Number 3–Khao Yai National Park
Well I did get to see a bit of the meteor shower, but it wasn't a great spot after all, not to mention the difficulty of dragging myself out of bed at 4 am. And wouldn't you know it, the accommodations that the Bangkok Post said were booked up were evidently the ones that actually cost real money. The 65 cent per night 'dormitory' facility where you get a mattress on a wood floor in one of four wood shelters, which are each able to sleep at least 30 people, couldn't possibly have been full. There were only seven of us the two nights I stayed there.
Khao Yai National Park is Thailand's largest and oldest and one of about 80, though nearly half have no budget. They'll get around to them eventually; at least they are protected. In fact, 13% of the country is in parks, wildlife and forest preserves – one of the highest percentages in the world – and here forest preserve really means something, not like the US where 'National Forest' should more aptly be named National Log Plantation.
All logging was banned here more than a decade ago after a logging caused disaster and today even chainsaws are illegal. Back in the USA we still have logging apologists insisting that clearcuts don't cause landslides! Uh-huh, right. There are quite a few animals in the park but not many come near the developed area, except families of monkeys and a gibbon, which I at first thought was a monkey, that sauntered through our compound one afternoon. There are elephants, tigers, tapirs, gaurs, bears, deer and lots of birds and snakes.
While there are hundreds of different trees here nearly all have simple oval leaves, though they come in every size and shade of green. One or two have compound leaves and teak have giant sombrero sized, heart shaped ones but there is nothing like the typical complex oak or maple leaf of the temperate zone. It seems the simple leaves are more efficient, whereas complex leaves are adaptations to difficult climates. They are called dipterocarps and grow new leaves at the same time that they are shedding the old. We're at the beginning of the dry season and it's still very lush. In a few months many will have lost their leaves as deciduous do in the fall.
Many of the older trees have extensive buttresses; long roots that extend far from their trunks for support. It's counterintuitive but the soil here is very shallow; with all the leaves that are constantly falling you can still see bits of bare ground. It rains so hard and everything decays so fast that the only nutrients they have available come from what's currently composting. The largest trees are about 4 feet in diameter, and there aren’t too many of them. I imagine only the lucky few that grow old are those that aren't enveloped in vines and/or attacked by insects and/or rot in the tropical climate and/or fall to an early demise from heavy tropical rains undermining their roots. A couple I met at the park had a tree fall just a hundred feet away. I was a little disappointed that some of the trails were very poorly maintained until I heard their story and felt I should cut the park a little more slack.
One of the most fascinating trees in the tropical forest is the strangler fig. High up in the branches of larger trees grow entire plant microsystems designed to take advantage of the greater sunlight in the canopy than at ground level where greenery can actually be quite sparse. It starts with epiphytes, plants that need no soil to grow in, then come mosses, ferns and small flowering plants that take advantage of the soil created by the others.
Into that fertile mix a strangler fig seed is planted. It sends up branches and leaves and sends down roots to the ground. Three or four 'tap roots' joined by a web of connecting small roots eventually totally surround the host tree and in time the larger roots become thick as trees themselves. The biggest I saw were nearly two feet in diameter. These roots literally strangle their host by cutting off its circulation. As everything decays very quickly here, in a few years you are left with a hollow tree!
Went through a hundred bucks in less than a week. I paid a bit too much for accommodations – 5 bucks a night in Bangkok – and was too lazy to look for cheaper. Admittedly that included 18 dollars for a knock-off North Face pack. I left with a stuffed day pack and a cloth sack that were sufficient but uncomfortable and cumbersome. When I came across locally branded packs for $8 that were large enough to hold all my stuff, including the day pack, I had to stop and look. But the fake North Face was so comfortable I couldn't resist even though I could never carry it if I actually filled it up. Now, with both packs included, I have more pockets than anyone needs or deserves.
Once again, it didn’t take long to learn again that knock-off packs don’t last long; this one started unraveling in a few weeks.