Khao Yai National Park- Part II

Man, you guys are going to hate me. This one is long too. I forgot to mention before that I would like to thank you for your positive feedback on my stories. It really means a lot that you've been following my journey and that I have been a source of entertainment for you. Thanks for keeping me company. I must admit that the first couple of weeks was kinda rough being on my own. Thanks for all your support.
Leech species count:
1 species:
Haemadipsa interrupta
1 species:
Haemadipsa zylanica subspecies 1
Language lesson:
Terrestrial Leech
Malay - Pachat
Thai - Tak
Freshwater Leech
Malay – Linta
Thai - Pling

About Khao Yai National Park (in Isaan State; northeast Thailand):

"The hero of Khao Yai National Park…..
they eat blood, but they don't eat the forest."

This is for real. It's what they say here. Of course, the translation is a little off, but you get the message. I thought it was cute :)


About Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai is Thailand’s second largest national park and is found in the Isaan State in northeast Thailand. It is definitely one of the most popular and best-known parks. Also, probably one of the most beautiful with a size of over 2100 square kilometers of limestone range. One if its waterfalls, Haew Suwat Falls was featured in Leonardo Dicaprio’s movie “The Beach.” It is said that there is a small (very small), population of tigers with approximately 15 individuals. That’s nothing to be proud of but at least they are hidden in this protected land and have a better chance of survival. Although a population size of 15 will not be enough to maintain a healthy population in the long term. In addition, there are
elephants found somewhere in the park, although rarely seen. I don’t know
how you miss a heard of elephants. I was delighted to be informed by my Thailand book (and by M) that leeches are quite a problem during and after the rainy season. “Leech socks” are recommended, as well as a cigarette lighter, salt, oily suntan lotion and/or insect repellent, to keep the leeches away or get them off. Special skills are needed for leech flicking. M admitted he was an
expert flicker and told me that he doesn’t really like to kill them, but prefers ‘the flick’ as the best method of removal from himself and the frightened/disgusted tourists.
I survived last night’s feast of chicken feet and deep-fried silk worms
and grasshoppers. For today, a tour of Khao Yai National Park. I met M
at 8:30 am and was ready for a day of trekking (and maybe spotting some
tak). I don’t know if I mentioned that I asked M how you say leeches in
Thai. He told me that for land leeches it’staakand for water leeches
it's pling. At first I thought he was saying ‘bling’ and was amused at
the thought of finding some bling, bling.

On the ride over to the park he informed me that tonight’s scheduled
safari would be cancelled because they couldn’t do it with just one person. I was a bit disappointed, but would be thankful later on (more on that later). The ride took about 40 minutes to the park entrance and then it was up, up and up into the mountains to an elevation of about 850 m. We first stopped at a viewpoint and took some pictures. There were several small tour groups and was thankful that I wasn’t here during the high tourist season. What a nightmare that would have been. Unfortunately, the more people you have moving through the trails and driving on the park roads, the less of a chance you have for spotting animals. Remember Taman Negara in Malaysia. I noticed a group of girls putting on what looked like something out of the “Elephant Man.” M informed me that these were the leech socks. They are these canvas bags that are sock shaped and come up to about mid thigh, then tied at the top by a string. Very sexy. They are thin enough to fit over your socks and to fit into your boots, but tightly woven enough to prevent the leeches from getting through. M asked me if I was going to dare to go into the forest without them. I laughed and said I would not be seen in those. Thanks, but not my style, as sexy as they were.

We moved on to get to the first trail of the day, but along the way we stopped because M heard and spotted a troop of white-handed gibbons in the trees. They were really high up in the trees, but you could see them swinging from tree to tree using their long arms. They are quite beautiful with their black bodies, white face and hands and have a haunting whooping call. It was great! In Taman Negara I could only hear them, but here I could actually see them. Here we met up with the same girls (2 Americans and a Canadian) with the leech socks on the road and their female guide. One of them spotted a rhinoceros beetle walking on the road. It was shiny jet black, about 3 inches long and had a "horn" that extended up and curved back behind its head. When insects get that big, they are just so cute. I could’ve stayed and watched the beetle crawl on my arms and hands for hours…but wait a minute I was forgetting my mission. Right, the leeches.

