The distance between us narrowed, the ground shaking from their immense lumbering steps, the air filled with the sounds of their enraged trumpeting competing with the ear-splitting screams and panicked expletives emanating from our vehicle.
Without warning, the driver accelerated towards the elephant bearing down from the front. We were playing chicken with a bull elephant!
KHAO YAI NATIONAL PARK, THAILAND
En route from the Laos border to Khao Yai, Thailand, I have a night in Ubon Ratchathani. On the surface – a busy city with seemingly little to interest the traveller. I was fortunate enough to meet a friendly couple in the guesthouse, with whom I played an excellent card game till the early hours. Unfortunately the beverages consumed, mean that I now have no recollection of how to play the game.
Khao Yai National Park – Thailand’s oldest and with an excellent reputation worldwide – was used in part for filming of the movie ‘The Beach’. I arrive with high expectations and opt to stay at a guesthouse out-of-town and near the entrance to the National Park.
The guesthouse has a resident guide known as the ‘Birdman’. To visit the National Park, myself and seven others climb in the back of an old utility with a canopy for shelter, the Birdman is up front with the driver. The Birdman’s passion for the park’s fauna and flora has no boundaries – Thailand’s answer to Steve Irwin!
He will suddenly jump out of the moving utility – telescope in one hand, tripod the other – shouting and pointing to something seen in the surrounding jungle. His ability at spotting the wildlife is incredible; magnificent hornbills with their beautiful colours, deer and my favourite – gibbon monkeys. The gibbons look so relaxed, chattering excitedly as they swing gracefully through the trees, at times directly above us. Birdman’s knowledge, enthusiasm and eyesight is impressive, any visit to the park without his presence would pale in comparison.
Just on sunset, while still within the park boundary, a small group of wild elephants – including a mother with baby – emerge from the jungle to cross the road in front of our vehicle. As we drive slowly past, I’m suddenly feeling a little vulnerable in the back of the utility, dwarfed in comparison to these huge beasts, almost close enough to touch.
Incredibly only 100 metres down the road, another small group of elephants has appeared from the jungle. We stop the vehicle and watch as they spread across the road blocking our progress. I’m stunned at our proximity to these magnificent creatures – I could never have dreamed of such an encounter – especially outside of Africa.
As we soak up the moment, a male from the herd in front of the vehicle stares defiantly in our direction. As if to emphasize its annoyance at our presence, it trumpets loudly. There is little doubt he’s the alpha male, with a striking pair of tusks he’s considerably larger than his peers and now has his ears spread wide to further pronounce his colossal presence.
Suddenly he starts to move in our direction, walking at first before breaking into a trot, his actions – ears flapping and cacophonous trumpeting – showing complete aggression. The mood amongst us quickly changed, where only seconds before we were gesturing excitedly at the scene before us; the atmosphere was now one of mild panic and fear.
The driver, obviously uncomfortable with several tonnes of angry elephant heading in our direction, starts reversing the vehicle back down the road. This turned our attention to the rear of the vehicle. Now the mother from the first group we had passed, was reciprocating the actions of the bull elephant in front of us and also running angrily in our direction.
The vehicle skidded to a stop. We were the meat in an elephant sandwich!
It was like those cartoons you saw when you were a kid? Two characters running towards each other and as they continually cut from one to the other, you’re waiting for the big collision.
With everything that was happening, we had not noticed a Thai man on a motorcycle beside our now stationary vehicle. We may have felt vulnerable in the vehicle, but it would be terrifying on a motorcycle. He seemed to confirm this by abandoning his bike and literally diving into the back of the utility at our feet, looking up at us with both thanks and fear. I hardly felt like his saviour, as I myself was deliberating whether to exit the vehicle and run into the surrounding jungle, but with less than an hour of daylight remaining, did not seem a wise decision.
The distance between us narrowed, the ground shaking from their immense lumbering steps, the air filled with the sounds of their enraged trumpeting competing with the ear-splitting screams and panicked expletives emanating from the vehicle.
Without warning, the driver accelerated towards the bull elephant bearing down from the front. We were playing chicken with a bull elephant! At approx 2.5 metres high, perhaps 4-5 tonne and two large long tusks protruding forwards, he was showing neither hesitation or a reluctance to back down.
The screams and shouting from the back of the vehicle had stopped, that point where fear grips the throat and no sound is possible, our fate seconds from a determination. The distance between us seems too close – adrenaline beating a hole in my chest – my attention is drawn to the tusks looking like giant curved bayonets. With collision imminent, the driver suddenly swerves to the left, and the elephant thunders past us, a blanket of fiery gray close enough to touch, giant legs each strong enough to cause untold destruction to our vehicle.
We pause at a safe distance down the road. We babble like kids overdosed on cordial, heart rates off the scale. Incredibly our two aggressors are now calmly inspecting our Thai friend’s discarded motorbike, recent events seemingly already forgotten. As I watch them quietly merge back into the jungle, I question the accuracy behind the old adage – ‘an elephant never forgets’.
The next evening, Birdman promising a more subdued experience than the previous day, but still quite extraordinary. For nearly an hour on sunset, we observed over a million bats stream out of a cave in one continuous moving line snaking across the darkening sky.
I seem to be coming more at ease with Thailand’s busy capital with each visit. I credit this more complaisant attitude – at least in part – with the guesthouse I found on my first visit here.
