Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thailand Day Four: Khao Phanom Bencha

Our fourth day in Thailand began quietly with coffee out on our balcony. We watched a couple of lizards chasing each other on a palm tree, and enjoyed the pretty flowers and birds before going down to the hotel's awesome breakfast.
Scaly-breasted munia in a palm tree by our balcony
Flower about the size of a salad bowl
Flying dragon and gecko chase
Magpie robin

Bryan and I had been looking forward to visiting Khao Phanom Bencha National Park, known for its waterfalls and wildlife. We were hoping to get a ride out there and explore on our own, and to arrange a ride back. It turns out that Ao Nang and Krabi aren't really accustomed to tourists wanting to do things on their own, and every time we asked anyone about a ride to the park, they launched into a spiel about guided tours and half-day trips and full-day trips. Eventually we managed to hire JUST a driver, who would hang out at the park and wait for us all day. That seemed like a strange arrangement to me, but whatever. We didn't want to join a big tour and spend the day being shuffled around the park with a bunch of other people.

The ride out to the park took about a half hour, and it was fun to see the scenery around us slowly changing from beach to mountains and forests. A big mountain emerged through the hazy sky, and our driver told us that it was Khao Phanom Bencha (or Benja), the mountain for which the park is named (and one of the 1001 Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die).
On our way into the National Park

At the park, we hopped out of the van, paid the entrance fee (about $5 USD), rejected one more offer for a guide, and set off to explore. We followed signs leading to Huai Sakae Waterfall. The trail led us first through a grove of young trees, heavily populated by the same changeable lizards and flying dragons that we're used to seeing in Singapore.
Posing changeable

It was strange being in the forest. The leaves crunching underfoot, the tall, sturdy trees, and the water babbling over rocks nearby all called to mind places we've hiked in the U.S. - Montana, Ohio, Minnesota, etc. But the dense jungle air and exotic birds calling overhead reminded us that we were indeed in the tropics. At first, the path was easy, and we moved along quickly, stopping only occasionally to admire flowers and plants.
Dainty pink flowers
Crazy intertwined trees
Funky fungi

Unfortunately, before long the trail got pretty rough. It looked like it had recently been washed out in places. This was the first evidence we'd seen of the floods we'd heard so much about. We pushed on a little ways and encountered some other hikers. They told us that they hadn't been able to reach the waterfall either, as the trail was too damaged. We managed to get close enough to catch a glimpse of the waterfall through the branches of a fallen tree before turning around and heading back the direction we came. As we walked we were joined by three friendly dogs romping through the woods.
Can we hike with you guys?!?!

When we got back to the beginning of the trail, we decided to follow a separate trail to another waterfall. Before we started out on another hike, we thought we'd swing by the park headquarters and see if they could tell us whether the other path had been damaged. There was no one at the headquarters except a friendly cat sleeping in a patch of sunlight at the front door, so we decided to try the next trail on our own. Even on the walk through the semi-manicured grounds near the headquarters, we saw some neat stuff, like this elaborate spider home.
Step into my web
Fuzzy little caterpillar
Waxy pink flower

 We started following the Dog Slide Nature Trail to the Huai To Waterfall, and were quickly rejoined by the friendliest of the three dogs that had romped up to us earlier. She frolicked up to us, then past us and right into the stream next to the trail. I can't wait until I have my own dog!
So cute

Before we'd walked very far on the trail, we came to a little temple. Aside from being very scenic, it turned out to be a wildlife hotspot. Best of all, we saw a BAT! Bryan was so excited I thought he was going to have an aneurysm. It was a common fruit bat, also known by its infinitely more awesome name, the "lesser dog-faced fruit bat." It was so stinkin' adorable! Look at that sweet little face!
Quaint little forest temple
Lesser dog-faced fruit bat
Shield bug
Creepy brown spider

We didn't have to walk very far along the trail before getting to the waterfall. At first it looked like it was pretty small, but then we came around a bend and saw that it just kept going and going- there were layers to the waterfall, multiple waterfalls flowing into their own separate pools. It was stunningly beautiful.
Huai To Waterfall

I yanked off my hiking boots and waded in the pools and climbed all over the slippery rocks. Bryan set up the camera on the tripod and experimented with photographing the fast-moving falls.
That's me on the left for some size perspective
Just like Indiana Jones

We enjoyed the falls in solitude for awhile before being joined by some Thai kids, who scampered up the rocks and jumped in the water. They looked like they were having a fantastic time.
Waterfall kids

I waded back out of the pool and as I was tugging my boots back on, something caught my eye. At first I thought it was a really colorful lizard tucked into the rock crevice, but then I saw that it was a cute little frog! Yay! If you look really closely at the picture, you can see Bryan and me reflected in the frog's eye.
Any frog fiends out there have an ID for me?

