Welcome To The Jungle: Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park

Waterfall in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I was 12 years old when I discovered the jungle wasn’t for me, and I hadn’t even been to one yet.

It was “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World” that did it for me. Enthralled though I was by the idea of a Professor Challenger-esque expeditionary jaunt into unchartered territory, I was quite perturbed by some scenes in the movie. Even when you took away the dinosaurs, the tropical landscape seemed treacherous and thick with danger.

For instance, even the ground was unreliable. More than one character in the movie slipped on the unpredictable muddy jungle floor, often accompanied by a onomatopoeic schlippp and was promptly eaten. The hippie paleontologist lost his footing on wet rock. Crunch. “That’s not for me,” I thought. I don’t care for the wet.

Then the “moveable feast” fled through a break in the woods and into the long grass. “Don’t go into the long grass!” one of the characters urgently and repeatedly screamed as they did, and I nodded yes, listen to that man – for the long grass hid dozens of velociraptors. And, I thought, thousands of leeches. Sound advice either way.

Several years later I went on a jungle trek in Costa Rica, which I anticipated with a certain amount of dread. The real thing was stickier, itchier, sweatier and wetter. In short, it was much worse. The real world, as I discovered was far more sinister than “The Lost World.”

But I’m nothing if not forgiving. I gave jungles repeated chances throughout my travels via a certain amount of self-inflicted amnesia and a masochistic determination to enjoy the ecosystem. I like the idea of the jungle in principle – full of life, and so on. So I hiked in India, Malaysia and other tropical places, each time with the same itchy, sticky, anxiety-inducing result.

Then I heard about Khao Yai National Park, supposedly one of Thailand’s unsung treasures, and I knew it was time to test myself again.It’s Thailand’s most popular park, but the vast majority of tourists are Thai. Some 74,000 foreigners visited in 2011, which sounds like a lot. But compare that to Phuket, Koh Samui or Chiang Mai, which each receive over 2 million foreign visitors a year. Around 240,000 foreigners visit out-of-the-way Sukhothai, a six- or seven-hour bus ride from Bangkok. Khao Yai, as far as Thailand goes, remains “undiscovered.”

With a quixotic resolve I decided to check it out, and I made the 125-mile drive in good time, paying my $16 entrance fee and $1 camping fee as I rolled in during the early afternoon. I had seen an elephant by the side of the road on the way in. “This is promising,” I thought.

My second wildlife experience came soon after, as I rounded a bend and almost ran over an entire troop of pig-tailed macaques. They ambled up onto a guardrail and watched me blankly as I drove by. I have had some particularly poor experiences with macaques, who I consider to be the jerks of the jungle. Yet these simply stared at me placidly. The jungle was increasing in esteem in my mind.

Macaques in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

To be fair, I hadn’t left my car, nor had I been in the jungle, really. But that such simple things would improve my opinion of this place should indicate how much of a nightmare I had come to consider it to be. I stopped at the small park canteen and ate a notably average late lunch, and my opinion of the jungle soared yet again.

My campsite was located in a pleasant clearing, and I was one of only four other campers there. We were outnumbered almost 10-1 by a herd of sambar deer, the most bovine representatives of the family cervidae. A small pond broke melodically into a wide and short waterfall just beyond my tent, the soft music of which was joined by the near-ceaseless chomping of the campsite’s immobile platoon of ruminants. I counted this as another point for the jungle. Just as I was thinking this, a Great Hornbill soared overhead and planted itself on a tree at the edge of the forest. “Wow,” I thought. “Maybe I have the jungle all wrong.”

As the sun went down, I met an old German couple that told me they were going on a night safari, and would I like to join? Of course I did. We hopped in the back of a pick-up and with the aid of a massive spotlight were able to spot several porcupines, some muntjacs, civet cats and even an Asian narrow-headed soft-shelled turtle. “This is going swimmingly,” I thought, and congratulated myself on my own perseverance.

I went to bed early in a positive frame of mind. As I fell asleep to the sound of pattering rain on the tent roof and the incessant mastication of the vigilant deer, I noted to myself with a certain amount of foreboding that I had yet to actually go into the jungle proper.

