March 17th: Bangkok
St. Patrick’s Day. Full Moon.
Since we’ve arrived in Bangkok, leaving from Kathmandu, we’ve spent a large proportion of our time on airplanes, boats, and buses. Arriving from KTM, we stayed at hotel on the river with some of the other members of our Sierra Club group who were also spending a few days in Bangkok. Yesterday, the 16th, we visited the Royal Grand Palace, which, although much more ornately decorated than those temples in Nepal, the crowds and atomophere felt more like Disneyland than a holy religious site. There were so many people everywhere that you could barely move or get any photos taken, people shoving and talking loudly. it was such a bit of culture shock to be in such an urban environment, and particularly one where at least some of those present were trying to pray.
The grand palace was quite extensive and there were several very interesting things to see, but the crowd and commotion really turned me off.
Afterward, our tour guides loaded us up into a van, and took us to a gem factory. Yeah, no kidding. “Now that you’ve been to the Grand Royal Temple where many come to worship the great teachings of the Lord Buddha, we will take you to the gem factory, where you can purchase big, expensive rocks.” Jay and i did NOT want to go to this jewelry store, and when we arrived they herded us into a room where we watched a film a bout mining and “how diamonds are formed” blah blah blah, during which jay and i made several loud comments about the use of “blood diamonds” to fund civil wars in Africa and about mining’s impact on fragile ecosystems. i don’t think anyone who worked there was even in the room when the movie was on, and most of the other people in the room were people we knew since it was mostly just our Nepal group. i couldn’t help it anyway, having been herded into a jewelry factory without anyone asking if i had any desire to go there, and it’s not like i was going to BUY any jewelry. If they could be obnoxious, so could I.
Our hotel sits right on the river, and it’s nice i guess. Free ferries take you up and down the river and from hotel to hotel; it’s warm, muggy.
Right now i’m on a large, theoretically air-conditioned bus (it’s not as hot as outside, anyway) going to Pok Chong, where we hope to visit Khao Yai national park, one of the largest national parks in the world. I use such tentative word phrasing, because getting here was an adventure in itself.
Nepal was so very user-friendly and easy to navigate, with so much of the population English speaking and wanting to serve you, but here in Thailand we’ve had a hard time finding anyone who speaks any English at all, and getting to the bus station and then trying to determine what bus to get on this morning was messy. We arrived at the bus station – like any large Greyhound station in the U.S.-without knowing what humber bus to take to get to Pak Chong – only absolutely NOTHING was written in English. not one damn thing; it was all in Thai. In the airport, the signs had been written in at least partly English and none of the rows and rows of ticket windows seemed to be speaking English. I put Jay in charge of finding out what bus to take since it was his idea to not prepurchase tickets over the phone or online. So anyway, he found out what bus to get on and we went and boarded. The past 2 days in Bangkok have been pure culture shock after being in Nepal. It has all been very surprising – others agree – that a place people think of as “remote” and rural and unindustrialzied as Nepal is so westernized, and here in Bangkok, one of the world’s largest cities, we can’t get help in English when we need it. Granted, cities are always more confusing than the country, but it’s the language barrier that’s so tough to overcome. And, also, we had sherpas and porters with us there, and here we are on our own for the most part. I feel like my trip was over when we left Nepal, and now i’m just trying not to go home.
march 20th: Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
These past four days have been slow and as a dream. It was a good think i was not sleeping on the bus from Bangkok to Pak Chong and was half paying attention to the landscape as we passed, otherwise we would have missed our stop. We were under the impression the ride was about 3.5-4.0 hours from BKK, but 2.5 hours into the ride we pulled up to a curb and I saw one of the signs said “Pak Chong General Hospital”. “Hey i think we should get off,” i yell over to jay, who’s half asleep across the aisle. after some confusion about how long we’d been on, etc., he went up and asked the bus driver or someone and determined that yes, we should get off. Now, we had made no plans for getting to the park or anything, and so after the morning’s debacle trying to find out what bus to take, now we had to try to find out way to this national park. luckily, there was a woman waiting at the bus station, for tourists i guess, who when we got off the bus she asked us where we were going. “Khao Yai Garden Lodge” jay said, which we had heard was an englis hspeaking lodge near the park. “Oh yes, that is my company,” she said, showing us a brochure of the hotel.”um, ok then.” lucky us! her staff grabbed our luggage and threw it into the back of a pickup, and off we went.
