For me, the joy of long-term travel is not (only) that it allows a person to travel for long periods of time– you could easily travel “long-term” and see a lot of places while never really getting below the surface of a given place. Rather, long-term travel is unique in that it provides that extra free time outside of all of the “must see” places– free time that invites spontaneity and the opportunity to delve a little deeper into a new culture.
This had not been more true for us until this past week during our visit to Nakhom Si Thammarat. While we were visiting the tourist office in Nakhom last week, we asked our tourist guide Marvin about doing a quick one-day trip to a nearby national park for some trekking and waterfall hiking. He said we could do a one day trip there with a big group– OR we could go stay with a Thai family in the remote village at the base of the park for a couple of days and organize our hike from there. Hmm……. option #2, please!
So we checked out of our hotel in Nakhom, and boarded a school bus (open air pickup truck) full of kids who had just gotten out of school for the day and were on their way home to the village where we would be staying. Three of the boys held on to the back of the pickup, standing on the back steps, as we flew down the highway and into a beautiful, lush rain forested area known as Kiriwong village.
When we got to Kiriwong, we hopped off of the pickup, paid our $0.75 for the 30 minute ride, and then stood there like idiots looking for a tourist office or some sort of direction of where to go. Because Kiriwong village is very off the tourist trail, there were no obvious indications of where a guesthouse might be, and no one spoke any English. So we whipped out our phrasebook and pieced together some Tarzan Thai for the kind-looking woman in the nearest shop. We knew we were in luck when we saw her then whip out her walkie talkie and start calling around for someone who speaks some English.
A few minutes later, a man wearing farming pants and knee-high rain boots pulled up on his motor scooter and said that there was a small hotel nearby that we could stay in. Since we had heard that Kiriwong has home stays available, we inquired about one. He thought about it for a minute, and then said “Yes, home stay is available, $5 a night.” When we said that that sounded great, he responded that he would be back in one minute with a larger motor scooter that would be able to hold our packs to transport us to the home stay. One minute later, he reappeared with EXACTLY the same size motor scooter, only about 12 inches taller. Somehow I would be expected to climb onto this new bike with my large pack on my back and hold onto this new (to me) person for a ride to who-knows-where down a deeply rutted, red dirt road. One person at-a-time only, of course, so he would be back for Scott later..
So we did just that– I climbed on the back of the scooter with the pack on, and off I went with my new friend, dirt flying and a huge smile on my face that I couldn’t seem to wipe away. We zoomed down a dusty dirt road, over a wide river rushing down off of the slope of the nearby mountain (the second tallest in all of Thailand, we found out) and eventually arrived at a small one-room hut on a small beautiful property lined with fruit trees. I climbed off the back and our friend shot off into the distance to go pick up Scott from downtown.
A few minutes later, a smiling Scott appeared and we were shown where we would be sleeping. The hut was very basic– just a straw mat on a wood floor inside, only large enough for two people– no electricity, no furniture, a small window cut out of one side opposite the door. A picture of our scooter friend adorned in a monks robe from about 10 years ago hung on the wall, and we finally figured out that we are actually staying with him for our home stay. Buddhist amulets on necklaces also hung from the walls and an array of home cooking items were scattered around the edges of the hut. RIght about then, his wife arrived and began the process of clearing out the room a bit, which made us wonder– is this an extra hut on their property or is this their house that they are giving to us for the night?
Kanng catching a lethal centipede underneath our hut with his fire tongs:
After we had settled into our room and unpacked our things, we began to notice their personal belongings stashed below the deck of our hut and a kitchen in the yard that was clearly well-stocked (relatively speaking). When they began to set up a tent across the yard from our hut, I got a sinking feeling in my gut that we had, indeed, just kicked them out of their house for the next 2 nights. I should clarify that our host (who we learned was named Kanng) spoke only very rudimentary English that was very hard to understand…. Our inability to fully communicate with him (or his wife, who spoke no English) was really a running theme during our time in Kiriwong that ended up leading to some hilarious moments. For this reason, we weren’t quite sure whether we had just taken over their home or whether they had a house somewhere else…
Later, Kanng’s wife Mem came over and started acting out something— we somehow managed to gather that she and Kanng do have a large home across town but that they would be camping in the yard near our hut in case we needed help finding the toilet in the middle of the night. We were never sure if they were telling the truth or whether they were just saying that we hadn’t taken over their home to make us feel better. Either way, they had been more than happy to offer up the home stay, so we figured that it was OK.
Because there was no running water where we were staying, we had to bathe in the freshwater river near their house. The river, which was fed by the mountain, was wide and backdropped by stunning greens of Khao Luang mountain and the surrounding rain forest.
After cleaning up in the river, Mem cooked us shrimp fried rice over a rudimentary wood stove fire.
By the time we had eaten, the sun had already set and, given the lack of light, there was little else to do except sit around and try to communicate with Kanng as best we could. Kanng regaled us with stories from his years of being a trekking guide for Khao Luang mountain and showed us pictures on his digital camera of the animals that he has seen recently while hiking, including tapirs, monkeys, and wild cats – including tigers. Also, after our recent Thai massage experience, we had always wondered whether there were actually cobras in Thailand or whether there were just big snakes that could be described in English most easily as “cobras.” Kanng’s picture of a standing hooded king cobra and video of 2 cobras mating in the wild utterly smashed all wonder from our mind. There are wild King cobras in Thailand, and they’re apparently very abundant. But lest we worry–he told us that the nearest hospital has the anti-serum for cobra venom–so it’s sooo not a problem to get bitten by a cobra when you’re out walking around……
We ended our night by discussing what hikes we might be able to do the next day– and (thought) we had agreed to do one together the next day, with Kanng as our guide.
