Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Khao Sok Adventure: TIGER CAVE!

It’s been a few weeks since I posted; December has been a busy month.  I had two 3-day weekends in the beginning of the month, one for Father’s Day (which is also the King’s birthday) and one for Constitution Day.  I also had this entire week off for Christmas.  Next week, I have a 4-day weekend for New Year’s.  That’s a total of 17 days off this month (including weekends)… all paid.  Gotta love being a teacher.  Gotta love Thailand.  Gotta love being a teacher in Thailand.
            I’ve got big plans for the long summer break, March to May.  My cousin, Codykins, is planning an epic quest to the Land of Oz, maybe even shark diving off the Great Barrier Reef.  If my funds permit, I will be there.  But my big trip planned for the break is in April.  I’ll spend the entire month in Nepal, half of which will be trekking to the base camp of Mt. Everest at 17,598 ft.   With all these adventures coming up in just a few months, I’ve decided to stay in town and save money even though I have the week off. 
I was, however, able to do some light traveling during the two long weekends at the beginning of December.  There are only a few places left in Thailand on my “To Conquer List” and I was able to cross two of them off this month: Khao Sok National Park and the beautiful island of Koh Muk on the Andaman coast.  These places are now two of my favorites (I think I say that about every new place I visit in Thailand) and I can’t wait to go back.

Part I:  Khao Sok
About an hour and a half bus ride west of Surat Thani (the town I live in) is Khao Sok National Park, a not-so-hidden gem of the south.  The National Park is 740 square meters of emerald forests, limestone mountains, rugged islands, crystal waterfalls, and home to over 400 species of wildlife.  In fact, Khao Sok is covered by the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world.  In 1982, the Ratchaprapa Dam was built to provide hydro-electricity to surrounding towns, subsequently flooding much of Khao Sok and creating the enormous, man-made Cheow Larn Lake that is there today.  The peaks of the mountains now poke through the surface of the lake creating hundreds of islands covered with both plant and animal life.
A few weeks ago, about 15 friends and I all got together to spend an incredible three-day weekend on the lake.  There are a few different types of accommodation available in the National Park.  Camping is one option.  There are also standard bungalows as well as tree houses (yes, tree houses) available on the main land.  We opted for the floating bungalows (yes, floating bungalows) on the lake.  Also called “raft houses”, these bungalows are built on rafts and are accessible only by boat.
We arrived at the main pier on the lake early on Saturday morning.  From the pier to Smiley’s bungalows where we stayed, it was a beautiful 45-minute boat ride over deep green waters.   There was a good view of the dam shortly after departing the pier, but what was really impressive to me was the giant limestone karsts jetting out of the water, some of them hundreds of feet high.  The boat ride was one of my favorite parts of the weekend and we hadn’t even arrived at the bungalows yet.

Smiley's Floating Bungalows
When we did finally arrive, I was impressed.  The bungalows were simple, yet adequate.  Each bungalow had two double beds and a bathroom in it.  There were about ten rooms total, five on each side, joined by a restaurant/ bar/ entertainment area in the center.  We checked in and the staff had already started making us dinner for the night.  While we waited on our grub, we took out some kayaks and inner tubes, went swimming, and had Kayak Battles (it is what it sounds like) while drinking lots and lots of cheap Thai whiskey.
The rain started as dinner was served.  We spent the rest of the night eating and drinking in the center area and made friends with some traveling Ukrainians that were also staying at Smiley’s.
In the morning we woke up to a delicious breakfast off eggs, toast, and fruit.  Morning is my favorite time of day in Khao Sok.  The heavy mist slowly creeps across the tops of the mountains, sinking in to each valley like an avalanche of fog.  We watched the scenery, drank some coffee, and went for a quick swim to get the blood flowing.  We had a big day ahead of us.  Also included with the price of the bungalows is a guided, 3-hour trek through the jungle and a gi-normous cave system.  Indiana Jones style. 
Fog rolling over the mountains in the morning

