By Greg McCann
November 22, 2007
Before landing in Bangkok I had decided that, for once, I wanted to skip the capital. It's not that I don't like “Bangers,” as I've heard it called; quite the contrary. The situation was that I had five days to kill before my friend arrived to meet me for a trip to Laos and I wanted to hit one spot that I had been reading about (or trying to read about, as I had a hard time finding good info on it) for awhile: Kaeng Krachan National Park, an enormous stretch of jungle at the beginning of the Malay Peninsula bordering Myanmar and just 2 hours from Suvarnabhumi Airport.
My flight from Taipei landed at around 11:30am, and I was hoping to be out of the airport and on a bus by 1pm, that way I might possibly make it to the town of Phetchaburi –the launching point for Kaeng Krachan- before 5pm, check into my guest house, then sawngthaew it to Khao Luang cave temple in time to watch the setting sunlight trickle down through the ceiling chasms in what Lonely Planet describes as some kind of Messiah-return experience.
I made it through Immigration by 1pm , and jumped in a taxi for the Southern Bus Terminal.
I accepted, then took off my shoes and watched the urban landscape begin to fall away to shrimp farms, banana plantations, then finally some wicked mountains rising up in the distance –limestone outcrops backed by higher and higher green hills that go all the way west to the border with Burma .
I asked the driver to put on some Thai music, then stop at a rest stop so that I could buy a couple of beers.
The driver used his cell phone to call the owner of Rabieng Rim Nan Guest House to get the exact address, and very soon we were navigating the streets of Phetchaburi, which is, without a doubt, the most charming and authentic traditional Thai town I have ever had the pleasure of visiting in my five trips to the Land of Smiles. After getting dropped off and checking into my 120 baht room, I jumped in a sawngthaew and set off for the Indiana Jones-eque cave temple.
Sitting in the back of that pickup, watching the Thai school kids laughing and walking down the sidewalks in their uniforms totally oblivious to the many dozens of macaques clambering on the telephone wires and fences all around them was surreal. I sipped on my cold Singha beer and took in a “city” –if it can be called that (pop. 36,000) without 7-11s or McDonald's or any other chain that I could espy, for that matter. (On my third day in town, I did bike down one of the wider boulevards somewhere, and there might –just might have been a KFC…but I don't think so).
After dropping off a couple of passengers, we made a turn up a hill on a narrow road swarming with simians. The driver had to honk his horn several times to get the monkeys to move out of the way.
I was the sole passenger at this point, and the driver agreed to wait for me. Khao Luang was pretty cool. I'm not going to get into cheesy descriptions of golden shafts of light streaming in (though there were) and daunting buddhas looming in dark corners of the cavern: Khao Luang should be seen if visiting Phetchaburi.
I had a feeling, on the way back to the guesthouse, that there would be an attractive waitress working in the highly-recommended restaurant. Her name was Teem, and she made sitting in that high-ceiling teak dining room right on the Mae Nam Phetchaburi River that oozes lazily through town all the more enchanting.
“Does she have a boyfriend?” I asked the owner, a very easy-going and likable Thai woman.
Things stayed merely playful, like that, but I found myself liking Teem a lot.
“Are you a birder?” He inquired.
Beer after beer continued to arrive at the table.
“We cannot find anyone else in Hua Hin or Phetchaburi to go into the park with you. This is the rainy season, you know. Nobody comes here at this time. In fact, you might be the only person in the entire park, with the exception of the rangers.
I was sold (though clearly, he wasn't selling). A deal was made. I would have to pay 2 national park fees –for my guide and myself, plus truck rental, gas, food and a ranger fee. It was more than I wanted to pay, but, my beer figured, fuck it.
Choke left and I sat at my lovely little table alone, watching the river. A team of what I can only describe as Dragon Boat racers, paddled upstream, chanting. An attractive middle aged woman sat at the table opposite me, and after babbling some ridiculous comment about the paddlers to her, she came over and sat with me.
The woman, whose name escapes me, turned to be in Thailand for two months on a Fulbright Scholarship. She was studying or researching Thai culture, apparently.
“Did you go to the temple today?” She asked.
She ignored this question, and repeated that she was dying to see the simian circus raging outside the famous temple.
I tried to convince her to take a full day trip into Kaeng Krachan with me, but the Fulbright scholar wasn't interested. I brought one beer up to bed with me, and passed out.
***** ***** ***** *****
My driver, who spoke no English, showed up an hour late the next morning, which suited me fine because I was struggling with a serious hangover from all that good Singha Beer in the guest house the night before. I asked him to stop at a roadside stall so that I could buy us some breakfast. For US $2 I purchased 3 baggies filled with hot and spicy seafood rice soup -which was quite possibly the best breakfast I have ever had in my life. That wiped out half of my hangover, and some hot coconut fritters that my driver picked up a couple blocks down the road erased even more of it. By the time we were out in the rice paddy countryside with the mountains ever closer and the fresh rural air blowing in my face, I was almost completely recovered.
I made claw-scratching motions with my hands, trying to imitate a big cat. He nodded that yes, it was that. My heart raced as I thought we had stumbled upon a large jungle cat taking an afternoon nap. I was not disappointed, however, to finally gain a clear view of three langurs.
Dusky langurs are a very pretty monkey -silky, dark-gray fur with long black tails, white hands and white circles around their eyes. We pursued them for a while beneath the canopy, and they grunted in anger. Finally they had scrambled too far above and we gave up chasing them. It was time for my swim.
Well, at least I'm getting to see some areas of the jungle that most visitors never see, I tried to tell myself. My optimism was very short lived, however, and real panic began to set in. Even my guide rained sweat from his hair and face, as it seemed like the harder we tried, the more disoriented we became.
We hiked up yet another mountain, which yielded no clues whatsoever. I began to imagine how we would have to sleep in the jungle, how many thousands of mosquito (glad I took an anti-malaria pill) and other insect bites I would incur, and how long it would take Choke or someone to realize that we were lost.
We did, finally, at long last, find the road, of course, and we both laughed nervously when we spilled out onto it.
When we arrived back in town Phetchaburi seemed even more magical than when I had arrived yesterday. As we drove over the small town bridge, passing old teak homes and centuries-old urban temples, I promised myself that I would spend a month of my life in this wonderful little backwater town.
I found myself back at a riverside table, with Teem as my waitress. A large monitor lizard swam from across the river and scaled the side of the restaurant. This was the most delightful places I have ever been in my life.
I asked Teem if she wanted to go to Koh Phang-Ngan for the weekend. She said she had never been there. We made arrangements, and then, the following morning, remembering that I had a wife, I cancelled our plans.
“FOOL!” my friend Paul, standing at Immigration in Taipei bellowed into his cell phone.
Fool was right.
Anyone who thinks that Thailand has burnt out its soul to tourism as never been to Phetchaburi.
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