Note: due to ridiculously slow internet in Kathmandu, I will be posting full albums at a later date.

Thailand in May… is hot. So hot. And humid. 25C became a mercifully cool (albeit infrequent) temperature. I understand why right now is not high season in Thailand and why one might tend toward beach destinations, where minimal clothing is perfectly acceptable and swims are never far away.  I gave myself three weeks in Thailand, which is absolutely not enough to spend significant time anywhere. Then again, I don’t think I would’ve wanted to spend much more time in Thailand during this season. The muggy heat saps my energy and makes me disinclined to participate in one of my favorite activities, walking uphill. That didn’t stop me from  doing it a couple of times. My former Seattle roomie Mari decided our first destination would be Khoa Yai National Park, just 175km north of Bangkok.

A bus, a songthaew (truck bed converted for public transport), a hitch hike, and about 4 hours got us to the visitor center with enough time to book a bungalow for two nights and grab food from the carts across the street. Khoa Yai is apparently a popular destination for residents of Bangkok, since it’s relatively close to the city and gorgeous to boot. Mari and I had been undecided about how long to stay, but just minutes into our 14km truck bed hitch hike from the gate to the visitor center, we were smitten with the park and to stay a couple nights was an easy choice.

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We got to our bungalow via a 15 minute walk from the visitor center. It had all the amenities we could’ve asked for: private bathroom, fan, National Park emblazoned bed clothes, and a rooftop guardian.

Photo credit: Mari

It also had a feature we would rather have done without. That is, the shower drain opened directly to the outside. This meant that after the lovely thunderstorm on our second night, we were inundated with a swarm of frantic visitors. The evening started out relaxing, with showers and basking in the cooling forced convection of our swivel fan. We were reading aloud bits of interesting Thailand tidbits from the small library of guide books Mari had checked out from the library, when a fluttery creature kamikaze’d into my leg, illiciting a yelp and a swat. This one was not the first, and soon Mari and I had forgotten our interest in Thailand facts and were waging war on the growing number of flying termites careening around our room. We couldn’t tell where they were coming from, and the pile of disembodied wings on the floor grew and grew. We thought our savior had arrived in the form of a tokay gecko outside on our screen, but sadly he was no match for our termite plague, and when he was full he took his leave.

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Then Mari had the bright idea to turn the room light off and leave the bathroom one on, to lure the termites away from us. (*bright* idea, hehehehe) It worked. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized where the frenetic buggers had come from.

The park was lovely, but HOT. Mari wanted to wander and look at nature, and I was stoked on some trail running. She achieved her goal, but I was thwarted by a combination of shitty trails, oppressively sticky heat, leeches, and a disinclination to get lost in the jungle by myself.

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But that was okay, because when I bailed on the trail run and prepared for the 14km road walk to meet Mari for lunch, I was offered an unsolicited ride by a park police officer. He spoke about 6 words of English, but I most appreciated his generosity. Then I got to hang out at the waterfall for a bit, as I was quite early for meeting time.

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Mari and I also spent an afternoon hanging out with a German family we’d met at the visitor center on our first day. They we four, mom, dad, son, daughter, and they are using this year to drive in a mobile camper from Melbourne, Australia (where they’d been living for a few years) to southern Germany. The kids are 12 and 9, and the family has an incredible dynamic. I was thoroughly impressed with them, and thoroughly happy to be invited into their family for an afternoon.

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We hitch hiked back out of the park and to the city Pak Chong, where we got a local bus to Korat. We booked a gloriously air conditioned room, showered, lounged, dropped off laundry, and went for a wander. Not much to see in Korat, and of course we had little energy because it was >30C and humid as hell. The next day we took a bus to Phimai, where there are 11th century Khmer ruins called Prasat Hin Phimai, as well as the “world’s biggest” banyan tree. Again, sweltering, but we took our time around the ruins and marveled at the fact they were 1000 years old. Allegedly, this wat complex was the inspiration or model for Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

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Also, 11th century Khmer doorways do not fit me well. Mari would’ve been okay though.

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After a few hours at Prasat Hin, we rented bicycles from a very friendly guesthouse owner and made our way to the banyan tree just outside of town. It was huge and impressive, and I learned from Mari that banyan trees propagate by sending out roots (instead of fruits), and planting them from above (also that aspens do the same thing, but from below). Cool! There was a distinct lack of quantifiable evidence to substantiate the “world’s biggest” claim (and wikipedia makes no mention of this tree), but it was still worth the trip.

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We rode our bikes out into the countryside for a bit. People were so friendly! There were lots of waves and smiles. I rather doubt that too many white people are seen rolling through these towns, but that made us feel like we’d made it off the beaten path, which we enjoyed.

