Journal 1/23/00: Beaches and Parks in the South

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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Jan 23-24 2000

Nang and I hopped aboard a 650 Baht "VIP" bus from Bangkok to Krabi, a beach destination in the south.

I should have seen it coming, but anyway this turned out to be a really nice VIP bus to Surat Thani in the south, followed by a 2 hour wait from 5am to 7am in a lame, overpriced restaurant in Surat followed by the option of a cramped minivan or another company's stinky tour bus for the remaining 4 hours to Krabi.

Nearly every traveller to the south of Thailand has a story like this one. Somehow, bus (and even train) transportation to the south seems to be the preferred medium for dishonest Thai tour salespeople trying to rip you off. I even asked, very specifically, whether the bus stopped at all, whether it went through Surat, and whether it was sleeper the whole way, and was blatantly lied to on all three counts.

I will be reporting this to the Tourist Police and I'm absolutely certain they'll take every deliberate measure appropriate to the well-tempered resolution of the issue and place it on their action item roster according to the financial remuneration offered to them by this particular fine Thai tourism agency.

In other words, there isn't shit you can do about it.

I would recommend that all travelers stick to the government (BKS) aircon buses, even though the seats on the VIP busses do not fully recline like those of the private companies.

Jan 24-Feb 1 2000

Finally arrived at a guesthouse on Ao Nang beach in Krabi. Now begins an amazing time warp effect whereby 9 days flew by without even the slightest thought on our part. I've talked to many Thailand travellers and there is a consistent pattern that travellers who plan to go to the beach first and then go to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi, etc. etc. invariably end up spending most or all of their trip on the beach.

Perhaps this is why the bus/train salespeople can be such crooks; as soon as people get to the beach they forget about the awful trip.

We stayed at the Cowboy Inn, a small but extremely clean and nice guesthouse up the street a bit from the beach. The only downside was noise from the nearby Thai boxing event which happens every Saturday night.

Of the 4-5 tourist beaches of Krabi, Ao Nang is the only one reachable by land. Others can be reached by an endless supply of longtail boat taxis. But this has not stopped a chain of luxury hotels, guesthouses, open-wall massage huts, internet cafes, seafood restaurants, tour agencies, and rock climbing shops from popping up on every beach. I would recommend staying on one of the boat-only beaches unless you know of some place you want to visit that requires land travel. The nicest beach, Haat Tham Pra Nang, actually has only one luxury resort but everyone travels there by boat taxi anyway. The beaches are surrounded by huge steep-walled limestone formations like those in Phang Nga (see my trip report from last year). There is a nice view you can climb to from Rei Leh beach that shows the limestone formations:

Rai Leh Bay: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Rai Leh Bay
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And, looking further down at the beach:

Rai Leh Bay: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Rai Leh Bay
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Although there are a lot of companies, the level of touting and insincerity in Krabi is MUCH lower than what I had found in Phang Nga. Perhaps this was helped by the fact that I rented a moped and so never had to deal with tuk tuk / taxi touts, but people seemed a lot less annoying in Krabi.

We did our share of beach sitting and swimming. One day I signed up for a 5 island snorkeling trip but it rained, so it was more of a 5 island visiting trip. Still pretty cool but I wanted to see some coral. If you are in Krabi and the weather is not perfect I'd recommend taking a longer day trip to Ko Phi Phi Leh; I think your chances of seeing good coral are better (and you don't have to stay on the horribly betouristed islands of Ko Phi Phi).

We also hiked to a cool lagoon at the bottom of a tall, thin cylindrical crater in the middle of one of the limestone formations. The lagoon is invisible from anywhere on land and only really accessible to birds. The roughly 100 foot circular lagoon extends out nearly to the vertical cliff walls surrounding it. The trail to the lagoon climbs up steeply from the nearest beach and then drops into the hole with a series of 4 or 5 climbs down rocks (most of which had no ropes! definitely not the USA!). At the lagoon, Nang spotted some huge owls and got a whole crowd of people to wade through the lagoon's shallow brown water and knee-deep mud to get a better view of the creatures. In the meantime, I checked out a small cave off the lagoon with two Danish travellers. One of them was the first Danish person I have ever met with an unmistakable, fluent Wisconsin accent. Poor woman. These travellers also had an opinion of Ko Phi Phi common among northern Europeans—they complain that there are too many people there from their own country! Some Swedes I talked to earlier jokingly call Ko Phi Phi "Swedish island."