            All fifteen of us jumped in a long tail boat with our two trekking guides.  It was about a 30-minute ride to where we would begin the hike and the entire time I felt like I was at Disney Land on the Jungle Cruise.  We finally pulled up on a small piece of shoreline and embarked on our adventure of the day. 
The two guides were great.  One spoke decent English, the other… not so much.  We hiked along as they led the way and pointed out the different flora and fauna of the rainforest.  Along the trek they made hats out of vines and giant leaves, showed us how to make native-style war paint by grinding rocks together, and they even carved us whistles out of bamboo.  
We climbed rocks, trudged muddy passes, and battled leaches to make are way to the mouth of the cave.  I was expecting a small subterranean passageway that I’d have to crouch to get inside of, but this cave was massive. The tunnel system ran for several kilometers underground.
Our guide was weary of letting us cross through it because of the water levels.  A few years ago, an entire group of tourists got trapped and drowned in the cave.  It had rained the night before we got there and the water was higher than normal, but the guide said we were okay to go through.  It took close to an hour of navigating this bottomless, dark, damp tube of rock before we reached the exit point. 
Along the way, it was pitch black except for our headlamps.  There were parts where we had to swim and parts where we had to climb.  The cave is named... wait for it… the Bat Cave.  No, it isn’t a superhero headquarters.  It is, however, inhabited by thousands of little bats that we could see hanging in slumber from the cave ceiling.  The only sounds to be heard were the echoes of our voices, the swish of rushing water, and the shrieks of those little, flying rodents whose sleep we’d interrupted. 
Into the heart of darkness
After leaving the cave, we started off on the final leg of our hike back to the boat.  Earlier in the day we ran into another small group of hikers that said they’d seen a dead deer on the trail.  Apparently, a tiger had slaughtered it earlier that day.  One of the guides told us that if we see the tiger, we should all run away together in a line, so that the tiger can only eat one of us.  Such a wise man.  Safety in numbers I guess.  We continued on the trail, all of our eyes scouring the jungle for the giant cat-beast.  We didn’t end up seeing the tiger, but we did find the leftovers from his breakfast.
The least graphic shot... TIGER FOOD
            All the manly men crowded around the for pictures and the girls nervously waited for us to finish.  Standing next to a tiger’s recent kill in the middle of a jungle is not the best place to be.  Nevertheless, it felt pretty awesome being so close to nature.  After seizing the photo op, we trekked out of the rainforest and to our boat.  It was time to head back to the bungalows.
We rounded out the day with a delicious Thai dinner, swimming outside of our raft houses, a few more kayak battles, and a party under the stars.  The next day, after our swim and breakfast, the Smiley’s staff took us in the longtail back to the pier where we were to catch the bus home to Surat.
This turned out to be one of the best weekends I’ve had in a long time.  What made it even better is that everything, and I mean everything (roundtrip transportation to and from the park; the boat rides; the guided jungle journey/ cave trek; accommodation; breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days; and enough booze to drown a small Russian infantry unit) only cost 2,000 baht per person (about $60 USD).  Only in Thailand.
Cruisin' the jungle
Yay.  Swimming is fun.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Cambodian Adventure Part III: The Finale

