Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It was 07:00, up in Phetchabun, we went for our early morning romantic stroll but we didn’t get the chance to look down on the mist as it dusted the mountain chain. We did see blue lingering cloud but that was just from a local fire. Certainly, nothing to get excited about unless you were an arsonist.

After breakfast, we drove towards the Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park in Phitsanulok province, which was going to be our destination for today. Annie wanted to go camping there, but I preferred having solid walls surrounding me.

This I was certain was going to be another example of the natural beauty that Thailand has to offer if you are prepared to go looking for it. The park itself covered an area of 307 square km.

Some of the scenery on the way

The journey was quite long and frustrating as we ended up having to queue for ages in places.

On the way, we had lunch at PP coffee, in Nakhon Thai, the restaurant overlooked the relaxing countryside of the hills that literally seem to role one after another. The further away the hills ventured the fainter they became, but they all seemed to be covered by trees. The ones that were in the foreground just had trees dotted around at random.

More views of the landscape

This particular area reminded me so much of the hills around my home in the UK in early September, as many of the trees here had leaves that were changing colour. I had read somewhere that in this part of Thailand you could find deciduous trees.

After lunch, we set off again and seemed to drive for ages. We visited the Khao Kho Talaypu Natural Farm, to give us a break. This was an interesting place, here I purchased some essential oils of tea tree, lavender and ylang-ylang and some ginger shampoo and conditioner, nothing like pampering yourself now and again.

I also promised Annie that I would buy her a coffee, a substance that I commonly referred to as being rat poison. Annie couldn’t believe her luck was in, that was until she was told that they had run out of the wretched stuff. I couldn’t help but laugh.

Then we carried on our drive to the Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park, which was becoming a tiring and tedious journey. We discussed at one point on whether or not we should turn back or not, Annie was becoming annoying as her tiredness began to kick in and my patients were beginning to wear thin as for up to know I had done all the driving.

The roads steadily became steeper as it rapidly deteriorated into nothing but a dust track. At times, our wheels went into backspin, even though we were travelling in low gear. Sand and loose stones were sent scattering all over the place as the car tyres struggled to bite the surface. At one point, I dropped the car back just to get a better position. Annie was terrified believing that the car was rolling backwards, but I reassured her that I was in control. We’d even seen big four-wheel drives turning back not wanting to risk going any further. I put it down to the fact that they just simply didn’t know how to drive on this kind of surface.

We eventually reached the Hongga Hill campsite at the very top of the Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park. Everyone had decided to go for the upper field, but believing that it would be rather noisy up there with the partying and fireworks, we decided to opt for the lower of the two fields. Finding possibly the only flat horizontal surface we attempted to pitch the tent.

Me after managing to put our tent up for the night

This was a struggle, as the wind was blowing a near on gale force and we’d not used the tent for over two years. Once everything was up and tightly pegged down we went off to get something to eat, this was going to consist of: chicken, coconut and bamboo, rice and a beer, which we never touched, so much for the New Year celebrations.

Back on the campsite, we realised that we had forgotten to purchase the water. Eager to take up the challenge of cycling down the steep sandy dust track on my mountain bike I couldn’t wait to get it erected and set off, but to my dismay, I discovered that the chain was all twisted. I frustratingly attempted to untangle it, but for the life in me, I couldn’t. I ended up having to ask a fellow cyclist to give me a hand.

After mending my bike, I couldn’t wait to cycle down to the small settlement of shops. I knew cycling downhill would be tricky, but not half as demanding as cycling back up it again.

After purchasing the necessary groceries, I began my slow and challenging ascent up the unpredictable terrain. I kept losing my balance, as there was nothing for my rear wheel to bite on. The wheel just went into backspin, then once I started to get my momentum going by pulling on the handlebars to get more leverage I nearly ended up doing wheelies, which wasn’t what I had intended. Through perseverance and sheer determination, I managed after a number of stops for whatever to reach the summit.

Mid-afternoon and the view from the campsite.

