Wednesday, June 26th. I was seven weeks into teaching and this particular day of classes was a struggle from start to finish. The middle of the week is usually like that at school. Your weekend high has worn off and the next weekend seems unreachable. It was during this mid-week low that I was told good and bad news. A few students came down with hand, foot, and mouth virus (luckily it’s just an adolescent annoyance and clears up on its own) and school was to be cancelled until Monday. TWO extra days off work!? My tired body was ready for some extra sleep and excited for the extended weekend. So many options with a four day weekend. However, myself and the other new American teachers had to report to the local hospital the next day for a physical exam for our work permits. Turns out this exam was a doctor weighing you and telling you that you are not fat and smiling at you excitedly, taking your blood pressure, and taking a vile of blood to check for syphilis (Syphilis free, folks!)
That took up most of Thursday, and I was unsure of how to extend my weekend since a group of us already had booked two nights near Khao Yai and a full tour of the national park on Saturday. I rang the guesthouse to see if I could hop on a half day tour for Friday evening and start my weekend out of Bangkok as soon as possible.
With the tour secured, I woke up early Friday as usual and hopped on an hour long city bus ride to the northern bus station, Mo Chit. 3 hours and 118 Baht later, I was in Pak Chong, a bustling little valley town just outside the bounds of Khao Yai National Park. I was promptly picked up from the bus stop by Suri, one of the friendly owners of the guest house we were staying at. I arrived at Bobby’s Apartments soon after to find that this cheap cheap guesthouse (200 baht per person for a triple room) was clean, cute, and full of friendly faces. I changed and hopped into the back of a songthaew with two of the friendliest Dutch couples ever in existence and we were off!
I was shocked by the air in Pak Chong, it was so clean you could feel the freshness and it there was no humidity to be found. It literally felt like a different country compared to Bangkok where it’s sweltering and humid all the time and you sweat even when you’re sitting still. Not to mention all the damn pollution near the city and the trash that you see everywhere; compared to that daily imagery, this was HEAVEN. Our first pit stop was a natural spring at the bottom of a mountain where tourists and locals were swimming in the clear blue water. The water was a bit chilly, but I jumped right in and could have stayed there for hours. The water is so clean that local people use a section of it that is restricted from swimmers for drinking water. Our guide was a loud and funny Thai woman who loved cracking jokes at the expense of lady boys and herself (typical Thai self-deprecating humor. I dig it.) After we dried off we were back in the songthaew on our way to the bat caves.
It was a cool and clear late afternoon, and we were surrounded by greenery everywhere we looked thanks to Thailand’s rainy season. We were led quickly into a cave opening and with some dinky flashlights we were guided through the habitat of Thailand’s wrinkly-lipped bats. They were mostly sleeping in typical nocturnal style, but were awoken if you whistle loudly or make loud kissing noises with your lips as our guide did often just to get the bats to fly around. There was a shrine inside the cave, not surprisingly. Buddha is everywhere in Thailand, even in the darkest of places. We were then ushered out to the surface again because the bats were making their daily exodus a bit early that day and we needed to catch them in flight! We ran down the road a bit to a break in the mountains where we could witness one of nature’s wonders. 4 MILLION bats leaving their caves at sunset to make their way into the national park for a night of eating and partying; bat style. I felt like I was on the production team of Planet Earth, standing below millions of these bats flying in a smoke-like fashion into the setting sun across the mountains. And this happens every, single, day.
My students coming down with a virus could not have landed on any other weekend (sorry, kids!). After about 40 minutes of this flying mammal frenzy, our evening tour ended and we headed back to the guesthouse. Picture me, in the back of a songtaew fifth wheeling it with two really amazing couples sipping on a Leo beer as we sped back across the highway for dinner. Where else in the world can you drink a beer in the back of a truck as you’re flying down a highway chatting with people from across the world? I was thrilled and I hadn’t even been inside Khao Yai yet, and I still had a 12 hour day tour ahead of me in the morning. To make the day even better, Bobby’s Apartments cooked AMAZING dinner which I enjoyed while talking more with my new Dutch companions and waiting for my friends to arrive from Bangkok.
