Tales from a novice trekker
Story by Bifen
City life getting on your nerves? Get back to nature!
You’ve probably heard this advice before. But if you’re a city person, you might be surprised to discover that forest can be a noisier place than the urban environment.
Fed up with the city, I decided to test out this platitude and headed for Khao Yai National Park, a wildlife preserve covering 2,168-sq kms, just 200 km northeast of Bangkok. It overlaps four provinces but visitors can access it at Pak Chong district, Nokhon Ratchasima province.
There are countless activities for visitors including biking, trekking, golfing or taking a dip by a waterfall. But my mission was simple – return to the jungle in al its natural glory!
There are quite a few well-beaten trails the Park has prepared for visitors, well sign posted with info about local flora and fauna. Great, if playing it safe is your style. But I wanted a sense of danger and excitement, and branched off the official trails. Mind you, I did bring a friend who is a Khao Yai expert – I may be a bounder of adventure, but dying is still not an option. Good rangers can be arranged at Khao Yai Headquarters.
My friend and I had agreed before entering the jungle that if he ran, I should run too – no questions asked. He said he’d explain after we survived. The possibility of meeting elephants, bears, or maybe even a tiger made me very alert – at the very least never losing sight of my friend. Encountering elephant feces, the challenge of getting away was daunting. The problem is that elephants have poor vision. When confronted with something unusual, they often charge in the hopes of trampling the object away. But you dodge a trampling by making quick turns – elephants can’t jump and they can’t zig-zag.
My researcher friend has encountered bears and elephants several times on his treks and was still in one piece, which was reassuring. He said he always pays his respects to Khao Yai’s spirit house at the entrance of the National Park, so maybe that’s his secret. He is Catholic, but apparently has flexible beliefs when it comes to his personal safety.
One fun but tough part was following the gibbons – black-faced apes that are more at home in the treetops than on the ground. Apart from a good ranger, you need two good ears, a strong neck, quick eyes and strong legs to keep up with these guys. Gibbons just don’t stay still. They might stop and eat for a few minutes and then just swing off through the treetops. That means running and a neck ache because you have to keep looking up as heavy binoculars pull you down. With dry leaves concealing jutting roots and rocks, it was a challenge not scaring them off with the noise of our pursuit – or falling onto our faces.
Most of the time, you only see their backsides, though occasionally, these unfeasibly long-limbed creatures will dangle from a branch by one or more of their four “hands”, resting, and looking about for their next piece of fruit.
If you think the jungle is a quiet place, you didn’t get up early enough. By mid-morning, you have missed out on much of the activity. Many tourists make it up by going with the animal spotting night tours on pickup trucks, shining a spotlight on the animals and freezing them in their tracks –usually deer, but little else. But if you head into the forest by 6am, you will catch the “jungle breakfast hour”, when things are at their liveliest. It is a beautiful concert of insects, birds, and gibbering primates.
The watchtower is a good option for this time of day. With a little concentration and a set of binoculars, there is lots to see – if you keep quiet. Remember that wild animals are scared of humans (and so they should be, given the way we’ve treated them). One irregular movement, and they just disappear into the brush.
My friend and I climbed the Nong Pukchee Watch Tower at about 6:20. We sat quietly for almost half an hour watching a group of deer drinking water, hoping (rather ghoulishly), that where there was prey, there would be hunters. Our patience paid off, and a big deer burst through the brush, running for his life, pursued by a pack of wild dogs. It was a life and death moment but hey, that’s the ecological system – it’s just one big restaurant out there.
As effective as pack hunters usually are, this time out there was some flaw in their plan. The wild dogs were trying to circle their victim but went too close to the pond and the deer took to the water. The dogs couldn’t follow and the deer was safe – for now. He swam across the pond, bleating an alert to his group members. It was like the National Geograpic channel without the screen, and with the best surround sound that money just can’t buy.
If you want to safely experience wildlife in its most natural form in Khao Yai, here are some helpful hints:
- Bring a basic first aid kit for minor cuts, scrapes and stings you might get traipsing through the jungle.
- Dress properly. It’s a tropical rain forest, so protect yourself from leeches and ticks with long sleeves and pants.and solid calf-length socks. You might want to bring a light jacket in case it gets a bit cool.
- Bring a good ranger if you plan to stray from the trails.
Bring a compass! If you get lost, you’ll need it – you can’t trust your natural sense of direction, because it tends to lead you in circles. Make sure you have a general idea of the direction to the nearest main road and follow your compass.
- A cellphone is useful if you get really lost or need medical attention.
- Carry a small pack, with water, a few snack bars, good binoculars and your camera.
- Get to the jungle early.
- Keep quiet or you won’t see anything. Talk when you get home.
- Don’t leave anything behind -- especially plastic bags or other stuff that doesn’t belong in the jungle.