Faithful followers of the pathless way may remember that in 2016 the Weazel, Dr. Ann, and friend David D undertook an epic journey to Thailand and Myanmar.
Stories pertaining to certain parts of that journey were privately published prior to the initiation of this blog in 2017. Those adventures will be revisited in future posts. This post is the 5th in a series pertaining to the province of Kanchanaburi in Western Thailand.
It is an unfortunate fact that the modern mindset has little appreciation for narrative continuity, much less an attention span, so most blogs do not feature a table of contents, an index, and are almost invariably arranged in reverse chronological order. The stupidity of this boggles the mind, so I have here recapped previous entries pertaining to the province.
Someday Weazelwise will have a proper table of contents; but for now, if you want this narrative to make sense, I highly recommend that you read the previous posts in the order in which they appeared.
My very first post to Weazelwise.com appeared in September of 2017 and was entitled Kanchanaburi: Part 1, Land of Dirty Old Men. It was a jocular introduction to the history and peculiarities of one of the most interesting provinces in Thailand, the place where dirty old men from around the world go to die.
That post was quickly followed by Kanchanaburi: Part 2, Chaloem Rattanakosin National Park, wherein I recounted a previous 2009 trip to Kanchanaburi in which I visited an extraordinarily remote and beautiful cave while enjoying the gracious hospitality of the Thai people.
Kanchanaburi: Part 3, Three Pagodas Pass describes our initial foray to the Burmese frontier in 2016.
In Kanchanaburi: Part 4, Khao Laem National Park, we backtracked from Three pagodas pass to the middle of the province, and there continued our wacky adventures.
While camping at Khao Laem I learned that we were close to the turnoff to a remote plateau I had previously noticed on Google earth which featured jungles, waterfalls, travertine streams, and an enormous cave system in the middle of Lam Khlong Ngu National Park. The cave entrances are big enough to see from outer space, and I learned that Khlong Ngu means “Snake creek”. Gotta love it!
Subsequent research revealed that the huge karst features visible on Google earth were the upper and lower entrances to Tham sao hin, (Stone pillar cave) an enormous but relatively short system containing Khlong Ngu (Snake creek). It boasts the world’s tallest cave column, a massive monolith over 200 feet tall!
Numerous other caves exist further upstream on Snake creek, most notably Tham Nok Nang-aen (Cave of the swallows), which, as you will see, is a failed tourist attraction.
It is very likely that millions of years ago the entire length of Snake creek ran underground, but most of the passages later collapsed leaving only the vast remnants of Tham sao hin, Tham Nok Nang-aen, and several others.
Best of all, Google earth revealed that the waters of Snake creek discharge from Tham sao hin to cascade over a series of waterfalls down a steep canyon to a large reservoir that impounds the Khwae Yai River, the same river featured in the famous movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. By peering deep into the bottom of the canyon where the creek meets the reservoir I could see tiny floating raft houses. I purely love floating raft houses, many of which have been turned into funky resorts.
In the view below, which is looking west, you see the location of Tham sao hin, the lower reaches of Snake creek as it cuts down through the plateau, and the reservoir. The lower elevations are steep, rocky, and very dry due to the rain shadow effect of the mountains.
The problem was that once we were on the ground little information on Lam Khlong Ngu could be found. There are no useful maps, the area is not served by public transportation, and no one speaks a word of English in a place so far removed from tourism.
But, before we get lost in the jungle, let’s take a moment to orient ourselves.
That’s it Kiddies, no more info for you! (Or for me.) Kanchanaburi province is about 7500 square miles in extent, so imagine trying to find anything in so large an area with no maps, few roads, and no ability to communicate. All we could do was to hitchhike and hope for the best.
Now back to the story…
The good news was that the turnoff to the plateau containing all these wonders was only a mile from our Khao Laem National Park campsite. I had already made friends with the cops who had a station at the intersection, so they simply conscripted a poor passerby with a truck and ordered him to take us to the Park headquarters. In Thailand, as in Mexico, if the cops are your friends you can do anything!
