Kanchanaburi: Part 4, Khao Laem National Park

Cultural tourism is, and has long been, the vogue among the backpacking set. The idea is to go to an exotic foreign locale to meet colorful natives and to immerse oneself in their quaint folkways. Unless you are in the military and are thus required to kill your new friends it is always good to pet the grubby children and mangy dogs, this despite the fact that in Thailand it is a grave offense to touch anyone’s head. Western tourists are forgiven for such behavior; after all, they are just barbarians, big, hairy, smelly, and stupid, but with good hearts.

So it was that during a two month journey to Thailand and Myanmar in 2016 the Weazel, Dr. Ann, and David D visited Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass to witness a co-mingling of the Thai and Mon cultures. It was delightful, and the scenery beautiful, but people are people. The Weazel is fond of certain individual persons, but not of the human race; so, after our sojourn in civilization we set out to explore the wilder parts of Kanchanaburi province.

It is my habit to  plan trips by means of Google Earth and other such mapping tools. While cruising in my imaginary airplane to peruse the world’s topography I take note of any place that is dark green, swampy, mountainous, or which exhibits anomalous geographic features. To put it another way, I look for places with interesting terrain, lots of vegetation, and few if any people.

Close scrutiny of Kanchanaburi province revealed numerous karst features such as deeply dissected plateaus, abrupt cliffs, sinkholes, and disappearing streams.

Many of those interesting features were located in protected areas such as Khao Laem National Park which we had previously passed on our way to Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass.

Here is a vertically exaggerated Google Earth view of the Park looking southwest from a prominent peak toward the reservoir which impounds the Kwai Noi river. The frontier with Myanmar can be seen on the horizon.

When viewed from this angle it is easy to see the gigantic upper entrance to Tham Nam Mut (Mut River cave) in the lower middle of the image. Despite its proximity to civilization the cave is effective unknown.

The downstream resurgence is just on the other side of the ridge and is the source of a series of travertine waterfalls known as Nam Tok Kroeng Krawia that are a major tourist attraction situated next to a highway. (Note: “Nam tok” means waterfall, and Kroeng Krawia is actually pronounced something like Kleung Klavia.)

It appeared to be an easy place to visit, just jump on a bus in Sangkhlaburi then get off at the Kroeng Krawia waterfall. From there it is less than two miles to the huge entrance seen above, so I was puzzled that no information could be found on the web. That is because in Thailand everything is easy except for that which is impossible. That plus the fact that the mountains are so steep and jagged that not even a Goral (Thai mountain goat) could easily traverse them.

When we got off the  bus at the waterfall I was dismayed to see numerous tour buses, countless people picnicking, piles of trash, and vendors selling food and knickknacks. With all this development surely there must be a place to camp? Wrong!

I inquired at what I presumed to be the Park headquarters. (Kroeng Krawia is part of Khao Laem National Park), but was told that the official Pom Pee campsite was far away along the lake shore. Our only other alternative was to camp at the actual Park headquarters several miles to the south. There weren’t even any hotels other than a so called “resort” more than a mile away.

The options were few so I set out on foot for the resort. It proved to be ugly and expensive so I walked back. Every day of our trip I had walked many miles on my injured feet, often with a pack, so by this time my aching arthritic feet were so covered with blisters that I could barely walk, a major impediment to exploration and a good reason to camp nearby if I had any hope of visiting the cave.

The Park headquarters down the road seemed the best bet, but back at the waterfall there were no taxi drivers because everyone had come by tour bus. Thai bus drivers may be friendly but they are not stupid. They saw our heavy packs and recognized our predicament, chumps ripe for the picking! So it was that we paid a small fortune for a three mile ride.

The site proved to be idyllic, a meadow next to a blue travertine stream, but the Park staff were flabbergasted, what were Farang (White Honkeys) doing here?

No one spoke a word of English but they understood that we wanted to camp despite the fact that they had rooms available, so they escorted us to a spot right next to the road. That was when we got a taste of cross cultural confusion.

Thai people never go camping alone, only in groups. Think overnight picnic. They prefer to camp cheek by jowl as close to the road as possible. Like moths, they also prefer to congregate around lights so most parks have overhead lights turned on 24/7. In a worst case scenario there is music. All of which is exactly what I most hate.

