Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Waking up to Gibbon calls

From KPN, we traveled to Khao Sok National Park, one of Thailand's natural wonders. Located midway between the Andaman and Gulf coasts, Khao Sok is an impenetrable rainforest that is home to guars, leopards, tigers, monkeys, and ~150 species of birds. Characterized by massive limestone karsts that are carpeted in jungle it's most dramatic feature is Cheow Lan lake, created in the 1980's when the Khlong Saeng river was dammed to provide energy to the region. The result is an other-worldly landscape, in which limestone peaks dressed in emerald jungle rise from serene turqouise waters to scrape monsoon clouds.

We spent one day in a small tourist village outside the park, waiting out heavy rains while exploring the area with an informal guide at our guest house, a deaf, but somehow communicative Thai who showed us nearby caves and nature trails, all while happily smoking marijuana at every stop; we initially assumed he had an outlandish speech impediment (he could only moan and grunt), because he would repeatedly make phone calls in front of us. Later, we learned that he did this simply for kicks. He couldn't hear a word anyone was saying on the other end, he just liked the idea of calling them. But he was a great guide and the highlight of the day was bathing in a waterfall (as good as it sounds).

The next day, we made our way into Khao Sok with a different guide, a short, squat Thai with a pesudo-handlebar mustache. From the dam, we took a longtail boat out to a raft-house, our accommodation for the night. The raft house was a floating groupt of huts, flanking a larger dining hut, with bathrooms reachable by planks connecting the floating hamlet to shore. Every time another longtail went by, we found the entire set of huts and dining room rocking in the wake.

Rustic as it sounds, the setting made for one of the most achingly beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. The raft house looked out onto a broad cove of aquamarine water set against a treacherously steep karst mountain of tropical rainforest. Better yet, we were the only guests that night, so it was just us and a a very colorful group of Thais who worked on the boat. The boat staff were a raucous cast who paid us little attention except to make fun of us, and spent most of the evening getting drunk and high. They enjoyed a sort of roughshod, sexist bon amie, with the men referring to one another as "Sexy Man" or "Handsome Boy" (most were anything but ;) while harassing the two constantly giggling female cooks on the boat. They took to calling my bearded cousin Osama Bin Laden, and tried to tip our canoe whenever we made the mistake of getting close to where they were swimming.

In the afternoon, we took a sweaty hike into impossibly thick, dripping rainforest. Our guide was actually a little drunk, having just finished a Sansom bucket of his two minutes previously, but we made it back in one piece. While the hike was fun, we actually saw very little wildlife, as the canopy is home to most of the rainforest's diversity. However, we heard an abundance, birdsong, and monkey calls backdropped by the steady drone of cicadas and frog croaks.

The evening was just as gorgeous, with a full moon lighting up the entire bay. Naj and I sat listening to one of the boatsmen sing mournal Thai love ballads in the moonlight, a little too romantic for Muslim cousins to enjoy comfortably together (as many of my friends know, when it comes to my family, they think that incest is best). I drifted off to sleep later, hearing the occasional coo of an owl over the lapping of water at the bottom of my hut.

In the morning, I woke to the staccato whale song of gibbons calling across the lake; gibbons sounds totally unlike other monkeys, emitting extremely loud coos as they call to each other high in the tree trops. Their calls were only amplified by the steep ridges of the bay, and so the morning was anything but peaceful. Our guide took us out in a longtail boat, from which we saw a band of gibbons fighting with a group of longtail langurs for position in a fruit tree. The gibbons being smaller, lost, and one by one, we saw gibbons crash into the canopy below the fruit tree, akin to something out of a 1980's video game.

As the morning wore on, a storm rolled in, and we saw the most spectacular scenery yet, as columns of rain enveloped the karst mountains and dappled the lake.

Later a hike into a cave, and fresh fish for lunch more or less concluded our time in the park. A little sad, we made our way back to the village on the outskirts of the forest, where I'm writing this now.

However, tomorrow, a whole new country! At the last minute, we decided to spend sometime in Malaysia, so tomorrow, we make our way down to the border. But it won't be the same, waking up without gibbon calls.....

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