Let me tell you about Khao Yai. As Thailand’s first national park (established in 1962) it’s humongous- it encompasses over 770 square miles. The mountainous geography is stunning and attracts tourists from abroad. It’s home to many endangered animals, like elephants, gibbons, tigers, Malaysian sun bears, and more than 300 bird species. The park’s size, geography, and biodiversity is fantastic for daytime visitors, but less appealing for two ‘farangs’ (Thai for ‘foreigners’) stumbling around in the dark. Here’s the story.
My friend Ryan and I woke up late Saturday morning, as it was a long drive from Bangkok (Ryan) and
Pathum Thani (me) the night before. Thai traffic is horrible at any time of day. This is because driving laws are not enforced and the process to get a driving license is appallingly brief and easy. However, traffic was even worse that Friday night, as Ryan and I were leaving Bangkok for the long weekend. Clearly, many Bangkokians had the same idea. Ryan has a Thai driving license and I do not, so he drove. (I tried to entertain him with Season 2 of the Serial podcast and the Hamilton soundtrack. Ryan, a natural cynic, quickly scoffed that the Hamilton soundtrack and premise is “propaganda.” Instead, we listened to Sarah Koenig’s narration of Bowe Berghdal’s abandonment of his U.S. Army base camp in Afghanistan and its consequences.)
By the time we left our hotel Saturday morning, ate some vegan food, and arrived at Khao Yai National Park, it was 1 pm. We get a map and start a hike to an observation tower. Our hiking path is well-marked and completely empty. We loved this- what a great departure from the chaos we encountered last night on our trip here! The hike to the tower would take an hour and a half. This gave us plenty of time to look for wild animals and hike back before sundown.
Ryan misreads the map and we take off. Our isolation on the hiking trail becomes a disadvantage, as we do not see a single person during our 4 hour hike. Ryan and I talk this whole time as we follow trail markers. At an indeterminable point, we improvise our own path. We do not see any trail markers and wordlessly decide that a narrow strip of ground without vegetation is the new walkway. Our distraction doesn’t help- I was constantly stopping to take mediocre pictures with my new GoPro, and Ryan and I are in deep conversation. I walk into several spider webs, as does Ryan.
I’m not sure who screams more when the light webbing attaches to our limbs. We walk right into a herd of Siamese Fireback Pheasants, which is Thailand’s national bird. They scurry off before I can take a picture, but it was a great moment! That was the best wildlife sighting from our trip. However, if we were more knowledgeable and keen on spider species, I’m sure we would have been delighted to see so many different types.
Only when we see a river on both sides do we question our route. Oops. The watchtower isn’t even close to a river, and now we’re surrounded by two! Ryan insists we turn around, but I keep walking for a few minutes. I meet a river bend. For hours, we were coming here! To a river that we can’t cross. No bridges, walkways, or shallow waters are in sight. Dang. This delayed self-awareness arrives at 3:3o pm. We have less than 3 hours before sunset. We turn back and the ambiguous “trails” we had been taking are clearly just less vegetated terrain. The route back seems harder: underbrush and rocks trip me every few minutes. Nature has a way of checking your ego, doesn’t it?
We move at a brisk pace, and I assume we’re making good time. During a break we re-evaluate our phones: mine is dead, so we can only rely on Ryan’s. We were both so tired last night that we didn’t plug in our phones to charge. Ryan’s phone doesn’t ping any cellphone towers, so we can’t use Maps. We run out of water with 2 hours left to go. Ryan offers me orange juice. No thanks. I’ve never liked orange juice.
We keep going, walking fast. I trip on a root and my kneecap hits it directly. I yelp and sit down for a few minutes. The sun sets in 1.5 hours. But my knee hurts. Ryan says, “Take as long as you need. There’s no rush.” That’s sweet, but he looks off with palpable anxiety. It’s starting to get darker. I need to get up and we need to keep going. So we do.
Stumbling in the Dark
With an hour left before sunset, the forest is really dark. The tall trees block out most of the setting sun. We stick to our invented “trail” yet stumble into a clearing, still in the forest, with a huge tree with big roots. I would have taken a picture if there was suitable light, as this tree towered over us and the forest. Its size was truly impressive. We’re bewildered- we have been retracing our steps yet this is the first time we have seen this tree. It’s unforgettable, so this is our first time here. It’s 20 minutes from sunset and we still have no idea where we are.
I suggest we go back to the path in hopes of finding the trail entrance we used, but decide against it. It’s too dark and we don’t have time. I pause- is that… people? It is! Ryan and I faintly hear cars and people talking! It’s faint but we can just follow the noise. We have nothing to lose. We’ve both walked into dozens of spider webs and tripped over vegetation countless times, so let’s invent a new path! We blindly follow the noise of people in the dark. Ryan, who is 6’4, is now in front of me. He bounds over a creek effortlessly and tells me I’ll need to jump. Gassed and not seeing well, I estimate the distance incorrectly and land in mud. My feet are mostly submerged in the creek. On another hike, on another day, I’d complain about this and be grumpy.
My shoes are dirty and I hate having wet feet. Today, I don’t care as long as I sleep in a bed tonight.
