Friday, March 26, 2010

REWIND - Our February Road Trip to NE Thailand

Back at the end of February, after nearly a month of exploring Bangkok and its sights, we Drury’s were ready to get out of Dodge. Thanks to our pals Jack and Ellen (who did all the planning), the eight of us hopped in a rental van and embarked upon a trip into northeastern Thailand. The itinerary was to include a visit to a national park, a Khmer temple reputed to rival Angkor Wat and a handful of days in a nice resort on the Mekong.

We left Bangkok on Sunday afternoon in order to take advantage of reduced traffic. En route to our destination, we traveled not so crowded four lane roads scattered with farmland, small towns and outlet malls. Buddhist temples, countless pictures of the king and the occasional statue of a large Buddha reminded us were still in Thailand.

We spent our first couple of days in Khao Yai National Park, which lies a couple of hours’ drive from Bangkok. Our two families shared a very basic, three bedroom bungalow inside the park. The four kids bunked in one room while the parent couples each had a suite of our own. The rooms connected to a large covered porch overlooking a small river gorge. The sounds of the river and nature were a wonderful lullaby as we slept on mattresses that were hard as rocks.

We arrived at Khao Yai late in the evening so as to have the entire next day to explore the park. We had noodle soup and fried rice for breakfast, a first for the Drury kids. Then we ventured off to one of the 50 km of park trails to do a little bit of hiking. The 4.4 km trail started on hilly grassland scattered here and there with wide elephant trails. We arrived at an observation tower overlooking a small pond and more grassy hills. Then we continued along an up and down route back to park headquarters. Along the way we saw exotic plant life specimens and great topography. We also battled with some of the park’s famous leeches. The problem is so bad that you can rent “leech socks” from the park visitor’s center. These gator-like garments are made out of the same linen-like material that recyclable grocery bags are made out and work by keeping leeches away from the skin around the feet and ankles. We all chose to “rough it” and not wear the geeky socks. As a result, we had to keep our eyes peeled for unwanted hitchhikers. Each of us fought off at least a couple leeches, which look and move like a sort of mutant inch worm. A few latched on, prompting at least one of us to label herself as a “leechophobe.” We all survived though.

Alas, we saw few hairy or feathery critters on our hike. Earlier in the day at Park HQ, we visited the visitor center and learned that we could see elephants, tigers, wild dogs, king cobras and other interesting park denizens. The kids kept their hopes up and we did see some interesting deer and many macaques, who play the role that raccoons play in National Parks in the American West. Luckily, we did not come face to face with anything big or poisonous along the trail. We did see some elephants working along the roadside on our way out of the Park though.

After lunch and a little rest, we climbed back into the van and headed to Haew Suwat Waterfalls. This beautiful 20 or so meter falls cascades into a lovely pool with a nice little stretch of rapids flowing below. The kids waded and scaled boulders while Ben took some great pictures. Other visitors had placed hundreds of sticks between the rocks, making a very interesting sight. It brought artist Andy Goldworthy’s work to my mind.

We finished our Park visit with a nice dinner at the Khao Yai Cowboy Steakhouse where the kids enjoyed some western style food and where the parents savored perhaps one too many bottles of ice cold Heineken. Ben and I loved trying the new Thai food dishes ordered by our old Thai hand Jack, who speaks the language fluently. Jack coached us in Thai, teaching such useful phrases as “One tall Heineken.”

The next day we woke early and drove to Prasat Phanom Rung, an ancient Khmer temple, along some two-lane roads. It was a white-knuckle experience at times as we witnessed the “might makes right” rule of Thai driving up close and personal. Dodging passing trucks and couples on scooters must have been very challenging for our esteemed gentlemen drivers, particularly considering it included driving on the left side of the road and using a left-handed gear shift. Navigating when all signs are in Thai was another challenge.

Before we got to the temple, we breakfasted at Cabbages and Condoms, a restaurant and resort/convention center run by the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), the brainchild of Mr. Mechai Viravaidya, of Jack’s old employer. Mr. V realized early on the importance of family planning and STD-prevention in the development of rural communities in Thailand and used his marketing skills and personal charisma to spread the word about condoms and AIDS prevention countrywide. The restaurant and resort in Nahkhon Ratchasima. Along with a popular eatery by the same name in Bangkok, are used to raise money to support PDAs work.

