Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Khao Yai National Park

Last month I was delighted to be invited along with a couple of the staff to Khao Yai National Park for the purposes of setting up some GPS trails for future school trips.  Khao Yai National Park is approximately 3 hours north of Bangkok and for me it was my first opportunity to walk through the rainforest proper in Thailand.  Our trip necessitated an early start and I felt quite excited as I watched the beautiful sunrise over the northern outskirts of Bangkok on the way out.  Our journey was trouble free and once through the entrance of the park we had to make our way to the visitor centre in order to meet our guide for the day.  As an appetiser for what we were likely to see during the day an elephant came sauntering along the road - it was the first time I had ever seen a wild one and it was tremendously exciting.

We collected the guide and double backed to km33 on the same road.  There is a parking area here and the trailhead starts across the road.  Within minutes of getting started on the walk it was easy to see why we needed a guide for the forest was very dense.  He explained to us about some of the wildlife that live here and the creature that is feared by most locals isn't one you might expect - not snakes or wild cats but a type of wild bison called a gaur.  They are very large and have been known to charge people if disturbed.  Helpfully there were some warning signs around showing what they looked like for I had never heard of them before.

Despite the density of the forest there were a few breaks largely where some of the larger trees had become victims to storms, leaving natural gaps where new growth could quickly fill the void.  It was in the gaps that the true height of the forest could be appreciated.  Trees here can be approximately the height of 10 storey buildings.  

The weight burden of such trees can make them vulnerable to storms but they have a natural pruning process in the absence of seasons.  There is a constant shedding of leaves and twigs and new roots are thrown down as the tree grows in order to help stabilise it.   If a tree blows down it will often take much smaller trees with it and create quite a large void space and this can have a micro-climate all of its own.  Such conditions are ripe for new growth and it isn't long before nature's repair team comes along to fill this valuable new space with all the extra light that is now available. Some of the bigger trees here are hundreds of years old apparently so these opportunities don't always come along very quickly.

Salt Lick
As we reached a corner characterised by some huge vines that wrapped around themselves like ropes the guide told us that a tourist recently had had an encounter with a gaur at this spot.  Looking at the density of the vegetation I could scarcely believe that a creature the size of a bison could come crashing through at speed but it must be a very scary prospect when they do.  A little further on and we  came upon a section of forest that was slightly less dense than before.  There was an interpretive board that explained that this was an area that had probably been cleared at some point for many of the trees were a similar height suggesting that they started growing at the same time.  This could have been caused by landslip or floods as well as storms.  

Observation Tower
The next area of clearing wasn't caused by a natural process but by people clearing for agriculture.  The recovery is clearly a slow process for this area has been a national park for more than 50 years.  There were some new growth trees that begin the reforestation process but these will eventually lose out to the slower growing trees that grow much larger and form the canopy.  I saw some species of flower that I vaguely recognised including one that looked like a form of nightshade with flowers that resembled those of the potato plant.

Watering Hole
Back in the forest and we soon came upon one of the most important trees in this area - the giant fig tree.  This was clearly a giant for it was almost impossible to see the top of the tree and we could only guess at its height based on the enormity of its base and the dozens of roots that were stabilising it.  These figs have a very interesting way of reproducing since they do not display their flowers for any old passing insect.  Instead they are pollinated by a specific type of wasp that access the flower via a small opening.  The wasp pollinates the flower and when the fruit ripens it will be eaten by any number of different animals or birds including hornbills, gibbons, macaque monkeys and civets.  They will then spread the seeds far and wide as payment for their meal - the seeds survive the digestive tract of all of these creatures.

Log Bridge
The next tree of note was a lot smaller but had obviously been deliberately cut.  This is known as Lueat Khwai and produces a red fluid when cut called buffalo blood.  I am not clear on the human use but apparently it is consumed by hornbills, monkeys and langurs.  

