Monday, 28 January 2019

Bali Waterfalls

Aling Aling Waterfall
I make no claim to this being a comprehensive tour of all the waterfalls in Bali but we did visit a few on our recent trip.  There are dozens of amazing waterfalls in Bali and devotees could spend all their time looking for them - each one is impossibly beautiful and in some cases quite hard to find as they are tucked away deep in the forests and mountains of this magical island.  Bali is just over four hours from Bangkok and we chose this as our first overseas trip from Thailand principally because we had heard so many good things about it.  While we were in Bali we visited the small town of Lovina on the north coast.  From here we were able to do and see a number of things and it would probably make for a good base if you like a slightly more sedate kind of holiday away from the bright lights of the resorts on the south coast.

Rice Terraces
From Lovina it is a stone's throw to three waterfalls that are all on the same river rushing down from the high mountains just to the south of the town.  The tallest of these waterfalls is called Aling Aling and it was there that we headed first.  We parked up by a small kiosk that sold tickets to the area (this is not a free hike).  The total cost for the four of us was very modest although we would have had to pay more for the privilege of going in the water.  Round about the kiosk were a few small cafes selling fairly bog standard fare such as fried rice and fried chicken with signage that was so badly spelled that it was amusing.  All around were rather listless looking local people and stray dogs all lolling around trying to conserve their energy in the heat of the sun.

We set off on what seemed like a fairly unpromising path at first with a building site on one side and a collection of farmers cottages.  On the other side of the path though was a very eye-catching terraced rice paddy system for which Bali is very famous.  The owner clearly seemed to realise that visitors would enjoy the terraces for he had decorated it with some oriental looking scarecrows and umbrellas to give it almost a theme park looking feel.  

We passed a number of fruit trees alongside the paddy fields. A rambutan tree was first - its red fruits looking like they were almost ready for harvest.  A lot higher up and we could see coconuts also coming into harvest - the colour here though is different from the green ones that we see in the markets in Thailand.  Most here seemed to be a rich amber colour and our guide tells me that both varieties are grown here; they each have a slightly different taste.  Next was a mangosteen but not yet ripe - they have a beautiful purple colour when in season but the fruit  inside is white and reminiscent of a lychee.  The last fruits that we saw growing on this short stretch of path were mangoes, still looking quite green on the trees.  Most of the green mangoes here are used for making salad when not quite ripe - the yellow ones are the ones to go for if you want to eat them as fruit.  They are delectably sweet and slightly mushy - rather different from the ones that are exported to Europe.

Jungle View
As we turned the corner at the top of the slope our noses caught the aroma of barbecuing chicken, a smell that you get used to in South East Asia but never take for granted as it is always so inviting.  However it was not the smell here that was magical but the view off to our left for we caught sight of the deep valley in which the waterfalls are to be found.  Perhaps because of its steep sides or perhaps because it is prized by the locals as a particularly beautiful place it has escaped any kind of forestry or agriculture and we looked out over what looked like pristine forest stretching all the way from the mountains right down almost to the sea.  It was a magnificent view that continued for a short way until the path dropped from the rim of the valley into the forest itself.  Almost immediately we passed a jackfruit tree, with two large fruit hanging off the trunk.  Neither of the fruit looked very appealing to be honest; I think they had been left two long and looked like they were starting to degrade.

Jack Fruit
A little further down the slope we had a choice to make with waterfalls signposted to the left and right.  We took the right hand turn and headed off along a narrow path that wound its way upstream.  The river was full of energy and had plenty of water in it; not unexpected as we were plum in the middle of the rainy season in Bali.  We hadn't planned particularly well - I think I assumed that the rainy season in Thailand would be similar to that in Bali but of course it isn't - the monsoon shifts south when Thailand is having its dry season.  The vegetation was thick and lush, with water seemingly coming from all sorts of directions including from the trees, the rocky cliffs and the creepers that seemed to find all sorts of opportunities to clamber over.  We also saw flowers that we had only ever seen in greenhouses or butterfly houses back home.  Damselflies and dragonflies buzzed about and we even saw massive spiders with even bigger webs - it wasn't a place for anyone who hated bugs!