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Back in Phimai, we wandered into the evening market, which was remains the best I’ve seen in Thailand, in terms of interesting and tasty foods available. For all the hype about Thai street food, I honestly haven’t been super impressed (and Mari agrees). The savory foods just aren’t particularly flavorful. I do, however, enjoy the prevalence of freshly chopped fruits from street carts, mangos and pineapples in particular. An entire mango or pineapple for under a dollar AND they chop it for you?! Sign me up, always.

Despite the heat, I was restless for doing something active. Mari and I decided to check out the town of Loei, which got a “meh” from the guidebook, but a shining review from a blogger. The other bonus was that it is close to Phu Kradeung National Park, where there’s a nice long hill for climbing. Mari wanted to go hang out on the Mekhong. Our different objectives led us to part for a couple of days. The morning of May 17, she went north and I went south. I was stoked to walk uphill. Then I got to the practically deserted park and began. According to my Suunto watch, it was 35C in the shade. By the time the midday thunderstorm rolled in, my clothes were already soaked from the inside, so I figured the natural shower was a good thing. The storm also made me understand why they close Phu Kradeung in June for the rainy season – some of the trails turned into slippery streams, and you could see evidence of landslides. (I don’t know why you’d want to hike in monsoon season anyway, although some might question why you’d want to hike in 35C weather…)

Phu Kradeung’s claim to fame is that most of the park sits atop a 1290m plateau. The shitty part is that once you’ve made the climb from the bottom, you have to walk another 3km of flat-ass road to reach the visitor center and accommodation. I felt victorious upon reaching the top, having been thoroughly doused by the storm, but my jubilation dissolved when I realized I’d have to trudge another 30 minutes to my campsite. Boo. The park has room for thousands of guests, both in cabins and tents, but there couldn’t have been more than 20 people there that night.

I rented a tent, sleeping bag, pad, and pillow for 8 bucks, changed into dry clothes, ate, napped, and generally felt like lazing about. I was in a mood to muse, and so muse I did. In a spurt of motivation, I hiked 30min to catch a bit of sunset from the south side of the plateau.

Obnoxious flies roused my fury, followed by my creation of a rather fashionable face shield.

That night in that tent reminded me of my dislike for sleeping alone in a tent. The next day, I set out with grand plans of a 16km hike followed by exiting the park. This was a mistake. While the park was interesting, after 2 hours of walking on the flatness, I was ready to be done. (I was also amused by the warning signs)

I cut my loop short and made my way along the southern cliffs back to the descent trail. I managed to miss all but 10 minutes of the storm that hit the park that day. Fortunately, my path kept me on the outskirts of the storm –  lots of thunder but no deluge. Hooray! I really wanted to descend the steeper bits before any rain hit, and fortunately my timing was impeccable. I was even meters away from a shelter when the brief rain hit. I suffered through the 1:30 hours of downhill and then hitched a ride in a truckbed out of the park, back to the public bus stop that would take me back to Loei. I was tired, damp, sore, and ready for a shower and a lie down.

When I laid my things out to dry in the guesthouse room, I was happy for Mari’s sake that she wasn’t there to share in the foot-y aromas emanating from my wet socks. I got a restaurant recommendation from the owner of the guesthouse (“Sugar Guesthouse” – go there if you’re ever in Loei). I found the place and quickly realized that it was indeed a locals restaurant. There was not an English menu in sight, nor anyone to speak English. I ordered via charades of “you tell me what to get” and was pleased with the outcome. The curry had great flavor and didn’t burn my face off (although I could have used more veggies, such is not the Thai curry style).

Monday morning, I left Sugar Guesthouse and made my way to Udon Thani to meet Mari. It was good for me to have some time alone again. Traveling solo and traveling as a decision-making unit with someone are very different, and my mind hadn’t transitioned well into traveling with someone. I was unreasonably grumpy inside for parts of those first few days, having to consider someone else’s schedule and desires (some of that was hanger). A couple of days alone with my brain gave me the opportunity to find the source of my grumpiness and let it. I did, and I rejoined Mari with a much healthier outlook. That’s when I started really appreciating what it means to have a travel partner – she’s someone to care for, someone to care for you, someone to build memories with and talk to while you’re waiting for or sitting on buses. Not to mention you have 2 brains trying to decipher difficult accents and generally split the travel work load. It’s also nice to leave your bags with someone while you visit the toilet.

Our 1 hour flight to Chiang Mai cost around $50 and spared us from a 12+ hour bus ride across the country. Totally worth it. The airline (Nok Air) even served up pretzel snacks… pretzels filled with Kit Kat, that is. Ridiculous.

I’m tired and this post is already long, so I’ll share about our time in northern Thailand when I’m back from the Annapurna Circuit. (And then of course I’ll share pictures of that trek asap.)

2 comments on “NE Thailand with Mari

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