Pak Chong, Khao Yai, Khorat, Phimai, Siem Reap

Getting harassed in Patpong

Our last night in Bangkok was a fun one.  We took a tuktuk to PatPong, which has essentially become a giant tourist trap full of market vendors with a side of red light flavor.  The tuktuk ride was fun though.  Essentially a tricycle carriage with a motor.  When we arrived to PatPong, Ben took a picture as he got out of our tuktuk and the man standing in front of him said “40 Baht!”  Apparently Ben wasn’t aware of the charge for taking pictures.  Ha.  Don’t think so, but indicative of what we experienced in our walk through the 3-5 block hotspot.  Another great spot to buy ripoff anything though – these folks know their target market.

Bangkok to Pak Chong and the happy cabbie

The next day was full of mistakes but good nonetheless.  We left our hotel and went back to the Thai Red Cross to get a Hepatitis A shot but had to wait b/c we had arrived during lunchtime closing hours.  After getting the shot we took a cab to the Victory Monument, where lots of mini-vans depart to take folks to many other nearby places in Bangkok – our destination of choice was Pak Chong.

Our cab ride to Victory Monument was one of the best experiences so far because of our cab driver.  He was one of the most lively old men I’ve ever met – brimming with infectious happiness and enthusiasm and an awesome high-pitched laugh that would melt even the coldest of hearts (if I figure out how to post video on this thing, I will post one of this guy so you can hear it, it makes me smile as I think about it and write this right now).  He also loved to clap and sing – the man could not keep a beat to save his life, barely knew any of the words he was trying to sing, and was unable to execute a firm symmetrical clap but god bless him, he LOVED to clap (and sing) “along” with the American music playing in his cab.  And because of that, he would be my first pick for a karokee partner anytime, anywhere.  We asked him why he was so happy, even though his wife had passed away years ago (which he had mentioned).  He told us he was so happy because he had a job that paid him, food to eat, and a place to rest his head.  He had freedom to do all of these things when he wasn’t driving a cab and that was all he needed to be one of the most visibly and infectiously happy people I’ve ever met.  I will hint on this more later, but it is the beginning of a common theme that I’ve noticed over here with any of the people we’ve had a chance to get to know.

the happy cabbie

Because of a miscommunication we missed our minivan to Pak Chong even though we were there on time.  No worries – we just waited another hour and caught the next one.  Our ride to Pak Chong was rainy and it was nice to finally get away from the concrete jungle of Bangkok and into the real jungle of Khao Yai National Park.

Khao Yai National Park, Leeches, and Monkeys

We stayed at Eco Valley Lodge 20 minutes south of Pak Chong.  Very nice resort and lots of organized tours to choose from.  Half of the other guests we saw were older white males with younger thai women with them – another trend we had started to notice back in Bangkok, and quite not as inspiring as the theme we noticed with our final Bangkok cabbie.

Our first day we decided to do a tour of Khao Yai National Park.  Our guides’ name was pronounced “Yo-Yo”, another great, genuine Thai guy.  His wife had left him for a rich European, but he was happy because he had a good job, could feed himself, and could do what he wanted when he wasn’t working.  Again with that happy with the simple stuff – maybe something to be learned here.

For a legitimate “jungle”, the heat of the tour wasn’t so bad.  The rainy season has just ended in SE Asia and it is now “winter”, meaning temperatures are only 85-90 and humidity 80%.

Our first experience near a stream from a waterfall was unsettling – Yo-Yo had called us over to check out the water monitors and pit viper basking in the sun, as well as some otters playing nearby.  We walked into a leafy area and as we did some Australian backpackers who had gotten there about a minute earlier, specifically the girls in the group, all started freaking out, jumping up and down.  Why?  Leeches.  And not your friendly Minnesota-lake leeches either.  I looked down and there about 7 of these suckers crawling right up my leg.  A couple of them were 2-3 inches long, steadfastly making their way like an inch-worm up my leg to where they knew they could eventually a spot to sink their teeth in.  Yo-Yo had prepared us for this because we had leech socks on – worn under the shoes and over the pants – so we had comfort that they couldn’t make it through, but a disturbing experience nonetheless.

a few leeches after i’ve brushed some of them off

Aside from leeches, we saw lots of wildlife in the jungle – pileated gibbons, white-handed gibbons, monkeys, spiders, water monitors, otters, a pit viper, sambar deer (the females have become completely desensitized to humans) and plant life – “bleeding” trees, glue trees, cinnamon trees, various vines, etc. Because it was a warm non-rainy day, the monkeys came out on the road to soak up sun and were curious and playful.  Not sure of whether this was kosher or not, but Ben got one to jump up (mad ups) and grab a granola bar out of his hand from the truck.