We keep on trudging through the vegetation. It’s getting darker and darker, and I can hardly see. I tell Ryan I want to jog. With the tree roots and plants, I hardly move any faster. Ryan told me later that I didn’t go fast enough for him to change pace. Thanks, 6’4 Ryan! Exhausted, I soon switch back to walking as briskly as possible. Then, miraculously, somehow, we see lights. Of a building, of cars- of civilization! We fall out of the forest, into this clearing, and start laughing hysterically. This night could have easily ended with us staying in the forest.
Leeches and Kind Thais
We walk into a food court that’s located in Khao Yai National Park. There are a dozen food vendors and hundreds of Thais milling about. We look like death, and many gawk at us. Ryan buys water. It’s ice cold. It tastes glorious. I want to savor the icy feeling as it goes down my throat, but the 1 liter bottle is gone in seconds. Then I go to the bathroom. I figure I’ll deal with my muddy shoes and soaked
feet when we get home. But when Ryan returns, he tells me to check my sneakers for leeches. Even he had some, though he glided over the muddy creek that I almost fell in. He picked off 2. Ack! Then how many do I have? I don’t tell Ryan that I have no idea what leeches look like. I’ve seen leeches on animated children’s shows, but they’re disproportionately large and eat whole people.
I grumpily head back to the bathroom, and start scratching my mud-streaked legs. Most of the marks dissolve or transfer to my hand, but one is squirming on my flesh. Oh. That must be a leech. Thai public restrooms don’t have paper towels (or toilet paper! Ha!), so I have nowhere to put this leech. I shrug and put it on the wall like the filthy farang that I am.
Many (visibly clean and not sweaty) Thai women and children are in line for the bathroom and stare at the awkward mess that I am. After detaching one more leech from my leg, I scan the outside of my shoes. There’s one striving to poke through the mesh of my sneaker. I pull it off and attach it to the tile wall. I know I’m playing the part of disrespectful tourist, but I don’t have any options: I didn’t bring a towel, there aren’t paper towels available, and I don’t want to put the leeches on my clothes…
One Thai toddler, absolutely fascinated by the squirming creatures that I stuck to the wall, points them out to her mother. Thank the lord, she’s fluent in English. “Oh, are you okay? What happened?” She asks, gesturing to my legs. I tell her I’m fine, and that I am recently “un-lost.” She asks around for a hose, and we eventually find one. I can wash off my legs properly, and check for leeches thoroughly. Thank the lord, I don’t find any more leeches. Ryan is looking for me, and we reunite to get some vegan drugstore snacks. None of the food vendors sell dairy-free or meat-free food, which is unfortunately standard in Thailand. When we finish eating, we use the plastic bags as makeshift socks. Though there may still be leeches on our shoes, they won’t get to our skin!
Dude, Where’s My Car?
We’re with people, which is good, but I still have no idea where, exactly, we are. Ryan has been here before on a school trip, and has an idea of our location. If he does know where we are situated, there should be a park center across the street. He’s right! He estimates that we’re a mile from the car. We walk around the parking lot, hoping that there are operating songthaews (modified pick-up trucks that serve as shared taxis) after sunset.
We do see one of Ryan’s middle school students and his mother. Yes, with our mud-caked legs, sweaty clothes, and plastic bag socks, we see one of Ryan’s students. We briefly converse- “What a great weekend to come to Khao Yai!” “Isn’t Khao Yai lovely?” “Have you seen any wildlife yet?”- and run out of small talk. We go back to wandering around the parking lot.
Ryan hopes that his student’s mom will offer us a ride, but doesn’t want to ask directly. There are crowds of Thais waiting for songthaews, and plenty of empty songthaews without a driver. Surely we can get onto one of those and ask to go to our rental car. Ryan’s student gets into a songthaew and we ask if we can join. Oops, they’re on a night tour of the park, hoping to see some nocturnal wildlife. It’s a paid tour. We realize that all of the songthaews are for paid night tours. We can join the tour, but we have to pay to be in this bloody park for a few more hours. Honestly, you couldn’t pay me to stay here! I’m ready to go back to the hotel. I refuse to walk the mile to our rental car: I’m exhausted and my feet hurt.
Ryan and I agree to slowly walk in the direction of the car, and try to hitchhike with some merciful Thais. Since it’s now an hour or so after sundown, most people still in the park are on a songthaew night tour. Though plenty of the songthaews pass us, there aren’t many cars. Two cars drive by. Each time, we wave and smile brightly. Please, take us! We’re nice and friendly farangs! They keep going. A white Mercedes-Benz convertible two-seater drives up and stops. No way. This is the nicest car I’ve seen all week, and the driver is willing to let us muddy, plastic-socked strangers hitchhike?
Apparently, yes. Ryan talks to the driver in Thai. He knows where our car is parked. Great! “He wants to know if we can share a seat.” No thanks. Ryan will ride first and the Mercedes-Benz driver will come back to get me. I stare at the onslaught of Thais with professional cameras whisking by in songthaews. The convertible comes back, and I get inside. This is really nice. I don’t know anything about cars, but this one appears to be new. The sound system is amazing and the car moves smoothly. It’s a great ride. We make small talk before our language barrier becomes an issue. He’s from Northern Thailand. We arrive to the parking lot, and Ryan drives for the hourlong trip back to the hotel.
I learned from this debacle and never got lost again during my next 6 months traveling through Southeast Asia. Thanks for reading.