The next morning we were greeted with another exceedingly gorgeous day. Not a cloud in sight and again NO humidity. I was quickly on the lookout for any schools nearby that I could apply for a position at. (Did I mention that the Khao Yai area hosts Thailand’s wine region? Heaven.) So, we tied on our leech socks and headed out. There are land leeches in this region and you have to wear a pair of extremely sexy socks that tie up around your knees to prevent the little blood suckers from feeding on your supply of fresh blood. The six of us girls were SO ready for a jungle day, we started the morning by having a ridiculous Little Mermaid singalong in the songthaew on our ascent up into the park. Internally, I knew that this day would probably be met with some high altitudes and me having to face my fear of heights (so lame). I was determined not to let it get the best of me and my date with the jungle.
As our songthaew wound further and further up the mountain and deeper into the park, our guide, Ben, was on the lookout (Ace Ventura style: half of his body out of the car window scanning for wildlife). It started with a spider here and there; nothing crazy. But then the branches overhead started swinging and Ben told us excitedly that macaw monkeys were coming out to greet us. It was only about 9 am and we were already seeing families of monkeys in the trees! I’ve only even seen monkeys in zoos, I was so thrilled that I could have cried. It was a good omen and set the mood for the rest of the day.
Ben drove us around various parts of the park all day; we stopped many times to spy on the not so shy monkeys that were hanging out on the road. Apparently they’ve been fed by passing cars so often that they will come right up to your car and stand on their hind legs and beg for food like a dog. It was a weird sight and sad to know that once again humans have altered the ecosystems of this planet by not thinking their actions through. We were then ready to actually venture into the thick forest, as Ben prayed to the spirits of the jungle for good luck. We faithfully followed his lead and for the next few hours we oohed and aahed at all the wonders he pointed out to us that we would have never seen otherwise. Leaves that curl up when you touch them, bugs that coil up into hard balls that look like malt balls, 400 year old fig trees that look like they were drawn out of Fern Gully, bear claw marks on tree trunks, wild pig tracks, and beautiful but scary looking spiders were just some of the memorable sightings.
Ben kept getting calls in on his radio that wild elephants were being seen on the road and we kept missing them by a few minutes, over and over again. The rest of the day included Ben stopping the truck because he spotted a scorpion along the road (seriously what an eye he had!) that was a deep teal and entertained us for a few minutes by advancing at sticks we held and allowing us to admire its poisonous beauty. We trekked through a huge plain with grass almost as tall as me, and ate lunch in a watch tower high above the ground. Ben led us to a cliffside with a view nothing less than spectacular. The sky was so clear and blue, but I had a hard time at first even getting near the edge. My acrophobia was trying to stop me, but eventually I was comfortable enough with my surroundings that I was able to get close enough to take some great photos and let the beauty around me sink in.
The day was drawing to close, and we were still eager to see elephants that we kept missing along the road. I thought we would see one or two and I would have been utterly and completely satisfied with that. Just as the sun was setting over the mountains, Ben got a call in on his radio. Multiple families of wild elephants were spotted in that same field we had crossed through around lunchtime. Ben sped up the truck and next thing I knew we were full out sprinting about 2 km up a dirt path into the field. When we came to the plateau, there was a good crowd with telephoto lenses directed to the edge of the jungle. Ben handed over his binoculars and what I saw was truly magical. Twenty two wild elephants, from various families, had congregated for a sunset graze. I felt like Roger in 101 Dalmatians when he comes running through the apartment counting the puppies being born. “20… 21… 22. TWENTY TWO!” I’m getting emotional even writing about it. It was unbelievable. Here I was in Thailand at the edge of a rainforest watching a large herd of elephants as the sun was setting over the mountains. There were so many babies! We watched them eat, play, roll around, and just,exist. After about 30 minutes of drooling over the sight in front of us, Ben told us that we had to leave so that the families could cross the fields to their watering hole.
The rest of the night was a blur of exhaustion. Still on a high from the day but physically spent, we all ended up in bed quite early for a Saturday night. Our weekend away in Khao Yai came and went better than I could have imagined it. Perfect weather, perfect tour, amazing luck seeing so many animals, and countless laughs with good friend who were strangers two months ago.