Wet World
Eventually we found our way to Aling Aling waterfall after climbing up quite a steep and rocky last stretch of path.  The waterfall was huge - at least 120 metres tall and coming down with such a force that the sound was deafening.  It clearly had a lot of energy too as it had carved out a huge plunge pool that clearly was too dangerous for swimming as there were signs warning about doing so.  Even trying to climb down into the water looked pretty hazardous for the rocks were shiny and slippery from the spray of the waterfall.  We enjoyed the moment for a while before turning back and heading downstream to the next waterfall.

If swimming was forbidden at Aling Aling it was positively encouraged at the next waterfall, known as Kadek.  This one had a natural water slide at the top and was clearly the one that people had paid their extra money to use.  We watched as there were shrieks of joy from people that took the plunge; the smooth rock under the top of the waterfall enabled them to slide out far enough to take them into the nice deep plunge pool below.  There was quite a crowd of people bobbing around in the plunge pool watching their mates and probably thinking about the steep climb to get to the top of the waterfall, a lot of effort for a few moments of fun.  We watched for a short time and soon moved on to the next waterfall below which was bigger and did not lend itself to sliding but seemed to attract more daredevils who were prepared to jump over 30 metres into the plunge pool below. 

We crossed the river at the top of here and the path took us past a small hut and up to a point above the last waterfall in the series (the fourth).  The end of the path was a small ledge that was being used as yet another jumping off point and a couple of small Bali men were showing their rather larger Western companions how it was done.  There were a few gasps as the two of them dived off together, not quite synchronised but not bad.  They were soon joined by a couple of daredevil Aussie lads who took the plunge much to everyone's entertainment.

Water Slide
The antics of the youngsters was quite entertaining but for me it was the beauty of the place that captivated me.  The ferocity of the water was exciting and the spray that each fall generated within the enclosed valley generated a microclimate that supported all manner of flowers and insects.  The butterflies and dragonflies were incredible although trying to capture any of them with my camera was nigh on impossible as they spent so little time settled anywhere, whether it be rock or flower.  I tried my beast as we looped around the path that took us back to the junction where we had bore right earlier.  From that point we retraced our steps to the car park.  By now we were feeling both satisfied with our efforts but very hungry.  We eschewed the cafes at  the start though in favour of a cafe down in Lovina where we were introduced to the delights of suckling pig, the local delicacy of Bali and which was an extremely welcome meal at the end of the walk.

Jumping Off
Later in the afternoon after we had been to some other places including a Buddhist temple we called in at the waterfall at Munduk.  Sadly the hot and sunny weather that we had experienced in the morning had now given way to rain and this meant that we had to limit ourselves to the main Munduk waterfall.  There are several others in the area and it is possible to do a fairly lengthy walk that includes them all.  We managed to get a short break in the rain that was enough to walk down the steep track from the parking area.  Again we got an education in the types of crop that are grown in these jungle locations, including coffee, bananas and pineapples.  These were all familiar to us by now but we had seen our first cashew at the temple - none of us had any idea what it looked like before!

The path down to the waterfall was quite steep and we passed a couple of settlements on the way; a house that looked as if it belonged to the jungle farmers and a coffee shop further down.  The latter proclaimed that it did not use caged civets in order to make the highly prized kopi luwak (luwak coffee).  This expensive coffee is made from the partly digested coffee beans eaten by the small nocturnal mammal that we call civets but are known as luwak in Bali.  Mostly they are caged and force fed the beans in much the same way that geese are force fed to produce foie gras.  Ethically it is very questionable as the civets live a very poor quality of life and certainly the ones we saw looked quite sad and lonely creatures.  We avoided buying kopi luwak for the same reason.