Prasat Phanom Rung is located on a 383 meter inactive volcano south of the city of Buriram. It has an impressive and well-worn path leading up to the main temple structures. The structures themselves are geometrically-aligned and adorned from ground to roof with depictions of stories important to the Khmer faith. The carvings were incredibly intricate but lacked the ornate color and textures so common in the Thai temples we visited back in Bangkok. Walking around the ruins, I kicked myself yet again for not having taken a comparative religions class in college.

After walking around for an hour and bribing the kids with ice creams, we climbed back into the van and headed to the Mekong. Mekong means “river” in Lao so calling this body of water “The Mekong River” is a bit redundant. Starting in the high plateau of Eastern Tibet, it flows through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It is the longest river in SE Asia and the 12th longest river in the world.

The Mekong's geology reminded me much of the James River, which runs through Richmond, Virginia or maybe the Potomac in DC, with many smoothed- over and silty boulders and islets scattered around. It is similarly as wide as Potomac as it runs just downstream of DC. The water is very low this time of year but you can see by the topography that it gets MUCH higher. Jack seems to think that the flow multiplies by 17 times during the rainy season, a statistic that would not surprise me as being true.

Our home for the next for days was the Tohsang Khongjiam Resort, which lies on the banks of the Mekong just down stream from Baan Woen Buk, the last village in northeastern Thailand. The river near the resort is called the bi-colored river here lies the confluence with a major tributary, the Mun, which is of a different color. It also marks the border between Thailand and Laos in this area so we were looking at a different country across the river.

We were all quite road weary at this point and so laid low over the next few days, basking in the luxury of the riverside resort, playing in the pool (“Marco!…Polo!”) and generally catching up on our respective lives and experiences since both families left Bainbridge Island last summer. We did take a lovely long tail boat ride up river from town, dodging countless fishermen in long and skinny wooden boats. They fished with gill nets mostly, from what we could tell, but we never did manage to get a look at what they were catching. From the number of boats though, it seems very clear that this river hosts a very bountiful fishery – at least for now.

Our river-level perspective also revealed more about the area than we could’ve discovered by car. There is much more development on the Thai side of the river here. Over the course of our hour-long trip we spotted quite a few houses, temples, and a giant Buddha statue. There were also many farm plots terraced into the silt below the high water line, all irrigated by hand using tin watering cans. The Lao side of the river was pretty much wild by contrast with but one or two villages or settlements along the river for the length of our hour long trip.

After a relaxing few days and way too many meals, we climbed back into the van to return to the Big City. It was a very long trip back through the dry rice fields and small towns of northeastern Thailand. Over the course of our eleven hour drive (!), we checked the news from time to time to see whether the Thai Supreme Court had issued its decision in the controversial case regarding a large sum of frozen assets of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was deposed in 2006 and a new government and Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Thaksin has remained in exile since that period and, some say, has been fomenting rebellion among the Thai people ever since. The poor, dry rice farming areas in NE Thailand are a stronghold of power as evidenced by pro-Thaksin signs and billboards at the entrance to most towns.

Thai officials were bracing for demonstrations by Thaksin supporters, the Red Shirts, in Bangkok if the Court were to rule against Thaksin in a case involving seized assets from the Thaksin family fortune. The government was arguing that the assets should be taken since they were earned illegally through Thaksin’s influence as Prime Minister. Many in the press and government feared that a Thaksin loss in the case would spur huge demonstrations in Bangkok. We were thus a bit concerned that the ensuing traffic congestion might affect our return. Luckily for everyone, the verdict did not come down until well after be got back to Bangkok and there were no demonstrations until just recently.

We arrived home to Civic Park on Friday night, frazzled, tired but having enjoyed our trip. The Drury’s had Saturday to pack and get ready for moving out of our home away from home for February. The next stop was another stay at the Hurds’.


  1. Glad to read about this trip as it's the kind of independent exploration that we will enjoy doing in SE Asia. We are not really interested in busy, crazy Bangkok, but looking forward to deeper self explorations into the country side like this.

    Sad to hear the mess that is happening in Bangkok these days.

    Thanks so much for your comments on our site!

  2. ST3 -- Yes, BKK was wild and crazy. ( And that was before last week's activities!) We felt it really important though that all of us get to experience what it is like to live in a big Asian city. There are so many in this world that do. Our friends really helped us get settled and seeing them was a huge motivation for going. It would've been a LOT more difficult to get along without their help.

    The trip described above and a subsequent trip to the Gulf island of Ko Phangan, where the kids got certified to dive, were wonderful additions to the experience. - Brooke