Day 32: Tigers, elephants and... deer, oh my
We spotted two species of deer while walking the grounds. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
MR SOMCHAI ducks down, eyes scanning the thinly wooded area around us.
“Nobody there,” he says. We resume our hike.
After paying the 200 baht park fee and taking the long dirt-gravel road to the “park entrance”, I am met by Mr Somchai, who offers to give me a guided tour of one of the trails.
The UNESCO welcome center is closed and nobody seems to have a park map, making Mr Somchai's offer very alluring. To top it off, he's not going to charge me.
In the past, I shrugged off guides faster than a cat slips out of a stupid hat. In the past, I was dumb. I still am dumb, but a different dumb.
A guide, especially a good jungle guide, makes all the difference. It transforms an experience of mindlessly meandering down a muddy path into a complete narrative.
Mr Somchai, a shoulder-high man dressed completely in camouflage, points to something in the soft dirt in front of us: elephant tracks. He circles it with his finger.
“Maybe two days ago,” he says.
Before we even got started on the trail, we spotted an entire herd of Eld's Deer laying in the tall grass along a river bank. I worked my way down from the suspension bridge, slowly getting closer and closer to the herd. Aware of me, but not overly concerned, the endangered species keeps an eye on me. None of the tagged animals turn to move away until I'm about 10 meters away. With dozens of photos already on the camera, I avoided the temptation of further startling them by getting any closer.
The forest around us is reminiscent of Brown County in Indiana during late summer, before the leaves start to change. The thin green undergrowth and sparse tree cover allows for fairly long fields of sight, ideal for spotting animals. The only difference, outside of he enormous groves of bamboo, is that this forest is home to tigers, leopards, tapir, Wild Asian Water Buffalo, White Boars and elephants.
Mr Somchai checks the sky as it starts to rain. He directs us down the right-hand path of the loop to avoid the rain.
The presence of wild elephants is everywhere. Their enormous foot prints in the dirt at our feet, their own paths crisscrossing with ours. A number of sturdy bamboo shoots, thicker than my forearm have been ripped down and lay across the path – also a sign of elephants.
Further along, we find elephant dung – two days old.
Sometimes it pays off knowing your shit. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Mr Somchai pauses to point out a woodpecker, as well as the tracks of a White Boar.
Despite being in my riding boots and pants, the flat hike is easy.
We stop again, eyes scanning the forest. At this point, I'm no longer hoping to cross paths with a tiger. With an estimated population of about 50, the largest tiger population outside of the Indian subcontinent, in the 600,000 hectares reserve, the likelihood of us spotting was is nonexistent. However, just knowing what animals are possibly going about their business just out of eyesight is exciting. There is so much potential for discovery.
Can yo name those paw prints? Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
We stop again, this time at a freshly trampled area, bark freshly ripped from the small branches of a nearby tree by a herd of wild elephants. At our feet are fresh piles of dung.
Unable to avoid the temptation, I poke the fibrous mass with my foot.
The air is rich with the pungent smell of the elephants, not just their dung. Their oily stench lingers in the area. Mr Somchai is on high alert.
An elephant trumpets in the distance. I turn to head back toward it.
“No, no,” Mr Somchai says. “It's very far away. And very dangerous.”
“Chan,” I say – which is Thai for elephant.
Mr Somchai spins around. Fully alert, like an animal being hunted.
There is no elephant. Feeling like a bit of an idiot for having caused a flash of panic, I point to the mud pit that caught my attention. The trees nearby are awash with the mud rubbed from the backs of the giant creatures. The mud stains on the trunks reach well above my head.
“Oh, elephant spa,” Mr Somchai jokes.
The bamboo stalks grown and creak above us.
I spot a single deer just off the path, but it quickly flees the scene, as does a Tree Monitor lizard.
As the short trail, about 2km, comes to an end, the light gray sky opens up and the rain commences.
Doing my best to keep my camera dry, Mr Somchai and I start hiking back for some shelter.
He is not happy about the rain, as he is afraid that he'll get sick. At this point, I'm as used to being wet as teen at a Bieber concert.
In an open field, near some of the ranger stations, we spot a pair of dark brown Hog Deer laying out in the shower. With budding antlers, the two stocky animals rise to their feet as I approach with my camera. Unlike the Eld's Deer, which are proportioned similarly to the White Tailed Deer back in Indiana, the Hog Deer have a pygmy quality to them, as if evolution stunted their growth so that they would be better adapted to living in the jungle.
