When I came across Social Print Studio’s beautiful photo books and metal prints, it reminded me of a trip I took to Khao Sok National Park in Thailand last year. The pictures in this post represent some of my most cherished memories from my travels through Southeast Asia, especially when I escaped the city for the pristine jungles of Thailand.
“It’s a magic mushroom,” said Mr. Toi. There were two on the hard ground at the mouth of the cave. The brown skinned Thai guide split one into three sections and gave one piece to the other guide- a quiet, old Thai man, one to Cam- the Brit backpacker and the last piece to me. The other mushroom, he plopped into his mouth. We swallowed our pieces, he rolled a cigarette, and then we headed back into the wildlife sanctuary just North of Khao Sok National Park.
This was my last day in the park and our small group was on our final trek, following trails that Mr. Toi had developed himself since roaming the jungles of Khao Sok as a child.
We ducked beneath thick branches, passed towering trees and splashed through clear, cool streams. We could not stop moving, or else the leeches would get to us. Cam chose to trek in white chucks. The fabric sides were soon stained scarlet with blood from the sucking parasites that had managed to sneak into his socks and in between his toes where the skin was soft and warm.
I slid into a low squat, arching my back, and in one deft movement slunk under a thick twisting vine. My breath was quick, but steady. I felt the shifting terrain below my feet and the moist humidity that lay trapped below the canopy of trees. Mr. Toi was ahead of me, dewy skin and a rag tied upon his head. He stopped and we all stopped. He looked and he listened. We all looked and we listened. It had become a regular part of our trip, an essential activity for understanding the jungle.
On my first day in the wildlife sanctuary of Khao Sok, Mr. Toi had taken me for an evening ride in his long tail boat. The water was glass as the sun set and turned the blue land indigo. The boat engine sputtered to silence. To me, we were just floating in the middle of a giant lake surrounded by massive limestone formations. I turned to say something, but he stopped me and taught me my first lesson.
“Ssh. If you listen, you can hear the jungle.”
So, I listened.
The cushion of tree tops flowed unevenly over the landscape, a vibrant green spill that hid this obsidian water world. The deafening silence was just a blanket that shielded the active life within. I heard a soft flap and rustle of branches, and I turned quietly to witness a great horn bill take flight into the orange of a heat drunk sun. Twigs snapped and broke somewhere deep in the foliage; perhaps it was an endangered tapir snuffling about for snacks. The shrill whoops that sliced the silence was that of the gibbons, calling to each other from one part of the sweeping jungle to another.
We did this often during our big trek, stopping to listen to the jungle, to hear what it had to tell us. There was an animal over there or the staunch stench of guano signaled a cave over here. The babbling stream followed us, a crystalline snake that we met every now and then to cool our feet, pull sticky leeches from our calves and to suck coca leaves for energy.
It was tough work. We weren’t in the actual national park, so we did not see any other people. It was remote and wild and flush with danger and unexpected twists, but we were ready for it; we were hungry for it. The two days of our stay before the trek, Mr. Toi had been preparing Cam and I by letting us explore on our own and living how the people of Khao Sok live.
He taught us not to be afraid of the jungle.
We lived in floating bamboo huts that rested upon the calm water with no connection to the land or city. Here, transportation is accomplished via boat, there is no internet, electricity is only available for a short time period by use of a generator, and bathing is done in the lake itself.
The mornings began with a breakfast of fresh caught fish, rice and vegetables, then, swimming and exploring in kayaks. Cam went off with one of the old fishermen in his skinny boat, poles in hand. Later we tagged along to help set up fishing nets. As the moon and stars took over the black sky, the Thai fishermen, Mr. Toi, Cam and I sat on the bamboo rafts, legs folded. With tobacco stained teeth, the Thai men rolled one cigarette after another and passed around a bottle of rice whiskey. An old Thai woman sat quietly against the hut wall behind us. They could not understand our language nor we theirs, but we coexisted together and shared tipsy laughs late into the night.
And so, as our trek continued, we witnessed the entirety of the jungle with all of our senses. Every bug bite, scratch and droplet of sweat was a part of it. The sounds and the smells gave life to it. The abandonment of everything human and the acceptance of everything animalistic is what we morphed into.
We stumbled upon the skull of a bear in a cave. Mr. Toi said that it had come here to die, that it had been very large and old. The hard yellow bone was picked clean, the smooth angles and eye sockets intact. The jungle had allowed the bear to live a long, prosperous life and so, the bear had given its final breath to the jungle in return; had given its meat and organs to the others. The bear had fulfilled its duty to continue the circle of life and the jungle was pleased.
Its skull would not decompose into the soil. Instead, it would be brought back to the raft houses to be put on display. The great bear would not be forgotten; he would become a symbol of the sacred life in Khao Sok.