Nang and I took a spin on the moped to visit a nearby nature preserve where it looks as if gigantic, multi-foot-thick slabs of pavement have been eroded under and have collapsed into the sea. The slabs actually consist of millions of tiny fossil shells glued together by calcite and they are indeed eroding and collapsing away, bit by bit each millenium.

We also went on a long trip on the moped and arrived at this nice, quiet beach in a remote fishing village. I was the only farang around for miles. It was quite nice:

Fishing Village: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Fishing Village
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The pocked rock faces all over Krabi make it a rock climber's mecca. There are rock faces from super-easy to super-hard (some with overhangs over water!). Nang and I did a half-day intro rock climbing course (WITH ropes this time :) which was quite fun. I expected to see lots of fit Thai folks come and scramble up the cliffs with no ropes at all but I only saw other farang groups. Here is Nang at the end of her climb; I couldn't fit the whole thing in one frame so I blended together two photographs, one on top of the other:

Nang at the Top: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Nang at the Top
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Every night we had amazing seafood with Thai preparation (and I normally hate seafood) at obscenely low prices compared to the US. One night we travelled inland into "town" (Krabi town is on a river but not the sea) to get money and check out the night market; there seem to be a fair number of farang bars and things here but the real interesting stuff is on the beach.

One of our excuses for staying so long is that we were waiting for the 4-day tour from an eco-tourism oriented tour company in Ao Nang to become available. More details on our 4-day tour and the subsequent 3 days in Khao Sok National Park in the next installment. Nang remembers every single bird and orchid and fish so maybe I'll make her write it :)

Feb 2 2000

At 8am we boarded a minivan for a four day organized "eco-adventure" tour. The company's Krabi office was staffed by a humble but knowledgeable Thai guy named Gop (rhymes with rope). The company, Thai Nature Tours, is somehow associated with a famous Canadian naturalist named Thom Henley who basically wrote the book on nearby Khao Sok national forest. Normally I do not take organized tours, and I was especially resistant to this one since, at 9700 baht ($262) per person, it was way, way outside the normal range for any nature tour in Thailand. But it sounded pretty good from the description and Nang was hooked. We did see a lot of cool places on the trip, but our guide turned out to be another Thai guy named Choi who didn't speak anywhere near as much English. He used to be an army commando and knew an incredible amount about forest survival, but when it came to other plant and animal matters he wasn't much help. Nang ended up being our tour guide more often than him :)

I felt bait and switched, and I can say with confidence that the tour was not worth the price. For example, for that price one would expect either stunning guide information or fairly cushy accommodations, but we had Choi and we stayed at 300-400 baht/night guesthouse-type resorts with no hot water, squat toilet facilities, etc. We later discovered that Thom Henley himself sometimes guides the tours. Perhaps with him as guide, with his encyclopedic knowledge and native English, the tour may have been worth 9700 baht, so if you are in Krabi you can check. Thom Henley seems to spend most of his time at his own eco-friendly guesthouse, Dawn of Happiness, which is on a beach about 6km outside of Krabi's Ao Nang. I heard nothing but good reviews from the other tour participants who had stayed at that guesthouse.

This four-day tour was called "Reefs to Rainforests" and consisted of boat and hiking tours of a variety of national parks and preserves south of Krabi. Partially because our guide was neither very fluent nor very talkative, I never did get the precise park, bird, and orchid names for each place. Someday I may get them from Nang, but for now readers looking for any sort of precise biological details will unfortunately have to look elsewhere.

Our first destination was a natural hot springs which empties out into a series of jacuzzi-like pools and then into a cold creek. Despite the Thai heat, this was a relaxing place to take a dip, especially if you alternated between the hot and cold water. Getting there involved crossing a complex network of unmarked, bumpy dirt roads, but along the route you could see they were paving the roads. Clearly one day, this will be a major profit center for the area with tourists arriving by the busload.

After that we took another network of dirt roads to a barely developed national park. We hiked down a trail through a beautiful tropical rainforest. Dodging our way through an endless variety of spiky, Dr. Seuss like plants, plants with enormous leaves, trees with bases 10 or 15 feet across, and other wonders, we suddenly popped out here:

Blue Pool: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Blue Pool
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this turquoise pool of absolutely clear water hides in the middle of deep forest. It is surrounded by swamp-like shallow water covered in dead branches and leaves, so you might actually first discover it accidentally with your feet! A tiny pillar of bubbles rises from the very center. The bubbles contain calcium deposits which stain the dirt and branches at the bottom of the pool pure white.