Turkey Tails
Shortly after this and the sound of the gibbons that we had been hearing since the start of the hike was clearly a lot closer and our guide motioned us over to a spot where we could see right up into the canopy of the forest.  We soon caught a glimpse of one of the gibbons and then more as we saw them swinging through the forest perhaps on their way to a feeding ground.  We watched them with baited breath for a while scarcely believing our good fortune.  Up until this point we had only seen signs of wildlife, including elephant footprints.

We emerged from the forest shortly after and waded our way through some very tall elephant grass in a very large clearing.  The views out across the forest from here were astonishing and the lighting really showed off the majesty of the park.  This grassland area is managed by the park authorities to maintain it otherwise it would soon return to being forest. Keeping the grassland enables grazing to be maintained for the many herbivores that live here. We headed down past a dug out area that showed off the red sandstone soil underneath.  Apparently there is a salt lick here for the elephants, gaur and other herbivores and sometimes large gatherings of them can be seen at dawn or dusk.  The big piles of dung suggested that it is very well used. This also makes for good hunting ground for the Asian wild dog; we saw one of these run across the road much later in the day when leaving the park.

Claw Marks
We crossed by a large watering hole and up a short slope to reach a large observation tower from where you get some incredible views across the forest and watering hole we had just passed.  Not much in the wildlife to be seen today sadly but I did enjoy the views very much. There is a crossroads of paths at the observation tower but we headed on in the same general direction and down the slope to the river hidden in the trees at the bottom of the valley.  Crossing the river was not for the faint-hearted as there was only a log bridge across.  We all made it across without any mishaps and started climbing up the other side.  On this part of the trail we saw other groups of people heading in the opposite direction and it was obvious pretty quickly that we couldn't know of their existence until they were right on top of us.  

This was a much denser part of the forest with few clearings and obviously less visited for the interpretation boards that we had seen early on had now disappeared.  The forest was quieter too - no gibbons in this part and even the birds seemed quieter.  It meant for a bit more intrepid walking but with fewer features to talk about.  Nevertheless we did come across some interesting stuff including a cinnamon tree, which the guide hacked away a piece of bark to prove the point.  I'm pleased he did for I would have passed without giving it a second look.  We also got to see a hole in a tree used by wasps for their nest and a little further on there was a tree with claw marks all the way up the trunk.  Apparently these are from bears that live in the forest and they climb the trees looking for food.

Barking Deer
Further on and we came across a taped off part of the forest.  This was apparently to stop people using a path that a man had recently taken when he tragically wandered off into the forest to look for supernatural activity and was later found dead.  Our guide suggested that he had deliberately concealed himself to make sure he couldn't be found when he was reported missing and hadn't even taken a phone so that he could be GPS tracked.

Sai Sorn Reservoir
It wasn't long before the trees started thinning out and the reservoir we were aiming for came into view.  It was a relief to not be enclosed by dense trees any more and the view out over Sai Sorn reservoir was fantastic.  Sadly it also meant the end of our walk and we headed down the short distance to the visitor centre for some lunch.  On the way we saw a barking deer nonchalantly wandering about and lazily grazing here and there.  I still get a kick out of seeing all this wildlife - I'm not sure it is something I'll ever get used to!  We went to the very rustic food court for lunch and as we ate lunch there were more deer roaming around and a couple of monkeys looking for any chance they could get - one was even hanging out by the washing up and eating scraps off the plates!

Pha Diao Dai Viewpoint
It wasn't the end of walking for the day - I got the opportunity to explore the Pha Diao Dai boardwalk in the afternoon.  This short interpretive trail tells you about some of the trees that can be found in the higher ground areas of Thailand but the highlight is the cliff at the far end with the most amazing view.  I couldn't decide whether it was refreshing not to have all the railings that we would have in the west at such a place or whether it was foolhardy.  Perhaps the former as most people seemed to be treating it with respect and there were a lot of people taking pictures and selfies.  I took lots of pictures too but cursed my luck later when I realised that they were all black and white!  The crowning glory though was on the way out of the park when we were once again held up by an elephant - this time I did get some pictures!

Hold Up