Sabar deer in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

In the morning I awoke with a start to the sound of car tires on gravel right next to my tent and checked the time: 4:45 a.m. “I wonder who would be leaving now,” I thought. It’s still dark. I listened more closely. The car appeared to be rolling back and forth just next to my head, tires crunching gravel. But I heard no engine. It stopped unexpectedly and I fell asleep but awoke minutes later to the same noise. I rolled over and unzipped the flap ready to deliver an inquisition. Bursting forth from the flap a terrified group of sambar deer bounded away. They had been ripping up the grass on all sides of my tent. I grabbed a handful and yanked, and it sounded like the crunch of a car tire on gravel. What I thought was a car was just a herd of insatiable deer.

I fell back asleep and awoke again 30 minutes later when the deer returned. I yelled and heard them stop. They resumed moments later. I tried to sleep, tossing and turning for another hour, dreaming of eating venison. Eventually I admitted defeat and tore down my campsite. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll get a good start on the day.”

Clothed and fed, I arrived at the trailhead for what was to be a five-hour walk, passing through long grass, a salt lick where I hoped to see elephants and, finally, the heavily treed forest where if I was lucky I might spot some gibbons.

The rain from the night before had made the path through the grassland extremely slick. I stopped and read a sign that had been covered by long pointy grass. Cogon grass, it said, is “… a favorite food for sambar deer and guar. Once mature, however, the leaves become hard and develop sharp, serrated edges that deter foraging animals and can cut curious humans.” Don’t go into the long grass.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

On the way to the forest I passed the salt lick. The only evidence of elephants was a giant pile of dung. One can’t fault the elephants for not being around, I thought, and went on into the forest.

No sooner had I passed the treeline than my head became the focal point for the errant orbit of several large biting insects. They seemed impervious to the bug-spray shower I had taken that morning.

I pressed on, slipping along the muddy path and sweating heavily inside my jacket. It was only 9 in the morning and the sky was overcast, but the humidity was intolerable. I had a choice between exposing my skin to all manner of itchy things or mentally working through my portable sweat lodge. I went with the sweat lodge.

It’s extremely difficult to actually see anything interesting in the jungle. For one, the dense canopy makes it much darker at ground level. Since the jungle can be so thick even at eye level, you’re depth of field is limited as well. Add to this the fact that most animals don’t want to be seen or live in the canopy a hundred feet up and you don’t see much fauna of any note. Mostly, you see fungi and bugs – bugs that seem bent on using your body as a ladder, ambulatory transport or food.

Fungi in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

It had occurred to me as I was swatting things off and looking despairingly for any sign of quadrupedic or avian life that I had seen numerous paths diverge from what I judged was the main route. It had also occurred to me I had seen no signs on which to base this judgment. And then as the cloud of flying things around my head thickened and the clamor of the jungle swelled to a dull roar, I walked into a small clearing in which there were no signs but some four or five distinctive paths leading out.

At a loss and trying to wrest my sanity back from the little buzzing satellites around my ears, I plowed on down my best guess. Some 30 minutes later, the jungle was thicker and the path was winding down a steep muddy slope. I had the sense I was heading the wrong way, but there was no way to tell. Then, schlippp. Airborne and horizontal above a muddy hill. I thought, “Jungle, you got me again.”

Three hours into my walk and covered in mud, sweat and insect bits, I emerged into a field – the same field I had entered from. Notably, this wasn’t supposed to be an out-and-back hike. I had been turned around completely at some point, but I didn’t care. I was in the long grass, which at this point was much preferable to the jungle.

Caterpillar in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I stomped out of the forest, past the salt lick, across the field of grass that wanted to watch me bleed and into the parking lot. I went to take a photo of the lethal grass for posterity and noticed my lens cap had gone missing. The jungle had truly taken its pound of flesh.