Back to Phnom Penh…

            Phnom Penh is a big city but it lacks the glamour of a metropolis.  There aren’t many skyscrapers, it’s built on a nonsensical grid system, and honestly it just didn’t seem that impressive.  The traffic and pollution are horrible.  To anyone planning a visit, I highly recommend wearing sunglasses and having a bandana or something to cover your face with while riding in a tuk-tuk.  The dust and filth in the air, stirred up from the dirty streets, is like nothing I have experienced (not even in Vietnam or Thailand). 
            With that said, Phnom Penh is an amazing place and I did enjoy the time that I spent there.  It’s located where the Tongle Sap meets the Mekong River and every morning from sunrise til 8 am, you can see hundreds of people on the riverfront beginning their days with aerobics and yoga.  There are hotels, guesthouses, and hostels all over the city for an array of prices.  While I was there, the people seemed to be a little standoffish at first (city-like, I guess), but were really just as nice and friendly as everyone in Siem Reap if you talked to them for a bit.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to spend much time in Phnom Penh.  The plan was to stay in Siem Reap for a few more days.  Of course, I did what I always do and waited until the last minute to try and change my flight.  What I didn't know is that it's Air Asia policy that, even with the travel insurance I had, there's a minimum of 48 hours notice needed to change flights (mine was scheduled to leave the next day).  SOOO, without having much choice, Ry-dude and I got on a bus a few hours later and headed 5 ½ hours away, back to Phnom Penh.  This gave me from 6 am to 4 pm (on the day of my departure) to see and do everything in the city that I wanted to.
Skulls uncovered after excavations at the Killing Fields
            Ryan and I hired a tuk-tuk for the day ($12 USD) and the driver took us to the Killing Fields, S-21 (Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), and lastly the shooting range.  “The Killing Fields” are about 35 minutes outside of town.  For a $2 entrance fee you’re allowed in and can see where the Khmer Rouge mercilessly massacred so many Cambodian people.  If you're not familiar with the history of the Khmer Rouge and what happened in Cambodia in the 1970's, you can school yourself here.  Once inside, there was a free audio tour that allowed us to move at our own pace between marked sites (including mass graves, execution areas, and a huge collection of human skulls), all of which were shocking.  I even found a human tooth in the dirt, recently washed up to the surface by rain.  After the hour-long tour we bought some incense for the shrine and monument, and then checked out the museum near the exit.  As hard as it is to stomach, I am really glad I got to see this.  I learned a lot and have so much respect for what the Cambodian people have had to overcome.
Mass graves, like this one where 450 victims were buried, are all over the Killing Fields
            Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, better known as S-21, was not much easier to see.  It’s a high school-turned-torture prison camp.  This is where the Khmer Rouge would torture people.  It causes the same distress as the Killing Fields, and after 20 minutes, we decided to leave. 

*In this picture (to the left of the Ginger) is a man missing one leg.  Unfortunately, this is an all to common site.  Still to this day, Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined areas on the planet.  The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) estimates that there are between 4 to 6 million mines in the ground.  Note that the entire population of Cambodia is only 11. 5 million.*

"Say Hello to my little friends!"
            Our final stop of the day was of a brighter hue.   On the opposite side of town our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the shooting range.  Talk about kids in a candy store; they had everything!  I had only shot a gun once in my life before, but I have to admit, the mere site of machine guns and RPG’s got me more than a little excited.  Although we opted not to, the option was available to shoot a rocket launcher at a live cow ($350 US).  Our budgets and morals didn’t allow for that so we opted to pay $65 each to shoot 20 rounds out of an AK-47 and 50 rounds from a Russian machine gun with a tripod.  Rambo would’ve been jealous.  Firing these bad boys and blowing coconuts to smithereens was a badass experience and the grand finale to the whole Phnom Penh escapade.
"Yippee ki-yay motherf*er!"

After that, the tuk-tuk driver raced me to the airport and I hopped on my flight back to my first love, Thailand.  I had a great time in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.  Cambodia is now one of my favorite countries.  My only regret is not being able to spend more time there.  The food, the historical sites, the prices, and the people are all fantastic and I hope I get to go back again.  Maybe next time I’ll shoot rocket the launcher. 

Please... No smoking, no photography, and NO HAND GRENADES!

Thousands of skulls, teeth, and bones are kept in a shrine at the Killing Fields to pay respect to the dead and remind people of what the Cambodians went through
A tooth washed up from the rain that I found on the ground at the Killing Fields

Me, about to get medieval on a coconut...