Moving on, we encountered some flying lizards, which have a wide flap of skin from neck to tail which they can deploy to gracefully glide through the air in order to escape prey.

Finally we arrived at what appeared to be large, paved field with the occasional plant outcrop. It turns out that the thin layer of rock we walked on was deposited by the same calcium-rich waters that stained the previous bubbling pool. On this site we saw some rare finger-shaped orchids which attract insects with sweet smells, trap them (due to the shape of the flower), and then slowly digest them! We followed a small stream that flowed over these rocks until it terminated here, the "emerald pool":

Emerald Pool: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Emerald Pool
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At the point where the stream filled the pool, you could sit and get a most excellent back massage. This pool was big enough to swim and wade:

Nang and I in Emerald Pool: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Nang and I in Emerald Pool
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That evening we drove to the Thai resort town of Pak Meng, watched the sun set, and had a fine meal thanks to Nang's expert ability to order Thai food to please any crowd. The tour consisted of us, 2 adventurous and seemingly always happy Swiss Germans (German Swiss?), our guide, and our driver. The latter two disappeared the first night after dinner and the next night there were endless jokes about whether the driver would return to a certain bar to meet up with a certain lady :)

Feb 3 2000

Today was the "Reefs" part of the trip. We boarded a longtail boat at a private pier behind the resort and set out into the choppy Andaman Sea for a group of beautiful islands.

We pulled up to a steep cliff on the western side of Ko Muk, where we jumped into the water with life vests and swam into a pitch black cave. The tide was high enough that the cave ceiling was only a few feet above the water level, and combined with the total darkness it was a bit scary. Fortunately, a sliver of blue light in the distance revealed the exit. We emerged in a totally isolated, emerald-blue lagoon sunken inside the towering rock of the island. Isolated by the cave, the salt water lagoon was almost perfectly still and you could see all the tiny crab holes on the bottom as clearly as if the water were not there. On the small but pristine beach, the super-fine sand crunched under our feet just like snow (but how would the Thais know that?). This place, known as Tham Moragot (emerald cave), features prominently on Tourist posters for the area but seems to have escaped major littering and development so far.

Back on the boat, we headed out for some snorkeling and swimming at Ko Kradan and Ko Cheuak. While no match for the sheer number of species and clear water of the Similan Islands (see previous trip report), there were some pretty cool things to see a few feet under the water. I felt some light stings, presumably from dead jellyfish parts since there were no visible jellyfish. This was a minor pain for me but scared the heck out of Nang who had not experienced jellyfish before. Especially at the last snorkeling location, where you stepped into the water from a beach and had to float over spiky urchins in what looked like 2 feet of water in order to get to the deeper part where the really cool stuff was. Eventually she gathered the courage to make the trip and see more cool fish and corals.

We spent most time at one very nice beach on Ko Kradan. There seemed to be some hotel, or at least residential, development on this island but we were pretty far from it. In a stereotypical tropical scene, the Swiss Germans and some others who had joined us pretty much hung out on the beach in hammocks. Nang, the guide and I swam out over the urchins with mask and snorkel to check out the cool fish and coral. After describing this island's nature preserve status to us, our guide proceeded to forcibly dislodge two oysters (look like fist-size rocks) from the sea floor, which we ate at the restaurant that night.

Often, when we circled these islands in our boat, we would see tiny, lonely huts built on top of small rocks just offshore of the islands. With no person or human-manufactured thing in sight, and built next to one of the island's uninhabitable sheer rock cliffs, these huts seemed like some kind of solitary confinement torture. It turns out that they are sentry posts where armed farmers keep out pirates who want to come and harvest the valuable nests that swallows build in the cliffs. The farmers sell these nests at a high price in foreign markets where they are a delicacy.

We had another nice dinner and sunset in Pak Meng.

Feb 4 2000

We began this day with a drive to a beach and park headquarters for Haad Chao Mai National Park. This huge national park covers the islands visited the day before as well as large swaths of mainland coast and mountains. The coastal areas are home to the rare, endangered Dugong, or Sea Cow, although we didn't see any on our visit. The coastal areas are also riddled with mangrove forests.