Back on the campsite, I decided that attempting to catch up with my sleep was the order of the day. So, after all the excitement of being out in the middle of the wilderness and alone with Annie and after having dinner, I decided to snuggle up and attempted to get some sleep.

Every now and then we heard the occasional car pull up nearby with excited children. I said under my breath, “You can’t set up camp here, this is our territory – go away.”

Annie laughed and replied in a quiet voice reinforcing my authority, “Yes you can’t camp here because Michael says so!”

Thankfully, according to Annie, our invaders couldn’t find a suitable spot so they went to the top end of our field and set up out of the way, leaving us in peace.

We went to sleep as darkness fell. We then had to confront other problems in that once the sun had gone the wind began to intensify into a strong gale, it simply buffeted our tent around, luckily it withstood the storm winds. Another problem was the wind chill factor; it was absolutely freezing cold.

The rear of the campsite with what looked like strawflowers

We had hired three quilts, but I think we really needed four. We didn’t even shower as the water was too cold.

Throughout the night the temperature dropped as the wind just intensified. Our tent was certainly rock n’ and rolling. At times, it felt like we were in one of those crazy flight simulators.

We slept through the New Year celebration not that much had happened. We considered that the wind was too intense for firing rockets up into the air and if that wasn’t the problem then the temperature would have certainly have frozen most of them.

At 00:44hrs, we both woke up and decided to make a quick dash to the toilet block, hoping that we would survive the ‘harsh realities of a tropical Thai winter’s night.’ It was absolutely freezing. I had even forgotten to leave the infamous note on my quilt: ‘I’m going out, I might be some time.’

We made it there and we made it back and then snugly wrapped ourselves up and went to sleep, hoping and praying that we wouldn’t freeze to death in the night.

Thursday, January 1st 2015

I woke up at around 06:30, we had survived the ‘harsh realities of a tropical Thai winter’s night.’ Our tent was still standing and the wind was still buffeting it. I looked outside, ensuring that I was looking due east and away from the direction that the wind was blowing from. Out there across the tropical arctic wilderness, nothing moved. The Sherpas that might have been out earlier, had all but packed up and gone. Roald Amundsen hadn’t planted his flag either yet, so at least there was some time left.

At 07:00hrs we waited in earnest for the sun to come up over the horizon and to start warming the place up a little. Annie hadn’t started suffering from frostbite or hypothermia yet either.

Today, was a new day of a new month of a new year. Probably the New Year just needed a few days or a week or two to get warmed up. Maybe by March or April, it would have got itself into the swing of things.

Early morning the sun hasn’t yet managed to penetrate the valley here.

Annie was the first to brave the morning chill. I would have given her a ball of string if I’d got some, so she wouldn’t get lost. She disappeared to the rear of the tent heading towards the distant toilet block to brush her teeth. I forgot to tell her about possible bandits and wolves that might be prowling the area. I was more than aware that this could be the last time that I ever saw her and she’d forgotten to give me a memorable kiss and before offering me those loving sentiments: ‘remember, I always loved you.’ Well at least she’d done the honourable thing and left her car keys, so at least I could drive back home. Hahaha.

At 07:13hrs, the sun peered up over the eastern mountain ridge. In other parts of the distant valleys and further afield the sun was already shining. Maybe spring had already arrived there. I waited patiently for something to happen as the suns golden raise started to spread across the mountainous landscape, illuminating fields and trees as the sun’s rays continued to stretch, instantly transforming the countryside into something reminiscing of Dolby Digital Technicolor as it went.

Around eight o’clock and the valley is brightening up

Annie soon arrived back at the tent. By this time, I had already zipped it up and was warm and snug inside. At first, I thought she was the abominable snowman, so I asked her for the password in the hope that she would understand and would give me an intelligent response. All I got from her was a pitiful and desperate comment of: “My brain doesn’t work, I’m freezing out here.” That was close enough.

Agricultural land, you can see rows upon rows of vegetables growing

At 07:44, I ventured out to brush my teeth. The grass was still laced with dew. Due to the coldness of the morning air and the fact that they had no hot running showers, I missed on shaving and showering that could wait until we hit Sukhothai, which was today’s ultimate destination.

