By Greg McCann
March 8, 2008
Most passengers on a flight to Krabi are headed for West Railey Beach, Koh Phi-Phi or Ko Lanta. Honeymooners, happy families, and slick-haired, sharply-dressed individuals can hardly sit still as their eyes dilate to dreams of turquoise water, powdery sand, and pink limestone sea bluffs. There’s a palpable excitement on board the aircraft as we make our descent in southern Thailand; this is it, the dream has come true –we’ll be in Krabi in minutes and the epic scenery from all those glossy magazines will finally be ours.
That’s what I’m reading in the faces of a six-foot Russian blonde and her body-builder boyfriend; that’s what I’m hearing in the seats behind me in a language I cannot understand (Swiss); that’s what I’m observing in the anxious pacing and clapping hands of my fellow passengers waiting for their luggage by the carousal.
But I was not headed to the postcard beaches of Krabi, not just yet anyway. My own daydreaming about my previous wanderings into Khao Sok National Park, Sa Nang Manora and Ramen Forest Park in Sura Thani and Phang-Nga provinces has never ceased, and every time I open a copy of Lonely Planet’s Thailand’s Islands and Beaches I am constantly drawn to the boxed-in “detour” sections of the southern districts. These off-the-trodden trail destinations are usually inland jungles skipped over by beach-bound travelers fantasizing about snorkeling and hammocks. Nothing wrong with those activities, but I was in the mood for something else.
I had decided to come down here on a whim from Bangkok, with very little planning other than the borrowed guidebook from my guesthouse. In a style I feel I am getting too old for, I woke up hungover at 5:45 am, 15 minutes before my wakeup call and 45 minutes ahead of my taxi to the airport, then found myself shivering in shorts and a tee-shirt aboard an air-conditioned flight heading south. This time, the ‘detour’ I wanted to explore was Khao Phanom Bencha National Park.
As I waited for my bag, I strained to remember the name of a bungalow resort I remembered reading about on the Web some time ago that was supposed to be situated up in the hills near the park. Too enfeebled by my hangover to even carry my backpack, I pushed it in a cart towards the Information counter. Most of the passengers on our flight had vans awaiting them outside, so the kiosk was empty.
“Are there any hotels near Khao Phanom Bencha National Park?” I asked.
The lady scrunched up her nose and her eyebrows and took a step back. Was it some lingering beer on my breath or the request?
“Where?” She asked, looking at me as if I had the wrong province.
“Khao Phanom Bencha National Park. Are there any hotels nearby that park?”
The woman shook her head and pulled out a map. I found the park immediately.
“Oh, Phanom Benchaaaa…” she corrected in a tone that made the name of the park sound unrecognizable.
“There is one hotel there -Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort. You have reservation?”
“No, I don’t. Do you have the phone number?” I felt half of my hangover vanish on the spot at the sound of the resort name: that was the one.
She said that she was sorry, they did not.
“Do a lot of people go there to that park?” I asked.
“No, no, no,” she replied, shaking her head and moving on to some other chore. “You can try just going. Taxi is the only way to the resort.”
With most visitors being whisked away in resort-owned vans, I was set upon by a gang of taxi drivers.
“Where you going?” Two asked me at once.
I repeated the name of the resort, emphasizing that it was supposed to be near the national park of the same name.
“Mountain Resort,” one incorrectly confirmed. “Ao Nang. OK. He take you.”
“Not Ao Nang. I want to go to the national park. Khao Phanom Bencha.”
They looked puzzled. I pulled out the map and pointed to the resort. That cleared it up, and I was on my way.
We got on the main road towards Krabi town, then turned right up a road which passed Wat Tham Seau or “tiger temple cave” –the 1,291 step knee-destroyer that I climbed 5 years ago. We then cruised for 10 kilometers through limestone country and rubber tree plantations. From what I could discern, virtually all lowland forest has been converted to rubber or palm oil farms. Backing these planted forests are the trippy karst formations that people travel across the world to see, and those mountains, virtually inaccessible to humans, form higher altitude, rocky fortresses of wilderness that harbor whatever is left of Thailand’s wildlife outside of the national parks: gibbons, langurs and macaques for sure, snakes and reptiles, birds…wild orchids and hidden waterfalls.
