Camping in Khao Yai

by Georgia Knapp

I hate camping. If someone asks me what I want to do on a weekend, camping would not make it on my Top 20 list. In fact, camping wouldn’t make it on any list because it’s not something that my mind even registers as a viable option. It’s like jumping a flaming motorcycle over a pit of purple alligators: that’s how implausible camping is to me. Then I started dating a guy who liked to go camping. To Kishan, the more primitive the surroundings the better. When we planned a trip to Hua Hin he voted for sleeping in a hut with no A/C or bathroom. I told him I refused to be touched if covered in sweat.

We booked a guesthouse instead. A long Thai holiday weekend approached and we’d yet to make any concrete plans. “What if we went camping?” Kishan said. He scrolled through a webpage I’d sent him on weekend getaways outside of Bangkok. “Camping?” “In Khao Yai.” He pointed to a photo of trees and brush. I’d successfully sidestepped the hut in Hua Hin, but if I worried if I did the same with camping in Khao Yai Kishan would think I wasn’t adventurous. Our relationship was still new.

Kishan was from India; me from the US. He often commented on how people from developed countries couldn’t adapt or “rough it.” I needed to prove him wrong, for our relationship and for the developed world. I don’t know why I disliked camping so much. I hadn’t had a traumatic camping experience, nor was I forced to go on interminable family camping trips. My parents and I had never camped (there may have been one camping excursion on a beach, but I don’t know if I dreamt it or if it really happened). My mother’s motto: “Camping is a Best Western without towels.” I could count the number of times I’d camped on one hand: once with a Girl Scout troop; another time with a high school friend, where we burned all of our toilet paper for warmth and our dome tent looked like a deflated parade float. The last time I camped was in 2011 with my best friend.

We drove to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When we pulled up to the entrance a park ranger warned us of an ice storm blowing across Lake Superior. I looked at my friend. She smiled widely. She still wanted to camp. “Why do you hate me?” I asked. “We’ll snuggle for warmth,” she said. I thought about that ice storm – the wind and the cold (so so cold) – as I stared at the picture on Kishan’s computer screen. This was Thailand, home to the hottest city in the world because the temperature doesn’t fluctuate enough. Thailand was tropical, warm; not cold and wet like the shores of Lake Superior. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go camping.”

The day before heading to Khao Yai, I ate lunch with my coworkers in the staff canteen. We talked about our plans for the long weekend. I told them about camping in Khao Yai. “In the rainy season?” one guy said. “Are you mental?” “Watch out for leeches,” another guy said. “The last time I was up there I walked for ten minutes and was completely covered.” He gestured to his chest and arms. I’d barely been in Thailand a year. I didn’t know about the rainy season.

I wondered if Kishan did. “How do I prevent leeches?” I asked. “Don’t go.” The next night, Kishan and I boarded a bus to Pak Chong. I thought about leeches and rain the entire drive. I hadn’t been enthusiastic about camping at Pictured Rocks, but I liked being with my friend. We also parked my car at our campsite. As the wind blasted our tent I felt comforted by the fact that I could jump into my silver Honda Fit at any time. I wouldn’t have my car in Khao Yai. I liked Kishan, but we’d only been dating a few months. What if we fought? What if he was as inept at camping as me and we couldn’t pitch our tent? What if one of us got bitten by a poisonous bug or attacked by a tiger? Were there tigers in Thailand? What if leeches carried Lyme disease?

The next morning we caught a sangthaew to an auto dealership, rented a motorbike, and headed into the national park. The air was cooler than in Bangkok. My lungs felt clean and open, but I didn’t know if it was because of the lack of smog or just my imagination. Established in 1962, Khao Yai is Thailand’s first national park; the third largest after Kaeng Krachan and Thap Lan. In 2013 it became a sister park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the US. It boasts over 300 species of birds and 66 different mammals. It’s home to Asia’s largest monsoon forest: a tropical forest marked by long dry seasons followed by months of heavy rainfall. Our first stop after entering the park was an easy hike to the Nong Phak Chi Watchtower.

The tower gave a 360 degree view of grasslands, a salt lick, and a small lake. Dark green mountains rolled around us. Behind each hump loomed dark, approaching rain clouds. On the hike back, the rain reached our motorbike before we did. We joined three tour guides beneath the trees and waited for the rain to pass. When it finally did, we sped to nearest campsite: Lum Ta Khlong. We set up our rented mock – US Army brown and black camouflage tent on the bank of a pond. The ground was muddy, but not saturated. Caribou-sized deer stuck their heads into the open flaps of tents searching for food. Couples, families, and friends crowded the area.
At least Kishan and I weren’t the only people crazy enough to camp in the rainy season.

With our sleeping mats and sleeping bags laid out in the tent, we crawled inside. The tent my friend and I had used in Michigan was a family tent that could sleep four people. If it hadn’t been so cold, my friend and I could have easily spread out. The tent in Khao Yai seemed fit for two children. Kishan and I – him 180 cm and me 175 cm – squished together with our legs entwined and stretched diagonally towards opposite corners of the tent. We stayed there for an hour. In addition to the black and brown camouflage, the tent was covered in poorly written paragraphs. From what I could piece together, the story was set during WWII in Russia and the main character was sad and cold. We hopped back on the motorbike just as the rain started again.