Munduk Falls
The falls themselves were at the bottom of the hill and once again we had to pay a small admission fee to get close to them.  They were well worth seeing though, especially because unlike at the earlier falls near Lovina we had these ones all to ourselves.  They were considerably taller too, so much so that it wasn't easy to see the top.  Clearly no-one would want to swim here, especially not now for it was surprisingly cool with the spray billowing around and the rather enclosed position much higher up the mountain.  Nevertheless the magic of the waterfall was enough compensation for the cool  conditions and we were thankful that the rain held off long enough for us to go and have a look.  Maybe in the future we could do the walk that takes in other waterfalls on the same system.

Exotic Flowers

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

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

A Tale of Two Parks

Flower Show
My continuing mission to explore the city of Bangkok continued with a trip to two neighbouring parks - rather too small to feature on their own they are close enough to make for a satisfying walk with only a small amount of street walking in between.  The two parks in question are Benchakiti Park and Benjasiri Park, both close to Asok BTS station.  They are quite different in character but worthy of some time for their differing reasons.

Waiting For The Lunchtime Rush
I started my exploration in Benchakiti Park and accessed it from Queen Sikirit Convention Centre MRT station.  When I came out of the station it wasn't obvious how to get into the park and there is no direct access.  Head north along Ratchadaphisek Road, a busy stretch that isn't particularly pleasant but does have a pavement (not everywhere in Bangkok does, so this is important).  As I wandered along the road I soon got the smell of barbecue up my nose and saw a street vendor had set up shop by the side of the road.  With traffic whizzing past I wondered how on earth he was expecting to get any business.

Just past the main buildings of the Convention Centre is an access road running along the north side.  Be sure to turn left here as there is no other entrance to the park until you get to the north east corner some distance away.  Even when you turn into the access road there is no immediate entrance and your first view of the park is across an impenetrable fence, tantalisingly close but out of reach.  You will immediately see the layout of the park though and its dominance by a large lake in the middle.  I suspect that more than 60% of the park is the lake but nevertheless it does make an attractive place to walk thanks largely to the perimeter jogging and cycling path.  The actual access is at the south west corner and it is necessary therefore to head all the way to that corner along the access road.

I decided to walk anti-clockwise around the lake for no better reason than I wanted to inspect a large circular jetty that juts out into the lake.  Sadly when I got near to it I could see that it was fenced off and no access could be gained.  All was quiet in the park for I surely was the only one nutty enough to be walking around in the heat of the day?  (it was late morning now)  The only people I had for company were park workers and there were quite a lot of them around, in contrast to equivalent parks in Britain where you rarely see park workers in action.  The first lady I saw was crouching down watering the plants.  An unusual stance and I can only think she was trying to get close to the plants so they actually got more of the water intended rather than losing it to evaporation in the heat.

Pond Heron
I turned the first corner quite quickly to make  my way up  the eastern side of the lake and it wasn't long before I came upon the bike hire and boat hire areas.  Each cost the princely sum of 50 baht to hire - approximately £1.20/ $1.50.  There weren't many takers today and the bikes and swan boats were all lined up patiently waiting for their next customer.  I plodded on and was passed by the first other visitor I saw - a Thai man jogging around the track.  I imagine this would be a pleasant place to go jogging during the week with virtually no-one here.  The weekends are probably a different prospect though!

I should probably mention the flowers along the side of the lake at this point - the planting was mostly bougainvillea and it was out in full bloom on the occasion of my visit.  The dominant colour was hot pink but there was also an amber colour, maroon and white.  It all made for quite a spectacle, especially with the bright sunlight somehow heightening the colours.  The flowers rather dominated the scene along the eastern side of the lake but they weren't the only thing of interest.  I stood and watched a pond heron for some time - it stood and blinked at me a bit with its mouth open.  I am not sure which kind it was - the Indian, Chinese and Javan Pond Herons are almost identical in their winter plumage and are believed by some to belong to the same super-species.  I also tried following around some rather attractive butterflies but my luck with trying to capture one with my camera didn't hold up and I only managed to get one with its wings closed.

About half way along the eastern side I walk through a pergola - it was all rather attractive but the plants hadn't been grown up it, rather missing the point of the structure I would have thought?  Having some climbing plants weaving their way over it would probably provide some much needed shade as well as be an attractive feature.  At the north east corner I turned along the short north shore where the flowers seemed to be at their zenith. The north side was pretty short and only allowed enough time to get a different view of the surroundings including the buildings that I had walked past without paying too much attention.  On closer inspection I could see that they seemed to have helicopter landing pads on the roofs - buildings for the well-heeled perhaps?

