Monday, April 2, 2012

Train wrecks, spinning buses and leeches

The station master rang the brass bell twice and the crisp practiced tone reverberated long through the nearly empty station in the middle of the night. My southbound train was finally pulling in, delayed by an hour. The security guard approaches and signals that he’ll accompany me out to the third track in the middle of the rail yard. At this point I realize that I’m the only passenger boarding and the anticipation builds as the huge engine pulls into the station and creaks to a halt.

I was relieved to see the berth; quite weary after the middle school student’s graduation, sad goodbyes to Gam, Tuy and Pui and the three hour bus ride from Kamphaeng Phet to the Phitsanulok station. In a conversation a couple of weeks ago, Kim and The Director briefed me on the schedule for the end of school. When I heard the last week of March was for the Thai teachers to polish up the grades, I asked if I really needed to be at school. Kim looked at her mother with a questioning look. “Mai ben rai” The Director said, and with that pronouncement I began the process of looking at a map to determine where to go. I was drawn to the Andaman Coast, and from there traced the highway to Khao Sok National Park with a return route via a train station farther south. After a frenzy of reading, copying pages from the guidebook and a series of electronic train ticket bookings, I was ready to go. I fell asleep before the train started moving.

I heard the voices as I emerged from a very deep sleep. One of the train staff poked his head in my curtained berth and said, “Wake up. Time to go.” I got dressed and poked my head into the corridor, where a bewildered woman stared at me and pleaded, “Do you speak French?” It was 5am and everyone was leaving the train, so naturally I followed along. There were several tour groups of foreign tourists all dragging large plastic suitcases to a bank of huge Thai buses lined up outside the station with only feet between them. I searched a few for an empty seat, returning to the Thai woman with the flashlight to ask, “Tee Nai tee Nii (where is this)”. “Phitsanulok” she replied, and with that I giggled in realization that the train had not moved anywhere. She found me a seat next to a huge German man wearing black socks and sandals and I tucked in for the ride. Who knew what was going to happen next?
Newspaper at the Khuraburi 7-11!
Newspaper at the Khuraburi 7-11!

As we started to move our way through the city, a Thai man got on the bus and began the announcements in German. Another person translated that there was a train accident farther south and we were detoured to Nakon Sawan via bus, where we would pick up the marooned northbound train and continue to Bangkok. I waited until 7:30 am to call Lauren and tell her I wouldn’t be making our 8am train to Chumpon. I didn’t know then that I wouldn’t arrive until 5 am the next morning, having rebooked another sleeper berth and a bonus 6 hour layover at Hua phong station in Bangkok.
Hua phong station. Hard to see in this photo but there are wisps of mist dissipating from the arching crossbeams, which Lauren and I assumed helped cool the air from the train's engines.
Hua phong station

. Hard to see in this photo but there are wisps of mist dissipating from the arching crossbeams, which Lauren and I assumed helped cool the air from the train's engines.
When my final train had slowed at the Chumpon station and I was poised on the boarding steps, I jumped to the platform and walked in earnest to the waiting posse of motorcycle taxis and the promise of another few hours of sleep, finally starting the real journey in Southern Thailand.

The next morning, seeing Lauren was the best part of the day. Discouraged by the employment prospects in the Boulder Valley School District, Lauren had a short-term contract at a school just north of Bangkok and was returning to Colorado in a couple of weeks. We’d been trying to get together on an adventure since we bonded at orientation. Lauren joined me at the last minute when her other plans fell through and I was happy to have her calm, flexible, articulate and smart company. Finally united, we were finally on our way.

Guidebooks and maps only tell you so much, especially without topographic lines. This occurred to me as Lauren and I were swerving along a mountain road in the bus with substandard air conditioning. We’d been gabbing so much at the bus station in the morning that we’d missed the earlier departure, so I’d had a bite to eat while we were waiting. I regretted that decision as the sweat started to build and I could feel my body swirling in the eminent reality of motion sickness. The bus was headed across the jungles and mountains to the Andaman Coast, slowing frequently at small roadside villages with jerks and stops and making up the time on the up and down curves. I couldn’t look out the windows; most of them were curtained anyway. I uploaded and downloaded everything in my body for most of the four hour journey. The upset finally dissipated in the moment the speedboat escalated out of the harbor on the way to Ko Surin National Park the next morning, filled with Thai families and a few Europeans excited for a day of snorkeling in the park.
From Note longtail boat.
Note longtail boat.From 

The water is warm turquoise, like swimming in the sky of a crystal clear day. The acuity of the senses escalates: the sound of my own breathing and of the fish feeding on the corals, the sight of a sea cliff dropping away with a curtain of hundreds of iridescent blue silverfish, the anemone hosting five clownfish, the biggest parrot fish I have ever seen in my life. There are a few patches of live coral, most of it bleached, but the fish life is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. I take a moment to pay homage to the magnificent underwater formations rising from the ocean floor, with the fish hiding in more than a few crevices.

Some one else took this picture, I stole it from flickr.
Some one else took this picture, I stole it from flickr.
When we move ashore for lunch, Lauren and I get “checked in” to our beachside tent. When I was first planning my journey, I was conscious of the need to plan activities as a single traveler. I’d booked the adventure ahead with Andaman Discoveries, a community development nonprofit focused on providing an economic development framework as a tool to build capacity after the devastating tsunami of 2004. The Moken people of the region, traditionally living a nomadic subsistence lifestyle on the Indian sea coast, experienced a significant trauma through the Tsunami and decided to utilize international aid dollars to build a permanent village near the park entrance. With bamboo huts clustered in together like rows of HUD housing in any Alaska Native village, the naked children played a “run, jump and boff the syrofoam float” game as Lauren and I meandered on our way to see the school. 

