Saturday, January 30, 2010

12,277 Miles Traveled

Jan 28/29, 2010
Thai National Park, en route to the jungle
28th: Clear, 90°F, Very humid 29th: Overcast, 90°F, Extremely humid
If I thought that our trip to Koh Tao was hard, our trip from Koh Tao to the national forest yesterday was even more trying. Several members of our group got food poisoning, and we had a four hour train ride (from 11-3 in the morning) flanked by 6 hour waits on each end. We got on a bus, and that’s when it really got fun. We drove in a huge party bus, complete with disco lights and a beer-drinking assistant, from the train station to Kaeo Cave. When we left the area near the train station, there was a distinct transition from the oppressive pollution of developed areas and the “green smell” that happily filtered in through the open windows.
As we were going through rural Thailand, I was curious about these huge ponds that were everywhere, and had turbines churning the water. Denny mentioned that they were shrimp farms, and this is where a good portion of the shrimp eaten in the United States is produced. It is apparently much less expensive to do it here. The waterways between the ponds were a milky green color, similar to the color of the freshwater rive in the Alaskan wetlands. I imagine that, like in Alaska, the color of the water here is also caused by erosion.
Despite many of the small villages containing mostly informal housing, every single town we have been to in Thailand has an elaborate temple. It’s one of those strange Thai dichotomies: while the people can live in shacks that barely stay up, the golden temple is an absolute priority. Also, even though we’re really in the middle of nowhere, there was a gated community with English advertisements and cute little condos. They seemed so incredibly out of place.
On this bus ride, we were all about to fall over with tiredness. Every time I laid down, I had this unpleasant falling feeling and subsequently had a very difficult time napping anyplace. In the train station in Chumphon, there were absolutely gigantic rats running around, and that also prevented me from falling asleep up against my bag. It had been two days since I had slept for more than two hours, so you have to imagine just how threatening these rats were. Anyways, we were dropped off near one of these shrimp ponds at the Kaeo Cave “visitor center,” and led up a gargantuan and rocky hill.
We slowly descended into a cavern using a rusty, not OSHA-approved ladder. One of the first things I saw was this amazing spider, with long, skinny legs, and fat hairy body. The eyes of the insects in the caves glittered when you shone a light on them, and perhaps as an adaptation to the constant darkness, the insects had antennae that were several times several times their body length. It was interesting that in parks of the cave that got small amount of light and a little water, there were always plants. Not gorgeous lush ones, but rugged, barely green, fibrous plants that seemed to fight for every ATP molecule they made.
The other thing that was really cool is that many of the rock formations sparkle with calcium carbonate. The caves are made from limestone, and on every hill around here are porous limestone rocks that look almost volcanic from the water leeching through. As the water dripped into the caves, there were remarkable stalagmites and stalactites attached to almost every surface. And when we got into the main cavern, there were bats attached to the cave ceiling, and flying around. They make these insect-like noises, and were pretty small, about 6 inches long. Kaeo Cave was very hot and very very humid, and with the steep inclines, we were all dripping with sweat by the end.
But never fear, rest did not come soon! We had lots of adventures ahead of us still. We walked down the same rocky slope back to our party bus and drove a few minutes to the edge of the ocean. From there, we waded into thigh-deep water with our huge bags, and hoisted ourselves and our luggage into long, colorful boats like the ones in Bangkok. After a short boat ride, we arrived ecstatically at the national park. There is perhaps a mile of golden, shell-covered beaches, lined with pine trees, and aquamarine water. We were the only westerners there.

