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Southern Thailand Hiking
For my whole life I’ve wanted to do something that would make the bond between Man and Nature more intimate. The ultimate would be if that something was an ‘everyone wins’ situation. I include Nature in this scenario. If whatever we do at PaddleAsia isn’t sustainable, then we won’t do it. This would be a fine dream for anyone who wholeheartedly cherished Nature. This dream has become a reality.
Imagine a chunk of peaceful jungle in Southern Thailand that hosts haughty cascading waterfalls in a setting of old-growth tropical forest. With the aid of my favorite hiking/climbing guide, Aew, this is exactly what we found.
Aew grew up in a small back-road village in Phang Nga Province. His house is simple, yet holds its own charm. To the south of this village lies Phang Nga Bay, a world-renown tourist destination and a place that generates a lot of income for a lot of Thais. Phuket and Krabi feed the hordes of tourists everything they need and a lot they don’t. Thailand has a problem: mass tourism is killing both the culture and the environment. The magic is dying. It’s not the fault of anyone in particular. It’s a blend that accommodates the mindset of a large number of tourists. It’s simply a case of supply and demand. Many tourists want nothing more than a somewhat clean beach, lots of alcohol, and for a large number of them, lots of beautiful women. The locals, seeing a way to sustain their family’s livelihood, have housed them in hotels, bungalows and bars. Many tours suit this classic tourist way of thinking. It’s all about numbers. The more tourists they take on their tours, the more money they make. There is another side of Thailand that invites anyone who wants a real experience in both the best that Thai culture has to offer as well as the best that Thai Nature has to offer.
Recently, Aew has been chatting with me about some mountains close to his home. The subject first came up when we were atop of Will Hill in Khao Sok National Park back in January of 2004. From our lofty perch, we could see a mountain in the distance. Aew said, “My dad took me up that hill when I was young.” I saw a sparkle in his eyes as he said it. Since then, Aew and I have been climbing hill on every opportunity we have had.
Aew has a refreshing wholesomeness that makes every inch that we climb, even more gratifying. Aew represents authentic Thailand culture. He’s a very polite and a kind young man. As a child I loved the mountains. I always wanted to live in the mountains, but I’ve always lived by the seas. I’ve got both now and Aew is my guide to this special spot that only he and his fellow villagers know.
So Aew and I had been talking. He said we should go chat with his brother as his brother and one other guy knew a lot about a mountain range. This is their hunting territory. He said that we’d be able to find a relatively easy way to the top of a mountain where we would be able to see Phang Nga Bay if we looked south and Khao Sok National Park if we looked north. And, he added, there is a lovely creek with three stunning waterfalls on the first section of trails. Well, this I had to see. It sounded too good to be true. We met Aew’s brother Lek, and set it up.
Aew’s brother, Lek (which means small in Thai), is a very likeable guy. I got good vibes from him this first meeting. That meeting took place at a job where Lek was painting a temple. He’s one year older than Aew, but Aew did something that Lek didn’t do—he left home.
Aew became a kayaking guide for one of Thailand’s pioneering paddling company called SeaCanoe. Aew learned how to speak English and he worked his butt off to support himself and his son. Aew joined PaddleAsia last year and he’s been the hardest working guide I’ve ever seen. He goes well beyond the call of duty.
So let me break it down to you…
We’re set to go up a mountain in Aew’s home village with his brother. This is just our first look as we plan on visiting much more often if I liked what I saw. I had no doubts that I’d like it. Little did I know what we in store.
We woke to a beautiful morning in what’s supposed to be the wettest month of the year. Departing Phuket, we headed out of “tourist central” in search of the real thing. We stopped at a restaurant at a gas station that we eat at quite often. The variety of food is outstanding and authentic… no touristy food here.
We arrived at Aew’s parent’s house and grabbed Lek. Next, we headed to the other guide’s house. He was known to be a skillful hunter in the area where we’re going. I was soon to find out what a hunter’s knowledge can also be used for. We arrived at Yan’s humble home and as it often typical in Thai society, he had a buddy, named Oh, with him. I didn’t know that there would be three guides for little old me. Aew has certainly told his brother that PaddleAsia was a place that wasn’t afraid to pay a decent wage for a decent day’s work. All three freelance laborers jumped at the opportunity to work with me.
