Khao Yai National Park - The first time I enter the jungles of Thailand I'm ready for anything. Sure, people have warned me of the tigers, the elephants, the pit vipers, the malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but I'm not worried. It's in people's nature to warn you about things they know nothing about. Plus, I have tons of wilderness experience. I've just finished four months of tree-planting in northern BC. Before I went, people warned me about bears and cougars, but the first thing I learned was that bears are more afraid of you than you are of them. So why should the rain forest be any different?
With that logic I blow off every local's advice to get a guide. I don't need a guide. I've trekked to the top of Mt. Ossa in Tasmania and the Golden Staircase in Alaska. I know what I'm doing.
So off to the jungle I go. After a three-hour bus ride from Bangkok, I arrive in the infamous Khao Yai National Park. Thailand's oldest national park is considered by many experts to be one of the world's best. Besides its roughly 300 wild elephants, the park is also home to Asiatic black bears, leopards, gibbons and macaques. Birdwatchers from around the world come to see the wide variety of hornbilled birds, including the great hornbill.
I'm staying in the extremely rustic dorm shelter for a whopping 30 baht (about a buck) per night.
In the morning I set off. With a light pack on my back full of snacks and water, a roughly sketched map and a feeling of excitement, I cross the grasslands, heading for the jungle. The air is damp and sticky. It will be a stifling hike. But I've been anticipating it for a long time.
As I enter the trailhead, the jungle closes around me. The first thing that hits me is disappointment: this is just like any other trail I've been on. Sure, the trees are a little different, it's hotter than I can ever remember experiencing, but it still looks like a forest.
Trying to ignore the letdown, I tell myself that if I just keep walking my attitude will change.
Further on, I look down upon a layer of dry, brown leaves across the trail. "Man, this is no different than anywhere," I think.
And then I notice it - a tiny little wiggling-finger kind of thing stretching up from that same boring foliage. The dark-brown creature looks like an inchworm reaching for something. It's about an inch long and pretty gross. Leaning over, I try to figure out what it is. As I do, it starts heading in my direction. That's when it hits me. It's a leech.
I jump up and look at my sandal-clad feet. Each foot has about four leeches feasting on my jungle-virgin blood. I barely manage to check my urge to scream, but as I spin around I see that they're everywhere. Leeches all around are inching their way toward me.
So I run. I lose my cool and bolt like a terrified child.
Back at the trailhead, I stop in the grasslands. Breathing heavily, I reach down and rip the leeches off my feet one by one. They lie nearly motionless on the ground. Blood pours from the wounds in long, mucousy streams.
My feeling of disappointment is gone. Looking down at the satiated leeches, I wonder, "How come no one warned me about these?"
Before I leave the park, I buy a souvenir, a shirt with a large picture of a leech on the front. A park ranger translates the words beneath it for me: "The superstar of Khao Yai National Park."