Sharing a Joke
I realised at this point that to reach the other park I could do a u turn and head down the road and out of the north east entrance.  However the is a bit more hinterland to the park on the western side and once I had walked down the length of the lake I decided to come back along paths through the trees at the side of the lake.  This proved to be an interesting way to return as I saw a whole lot of different things; some human, some natural and some in the shape of sculptures.  The first thing I spotted was a group of old men doing their morning ritual exercises.  Next I saw an area where people seemed to favour sleeping which wasn't far from the first Buddhist shrine of the day.  I was rather surprised I hadn't seen one before but this one did not disappoint.  The inscription by it indicated the history of the park, which was once occupied by a tobacco factory and handed over to the nation to celebrate the Queen's 60th birthday back in 1986.

Purple Foliage
In the middle of the green area was a wetland feature surrounded by trees that had a warning about monitor lizards.  I needn't have worried - the area was also full of people sleeping so I gave it a wide berth.  I was pleased that I did for just beyond the grassy area was being sprinkled and I had fun trying to dodge the sprinklers as I walked through.  Eventually when I worked my way through I came upon the road out of the park being swept diligently by a lady done up to the nines in sun protection gear.

I left the peace and quiet of the park and returned to Ratchadaphisek Road where I immediately crossed the road via the footbridge adorned with electric wires.  I am amazed at how many wires are dangled from the bridges especially within touching distance - it's a wonder nobody has an accident with them.  Far below on the busy road cars slowing down for the traffic lights ahead were approached by vendors that had their whole heads covered and with sunglasses on.  I know this is for sun protection but they do look like gangsters and I'm not surprised that business was light as a result.  I've never actually seen anyone buy the flower garlands that are the most popular things for sale but I guess they must do business otherwise why else would they be there?

At Asok I turned right and headed along Sukhumvit Road, one of the most famous in Bangkok and home to many of the major hotels in which tourists like to stay.  I found a signboard that told me about the importance of the road and apparently it was named after the Director General of Highways who devised the national road system for Thailand.  This particular road is now the main highway to the eastern border with Cambodia.  I walked for about 10 minutes eastbound along the road before reaching Benjasiri Park.  

Benjasiri Park was a much different green space from Benchakiti Park.  The main similarity was the presence of a lake but that is where similarities ended, especially as this one was much smaller and surrounded on all sides by trees.  One thing I immediately noticed was the number of sculptures in the park and I was rather disappointed to see that most of the captions were in Thai so I wasn't sure what most of them were about.  There were a lot of them though and most were representations of people.  I walked around the ornamental lake until reaching the jetty that jutted out into the water.  This time I had more luck as it was open to visitors.  I walked out to the middle and my eye was drawn to what I initially thought might be a lizard swimming in the middle.  Upon closer inspection I realised it was a turtle head and soon the shell came into view as well.

Benjasiri Park
My eye was drawn to one particular sculpture - one called Ville fantastique II and unusual in that it wasn't a people based sculpture but also because it had an English caption explaining that it represented a surreal vision of a city that fosters dreams and free thinking.  I looked back at the pond and realised that the turtle was closer to shore and so I walked over to take a picture of it.  When I got closer I couldn't be entirely sure that the creature was still alive because it was so still.  No matter how hard I looked I could not be sure as the turtle just seemed to bob along without making any discernible movement.  It did have its eyes open the whole time though so maybe?  I took this as a cue to finish the walk and dive into the Emporium shopping mall next door.  The blast of air conditioning was very welcome while the tropical Christmas decorations outside were just plain surreal.

Ville Fantastique II
These contrasting parks make for a satisfying walk even with the section along Sukhumvit Road to negotiate.  I think next time I visit Benchakiti Park though I will definitely have a go at cycling - I think a few laps on two wheels will be very satisfying. 

Dead or Alive?