We arrived at the hotel within 30 minutes, the landscape shifting slowly from shabby urban to dense jungle. A Dutch girl who was interning at the hotel (studying hotel management) greeted us, speaking perfect English and answering all of our questions. She walked us through the property, which was quite nice, and showed us a room in a building at in the far back corner. The room had a fan and a shower and a western-style (farang) toilet, so we figured that was fabulous for 400 Baht ($9.30) per night. The hotel offered daily hikes into the park and tours and semi-reasonable rates – 1300 baht ($30) per person for a private guide into the jungle for a whole day.
We signed up for the “special trek” for a whole day, after being warned about recent elephant attacks and being told our guide was tired of trekking this week.
We unpacked and changed clothes and headed back over to the restaurant for dinner. The menu was in Thai, German, and English, as the hotel founder was an old German man with a Thai wife. Although some of the front desk workers spoke some english, the wait staff did not and we had a somewhat difficult time ordering vegetarian food, as both German and THai food are heavy into meat and fish. We read some magazines and newspapers, and then retired to our room around 10:00 p.m.
Shortly thereafter, whoever was in the room next to us – it sounded like a group of women of some sort – returned from wherever they had been out,and began laughing and talking very loudly. The walls were thin. They did not go to sleep and stop making noise for several hours. As noted, we had signed up for the “special” 12-15km trek into the jungle and were expecting to be awakened at 7:00 a.m. for an early breakfast and departure. Having a loud group of women next to us up all night was not what i needed.
We finally fell asleep sometime after 2:00, and after daybreak i woke to find it ws 7:30 a.m. already and no one had come to wake us. We hurried to get ready and to the main lodge by 8:00, hoping we’d have time to have breakfast. The main trekking guide who had explained to us the details the night before when we signed up had already been out on the trail for 15 days in a row (he said) and so a differenet guide was appointed. A small, think Thai man who spoke pretty good English. He waited for us to have breakfast, and a staff person brought us water and shrimp chips (yuck) to take with us. We left at around 8:40.
The ride into the park was 35 or 40 minutes, and once inside our guide stopped several times to point out things, specifically looking for the Hornbill, which is apparently very famous on this park (think Toucan Sam). He seemed attentive to detail, and that was a good sign. After stopping briefly at the visitor’s center, our guided handed us knee-high “leech socks”, which, when you think about it, is enough to make anyone’s skin crawl (especially after i had that tick when i was in new hampshire….i don’t need to go through the “detaching parasites” experience again). We willingly put them on and were on our way into the jungle. The hike started off well with out guide being very helpful and pointing out several species of plants and insects. The sound of the cicadas was so incredibly loud – very impressive and quite overwhelming, especially since i don’t think i ever
actually saw one of them.
The weather was nice and warm – humid – bust as we were on the jungle floor, we were not in the sun so it wasn’t that hot. After a few hundred yards, we came to a point in the trail where the bamboo had been trampled, and our guide stopped us immediately, motioning to be quiet. He pointed to a large indetation in the ground which didn’t quite register at first, until he whispered “elephant!”. There were approximately 200+ wild elephants in this park, and we had been sternly told that even though running into them on the trail sounds exciting, it was actually very dangerous and we had better hope we didn’t see any elephants. The jungle is dense, and you couldn’t see more than a few meters diameter around you at any time. Our guide told us to be still while he took a look around. “This is very fresh,” he said of the footprint.” They are very hard to see, even though they are big, because they stand very still in the bush.” Just then my sleeve had gotten caught on a thorn covered branch. My guide nodded at my arm: “A short time ago some trekkers came across a very large male elephant on the trail, and he charged them, and then ran through the jungle. Very bad injuries and gashes, because of the thorns.” Great, I thought, as i imagined trying to run through the brush. “This is very big elephant. I have seen him before; he has only one tusk,” The guide added.