Our first task out of my truck was to cross a fairly big creek. My local guides virtually ran across it. Now I consider myself to be pretty fit and to have good balance. But, I needed a stick. Aew got the message and found a long piece of bamboo for me. I could have done it without the stick of course, but I had my mobile phone in my pack. Er… uh, yep, that’s the reason why I didn’t brave the crossing without a crutch.
Once on the other side, our first steps were nearly straight up. I queried Aew about it. He passed the message on. The message back was that it would only be like this for a bit. We struggled on. The trail tapered off within a few minutes and we started hearing the heavy sound of falling water. The reverberations grew as we hiked on. My heart started racing for a new, though very familiar, natural cause. This was what I was dreaming about.
We came upon a waterfall that rivals any I’ve seen in Southern Thailand and I’ve been around. I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of nice waterfalls and a few outstanding ones. This fell into the last category. From a lofty height, water plummeted towards us. We had arrived at the first waterfall. Before we reached the bottom lower level of the falls, we down-climbed a switch-back trail. This made the steep gradient an easy chore. Lek took to the water and obviously felt the magic of the moment. His lean body bent forward to splash water on his face. He threw his head back. He was as in the moment as I was. I could feel it. Lek, though a hunter at times, truly loves being in the jungle. I took pictures, but no picture, even the moving types, can do true justice to the moment.
On our way back up, Yan spotted a snake in a small tree. I couldn’t find it at first as it was well camouflaged against its wooden abode. It was a bright green Bamboo Pit-viper! It was a big one. He was a healthy male, identified easily by his dark brown tail. What a specimen. I marveled as I crept forward with my camera. “How close should I get?” And, “From an environmentally-conscious, how close should I get?” I took a deep breath and hit the zoom button. I ain’t no Steve Erwin!
We continued up the trail. We came to an unusual trough. I listened as Lek pointed out to Aew that this was an irrigation ditch for a tin mine down in the valley. Aew already knew this, but Lek told him again anyway in case he had forgotten his roots.
During this hike, I was wearing my Vasque hiking boots. Yon was in 50¢ flip flops. I lost my footing from time to time. Yon was usually the guy who helped me back up. I craved my running shoes. That’s what I usually wear when hiking, climbing or running in the mountains. They have more give, allowing more contact with the ground. The idea of ‘edging’ with a hard sole soon impressed me as a foolish wish. I should have stuck with what worked. Luckily at the ripe young age of 38 (soon to be 39 on Oct 17th of next month), I’m able to bounce back from little falls. I do admit that I used to bounce higher though.
The second waterfall was not quite as impressive and not easy to access. We marveled at it from a point higher up the canyon that the creek formed. We walked on.
The third waterfall was the most impressive. It cascaded down the crooked rock trough. The gray limestone was marbled with strips of white limestone. The sparklingly clear cool water snaked it way to the precipice. We broke out lunch. The guides brought out some sour orange fish curry and some pickled fish that Yon made. I loved the pickled fish. In the nearly twelve years that I’d lived in Thailand, this was the first time I’d had the particular dish. Impromptu plates were made from big leaves. We all sat in one of the most lovely restaurants that Thailand has to offer… total bliss was ours to inhale freely.
The climb down was easy. Upon reaching the bottom, we headed for a little makeshift Buddhist shrine. The shrine was on a rock outcropping. The creek flowed past on both sides. We jumped into to chilly water. It was very refreshing. Suddenly, the sky became black. A few big raindrops fell, then the bottom of the clouds unleashed their liquid bounty. It didn’t let up for about an hour. It cleared and the sun shone down on the misty tropical forest. Fresh post-rain air filled our lungs.
You have the unique opportunity to take part in a form of tourism that isn’t available to just any traveler. You need to be a bit fit and you have to be the type of person who respects other cultures. This is a very intimate tour.
Authority of Thailand License Number 31/0204