We saw a large quantity of bold monkeys (long-tailed macaques) on the beach who toyed with us and who yelled at the various species of large bird (one was a kingfisher) who also inhabited the beach. We boarded a boat and took a spin through some mangrove forests on the edge of Ko Libong. We stopped at several places around the island to take a walk on land where we could look at the roots and formation of mangrove forests up close. At every location there was an endless supply of rare birds and plants to keep Nang busy. We stopped at an outdoor visitor center on Ko Libong. Nang immediately pulled out the binoculars and spotted at least 2 birds a minute! I considered myself lucky if I could actually pick out one of the birds she had spotted every 5 minutes.

This was definitely one part of the trip where a good local guide would have made all the difference. There was so much locally interesting plant and animal stuff to see, but our guide didn't have the needed combination of knowledge and English to communicate it to us. For someone like myself, an unwashed peasant of the kingdom of Biology, I didn't really know what was unique and just enjoyed the scenes for their superficial beauty. The experience was better for experts like Nang but she could only apply what she knew from books, research, and her experience in the inland north of Thailand.

We had an expensive seafood meal at a dockside restaurant (gotta make use of that 9,700 baht!). The owner was fluent in English. It turns out he is an Australian-educated lawyer who became so frustrated with the Thai legal system that he dropped out to run his folks' restaurant, and is looking to start a "more meaningful" career such as computer programming (boy wait till he tries that...). Kind of a surprising find.

Finally we drove to another beach in the same national park, where we checked out some cool shells and where Nang put her new rock climbing skills to the test, without a rope this time:

Look Ma, No Ropes: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Look Ma, No Ropes
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On the way out we saw a watermelon-sized brownish ball high up in a dry tree. It looked like a tree tumor or maybe a bird nest, but turns out it was a red ant nest. Pretty cool.

Back on land, we took a long drive towards the town of Phattalung and, still in Trang Province, stopped at a park where you could hike up to a very cool waterfall:

Waterfall in Trang: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Waterfall in Trang
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The brown rock on the lower section of the waterfall was slippery but I managed to shimmy past that and climb up dry rock several levels higher than shown in the picture for some very nice views. The waterfall was a very welcome break from the Thai heat. On the way down from the waterfall, Nang decided she wanted to follow the river rather than the nice paved trail. She literally ran down the rocks, taking crazy jumps and steps with her short legs, leaving myself and our army commando guide Choi in the dust!

That evening we stayed in a hotel in Phattalung and ate big at a sukiyaki place.

Feb 5 2000

We got up super-early and drove to a very cool wildlife sanctuary called Thale Noi. This enormous lake is covered in many places with water lilies or grasses. First we saw lots of cool birds and plants by simply walking around the docks, which extend quite far into the lake. Then we rented out a thin longtail motorboat with a tiny engines and checked out the tens or hundreds of different birds who live out on the water. Again Nang and most of the other expert tour members were in heaven locating and analyzing species. Whenever we spotted something, we would kill the engine and try to float closer to get a good long look. With her bible, the Bird Book of Thailand, Nang carefully analyzed and identified each species. Most birds could walk on the water lilies and so could treat the lake like dry land.

At one point we stopped at an observation hut in the middle of a marsh. A group of high-school aged Thai kids played on the pier; eventually everyone managed to push everyone else in the water for a good cool swim. A pair of extremely large, rare, eagle-like Brahminy Kites watched this whole silly display from their nest high in a nearby tree, and Nang and others watched the eagles intently. Later we motored towards the tree to try and get a good look at the eggs they were protecting.

Back on shore, we had breakfast at a roadside place and went shopping. The local famous handicraft was a woven grass named "yaa lipow;" they made very nice purses and jewelry boxes out of this smooth and strong material, with intricate woven patterns. We bought some for the folks at home.

The wildlife sanctuary had some government-run huts where you could stay, as well as a beautifully crafted wood house on the water that was reserved for the royal family.

Our next stop was Tham Thalay, an enormous cave off route 4 between Phattalung and Trang that is, miraculously, not in the Lonely Planet. I had now visited perhaps 20 caves in Thailand and Lao but this one definitely took the prize for its size, interesting formations, and guide quality. At the opening of the cave they were building some horrific buildings and were clearly gearing up for large-scale tourism, but for now the actual cave was unspoiled (no product names or mini-diaramas of local towns :). About half of our travels through the cave were by rowboat, through seemingly endless, low-ceiling channels. Occasionally we would step out and climb through narrow tunnels to large open areas with beautiful formations. Our guide was only about 14 years old, but he went far beyond the usual "and this one looks like the Buddha" style of cave guiding, explaining some of the geological processes that formed the caves and providing some vital statistics. He mostly spoke in Thai with Nang translating for us, but in some cases he even spoke to us in English. You could see he was genuinely interested in protecting this cave and teaching people about it. Nang tipped him well and took down his name so that she could recommend others to his tours.