A traditional Thai long tail boat comes to pick us up in the late afternoon after the final snorkel of the day. After a tidepool hike with ghost crabs galore, a shower and dinner, Lauren and I banter about the large silent creatures flying from the trees to the coast. I am incredulous that the resident bats are the size of chickens feeding in the night. The moon is lined up with a few planets in the starry night sky. There are thin sleeping mats on the floor of the tent and the pillows are little round neckrests, but it doesn’t matter.

On the return boat trip the next afternoon, a storm builds on the coast. The deck is sprayed as the waves build in the storm. The rain pours down in earnest, with the guides huddled on deck under the nylon sleeping bags from our overnight. The mothers bring their children closer; one of the park service rangers puts his wife in the seat behind the captain. We return to the mainland and prepare for the next stop.

Lauren and I decide to make our way to Khao Sok National Park early, but it involves a slight detour to the junction town of Takua Pa. Coincidentally, there’s a waiting bus but nary a seat to be found. With the true power that can only be demonstrated by being middle aged and wearing a button-down shirt and skirt, I am placed in the shotgun seat next to the Muslim driver. The view is terrific: karst mountains, dense jungle of vines, small villages where I note a toddler making his way up a bamboo ladder to the house, a few hills denuded with new rubber tree plantings and some aged rattan tree forests. Once dropped off at the highway, our lodging is secured and we start to make our way through getting oriented to the area, heading off to book an overnight at Tonetuey, a floating lodge on Cheow Lan Lake.

Archo and the butterfly relaxing at Tonetuey's dining room
Archo and the butterfly relaxing
at Tonetuey's dining room

Archo lives at Tonetuey. His lilting voice points out collapsed bunkers where allegedly communist students defended themselves (and coincidentally the forest) from the government and logging forces in the 70’s. He may have been a member of one of the families who was flooded out of the river valley when the dam created the lake in the ‘80s. The lake not only provides electricity for the region, it also has opened up the jungle for people to explore more easily. It is a destination unlike any other in the world.
A park service "office" with a construction similar to the raft houses.
A park service "office" with a
construction similar to the raft houses.

They told us we would need sturdy shoes and a flashlight for the hike through the cave, but not that we would be swimming through cold water or hustling away from a King Cobra in the middle of his hunt. The jungle is a magical place. This is where the earth takes a deep breath and sighs; releasing all the tension of pavement and pollution in other parts of the world. The region comprises one of the largest contiguous nature preserves in Thailand. There is so much action: cicidas screeching, monkeys rustling, ants marching purposefully up and over a rock, lililla vines creeping their way around every available surface, woodpeckers rapping in the distance, an unexpected waver of palm frond that is only a tiny breeze, a dried leaf hanging from a spider thread and oscillating from its own weight. After our last hike up and over a pass, we head back to the pier and a storm builds in the distance. As wind, waves and rain close in, Archo unfurls a piece of rubber from the deck near his seat on the cooler, pulling it around him with one hand as the other holds the rudder of the longtail boat steady.
Archo at the helm on Cheow Lan lake as the rain approaches.
Archo at the helm on Cheow Lan
lake as the rain approaches.

The next day, I realize how uninformed and na├»ve I am. I’d booked a 9pm train with the hopes that we could have a full day of hiking at the park’s entrance, so Lauren and I head out on a rough trail with the hopes of doing the loop around and getting cleaned up before a late afternoon bus to Suratthani. Alas, midway through the hike, the bridge across the river is closed with not one but three signs prohibiting entrance. As we look around and converse with the park staff doing some trash collecting, he looks at our feet and says, “leech”.
Where the leeches roam...
Where the leeches roam...

At that moment, I realize how silly it was to wear my adventure sandals on the hike. I have about six of them attached under the webbing and between my toes. I try to remain calm but the critters are hellbent and hungry, sometimes seeming to jump from my prying fingers to the back of my hand. I can now see them on the forest floor, poised on the tip of their lower half with their mouths outstretched and searching for a victim. “It’s from the rain yesterday”, the park ranger says kindly, flicking his lighter and making sure he annihilates them, “all the animals in the jungle suffer from the leech.” We hightail it back to the park entrance and swath feet in the alcohol gel before attempting a second trail, this one wider and drier. We’re rewarded with a group of long tailed macques, including a small baby, but are completely depleted when we make it back to our bags and wait for the final bus trip.

The journey is finally at a close as we are waiting for our train back to Bangkok at the Phunpin station on Friday evening. Thai families are in transit; the eight year old and I both notice the rat who lives under the platform. A dog picks his way across the tracks and finds a plastic bag of leftovers, daintily carrying it by the handle to forage in a safer place. There’s a long-haired, middle-aged white man carrying a laptop bag. He’s wearing knee-length Hawaiian surfing shorts and nothing else. I don’t know his circumstance (perhaps everything he owned was stolen?) but the insensitivity demonstrated by being shirtless in a public place irks me on such a deep level. Lauren and I are directed to the front of the train, where we board the third car and into our pre-made berths, sleeping and rocking our way back to the dry north country for a morning arrival in Bangkok.
Sleeping on the train.
Sleeping on the train.

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