Real life Pokemon Go competition – in Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai national park is perhaps the nearest area of proper ‘jungle’ to Bangkok, to the east, in Isaan. It’s one of the most common places to see elephants in the wild, as well as being home to many wild gibbons. Being ex-biologists, we really wanted to visit some of Thailand’s jungles. When we lived here last time, ‘jungle trekking’ was far out of our budget. Now we get paid a lot more, it’s time to go critter hunting in the national parks much more often. Well, you’ve gotta catch ’em all……
For Kris’ birthday in July we took a few days off and headed to Khao Yai. We took a bus from Morchit bus station (the Northern bus station) to Pak Chong, the nearest town to the national park gates. We were picked up at the bus stop and taken to Bobby’s Jungle Tours, for their 2 1/2 night trip. This consisted of three parts: an afternoon trip to a natural spring and a bat cave, then two full day treks, with the night spent camping in the national park. We weren’t so sure about the camping part. The last time we had been camping was to festivals – my last time was Glastonbury in 2000, although Kris had been one with his sister and nieces back in 2013. Still, we are not avid campers. Or we weren’t at the time. Camping in Thailand seemed like it would just be a sweat-fest…..
Bat Cave and maverick bats
At about 3pm we piled into a songthaew (basically a big open sided truck with two benches facing each other. Songthaew literally means ‘two benches’) with about 30 odd other people. Strangely, everyone was Dutch. Nothing wrong with that. We just thought it was a weird coincidence. They weren’t together or anything. It was a good thing actually because Dutch people generally speak excellent English, so while they chatted to each other in Dutch, they translated and got us to join in in English. It did make us feel short, though. “Dutch people, same same like coconut tree“, said the guide.
First stop was the spring. I’m sure it had been beautiful in the past, and the water may very well have been lovely. I don’t know. We didn’t get in. It was concreted round and absolutely full of people. Proper people soup. We didn’t fancy it. Instead, we wandered around nearby and watched some squirrels, and then played with some giant centipedes. There were a lot of those. Not as many as people, though.
The bat cave was much better. We pulled into a Buddhist temple, where the monks unlocked the gate at the bottom of some steps. Inside led to a deep cave, and it was full of wrinkle-lipped bats. They were flying around your heads and squeaking. It was really cool. Smelt a bit, though. Stinky things. Ugly too.
When it started to get dark, we moved outside the cave. After a short wait, a line of bats started to fly out of the cave. And it continued, and continued, and continued. Lines of bats filled the sky. The line moved this way and that. How they knew which way to go, I don’t know. They all just seemed to have an inbuilt sense of direction. Some lines went off to the north, then the line moved around and went east, then it moved south…..you get the picture. Apparently, they all go off and feed during the night, and all fly back again in the morning. We were worried about the odd one that left the line, though and went off on its own. Is it a good idea to be a maverick bat? I’m all for independence and paving your own trail, but surely you are just going to get eaten?
Day 1 Pokemon Go tally: lots and lots of Bat Pokemon
We look for elephants, Kris looks for insects.
Next morning, bright and early we got in another songthaew, this time with fewer people. The big group from the night before had been split into three, and we were with six others. Still Dutch and still really tall. Our guide, Ben, was to stay with us for the next two days, sleeping with us overnight in the national park. We drove out to the park gates, where he stopped and told us that although no one had seen any elephants for the last few days, he had heard that they were at the other side of the park. Did we want to go and see? He couldn’t promise anything. Of course, we did! So off we drove, through the stunning national park, to find some elephants.
They weren’t there. Oh well. We drove back to the national park office for a quick look at the visitors centre (which oddly, has a dinosaur inside) before beginning our trek. There are lots of leeches in Khao Yai, so we were given some sexy blue leech socks to wear inside our shoes and over the tops of our trousers. No sooner had we put them on that we saw little leeches shuffling towards our shoes, smelling our blood…….Not that they could get inside. Especially after we sprayed our shoes with (completely natural) insect repellent.
Ben was an excellent guide with an obvious passion for nature. He knew where things could often be found, and took us to see a snake that he knew had been resting in a tree for the last two days, and poked holes where he knew that scorpions and tarantulas lived. He also told us about all the edible plants that can be found, giving us bits of ginger, cinnamon and other leaves and bark to smell and taste. Many of these plants and trees are used for food, as well as types of medicine.
As Ben led us through the jungle, Kris stayed at the back. As a bugman (or entomologist as the academics might say) his eyes scanned the ground and trees for insects, pointing out longhorn beetles and colonies of leaf cutter ants to our group (who were more interested in finding gibbons).