After the cave but before we reached Trang, Choi took our group to an animal breeding center but forgot that it had been closed for the season since January. Oops. I took that as a hint that perhaps Thom Henley (or at least Gop) regularly gives these tours instead of Choi. So if you're in Krabi you may have a good chance of getting a tour from the expert.

During our drive through this part of Thailand, we observed beautiful, lush forests on either side of the road. For Nang it was definitely a big contrast to the dry northeast of Thailand.

We pulled back into Krabi town that evening. Nang and I had decided to check out Khao Sok National Park (where I had done a short day hike on the last trip to Thailand, see the last trip journal), so we arranged for transportation with Choi. But this time I was definitely going to check out the local options before signing up for another package!

Feb 6 2000

Up at 8am for a van trip to Khao Sok National Park. We got a ride from the same Krabi company with which we had done the 4-day tour, since they also do package tours to Khao Sok. First the van drove to the dam at the south entrance of the park and dropped off the package tour folks at a dock. Then they dropped us off near the park headquarters, where we visited a few guesthouses and set up a superior tour for 4-8 times less money!

In classic Thai fashion, Khao Sok National Park is located next to a hydroelectric dam which has created an enormous artificial lake that now (conveniently) forms one border of the National Park. The filling of this dam started in the early 80s, and has turned a lush region of hills and valleys into a lush region of small islands cramped with wildlife who were unable to flee the rising tides. Apparently there was some kind of "conservation campaign" in the 80s to "save" the trapped species, but it wasn't altogether effective. The islands boast a huge variety of monkey, elephant, bird, and other species. By starting your trip to Khao Sok by boat, you can motor into the very center of the park and then take day trips from the rustic raft house guesthouses which the government runs. You can see things that would normally take days of hard-core jungle trekking.

We wandered around and chose a nice guesthouse, the Khao Sok Rainforest Resort. They have well-designed wood huts on a river and up in the trees to choose from. In their tour literature, this guesthouse also claims some connection with Thom Henley: seems to be a common marketing ploy, like a computer company saying that they are "partnering" with Microsoft or Cisco.

After a decent meal of farang-adjusted Thai food we walked to the Khao Sok visitor center, which provides good information about the park and its ecology. In particular we read about the Rafflesia (Thai is bua puut), the largest flower in the world. This flower completely baffles botanists. It spends most of its life as a microscopic thread inside the root of another plant, the Liana vine, and once a year for a few days it pops out and forms the biggest flower in the world. It looks like something out of Dr. Seuss, has both male and female parts, has no chlorophyll at all, and, literally, stinks (to attract flies and other pollinating insects). And this species of Rafflesia only appears in and around Khao Sok National Park (there is apparently one bigger Rafflesia species in Malaysia). Due to its rarity and short bloom, you are very lucky if you can spot one during a visit to Khao Sok.

We seemed to be lucky. Our guesthouse manager told us the flower was indeed in bloom and so we added a trip to see the flower to our tour schedule.

While Nang took a nap, I heard the guesthouse had a motorbike that I could use and I wanted to look around. I was surprised to find that the rent was free, until I saw the vehicle. I think the #1 thing it had going for it was that you could use any key, or pretty much any long, thin object, to start it up. I took a rickety ride down the highway to a nearby wat and back. The bike did eventually die on me, but luckily I was only about a quarter mile away at the time. And a very nice Thai gentleman, who turned out to be the most experienced and well-known guide in Khao Sok (but he was not available the next day, shucks), recognized the bike and instantly understood my situation, giving me a lift back to the Khao Sok Rainforest Resort.

Feb 7 2000

Up at 8am, we drove to the "trailhead," really just our guide's house's back yard, where we crossed a field of rubber trees and entered Khao Sok National Park on our quest for Rafflesia. It seems that this man and a handful of others make their living by searching for Rafflesia in the forest and offering their guide services to all the local guesthouses.

