Monday, November 20, 2006

In A Fishbowl On A Mountaintop: Phu Kradueng National Park

Across the eastern edge of Isaan lies a mountain range called Phu Kradueng. Jutting 5,000 meters into the sky from the flat rice paddies at its base, Phu Kradung is THE mountain of Isaan.

Most Isaaners climb Phu Kradueng with their girl/boy friends. I’ve heard it’s a test of the relationship. If you manage to reach the summit without hating each other, you’ve found the one. If not, well, they sell beer at the campsite.

My friend Dave turned 25 last week, and six of us decided to climb this thing, spend a weekend hiking around the top, and then be back down before work on Monday. It was a good plan. We brought lots of beans. What else do you need?

As we climbed the mountain, we came upon numerous groups of Thais climbing together. The typical group consisted of six or eight 18-24 year-olds carrying small backpacks, a guitar, and plenty of camouflage. Oh, and the wristbands. Thai youth go through more colored wrist and headbands than my father mowing the lawn in July.

Once we came upon a small group that stood gazing into the forest. Quietly we approached them, all with their cameras and cell phones out snapping pictures of a large monkey sitting, staring at us. “Ooh, look at that monkey,” one said. “It’s very beautiful.” Then they noticed us next to them. “O! Falangs! Look!” The Thais turned to stare at us, we stared at them, and the monkey stared at both of us. We’d better move, we thought, or they’re going to start taking pictures. “They’re very handsome!” we heard behind us.

As we hiked up, we talked a lot about how you never do get used to that. Once you speak Thai, it gets even more annoying, because you understand what they’re saying about you. Thais are absolutely blown away that a falang can speak their language. I told my fellow hikers than an ex-PCV friend of ours had gone around telling everyone that everybody in America can speak Thai. I didn’t think anyone believed him.

I heard once that Peace Corps is like strapping on a giant purple bunny suit, and then going around telling people you’re here to help them. Give that a shot in your neighborhood.

When we got to the campsite, we came upon a large field of grass, a few pavilions, a corner of land covered with tents, and what looked like a night bazaar. Here’s an experiment- take an empty plot of land, tell two hundred American strangers to take their tents and go camping on it, and see what happens. I imagine you’d find that they had spread out, finding good soft land, preferably out of earshot of the next tent. Give them a few years there and they’d probably have high walls set up so they wouldn’t have to look at each other. What we came upon in Phu Kradung showed us a uniquely Thai attitude of camping. First the concrete pavilions were taken, and all the tents were pitched right next to each other in the corner closest to the restaurants.

There were some strange laws in this campsite, outlawing fires and the sale of whiskey. The beans were legal, but we had no way to cook them. We ended up taking all of the food we brought to the restaurants and having them make it for us. There was no other way. With the exception of sleeping in a nylon tent, life at the top of this mountain was no different for any of us than at the bottom. We woke up, we walked around, got our meals at a local restaurant, used a shower, etc.

It was colder, however. Which was the reason I was excited to go. After two years of sleeping in a pool of my own sweat, I was excited to wake up freezing for the first time in two years.

Instead I woke up bloody.

As the loudspeaker blared music for our enjoyment at 6am, I opened my eyes to the first rays of sun creeping into our tent. I breathed in the fresh, cool mountain air and slowly pulled down the sheets I had up to my neck. I noticed a red spot on the sheet, then another one. I pulled the sheet down quicker, weary of what I would find. Perhaps the head of a racehorse.

Leeches. Gross.

I unzipped our tent to find a winter wonderland of Thais frolicking around in scarves, hats, and gloves. All the apparel, without the snow or cold weather. It was, maybe, fifty degrees out. This must be what it’s like filming Old Navy commercials in October.

Before breakfast, we decided to throw the baseball around. Since everyone camped on top of each other, there was a large grass field left open. Thais walked by in their winter finest, almost running into each other as they stared at us throwing this ball back and forth. One friend noted, “That guy’s wearing a New York Yankees cap, and I’d bet he has no idea what we’re doing right now.”

We spent that day walking from waterfall to waterfall, hiking through the evergreen forest of Phu Kradung. Then we feasted on beans, hot dogs, and rice at night. As the weather cooled, we put on our Old Navy fleeces and sat around candles talking about Thai politics, work, and what album and picture we’d bring if we were stuck on a deserted island for the rest of our lives. Mine were Jimmy Buffet “Barometer Soup” and Bob Ross.

I checked for leeches that night.

The next morning as we were packing up our tent, my friend came back from the shower. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said, “but as I was walking to the shower, some guy saw me coming and said that I was one of the falangs that spoke Thai.” “Wait, how does he know you speak Thai?” “We’re legendary here,” he said. I had noticed people sneaking up to our tents taking pictures of us brushing our teeth, etc. “Well, anyway,” he said, “the guy says that he was told that all Americans speak Thai.”

So I finished packing up the tent, threw my bag over my purple bunny suit, put on my purple bunny head, and started the hike back home, proud of the misinformation that, we as PCVs, are able to spread.

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