Quickpost: Khao Sok – Ancient Jungle

To associate the words “peace and quiet” with nature is a misnomer.  Anyone who has found peace and quiet isn’t really listening.  A twenty-first century kid, I began taking notes on how natural sounds compare to those of our technocratic existence.  I found Khao Sok in south-central Thailand the perfect spot for this.

I will always remember the sound of my laptop – mid thesis – as I spilled a full bottle of hard lemonade.  Often times, this noise comes back to haunt me.  In Khao Sok, the electric popping of cicadas clung deep in my ear setting the knobby hairs of my inner lobe dancing in the frenzy of its electric charge.  No other noise in the jungle came close to the immensity, the overwhelming trumpet blow of the cicadas buzz.  At times a solid hum, and at times an electronic fritz, these hand-sized cicadas sounded like early Prodigy, searching for a dial tone for the World Wide Web.

There were the monkeys that frolicked above, snapping thin branches on their leaps of faith like ponderous typists.  Or, the swimming porcupine that warbled like an icemaker.  At nightfall, the rooftop bats spasmodically sucked from their hairy wild-eyed faces.  The result was a high-pitched screech that irritated like the sound of a static television.  A night in Khao Sok was a night of anthropomorphizing.

In terms of noise pollution, Khao Sok is the Bangkok of Thailand’s national parks.  Boasting a 160 million year old rainforest that it is older and richer than both the Amazon and central Africa, this teeming jungle is operatic.  Sharp limestone mountains trap and reflect the sound like the finest auditorium and from a front row seat in my floating bungalow, I shut my eyes and opened my ears.

Yet, not all of Khao Sok’s creatures were so boisterous.  The leeches were silent and stealthy, injecting a numbing spell and sucking pain-free and unnoticed.  Mute chameleons morphed into mossy branches.  And in the still of the night, mammalian eyes shimmered in the spotlight of high-output flashlights, scared and immobilized.

A large portion of Khao Sok’s virgin forest was buried under the Chiao Lan reservoir, a fingering lake created by the Ratchaprapha dam.  The captain steered our longtail boat around the lake atop the town where he was born – a town buried in a flooded valley back in 1982 when the dam was built.

On the banks of the lake, far from mankind, Khao Sok housed an exotic family.  Wild elephants, tigers, Malayan tapir, sunbears, gaur, pig-tailed macaque and white-headed gibbon lay stake to various parts of the park.  Its flora was equally impressive, with carnivorous pitcher plants and the world’s largest flower, the wild lotus Rafflesia, which can grow up to 90cm in diameter and weigh around 7kg.

Khao Sok was pure, pristine, and pondersom – but it was hardly peace and quiet.

The Glimmer of the Glowworm

Five minutes earlier, I had gracelessly hitched myself over a fence post reading, “no safe access.  Beyond this point the track has been damaged by flooding.”  Unbothered by the recent downpours myself, I thought nothing of it and there I was, in the rainforest with my pocket-sized flashlight peering over the edge of a muddy cliff at eleven o’clock at night.

I was still a little flustered from my close encounter with the possum.  I had walked with my flashlight pointed down glancing up at the impeccably starry night.  When I raised my flashlight and lowered my head, I found myself two feet away from his beady eyes.  He was much larger than I’d imagined and my mind wandered back to a conversation I had with a local earlier that day about the booming market for possum fur.  The thought passed, our stare down ended, and I backed up as he scurried up the mossy tree.

In the daylight, these woods are a stunning, sloppy mess of fern and vine.

The lower hills lay draped in a shag carpet of moss and lichen divided by a series of rocky streams.  Threads of red vine are the only thing to interrupt the innumerable shades of green.  Yet, there I was in the darkness of the night at the edge of the rainforest staring down at the rushing glacial water of the Waiho River three hundred feet below.  The suspension bridge leading out of town lay dimly lit in the distance and the dense, humid air curled in the glow of the flashlight

It was a boring evening and I was not having the best of days, so an hour earlier I had grabbed my flashlight and started walking.   I made my way through town towards the entrance to the Terrace Walk, just past Our Lady of the Alps Catholic Church.  My goal for the evening’s hike was to the see the glowworms, but walking through the rainforest alone at night felt like being tossed onto the set of The Dark Crystal.

Many who have walked this trail have come back disappointed.  I can only assume they were searching for something resembling the 1980’s bestselling glow-in-the-dark Playskool toy.  Or, maybe they never made it to the ravine at the end, settling for the less brilliant displays dotting the sides of the trail under upturned trunks and partially obscured hollows.  To make it to the end, one must walk along the muddy ledge that looks as if it may once have been twice as large, loosing half of its width to the riverbed below.

Arriving in the ravine, the few green dots glowing in the woods felt a bit underwhelming.  However, with a little patience, the woods began to sparkle like a thousand Lite Brites, the 1980’s toy that more aptly conveys the look of this phenomenon.  The more my eyes adjusted to the dark, the more glowing specks appeared, rising up the ravine and blending into the twinkling stars above.

The ravine sparkled as I put the flashlight in my pocket and stood alone in the glowing darkness of the rainforest for over an hour.  After fifteen minutes of silence, I put my ear buds in, set my iPod to some electro tracks and danced in the darkness of my own private dance floor.  I felt like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia conducting the hyper real creatures as the sorcerer of this magical wonderland.  I have a vivid imagination, but this dichotomy of dancing in the rainforest at midnight to the beat of electronic music just about sums me up.

The glowworms brought me back to those special nights in the Caribbean when the moon was new and the sky dark.  Those nights when the conditions were just right and the glowing phytoplankton came out to dance with my every splash, twist and turn through the translucent water.

In the sea, my movements, and those of the marine life all around me controlled the luminosity.  On land, the gleam of the glowworm radiates throughout the night.  Both the glowworms and the plankton are bioluminescent organisms, but while most of the glowworms throughout the world are members of the beetle family, in New Zealand, they are actually gnats that spend most of their life in their larval stage.

What is it about the ability to glow in the dark that so fascinates us?  I’ve come to understand the power of thousands of small bits of creation joining together to dazzle us with the humdrum of their daily existence.  I’m struck by their ability to bring light into the darkness.  When I was five years old, I raced to catch a midsummer firefly between my tiny fingers as it meandered through the cul-de-sac at twilight.  I’ve been captivated by the glimmering glow of the bioluminescent ever since.