To Assume to Know
When I made the decision to teach in Thailand I had very specific ideas about what my weekends and holidays would look like. My mind conjured images of limestone cliffs rising out of crystal waters, and cocktails replenishing themselves as I kicked back under shady palms. While my drinks may not always fill themselves, and certainly not without a fistful of money making it happen, the white sands and tropical sun don’t disappoint.
The more time you spend here though, the richer your experience becomes. The deckchairs of Koh Samui are replaced with a hammock strung between palm trees in Krabi, which are in turn replaced with a tent on the beach in Khanom to catch an early sunrise. You move further and further from the tourist track until you’re seeing the country from as unique a perspective as possible. Of course as the luxuries recede, the little pests of nature have a way of sneaking in. A 6pm nap in a hammock could turn you into a pin cushion for mosquitoes, and an ill placed tent can incur the wrath of a local ant colony.
The occasional inconvenience of nature is never enough to really put a damper on your adventures. You get smarter, better prepared, and more equipped to take on the little rigors of exploration. It’s with this mentality that myself and a group of friends decide to set up camp for the weekend in Khao Luang National Park at the beginning of the hike to Krung Ching Waterfall. This spectacular waterfall used to be a favourite of the King and was featured on the 1000 Baht bill. The hike is fairly simple 3.5km through the jungle and the path is generally well tended to make the walk as easy as possible. We’d certainly done harder hikes and we’d definitely been less prepared but this trip was going to show us that the jungle had more than just mosquitoes and ants to throw at us.
From One School to Another
We set out after school on Friday and arrived late afternoon. With the sun ducking below the tall jungle around us, we decided to delay the walk to the waterfall to the following day. Instead we chose to pass the last hours of the evening with camp fires, beers, and bags of fried chicken and rice we’d picked up from road side stalls along the way. Clouds began to obscure the light of the moon and cracks of thunder seemed to knock back and forth across the treetops signaling the end of the night and a retreat to our tents.
By the time we woke again the next morning the sun had broken out against the cold grey clouds of the night before. As we sat amongst the shade of the trees at the beginning of our short trek, a simple breakfast of bananas and instant coffee got our day under way. We hoisted our dry-bags over our shoulders and set out for Namtok Krung Ching.
Starting strong we quickly made our way along the muddy trail, climbing up and over the path through the dense jungle. However not even thirty minutes into the walk, a sudden and unexpected downpour was announced as a rumble of thunder rolled across the sky. We were soaked to the bone, anything not hidden in our bags was drowned in the tropical rainstorm. Nevertheless we all agreed to push on to our goal, our destination not more than another thirty minutes down the way.
Without warning a shriek pierced the air around us, I spun around to watch one of my fiends frantically swatting at her feet and hopping up and down hysterically. Confused, I started towards her until her panic was matched by her boyfriend who had begun to yell profanities, scraping at something on his ankles and flicking his hands around wildly. I yelled out to see what had got them so worked up, and they returned just one word highly charged word back to us.
This is the day we learned about leeches.
How Bad Can it Get?
I glanced down at the ground around us to see fat black leeches stuck to my feet and ankles, with more twisting their way across the dense leaf covered floor. My panic joined with theirs as we pulled off what we could, leaving streams of blood coming from our legs, and bolted in the direction of the waterfall. Optimistically we believed that the rocks which made up the majority of the waterfall wouldn’t be as hospitable for these worm-like creatures.
Leeches grabbed at us from all directions as we raced across the broken concrete paths, leaping little wooden planked bridges and hoisting ourselves over thick tree roots.
All the time, we flapped our limbs and pulled at the little alien parasites that were slurping the blood from our exposed skin. Some of us regrouped under a shelter while one friend sprinted off by herself along the path, preferring her chances as a moving target.
We plucked, squashed and rolled the squirming rubber creatures between our fingers and under our shoes as we caught our composure.
My girlfriend pulled a literal clump of them from between her toes, causing blood to flow down her feet and into the ground. “They’re coming from the roof!” yelled another friend as she untangled one from her hair, and we struck off again into the wet jungle.
No matter how fast we ran or where we stood leeches seemed to be everywhere, the trees, the ground, the stone steps leading down to the waterfall and on every warm spot of open skin.
Reprieve From Above
Finally the roar of the falling water filled our ears and the slick wet rocks below promised a break from our race through the jungle. The rain came down and the skies blocked the sun but still Nam Tok Krung Ching looked regal in the pale afternoon light. Stark and powerful, the waterfall sent long billowing gusts of spray as it crashed down into the water below.
As the mists of the falls spread around us, we plucked the remaining leeches from our bodies and recounted our half panicked dash through the tropical brush. Our gazes followed the waterfall up and over to the route we’d need to retrace to get back to our camp site. The trail was both unappealing and necessary. Only the thought of a nearby hot spring and clean, scalding water to wash the feeling of leeches from our bodies gave us the energy and conviction to start back the way we had come.
Over and Out
We had a moment to wish each other luck, took a breath of courage and plunged back into the jungle. Thailand is full of treasures, both on and off the beaten track and we’ll even be back to Krung Ching to catch it in when the sun is shining. But that day, needless to say, we didn’t take too much time to look back along the leech soaked paths as we sprinted back through the jungle.