After a few minutes of inspection, he determined the coast was clear and we continued, moving along the narrow trail, inspecting all the various types of flora and a large variety of insect life. anyone who’s easily creeped out by spiders and other insects should definitely not go trekking through this jungle, and they are literally everywhere, some very large. i find spiderweb designs beautiful things, though, and so was intrigued. A short time later, our guide was looking up into the canopy for his beloved Hornbill, when I rounded a slight bend in the trail behind him and out of the corner of my eye, caught something on the ground. My body immediately froze, even though my brain hadn’t quite registered yet what it had seen. “um…ummm…ummmm” i stuttered. the guide came run in fact, now writing this, the ony thing i can remember seeing in my mind’s eye is the pattern of the snakeskin, reflecting in the sunlight.
I don’t think i have ever literally been scared stiff before – not able to move, but there, next to the trail not 1 meter away from my feet, was an incredibly large black snake. i mean – at least 9 feet long and 5 inches thick. The corner of my eye had caught the pattern of it’s skin, even though it lay dead still and my guide had walked right past it as though it were a log. I pointed, and Jay said something like “holy shit!” and the guide came running back, causing the snape to whip around and slide into the bushes. “King Cobra”, the guide said. “that was my third time seeing one, but never so close before.”
I just about had a heart attack, i swear. One of the largest, deadliest snakes in the world had just been within striking distance of me, and it wasn’t anybody’s pet. The guide continued to poke around trying to get another look at it, but it was gone, thank God.
Still stunned, we continued on. and on. and on. and on. Several times, i am absolutely positive our guide was lost, as we back tracked several times and several times came to dead ends. the trails we were following were not well trodden, and would just disssapate into the forest. Jay and I started to both get really agitated at about 1:00 p.m., about 3 hours into the hike, when we were once again standing in the middle of the jungle with no visible trail to follow and our guide going back and forth looking aroun. We had not yet seen any of the waterfalls that were supposed to be on our journey, and the only non-insect wildlife we had seen was that damned Cobra. As we turned around and started to backtgrack again, i began to get very irritated about our whole thailand experience thus far, from the ridiculous Disney-like crowds at the Royal Palace Temple to the loud people in the lodge keeping us up all night. The only fun we had had in Thailand thus far was going to dinner with our Nepal trip friends, getting my haircut and the little bit of shopping I did just outside the hotel in Bangkok. Everything else had been a mess, and now we were in the middle of the jungle with an apparently lost guide.
I believe we were lost for around an hour or so, even though the guide kept saying he knew where he was, and finally at around 2:30 we got back onto the main trail. The guide had told us we would be at our restaurant for lunch by 2 or 3, and here it was already 2:30. After a short while we asked again how far along we were, and he said the first waterfall was coming up shortly, and the restaurant was just beyond that. Approaching the waterfall, we could hear other voices, something we had not heard in 5 or 6 hours, and it was a relief to know that we weren’t lost and going to die in the jungle.
The waterfall turned out to be very nice and refreshing, and soon after we arrrived all the other people (european tourists) who were there left and we had it to ourselves.
The rock around the falls and the riverbed was black volcanic, and after the stress of hiking wore off a bit and I cooled off in the water, it became very nice and peaceful. We stayed for about 45 minutes, and then put our clothes back up and made our way upstream to the next set of falls. There we ran into our friend Zeb from Nepal, who was staying at a different hotel near the park. We had some lunch, and we left the jungle. Our guide then took us to a grassland animal-watching tower, where we saw a magnificent sunet, but no animals.