The "trail" was not really a trail at all. We were mostly trudging our way through thick rainforest of a type I had never seen before. It was fascinating. The variety of nasty, thorny plants amazed me (and in some cases scratched me), as well as the tripping and blocking potential of uncut forest vines. It gave me a real appreciation for people who live in a forest. And it made me jealous of people like Nang who are shorter and smaller than me :)

One member of our tour group, a Thai woman, had spent her childhood in hiding in the forests of southern Thailand (her parents were either fugitives or being persecuted, I never did catch for what). She then moved to live her life in Phuket, the big city of the south. So for her, the forest was exactly the opposite: all too familiar, and it brought back some bad memories.

At one point we met up with, and were passed by, this really old Thai guy whom everyone seemed to respect. He wandered through the forest with some baggy long pants and ... bare feet!

As the places we hiked were visibly less and less trodden-upon, you could tell we were leaving "the trail that leads to where the Rafflesia generally are" and entering "the trail that leads to where they are blooming this week." We climbed up and mostly slid down a steep hill about 300 feet high to arrive at a site of some former blooms. 5 or 6 dried up flowers had curled back into a ball and looked like pitch-black heads of iceberg lettuce. They followed the path of a Liana root along the ground. Clearly we were in Rafflesia country! We climbed and ducked and stooped a little more and arrived at our holy grail:

Rafflesia (Bua Puut): If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Rafflesia (Bua Puut)
Click here if image does not load automatically.

Nang is laying on the ground to demonstrate the Rafflesia's size, and her puckering demonstrates the Rafflesia's stinkiness! Being all alone in the forest, this Rafflesia unfortunately won't have much of a chance at being a parent. But from this view you can see the flower's huge petals and bizarre male parts.

As if the shape and size is not weird enough, underneath the top rim of the flower was a groovy pattern of polka dots (apologies for the fuzzy shot):

Rafflesia Polka Dots: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Rafflesia Polka Dots
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After our experience we hiked far enough from the flower to have lunch in fresh air!

Our tour group consisted of two couples travelling on absolutely beautiful Harley Davidson cruisers, one shiny black and one bright red. Apparently they rented the bikes in Phuket and had been travelling all around the south on them, impressing folks in every town where they pulled in. On the black bike was a German man and his wife. They both had nasty scabs all down the same side of their bodies—apparently he was travelling too fast during one of southern Thailand's daily rainstorms, and took a dive. Needless to say, they were (now) very careful when riding their bike.

On the red bike was a German guy and the Thai woman from Phuket. I eventually discovered that she was a prostitute. He had met this woman at a tourist night club in Phuket and struck a deal. Now here is where things get interesting. To him and her, there was nothing even slightly odd about this arrangement. He explained it to us very matter-of-factly, without the slightest hint of guilt, defiance, pride, bragging, or accusation. It became clear to me that to him, this was just another part of the tourism industry that he was purchasing, like his bike or his guesthouse room, and there was nothing wrong with it. I had seen prostitution and its effects all over Thailand, but this is the first time I had knowingly met actual participants, and I was quite surprised by their attitude.

He said that he told her on the first night "look, I won't even try to BS and say I love you or that I will take you back to Germany. I just want sex and companionship for a month or two while I am here," and proceeded to describe the price (paid in baht per day plus occasional "gifts" like gold jewelry) they negotiated. And she was just as matter-of-fact about it. She made no attempt to hide their arrangement, and sometimes made subtle jokes about whether he was "worth the price" or how he "performed." She sometimes pouted and bid for attention like an "ordinary" girlfriend would, and he had to show some respect and do things he didn't want to in order to get her attention. I did not get the sense that either of them was play-acting in order to get the money or the service, like you might see in some Hollywood western where the lady-for-hire butters up her ugly, gullible customer by saying how "handsome" and "dashing" he is. I got the distinct impression that this woman spoke every complaint about him that came to her mind right away! He said that before they left Phuket, she even took him to see her mother for a casual visit, and I gather this is not the first guy she has brought home under these circumstances (I did not ask how she presented him but I get the feeling she was completely honest). He spoke in such a deadpan manner that he clearly was not speaking in an attempt to justify or legitimize his actions. He clearly did not feel the need to do either. Therefore I think it's unlikely that he was lying about any of it.

To my frustration, I was totally unable to penetrate her thinking to find her deep-down opinion of this arrangement. It is clear to me that she has sufficient knowledge of English and western ways that she could easily make a living in the tourism industry, but has chosen to do this instead. She definitely seemed restless most of the time: she was clearly executing on a business arrangement like him, and had no feelings for this guy. She had mixed feelings about whether this particular deal was the right use of her time, as a building contractor with a unexpectedly burdensome client might worry over whether or not he's chosen the most profitable job. After all, she preferred cities and didn't really like going to a national park (especially given her past).