Khao Luk Chang Bat Cave

After exploring Khao Yai, Yo-Yo took us to Khao Luk Chang bat cave.  To kill some time before the bats woke up, Ben and I played volleyball with some of the locals in the village – really fun experience – we couldn’t understand each other at all, but for sport, we didn’t need to.

Around 5pm, several bats started flying out of the cave…and they just kept coming. Over the next 45-60 minutes, a total of 2.5 million bats flew out of the cave, and another 1 million from the rear cave entrance.  It was the most incredible natural spectacle I have ever seen in my life.  All of the bats were flying towards Khao Yai where the insect-getting is good.  The stream(s) of bats were thick, usually 100-200 in any given 1 foot cross section of the funnel cloud.  It was basically a mile long thick funnel cake of bats.

And with the bats coming out, so did the bat-hawks.  Swooping 50-60 feet above the bats and having their fill on 3.5 million bats to choose from, Yo-Yo told us each hawk can eat 7-10 bats a night (bats were each 2 inches long or so).

The bats were hyper-sensitive to sound.  Any sort of noise from the ground would cause each of the 2000-4000 bats above to take sudden evasive maneuver.  Even simply making a quick “thhh” sound by pressing your tongue between your teeth and blowing would cause them to scatter – the bats would assume it was the wings of the bat-hawk approaching.  The last of the bats filtered out around 6pm to begin their nightly feast and we went home tired after a long but good day.

Elephant Rides!

The next day for lunch we had classic northeastern (Isan) Thailand lunch – Kai yaang (grilled chicken), som-tam (papaya salad) and khao niaw (sticky rice).  The salad was fantastic – it had peanuts, grated papaya, peppers, sugar, and lime.  The chicken barbeque was also good – fresh from the morning, as the other chickens running around the hut blissfully were in ignorance that they would be on the lunch menu on the following day.

Right after lunch we took a ride on an elephant.  The elephant was a gentle female and her rider guided her mostly through verbal commands.  Straddling the elephant’s head, you really get a sense for why these are the biggest and strongest land mammals on earth – their shoulder blades are huge and move up and down under your legs with each step.  The elephant was smart, would respond to commands to reach into the water with its trunk, draw some in, and then spray it (thankfully not on us). That didn’t stop her from occasionally using her trunk to grab nearby leaves and brush without command.  At the end of the ride, we fed her bananas – she didn’t bother peeling them, she liked grabbing them with her trunk and eating them whole.

Into Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) and No-mans land

After elephant riding, we left Pak Chong and took a bus to Khorat.  Northeastern Thailand is “no-mans land” in terms of communication.  English speakers are essentially non-existent, and we were the only non-Thais we saw during our time there.  At night, we took an interesting form of public transport (a truck that people would just hop on to) down to the Wat Boon Bazaar for some shopping and eating – things were cheaper here than in Bangkok.  The knockoff Ray Bans I had purchased for 200 Baht (after negotiations) in Bangkok were flatly listed at 50 Baht here in bazaar.

Phimai

The next day was a day trip Phimai to see Phimai Historical Park, which houses a temple built about 100 years before Angkor Wat.  The temple was cool but by no means mind blowing.  However, it will be interesting to see the stylistic similarities between Angkor Wat and Phimai, because many aspects of Angkor Wat were modeled after Phimai.

Into Cambodia and Siem Reap

Yesterday we crossed the border at ArrayanaPrathet (Thailand) into Poipet (Cambodia).  We took a taxi from Poipet to Siem Reap. Already a difference is noticeable – Cambodia is definitely less modern than Thailand, but that makes it all the more interesting.  Our ride to Siem Reap was an eye-full.  There are essentially no traffic laws except don’t hit the guy in front of you.  90% of the people on the road were on moto-bikes or bikes, many uniformed school children riding along the road after a day of school.  Rice fields on our left and right, and many a man wading chest deap in the water to collect the harvest.

Siem Reap is definitely becoming touristy.  Hotels are springing up all over and the U.S. dollar is the most common form of currency.  Lots of English speakers and backpackers.  Ben got a fish massage on his feet – he said it tickled.  50 cent beers at just about every bar, and lots of good food on “Pub Street.”

I am writing this blog entry this morning – because we like Siem Reap and because our hotel is so cheap (but still very nice), we’ve decided to spend at least 5 days here, and catch all we can of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

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