As I approached my car, the old German couple was standing under an umbrella gazing up at a tree and making quiet exclamations. I paused to greet them, and they looked at me slightly unnerved, taking a step back. I realized I must look out of sorts. They recomposed themselves and the husband, cleared his throat. “Look,” he motioned to the tree, “gibbons!”

I looked up at the gibbons and sighed. Then I looked down at my feet. Grinning to myself, I pointed at my legs. “Look,” I said to the Germans, “leeches!” I had acquired some five or six now-bloated passengers on my expedition. They looked at me smiling at them enthusiastically, which in retrospect I realize doesn’t make me seem all that sane, and they took another step back. I flicked off the leeches and waved the Germans goodbye.

Jungle Valley in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I changed out of my filthy, sweaty clothes and drove off through the park, cursing the jungle. “This is the last time,” I thought. Then I passed a lookout, with a stunning view of a deep-green valley suffused with low-lying cloud. During the pause, I reflected on everything pre-trek. I realized that I like the jungle in theory, but I prefer to see it through a pane of glass or an elevated position.

But with time comes reflection. And due to my more-than-tolerable experience at Khao Yai the night prior to my own personal “Jurassic Park” sequel, my jungle rating had been raised from mild hatred to general disdain. I don’t think there’s a much higher recommendation I could give to Khao Yai.

Learn Spanish With Lonely Planet’s Fluent Road

Learn Spanish Fluent Road
Courtesy of FluentRoad.com

Traveling to Spain or Latin America this summer and want to say more than “Donde esta el bano?” (though, that’s an important one to know)? Lonely Planet has just launched a new online foreign language program, Fluent Road, partnering with Spanish language program Fluenz. The focus is on Spanish for now, but you can choose from dialects from Argentina, “neutral” Latin America, Mexico, or Spain.

Fluent Road is designed for travelers to get the basics before a trip: Spanish for transportation, finding accommodation, ordering food, etc. It’s also a good stepping-stone to a more intensive learning program, and travelers could easily work up to a Fluenz course after completing Fluent Road. What differentiates this from other language learning like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur is a dissection of the language, showing you how Spanish works and providing explanations, not just rote immersion. Fluenz founder and avid traveler Sonia Gil guides you through obstacles, pronunciation, and practice speaking, writing and reading as a native speaker and “language geek.”

As with all online learning, you can go at your own pace; there are 30 video lessons that can be completed in one to six months. Other useful features include the ability to record yourself to compare pronunciation a native Speaker, and customizable digital flash cards to help practice. You can also contact the teacher and program designer via Twitter.

Take a free 12-hour trial now, subscriptions start from $9 for a month to $30 for six months of access, at www.fluentroad.com.

Video Of The Day: Modern Day ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’

Before beginning his doctorate in biomedical sciences, “Alex the Adventure Biker” took a break to realize his lifelong dream: to ride a motorcycle through the Americas. Over the course of nearly a year and a half, he rode his bike through 22 countries as he made his way from El Paso, Texas, to Argentina and then back up through Brazil and all the way to Alaska – a journey of more than 82,000 miles.

“In short I drove solo half way around the world, through interstates, highways, dirt roads, no roads, mud, rivers, through hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, rain, hail, sun shine, snow, ice roads you name it and I made it back,” the adventurous biker wrote on his website. Ride along and check out the varied landscape as he saw it (and some disco dancing, too) in the video above, which was created from more than 600 hours of footage.

Sonya Looney: World-Class Mountain Biker, Traveler

The only thing Sonya Looney racks up faster than victories on the international mountain bike circuit is frequent flier miles.

Between racing and her day job – she works in sales and marketing for Ergon, one of her cycling sponsors – Looney’s on the road two weeks out of every month, so she’s picked up her share of favorite spots across the globe. Stamps from Haiti, Nepal, Germany, Costa Rica and Brazil line the pages of her passport.

But despite visiting some of the most breathtakingly beautiful spots across the globe, it can be hard for the Topeak Ergon Racing Team rider to focus on the scenery as she’s screaming by on her Canyon mountain bike.