The guesthouse is located some two kilometres from the action of Khao San road -popular with the traveller/tourist crowd – and is owned by two forty-something Thai sisters. Located in a quiet street; street food vendors set up daily across the road offering cheap, authentic – cooked on the spot – dishes. As is a 7-11 store should one have cravings for something more familiar. Rare but refreshingly, the guesthouse has no television which encourages guests to mingle, converse and form friendships as a consequence.
On this visit to Bangkok, I took the opportunity to explore the Grand Palace, museum, zoo, Lumpini Park, the weekend markets and a boat trip downriver to Chinatown for Chinese New Year. An incredible experience – people, fireworks, food – the ‘lucky’ colour of red dominating the streets.
I have seen virtually no television or newspapers for nearly 5 weeks and consequently was not really aware of the devastation from the Boxing Day tsunami. This realisation was brought home with a fence at the end of Khao San road displaying photos of distinguishing features from unidentified bodies since found.
I haven’t sighted a beach in three months. The islands once again beckon. My transport to the bus station – not by choice – was the infamous moto-taxi. Having spent too long with goodbyes at the guesthouse, I was cutting it a little fine to make the 6.00pm bus for the overnight journey south to Krabi. Enter the moto-taxi – the only realistic option in the peak hour traffic.
Bangkok traffic was at a standstill. For ten terrifying minutes we threaded the needle between vehicles at speeds up to 60 klm/hr, my knees pressed into the side of the bike, rear vision mirrors from gridlocked vehicles flicking me on the shoulder as we race past. The fear factor was matching the encounter with the elephants only days before.
We arrive moments before 6.00 pm. I’m torn between berating and congratulating my driver.
KOH LANTA/KOH PHI PHI/KRABI, THAILAND
It was evident on arrival that Koh Lanta had incurred some damage from the Boxing Day tsunami, however it was minimal and predominately superficial. Tourist numbers were certainly low as a result. I took advantage of the 30 plus metres of water visibility with some more scuba diving.
While here I learn that nearby Koh Phi Phi was one of the worst affected areas in Thailand from the tsunami. Hundreds of people – tourists and Thai locals alike – lost their lives on Phi Phi that day. I’m told that they need assistance with clean up efforts. I’m only too willing to assist, but a little apprehensive and fearful of what I learn of the ultimate fate of the friends Kerri and I had made at the little bar/restaurant we frequented some 3 months earlier.
Out of respect, I opted not to take the camera; a decision I later regretted. As we approached the jetty, I was stunned. An area approx 10 acres in size on which a countless number of buildings were constructed for the purpose of accommodation, bars, restaurants, shops etc – were gone! Virtually all destroyed, the only apparent survivors – oddly enough – were the palm trees.
The unimaginable horror of that morning five weeks prior, was now beginning to dawn as I wandered through what remained of the island village. With trepidation I walk to the location of the bar we came to know and love while here; not even the concrete slab remained. The geography of the island combined with the direction from which the tsunami came, gave the inhabitants little chance of survival.
The temperature is around 40C; the heat and the strong smell is making our visit very uncomfortable. We assist with cleaning up the islands beaches, armed with instructions should we find a body part. Amongst the debris we find beach anchors with ropes attached heading out to sea, disappearing underwater to now submerged boats.
Throughout the course of the day, I’m moved to tears on more than one occasion and find myself unable to return the next day or any day after. I never did discover the fate of our friends from the bar. As it faced the opposite direction from which the tsunami came, they may never have seen it coming – I can only assume the worst.
The magnificent limestone cliffs that tower over nearby Krabi and Railey beaches – considered some of the worlds best – are a major drawcard for the super-fit climbers that congregate here. I almost feel guilty sitting at the bar on the beach below the cliffs, looking on as they scale seemingly impossible heights.
The damage resulting from the tsunami has been compounded by the fact that its peak season, however tourist numbers have collapsed. Unfortunately at the expense of struggling local business’s, I have access to one of the worlds most picturesque capes in perfect weather with few other tourists.
KOH LIPE, THAILAND
We’ve all seen the documentary or photograph in a magazine of the perfect island:
- Owned or frequented by movie stars and super rich.
- Crystal clear turquoise waters washing gently onto milk white sand beaches, fringed with palm trees and rainforest.
- A tropical reef directly off the beach, to explore – via snorkelling or diving – the fauna and flora beneath the surface.
- Accommodation and restaurants on the beach serving fresh seafood every night.
- No highrise buildings or resorts. The only organised activity is joining in with the friendly laid back island inhabitants late every afternoon for beach volleyball.
With 25% of the worlds fish species found in the surrounding marine park, I took the opportunity to complete my advanced scuba diving course. Gracefully Koh Lipe was spared in the tsunami, leaving my newfound barefoot island paradise unscathed. However with both passport visa and funds expiring, I very reluctantly leave the island the movie stars and super rich never found.
Back on Thailand’s mainland and in the city of Hat Yai, I succumb to an ear infection resulting from the diving. I locate a hospital and with drugs accessed, recover enough to continue onto Malaysia.
The border between the two countries has been delicate for a number of years, but in recent weeks the situation has deteriorated. Largely attributed to an incident where the Thai military handcuffed a number of ‘troublemakers’ and stacked them like logs into the back of a truck – most of them died from suffocation! We are initially thoroughly searched, identified as a tourist bus, and waved through any further checkpoints.
Link to my photo site: