It is with immense relief that we cycle away from our second dingy bungalow, heading towards the Park's exit. First, we're going to see some waterfalls, and then, we're outta here. However, when we arrive at "Orchid campsite" where the trailhead to the falls is located, I start having second thoughts about making such a quick getaway.
Yes, part of me wants to run screaming out of the jungle, but another part of me doesn't want to wuss out so soon without giving the place a chance. Besides, the campsite looks pretty cheery People are playing guitar in front of their tents, monkeys are running around grabbing people's food, and the sun is shining. I want to have plenty of time to hike and enjoy the waterfalls, so I ignore my fears and suggest we stay.
Tyler is very surprised, but agrees to spend another night. At the campsite's office, we rent a pitch, a two-person tent and a rain fly for about $7 – probably the only reasonable purchase we've made in this park. As we erect our dark camouflage-print home, hundreds of leeches squirm and somersault their way onto it.
Leeches are responsive to light and mechanical stimuli. First, they can detect movement. So if you brush against a tree and tread heavily they will feel, rather than hear, you coming. Secondly, they can detect you by your body temperature.Endemic Guides
$*#%@! Whose idea was this again?
I can't believe Tara has suggested we camp, but I don't care about leeches and I'm more than willing to stay another day if she is. As we set up our rent-a-tent, we both have a newfound appreciation for the Big Agnes Copper Spur we sent home. Our rental is heavy, hot, not very breathable, annoying to set up, and probably not even remotely waterproof.
As well, it's a two-person deal, which feels cramped and tiny. It's a good thing we're so short, or we wouldn't have enough room to lay down! Oh well, we'll survive one night in it.
With camp made, it's time to go. Our first stop is Orchid falls, and then we'll continue on to the waterfall that was featured in the controversial (in Thailand) movie, The Beach (whose film crew bulldozed and landscaped some of the area around the falls to make it more "paradise-like") We've never seen the movie, but the site is supposed to be stunning.
As we head into the jungle, tromping through the dense vegetation, following a well-marked trail, it becomes increasingly apparent that our chances of spotting an elephant, gibbon, or any other large animal is basically nil.
At first, I'm longing for a machete, a few hundred miles of separation from us and anything civilized, and the knowhow to traverse said area without getting killed. It takes a lot of effort, but I eventually force myself to realize how silly this is, focusing instead on the obvious fact that there is a lot of great stuff to see right in front of my nose.
Tyler is busy photographing a far-off woodpecker, when we hear rustling sounds behind us. For a split second, I wonder if we're about to spot some big, jungle-y animal!
Over a big log lumber a couple of mortified-looking middle-aged tourists, followed by a Thai guide from the park. We smile and say hello, and they return our greeting with a very nervous, out of breath "hi". I thought I was out of my element in this muddy, leech-infested, crocodile-inhabited jungle, but this poor pair looks like they'd rather discorporate than tromp around any further.
Once the guide makes her way over to us, she asks us what we're taking pictures of. We point to the bird, and she tells her charges in a very official voice that there is a woodpecker up in the trees. As they fumble around for their camera, the bird flies away. We're very slow, so we let them pass as they continue down the trail. We catch up to them several times during our hike, always stopping to let them go ahead.
Towards the end of the trail, we encounter them again, coming back our way. The Thai guide is trying her cell phone to no avail, and the woman is clearly freaked out, shaking her head, repeating to herself "there's no service." "What's back there?", we ask. The man responds with an emphatic "Nothing! There's nothing but mud that way! We have to turn back! We're lost!"
Tyler goes to look for himself, and determines that it must be the way to the falls. We wave goodbye and continue onwards towards the impenetrable mud patch. The couple leave, following their guide the other way, and I feel really sorry for them. They're timid enough to hire a guide for a clearly marked trail, and the guide doesn't know where she's going! It must be terrifying. I bet they'll be talking about the harrowing experience for years to come!
We carry onwards to where the trio wouldn't dare go, cross a barely-there mud patch, and rejoin the trail. We emerge in a parking lot, walk towards the falls, and see a mob of tourists swarming the look-out point. They've arrived in a bus, and, unlike us, they are all clean and well-dressed. Most of the women are even decked out in heels!
Small, folded tripods telescope into gigantic structures, as expensive cameras are taken out of enormous cases and placed on top. Crowded rounds and rounds of unsmiling family shots ensue, as do peace-sign poses, and stumbling drunken devil-horns. One tipsy guy seems so wowed and thrilled by the fact that I'm so gross and dirty and perhaps non-Asian, that he drags me into his photo to pose with him. I wonder what he will tell his friends about me at home?
After waiting and watching in dumbfounded awe as several men meticulously spend fifteen minutes setting up tripods to take a shot that could easily be done hand-held in about 2 seconds, I grow weary of being polite. Even more people are approaching – the tiny lookout area shows no signs of clearing out. So, covered in mud, I butt into the crowd and snap a few pictures of the waterfall before we leave.
We're crestfallen. We'd read we could go swimming in or near the famous falls, but they are clearly inaccessible from here without some serious climbing. Let down, we give up and start heading home. We've given it our best shot with the time we had. Tomorrow we'll leave the park, for real this time.
Our spirits are lifted a little when a truck stops and offers us a ride, saving us several kilometers of walking!
Back at camp, as we eat an expensive supper at the only restaurant available, the coolest animal we've seen yet comes sauntering over. Check out this HUGE porcupine!
Well, Khao Yai wasn't exactly what we were expecting, but at least now we feel like we've done it justice. Time to move on towards Cambodia!