Sunday, December 2, 2007

Insane Jungle Trek - Trip Report

As of right now, I don't have the ability to edit photos and post them here, but I couldn't wait too long to write up the nutso 3-day, 2-night trek we just took near Um Phang.

Also, quick note, I can't be bothered to make sure I'm keeping all my tenses straight through this trip report, so bear with me on that front.

Leaving off from Bangkok... we caught a night bus to Mae Sot that was supposed to arrive at 6am... but actually arrived on the outskirts of the city at 4:30am. From there we grabbed a tuk tuk into town, but of course everything was closed down and asleep. Luckily we were able to wake up the hostel owner and get a bed for the rest of the night. The only downside: it was a dorm bed next to a fat guy in his underwear who had thrown up on himself. Meh, I was too tired to care.

Liz actually got up at a reasonable time and walked around Mae Sot taking pictures of a parade while I remained passed out until close to noon. We spent the rest of the day in Mae Sot and made plans to catch a song tau (spelled wrong; this is just how it's pronounced) to Um Phang the next morning. Um Phang is pronounced "oom pahng" in case you were wondering.

A little background on the song taus... they're basically Toyota trucks that have been modified with a steel cage on the back to comfortably accommodate 8 passengers. Of course there are usually a hell of a lot more than 8 passengers on them... you get 8 people inside, maybe 2 or 3 hanging off the back, sometimes one or two on the roof... and on ours, a damn motorcycle strapped right into the middle of the leg space, dangling off the back. One guy was riding on the motorcycle seat!

The road to Um Phang from Mae Sot also happens to be the most notoriously hilly and curvy in Thailand... just today I learned that it's sometimes referred to as the "death highway," supposedly because it's near the border and there was a lot of warfare there in the past... but the label is also fitting given the treacherousness of the road. Anyway, the ride over there wasn't terrible, only because I was too jammed in to notice all the insane twists and turns very much.

When we arrived, the song tau driver took us straight to the guest house/tour company that he has a deal with, and we listened to their spiel. But we had another place in mind that was recommended by our friend Austin, so we politely thanked the guest house owners and moved on.

Our place was called Garden Huts, and just as we were arriving we met another American couple that were staying there: Gavin and Emily from Seattle. Turns out they were heading out on a trek the next morning just like the one we were in the market for, so we asked if we could tag along.

Of course, we had to make it through the night first. It was [censored] cold in Um Phang! We had extra blankets and slept in all our clothes, but it was still freezing, and we didn't get much sleep.

The next day, we had to go through our bags and figure out what was coming along and what was staying behind in the tour group office. I didn't fully trust leaving a lot of valuable stuff there, but we ended up leaving our ipod in a locked bag and our passports and tickets buried in a huge bag full of clothes. It worked out fine and everything was still there when we returned, so this isn't foreshadowing some catastrophic event.... OR IS IT?

We finally got ready and jumped into the back of a song tau for the first part of the trek: River rafting. Not whitewater rafting... they assured us that the river was calm, and they were true to their word. We got out on the water and just enjoyed the spectacular views for a couple hours. There are massive cliffs like the ones at Yosemite... lush jungle foliage... crazy overhangs with dripping stalactites... and we saw a monkey or two up in the trees. We didn't even have to paddle... our two guides Victor and Johnny took care of steering and paddling.

We briefly de-rafted to have lunch and check out a hot spring. The spring was nice but nothing too special... we were sharing the thing with about two dozen other tourists (although they were all asians; we were the only farang), and they had this whole commercial setup where you could buy T-shirts, beer, whisky, you name it.

From the spring we took another song tau to our campsite. The guides give you surgical masks to wear during the ride to protect against dust, but they really weren't necessary. We had fun wearing them anyway, though. This is the part where I would post some awesome pics of us in our masks, but right now they're trapped in our digital camera.

Finally we arrived at the campground. It's huge... there are probably 100 tents set up with room for lots more. A big holiday is coming up (the king's 80th birthday) and the whole of Thailand is gearing up for a ridiculously massive celebration. But we did have our own spot off to the side a bit where we could chill out and drink Sang Som. Which is exactly what we did, after we sought out and purchased the last 750ml bottle of Sang Som in the entire camp.

