So, Salvador Dali and Federico Fellini walk into a bar where they meet a diminutive Thai woman who asks them to design a resort in an alternative universe, a magical Brigadoon like place far from any road where large buildings move of their own accord, a symphony of a thousand flutes never stops playing, mountains spontaneously burst into flames, guests are fed their own excrement, and rock bands play while the bed bugs boogie. Thereafter it sinks beneath the waves never to be seen again. Welcome to the floating raft house from Hell!
When last seen the Weazel, Dr. Ann, and Lucky Dave were visiting Huai Mae Khamin waterfall in Khuean Srinagarindra National Park which is located in Kanchanaburi province, Thailand.
As mentioned in the previous post, I had studied the area on Google earth and noticed that after passing through several enormous caves the waters of Khlong ngu (Snake creek) cascade off the plateau into the Srinagarind Reservoir, a large lake created by the impoundment of the Khwae Yai river.
By looking closely into the dramatic canyon where Snake creek meets the reservoir I could see a tiny floating raft house complex.
In 2016 the raft house was located at the head of the 1000 foot deep gorge of Snake creek. Don’t strain your eyes, it is too small to be seen in this vertically exaggerated oblique view. The weird colors reflect arid conditions during the dry season.
The enormous caves discussed in the previous post are located on the plateau above the gorge. The orange splotch at the very top of the image indicates agriculture; otherwise, the entire area is effectively uninhabited.
The raft house has gotten smaller over time, not larger. The image shown below was taken in 2012. In it you can see that the raft house was then a thriving collection of about 20 different buildings.
The rafts are only loosely moored in place, so when I got there in 2016 several had moved, and others had disappeared. Don’t bother looking on Google earth now because the entire place has vanished!
Now for the backstory. Why would I be so excited about visiting such a remote place, especially since I had no idea what was there, or if we would even be welcome?
During the troubled times known as the American war (What we call the Vietnam war) Thailand was run by a military dictatorship just like it is today. At that time very few Thai students were actually communists, they just wanted democracy, but that was still enough to get them killed, so many of them had no choice but to flee into the wilderness to join the commie resistance.
Theirs was a heroic story, urban college kids who survived for years in some of the wildest jungles on earth. When the dictatorship fell and the war was over the King issued a proclamation that all was forgiven and their beloved children could finally come home.
In honor of this noble struggle the student’s jungle redoubts were set aside as national parks. During their tenure they had prevented logging, hunting, and clearing for agriculture; meanwhile, the rest of their beautiful country was ripped apart by rapacious development.
The military was of course chagrined that a bunch of kids with sticks had managed to fend off the army. It was all the fault of the jungle! So they demanded “in the name of national security” that roads be built into the wilderness and that rivers be impounded. That way Daddy Warbucks could profit from dam building, electricity could be sold to the masses, and no future revolutionaries could hide in the jungle! Needless to say these developments has a devastating effect upon the ecosystem, especially in regard to the migration of elephants; nevertheless, despite these encroachments, the National Parks of Thailand remain some of the last wild places in Asia.
There was one other complication. Small jungle settlements had existed for millennia prior to the flooding of the rivers. The homes and fields of the inhabitants were now underwater. They had nothing to do and no place to go.
Contrary to romantic folktales, Rousseau, and the beliefs of urban leftists, tropical fruit does not fall out of trees into hungry mouths, and indigenous peoples are not somehow in “balance” with the environment. Experience has time and again shown that primitive farmers cannot coexist with National parks and nature reserves. If left to their own devices they will invariably hunt and practice slash and burn agriculture.
So, the Thai supreme court ruled that even though hunting and agriculture were henceforth forbidden, the previous inhabitants could still fish and occupy their ancestral home sites which were now beneath a hundred feet of water. Thus was born the concept of the floating raft house! The owners of these raft houses quickly learned that it was more profitable to catch tourists than fish, so many of them went into the ecotourism business.
In 2006 I visited the stunningly beautiful Khao Sok National Park where I hired a famous reformed tiger poacher to guide me to a remote salt lick deep in the jungle. At the end of our wonderful adventure I found myself at the Ton Toey Raft House at the nethermost end of Cheow Lan reservoir.
The scenery was superb, a pellucid lake surrounded by virgin rainforest where gibbons called at dawn. I was the first tourist to ever get there on foot, and I had come with a famous tiger poacher, so I was treated like a king. The food was spectacular, and best of all I could fling myself directly from my simple hut into the cool blue water. It was love at first sight!
So, having discovered the floating raft house from Hell, I just had to go! The problem was how to get there. No information whatsoever was available. I couldn’t even learn the name of the place. I could tell it was a resort of some sort, but one only frequented by local Thais. No foreign farang need apply!