Back at the hotel, we were having dinner when a busload of late-teen/early-twentysomething “greek” looking men and women – 15 of each – unloaded. Great, i thought. I hope they don’t put them next to us. Sure enough, the room that had formerly been occupied by the loud women was now filled with young British girls. Going back to our room, I stopped by there’s, an they were all too friendly and chatty, “where are you from” etc. etc. we chatted for a minute and then i said something like “i was just coming over to see who was here because last night there was a very loud group of people in these rooms” and one fo the British girls said “well you won’t have to worry about that with us. we have to be up very early at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow for some sort of tour.” I was relieved and looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
However, later that evening, it seemed they had decided to just stay up all night drinking instead. At around 3:00 a.m., when the arguing over sexual politics got overly loud and I just couldn’t stand it anymore, we began pounding on the wall. It didn’t seem any of them heard it at all, they were carrying on so loudly, but one of the boys yelled “i like it in the ass!”, which i supposed could have been in response to something else, but i’m pretty sure at this point they were making noise knowing full well they were keeping us up. Jay and I began yelling things like “I hate British people” and such, but i don’t think they could even hear us they were being so loud. They finally shut up around 3:30 a.m., but only to wake up again at 6:00 and continue to be loud and obnoxious – most likely still drunk – until 7:30 or so when they left. We slept for, oh, 45 minutes, and then the construction on the building next door began shortly after 8:00. At that point, we decided we had had it, got up, and started packing. I went to the front desk and asked them to help me phone the Jungle House, which is where Zeb was staying. It took them – honestly, i’m not even exaggerating – over 20 minutes to find the phone number for me while i loitered around in the lobby. They didn’t have a standard phone book; just a notebook with hundreds of numbers scrawled into it by hand. They finally found the number and rang up the hotel for me. the front desk woman must have known what i was doing, as i had to stand right there in front of her with the phone, but i didn’t ask for her help as i thought that would be rude.
the woman on the other end of the line spoke absolutely no english, and the phone was passed around to several different people on the other end. I kept repeating the words “room” “baht” “want to stay” over and over until one of the people on the other end seemed to get waht i wanted. then after discerning that yes, they did have rooms at a cost of 700 baht, i tried to ask for a taxi/ride to fetch us from our current hotel. “taxi?” “where?” “khao yai garden lodge” “now?” “no. 10:00″ “ok” click. I went back to the room and told jay that i was about 50% sure that a taxi was coming to pick us up at 10:00 and that they had rooms for 700 baht. so we packed up everything and went to check out. We paid our bill in full, and went to sit on the front steps, hoping the ride would show. While waiting, i contemplated telling the Dutch girl about our problems with the lost guide in the jungle and the obnoxious british guests, but decided against it.
Upon arrival at the Jungle House, which delightfully was the place we had seen from the road the day before with Elephants out front, it was obvious that although they spoke no English it was a much more accommodating lodge. The rooms were neat and modern, we had our own balcony, and the layout of the land was beautiful. I did feel slightly guilty, as a “good” animal rights activist would not have stayed at a place with caged and chained monkeys and elephants, obviously there for entertainment value only, but it didn’t seem that bad and i liked having all the animals around. AFter a breakfast of farm fresh eggs and toast, we took a stroll around the grounds, and discovered they had quite a farm, including peacocks, ostriches, pigs, baby boars, chickens, monkeys, and other furry creatures.
Even though the rooms inside were very clean and modern, the grounds had a wonderful farm feel and I liked that. We hung about for the rest of the day, finally enjoying some peace and quiet, laid around reading books and occasionally taking a stroll and playing with the animals. I did get a bit bored after a while and a bit fidgety, as though i should be doing SOMETHING. i’ll probably only come to Thailand once, after all, but what was there to do? The park was not exactly visitor friendly; going into the jungle without a guide was not advised. so, after a while i gave in and resigned to lolling about lazily. I saw several groups of people go by our balcony on elephantback, and so i got excited about taking an elephant ride later on.
thursday morning (the 20th) I awoke first to the BBC news informing us of a US invasion of Iraq and that the war had started, the U.S. acting without a U.N. resolution or consent. After a short while i turned off the t.v. and tried to focus on more positive things. the remaining tourist activities available to us were 1. ride the elephants at our hotel, 2. go to a nearby famous bat cave where millions of bats fly out each sunset, and 3. go on a night safari in Kaho Yai in order to hopefully catch a glimpse of some of the nocturnal wildlife (big cats!) in the park. So at 2:00 p.m., after a full morning of lounging, we went out to go on the elephant ride.
