for his son.
On that first day we made it (after hitch-hiking) to the visitors center/ park headquarters by about noon. We grabbed a map, looked at trail descriptions, and wanting to get in a good, long hike in the afternoon, we immediately asked the man at the desk how to get to the trailhead for an 8-kilometer hike to a waterfall. The man shook his head and said we needed a guide and it was too late in the afternoon for that hike, we didn’t have enough time. We figured it’s less than 5 miles, and we are all strong women who have hiked plenty in our lives, we can do five miles before 5 pm! So, using the piece paper that was a poor excuse for a map, off we went to seek the trailhead for the long 8k hike. The start of the hike was off of a smaller 1k-nature walk that was paved, so we started there. Each time we came upon something that looked like it might be a trail, we tried walking on it for a ways, and then when it came to bush-whacking we decided to turn back. Finally, after several other attempts, we succumbed to hammocking in the Eno Hammocks my friend Hunter and I had brought along. It wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon, though we were a little bummed to not get a big hike in.
That night, with no restaurant at the bungalows to eat at, the owner, who also took pity on us four farrang who had no mode of transportation, loaded us in the back of his truck and drove us a few miles down the road to a restaurant called Khao Yai Cowboy. The place was western themed; hence the name, with tarnished pictures of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Native Americans, and galloping horses hanging on the walls next to massive racks of antlers and long horns and old fashioned lamps. The tables were made of beautiful raw wood, and all surrounded an open dance floor and a stage. I felt as though I could have been at a cool bar in the American Southwest. What made me not forget that I was in Thailand was the food (I ordered some bad Chinese food) and the music.
About halfway through our meal, a band shows up to the restaurant and begins to set up the stage. The four of us were all looking forward to the live music. They begin to play a set of classic rock and bluegrass/country music. Keep in mind however, that these are Thai men singing with Thai accents. Often times they would just imitate the sound of the lyric, but not quite get the full word. Not only that, but the restaurant owner’s two children, my guess is they were ages 3 and 5 or so, began casually performing with the band up front, the little girl dancing, and the little boy hitting the bongos. The highlight was when the main singer began yodeling and two of my friends got up to dance.
We began our second day early. It was our only full day in the park, so we wanted to get the most out of it that we could. We hitch-hiked our way up to the visitor’s center determined to do the 8k hike, at any cost, even if we had to get a guide. Turns out that the guide was not such a bad idea. Our guide was named ‘choke dee’ which means ‘good luck’ in Thai. He was incredibly handsome and looked like he was in his late 20s, maybe early 30s. Turns out he was actually in his early 40s. He claimed all the sun and carefree hiking is what kept him young. I’m sure he was right. He wore heavy-duty hiking boots and tough-looking pants. I on the other hand wore my open-toed Chaco sandals and a pair of running shorts. Good choices.
He led us to the trailhead, one of the semi-trail-looking trails that we had passed the day before but actually decided not to try walking down the day before because it was so overgrown. He prayed before we started the hike, then right after he prays proceeds to pull out a machete and a pistol from his backpacking backpack. It had just gotten real. In the past hikers had come across tigers and hyenas, so that was what the machete and pistol were for… just in case. Luckily we had no need for them. Hikers had also come across elephants and gibbons on the trail, which we unfortunately did not encounter.
Half of the time on the hike my mind was thanking God that we didn’t try this trail the day before. Every twist, turn, and bushwhacking section we encountered I became more and more grateful. The other half of the hike I was marveling at the beauty of the verdant forest. Giant palms crossed our path, massive vines wound up trees and hung down to meet us on the ground, and the sun shone through leaves the size of a platter. It was gorgeous.
As we neared the end of our hike, Choke Dee took us to a hidden waterfall. It had no sign of other tourists—all ours! We jumped into the little watering hole screeching as all the sweat, dirt, and blood from the hike washed off. Choke Dee showed us how to climb up the waterfall, and we scaled the slippery rock and plunged into the pool below time after time. Having the guide was absolutely worth it. After snacking and drying off we continued on the last kilometer of the hike to Khao Yai’s most famous waterfall where our hike ended. Though it was big, it seemed much less exciting after our thrilling private waterfall that we had enjoyed. We also didn’t want the hike, or the weekend, to end.
The travel home was a little bit less eventful that travel to get to Khao Yai. Though we got lost trying to find the bus station, I had a map written on my hand by a local man who tried to help us very lost farrang (westerners) in the market, and we sprinted across a six lane highway, we made it home safe and sound.
It turns out very little planning makes for some great stories. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.