We carried on and stopped on the road near the start of the trail. As we walked along the road towards the trail, M spots a pair of great hornbills high up in the trees. We were standing on the grassy side of the road watching the birds, when all of a sudden M stops talking. He then says, “I think I have a leech.” He bends down and opens up his boot to show me a leech happily feeding on his ankle. He plucks the leech off and hands it over to me. I inspected it and saw that it was a different species from what I collected in Malaysia. I know this isn’t a big deal or a big surprise, but after the luck I had in Malaysia this really made me happy. Also, I didn’t seem to be having good luck with the weather. I kept on telling myself that I was blessed with good weather. Did I mention that it was a beautiful day? There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it hadn’t rained in a few days. What luck!

So at this point, without the rains I would be happier with few samples but with a diverse representation of species from Thailand. So we started our trek. Along the way we spotted beautiful and colorful bugs (true bugs), frogs, slugs, moths, soft-shelled snails, large squirrels and lizards. I should mention that trekking guides have a trained eye in spotting things that one would never be able to see on their own. Some of the frogs and lizards that M spotted were so well camouflaged against their surroundings that I was amazed at how quickly and easily he could pick them out before they ran away. Along the way he picked up a honeycomb from the ground and started to pick bee larvae out and started to eat them (apparently a delicacy). He then passed one my way. I took the larvae with hesitation, but put it in my mouth and started chewing. It was pretty small, but it was squishy and had a bit of a sweetness to it.

All the while the awesome animal spotting and larvae eating was going on, leeches were attacking us. Thankfully, because it hadn’t rained that much, the number of leeches weren’t that bad. It could have been much worse. I had to stop walking to reach into my pants and to pick out one leech that had found its way all the way up to my right butt cheek. Nice right. Can you just picture that? Get a life! M thought it would be hilarious to pluck the leeches off of him and put them on me. At one point things got little bloody (what a bloody mess!), as there were clusters of leeches on my legs and inside my boots. It was easier to let them do their thing than to battle with them.

M took me off-trail so we could get access to more leeches, then he tells me to stop and to climb up onto this huge fallen tree. He then tells me to be quiet for a moment. I heard something in the distance, something that was moving in our direction. I thought it was monkeys or something cool like that. Instead what was trampling through the forest was the same tour group of girls from before. M wanted to scare them and thought it would be funny to yell at them from behind the bushes. After he succeeded we walked onto the trail and horrified the girls with my bloody legs. In passing, the female guide mentions to me that she had seen green leeches in the north, but that they were rare. I made a mental note. We bid our farewells and headed back towards the car. It was time for lunch. But, before we could go, I need to remove the leeches feeding from my leg through my socks (which were now bloody) and those trapped inside my boots and clean my war wounds.

After lunch, we got back on the park road and we went to visit Haew Suwat Falls. We entered the parking lot, which was packed with cars and buses. This was obvious a hot tourist spot. As we walked towards the trail, I was amused by some of the tourist walking around in high heels (females, of course) and couldn’t imagine walking around this place in heels. Humans are strange creatures. M tells me that trekking is not a thing that Thais do. Haew Suwat Falls was packed with people, so M suggested that we head over to see another waterfall. Less touristy. So we began our trek away from Haew Suwat along a trail following the river. On this trail we found elephant footprints and was excited to see a big pile of elephant shit. I was amazed at how these huge animals get through some of these trails. We reached the second waterfall, which was twice as wide but not as high as Haew Suwat Falls (25 m). It was quite peaceful. I didn’t have the courage to take a swim because the current was a bit rough. We took a rest and hung out for a while before it was time to turn back.

We hurried back as soon as the sky started to cloud over and heard thunder in the distance. To my surprise, there were no leeches on this trail (maybe a good thing after this morning’s adventure). The last thing on today’s itinerary was to visit one last lookout point of the Phanom Dangkrek Mountains, but this time from an elevation of 1200 m. As we drove up, the temperature began to drop and I had to put my rain jacket on to keep warm. We got to this viewpoint where there was a military station. Here I was amazed not only by the view, but by the number of moth species found in this one place. They were just on the ground or on a wall. The larger ones you could just pick up and they would just hang out on your hands. They wouldn’t try to fly away. One moth had a wingspan of about 8 or 9 inches. Beautiful!

My tour of Khao Yai had come to an end. It was time to head back to the lodge. On the way back we passed a stretch of cornfields where we spotted a film shoot going on. There was a Thai dude dressed in a white Elvis jumpsuit (that was opened in the front down to his navel) and I was told that he was a famous actor. Now that's something you don’t see every day.