As to whether she felt ashamed, I simply have no idea—she showed no signs whatsoever. The American Puritanical interpretation of this situation would say "of course she is ashamed, and she brings shame to her family to do such a base thing, so of course she cannot speak of her true feelings." It is very easy to apply those values to Thailand, but as I discovered over and over, there is simply no worldwide moral code. This discovery was ever more emphasized by seeing the German guy with much the same ideas. It is entirely possible that for all intents and purposes, given the way all her peers in Phuket react to her prostitution, there is nothing morally wrong with it. Or at least that the societal stigma associated with being a profitable prostitute is less than that associated with her other career choices and so is the "right" choice for her. She did not strike me as having a particularly weak character that could be "forced" into doing something she thought was wrong.

Observing these basic possibilities, which challenge the things I have taken for granted my whole life, is the single most interesting and important part of travelling in Thailand. It is also the hardest: it's impossible to ask someone about the moral rules they take for granted, because by definition they assume you already know and follow the same moral rules! They have never been to your home town and have no frame of reference for understanding your question. It's like an American from 1800 being transported to California in 1999 and trying to ask someone a question relating to women's rights, homosexuality, or slavery. Or it's like someone today being transported to the late Roman empire to ask their opinion on sexual propriety! It takes an amazing amount of patience just to get to the point where both parties can sort of understand each others' questions. Nang has lived in the US for many years and travelled the world, and even trying to ask for her opinion of this prostitute is fraught with difficulty.

Anyway, getting back to Khao Sok. On our way out of the park we were hiking down a steep hill. Our guides pointed out a vine, about 3/4" thick, that was strong enough to hold any of us. So we all got to play tarzan and swing through the air about 10 feet off the ground! Almost no one could resist the requisite scream. It must confuse the Thais. Well, maybe not: they've probably all seen the movie.

We got transportation to the same boat put-in we had stopped at on our ride up. We boarded a boat and motored around the artificial lake seeing scenery like this:

Boat Ride in Kao Sok: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Boat Ride in Kao Sok
Click here if image does not load automatically.

The lake was shaped like a fractal: we kept rounding sharp curves to ever-smaller coves and covelets that were smaller copies of the last place we had been. On the tall rock faces, Nang spotted many species of bird, including some red hornbills, as well as some monkeys.

After an hour or so, we stopped at the first raft house. It was full (go go Thai planning!) so we rounded some more bends to stop at another smaller one, where we tied off and carried our stuff off the boat. This complex consisted of a central kitchen/dining area that was anchored to the lake floor. Radiating out from that were two, 40-long floating walkways that gave access to a row of floating bamboo huts. The walkways and floors were made from thin woven woods and they creaked and bent everywhere I stepped. The simple, just-barely-waterproof huts had a 6'x6' square floor with some ratty blankets and a pillow for sleeping. Some models had a panoramic hinged window on the back which you held open with a stick like a bird-trap. Some models even had a back door leading to a deck where you could dive into the water. Those would probably go for $600/mo in the San Francisco Bay Area :)

Another floating walkway from the dining area led about 30 feet to the shore, where they had installed a latrine complete with generator-powered pumped water. The water under our huts was brown-green with a mysterious oily surface, and we all speculated as to where the latrine emptied out. But since we were all extremely hot and covered with dirt and sweat anyways, this didn't stop us from diving off the back of our little huts into the larger lake to take a swim and a bath. Some of us also hung out on the walkway and watched a group of monkeys high in the trees on shore check us out in much the same way.

Later that evening it was time for our "night tour." Before dusk, we set out on a boat to look for wildlife. With binoculars, we saw multiple species of hornbill and other birds, an active family of long-tail macaques, and another rare species of monkey (Langurs) whose fur color makes it look like they're all wearing zorro masks! On the way back Nang spotted a great hornbill who was feeding his/her baby in a high-up nest. On many occasions we saw the trampled trees and exposed dirt that signify elephants going for a drink, but despite waiting for minutes at a time with engine off, we never saw any of them. In a classic Thai scene, a boat full of nature-loving tourists with binoculars and bird books would sit quietly in the middle of a National Park waiting to see some endangered animal, whilst the boat driver was busy cast-fishing in the water for his dinner.