Although the fun-loving Looney has the effervescent air of the stereotypical girl next door, she’s an incredible competitor and a tough-as-nails athlete, as evidenced by her multiple national cycling championships and incredible racing pedigree. During the recent 10-day Yak Attack in Nepal – she won the overall race in 2012 and finished first among women in 2013 – Looney trudged through knee-deep snow up the 18,000-foot Thorong La Pass, her bike on her back. Following the oxygen-starved, three-hour trek up the mountain, she then had to descend back down the same way.

Considered the hardest mountain bike race in the world, the 160-mile La Ruta de los Conquistadores forces riders to climb more than 20,000 muddy vertical-feet over three sweltering hot days. Illness forced her to drop out after 6 miles on day two, but Looney decided to ride the 43-mile finale the next day for fun. That fun included gingerly crossing a rickety railroad trestle 200-feet over a crocodile-infested river before finishing on the gorgeous La Playa Bonita beach on the Caribbean Sea.
Looney was gracious enough to share some of her experiences with Gadling.

What’s your favorite place that you’ve visited?

My favorite country so far has been Nepal. I love the warm people, the culture, the contrast between different cities, the (mountains), great options for photography, and all the different activities. The country is a huge playground. There are also lots of opportunity to do volunteer and non-profit work. I’d love to go live there for six months doing just that!

I often have to get back pretty quickly after a stage race because I had to take time off work to go. I would love to have another week to just travel, relax and explore. I normally get two days post-race to hang out before heading home. I love to go for rides exploring the area, walking for hours, checking out the architecture, and eating all the different foods. I’ll dabble before a race, but I’m always concerned with staying healthy. I’ll go for shorter walks and be more cautious with food and drinks. After the race, it feels less stressful because the consequences of being overly tired or sick are way less severe!

I love visiting new places because it always gives me a new perspective. Of course, the more obscure the place, the more out of my comfort zone I get. Even though it’s sometimes a challenge, I love to be put into different situations. Plus, it makes traveling in the US seem so easy! I love making new friends, and seeing how other people live their lives.

What are some of the problems with flying with a bike?

If you can, weigh your bags in advance. There’s nothing worse than having to open up your bike case to take stuff out in the middle of an airport. That said, if you have extra weight leftover to bring you to 50 pounds, put a few things in the bike box.

My bike has never been damaged in transit. I use an Evoc case, and previously used cardboard boxes. I take great care to pack my bike properly. However, an airline has lost my bike before. I was going to Brazil for a stage race. The airline lost both my bike and my suitcase – as well as my teammate’s who was on a separate flight – for days, and I couldn’t start the race. It was very stressful and very disappointing. They gave me a small travel voucher, but it didn’t even come close to covering the cost and the loss of experience from their negligence.

Favorite souvenir?

I don’t really have a favorite I can recall. I like to buy local art or handmade crafts from wherever I go and decorate my house. I got a couple of really cool paintings from Haiti that are my favorites right now. I also bought a mandala from Nepal that is about to get framed that I’m pretty excited about.

Favorite foreign dish?

I really love the Pad Thai I had in Bangkok this year. I had a day there passing through and ate as much Thai food as I could. I know that sounds boring and generic, but it was really freaking good! It had these little salty, dried shrimps in it, too. I love the Pao de Queso from Brazil, too. It’s this doughy cheesy bread ball. So good! I used to love Chicken Tikka Masala until I got food poisoning (on the plane ride home) … I still can’t eat it.

Oddest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Yak cheese pizza. The smell still makes me gag! I need to spend more time in the Asian countries to get a fun answer for this one! Chilled Monkey Brains? (Like Indiana Jones! Hehe.)

You’re leaving for two weeks. What’s in your suitcase?

It just so happened I packed my suitcase for two weeks yesterday! Camera, spare memory cards, laptop, iPod, bike shoes, helmet, pedals, ride clothes for different temperatures, running shoes, bright socks, sunglasses, ball cap, skort, flip flops, Garmin, Gortex jacket, a few dresses, a pair of fun wedge shoes, my favorite T-shirts, down jacket, fun earrings, everyday clothes, race stuff if I’m racing. It really sort of depends where I’m going!