We got back to the Garden lodge and realized I had a lot of work to do. Yes, I am here to do work. I know until now it’s been about sightseeing, eating, hiking and finding the occasional leech… I had to do actually do something with them. As I dragged my feet towards my room I passed one of the drivers who was sitting down and having a beer (Chang, to be exact). He must have seen my face because he instantly offered me a glass. It didn’t take much arm-twisting before I was sitting and trying to have conversation that involved sign language, Thai and broken English. The “security guard” who was also there was completely wasted at the start of his shift of 6 pm. He was the most entertaining. I couldn’t believe he was so hammered. I kept on telling him to drink water, but he just laughed at me until he needed to hurl. So I sat and enjoyed my beer and was visited by the female employees who asked me questions about my life and I about theirs. Thais are always curious about your age. Of course they asked me and were surprised when I told them I was 29. They had guessed 24 or 25. Not bad, huh.

After grabbing some dinner it was time to lock myself up in my room and process my critters. Not before being paid a visit by M’s pet scorpion, Female. He didn't give her an actual name, just Female. I have no idea what kind it is, but this thing was big, black and mean looking. The body about 6 inches in length, with large pincers, plus 4 inches for the tail with a large stinger. M had just fed her a gecko, so she was very tame. He told me to pick her up and I was like "No!" He showed me how to do it, so I picked her up by the joint between her scary looking stinger and the tail and lifted. She struggled for just a second then I placed here on my hand.

Done. I did it, I lived, and I don't think I'll do it again. Who knows.

It's been fun, but it was time to go to my room and process my specimens. I said good night and went to my room.

For those of you who are interested in what I do with the leeches after I've collected them, please read the following. If not, skip to the next section.

Dealing with terrestrial leeches is quite the challenge. As soon as you pick up the tube or container they are in, they start moving around. When you open the tube or container, they try to climb out. So as several little leech heads are stretching out of the tube opening, I'm busy trying to keep them from escaping by poking their heads back in and trying to prevent closing the lid and squishing their bodies. So I have to quickly open the lid, squirt some water in the tube (about half way) and close the lid. Then using a pipette to take up some ethanol, I quickly open the lid and squirt some ethanol into the water. I do this in increments of 5 minutes depending on how they are reacting to their new environment. They don't like the ethanol and probably don't like being fully submerged in water. So it's not a pretty sight watching them squirming and writhing. Why do I do this? Because they are soft-bodied animals, I can't just plunk them straight into alcohol. The result is a contorted specimen that will be nearly impossible to identify. What you need is a specimen that is nice and straight and the only way to achieve this is by the first getting the leeches drunk. You get them a little hammered and they become relaxed. You add a little more alcohol and they get a little more relaxed and you do this until they are basically knocked out. Once they are fully relaxed, you take the specimen and you lay them straight. To do the final fixation you add ethanol directly to the specimen, which will then stiffen the specimen. The result: a perfectly straight specimen ready for identification and for DNA extraction. I'll spare you the remaining details. Unfortunately, this is the least enjoyable part of what I do. I don't like killing the leeches (I know it's for science) and it takes a damn long time. So a lot of patience is needed. It could take anywhere from 2 to 3 hours (depending on the number of specimens), which sucks if you're doing this alone. So typically, while the leeches are being relaxed, you can also relax with some alcohol of your own, to pass the time.


Back to Bangkok
Getting back to Bangkok was just as interesting as getting out. The bus station at Pak Chong – the town north of Khao Yai, was barely a bus station. It is found in what looks like a strip mall and so I thought all I'd have to do is go up to the counter and buy my ticket. At least this time there was only one counter. Instead I am given a piece of paper with a number on it. There is a queue to buy a ticket. So I wait, as the first bus comes and goes and a second bus comes and goes. The buses come every 30 minutes. Finally, they called my number and I was able to buy my ticket. I get on the bus and where no more seats available. So I go straight to the back and sit on this bench next to the bus toilet. The female bus attendant was concerned that I was uncomfortable in the back because the a/c doesn't reach this section. I couldn't care less. The male bus attendant decided that I shouldn't sit back there and told me to sit in his seat all the way in the front on this pull out chair, right by the exit and right in front of the huge bus windshield. It was actually great because I got a panoramic view of the road, the passing towns, temples and landscape. What I also got was a taste of Thai driving. Holy tailgating, Batman! I was certain that I was going to be launched right though the windshield. We would ride right on the bumper of the car or truck in front of us, then just as quickly change lanes. It was exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. Needless to say I survived this adventure and made it back to 4 Sons Inn (my guest house), in the backpackers ghetto, all in one piece.

Until next time…
Coming soon….

6 - 12 OCTOBER

14 – 19 OCTOBER
Bahn Pha Deng and the Mushroom Research Station

21 – 25 OCTOBER
Khao Sok

Back to New York