Crocodiles and cobra
The trekking was quite strenuous, perhaps because our group was made up of ‘younger’ people. At one point, Ben stopped by the side of the road and asked if we wanted to see if we could find Khao Yai’s only crocodile. Of course! The river was at the bottom of a steep bank, that we got down by a combination of scrambling, swinging ourselves from tree to tree and sliding down on our bums.
No crocodile at the bottom, though. Ben went off to look, leaving us to admire the remote beauty of the jungle. Suddenly, one of our group looked to the right and shouted ‘COBRA!’. We all jumped out of the way, looked around, and saw Ben waving a long, snake-looking branch. And laughing hysterically. Back up the bank, we climbed.
Why I won’t walk across logs over water
There was also a lot of crossing of waterways. Most of the time this was just a case of jumping across, using rocks and logs to help you. However, at one point we came out of the jungle to see a wide stretch of river with a wide log across. You had to balance on the log and walk across to the other side. Now I have a fear of falling off things. It’s not about the height. It’s about feeling like I might fall. Completely irrational, probably, but there you are.
I walked to the start of the log, and there was no way I could walk across it. It wasn’t deep water or anything, but I did not feel safe balanced across the log. My group suggested I try and shuffle across on my backside. I tried that, got a little way along and then there was a branch sticking out of the side of the log. I could not get over it and there was no way I was standing up.
By this time, another trekking group had arrived behind us to cross the log. I had an audience. Brilliant. There was still no way I was going forward, or standing up. I had to go back. With a lot of encouragement from my group, I managed to shuffle by backside back across the log to the start. Back at the other side, there was only one thing to do. Kris and I just waded across the river in our shoes. They got wet, but you can’t fall off if you are already in the water, can you?
Animals in Khao Yai
Khao Yai is not just home to wild elephants and gibbons. There are many species of birds, reptiles and of course, to Kris’ delight, insects. According to websites, there are around 2,000 species of plant, around 300 bird species, and 74 species of herptiles (reptiles and amphibians). There are around 70 mammal species including sambar and muntjac deer (otherwise known as barking deer), gaur (a type of wild cow) clouded leopard, and various types of civet cat.
Asiatic brown bear and sun bear can be found, but we only found scratch marks on a tree.
There are apparently still tigers in Khao Yai, but human encroachment has sent them deep into the forest, so seeing them is very rare. Ben had been guiding in the park for years and never come across one.
“That’s a bit small-minded” – sharing the trail with loud tourists.
There were several groups around doing the trek with a guide. The guides showed us all kinds of things, and told us when to be quiet when we came through areas where gibbons were known to live. You can trek without a guide. There are well-worn trails. You would miss the guide’s knowledge of the area, though.
At one point, when we were all silently walked through the trees, listening for gibbons, three young blokes came up behind us. One was definitely American, and one was probably European. I didn’t hear the third one speak. The thing was, they were having a really, really loud conversation about politics.
“Well, I’m voting for Donald Trump, because I was born a Republican,” said the American guy said.
“That’s a bit small-minded,” said his trekking buddy.
Not really the time or the place for politics, the jungle. One of the girls in our group went up to them and asked them to be quiet.
“We are in the jungle and are trying to see wildlife. Be quiet and talk about politics somewhere else”
Nong Phak Chi Watchtower
Towards the end of our trek, we came out of the jungle into a wide open expanse of grassland. In the middle was the Nong Phak Chi watchtower. From the top, we could see the grasslands, a salt lick and the forest beyond. The guide set up a telescope and we watched a hornbill in a tree nearby.
Channeling Leonardo di Caprio at the famous waterfall
We also went to the Haew Sawat waterfall, made famous by the Beach. You know, it’s the one Leonardo di Caprio has to jump off to get to that stunning beach, where that group of backpackers are staying who all turn out a bit mental at the end (sorry, spoilers). It is really lovely. You can’t walk to the top or swim in it anymore (or perhaps just not in rainy season) because the currents are really strong.
At the end of the day, most of our group headed back to Pak Chong, while we went with the guide and two girls to stay the night. We hadn’t seen any elephants or gibbons, but had had a great day trekking and seen some cool stuff.
We weren’t sure about the camping, but we were soon to find that it would be the best part…..
…….find out what happened in the next blog: Watching elephants and gibbons in Khao Yai national park.
If you are inspired to visit Khao Yai, check out our blog on How to experience Khao Yai national park
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