The elephant “pulled up” to something like a boat dock, we and climbed in to the two person saddle. The driver sat just in front of us, straddling the elephant’s neck, his feet behind the paciderm’s ears. The elephant lumbered forward, and i could immediately see why people had said elephant rides were not the most comfortable mode of transportation (a friend of ours who was just here had been telling us about falling off the elephants she was riding) – their gait is very rolling and we were constantly moving and shifting back and forth. AFter 10 minutes or so, on a muddy path toward the back of the hotel grounds, we came to a river and the driver steered the elephant into the water. He stopped and asked “photo?” and proceeded to hand jay his stick thing and climb down the elephant’s trunk and into the water, where he took photos for us while we grinned.
The ride lasted another 15-20 minutes, and then we returned to the hotel. We signed up for the bat watching/night safari, and then decided to check out the restaurants at one of the posh looking resorts just down the road. Someone had told us before we came that you’ll get better Thai food in California that you will in Thailand, and so far that had been true.
After dinner at the resort, which turned out to be pretty good, we headed out to see the bats fly out of the cave. The driver seemed in a big hurry, but once we left the lodge it was only about a 5 minute drive to the viewing point, which turned out to be the middle of a farm field. The actual mouth of the bat cave was at least 1 km away, if not more, but the guides said it was too thick of jungle near the cave and you coudln’t see them flying out. There was a truckload of German people from the Garden Lodge, with one of the guides who had driven us on our jungle trek. we then had to wait almost 40 minutes before the bats appeared, standing around in the field and talking to the one english speaking guide about our trek in Nepal, as he was very interested. Then at around 6:20 a thick, black swirly looking ribbon appeared in the sky, like a very concentrated and controlled plume of smoke, moving with a most magnificent fluid motion. Soon the small clouds of wrinkled-lipped bats appeared above our heads, and we ran to get a closer look. Our guides pulled up in the trucks, as i guess we were going to attempt to follow the bats, and we took off down a narrow dirt road at quite a speed. We then stopped in another field where I guess the bats usually fly directly over, but on this day they seemed to have disappeared. We could see them off in the distance, and We all kind of stood around in the field hoping they would fly nearer.
We stood around for a good 15 minutes before we piled back into the trucks, our guides apologizing and saying it must have been the wind. well, at least the initial view of them streaming out of the mouth of the cave was something cool, though brief. We then headed into the park for the night safari. we parked our truck in a lot where there were people waiting who had spotlight vehicles for rent. Outside of a clear night sky, however, the only thing we managed to see were deer and some sort of weasel thing. I kept thinking that i couldn’t believe i paid $15 to ride around in a pickup truck and spot deer, but i guess it was what we might have seen that made the experience fun. We returned to the hotel and prepared to leave the next morning.
Friday, March 21
We got up early, packed, and had breakfast. We were riding back to Bangkok with Zeb, as he already had a private shuttle booked & we could just hop in. In the walkway on the way out with our bags, jay almost walked face-first into literally the biggest spider i’ve ever seen in my life, which had spun a web across the walkway during the night. The spider was a good 4 inches long, black with bright yellow stripes. it was a BEAUTIFUL spider, and i went to get the camera to take a few photos (yet to be developed). While taking photos i had to steer quite a few heads around the spiderweb, as against the jungle background it just kind of blended it. I told the guy working at the front desk that it was there, but he didn’t seem to want to do anthing about it. i could just imagine the screams of someone walking face first into the web and then having a four inch spider stuck to their face. So that was the last bit of wildlife we saw during the jungle visit – impressive though, i must say.