That evening we had a hearty and filling meal of carbo-heavy Thai food, where I discovered to my surprise that I can eat pretty much any amount of one particular Thai chili pepper sauce, known as "nam prik gapi" (chili sauce with shrimp paste), without overheating. I must be missing some particular taste buds. I will have to remember this for later; it might be useful :) There were good spirits on the raft house. There were maybe two other groups, and everyone ate around the same time before they turned the generators off. One group of Australians was led by a travel agent who apparently brings groups to Thailand, beginning with Khao Sok, on a regular basis. Her Thai was quite good and she apparently learned it bit by bit from talking to the folks who run the various guesthouses she visits repeatedly. A school of local kittens showed up around dinner to try and sneak up on our food, but always got grabbed and placed several feet back just before making their catch. One of the kittens had stowed away on our boat before the night tour, and was quite distressed during the whole journey, pacing back and forth on the boat's floor. This kitten was very happy to return to the raft house.

Our guide Griang showed off and impressed the women by giving out very good, free massages to the sore hikers. He said he learned massage at a young age because some relative (dad? ancestor?) was paralyzed and required treatment. Dunno, could be a line!

Feb 8 2000

Time to see some of Khao Sok's forest. We took a short boat ride to a trailhead where we set off for a 3 or 4 hour hike to a cave. More amazing plant species greeted us on the trail, including a surprising variety of bamboo species. Sometimes we would spent two or three minutes walking through areas with nothing but bamboo. Some of the taller bamboo plants were shedding these curved sheets of wood by the hundreds. The sheets look like inverted lampshades. While on the tree, they apparently grow at the top of each segment to protect the next, younger segment from being eaten by animals until it is hard enough to survive (and then the sheet falls off). In some places we were crunching through several of these discarded sheets with each step.

Finally, we reached the entrance to a cave at the bottom of a tall rock cliff. A small stream flowed into the cave. It turns out this area of the forest had been occupied by a persecuted communist group a few decades earlier. There was a small civil war going on here against the Thai government. The group maintained a hospital in the cave and our guide showed us a place on a certain rock where a heavy machine gun had been mounted.

As we prepared to enter the cave, our guides explained that much of the cave was deeply underwater, so we had the choice to scale the rocks above the water or swim/wade. We put all our cameras and other water-sensitive stuff in one heavy bag which one of our guides carried with amazing confidence and gracefulness. We saw some pretty cool formations and sparkling patterns. One room of the cave had a several-inch-thick stream of water pouring from a mystery source above. The stream was actively forming some wild shapes in the rocks below. The ceiling of nearly every room was lined with bats.

After spending about 30 minutes wading and swimming through some very narrow channels with very deep water, we popped out in the light again and had lunch by the creek. It was now only a few hours' hike back to the trailhead and the raft house.

Back at the raft house, we were honored by a visit from his Highness himself, Thom Henley. He was giving a private tour to two Americans. Conveniently enough, he had brought some copies of his book which he sold and signed for people, including Nang. Some of the raft house staff also wanted his signature, but couldn't really afford the book, so they had him sign the back of their t-shirts with a permanent marker! He was truly an idol in this part of the country, and he was thoroughly enjoying the attention. I wanted to ask him how one would go about getting a tour from him but didn't have time: he rushed off with his guests.

The Khao Sok tour over, we got a ride from our guides to a tiny town on the road between Khao Sok and Surat Thani. We had a cool Thai noodle dish, Nang purchased a load of Southern Thai presents for her family (ick - dried fish) and we waited at the tiny bus stop with the intent of getting back to Bangkok. This time, I wanted to travel how I usually do when alone: improvised schedules on sometimes 3rd-class buses, etc. I wasn't sure if Nang was quite prepared for it, since for most of her childhood she didn't travel independently, and for most of her adult career she worked at tourism companies which provide their own clients with reliable, high-priced transportation. I wasn't sure whether I would be able to communicate that the long waits, constant misinformation, and occasional forced stayovers associated with backpacker-style travel were part of the fun! But things mostly worked ok. We waited for hours for a Surat-bound bus, and then took the last government aircon bus up to Bangkok (no more ripoff private buses!). By the time we pulled into Bangkok at 4am, after a full day of hiking and another full day of transport, you could say that we were in a less than fresh state. We got a taxi to the Khao San traveller's ghetto area and were surprised (to say it nicely :) to find everything was booked. We took another taxi to the Siam Square area and got a room at the optimistically named but still reasonable Muangphol Mansion (guesthouse).

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