Tara's first order of business this morning is running down to the visitor's center to buy breakfast, iced coffee, and most importantly, muslin leech booties. With new protective armor, we're going on our first-ever hike in the jungle today!
The best answer to landed leeches problem is to wear anti-leech-socks: A self-made sock of tightly woven and stitched cotton or other fabric would do if the sock is long enough to get to just under your knees and held by a strap. Leeches will almost always try to find the shortest way to a place that is body-warm and therefore get trapped between your leech sock and your boot…
Of course, the socks won't make you 100% immune to the problem as the leeches will also climb on to you from overhanging vegetation and can attack you around the waist or the neck as well, but this extra protection will get rid most of the leeches from the ground.Endemic Guides
The number of hiking opportunities to choose from in the park is daunting. Consulting our guide book, we discover a nearby salt-lick and observatory where we might spot elephants and other jungle wildlife. It seems like as good a place as any to start our exploration!
First, we book a less expensive two-person bungalow, then we pack up and cycle over to the trail-head which leads to the watch tower.
At the top of the (not very high) observation post, we survey the distinctly animal-free landscape. For over an hour we watch expectantly, peering out over the hills, waiting and waiting some more. Maybe we should have come earlier in the morning? Perhaps we're too impatient? Whatever the case, the only mammalian sighting we make is that of the two legged tourist variety, marching right through the field.
Giving up on our elephant-sighting aspirations, we head down to cross the salt-lick, hoping that we'll have better luck spotting some wildlife if we leave the grassland and head into the jungle. While we walk, Tara obsessively bends over to examine her bootie-covered calves – whenever she spots a leech, she visibly shudders, then flicks it off, and carries on.
The ankles are the most common places for bites since the leeches generally are quite low when you pick them up, and they can also bite through the loose weave sock material. Leeches are inchworm-sized creatures that stay on low lying bushes and the forest floor waiting for unsuspecting warm blooded creatures to pass by. They then latch on for a meal of blood, letting go when they are fully engorged.Endemic Guides
Through the woods we walk, letting red arrows and our GPS guide us, stopping often to inspect interesting things we pass. Our favorites are a decaying log which is ripe with vibrant orange fungus, an enormous tree, and an awesome little bug which I've failed to identify.
Back from our hike, it's noon, and we're allowed to check into our reserved bungalow. Again, a dingy place with drab, mildewy curtains, awaits us, and I wonder aloud do they ever wash these sheets? We're trying to be positive, but what with leeches, dirty, overpriced accommodations, expensive food, and no miraculous elephant apparitions, we're feeling uninspired.
Trying to shake our sour moods, we head back to the visitor's center. Behind it, there's a small waterfall we'd like to see.
As we climb down to the water's edge, I slip and almost bash my skull against the slick, jagged rocks. Whatever move I make that allows me not to face-plant on the boulders, yanks something in my neck. I spend the rest of our visit sitting and thinking, in serious pain.
Separate from my newfound physical pain, is the sense that I've pulled an emotional muscle too. Back in Mongolia, the part of me that handles tough times and minor inconveniences, like dirty sheets and hill climbing, was stretched well beyond its former limits.
It's only been a couple of weeks since then, and I loved, no, needed all of our easy, flat days in Thailand to heal and rejuvenate myself. But since coming in Khao Yai, it feels like I've reinjured my "adventure muscle".
I shouldn't be doing anything strenuous. I just want everything to be calm and easy, or at least have a happy ending and a nice, clean bed to come home to. I don't feel empowered by this experience, at least not yet. I just feel beaten up, a little worse for wear.
As I ponder my situation, Tyler is trying to get a good photo of the miniscule, garbage-strewn falls before us. He returns from his mission a few minutes later with a sullen, somber look on his face. When I ask what the trouble is, I learn that he, too, slipped on the rocks. He's thankfully fine, but our wide-angle lens smacked against a rock, and the housing is dented. It will no longer auto-focus.
It's time to be honest with ourselves: we hate this place. We'll leave the park tomorrow. We'll see some waterfalls on the way out, and then bid farewell to the leeches and the crappy, expensive bungalows. Plan set, we feel marginally better. Tyler lends me a hand to leave the slippery rock area, and then we make our way to the food court. But first, we sit resignedly on a bench, and remove the bloodthirsty leeches from our feet.
Three things save this day. First, we meet a really sweet Irish guy named Collum who tells us all about Cambodia. He recently visited the country, loved it, and is sure we will, too. Trading travel stories with this sweetheart is the best part of our day!
Second, back at our bungalow, we connect our SD card to the computer and open up some macro shots Tyler took. While we thought ants were carrying tiny crumbs of bread or something, they were in fact carrying…
Baby ants! How cool is that!
Third, we turn out the lights so we can pretend we're not in a crap bungalow, snuggle up together, and spend the rest of the day watching X-Files and Mythbusters. Tomorrow, we can return to the land of easy living.