Must-have travel item?

My iPod and my camera. I love music. It also really helps me sleep in places that do not have quiet nights … think dogs barking, roosters crowing and people talking. I take tons of photos; I rarely leave home without a camera.

Best travel tip?

Frequent flier? Flying domestic? Buy the Classic Fare on Frontier. If you have a bike and a piece of luggage, it ends up being cheaper because there are no baggage fees and you get extra perks with it as well.

For international travel, I like a window seat. I can sleep if I put one foot up and I normally put it on the back of the armrest of the seat in front of me without my foot getting in the way (of the other person. I can also sleep if I slouch down and curl into a ball against the wall and turn on my iPod.

[Photos supplied by Sonya Looney]

Saying ‘No’ To Add-Ons At The Car Rental Counter

Thrifty Car RentalI’m a rental car company’s worst customer. I always refuse all the additional insurance coverage options, the pre-paid fuel option and the toll pass. I bring my own GPS and car seats for my little boys, I tend to say, “no thanks” when they tell me I can upgrade for a fee, and I often prepay for my rental cars on Priceline. Usually car rental agents size me up as a cheapskate and quickly hand over the keys to a car, but a gentleman at the Thrifty branch at San Francisco International Airport actually almost managed to sell me something last week. Almost.

He seemed strangely dismayed when I told him I had my own GPS and car seats and didn’t want to pre-pay for my fuel or “upgrade” to an SUV. And then he threw me for a loop asking for proof that I had liability insurance when I told him I wanted to decline coverage because my credit card company would cover it.

“Do you have proof?” he repeated.”What, you mean a photocopy of my insurance coverage?” I asked, confused.

Indeed that was what he wanted, and I told him that in 20 years of renting cars no one had ever asked me for it.

“But this is California,” he protested. “If you get pulled over, you’re going to need proof. You’ll get a ticket.”

I told him I’d take my chances and he moved on to his final sales pitch: a toll pass.

“You’ll need a toll pass,” he insisted.

I actually thought about getting one, but when he told me they cost $9.95 a day or $39.95 per week plus whatever toll charges one accrues, I told him I’d pass.

“But are you going across the Golden Gate Bridge?” he asked.

“I don’t really know,” I admitted, “probably.”

“Well,” he said, sounding pleased with himself, “You’ll need the toll pass then because there’s no one there to collect money any more.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but I later looked it up and found out that he was right – sort of. As of late March, cash is not accepted at the iconic bridge, built in 1937, heading into San Francisco (it’s free heading north bound), so you have to call a telephone number (1-877-Bay-toll during bankers hours only, Monday-Saturday) and pay the fee before crossing the bridge. (Those who used the bridge often can buy a digital transponder that deducts money from a prepaid account or credit card.)

I told him I’d take my chances and, after I asked about how to cross the bridge, he handed me a flyer detailing the above procedure. Feeling exhausted from all the sales pitches, I asked him what kind of cars he had available.

“You don’t get a choice,” he said.

The last time I rented from Thrifty was in Costa Rica and that experience was less than positive as well, as they quoted me a price and then doubled it (unstated mandatory insurance) when I got to the counter. I’ve had two strikes with Thrifty in 2013 after numerous positive experiences in the past, but to be fair to them, I think these heavy handed sales tactics are becoming common for all the major car rental companies, as they seek new revenue streams.

Thrifty and some of the other discount chains advertise low prices so to make up for that they have to try to sell you add-ons. And their agents no doubt have goals and incentives to try to up-sell as many clients as possible.

What’s the take away here? First, if you’re visiting San Francisco, be aware of the situation at the Golden Gate Bridge but don’t think you have to necessarily buy a toll pass. With respect to the insurance, it probably is a good idea to travel with a copy of whatever policy you’ll be using. And as for all the other add-ons, GPS, car seats, upgrades, prepaying fuel and the rest, well, buyer beware.

[Photo credit: Birdie Holsclaw on Flickr]