Our day started with a stroll along a wide dirt road into Khao Sok National Park. Almost immediately, Tuk was stopping to call our attention to different plants and animals.
I was amazed that he could look at the dense mosaic of greens and browns of the rainforest and somehow pick out the tiny chameleon on that branch of a tree on our right, the scorpion hiding in a bamboo tube the girth of one’s thumb, or the leaf of a particular herb from the shrubbery off of the trail. It was clear that his eyes, ears, and nose were nurtured in this jungle and therefore easily able to sense the distinctions in matter than seemed impossibly subtle to me.
Encouraged by our inquiring minds, Tuk soon revealed just how threatening the rainforest can be, or not. He knew that the giant Golden Orb spiders were not poisonous, and thus he could start a game with them where he let them dance from his hands around his shoulders and sometimes even into his mouth. Leeches rarely had the chance to start sucking our legs if we were close to Tuk.
He touched the trunk of a certain tree to show us which one it was in order to thoroughly warn us of the possibility of being blinded by ingesting its leaves. While cautioning us to be quiet, he reverently but nonchalantly used the zoom of a camera to “point” to a sleeping viper just feet from where we were standing. We trusted him to tell us which jungle sounds to chase in the hopes of seeing something awesome and which to intelligently retreat from.
Our Khao Sok jungle survival experience meandered along the main trail of the National Park until we reached the refreshment stand at the Bang Hua Raed turnoff. Our journey progressed up and down through a tight corridor of foliage, frequently threatening to meet the river to our left, but never quite reaching it.
My boyfriend and I would interrupt our progress every few meters to marvel at something of which we, as high mountain desert people, had never before conceived. At last, as our hot bodies rejoiced at our first chance to rest alongside the river, we were told that we had only one more kilometer to go until lunch. Our sweaty, happy bodies were excited at the promise of food and swimming holes just a short jaunt away.
At our lunch spot, Tuk dismissed us to play in the river. He interrupted only to serve us delicious fried rice held in trays made of large bamboo trunks sliced in half. Our afternoon proceeded with glorious frolicking in the river, a breathtaking exploration up a tributary, and the occasional shout from Tuk to look for an animal he had just seen or heard. Around dusk, Tuk showed us how to steam rice wrapped in bamboo leaves in bamboo poles. We sorted and washed the piles of leaves that he had collected during our hike in order to help him prepare a savory steamed greens dish. When the sun started its quick descent, the girls fished while the men wandered off into the darkness to hunt frogs. At the end of our labors, we feasted on delectable fish and frog curry, sliced pineapple, greens stir-fried with eggs, and bamboo-infused rice in a circle of candlelight. We rose after lingering over the last morsels of food and conversation to find hammocks, newly erected by Tuk, waiting for our tired bodies.
On the second day of our Khao Sok jungle survival experience, I woke in the predawn light because of loud gibbon calls just across the river from us. While there was not enough sun to see the creatures themselves, the primates provided a surreal soundtrack for exiting my dreamworld.
After a breakfast of eggs and toast, we headed off on a particularly slippery walk, scrambling over river rocks up the same tributary that we had explored the previous afternoon. Taking our time to explore fresh elephant tracks, our ascent up the riverbed was delightfully leisurely. After several hours of this enjoyable exploration, we were rewarded with legitimate swimming in a deep pool under the cascades of Tan Sawan Waterfall.
While drying off under the power of the sun, we became little children again, endlessly entertained by watching the countless fish attack a piece of bamboo we had tied to the end of a fishing line. Shrieks of delight inevitably accompanied the moments when we succeeded in having a thrashing fish hang on to the bamboo piece while being pulled through the air above the water or when the bamboo piece ricocheted out of the water at us in response to the quick and violent ambush of the fish.
With more wonders still to see, we ate lunch, again out of our luxury bamboo troughs, and began the steep ascent of the karst along the left side of the river. This part of the experience was where we earned our sense of accomplishment. Deep breaths, sweaty brows, and burning quads signaled the physical exertion invigorating all of us equally.
The trail proceeded up and up and up. We could not quite see where the top was, or where we were for that matter, because the rainforest was so thick around us. But, the activity felt nice, so how close we were to the end point did not much matter. The mosquitoes, which replaced the leeches half-way up, were good motivators to keep moving as well. The percussion of our deep inhales provided a nice foundation for the watery, tickling melodies of the various birds, animals, and insects surrounding us.
Our Khao Sok Jungle Survival experience through a vibrant verdant nature was reward enough, but we were still treated to more. At the top of the trail, rafflesia blooms were still holding on so that we could see their grandeur. The wooden platforms circling their growing grounds enabled us to see black withered blooms, the red explosion of active blooms, and the velvet balls inflating with potential energy just waiting to burst open.
The jungle was still hiding our destination point, but the car sounds gave away its proximity. A five minute drop down a drainage led us to the highway where a pickup truck was waiting to take us to showers and inviting beds.