With a few minutes of preparation, headlamps, and water, we are ready to explore the night. Stepping out into the dark road, with Orion shinning brightly above us, we head out with hopes of a good hunt.
Khai and Mi are our two guides. Some initial small talk gets us a little background of our two experienced local guides. Khai, whose English isn't too strong, still does a good job of explaining that he is 60 years old and comes from a small town nearby.
Mi is his nephew and has a bit better command of English, though both of them are much better with English than I am with Thai. He is 30 years old and has been at the park in Khao Sok for 6 years. He, of course, also does freelance guide work and so Penny enquired as to how he got into to the business: he started out working with the park and then moved into doing side work as a porter for some of the other guides. After a few years of portering, listening, and learning he started to venture out on his own as a guide. With a little bit of research and a few books on plants and animals in the area he has become a very knowledgeable guide.
Our conversation is put on hold as Khai has come accross a civet cat. How he spotted it, I have no idea. This little critter was about 25 or 30 feet off the ground, hidden in the thick follage of the tropical rain forest but sure enough, Khai spotted him. We all focus our head lamps into the direction of this "cat" and are shown two very bright yellow eyes. Our performer is a little too shy to enjoy our spotlighting admiration, so he opts to continue hiding behind the leaves as best he can while peeping out at us as we ooooh and aaaahhh. Khai and Mi go on to explain that some civets like to stay almost completely in the trees while other species venture over the ground and through the trees just the same. I didn't know anything at the time about civets and so I was surprised to find out they are only herbivores.
While I trust our guides to know more about local wildlife than me, I still am not satisfied with cats eating fruit. So I do a little internet searching when I get back. Not only do I find out the civet isn't a real cat, but many species are herbivores. In fact, the Paradoxus Hermaphroditus, also known as the Asian palm civet, produces the most valuable coffee in the world. The Asian palm civet eats the coffee cherries, its stomach digests the fruit flesh and its intestinal enzymes work on
the bean. The beans are then harvested from the droppings for their prized "aroma and flavor." Interesting and hilarious that people pay as much as $100 per cup for, quite literally, crappy beans!
We progress another 150 feet and it is Mi's keen eyes this time that spot something moving just up the road. A few quick steps and he has his light shining directly on a very cute Lemur. Small brown body, covered in what looks like soft brown fur with a big round head and big round eyes. No wonder kids love Lemurs: they really are cute! Our tailless friend seems a bit startled, but doesn't run too fast. He makes his way along a wire to the trees. We watched at his ease of movement across the wire and down branches of trees. What a great sighting, and this was still on Our Jungle House property while we were on our way to the National Park!
The beginning of our Khao Sok night safari was a nice agriculture lesson. As we pass the palm oil plantations Mi and Khai teach us a little bit about the profitable trees. Palm oil is used in cosmetics and so it continues to fetch a steady price. One tree starts producing after four years and continue for the next 20 or so. That's a pretty good investment since one tree can produces about 70kg of seeds which sell at 5 to 6 baht per kilo. A little math and one plantation with a thousand trees can produce as much as 420,000 baht ($14,000) a year. This is great, but it isn't without its caveats. Khai points out that after the tree reaches a certain height it is hard to harvest, its production begins to drop off and its lumber isn't of any particular use. That is why he and his family haven't boughten into the palm oil industry.Mi also supplies some more information. His father is a fruit farmer and had the opportunity to begin incorporating palms into parts of his land, but refused. Not only does their value decline over time, but they also require a lot of land. This has encouraged people to slash and burn healthy rain forest for the palm oil production. The trees themselves also take a toll on the soil meaning that if Mi's father did plant them he wouldn't be able to use the land for more fruit trees later. For these reasons, both Khai and Mi prefer rubber trees if one is going to move into the plantation cash crops.
Rubber trees take a little longer to mature, about seven years, but also produce well for 20 years or so. However, unlike the palm tree, the rubber tree can be made into lumber for very nice furniture and other such applications. They didn't know for sure, but they seem to think the rubber tree doesn't hurt the soil nearly as much either.
While moving through the palm and rubber plantations, we also came across some wild bananas. Our guides said that only animals, like the civet, eat them since they aren't as appealing to humans as the domesticated varieties. Khai even opened one up to show the large seeds it produced; in contrast, the commercial ones have seeds but only little specs. These seeds were as big as pepper corns.