At the Park headquarters we were dismayed to learn that Tham sao hin was completely closed, and that Tham Nok Nang-aen was only open for guided adventure tours during April and May when water levels are low; otherwise, entry is strictly forbidden.
Worst of all, the people telling us this weren’t friendly cops, or park rangers who could be bribed, but rather military men who took their job much too seriously. It was all salutes and shiny boots, so I hated them on sight, and the feeling was mutual. What the hell are these antiquated hippies doing here at our army base? Why aren’t they on the beach smoking dope like good tourists?
After much argument they reluctantly agreed to let us camp at a substation near the cave (far from Park headquarters), and would provide guides to take us to one of the entrances provided that we did not enter the cave. With more arm twisting they even agreed to give us an expensive ride to the substation the following day.
Meanwhile, we had no place to camp, so we re-hired our long suffering conscripted driver to take us to a nearby waterfall that offered camping. The poor fellow was still waiting in hope of a tip.
The Nang kruan waterfall campground proved to be an ugly field, but at least there were no other visitors. We were assigned a one eyed watcher to follow us everywhere we went. He wanted us to camp where he could see our every move but we refused. When night fell he insisted on firing up a noisy generator so the campground would be fully illuminated. I begged, pleaded, threatened violence, and finally offered money for him to turn off the damned generator and lights; whereupon, he finally relented.
I have had this problem in every National Park I have visited in Thailand. For Thai people camping is a social occasion that has nothing to do with nature. They want to camp cheek by jowl close to a road, and have no objection to noise and lights all night long. They consider it perverse to camp alone in the darkness. Are we such fools that we have no fear of ghosts and tigers?
Were it not for noise, lights, and busybodies Thai campgrounds would be idyllic, for the Thai people have a wonderful sense of design. In the photo below notice that they have been careful to preserve the Monkey ladder vine (Bauhinia sp.) hanging above the bridge. Thais, like visitors to Disneyland, love nature as long as it is pretty and harmless!
While old Cyclops took Dave to the waterfall (no doubt hoping for a tip!) Ann and I snuck off in the opposite direction.
In general, I was not much impressed by the forest. It would be a misnomer to call the forests in Kanchanaburi jungle, or even evergreen, for most of it is actually dry deciduous forest. Climate change and agriculture are quickly turning these dry forests into desert. The only exceptions are gallery forests along streams, and in such places there be giants!
Dipterocarps are the glory of Thailand. In size and bulk they rival the Redwoods and are equally threatened. Many Thais regard them with religious reverence, and so spare them the ax; but, unfortunately, they yield a valuable resin so they are subject to death by a thousand cuts. Notice the marks on the tree by my left shoulder. Those grooves were cut by an impoverished peasant to collect gum. In this case the tree survived.
We snuck around camp hoping to escape the old man, then headed downstream to visit the waterfalls but the gorge was steep and deep with nowhere to hide so Cyclops caught us. The old man grinned. He was perfectly well aware that we were trying to avoid him!
The waterfalls weren’t particularly impressive and neither are my photos, so I will only offer one shot of the largest falls.
The forest was almost silent, for wildlife has been all but extirpated in the area; nevertheless, we were entertained by the weird boinking and flute like tones produced by bamboo swaying in the wind. Whenever the wind blows in Thailand one is treated to a bamboo symphony.
Early the next morning we were awoken by the songs of gibbons. Shortly thereafter a stiff and spiffy young ranger woman arrived to take us back to the army camp that served as Park headquarters. There, we were assigned two guards in full military attire who were told to take us to the substation near the cave. I hated them immediately. They were the least Thai like Thais I had ever met, more like Germans, or for that matter, like soldiers everywhere. Their expressions were fixed and their uniforms perfect. Assholes!
We passed through a rich agricultural landscape dominated by strawberry and cassava farms. Whodathunk strawberries, a temperate zone fruit, would have the same cultural requirements as cassava, the staple food of the Amazonian jungles?
Cassava is an utterly tasteless starch which I have never seen offered in a Thai restaurant. Thais like tasty food so I have no idea what they do with it.
