Steve of the Jungle

Trip Start Oct 22, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Saen Samran

Flag of Thailand  ,
Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I realized the other day that since entering Vietnam a few weeks ago, I had largely stuck to places on the backpacker circuit - established cities with attractions, decent accommodations, easy transportation, and lots of English speaking locals. I decided it was time to see real Thailand, and to do that I put my finger on a Google map of the country and asked a Thai-speaking man to tell me what the name of the town was.

I booked a train ticket to Khon Kaen immediately, and last night was on my way. Soon after getting aboard the train, I met a French couple named Marianne and Samuel. They were one of the cutest couples I had seen in a long time, and they told me they've been traveling for 10 years, working as they go. Incredible! I wanted to try to keep the conversation in French but I've forgotten so much that we kept drifting to English.

They were tons of fun to hang out with, and as people started to go to sleep, we opted to move our conversation to the space between the cars so we wouldn't keep everyone awake with our laughing. Eventually, though, a conductor politely asked when we were going to go to sleep so we took the hint.

Arriving in Khon Kaen, I had no accommodations booked as usual, so I wandered until I found a $6 per night hotel, which is one of the grimier places I've stayed but still not bad. (At this point, I'm happy to have my own room and water, air con and a comfortable bed are luxuries now.) As I walked, no one tried to sell me anything or hassle me for a tuk-tuk ride, so I already felt more relaxed.

I had read about a really cool national park nearby called Nam Nao. Supposedly, you can see tigers and elephants there if you're lucky. I briefly considered bringing a backpack with basic camping gear in case I ended up wanting to stay overnight, but decided not to.

While I immediately noticed that people here are super smiley and helpful, there's much less English speaking staff around than in Bangkok or even Koh Phangan. I had to order my bus ticket in Thai, which worked, but as I rode I realized that I wasn't sure where to get off. I told the ticket collector where I wanted to go, and after about a two hour ride, thus bus stopped and he waved me to get off. I asked "Nam Nao?" and he pointed down the road.

No problem...I had read that the visitor center was about a mile from where the bus stop is, so I started walking. About two miles later, I found a ranger station and they pointed me further down the road. About a mile after that, a pickup truck pulled over by me and asked where I was going. I told him Nam Nao and he said he would take me to the entrance. He drove me four more miles and dropped me at another ranger station. They told me it was still further, so I wasn't sure what to do, but figured I had come this far, so why not.

I walked another mile or two, then the sun started going down. I changed my mind about the park and decided to look for a bus stop. I saw a bus go by and waved to the driver, but he pointed back as if to say "keep walking to the bus stop".  [I later realized that he actually had slowed down and put on his blinkers, but not stopped.  I think he actually meant "run to the back entrance of the bus and jump on."  D'OH!]  I walked a bit further but it was now about 5:30pm and I was starting to get concerned about what I'd do after it was dark. I decided to seriously try to hitch a ride back the direction I had come from, but after about half an hour was having no luck.

Finally, a pick up truck going the opposite way pulled over and a woman got out and asked what I was doing all the way out there. There was absolutely nothing around for miles, and she and her husband were a little suspicious about giving a ride to a guy walking through the jungle wearing all black and not even carrying a backpack. I explained my story, and they said I could ride in the back of the truck to the REAL visitors center, where they thought a bus would pick up.

(It turns out that the bus I originally took had dropped me off at the park, as I had requested...but the park is massive and I didn't specify the visitor's center so they left me in the middle of freaking nowhere.)

At the visitors center, the rangers told the woman that the bus doesn't pick up there, so they told her where to take me. Fully 15-20 miles further, we arrived at a military checkpoint. The woman and her husband explained to the soldiers my story, and they too looked a little suspicious. But they said they would stop the next bus bound for Khon Kaen and make them give me a ride.

I tried to offer the couple money for the ride but they adamantly refused, gave me a candy bar and wished me luck, and drove off. We were all laughing about the situation, and when they get back to where they were going, I'm sure they'll have a pretty good story about finding an American in the jungle.

As for me, I stayed by the checkpoint for a few minutes and the soldier working the gate asked me if I spoke Thai, but I exhausted my three sentences pretty quickly. A bus came shortly after, and they let me on with no problem. A few miles down the road, I heard the sound of an elephant but thought it came from someone's cell phone or something.

I looked out my window and was face to face with a real elephant! I screamed "Whhoooaa!" and I'm sure everyone was thinking "yeah, so what? It's an elephant, big deal," like I'd say if I were on a bus in Missouri and a tourist freaked out about seeing a deer. But it was awesome! A real elephant, just chillin' on the side of the road.

So in the end, I actually did accomplish what I set out to do this morning....just not the way I expected!
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