Denny negotiated for a few tents, and we went to have brunch at the restaurant in the center of the campsites while our tents were set up. Our waitress asked us to move to the corner of the restaurant as soon as we sat down, and we assumed that being such a big group, they wanted us in a consolidated place. As we began eating, they were setting up the rest of the tables, perhaps for lunch. Suddenly, without warning, a hundred Thai school children filtered into the restaurant, gobbled up some food, and left almost as quickly. We were clearly not the big group.
We finished eating and our tents had been set up, so we dragged our bags over. On my way to pick up my bag from the central area, I happened to make a friend. One of the small children of another visitor ran up to me and started a game of tag. After running around for a bit, he indicated to me that he wanted to carry my bag for me. As he held onto the handle, I pushed the bag through the sand, but then I had a better idea. I propped him up on top of my bag and pulled him around. Clearly delighted, he laughed and I held up my hand for a high five. Rejected. Despite not receiving my high five, It was really fun to play with this little kid. Sometimes, I feel like being in college means that I don’t really encounter kids at all, and it’s a nice (I know this is cliché) to relax and take it easy for a bit.
After returning the kid to his mom, I finally had reached the point where I could have fallen asleep anywhere I could sit still. But instead of napping, we all ran out into the water. It just looked too inviting. Following such a sweaty day, the tropical water was almost too warm. Denny had told us to take our snorkels out because the sea life was amazing, but the strong current had swirled up way too much sand and visibility was only about an inch in front of your face. Nonetheless, we all had a great time diving under and grabbing up shells and hermit crabs. It seemed handful of sand contained a perfect shell, or little creature to look at. One of my favorites was an anemone about half an inch long attached to a fossilized oyster shell.
The oyster shells were my favorite – the area had been a rocky limestone shore about ten thousand years ago, and the delicate flattened oysters, like thin bits of glass, washed up occasionally through the sandy layers. It’s hard out there for an anemone, so I suppose he attached himself to anything he could find. The sandy beach didn’t provide much to adhere to.
After swimming, I took a solitary walk (something that almost never happens on this trip) down the beach to see what else there was. The shells were absolutely amazing – there were the long twisty ones, ruffled clams, limpets, and the occasional gigantic unidentifiable twist from the center of a monster shell. Except for our tracks, there were no other footprints on the beach. There were, however, millions of tiny crab footprints and tiny crab holes. The beach was crawling with tiny little sand crabs! Further along, it got a bit rockier, and the crabs got significantly larger, probably about 6-8 inches across, with blue and red spines.
Even though this was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life, the whole beach was covered with trash. Farther down, barely hidden among the pine trees was a huge trash pile. I tried to pick up the pieces I saw, but there were many armfuls of garbage washed up on shore. I finished my walk, dragged my sleeping bag out, and fell asleep under the shade of the pine trees for about 3 hours.
Dinner was at 5:30, and after dinner we had a biomes class. Denny talked about tides and the formation of beaches. He talked at some length about the effect of the moon and the sun on the tides, and how the tides during the full moon, when the moon and the sun are parallel, are the most extreme. When class was over, we went for another walk on the beach, and I swear that Denny had planned it all out: the moon was gigantic and looming over us, and the tide had receded several hundred feet from earlier that day. All of the tidal zones were uncovered, and we walked out to where we had previously been swimming.
The zones on this beach were not nearly as significant as a place like Alaska or Hawaii, where there are rocks and coral. Instead, it was mostly sandy. The only real difference was that at the edge of the receded water, there were several worm-like creatures that were stuck in the sand. They were about an inch in diameter, about 6 inches long, and white with visible perforations inside their bodies. The worms adhered to the sand with a small tube, and on the free end, there was a small hole where the spat out sand and water. They looked to be alive still, and even at the very lowest tide still got a fresh breath of water every so often.
Matt and I walked all the way to the end of the beach, where rocks prevented you from going further. The beach had extended for about half of a mile further as a result of the low tides, and it ended up being quite a walk. I went back to the tents, pulled my sleeping bag out from our hot and confining tents, slapped on some DEET, and passed out under the stars.

This morning, I woke up before the sun was up with someone shining a flash light in my eyes. I was wearing a bathing suit cover up, and I slipped on my hiking boots, put in my contacts lenses, and grabbed a flashlight. About half of us hiked up and over the peak, and into a ten-story deep cavern on the side of the mountain. We got to the top just as the sun was rising, and as we walked through the rainforest, we heard the monkeys swinging through the trees. This cave was gigantic, and a favorite of the king’s. At the bottom was a sizeable Buddhist temple. I looked up the sheer face of the rock, and wished I had remembered my camera. Even if I had taken pictures, the scale of this would never have been captured; even the trees dwarfed us, not to mention the gigantic caves and temple.
We hiked around the circumference of the cave, then walked quietly back up and over the peak again. We saw some movement in the trees, and realized there were Dusky Langurs about ten yards off the trail. The group gathered and gawked until the monkeys moved away. I was a bit disappointed, but continued walked down the trail anyways. A few of our group went ahead, and we saw them sitting at a rest area farther down along the trail. Right next to them, twelve monkeys sat feeding just barely off the trail. I sat down and could not believe just how close they got; one curious fellow came not six feet away from us, and stared as intently at us as we stared at him.
They eventually moved along too, so we moved along to breakfast. Everyone ordered either banana or pineapple pancakes, which came with this buttery honey sauce that I wanted to drank from a straw. Next was shower time. I opted for the more luxurious option and had a private stall all to myself, along with a few tadpole and worm friends that also wanted to hang out in the bath water. I scooped up the water with the provided pink bucket from a tiled basin and poured it all over myself, knowing that I was at the point where nothing could make me any dirtier. We packed up our stuff, got back in the boats, and now are in mini-vans driving through the suburbs(?) of Bangkok on our way to the jungle. Tomorrow will be another early morning – we are supposed to get up at 4:30 to climb yet another mountain.

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