December 13 - 15
13.12.2012 - 15.12.2012 28 °C
Our first stop on our tour through Isaan was Khao Yai, Thailand’s oldest national park. We didn’t know what to expect but we were very pleasantly surprised by the area around the park and the many safari tour options that were on offer. The drive from Bangkok to Khao Yai only takes about 2-3 hours and you drive mostly along the typical Thai “strip malls” and store fronts, so it really doesn’t give you the impression that you are officially entering Isaan and are in Nakhon Ratchasima province. Nakhon Ratchasima is actually called Korat (spoken “Kolaat”) by most Thais.
In terms of accommodation we were curious as to what to expect. We had booked a small bed and breakfast place called “Bobby’s” online through Agoda due to the consistently very high ratings it received by other travelers. The place is actually in Pak Chong, a little outside of the park and we had a hard time finding it. We knew from the descriptions online that it is close to the large “Tesco” in Pak Chong right on the highway. So once we located the Tesco we drove around and tried to find the place based on the location on the online map. As we have learned many times before, looking for an address, even with a GPS which we had with us in the car, is almost always a fruitless exercise since street names are being spelled in many different ways and often you have the same street name for different streets. So, our challenge driving through Isaan was to locate our hotels based on descriptions online and attempts to get as close as possible to the indicated positions on online maps. We also used the Google map on our phone which proved invaluable in locating specific places and we got pretty good at finding our way around without turn by turn directions provided by the GPs. The GPS was mainly helpful to get from one city to the next but once there it mostly reached its limits.
So, back to our search for “Bobby’s” place. From the Tesco we drove around the few streets surrounding the area but just couldn’t find the place or any sign directing us to it, so I finally called and spoke with Mike, the owner. Within 5 minutes he picked us up with his scooter at the parking lot at Tesco’s and from there it was only about 2 minutes to get to the hotel. It’s a small residential area squeezed between the highway on one side and a main road with some restaurants on the other and there’s a reason why we couldn’t find it – the complete lack of any sign or advertisement. Typically that’s not a problem since most travellers come by bus or train and Mike always picks them up at the bus or train station. It’s still relatively uncommon that tourists drive through regions like Isaan by rental car. We found it very convenient though and it makes you very, very flexible. It’s more expensive than the cheap buses but again, rental cars are actually not that expensive in Thailand and the road system is excellent.
Once we arrived at “Bobby’s”, we checked in to our room and were pleasantly surprised by its size, cleanliness and relative comfort given the room was exactly US$ 7!!!. It had a large bed, en suite bathroom a TV with DVD player and even a small outside sitting area. The place looks a bit like a motel in the middle of the US in the 60’s.
(Our US$ 7 room at Bobby's)
Mike, the owner, is a German who’s been living in Thailand for more than 20 years and he’s been married to a Thai woman called Meehow. The two of them are running the place after their partner, actually Mike’s stepson, went back to the UK where he came from. Meehow, however, seems to do most of the work, including great cooking in the morning and evening. Mike seems to have more of a “socializing” role, picking people up and dropping them off and keeping them happy with cheap beer in the evening. The name “Bobby” seems to be a bit of a sensitive issue and we could only find out bits and pieces but obviously it is the name of a son who passed away very young for some reason.
(Mike, the owner of Bobby's)
Anyway, once there we could also book a jungle tour through Mike since they run a small tour operation as well and some of the guides are family members, too. So it is quite a compelling little business they are running from this place, cheap but acceptable accommodation, jungle tours and safaris and a good little restaurant with some of the best simple home cooked Thai food we’ve had in Thailand.
We booked a full-day tour for the next day so we were all set for now. So we drove around a bit to explore the area and drove towards the park entrance. It is a beautiful area with small villages, many restaurants and small hotels but also some gaudy looking resorts and condos for sale – probably to affluent Bangkok residents given the proximity to the capital. One of the most bizarre places has to be the development of an Italian looking village, all built in what Thais would think Tuscany looks like, with earth tone houses, water fountains and big gates.
(Tuscany in Thailand)
Once we went back to “Bobby’s” we ordered dinner and within 10 minutes had a great Thai meal in front of us, sitting in the little backyard restaurant with view into Meehow’s little kitchen. She’s a master in the kitchen, every ingredient neatly pre-arranged and she prepares every single serving fresh in her wok, which is meticulously cleaned after each portion. Together with a few Leo beers and interesting conversations with Mike and other fellow travellers it was hard not to feel like, “it can’t get any better”.
