Other than an hour long “ten minute” stop during which we had both front tires changed, the bus ride from Siem Reap back to the border wasn’t nearly as bad as the ride down. A was smart enough to snag the front seats with leg room and a halfway decent air-con system allowed us to keep all the windows shut and most of the dust out. From the border we cruised through and caught the first tuk tuk to the bus station only to arrive just as our next bus connection was leaving. With much hurried shouting and paying of money we jumped on a bus that would hopefully put us in range of Khao Yai national park.
We were mostly right. We wanted to be in Pak Chong but found ourselves in a random town where the bus driver motioned for us to get off while saying “Khao Yai, Khao Yai.” I had a good idea of where the bus would probably drop us off but of course there were no english signs in sight and we only had to ask three people before establishing that we were in the town of Prachinburi–only about 100km south of where we wanted to be–but stuck at a random bus stop (with no terminal) in the center of town. Without another westerner in sight we established that there were no buses running to Pak Chong and that a ride was going to cost us 500B to the park, 900B to Pak Chong, or 1,200B to get to the Green Leaf guesthouse… which was 7.5km closer to us than Pak Chong. For less than 200B we could have made the two hour bus ride to Bangkok and caught another bus back to Pak Chong but it was beginning to get dark and spending another six hours in transit was not an appealing option.
Out of the group of people trying to help us there was only one woman who spoke a small amount of english. Much was lost in the translation but our confusion and inability to make a decision must have registered on our faces because the woman finally offered to just drive us to Khao Yai city for “no money” so she could talk to information from us. Our Lonely Planet guide made no mention of any Khao Yai city, but we ended up jumping in the car with her husband and two small children and driving the 40km out to the park entrance. Once there she talked to the park rangers and told us that we could take a car, again “for no money.” For a second we thought that she was going to drive us through but then became doubly confused when she waved and turned back to her car. We quickly ascertained that she had gotten the rangers to wave the 200B park fee for each of us and that we were going to be trying to hitch a ride with the next car that came through the park. As we sat–waiting and trying to converse with our new thai ranger friends who spoke not a single word of english–another of the staff came out and told us that if no car came before they closed the gates at 9pm then she would give us a tent and let us camp for the night for free.
Although the story would have been much more interesting for it, we were spared the inconvenience by a rather new white Toyota sedan that pulled up and agreed to take two sweaty and ragged looking Canadians with him to Pak Chong. Lounging in the cushy leather seats and 22 degree air conditioning, we took more than an hour to get through the park. Once on the other side we searched in vain for our target guest house and ended up having to fall back on our alternate choice in Pak Chong city. Once into Pak Chong our incredibly patient and helpful driver took us near the night market where the guest house was supposed to be and then stopped at the video store where his daughter worked. She spoke decent english and as it so happens, had a friend that worked at the guest house we were after. With many thanks we were on our way through the market to Phubade Hotel where we completely crashed. It was almost 9pm and we had been on the go since 6:30 that morning.
Before bonking completely though, we did make a phone call to Green Leaf and booked ourselves for a room and a tour through the park the next day. At noon they sent around a truck to pick us up and by 3:30 we were off on the first part of our tour.
A day and a half tour with Green Leaf costs 1,150B and we found it worth every bit of it. The guesthouse cost an extra 200B/night and was one of the cleanest and nicest we have stayed in since we arrived in SE Asia. The staff and owners are also very friendly with an excellent restaurant that serves up brilliant versions of the classics like pad thai, and tom yum. You also don’t have to worry about the staff mis-charging you for anything. Everything is put on your room and paid for at the end of your stay when you are presented with an itemized list of your meals and expenses.
Back to the fun stuff; our tour began with a stop at the local freshwater spring which has been turned into a refreshing little swimming hole complete with a group of drunken flirty thai boys to blow kisses at the farang girls. After cooling off a bit our guide, Joe, took us to a small cave with a good number of wrinkle nose bats clinging to the ceiling. This was the first time we noticed that our guide was spending a little bit more time in each area than some of the other groups that came through, and was also talking to us much more. After crawling through a low tunnel we came into a room with a reclining buddha statue that portrayed buddha’s death. Joe gave us some interesting viewpoints on buddhism and the differences between the buddhism practised here (Theravada Buddhism ) and that of Tibet and other northern countries (Mahayana Buddhism). It was very interesting to learn about the life of a monk. It seems that many children are sent to study buddhism, not just so that they can learn the buddhist practise, but because having a child who is a monk is like buying a ticket for the parents to escape reincarnation when they die. There was also some discussion about the buddhist philosophy that one should not do a lot of things but that doesn’t mean that a monk can not do them… like smoking or owning cell phones, both of which we have seen since we’ve been here.