We made a left hand turn down a dirt road and drove for another three kilometers through a rubber plantation until we arrived at Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort. I stepped out of the taxi to the sound of birds singing and to air warmed by tropical gardens and mountain forests. I couldn’t see any bungalows or much of anything at all, in fact, so lush were the gardens surrounding the tasteful lodge-like reception area.
The man working there seemed surprised at my arrival.
“Do you have a reservation?”
“No. Do you have any rooms available?”
He paused and looked me over and then sort of smiled. “Yes, we have a room,” he said quietly. “How do you know this place?”
“I read about it on the Internet a long time ago. Now I’m finally here. How much is a room?”
He told me that it was 800 baht and I asked to see it. With my taxi driver still hanging out, we walked down the gravel driveway and turned up a stone pathway, several strong wooden bungalows –each spaced about 50 meters apart- were perched on the hillside facing a view of an impressive mountain crag.
“I’m sorry, but we only have this one…” he said.
“I’ll take it. This is great.”
As we walked back down to the reception lodge, I asked how long it would take me to walk to the park entrance.
“Oh no,” he explained without the slightest look of regret. “The park entrance is 37 kilometers away. You need to drive. Or you can just wait till tomorrow; we have a group going then.”
“But it’s only 10:30am right now,” I muttered. “I need to see the park. Do you rent scooters here?”
He said they did but that they were all rented out at the moment. I asked him what I should do, because, seriously digging this place the way I was, I wanted to stay here a few nights and explore the park at my leisure.
“I suggest you go back to Krabi town and rent a motorbike. Come back here, and then you can go into Khao Phanom Bencha very free.”
Fortunately the taxi driver was still hanging around, flirting with a couple of the housekeeping girls. As he took me into town I took mental notes of landmarks because most –if not all- of road signs were in Thai around here. The moment I turned the ignition in my scooter rental I felt a wave of warm contentment rush over me. There is nothing like driving on a motorbike through the backcountry roads of Thailand; north, south, east west wherever, it’s all bliss.
Music played in my head as I whirred past those beautiful mountains and small rural homes on a winding road heading north into the heartland of the peninsula. This right here, I thought, just driving around here with nothing to do but follow wherever the scenery takes me is good enough. This is reason enough to come to Thailand.
I had remembered the route correctly, and soon enough I was pulling up the gravel drive at the resort again. My room was ready, I picked up my key, and as I made my way up to my sweet bungalow pad I noticed a sign for a swimming pool. I decided to go for a swim, take a quick shower, then head for the park. I changed into my trunks and walked for about 10 minutes up the hill on smooth stone steps until I came to what looked like a large frog pond, replete with greenish water, clouds of algae and Lilly pads.
A beautiful middle aged European female was taking close-up shots of flowers near the edge of the water.
“Is this the pool?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she beamed.
“Really?” I was surprised.
“It’s wonderful,” she intoned in a strong and lovely French accent. “Absolutely beautiful. You’ll love it. It’s actually a natural spring. They tapped a spring on this hill, and made a natural swimming pool. Try it, you will like!”
I got in it, a little apprehensive at first because of the green stuff sliding beneath my feet, but it felt truly more refreshing than any chlorine-minted swimming pool I had been in before.
“Wow, it really is nice.” I said. “Really nice.”
“Yes, this place is like paradise.”
I could not disagree. A natural swimming pool on the top of a hill surrounded by verdant tropical gardens and a range of dreamy mountains.
“You should have been here earlier,” the Frenchwoman (who didn’t mind speaking English) said. “The manager had to take away an 8-foot long python that strayed too close to the bungalows. He caught it with his bare hands and put it in a burlap bag and just carried it off over his shoulder as if it were a sack of rice. It was thrashing and fighting for its life in that bag and he just walked off with it and released it somewhere.”
Following my plan, I was soon back on my motorbike and driving up another killer road lined with caves and crags and vistas that got the music going in my head again. 22 kilometers of this and then the park entrance. When I cut the engine, my ears adjusted to the sound of insects and birds and some other whooping sounds coming from high up in the canopy. Dipterocarps trees, some of which where close to a 100 feet (if not higher) tall, stood beyond the park headquarters and served as an awesome welcome to the jungle. According to park brochures, the forest is home to tapir, serow, wild boar, panther, clouded leopard, Asiatic black bear, civet, and an assortment of monkeys, gibbons and deer. Lonely Planet adds tigers to this list, but the park staff laughed that one off (nonetheless, several long-time Krabi residents insist that tigers still reside deep in the most inaccessible regions of the 50-square kilometer rainforest).