The next morning, we woke up to the sound of Kanng’s motorbike zooming off into the distance. We wondered, would he be coming back in time for our hike? So we got dressed and had a very interesting breakfast of instant coffee and a sandwich of unrecognizable fluorescent orange content (looked like candied orange slices). We tried to ask Mem what it was that we were eating, and she acted out the sounds of a pig and kept saying in English “pig.” This did not look like meat at all. Interestingly though, this had happened to us once before with a similar sandwich-type item in Nakhom, with the woman insisting that the fluffy brown sugar-like substance that was filling our sandwich also makes a sound like a pig. Like everything in Thailand so far, both sandwiches were delicious and sweet, even though we still have no idea what the substance really was.
We continued wondering whether Kanng would be back to take us on the waterfall hike that we thought we had reserved the night before. As the sun began to rise higher and higher over the tree line, we realized that with our lack of communication perhaps we never actually reserved Kanng for our hike today. With Kanng being gone, and Mem the only person available to ask whether we should wait for Kanng or set out on our own, we grabbed the guidebook and got to work trying to figure it out by asking Mem questions. Unfortunately, our guidebook doesn’t teach someone how to build their own sentences in Thai; it merely has whole phrases typed out, with no indication of what word in English corresponds to what word in Thai. So, we started out with the most relevant phrases we could find, including “How many people will be on the hike today?” and “At what time does the guided tour start?” We finally pieced together from Mem that “Kanng, today, mountain”, meaning we would be on our own and that we had not, in fact, signed up to hike WITH Kanng.
So we hiked into town and began following signs for Wang Mai Pak waterfall. Walking along a hot road through a neighborhood on the outskirts of the village, we thought we were on the right track until we asked someone whether we were heading in the right direction for “Wang Mai Pak.” He laughed and said no, and pointed us back in the direction we had just come. We hiked a mile back into town and ran into a little old woman who we asked again for “Wang Mai Pak.” She laughed and pointed us right back up the road that we had just hiked down…. Then she said “Wang Mai Pak, Wang Mai Pak, come, come” and indicated for us to follow. We felt reassured that she knew where she was going until she started talking to herself and pointing in odd directions, yelling out to every house we passed by. Occasionally, we would hear “Wang Mai Pak”, “Wang Mai Pak”…. We kept thinking we might turn off onto a road we had missed the first time, but we just kept heading straight up the first road that the man had said was the wrong way…
We began to worry that she was perhaps a bit crazy, and we started shooting worried glances to people sitting on their porches as if to say “Is she crazy, should we keep following? Will you rescue us?” I ran up next to her and repeated that we were tying to find “Wang Mai Pak”, to which she laughed and pointed and replied “Wang Mai Pak”, “Wang Mai Pak”….So we continued to follow… About 2 miles later, she had us bounding across little streams and climbing up rocks, and alas, a sign appeared in the distance– “Wang Mai Pak” waterfall! She walked right up to it and spelled it out in English for us– “W-N-G M-A-I K W-A-T-E-A-L”— the only letters still clinging to the old sign. We had indeed arrived at Wang Mai Pak.
She then indicated that she was leaving now, didn’t ask for any thing in return, and began the 2 mile long hike back toward the village… And just like, that she was gone. We were happy to be at Wang Mai Pak, but our hike was a great reminder that sometime it really is about the journey and not the destination that matters.
At the end of the day, we were heading back to Kanng and Mem’s house, and Scott decided it might be nice to bring some mangosteen wine (that we had seen in the store earlier) to dinner with us to share with Kanng and Mem. As Mem and her friend were cooking yellow fried noodles with morning glories for us later that night, we pulled out the wine to show Mem. Mem’s face lit up and she hurried over to us with glasses to pour it in. We all gathered on the edge of our porch, taking turns pouring the wine into the tiny glasses and trying to communicate as best we could about the wine, about our families, about our hometowns. Mem proceeded to tell us that she could understand my English pretty well and that my Thai pronunciation was quite good— Scott, on the other hand, she said she could not understand in English or in Thai, and Scott’s inability to speak in either language (according to Mem) became the running joke of the night (for Mem, at least, at Scott’s expense).
After Mem polished off the bottle of wine (with a little help from us), she pointed right at me and said “You like Leo (the local beer)?” and then to Scott “You like Leo??”, to which we both replied that we did. So she jumped on her motorbike with her friend and reappeared 5 minutes later with Kanng and a pile of beer. So the 4 of us cozied up in a circle on the porch for the next couple of hours, tried out our new Thai phrases that our phrasebook promised would be a hit (“To ride an elephant, to catch a grasshopper”…), and made promises to return to Kiriwong and climb Khao Luang mountain with Kanng.
The next morning, Kanng roused Mem (Mem was not too happy about getting out of bed after that mangosteen wine the might before….), and they drove us on their motorbikes (me on Mem’s bike, Scott on Kanng’s) to catch our ride back into Nakhom city. As simple as our time was with Kanng and Mem, our stay with them is one of our favorite memories of Thailand so far– a reminder that when we travel, the best experiences are not always the next “must see” attraction but are often those that result from a bit of serendipity and can never be planned from any guidebook.