We started  up the path along the waterfall, climbing higher along the different levels. I got really excited when I saw movement in the foliage between the path and the waterfall. We spotted this green lizard doing an incredible job of blending in with his surroundings. Its yellow-ringed eye and pale blue coloring on its neck were unfamiliar to me and I thought we'd spotted a lizard species we hadn't yet seen in Southeast Asia. Upon returning home, a little research revealed that it was just an ordinary green crested lizard. Apparently their appearance differs a bit with geographic distribution. This one also appeared a little unusual because it was in the process of molting.
Green crested lizard

We reached the highest level of the waterfall and veered off the path to check out the little pool. There on the sand were a bunch of bright butterflies, flitting on and off the little beach. They reminded me of the butterflies we'd seen by the river in Sumatra.
Butterflies on the beach

 The upper part of the falls was serene. For a long time, it was just Bryan and me, hanging out by the water and looking for wildlife.
Top of Huai To
Fast water

Unlike the first trail we'd tested, this one was mostly free of flood damage. The only evidence of destruction we saw was near the beginning of the path, where some workers were toiling to replace railings and stepping stones near the waterfall. After that the path was more rugged but undamaged. It just kept going up, up, up. We stopped once for lunch (subs we bought at Subway earlier in the day) and a few more times to admire plants and insects.
Unfurling purple leaf
The middle of this plant looks like a rotten finger.

At one point I stepped over a root in the path and Bryan exclaimed so loudly that I thought for sure I was about to be bitten by some hideously venomous snake. It turned out just to be a huge, fuzzy spider that I'd just missed stomping on.
I shall call him Aragog.

After continuing  up the trail for awhile, we had to turn around in order to be back to meet our driver around 5. It was easier and quicker going down. Before long we were back at the waterfall, where the kids we'd seen earlier had started a raucous game of chicken. The boys were sidling out on a log balanced over one of the waterfall's pools. Once in the middle, they'd grab on to each other and try their best to fling one another into the water as the girls clapped and shouted with glee. It was fun to watch them.
The girls LOVED this!
Fun game

Near the base of the waterfall, we saw some neat little insect and spider homes. I wish I knew more about them, but all I really know is that they looked expertly crafted!
Bug house
Something big lives in there.

Around there, we saw an awesome gecko! We'd never seen one like it anywhere! His coloration was beautiful, and I loved how the black stripe on his face made him look like a lizard bandit.
A banded slender-toed gecko (Thanks, Ivan!)

We also spotted some of the strangest insects I've ever seen. A bunch of them were clinging to the trunks of a couple of trees. We later identified them as lantern bugs. I'm still transfixed by their bizarre elegance.
Pretty lantern bug

As we headed back to the car to meet our ride back to Ao Nang, we even saw a couple more fruit bats flying around and hanging under the eaves of some disused buildings near the park headquarters. Our driver appeared relieved to see us, as though he thought us city slickers might have wandered into the jungle never to be seen again. And he was apparently in a hurry to get pack, tailgating other cars, swerving onto the almost non-existent shoulder to skirt slow-moving motorbikes, and honking all the way. At that breakneck pace we were back in no time. Having only had Subway and granola bars all day, we were eager for dinner so after I took a few minutes to recover from my carsickness (how could that have happened?!), we cleaned up a little and headed right back out for food. Too hungry to be choosy, we chose one of the first food places we came to, a spacious restaurant called Tanta's. Wanting Thai food, but lured in by their wood-fired oven, we ordered a hodge-podge meal of pizza and pad thai, and shared both. Even after all that tasty food, Bryan was STILL hungry and ordered satay, which he polished off in no time!

After we were nice and full, we walked around to a few tour companies, trying to arrange a good deal for the next day, our last in Thailand. We were hoping to find a way to get out to some of the smaller islands before heading back to Phuket to catch our night flight.  We got something all worked out with a fast-talking woman at one of the companies, and just as she was about to run our credit card, WHUMP! The power went out! At first we thought it had gone out everywhere, but the lights were still blazing bright on the opposite side of the road. On our side it was out for a couple blocks, with a couple of exceptions (somehow the 7-11 two doors down was lit up like a Christmas tree). Not to be deterred, the tour lady marched us across the street to her friend's place and took our payment there. As we walked back to our hotel, we watched waiters scrambling to light candles and shopkeepers shuttering up early for the night.

Our hotel was still brightly lit when we got back, and we took advantage of our electricity to watch some Alice in Wonderland on the movie channel as we tucked into bed, beat from a long day of hiking and adventuring.


  1. Hi Crystal,

    I did a bit of searching around on Google images and it does appear that there is some slight regional variation in green-crested lizards, although whether it's enough to warrant taxonomic separation is another matter. Even the widely distributed changeable lizard might turn out to be a species complex, so who knows if what we now call green crested lizards might turn out to be several different but closely related species in future?

    The 'changeable lizard' you saw might have been a forest crested lizard (Calotes emma)

    The gecko might be a banded slender-toed gecko (Cyrtodactylus pulchellus

  2. Ivan, thanks!!! This is great information. I'm especially excited to see a name for that gecko; he was so awesome looking, even though he was missing his tail.

  3. Oh yes, the frog might be a poisonous rock frog (Odorrana hosii ).

    Was wondering if it might be a commmon greenback, but the environment around the waterfall seems to be a closer match for the preferred habitat of the poisonous rock frog.