Greenery, hills and forest, just what the Doctor ordered

Once all packed up we set off on our next adventure leaving the Hongga Camp Site behind.

Our first port of call didn’t seem too far away, it was another stop off point in the Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park, but this was quite different. We were now stopping at another base camp and one with a more accurate twist to it as regarding Thai history.

This base camp had been used by the communists between 1968 and 1972, was it acted as a political stronghold as they tried their best to destabilize the Thai government. Major Pairot Chanural, eventually defeated the communists without bloodshed.

Pha Chuthong Cliff or Flang-Pie Cliff
The Communists camp

The site was rather strange, it was said that there were 31 huts, which had been used. Some of them were in good condition as far as ageing huts went, but others were in a desperate state of care.

Where the communists would have lived

Overall, the construction of the huts was very basic. Comprising of branches nailed together with overlapping sheets of wood that were fastened together to form walls and apex of the roof. Time had played its part here, allowing mosses to colonize on the roofs. Apart from a few notice boards there really wasn’t much to see.

DSCF5288         However, there was a prominent maple tree positioned in the camp, which had scattered many of its shedding leaves around. The tree looked adorable within this setting.

Annie, standing under the Maple Tree

Being a nature lover, I found the plants the big attraction. One tree, in particular, stood gracefully with what looked like another tree that had a stranglehold on it. Maybe it was part of the same tree but the strangler had certainly intertwined all of its branches and stems around it. This tree and many other stretched at least 20 – 30 metre into the air.

Possibly a strangler – grab me while you can

There were some visitors proudly wore a green beret with the red star in the middle with pride, possible sympathizers. I was sure that there were many relatives of the Hmong people here, who had once sided with the communists before changing their allegiances to the government forces.

Strange looking rocks

Our adventure carried on as we ventured to another site within this forest. This time we were in search of the Pha Chu Thong Cliff. Once we arrived at the beginning of this trek, Annie notified me that this was about 1.5 km in both directions. I was amazed by the fact that there were so many Thai heading off for this viewpoint.


Annie at the viewpoint with her Mahidol University T-shirt on

We followed the chain of people like some nomadic tribe, as we walked over some remarkable ancient seabed according to what Annie had overheard a guide stating. There were certainly some strange looking mounds.

An ancient sea bed

The further we walked then the trickier it became. In many parts, it looked like the ground had started to pull away from itself creating deep crevices. As a compromise to bridge the gaps very crude walkways had been erected, they seemed to be able to withstand all the pounding that they were receiving from all the tourists and trekkers. We certainly didn’t hear any screams or anybody frantically getting excited.

One was always aware that you were actually still within the forest, even though you were so high up. Trees had evolved to grow in the most inaccessible places and seemed to thrive on the excitement. What I wanted to know was where were the rock pythons and poisonous spiders? No doubt they could see us. But as generally as the case was, we couldn’t see them.

Up and along we walked over this strange looking landscape.

The sign speaks for itself

Not too far away we started to climb over rocks and boulders as the inline upwards got steeper and then we reached the summit of Pha Chu Thong Cliff as the sign suggested, here we were 1,304 metres above sea level. The cliff had a huge rock protruding out of it, which attracted many tourists to have their photograph taken on it.

Another view over miles of wondrous scenery

Far below you looked down and across the forest’s canopy, looking like the surface of a flat cauliflower. Each individual tree offered its canopy, act like a huge but small lump on the expanse of vibrant green.

A panoramic view from the top

We stayed up here for some time standing and looking at this awesome sight. This was again somewhere off the usual beaten tourist track for most holidaymakers. I am sure that many westerners had been here but I am sure most hadn’t. Thailand natural beauty at times was simply astonishing.

From there we made our way back, and by god, it didn’t take half the time that it had done to hike our way up there.

From the car, we set our coordinates and set off for Sukhothai and to where Annie’s family waited for us.

Satisfied Annie, now looking forward to heading off for Sukothai province