About fifteen miles later we arrived at the Phra-in ranger station. It is conveniently located adjacent to a small village with a rudimentary restaurant and general store, so we were set!
As soon as we got there the soldiers tried to take us to the cave but we told them to get lost! The plan was to wait them out then do a secret excursion when no one was looking. They had no choice but to leave, but vowed to return the next day.
The entire facility was overbuilt and overstaffed with underpaid peasants. It was obvious that no one ever visits except during “caving season” which is March through April depending upon water levels. It was equally obvious that it was expected to be a money making mass tourism facility that had failed. The life vests, rafts, and other so called “caving” equipment were covered in dust and spider webs.
There was even an abandoned “educational center” and a large toilet complex. That was where we encountered the following extraordinary sign.
From this we concluded that sitting and shitting in the western manner is perfectly permissible, but peeing, puking, squatting, and fishing in the toilet are forbidden, as is sitting on the floor while drawing Xs on the wall.
I could not help but speculate upon the origin of such a prohibition. Perhaps one day Diddletwat asked Bangpoon (In Thai), “Bangpoon, why do you fish in the hawng nam (water room)?” “Because Diddletwat, there is no better place to catch brown trout!”
Then things got weird. The staff was unfriendly, but we nevertheless had a welcoming committee consisting of a cat, a dog, and a goat. All were extremely friendly. The dog was so friendly that we named him Humper because that is all he did. Humper humped legs, cats, other male dogs, pigs, and goats, whatever was available. He could not be deterred, for love conquers all.
These were not ordinary animals. The cat was the boss and thought it was a dog. The dog took orders from the cat, and the goat thought it was a dog.
After dinner when no one was looking we snuck down the gated road that led to the cave. The dog was afraid to leave the campground, but the cat proudly led us down the road. If we stopped the cat would come back to get us, then impatiently wait until we started walking toward the cave again.
We had no idea how far the cave was, so we turned back after about a kilometer. If one of us strayed off into the jungle the cat would complain, then go retrieve the errant explorer. The cat was not pleased by our disorganized behavior, and refused to leave until he had herded us back into a group for the march back to camp.
When is the last time you heard of a cat leading a group of people a kilometer into the forest, then trying to herd them just like a sheep dog would when they misbehave?
The most ludicrous aspect of this ménage à trois was the goat’s attempts to be a dog. On those rare occasions when a vehicle drove by Humper would give chase and the goat would follow while mimicking the mannerisms of the dog. On even rarer occasions the car would stop, thus satisfying the dog but utterly perplexing the goat. “But Boss, now that I’ve caught the car what am I supposed to do?”
When morning came the asshole soldiers reappeared. There was no getting out of it, they were determined to take us to the cave. I was very displeased by their fancy shoes, crispy uniforms, and complete lack of caving equipment. They were too damned clean!
They opened the gate, then drove us to the trailhead not far from where we had turned around the evening before. There was even an information pavilion, but the whole place was utterly abandoned and in ruins.
We were confronted by a sheer cliff many hundreds of feet tall. To the left of the cliff a narrow notch gave access to a series of huge sinkholes. A steep trail skirted the edge of the cliff. There were even stairs and ladders, but the trail was badly overgrown. In bamboo thickets it disappeared entirely and I had to show the soldiers the way. It was obvious that no one ever comes here.
The trail was extremely circuitous, so when we arrived at the entrance I was baffled to see the water flowing in a different direction than I had expected. The flow was very strong even in this dry part of the year.
The soldiers indicated that when the water was even lower tourists wearing life vests were expected to leap off a cliff into the swirling waters below, then be swept into the cave to be picked up later somewhere downstream.
But where downstream? An enormous cave entrance at least 150 feet tall yawned before us, but the water was coming out not going in.
I found the direction of the water flow to be extremely puzzling. By all accounts this was the lower entrance. I had previously studied a map of the cave, and both the map and Google earth agreed that the main portion of Nok nang-aen lay upstream. The cave is famous for enormous passages with big skylights, I could even see the openings on Google earth, and all were upstream. These scenic skylights and the floatable stream were the main reasons the cave had been developed as a tourist attraction. Downstream there is no evidence of any openings until Snake creek emerges about 1.5 miles farther on so I suppose that is where they get picked up. The bottom line is that sometimes even the Weazel gets lost!
Now that we had arrived at the cave entrance the soldier/possum cops considered the trip to be over. They were obviously disgusted by the large amounts of guano that covered the rocks and fouled the air. No way were they going to get any bird shit on their fancy shoes!
That was the break I needed. When I realized that they wouldn’t take another step I slid down a guano covered slope and plunged into the stream, in the process becoming smeared with bird shit from head to toe. I could hear them yelling but refused to turn around. Meanwhile they concentrated on keeping Dave and Ann from following me. I later learned that they were threatening to use their radios to call for a rescue.
Because of this unfortunate standoff I only went far enough in to take a few photos looking back out.
Back at camp our keepers charged us an outrageous fee for their unwanted services. It was obvious that they were not going to allow us to have any further fun, so we decided to leave the following day. The problem was how?
As previously mentioned, the tiny village of Phra-In was directly across the street from the ranger station. It featured a general store with rudimentary restaurant, and a soda pop shop offering snacks, trifles, motorcycle repair, and miscellaneous services.
The owner of the soda pop shop was a fine fellow who collected orchids, so we took a friendly stroll while he showed me his garden. Other than the Latin names of a few orchids neither of us could understand a word of what the other was saying, but that didn’t matter. The important thing was that we were friends and that he owned a dusty pickup truck. Here he is in front of his shop.
Notice that there isn’t a sign.
Let’s consider some of the differences between the Phra-In soda pop shop in rural Thailand and an equivalent convenience store in Bumhump, West Virginia.
In Bumhump the store has a huge ugly sign and a facade covered with crass advertisements. The so called food items all come from China, the owners are absentees, the clerks are drug addicts out on bail, and the customers are all on welfare.
In Phra-In there are no signs, no advertisements, and the building facade is covered in orchids, Clerodendron, and various flowering vines. The goods are generally produced locally, the family runs the business, and the customers are all hard working farmers. If you want to know the price of something just ask, and don’t forget to also ask, “Oh, by the way, how is your grandmother doing?” America was once like that, back when it was great.
But how to ask? People often ask me how I get around in foreign countries where I can’t speak the language. It’s easy, just point down the road, mimic driving, try to say Huai Mae Khamin (which is nearly impossible), then ask how much? Regardless of what country you are visiting, the first phrase you need to learn is, “How much?”
If there had been any public transportation, even a tuk tuk or songthaew, the price would have been pennies to go almost anywhere, but the region is too sparsely settled for such services so we had to hire someone with a car or truck willing to ruin their entire day on our behalf. That isn’t cheap!
Huai Mae Khamin waterfall was only forty kilometers away but there was no direct route and the roads were bad so we offered our new friend approximately $50. Divided by three that isn’t too bad, and it was a good day for him. Meanwhile Aunt Twiddletwat ran the store.
As we continued east the landscape changed from lush strawberry fields to nearly desert like scrub dominated by parched bamboo, much of which had been burned by destitute farmers. This increasing aridity was due to the rain shadow effect of the Tenasserim mountains to the west which block the monsoon rains.
We had cherished the delusion that the Huai Mae Khamin waterfall in Khuean Srinagarindra National Park would be remote, inaccessible, and thus have few visitors. In reality it was overly developed and popular with bourgeois Thai vacationers who can easily access the place by private car. On weekends they come in large numbers to enjoy the waterfall. When we arrived there was only one camper. By the end of the next day there were hundreds!
In this view we are peering east toward the reservoir below. As you can see, the trees are mostly leafless and the air is filled with smoke. Shortly after taking this photo the wind began to howl, and the mountains in the distance burst into flame. It was a harbinger of things to come.
For the meantime all was well so we explored the park. The waterfall is said to have seven levels, but in reality there are hundreds of levels over a two mile long series of cascades.
All of the falls are composed of travertine. As I have discussed in other posts, travertine falls are self leveling and actually grow upwards rather than eroding downwards. This is due to the deposition of calcium carbonate in supersaturated water. These level pools are are similar to cave formations such as stalactites and rimstone dams, only they occur outside of caves.
My photos do not do justice to the beauty of this place. Of all the limitations of point and shoot cameras, the worst is an inability to control shutter speed, without which it is almost impossible to take good photos of waterfalls.
Like elsewhere in the monsoonal forests of Thailand riparian plant communities remain green year round, but the surrounding landscape turns sere and brown during the dry winter and spring. The hot dry smokey wind was oppressive so we prayed to the Buddha for rain but all I got was an umbrella.
Despite the nasty drought there were still a few interesting plants such as this Aroid inflorescence, presumably some species of Amorphophallus (Shapeless penis in Latin).
In Thai National Parks trees dress to impress!
In North America we still have plants such as the Honey locust tree which possess enormous spines to deter mega-herbivores that no longer exist, but in Thailand the threat of mega-herbivores, better known as elephants, is still very real, so check out these spines!
Please allow me to offer a smidgen of human interest to this story. I know that it is unlike me to do so, but as a contrarian I reserve the right to occasionally show other people in a positive light, especially if it makes us (Gringos) look bad. For example…
Here you see a fellow digging and laying pipe as part of a Park infrastructure improvement project. This is real work, and much of it is being done by hand, yet none of the crew are wearing hardhats and all are wearing flip flops.
The fellow driving the excavator isn’t wearing a uniform so he is presumably a local contractor. He may be driving, but the digging is being done by his seven year old son. That’s not play, the kid is actually doing the work! Ever see such a thing in the US?
In the United States if a construction worker set foot on a National Park construction site without the required safety equipment he or she would be fired immediately. If that person brought a child to the construction site and allowed the child to operate heavy equipment then Child Protective Services would intervene and the parents might lose custody or even go to jail.
That is because in the United States we are sniveling cowards who overvalue our worthless lives while blaming someone or everyone for whatever happens. In Thailand nobody is at fault because shit happens all the time, and you are expected to take responsibility for your own actions.
Notice how happy both father and son look. That is because the boy adores his father and wants to grow up to be just like him! How many American boys do you know who want to be just like their dad? None!
Dad is proud because his son is doing real work and will be able to support the family when he grows up. How many seven year old boys do you know who can do real work? How many seventeen year old punks do you know with useful skills? For that matter, how many twenty seven year old dickless twits do you know who don’t live in their mother’s basement?
In Thailand the family is still a functional entity, and there is continuity among generations. Young and old, men and women, all live, work, and play together. Nepotism is alive and well, for there is no higher morality than to be of service to family members. It is not a shame to work with your hands, nor is it a shame to follow in your father’s footsteps. The only real shame is to be unkind, or worst of all, to disrespect your parents and/or the King.
Now let’s return to the waterfalls where I found two young fathers playing with their kids. They were white, so I assumed they were either American or European, but it turned out that they were Russians. It was obvious that they loved their kids, but they were allowing them considerably more liberty than standard dads. They were pushing their kid’s limits, even encouraging them to play in the mud and to do potentially dangerous things.
Now let’s assume that the prophets of doom are correct and we someday go to war with the Russians. Who is going to win? The culture that coddles and sequesters their children while otherwise ignoring them? Or the culture that actually interacts with their kids and encourages them to take risks? Ask Napoleon.
Gentle reader, we have now come to the end of this part of the story. We have battled the Possum cops, met a pan-sexual dog, failed to explore a cave, and have read a sign prohibiting fishing in the toilet, but it was just a sign. It was all a bit strange and mildly interesting, but that’s all, no catastrophes or major discoveries, not even a single snake; so, I hope you haven’t been too disappointed.
If so, just stay tuned, because in the next installment of our thrilling adventure things go from being a bit strange to utterly surreal. We will travel by boat through the desert to a Felliniesque floating world where houses move of their own accord, orchestras play in the wilderness, mountains spontaneously burst into flames, and coprophagous fish really do thrive in the toilet! We will be having some for dinner, so come hungry!