We refused their kind offer and instead insisted on crossing a quaint bridge to set up our camp on a grassy island occupied by an enormous water buffalo which had to be driven off.

The buffalo was not amused, and neither were the Park staff who were perplexed as to why we would want to camp next to a stinking garbage dump. Perhaps the crazy Farang like the smell of rotting garbage?

Then there was the problem with the lights. I could find no way to turn them off so I mimicked shooting them. What?

A comedy of errors followed. I had already managed to turn off several of the lights but could not find the main breaker. The staff thought I was trying to fix the lights so they scurried around turning them back on, after which I would turn them back off again.

Thais are obsessional about keeping floors clean; unfortunately, that included the lawn which, in their view, was marred by the presence of a few leaves from the towering jungle trees. It was a disgrace! What will the Farang think of us? So the Superintendent ordered an army of women with brooms to sweep the lawn until every single leaf had been removed.

Thai women, presumably Muslims, sweep the lawn

Sweeping the lawn served a dual purpose. It also enabled the women to spy on us and to examine our weird possessions. There was no mal intent, just curiosity as to why the hairy barbarians would chose to hide in a garbage dump and place their tents in the dark as far apart from each other as possible. Do they hate each other? Or us? Perhaps they can’t smell the dump because they stink so much themselves? Do they want to be in the dark so they can do terrible things unseen? Who knows?

Once the lawn was meticulously swept the Superintendent wrinkled his nose. The lawn wasn’t perfect, some of the grass along the road was turning brown from the ever increasing drought, so he hooked up a gasoline pump with which to flood the area. The sound was deafening but the buffalo approved, more green grass was sure to come!

Despite all that I loved the site, especially the travertine stream behind my tent.

The leaves aren’t really blue, but with a blue sky and blue water my camera got confused.

Notice the dingy blue color of the water and how level the travertine dams are. For those who don’t know, travertine forms in circumstances where water becomes super saturated with calcium derived from the surrounding limestone, or sometimes from hot mineral springs. As the water passes over obstructions aeration increases the out gassing of carbon dioxide which precipitates calcium carbonate which is what travertine is made of. The same process creates cave formations such as stalactites and stalagmites.

The faster the water flows the quicker the process; thus, the dams continually repair and level themselves. Normal waterfalls erode downward and migrate upstream over time. Travertine waterfalls do just the opposite, instead of eroding they grow upward and forward.

The blue color of the water is caused by the scattering of light due to the presence of calcium ions.

The vegetation was quite interesting, a mini rainforest! The whole place looked very snaky, but I could find nothing but small frogs and fish.

The trees were adorned with orchids

I’m not much of a fan of the various weedy bamboo species that dominate so much of southeast Asia, but on the hill behind the outhouse was some of the largest bamboo I  have ever seen. The old rotten culms provided refuge for numerous geckos that screamed obscenities all night long.

Dendocalamus giganteus

We Farang tend to think of palms as being utterly harmless icons of the tropics that sway in the breeze along the shore, but palms that live in the jungle are often heavily armed to discourage predation by big herbivores such as elephants. Such is the case with genus Salacca and their close relatives the bizarre climbing rattans (genus Calamus). Think about it the next time you relax on the patio in your comfortable rattan lounge, someone had to remove the spines or your butt would resemble a pincushion!

Salacca sp.

It was along the limpid stream that I became reacquainted with my old nemesis the Crying elephant plant, an evil Aroid that looks completely harmless but causes elephants to cry. It certainly caused me to cry when I first encountered it on a previous trip to Thailand. The slightest touch of the stem or underside of the leaf drives invisible spines filled with oxalic acid into the skin. The pain is unbelievably intense and lasts for weeks.

Lasia spinosa? or perhaps Pycnospatha?

When morning came I was too lazy to build a fire to make coffee so I set off on foot to find a coffee shop said to be less than a mile away. As soon as I started walking a wild looking fellow on a motor scooter stopped to offer me a lift. In Thailand you don’t even have to hitchhike to get a ride!

The coffee shop was closed, but when my benefactor learned that I was looking for coffee he suggested going to a nearby police station. Huh?

The police station was closed too, but that didn’t deter my new friend, he broke into the cop shop with his pocket knife, rooted around, and found all the fixings for coffee and even a nice breakfast. I could hardly believe this was happening. Who breaks into a police station? He told me not to worry, if the cops come we will just offer them a few Baht for breakfast and all will be forgiven. Try that in Detroit.

The fellow said that he was unemployed and looking for work, but I could not help but suspect that he was an undercover cop of some sort, either that or a complete idiot. Regardless, he was my new friend and even took me back to camp!

The day was young, so Ann, Dave, and I decided to return to the Kroeng Krawia waterfall several miles away. We hitchhiked separately and got there in short order. The falls were already crowded with tourists doing what tourists usually do, littering, smooching, eroding the banks, pooping in the woods, and taking selfies.

People are people

The Kroeng Krawia falls are similar to the ones at camp, but much larger and more beautiful. There are many levels that cascade for hundreds of feet down the mountain. None of my photos do the place justice, so I suggest that you click this link to see what they look like. Please understand that I have few photos of this extraordinary place because my injured feet hurt so badly that I could barely see straight much less focus.

The Kroeng Krawia waterfalls were obviously a resurgence of the stream that carved Nam Mut cave, so I set out to find the source.

A set of stairs adjacent to the falls led to a large temple, monastery, and meditation complex. The architecture was oddly modernistic yet traditional in that there were the usual golden Buddhas.

Golden Buddhas are a dime a dozen in Thailand, but jade green is special!

Don’t let the tin roof fool you, it was a work in progress, first you build the Buddha, then you build the temple around it. The whole place had an odd air of abandonment, as though a grand enterprise had failed to materialize; nevertheless, there were still plenty of Monks. I snuck past the temple to find them at their leisure.

So Prongdoodle, are you any closer to enlightenment yet?

That was when I discovered a most intriguing path leading into the forest. Ann and Dave had disappeared so I continued on alone.

This way to Oz

Everywhere I looked there were tiny little Hobbit houses lost in the jungle. Why didn’t someone suggest that we stay here? I later learned that it was a failed meditation retreat center.

Nobody home, not even the Hobbits

All across Thailand there are abandoned temples and monasteries that failed because a charismatic guru either died or was disgraced because of screwing his acolytes.

I had the highest hopes of finding a cobra. The habitat was perfect, abandoned buildings deep in the jungle, but not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

I continued on for some distance until I arrived at a small settlement at the head of the valley. There I met a Nun tending her garden who sternly but kindly asked me not to invade their privacy. She was an intelligent person with whom I could communicate despite the language barrier. I explained as best I could that I wanted to visit Tham Nam Mut. She found this very alarming and basically said, “No way! There is no path, it is far away and you have to cross two mountains; besides, you are old and alone!” The part about the path wasn’t really true, I had methodically checked out every possible path and had noticed a very faint path that had been blocked off which had to be the way. She was just trying to keep me from getting lost or hurt.

When the Nun saw that I was about to disappear into the jungle she offered a consolation prize, to show me her own personal meditation cave and an alternative jungle path back to the park. So it was that I acquired a Buddhist Nun as a cave guide!

From the cave a tiny footpath led along the base of a cliff. It was very rugged and rocky. At the worst place, which actually required climbing skills, we discovered a feral dog denned up with a litter of pups. I expected the bitch to attack us, but the Nun spoke kindly to the dog and fearlessly picked up a pup to cuddle.

It’s a dog’s life in Thailand where even a mangy cur gets food and affection

By sunset I was back in camp nursing my aching feet. It was deeply frustrating to find myself crippled and unable to explore such an interesting place. There was so much more to see and do! Not far away was a hidden lake and swamp surrounded by deep jungle, and worst of all I had completely failed to locate a huge cave a short distance from the road. Beyond the cave was a pristine valley that I longed to visit. When will that opportunity come? In my next lifetime? I’m not a Buddhist so I’m not counting on it.

The good news was that police station where I had eaten my purloined breakfast was located at the turnoff to our next destination, Lam Klong Ngu National Park. Some of the largest caves in Thailand are located inside the park; furthermore, “Khlong ngu” means Snake creek so I had to go! My hoodlum/undercover cop buddy had already explained that trucks would pass the intersection the following day around 10am so we had a plan!