I used up a considerable amount of time backtracking to town for the scooter, then going back to the resort, having my swim, and then finding my way here. It was already after 2pm and the park closed at 4:30. I decided that I would take my time and see what I could and then return tomorrow morning and hike the entire “nature trail” loop.
I took a short hike on the western side to a waterfall, which, because this was the dry season, was a disappointment. There were, however, several gargantuan trees that were worth checking out, but I hoped that I could get more out of today’s excursion than this.
Crossing the entrance again –a manicured area that contains rattan vines wandering down from the canopy that are the length and width of Jurassic-era sea snakes- I searched for the path to the Nature Trail. A foot bridge led over clear stream into a jungle buzzing with bees, cicadas and birdlife. This section of the hike is almost entirely uphill, and I hiked in for about an hour, stopping from time to time to catch my breath and scan the trees for monkeys. I found a pile of soft green nuts lying beneath a tree, and when I stopped to pick one up, something grunted in the tree above. I’m guessing it was either a dusky langur or a macaque, but the foliage was too thick to get a look. Continuing on, I was grunted at again by a similar animal, also near a pile of soft nut droppings.
The path became increasingly steep, and clouds began to converge overhead. I remember clearly being caught in the jungle during a heavy afternoon shower in Sa Nang Manora Forest Park, Pha-Nga province, about 4 years ago. As soon as it starts to get dark in the jungle, the forest feels very threatening. Insects –hundreds of species- join in the loudest and most insane natural chorus one can ever imagine. One finds himself in a totally alien landscape in which improbabilities such as a tiger or leopard attack feel entirely possible. That’s being alone in the forest during the rainy season. I was alone here now, and it was past 4 and looking like rain. I started to make my way down.
When I was about five minutes from the footbridge I heard growling in the forest to the left of me. I stopped in my tracks and listened as it growled again. I decided to hasten my pace and not five steps on I heard what I can only describe as a roar, coming from another direction. I stopped again and it roared three times, a long, almost moan-like sound. Feet barely touching the ground, I bolted out of the Nature Trail.
Safely back near the visitor’s center, I spotted a group of Thais hanging out on the patio of a small wooden house, built presumably for park staff. I walked over to them.
“Did you hear that sound a couple of minutes ago?” I asked.
They were startled by my intrusion, but nice enough stop what there were doing and talk to me. None of them could speak English very well, but we could communicate. I repeated my question and tried to mimic the animal sounds that I heard.
“Tiger?” One of them asked quickly and nervously. His eyes searched around for a weapon.
They talked it over and concluded that the first sound was most likely a wild boar. The second sound, they left me to my imagination.
On the way out, I repeated the same question and sounds to a ranger and the ticket seller. They laughed and said the second animal was a gaur, not a tiger. I got back on my scooter and made good time coming heading out of the park area, passing two boys riding two work elephants back to the sleeping quarters.
I made a long list of caves along this road that I would visit tomorrow after I completed the Nature Trail circuit. In the Lang Rongrian Cave –about halfway to the park- 40,000 year old human remains were found just ten years ago, making it the most important archeological site in southern Thailand. There are so many cavern-riddled outcrops in this area that several days of exploration would be required to see them all –and that’s just on the park road; several other roads branch off this artery en route to Khao Phanom Bencha, and no doubt treasures are waiting for curious visitors.
When I got back to Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort I devoured the best bowl of green curry squid soup I have ever tasted, washed down with several tall Singhas. While I was sipping my beer and finishing off Denis Johnson’ Tree of Smoke, I noticed that several of the foreigners in the patio dining area seemed to know one another quite well; a couple of them even reached behind the bar to pull out beers for themselves and others. Several guests came over at different points and struck up conversations with me, and as I sat there out on the patio with my beer and my book with the sound of crickets and frogs in the large pond below me, I felt like I could not have found a better place to chill out for a few days.
The next morning I had a swim and then bombed back to the park, where I hiked the entire trail, stopping off for a soul-warming swim in pool 9 of an 11-tier waterfall towards the end of the trail. No growling warthogs, no roaring gaur, no monkeys dropping nutshells, but a good sweaty hike beneath rich jungle and a very rewarding swim in the upper levels of Huai To Falls.