After we killed the bottle, Gavin tracked down a thai tour group that had brought a guitar and busted out some good old American blues. He had played a few songs (and I was just about ready to introduce our thai friends to Weezer) when a camp official stopped by and told us that we had to be quiet because it was after 10pm. Kind of a bummer, but we were pretty exhausted after a poor night of sleep in Um Phang and a whole bottle of Sang Som, so we all went back and crashed.

Oh, I almost forgot: Before settling in for a night of drinking, guitar and playing with candles, we did actually check out the main attraction at the campsite... the Tee Lor Su waterfall. It was an easy, scenic 20 minute walk from the campsite along a concrete path.

The next day, after coffee, toast and eggs (our guides insisted on serving us this "American breakfast" every day), Johnny and Victor asked if we would like to hike to the top of the waterfall. Hell yes we would. So we swapped our Chacos for hiking boots (or in my case, Nike skate shoes) and headed out. This was a challenging hike. There is no official path up to the top of the waterfall; you just have to bushwhack your way up there. Technically, you're not supposed to go there; it's against the park's rules. But Johnny smuggled in a machete in the back of his pants, and, after hiking about halfway to the falls along the official trail, we turned right and started climbing up through the jungle.

About halfway up, we stopped and Johnny started chopping down some bamboo with his machete. It took us a while to realize what he was doing: Making bamboo cups for us to drink beer out of later that evening! That accomplished, we climbed the rest of the 200m (or so I read) to the top of the falls.

It was awesome up there... tons of different pools filled with all different levels of water... and insane views over the various edges of the falls. I have some pretty sick photos, but again, I can't post them yet. At one point, Gavin, Emily, Liz and I stood as near to the edge of the main falls as we dared, and we could see groups of tourists hundreds of feet down looking up at us.

The way back down was just as challenging... especially considering we had 3 more hours of hiking that afternoon to reach the Karen village.

Victor was particularly anxious, as we all wanted to reach the village in time to have a swim, and he seemed to be in charge of the timetable. So we geared up (this time carrying tons of sleeping bags which made our loads even heavier) and headed out.

We told Victor we could hike fast and beat the 3-hour estimate, and we did just that. But it was difficult, and we had to cross several treacherous bamboo bridges. Mom, you would have fainted. I don't have pictures of the most insane ones, but I do have a shot of a tricky one we crossed just after leaving the Karen village.

In any case, we arrived a tick over two hours later and headed down for a nice, cold swim. It was actually way too cold to be swimming, but after we hauled ass hiking for over two hours to get there, we had to give it a shot. And it ended up being pretty exhilarating... we swam across maybe 60 feet to a multi-layered cave with stalactites and warmer water... probably coming from a hot spring source nearby. It was so amazing it almost seemed like a man-made fountain; something you would find in Vegas. But it was completely natural and we had it all to ourselves. Incredible. Of course I couldn't swim across with my camera, so the only shot I have is from across the pool. I'll post it later and you can get some idea of what I'm talking about.

Back in the Karen village, we dried off and changed while Victor and some other guides worked on dinner. Also, we met our fellow dinner guests:

Opart, a thai restauranteur in his 50s from Mae Sot who had lived in Chicago for a time and spoke pretty good English. He was on a 4 day tour.

The Italian John Locke, some guy from La Spezia who looked exactly like John Locke from Lost and didn't speak much English. Luckily my Italian is still pretty solid so we were able to communicate well.

The Italian John Locke's Thai wife, no further explanation necessary.

At this point we had tracked down a case of large Beer Chang. Gavin broke out the dice and taught us a game called threes. The Italian guy and his wife were way into it, as was Victor. Opart rolled once but I think the game felt too much like gambling to him (even though no money was involved) and begged out. After dice we had an extremely spicy dinner and settled down to a noisy uncomfortable night of sleep.

At one point I had a dream that I was in a grocery store that allowed you to make your own Nutter Butter cookies. You had to crack open peanuts and then spread the peanut butter from inside on the cookies. I was waiting in line for a chance to do this when I noticed green bugs everywhere and lost my appetite. All throughout the night I had kind of scary bug dreams (when I was actually asleep, which I would estimate was less than 3 hours), but in the morning, there were no scary bugs (or mosquitos) to be found on the outside of our mosquito net.

The final day of the trek would prove to be the most interesting and challenging. We packed up again, still carrying 8 extra sleeping bags (I had 4 crammed into my pack and Gavin had the rest), for a 2-hour hike. This is the part of the trek where, if you pay extra, you can ride an elephant. But we all felt like that was kind of mean to the elephants, so we opted out. I still think it was a good decision, but this hike was a son of a bitch.

It was only 2 or 2.5 hours, but MAN it was over some rough terrain! Constantly up and downhill, over a track with giant potholes (like 3 feet deep) created by the elephants. Once we got close to the end, Victor told us that we were about to "go swimming" to cross the river, and then we'd be done.

I was skeptical. I'm like, "Victor, how are we going to swim with our backpacks?"

He took his pack off and held it over his head, indicating that we'd be able to walk across the river. Okay, cool.

But when we actually reached the bank, I knew that wasn't happening. The river was about 40 or 50 feet across, deep and swift. Victor headed around the corner to find the raft that was supposed to be there for situations like this, when the river is too big, but it wasn't there.

While Gavin, Emily, Liz and I were scratching our heads about what to do, Victor stripped down to his skivvies and attempted to ford the river with his backpack held high over his head.

Did I mention that Victor is about 4'10" and maybe 100 pounds soaking wet?

He headed into the river as we watched, fascinated. He got about 20 feet in and the water was only up to his chest. Wow, maybe he's actually going to make it!

Alas, a few steps more and he was up to his neck, then one last step and his head went under the backpack. We gasped, but he popped up a second later, sort of pushed the backpack in the direction he wanted to go, and swam until he could touch again.

Just when I was about to resign myself to the fact that my bag was going to get wet, Victor called out from across the river: He could see the raft about 50 feet down the beach! We climbed up the embankment and hiked over to check it out.

The raft was made of bamboo and like 20 feet long, with an elevated middle section for bags and passengers. And there was a rope tied all the way across the river; presumably to guide the boat since the current was really strong.

Liz and I hopped on first with our bags. We had packed the really obviously water-sensitive stuff, like digital cameras, in a dry-bag.

Now this is the part where I wish I had taken an extra moment to consider exactly what was about to happen before we got started. But Victor seemed anxious and told me to sit tight, so I did just that. But I kept my eye on the rope and told Liz to be ready to grab it just in case.

We pushed off from the shore and immediately got caught in the current. Victor grabbed the rope, but when I looked over, he seemed overwhelmed with the strength of the water and about to fall off. I shouted at Liz, "grab the rope!" and moved to do so myself.

We both grabbed the rope and tugged against the force of the current. But the boat had swung around perpendicular to the force of the current, and was being dragged under rather than across. In an instant the boat flipped and everything was in the water... bags included. We were right in the middle of the river... the water was probably 10 feet deep and the current was strong... but according to Gavin and Emily, Liz and I made it back onto the boat in an instant with both the bags.

But poor Victor was the only thing keeping our whole operation from floating off down the river... and he was hanging on to our 20-foot boat literally by one foot! Gavin, a former lifeguard, dove in and came to Victor's aid. Together they managed to nudge the boat (now parallel with the current) to the other shore so we could unload.

Turns out that this is the only way the boat operates... you have to let it swing all the way around so it gets parallel, then you wrap a chain around the rope and nudge it across. Another guide had arrived by the time our fiasco was over, and Liz and I watched him guide Emily and Gavin across with ease.

The damage: No electronics were ruined, but all my clothes got wet. My moleskin notebook soaked up some riverwater and is now bloated and filled with runny ink. Our plastic pokerstars playing cards were intact. We lost our roll of toilet paper!

Overall, it wasn't that bad, and probably the absolute worst thing that could have happened would have been if our stuff had floated away downstream beyond recovery. Liz and I weren't in any danger, as we are both decent swimmers and could have made it to the other side without a problem (albeit waaaaaay further downstream than we would have liked). And now it's just an interesting story and an incredible experience that I won't soon forget.

After our Oregon Trail-like river disaster (I got dysentary; Liz lost all her bullets), the ride along "death highway" back to Mae Sot was a breeze. And here I am today, getting all my wet clothes laundered and preparing to head over to Sukhothai, for a slightly more relaxing portion of the trip.

I plan to continue updating the blog with text, and I'll backfill with photos as soon as I get a chance to download and edit them. Until then....

No comments: