To escape the congestion of the city, we decided to head a few hours northeast of Bangkok, to Khao Yai National Park. Thailand’s oldest national park, it is part of a large UNESCO world heritage site which spans 230 kilometers to the Cambodian border, providing one of the last remaining intact monsoon forests in Thailand. This habitat is critical for 24 threatened, endangered or critically endangered species that dwell in the forests.
During our trip up to the park, we had our first encounter with Thailand’s bus system. After a little confusion about where to actually find the bus – oddly, many refer to the Mo Chit bus station, where there is a train, but not a bus station, by that name – we boarded our bus for a mere $4 each, which included a water and a package of cookies in addition to the 3 hour journey. Oh, and also a showing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, played at earsplitting volume – you haven’t lived until you’ve watched Gary Oldman shout deafening, Thai-dubbed profanities at a CGI ape.
The other interesting part of the Thai busses is that, apparently, they don’t adhere to strict drop-off points. We were dropped off on the side of a dusty road next to a grocery store, surrounded by tiny road stands and signs written exclusively in Thai. After attempting to describe our location to the tour agency using the few signs written in the Latin alphabet, it took over an hour for our driver to locate us. I was told this was quite common.
Our first day of the tour took us just a few kilometers outside of the park, to a cave used by some of the local monks as an underground temple. It also happens to be populated by thousands and thousands of little horseshoe bats, who were all calmly waiting for night to fall. They regarded us curiously but with little fear as we walked beneath them, while we sniffed each drop of moisture from the ceiling suspiciously. Nestled among the bats, an absolutely beautiful reticulated python lay coiled on a rocky outcropping in the ceiling, though I couldn’t begin to imagine how he arrived at such a location. As we walked, the guide located some of the other animals that dwell in the pitch black caves, offering to let us hold a couple of them. Jenn and I were the only ones who took him up on the offer to handle a tailless whip scorpion (which he jokingly placed on my face – an odd experience to say the least), and a long-legged centipede.
Our next stop was Khao Lak Chang, a cave located on a hill overlooking some sugarcane farmland below. We arrived as dusk was just beginning to fall, and were greeted by the astonishing sight of hundreds of thousands of small bats pouring out of the side of the hill – over a million of them exit the cave each night to feed. A seemingly-endless, undulating line of black spots stretched across the twilight sky while we watched the evening breezes twist them into knots.
The sunset behind us washed the farmland in color, as we watched the sky turn from orange to red, and eventually a deep purple when the crimson sun dipped behind the haze. A nearby temple almost glowed in the retreating light.
After the sun had slipped below the horizon, our guide led us to a field under the cave and told us to stand quietly. After a few moments, there was a whoosh and the sensation of something zipping past my head. A few moments later, another one, and then another. Soon there were dozens of bats flying past, passing within a foot of us, catching their evening meal and skillfully navigating around their human roadblocks.
Our last stop of the evening was a nearby spring for a nighttime swim and a little more bug-spotting. As the noisy cicadas chirped all around us, we watched a few of their brethren shed their skins and emerge, white and shimmering under the flashlights. On the way out, we spotted a different whip scorpion; our guide warning us to stay clear as they discharge an unpleasant smelling acid when threatened.
The next day we were up bright and early for a full day in the park. Almost as soon as we arrived, the guide heard some news on the radio that an elephant had been sighted. He asked if we’d like to drive a little further into the park to spot the uncommonly-seen animal and, after receiving unanimous approval, we headed off. We discovered the large male happily snacking under a jackfruit tree – calmly pulling down the large fruits, smashing them to bits with his trunk and stuffing the pieces in his mouth. He seemed quite pleased to stand there eating and being photographed, and we watched until he trundled off into the woods.
We spent the next several hours hiking and being introduced to the local flora and fauna. A variety of lizards were still braving the heat of the day, as well as two colors of the Oriental whip snake, an absolutely beautiful little vine snake that comes in yellow, grey and green varieties. A troop of lar gibbons noisily announced themselves before making their appearance in the trees above us. Gibbons are the most endangered ape species, and have the longest arms relative to body size of any primate, which makes them excellent at swinging through the trees. This was evident as they traversed the canopy at great speeds and flung themselves amazing distances, either across the road or through other large gaps between branches. Of course, Jenn was perhaps even more thrilled to see a black giant squirrel, a threatened tree squirrel that can grow up to 46 inches in length from nose to tail.
As we were reaching the end of our hike, our guide motioned for us to be silent and scouted along a riverbank. After a few moments he pumped his fist in victory and showed us a Siamese crocodile, a critically endangered reptile of which there are only known to be two in the park, possibly the only two left in the wild in Thailand. After snapping some photos of the lethargic animal, we started down the trail only to stop again as the guide located a beautiful, emerald green pit viper wrapped around a tree branch.
On our way out of the park, we paused at an overlook and were joined by a troop of northern pig-tailed macaques. Inquisitive and unafraid, they investigated our truck and circled us curiously. We were observing them from a respectful distance when one of them suddenly took several steps towards Jenn and, before we could react, playfully leapt on her and used her leg as a jumping-off platform to propel himself through the air. The troop eventually wandered back into the forest and we watched the sun set over the park, bathing the valley in pastels as we headed back home for the evening.