Under the ugly flickering fluorescent lights of our dingy National Park barracks, I gingerly take a seat on the questionably clean bedsheets, and survey our home for the night. These overpriced accommodations are a complete dump, but I am relieved to be done. Though our day began well, for me, it devolved into a very long, very difficult evening.
Little do I know, it isn't over yet.
Our first reaction to the prospect of hundreds of meters of climbing into Khao Yai National Park isn't exactly favorable. This morning, the lazy voice in our heads makes an appearance, offering rationalizations like "Oh, we'll just do it another time." or, "The park isn't going anywhere, maybe we'll visit when we come back to Thailand after Laos."
It doesn't take long for us to face facts: we're enjoying our easy days of flat riding and we don't feel like doing any work. A glance at the calendar reminds us that we have plenty of time left on our 30-day Thai visas, and there's no need to head to Cambodia just yet.
So, we begrudgingly remind ourselves that putting things off like this is exactly what prevents great adventures from coming to fruition. There is only now. After reading more about the idyllic-sounding elephant-macaw-gibbon-filled park, we decide to go for it.
Not far down the road, we stop at a particularly quaint and clean roadside restaurant for breakfast, run entirely by women. We have fried bananas, strange sweet/salty custards filled with sweet green goo, and some chicken noodle soup. Finding good food in Thailand is like shooting fish in a barrel – we literally can't pedal for five minutes without passing something delicious to eat!
If we'd been paying attention to our guidebook a few days ago, we would've been able to ride into Khao Yai from the north. Having missed that opportunity, we'll be riding in from the southern entrance this morning, and in a few days, we'll backtrack the entire trek out as we head towards Cambodia.
At the edge of town, the unmistakable pouty crooning of Asian pop is blasting out over the highway. A massive loudspeaker installment has been erected under the awning of a spirit house shop. There doesn't seem to be anyone around running the PA, much less anyone listening. Apart from me with our sound recorder, that is.
We have a few more kilometers to cover before we turn north to the entrance of the park. Between the comfortably warm weather, the shady, palm-lined highway, and ever-changing parade of interesting markets, we're feeling positively gleeful about the ride. Just off the gravel shoulder on either side of the road, villagers are busy building and selling everything from hand-carved benches and stools, to complete tiki huts with awesome little thatched roofs.
We're now passing through what appears to be the nursery district, where the roadsides are lined with gardening stores and plants for sale. While Tyler contemplates backtracking, slightly bummed about not having taken pictures of the other markets, I grab the camera and run off to capture the area.
As I'm taking pictures of the nurseries, feeling nostalgic for the plants I left behind under the care of my grandmother and sister-in-law, wishing I could grow orchids and banana trees back home, I see an old woman preparing betel. I've read about the substance in our guidebook – a type of nut with narcotic properties that many old women chew.
Excited, I run across the street and ask her what she's doing. She doesn't mind my taking pictures, and tries to motion what she uses the leaf, nut, and tiny mortar and pestle for. Then, her daughter and grandchildren come out of their house to say hello, swarming around me, excited about my visit.
Her daughter speaks a little English, so I'm able to ask about the betel. She just laughs and shrugs as if the whole process should be obvious, and then answers my question with a simple, unenlightening statement:
"She old. She chew dat."
A bit further down the road, we come to a roundabout. If we continue straight as we've been traveling, we'll end up in Cambodia. Instead, we curve around the traffic circle and exit to the left, following signs for Khao Yai National Park. Ahead of us, the promise of mountain climbing awaits, seeming like a benign little hill in the distance.