Khao Yai: The bat caves off the beaten track

And the best Tom Kha Gai (Chicken in Coconut Soup) I have ever tasted.

Having always travelled with family or on school trips, where itineraries were rarely dictated by your own choices, being able to plan weekend trips, with transport, accommodation, and food was equal parts thrilling as it was daunting. Daunting, because I felt this pressure to find gems, as well as do the classic tourist-y items. I knew that working here, and living in one place for an extended time would allow us to integrate into the local community, and be able to get real recommendations for trips that were off the beaten track. One such recommendation was Khao Yai National Park, four hours north-east of Bangkok by train.

Stella and I embarked to the newly-built Bang Sue Train Station, which was remarkably empty. The ticket was $8 NZD for a fan seat (No AC and open windows) – but the temperature was worth it for views on the way there.  

Once we arrived, we boarded the soamthew (Truck with an open back with seats) into the national park. Our first stop was a small swimming hole frequented by the locals. The water was crystal crystal clear, and warm. Once we finished swimming and interacting with the local children, we made our way to the second learning point: the bat cave.

Stairs into and out from the cave

Under the property of monks, it was predominantly used for meditation purposes. We were told by Joe, our incredibly charismatic and hilarious tour guide, that sometimes monks would spend days here, in the dark, reflecting inwardly. I was amazed by the ability of the monks to find places of such raw beauty and connect with them on a spiritual level. The carvings were one architectural feat, but the statues that were crafted and brought down, so carefully, into the caves? Those were even more incredible.

We went up close to the bats, who were starting to wake up at sunset time, and saw a very large spider that Joe placed on each of our arms to  illustrate the peacefulness of the creatures that the media has characterised as dangerous and evil. The spider’s movements were so gentle, and honestly, so fragile. We were far more dangerous to it, then it was to us.

Thirdly, we made our way twenty minutes inward into the national park, into a field where Joe set up a telescope. Against a sunset backdrop and a short road lined with kowhai-like trees, our picnic blankets and Joe’s pre-cut pineapple made us feel like we were in a dream. We watched the 2 million bats leave the cave, in an oscillating pattern. Nature was art in this instance, as the pattern shifted and changed with the wind, and predatory hawks which tried to break it. It was beautiful that no matter what they faced, the bats remained together. 

Stella and I ran to the other side of the field to watch the sunset, and I would be lying if I said I had seen even close to that magnificence anywhere in NZ. The sun was so close to the horizon, and it melted into the clouds. The sunset watching metamorphosed into star gazing and Joe once again set up his telescope to point out the different constellations. Cue Shawn Mendes’s “Look up at the stars” (yes, we did in fact listen to that in the background…)

Lastly, Joe asked us if we all had energy (of course!). Thus, the end to the night was spent climbing the closest temple’s huge steps, and watching a panorama of the national park and surrounding villages. It was peaceful. Somehow all of the universe collided to ensure that this was an unforgettable night (as if it already wasn’t), as we came on the week of Lunar New Year celebrations. This meant that as we returned to our accommodation, the entire area was lit up with the biggest, brightest, most elaborate display of fireworks I had seen (even New Year in Bangkok could not contest them). Just, wow. 

The next day, Stella decided to do the full day hike and trip into the jungle, and I decided to have a quiet morning, enjoy the homeliness of where we were staying, indulge in more of the incredible food, and head home slightly early to prepare for the week ahead.

I dream about this food to this day

While sitting and reflecting, I met a British couple. We both bonded as we gazed at the soamthews carrying tens on tens of people blasting music along the opposite road. We learned that they were all the family of a monk, or rather, soon-to-be monk entering training. It was an incredibly joyous, pride-filled occasion in the community, shared by all through music and short celebrations.

Wayne and Susan, the couple, told me that they had been coming here for the past 16 years. They had seen the area develop from dirt roads to tar, entrance signs were erected for the park, and they met our tour guide’s father, who started the family business. He had told them of tiger sightings into the town in their first few trips. 

We reflected together on the fragility of our eco-systems. If tigers were seen roaming freely and abundantly only 20 years ago, how will native species live and interact 20 years from now? The answer, I fear, is that they won’t.

I boarded the soamthew with the others, bought a ticket earlier by half an hour so I could join the friends that I had met in the taxi ride, and had a four hour conversation with Ed, the American retiree mentioned in an earlier blog post. 

I struggled to comprehend that this experience, all happened over one and a half days, and got back to Bangkok with my cup full and overflowing. 

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