From the mouth of the park to the belly of the beast we travelled. We streamed through the ticket booth (40 baht entry after flashing my student ID) and zipped across the lake, flying towards a horizon broken up by rounded mountains. They lined the edge of Cheow Larn Lake, gnarled like the broken teeth of some Thai elder resting deep in a distant rural region. The boat extended before me as sleek and narrow as a lizard tongue snapping at the air. The air was moist and hazy. The region seemed to be exhaling. The sun hid behind a sheet of clouds—the roof of the mouth was clamped shut. Still, it was a far cry from the absolute darkness of the belly I would stumble through two hours into the tour.
It was my second day at Khao Sok a national park in the southern Thai province, Surat Thani. I’d signed up for a 1,500 baht one-day tour of Cheow Larn Lake.
At 8 a.m. a songthaew trundled up to carry me to the lake. Piling in with visitors from Germany, Belgium, England and Australia we took off down the road with a sleepy cheer—you know the kind where you lift your arm in a defiant go-get-‘em fist, while not bothering to lift you head from whatever improvised pillow you have.
When we screeched to a halt at the lake some of the tourists jumped out—having been slapped awake by the cold air slamming through the open truck bed—while others sloshed out, unfazed and quietly half-snoozing under their bundle of clothes. Nothing short of a jab of coffee would wake that half up.
Herding us onto the dock like cattle—I kid you not, it had the resemblance of a branding pen and the guides at the back stopped just short of spreading their arms to shoo us through—we were loaded onto a long boat. In my enthusiasm I managed to snatch a front seat. The spray hit me relentlessly but it was invigorating. I was as gleeful as a kid with a spray bottle.
On our way we overtook and found ourselves overtaken by a steady line of boats heading to and from their secret bases. Sometimes the boatmen indulged in small drag races, but more often they ignored the other boats.
The tourists were too busy dodging the spray and gawking at the gapless mountains anyway.
It felt unnatural, the mountains rising from the water as they did. The lakes in the Rockies in Canada squeezed between rows of mountains. Here some of the mountains stood apart as though they’d grown sick of the geographic gossip, hitched up their skirts and shuffled to open space to become solitary hermits.
The trees, needless–to-say were not happy with this development and found themselves marooned.
Rounding one more unidentified corner (how do they know where they are going anyway?) the tour group and I found our sights resting on a tiny string of bamboo cabins. From a distance they seemed to hug the shore, but upon closer inspection we discovered that they in fact stretched out over the water. It was a floating village.
Our boat, a hungry cow heading home for feed, darted into an opening among the others and shrugged in tight before being tied to the dock. The wooden planks creaked ominously as we stepped out of the boat.
This is fine I thought to myself as I clutched my camera close, a rickety walkway over water is better than a rickety bridge over a span of air, a rickety walkway over water is better than a rickety bridge over air, a rickety walkway… and so it went until I safely set my camera in a room (gasp) and took off for a swim.
Massive floating logs lashed into a protective ring provided an excellent platform for climbing from the water, strutting and leaping back in with a pompous splash. Three kayaks switched hands as people explored the area. “Stay away from the edge of the forest!” shouted one passing boatman, “spiders!”
Lunch was served as we dripped dry. After lunch we were bundled aboard the boat once more. Grudgingly it bumped its way out of the herd and set off for our next destination. The cave. Namtaloo Cave.
A narrow channel of water provided a close-up view of the jungle. I was on the lookout for spiders. Do they leap from trees?
We slid to a stop at the edge of the forest spreading around the end of the channel.
It was time to trek.
Taking to the land like the explorers of old, but certainly dressed nothing like them (seriously flip-flops?) we set forth into the “wild”.
Skipping over tree stumps and stubble stones I noticed that we never fully left the lake behind. When small creeks did not run across our path, waves of bamboo stalks crashed overhead.
I furtively snapped photos of things I found curious as we pushed on. The tour technique of dash-snap-snap-snap-dash quickly set my pace. This always happens in groups.
A section of speed demons with athletic vigor and enthusiastic spunk would lead the group, zigzagging through the forest like the roots and rocks are one big obstacle course.
After they had crashed through, tranquility would settle in the area for a time and then the lumbering crew at the back would trudge by. They’d often be the more vocal of the two sections and host more people.
Age wasn’t a factor for which section someone settled in, one child could be up front while another hung back, an old woman could settle into step with the lead speed-walker just as easily as one could be holding up the group. It was just people. Some liked the pace, some like the view, some liked the company and some just wanted the destination more than the journey or visa versa.
This works to the advantage of photographers—or at least newbies like me who need to stop and think to get a good picture.
Oh, and it’s the best exercise out there. Yay! Photography and exercise!
Of course, often this ensures I don’t have my eyes on the path and sure enough a patch of slick mud found its way under my shoe and took off with it.
My camera dove for a mud bath as it shifted from my side (I’d had the strap slung over one shoulder and across my chest) but its desperate dive was halted as my knees and hands shoved the ground away. Or rather they shoved my body away. I’d lose at who-pushes-who in a push-a-war with the Earth. Actually, I wouldn’t win either?
After standing and finger-painting my shirt with the mud from my knees and hands a glance at my camera told me it may not have failed in its attempt at suicide after all. Shrieking (inwardly I hope) I yanked it to my face. Some mud was draped on the hinge holding the screen and across the port doors. Carefully, (I think) dabbing the muck away with my shirt I feverishly, but carefully, used water from my water bottle to drain away the remaining mud. Steeling myself I opened the port doors. My air couldn’t have escaped faster as I let it out in relief. Mud had leaked inside but it wasn’t terrible. The worst hit was the hinge.
Cradling my camera I walked on. The camera still worked. It was fine.
Veering around a few more corners unflinchingly my eyes deserted their watch duty once more more as I stood before the mouth of Namtaloo Cave.
“The one that water runs through” was ready to swallow us whole.