We sought shelter beneath the awning of the caretaker’s quarters. Across the road a family of monkeys ran into the woods for cover. Deer lazily followed suit. Only a large monitor lizard seemed unfazed striding across the yard in the direction of the pond. The rain lasted twenty minutes. When it finally let up we sped off in the direction of Haew Narok Waterfall. We barely made it twenty yards before the sky opened up again, this time twice as hard. Kishan pulled beneath trees, but the shoulder was too wet and narrow. I worried a car might drive by and not see us. We raced back to Lum Ta Khlong. Our hiking boots filled with rainwater. At the campsite we dove headfirst into the tent, keeping our feet outside to prevent the mud from getting in. It poured the rest of the evening. The shoddy nylon of our tent moistened on the inside, slowly drenching our bags, blankets, and pillows. Mud turned to goo and we struggled to slog through it on our one trip to the bathroom.

I focused so intently on hopping from solid ground to solid ground that I almost ran into a deer. We ate dinner at the canteen: instant noodles, cartons of milk and chocolate cookies. Behind us, a group of German backpackers played charades. Back in our tent I whacked the sleeping bags in case leeches had hopped inside (or slithered – I didn’t know how leeches moved). I put on my two pieces of dry clothing, but the moment I lay down they wetted. The “rainproof” tarp we’d laid beneath us shown with a thin layer of water. With nothing else to do, Kishan and I lay in the darkness listening to rain cascade over our tent.

I’d expected the night to go one of two ways: awful or romantic. Either I’d be so hot, wet, and muddy that I didn’t want to be touched, or Kishan and I would get wrapped up in the usual excitement of a new romance coupled with the close quarters of a two-person tent. Instead, neither happened. We lay there listening to the chorus of raindrops tapping against plastic and the occasional sloshing of a passing deer. Just like when I camped in Michigan, I wasn’t miserable. At the time I’d assumed it was because of the company and the knowledge that I could dash into my car. In Khao Yai, I also enjoyed the company, but there was no escaping the campsite until the skies cleared.

If the rain didn’t let up, we could spend the entire next day in the tent listening to the rain. The rain continued throughout the night. I woke sporadically, having dreamt that the lake flooded our tent. I woke Kishan twice to check that our shoes hadn’t floated away. When dawn broke and the rain finally ceased we squished our way to the motorbike in search of breakfast and to try to go to Haew Narok once again. At the visitor centre cafe we drank iced lattes and charged our phones. Kishan turned his screen towards me. “What do you think of this place?” he asked. He flipped through photos of a Europeanstyle villa.

“It looks nice,” I said. “For when?” “For tonight.”“Tonight?” “We did what we came to do,” he said. “We camped. Tonight we stay in a nicer place.” It surprised me that Kishan didn’t want to camp a second night. I assumed I’d be the one demanding a night surrounded by four walls and electricity. Instead, the thought of another night lying side-by-side while a monsoon blew around us didn’t sound so bad. The night had been wet and uncomfortable and full of lucid nightmares believing we were slowly sinking to the bottom of the lake, but it had also been kind of fun. After long weeks at work, I liked having no other option than staring at the ceiling. I liked the romanticism of eating instant noodles and chocolate cookies while moths circled our head.

“Even though we hadn’t spoken to any of our campsite neighbours, I felt like we were in a likeminded community full of other insane people who chose to spend the holiday weekend sweaty and dirty. Oh God, I thought. Do I like camping?”

I liked the adventure. Even though we hadn’t spoken to any of our campsite neighbours, I felt like we were in a likeminded community full of other insane people who chose to spend the holiday weekend sweaty and dirty. Oh God, I thought. Do I like camping? We looked up the weather forecast before making a final decision. The radar showed rain, rain, and more rain. Kishan found a chateau available on a flash deal from Agoda (because only in Thailand can two millennials afford to stay at a chateau). Yes, I realised I liked camping, but I still liked A/C and WiFi more. Kishan was right: we’d accomplished our goal of camping. I’d also accomplished my goal: prove I could camp (you’re welcome, developed nations). We booked a room at the chateau and returned to Lum Ta Khlong. I dragged the wet tarp and sleeping bags out of the tent and onto the grass. I grabbed both pillows and jumped backwards.

Right where my pillow had been, a leech crawled across the floor like a Slinky walking downstairs. I scooped it up with a corner of the tarp and threw it towards the pond. My ankle stung a bit. I looked down to see a smattering of bleeding, circular cuts. Leeches. We’d made the right choice with the chateau. The chateau welcomed us with glasses of apple juice.

We toured a winery and enjoyed chim chum (hot pot) and cold Chang at a small family stand. We slept mudless and sweatless on clean sheets with cool air blowing over us. I joked to Kishan: “Last night was your version of camping. Tonight is mine.” Rain continued to drench Khao Yai during the night. The following afternoon, while Kishan and I fed llamas and sheep at a mock Italian village, runoff from the mountains surged into a sudden flash flood. Park officials raced to evacuate campers and tourists. An onsite ranger called it “the worst flooding in ten years.”

On the minibus ride back to Bangkok, Kishan proposed buying a tent. “It’ll be better quality than the rented one,” he said. “We wouldn’t get as wet.” I nodded. “You would go camping again?” he asked. The greenery outside slowly turned to 7/11s and street stalls. “I would,” I said. This time I meant it.

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