The rain lessens, then stops.
Mr Somchai asks if I enjoyed the hike. If so, could I give him 300 baht?
Is that okay? He want to know.
I'd been trying to figure out how much to tip him since we started. He made the experience, not only by giving me some insights into how old any given pile of elephant shit was, but also through simple companionship.
However, I only have 1,000 baht. After a great amount of dancing around, including him attempting to get the 1,000 baht note broken by a number of people, he is finally able to get change. Out of eyesight, as if we're conducting a little drug deal, he gives me the change – clearly he's not supposed to be getting money from giving a tour.
His face lights up when I hand him a 500 baht note, genuinely pleased with the sum. It's one of those great transactions that leaves everyone feeling better.
Though, Mr Somchai assures me there are no tigers down the short Tiger Trail, I wander off to do a bit more exploring by myself. Alone in the woods, I drink up the relative silence, listening to my boots on the path.
A deer catches wind of me and makes a dash for it, loudly crashing through a denser part of the forest. A little further down the path, I come across another deer. I jump back as the animal gives a sharp, loud bark and then sprints away.
Though I know what the fox says, I did not know deer can bark.
At the top of a watch tower, I look down on a small water hole in a cleared field. It's easy to imagine a tiger slinking through the low grass and quickly lapping up some water before disappearing again.
However, there is nothing there. A kingfisher flashes into view, and is then gone again.
I roll the die. I'll wait at least ten minutes. Ten minutes at midday for a wildlife photographer is a blink of an eye – it is very unlikely anything will happen.
Sitting in a plastic chair, I look at the surroundings, messing with my phone until I realize that there isn't reception. With a single minute left to go, the forest thunders with the angry trumpeting of an elephant. Short burst after short burst comes through the forest.
I wait another ten minutes, but nothing comes to the watering hole.
Back down on the ground, I slip along the edge of the opening in the forest, heading toward the sound of the elephants.
They are far away, I tell myself with the authority of an expert and the comprehension of a infant. It is the exact sort of faulty logic that gets a person into serious trouble. If they are far away, why am I even bothering? If they aren't far away, why am I so determined to get himself killed? I don't have the slightest idea how to react if a wild elephant charges at me – playing dead will only be playing for so long.
This morning, I woke up lonely in a bed covered with plastic bags, cords and other junk I didn't bother clear off my sheets. It was another miserable night of sleep, hardly any rest until after 4am. However, by 9am, I was ordering breakfast, not that there was really any ordering – I just ate the black soup with liver and chunks of pork that the woman served me.
She was nicer this morning, not that she had previously been mean exactly. We chatted briefly – her English was about as good as my Thai. The best I could understand was that her friend was recently killed by an elephant.
Knowing this and seeing Mr Somchai's reaction when I called out “chang”, I should turn back. Instead I silently walk through the forest on a faint path. Mouth shut tightly, my breathes are deep and long, in and out of my nostrils.
It feels good to be on edge.
There is the sound of running water. This is a good sign.
The path opens onto sandbank along a small forest river. Clean water moves fast among a number of small boulders. There's nothing.
I peek up stream and down stream, hesitating to further commit to the idea of tracking the elephant.
I make my way down stream several dozen meters, picturing myself running into the water to escape an elephant – a comically irrational solution to a potential threat.
I call the hunt off.
My body relaxes and I start trekking back to the bike.
The sun is out, it's going to be beautiful riding weather.
There's more farm equipment on the two-lane road then passenger vehicles as I head north. I'm tired of choosing a travel destination before departure; there is a certain amount of stress that comes with having to follow directions, especially when you are constantly getting tangled up with where to go.
I'll just roll outside of hotels I pass to see if I'm staying or not.
There aren't any hotels.
This is farm country. It's not an area visited by domestic tourists, let alone foreigners. I cruise and cruise, eventually I'm forced to pull over and look at a map. What are my options?
There aren't many.
The only real option is Kamphaeng Phet, a sleepy little town that has a history of being strategically important in the 14th century.
It's more than 100km away. After a pit stop of Snickers Bars, Red Bull and water, I put my head down and pull back on the throttle – Kamphaeng Phet, here I come.