Moving on into the park we came across and embankment of hard clay soil. I didn't even take note of the dirt, but Mi pointed out the small, water bottle sized holes. Upon closer inspection we are able to see what is living in the holes: scorpions! I can only see two scorpions as our vantage point isn't the best. The larger one is about the size of a baby's fist. Khai assures us that it isn't deadly, but you still don't want to play with it. With those words of warning, Mi goes and picks up a stick to begin playing with the scorpion. He is trying to fool the scorpion into coming out and attacking as a he plays the part of an unsuspecting meal with his stick. We all crowd around to see this display unfold, but our lights are too much for the nocturnal scorpion and he decides not to take the bait. Disappointing, but understandable. I don't like people watching me eat either.
Moving into the jungle we find some more interesting bugs. Mi catches a firefly for us. This one is large with a slow flashing rhythm. The next one is very small and blinks much faster. Mi goes on to explain the the long slow undulations of light come from the female, while the quick staccato blinks come from the male. I've also heard that the female doesn't produce her own bioluminescent fluid, but has to eat a male after mating to be able to light up. You can make your own relation between fireflies and humans.
Continuing on we come across a few butterflies resting on the floor leaf litter. They are pretty good size, brown and difficult to spot without someone pointing to them. Khai explains that he is able to notice them easier because he can see the light from his head lamp reflected off their eyes. And so right around the corner he points our some more tiny gem looking sparkles in the leaves. Only this time there is no butterfly attached to them, turns out they are spiders. No matter how close I got to them I couln't make out their bodies. They had the appearance of tiny diamonds sparkling on the leaves. From what we were told, sometimes they are so many it make the trail look like it is glowing when you shine a light on it. Not tonight though.
We reach a small bench along the trail where we are invited to have a sit. This is a very pleasant spot as we take in the cooling jungle air except for thevery audible "thump" "thump" of heavy bass music being pumped up through the trees from a hostel accross the river. Well, it looks like the larger animals aren't likely to be around this area, only insects and the like. This does lead Penny to some good questions about the history and development of Khao Sok.Between the two of them, Mi and Khai are able to give us a rough explanation. Before the area was called Khao Sok, Khao meaning forrest or Jungle, is was called Baan Sok, where Baan mean home or village. Interesting, but what does Sok mean? Sok means dead or death. Some 80 years ago, so Khai explains, there was a out break of something. Bad water, he supposes. Whatever it was, it killed nearly everyone in the area, hence the Sok part. After some 20 years or more, people finally moved back to this area from surrounding villages. People like Khai, who was born in a nearby town, moved here. After while, the area began to regain its human population and the houses began to dot the area. The main means of transport was by bamboo raft, taking supplies and produce down to Surat Thani. If you wanted to go anywhere else, you only had the option of using your feet. Walking from one village to the next through jungle path was just the way of things at the time. Then in the 1980's, the park was formed and that lead to the fastest and most recent development for the area: tourism.Folks whose traditional way of life was farming rice and fruit then palm and rubber has now shifted even further to tourism or tourism related activities. Hand crafts, guides, shops, guest houses, and taxi drivers have taken over. In the same way that tarmac roads and busses have taken over jungle paths and bamboo boats. A part of me wants to lament such a loss of culture and tradition but Khai and Mi point out that their livelihood as park rangers and guides are much better than those of the farmers. They see the many economic benefits that tourism has brought to this area. Still, I can't help wonder about the dangers that come with relying on one industry and the environmental impact of having so many people come through each year, each one with packaged food, bottled water, and gasoline powered transportation.
My contemplations on the matter are cut short as we prepare to head back. Good, I think to myself, the bass was beginning to get on my nerves. As we move along, Mi's eagle-eyes spot a very funny looking tree frog. Larger than most tree frogs I've seen with exceptionally long legs and huge alien eyes. This one is perched near the base of a bamboo stalk and we pause to take pictures. Mi informs us that this little dude is an Olympic jumper and can send himself a meter or more in a single bound. To prove this, he finds another stick and begins poking and prodding our little greenish-brown friend, but to no avail. In the end, the frog wins by simply climbing on to Mi's stick. Hehehe, cute, but I still would have liked to see him jump.
The rest of the walk back is quite serene. The night is really beginning to cool off and sleep is beginning to press hard on my eyelids. Mi and Khai are kind enough to give us a lift back to our lodge so that we can get a few more minutes of rest.