Since it was getting close to sunset we climbed the stairs back out of the cave and headed over to the real bat cave where Joe told us that something like two million bats would come streaming out of. Given the thai penchant for joking, we weren’t quite sure what to expect, but sure enough, just around sunset, the bats began to pour out of the cave in a long thin column. It was incredible to watch them spiral off to the horizon like a ethereal airborne snake stretching for kilometers.
One of the most enjoyable parts of travel is meeting other people who are traveling like you are. A small group of us became instant companions and enjoyed a good dinner before heading off to bed early so that we’d be able to begin our full day tour at 8am the next morning.
We were all up and ready to go bright and early and jumped into the back of our converted pick-up truck. Within minutes of our drive through the park we were pulling over and watching our guide, nicknamed the birdman, set up a spotting scope. Throughout the day we would be constantly amazed at how he could spot these animals in the dense jungle foliage… often while driving. At our first stop we put our eyes to the scope and were lucky enough to catch sight of a hornbill and a giant squirrel in the same tree. The hornbill was a largish black and white bird with a long orange-yellow beak and a strange protusion coming out of its forehead. The birdman put our digital camera to the eyepiece of the spotting scope and managed to snap a not-too-blurry photo that we’ll hopefully be able to post sometime soon. The giant squirrel was about a meter in length and had a massively long bushy tail. (A Google Image Search should help you to get a visual on some of these animals if you feel like looking.)
Soon after our first sighting we pulled into a pull-out and were able to get quite close to a small family of gibbons. These guys were incredibly cute and looked exactly like the stuffed versions with velcro hands that you see hanging in gift shops and toy stores everywhere. I could have spent the rest of the day watching them swing through the trees and make their massive launches from branch to branch, often snagging a weak branch along the way solely to slow them down before latching onto another. Gibbons also have an alarmingly high-pitched wail that can be heard for up to 2km. It was easy to imagine how scary the sound would have been if you were lost in the jungle with no guide to explain away some of the noises. (We managed to catch some video–with sound–of the gibbons but you’ll have to wait until I get home in march to see and hear it.)
Although there was a fair bit of standing, waiting, trying to be quiet, and then still seeing nothing, we still managed to spot one hornbill, several other species of bird, a handful of giant squirrels, several sambar deer, one small python and one fairly large python, a massive water monitor lizard, a porcupine, some sort of small raccoon/cat looking animal, a flying gecko, a couple of white-handed gibbon families, and a few cool insects like a butterfly perfectly disguised as an old brown leaf.
Anyone who has seen The Beach, will remember the waterfall that makes a few appearances in the movie. This waterfall is located in Khao Yai and one of the highlights of our jungle safari was a chance to swim in the pool beneath it. The downside was that since we were in the dry season, the falls were down to a mere trickle and the water level was down by a good 8 meters. No chance that we were going to be able to make the leap from the top of the falls, but a good reason to come back in the we season when the chances of seeing some of the parks more reclusive wildlife are a little better. The park is actually home to some 200 elephants (we later found out that there was an elephant sighting at 5:30am the morning after our tour), two species of asian bear, leopards, tigers, cobras, and a host of other exotic animals.
That night the six of us from our tour (two Canucks, two Aussies, and a Dutch couple) went through a sizeable portion of the restaurant’s Chang Beer stock and stayed up until 1am discussing our travels and general outlooks on anything we could think of. With drooping eyelids we eventually dropped off to sleep, exhausted from a very entertaining day.
If anyone is looking to visit one of Thailand’s national parks then A and I both highly recommend Khao Yai. According to the latest edition of Lonely Planet’s Thailand guide (10th Edition, Aug 2003), the park is Thailand’s oldest national park and is “considered by many to be one of the world’s best national parks.”
If you plan on visiting the park then we also highly recommend Green Leaf Guest House and Tours. The guides are very knowledgeable and entertaining, and all the staff will bend over backwards to make your stay an enjoyable one. Several times we crossed paths with other groups and their guides seemed to be rushing through portions of the tour and not always explaining things to their guests like our guides did. We also seemed to be the only group equiped with a powerful Nikon spotting scope and excellent pair of binoculars. If you have a digital camera then be sure to bring it because there were several opportunities for the guides to put the camera to the eyepiece of the spotting scope and take still or video of the wildlife.
We are currently in Ayuthaya city, about an hour north of Bangkok and are going to check out some of the many temples that are to be found on every other block. Next stop is back to Bangkok where we should be able to find a way to upload some photos. Appologies for not getting any up sooner but I forgot the USB cable and some places charge exhorbitant fees for using their card reader to upload photos.