(Meehow at work)
If you have followed us on our blog and have read the last entry about our fast/detox in Koh Chang you might wonder what happened to the post-fasting process. Now, everybody who is somewhat familiar with how fasts typically work knows that you are supposed to slowly break your fast over a couple of days and eat light food, typically vegetables and fruit, for about a week or longer afterwards. You also should stay away from alcohol for a while. Obviously that hasn’t happened with us as you can read in this blog entry. But there was just no way on earth we would travel through places like Khao Yai and not eat the delicious food from Meehow and have a beer with it. It would have been difficult to just get raw vegetable or salad and probably even somewhat insulting – if that sounds like a lame excuse, it’s because it actually is one. So, if you are really serious about post-fasting stay in the place where you did your fast and don’t get yourself exposed to the rest of the country because the food temptations are just too delicious.
The next morning, bright and early at 6:00, we got up, had a little breakfast and went on our Songthaew (a covered pick up truck modified with benches on either side of the platform) together with about 6 fellow travellers and our guide who is actually Meehow’s son. I have to tell you first however a somewhat funny and uniquely Asian/Thai story about the breakfast we had in the morning. As said before, Meehow runs a nice little restaurant business in her backyard and breakfast is no exception. You can get pretty much anything from American, Continental and Thai breakfasts to congee, fried rice or porridge. However, one of Meehow’s young sons, who was taking the order was pretty inflexible when it came to ordering anything that was not part of the standard menu or that was a slightly different combination than the “set breakfast” options like American. I ordered an American breakfast, which was simple enough. However, Anna just wanted some toast with butter and jam. The problem was that this was not on the menu. So after a lot of back and forth we ended up ordering an “American breakfast without the eggs and bacon”, which, not surprisingly produced a satisfied smile on the face on Meehow’s son who now was able to order something from the standard menu while just omitting some items rather than having to “create” a whole new combination of items, like toast, butter and jam. Once the humor of the whole situation set in, we had to chuckle so many times about this little incident as it is so typical for Thailand and in fact many countries and people for that matter. One of our fellow travellers, Mike from Cleveland who we met at “Bobby’s” even sent us a video clip from the movie "Five Easy Pieces" with Jack Nicholson which is taking a similar situation to a whole new level of ridiculousness (Five easy pieces dinner scene).
But back to our jungle tour, which was just beautiful, interesting and educational. Khao Yai National park is lush green and its terrain very varied, from open areas of elephant grass to dense mountain rainforest. After we entered the park we stopped at a viewing point and everybody was handed some blue colored ”leech socks” since leeches and other creepy crawlers might get on or under your skin if you are not protected. And we were planning an hour long jungle hike.
(Khao Yai Park entrance) (Thailand's latest fashion: leech socks)
From our viewing point we also got a first glimpse of some of the wildlife in the park as we could spot two large and colorful giant hornbill birds across from us in the trees. Luckily we had some binoculars, which helped us spot some of the animals in the trees. Throughout the day we saw many of the resident monkeys, mainly macaques.
(One of the many macaques along the way)
We also had the pleasure of watching some white gibbons up in the trees making their characteristic noise, which one person described as a noise that reminds you of “spaceships”, or whatever you think the noise is that spaceships would make.
On our jungle hike we also spotted some snakes, including a green leaf viper and giant black squirrels who are the size of midsize dogs…never even heard of them before. Other than that we could see some of the different types of deer that live here as well as a couple of Asian water monitors, which are very common across Thailand and which can get up to 9 feet long. We’ve even seen some in the middle of Bangkok swimming in one of the khlongs (canals).
(Green leaf viper) (Asian water monitor) (Deer)
Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the approximately 200 wild elephants living in the park or tigers which are extremely rare. At sunset we drove up to the highest point in the park with a splendid view over its rainforest and valleys. We returned back to Bobby’s where we had another delicious meal before we fell into our beds tired but totally satisfied.
(Heo Suwat waterfal in Khao Yai) (View over Khao Yai National Park at dusk)
So, if you are ever travelling in this region or maybe even just want to take a break form the urban stress of Bangkok for a few days, consider Khai Yai as a terrific getaway. We were very pleasantly surprised to find this paradise and tropical rainforest so close to Bangkok.