Allow me to add that few foreigners ever visit Huai Mae Khamin waterfall, so hardly anyone spoke any English. I eventually located a bright young ranger with a cell phone. He understood where I was trying to go and placed a call for me. A woman on the other end of the line said, “I own laft house. You can go, but nobody there. Later I come. Then you pay.”
If only I had known how much! She quoted 150o baht (about $50). The “resort” was said to be all inclusive, so I presumed she meant 1500 baht for the three of us for a five day stay. It turned out that she meant 1500 per person per night, an outrageous price in rural Thailand!
I asked about food. She said, “Plenty food! (If only I had known that the fish would come from the toilet!) Speaking of food from the toilet, we were already sick from eating at the Huai Mae Khamin park cafeteria. Octopus salad is always a bad idea this far from the coast. It was the beginning of a gastrointestinal adventure that almost killed me in Myanmar. More on that later.
When I asked her how to get there from the Park she said, “No can go. You must find. Later I come bring two houses. Have plenty food but you must bring whiskey!” The part about her coming later with two houses made no sense whatsoever, but it turned out to be true!
So we still had to get there. By looking at Google earth on his cell phone my new ranger friend determined that there were actually two raft houses, but the only way to reach either one was from a small fishing village called Na Suan located on the other side of the reservoir about 80 road miles away. There was a shortcut using a ferry, but that didn’t help because there was no public transportation on either route. It appeared that we were scrod, but the ranger said, “No prob, I’ll find you a boat!
The sharks could smell the blood in the water. Fat juicy farang were floundering about in need of a ride, so it was easy pickins! First, my new “friend” charged us $1000 baht for a five minute ride down to the lake. Then we learned that the 15 mile boat ride would cost 2000 baht! Thus, it cost us about $100 just to get to a place less than 9 miles away as the crow flies. Where were we, Manhattan?
We had expected to be dropped at the public ferry, but instead we found ourselves at an abandoned dock where a destitute fisherman was attempting to start a derelict long tailed boat. The ranger told him to take us to the raft house then left with a grin. It was a good payday for him, but not for the fisherman who probably got 30 baht out of the 3000!
We got about a quarter of a mile out into the lake when the motor died. After much fiddling we continued on for a short distance until the engine shaft became disconnected. By some miracle he eventually repaired it, but then it broke again and again.
These numerous delays while sitting in the middle of the lake enabled us to enjoy the wretched scenery. The sun was blisteringly hot in a cloudless sky, but the sky was so thick with smoke that it was difficult to see anything through the reddish haze. The mountains rising all around us were brown, dry, and uninhabited with no signs of agriculture. It looked like we had been transported to west Texas on a bad day. How could this ugly place possibly be in beautiful green Thailand?
I was astounded to see that there were no other boats. Middle class Thais have the same tacky lifestyles as middle class Americans, so I had expected numerous pleasure craft and vacation homes long the shore. Where were the jet skis? The restaurants and honky-tonks with sunset views across the lake? For that matter, where were the peasant fishermen and their bamboo huts? There was nothing, not even another long tailed boat.
At first the cool breeze blew away the smoke, so we expected better weather. Little did we know that a terrible storm was brewing!
If the motor had failed completely it would have been time to swim, or be blown by the ever increasing wind onto the desolate western shore. As it was, the poor grumpy fisherman eventually repaired the engine; so, we traversed the barren lake, then turned into the gorge of Snake creek.
It was impossible to communicate with the fisherman, so he took us to the first raft house we came to. It was a fairly nice place, but not the “resort” owned by the woman I had spoken with. I was delighted to see that they had sit on top kayaks. No one seemed to be home.
We continued up the gorge to our destination, the Pae Nam Jone raft house. It was utterly derelict and appeared to be abandoned.
Oops, wrong shack! This one has cast off both its moorings along with the conventional constraints of stationary architecture. It has broken free to become nomadic, and roams the lake at will. Later, as it drifted past, we could hear echos of the ghosts of partygoers past. Or was that the wind?
So, we continued on to “reception”.
When we arrived two ragged peasants crawled out of the floating hovel to gaze at us with dismay. They were apparently the guardians. It was impossible to communicate, and they had no idea of what to do with us. The rooms were filthy, and the floors so rotten that one could easily fall through into the lake.
The “resort” appeared to be uninhabitable, so we made the fisherman take us back to the first raft house. I yelled until a caretaker arrived. He was a reasonably bright fellow, so he was able to explain that no rooms were available despite the fact that the entire place was empty. When I frowned, pointed up Snake creek toward Pae Nam Jone and said “Bad!”, he vigorously nodded in agreement and replied, “Bad! Bad! Velly velly bad! Solly!”
The kayaks weren’t for rent either, but I was not be be deterred. I selected three kayaks, flapped a big wad of money, put down a deposit, then paddled back up the creek while the fisherman towed the other yaks. The caretaker waved and gave us a shy smile because he knew we would return eventually, and maybe even give him a tip! After all, where else was there to go?
Here you see the Pae Nam Jone raft house in all of its glory. There are only seven structures still floating. Where did the others go? To sleep with the fishes of course!
But what keeps any of it floating? Bamboo! Thousands upon thousands of lengths of giant bamboo had been shoved under the structure to keep it afloat. Like an iceberg, most of the structure is underwater.
We tried to select the best rooms but they were locked and the guardians didn’t have keys. Best is only a comparative word, for all of the rooms were shit holes full of bedbugs. We were free to take any of the other rooms we wanted for they had no locks! Here are the “better” rooms that we selected.
And below you see the “less better” rooms. Notice that the Hilton is tiltin’ and the individual rafts are only loosely connected by rotten planks. The upper thatched roof is gone, and the lower metal roof was soon to go!
The dining room, however, was deluxe! There were even picnic tables!
The kitchen featured the latest in plastic tubs!
One might reasonably inquire about the toilet facilities. There were plenty, both squat and sit. Since there were no pipes beneath the toilets none were ever clogged. Just dip a bucket of water out of the lake, pour it into the commode, and away goes trouble down the non existent drain!
But what about dinner? The woman had said, “Plenty food, you no have ploblem!” She was right, fresh fish was available at a moment’s notice!
All you can eat anytime you want!
I take back what I said before about indigenous people not being in “balance” with their environment. Here was the perfect sustainable ecosystem. Eat shit eat shit eat shit eat, ad infinitum! Vast schools of fish lived under the raft house eagerly awaiting the next flush. There was no sign saying “No fishing in the toilet!” and no possible way to eat them all!
We were stranded, so what was there to do in such a place? Swim!
It seemed that we had the place to ourselves. The “all inclusive resort” was just a distant memory, and the guardians were castaway Crusoes on a forgotten isle. Surely we were the last customers Pae Nam Jone would ever have.
That was when we heard the music echoing from the canyon walls. Around the bend came the strangest procession imaginable. An entire rocks band complete with generator and groupies was being towed on a bamboo raft!
The band was followed by several other rafts full of people. They proceeded to the end of the lake, then turned around and left.
Again we thought we had the place to ourselves, but just as the music was fading away two new apparitions appeared. They were houseboats of a sort never seen before. A houseboat is usually just a clunky boat that is used as a house, but these were large two story houses that happened to float. In no way did they resemble any sort of boat. In fact they were floating stages, and each one had a band blasting bad rock n’ roll.
To my horror these floating monstrosities did not proceed to the end of the lake then leave. Instead they both tied up to the raft house and disgorged an enormous number of people, and vast quantities of food. How did all those people fit on the houseboats? Where would they all stay?
Thus began an orgy of gluttony. Thais on a raft house, much like American tourons on a cruise ship, don’t feel they have gotten their money’s worth unless they eat until they puke. Needless to say, they all were fat, and the fish well fed.
The music was insufferable. Imagine two bad rock bands with generators directly facing each other, each trying to drown out the other with ever louder noise. So many partygoers had arrived that the raft house visibly sank. The chaos and cacophony were indescribable.
The owner Pitong was actually quite nice. She explained that her husband had been a famous outdoorsman who even had his own TV show. The raft house was his way to capitalize on his fame as a fisherman. She showed me photos of him holding enormous snakehead fish like the one in the photo below from Khao Sok.
But sport fishing declined and Macho Man died. Now the lake is full of fecal feeders and little else, so these days she concentrates on providing a party atmosphere. To our great relief the noise died down by midnight, and in the morning after more gluttony everyone left. The whole ordeal had taken less than 24 hours.
About that time the weather took a turn. After a short rain the wind began to howl. We had been seeing fires all over the area, the air quality was going from bad to worse, and the sunset was red. By nightfall the temperature had dropped by thirty degrees. We later learned that forty people across Thailand died from the cold that night.
It is understandable that strong wind during a drought would increase the danger of forest fires, but we could hardly believe our eyes as whole mountainsides spontaneously burst into flames!
We later learned that the spontaneous ignition of mountainsides was caused by bamboo stalks rubbing against each other in the wind.
As the wind increased so did the symphony of a thousand flutes, actually, make that ten thousand flutes! Every single piece of bamboo used in the construction of Pae Nam Jone had an open end exposed to the wind. No two of these open ended tubes were of the same length, so the flute like tones produced by each were different. The cumulative effect was a weird modulated moaning as though all the devils in Hell had joined in a lament.
But the weird sounds weren’t just those of the devil’s flutes. The buildings were flexible, so each structure creaked and groaned in its own special way.
Each raft section was an independent structure only loosely moored to the others, so when the wind became a gale the buildings started crashing violently against each other. If these had been conventional rigid structures they would have collapsed like masonry buildings in an earthquake. As it was the buildings whipped around in a sinuous manner that would have torn apart the connecting planks had they been nailed in place rather than tied together.
As the sun set and flames engulfed the mountains other pieces of the building started to disintegrate. First the remains of the rotten thatched roof flew off in the wind, then the lower metal roof started ripping apart. The sound of twisting, ripping, crashing metal was the perfect complement to our symphony from hell!
Would our raft house sink? Or be ripped off its moorings to crash against the shore? Worst of all, what would happen if a spark from the raging fires landed on the thatch roof? In such winds the place wouldn’t burn, but rather go up like a bomb. We would only have moments in which to escape by throwing ourselves into the lake!
It was an interesting night, and the music, such as it was, was a big improvement over the bad rock band the night before. We had sufficient gear, and my sweetie was in my arms, so the only real problem was the bedbugs. I have never before seen such big juicy bedbugs!
When dawn came the storm had not abated, so all we could do was wait. It was much too cold to swim, and the lake too rough to even consider using the kayaks. There was nothing to do but fish and fish and fish.
We had intended to take our kayaks to the head of the lake, then ascend Snake creek on foot all the way to Tham Sao Hin if possible, but it was not to be. Aside from that, our guts were rotted out from eating bad octopus and fishing in the toilet. We were all getting sicker by the minute!
Our poor keepers sat there all day fishing and shivering. They were obviously keeping the fish, but why? There was no electricity, and thus no refrigeration, so why bother? They were obviously displeased that Pitong had insisted that they stay until we were ready to go. It was all our fault that they were still there shivering with nothing to do. So passed another cold windy night during which we enjoyed another of the Devil’s symphonies.
By dawn the raft house was barely floating and everybody was more than ready to leave! We were dismayed to discover that the tiny longtailed boat, which was barely big enough for three people, much less five, had also been loaded with hundreds of pounds of unrefrigerated toilet fish in a large stinking metal box. That, combined with high wind and waves, made our crossing of the lake to Na Suan extremely perilous.
We had no problem in the sheltered waters of Snake creek, but when we got to the open lake the waves were too dangerous, so we beached on a wretched desert island, built a pathetic little fire, then sat there shivering until the wind died down.
So it was that after our delightful sojourn at the Raft house from Hell we arrived at Na Suan. Notice that even the large house shown below is floating, but at least there is a way to get to shore. It serves as a restaurant, general store, and departure dock. Since they have their own toilet fish living beneath the store they were not interested in ours.
We had one more notable adventure on our way back to the comforts of Kanchanaburi. Na Suan is only served by horribly crowded songthaews which run on an irregular schedule. In case you are wondering what a songthaew is, here is a photo of one swiped from Wiki. Notice that it has a ledge on the back where bulky objects can be placed.
As we were crossing a mountain pass the songthaew in front of us lost control on a curve and crashed. No one was hurt, but the 55 gallon drum of diesel that had been strapped to the back fell off, ruptured, and fuel covered the road. We managed to get past the wreck, then pulled over to see if we could help.
This happened on a very steep blind curve. It was so steep, and the oil so slippery, that it was almost impossible to even stand up much less control a vehicle. We watched helplessly while vehicle after vehicle came around the turn then slid sideways off the road. We set up flagmen to warn oncoming traffic but it didn’t help. Even those vehicles that came to a complete halt before they reached the fuel slick lost control when they tried to slowly creep around it. Needless to say the motorcycles, all of which were carrying at least three people, all crashed. Miraculously, no one was hurt, but all we could do was watch the pile of vehicles accumulate.
Many of the people had cell phones, but there was no one to call. In Thailand there may be cops, but there is no functional 911 style number to call, and few emergency services even if someone could get through to the authorities. Eventually we just left. How many more vehicles crashed before some peasant with a shovel decided to throw dirt across the oil slick?
I am the first to decry the totalitarian system we live under here in the United States. We suffer under redundant rules and layers of bureaucracy. By comparison, Thailand seems a much better freer place until there is a catastrophe of some sort. Then one discovers that there is no one in charge to provide the necessary services that enable a modern civilization to exist.
Had enough of ugly? Then stay tuned. We next travel north to Mae Sot on the Thai/Myanmar frontier. There we will have dinner in the most beautiful garden I have ever seen, even more beautiful than the Butterfly Rainforest!
Thereafter, we will descend back into Hell, for Burma is one of the most mysterious and forbidding places on earth!