Upon returning to Bangkok, Zeb’s guide booked us into a cheap(er) hotel still near the airport. Unfortunately, as with most cities, the airport is very much on the outskirts of town and there wasn’t a whole lot to do around there without taking a 30 or 40 minute shuttle to the train and then taking the train downtown. Plus, it was raining pretty hard. I can’t imagine what it’s like here during the monsoon seasons, with rain all the time; it must be hell. So we got a bunch of weird junk food (so much for all those pounds i lost while in Nepal) and laid around the hotel room. The Pattaya music festival was on t.v., and i started to really wish we had gone south to the world famous thai beaches instead of to Khao Yai, which we thought was going to be a more accessible park that we could hike and entertain ourselves in. However, also got the feeling that southern thailand might have turned out a lot like florida, with all the tourists and there were several festivals happening, so who knows. Unfortunately the other thing that was all over the t.v. was the now started war in Iraq. It was very strange being overseas and sort of disconnnected when all that went down, and we just hoped we’d get home safely.
Saturday, March 22
This morning was rough, to put it mildly. First, the bed in the hotel was, like all the beds we’ve had on this trip, hard as a ROCK and neither of us slept well. The wake up call came at 6:00 a.m., and even though we had asked for a 6:30 taxi to the airport, they called again at 6:15 saying the taxi was ready and they were waiting. We rushed to get downstairs to find a taxi van full of other people waiting. While standing in line to check in at the Thai Airways gate, i realized that I did not have the samsara drawings that I had purchased in Nepal, which had been a rolled up tube sticking out of my backpack since we left Kathmandu. I immediately realized that I had never taken them out of the hotel room. It was 6:55 and we had an 8:20 flight, but had already gone through security and checked out bags, and i really wanted my works of art; they were the only nice thing i had purchased on the entire trip. That, and the thought of such careful art being just thrown away by the hotel maids was awful. So jay took my handbags, and i set off outside to get back to the hotel, which really only was about a 1/3 mile away from the airport. If i hurried i would be back by 7:30 – plenty of time to catch the flight. I just hoped they hadn’t already cleaned the room.
So I ran. Running at 7:00 a.m. is not something i am either a) good at or b) keen on. but i felt driven – one last task to complete our adventure. i HAD to get those drawings! Through the rush hour streets of Bangkok, i plodded along as fast as i could in my Tevas and tired body. Perhaps this was what all the trekking and walking had been preparing me for? Perhaps I was delerious from lack of sleep and proper nutrition, being in a strange place, but i felt like i was on a quest or something. i ran and ran, and after rounding a corner near the 7-11 we had stopped in the night before to get snacks, I realized i wasn’t *exactly* sure how to get back to the Dun Muong Palace or whatever it was called .. .what was it called? how many blocks down this street? and then turn where? shit. i thought for a second about getting one of the motorcycle taxis that kept zooming by me, but then imagined i might not have the right name of the hotel or something and i would end up somewhere completely different. I knew it was within a few block radius; i just had to find it. I took a sidestreet hoping i would see the hotel, remembering there was an alleyway outside our balcony & then rows of houses – but somehow i ended up in a neighborhood. A garbage truck drove by and the crew of men yelled something, probably wondering who was this sweaty white girl running through the neighborhood at 7:00 a.m. looking lost and frustrated. So i turned and backtracked to the 7-11, and after rounding the corner relied I had been on the right street, i just hadn’t gone far enough. so i turned around again and ran by a group of motorcycle taxis AGAIN, and i’m sure they were amused. Finally, i saw the sign for the hotel – it was 7:15 – and ran inside. The desk clerk gave me the key to the room and as i ascended on the elevator i just prayed the drawings would still be in the room. I opened the door and after a quick scan saw the rolled up tube sticking out from underneath the bed-barely visible against the white bed coverings. for some reason, i said “thank you, Shiva” and was filled with joy and a sense of accomplishment as i picked them up. now, i just needed to get back to the airport in time to catch my flight.
i ran back through the streets the way i had come in about 10 minutes, and totally sticky and dripping with sweat, found jay waiting anxiously for me inside the airport. it was 7:30 a.m. We proceeded through the passport checks & scans, and boarded the plane on time.Filed in travel | Tagged with thailand | Comments (3)