The day before I fried my forearms, forehead and neck driving the scooter around in the sunshine, and I had left my sunblock in my bungalow yet again. On my way to Lang Rongrian cave, the sun was just too intense for pre-burned skin, and I had to pull over at a small outdoor restaurant to try and kill some time and wait for cloud cover. I picked out the least fly-covered squid from a tin pail, and the boss went to work on frying it up over a small fire. Beer after beer arrived, and I just hung out there under an umbrella marveling at the pretty countryside and the laid back people who paused momentarily to gape or laugh at me.
Using sign language, I tried to convey to the boss that I needed sunscreen. She understood, and came back with a tube of some cream that looked it would surely intensify the sunbeams and bring my epidermis to a boil within minutes out there. Nonetheless, I rubbed it in, got back on my scooter, and drove to the next cave comfortably.
I didn’t check off many caves on the list I had made yesterday; the combination of the beer, the sunshine, and the rev of my scooter (I’m not trying to advocate drinking and driving; it was only 3 12oz cans of Singha and for me that’s not a lot) kept me on my seat and headed back to the natural swimming pool back at the resort.
Refreshed from a swim, showered, scooter safely parked, I wandered down to the restaurant for some more fabulous grub, more Singhas, and the last few pages of what has been the best book I’ve read in over a year (no wonder Tree of Smoke, a work of fiction set during the Vietnam War, won The National Book Award).
Singhas arrived, fried shrimp patties were served, and the same couple who first struck up a conversation with me last night were by my side again.
“So what do you do?” Craig asked.
“I’m an English teacher in Taiwan,” I answered.
“Really? We teach English at a university in Korea,” he said.
I told them that I also taught at a university; we were both in Thailand on winter break. This couple, originally from Seattle, owned a thatched hut bungalow on Ko Si Boya Island, where, apparently, other farangs own (or lease, I think) no-electricity bungalows and laze away their summers and winters on hammocks beneath palm trees.
“Sounds like a nice life,” I said. “How do you know about this place here?”
“Actually, we’re partners in this place. So are these other guys sitting over there.” Craig pointed to three or four Europeans laughing the night away at another table.
“Partners in business here? You guys must do pretty well as lecturers in Korea.”
They didn’t respond to that.
“Hey,” Craig said. “There’s a party going on tonight. A couple of teachers from England –two ladies- have just finished building their dream house up on the mountain down the road. It’s a house-warming party. You’re welcome to come if you want. We’re going over after we close up shop.”
***** ***** ***** *****
Soon enough, I was given a large flashlight and I was following everybody up a hill towards what looked like Hugh Hefner’s mansion up in the Hollywood Hills. White-washed walls, tall teak beams, an enormous gazebo overlooking the resort and the crags and the sea, ornamental wooden doors and other building materials that I simply do not have the lexicon for made up this seriously palatial pad.
This is what success looks like, I told myself. These women probably aren’t extraordinarily rich, they aren’t baronesses; they just knew what they wanted out of life, they pursued it smartly, they used economy and discipline and brains, and they made it happen.
I sat down with all of the staff I had met from the day and yesterday, from the happy Europeans cracking beers and laughing all day, to the resort manager, Mr. Son, and his 12-year old guitar slinger like a young Bob Marley, I thought, to the reception staff who checked me in; I even spoke with the amiable women who had this unbelievable home constructed.
Maybe some day, I thought (and still think). Maybe some day.
Another thing I learned about the Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort was that they lead multi-day treks to the summit of Khao Phanom Bencha Mountain, a highly remote locale that involves bush-whacking with a machetes, porters, and campfire meals, Thai-style. There is an 8-person minimum for this adventure and it can only be attempted during the dry season.
Other, shorter treks can be arranged into nearby jungle areas that are actually outside of the national park boundaries.
Down in this region of Thailand you can still experience, in some areas, what peninsular Siam must have been like a couple of hundred years ago before rubber and palm oil cultivation, before destructive logging, before dense human settlements. It’s not an Eden, but it’s a special little pocket of nature that reflects what must have been a grand, wondrous time for plants and animals.
Phanom Bencha Mountain Resort:
For more information on Khao Phanom Bencha National Park:
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