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11.11.2002

The Elephant and the Cobra

KHAO SOK NATIONAL PARK -- We woke up early, and walked down to the Sok river (a mere 35 meters from out bungalow), where our guide, Kiam, came drifiting around the bend in an inflatable canoe. We clamored down the steps, hopped aboard, and set off on a two hour, 10K river trip. To be honest, I was a little disappointed. I thought we'd be paddling our own boat. But Kiam tuend out to be a phenominal guide, and since he was paddling, I was able to take pictures.

THe landscape in Kaho Sok is much as I pictured an Asian Jungle in my mind (thanks largely to teenage years spent watching Apocalypse Now). Steamy. Dense. Karsts rising straight up with trees jutting out from every angle. In the mornings, the land is hidden beneath fog. Later in the day, this becomes steam, then rain, then steam again. Limestone cliffs rise hundreds of feet (500? 800? 1000? Impossible for me to tell) straight up from the riverbed and jungle floor. Nearly every inch of the cliffs is covered in lush growth. Trees grow from impossibly vertical walls, and vines hang from every branch. Thick, knotty, bare-chested Tarzan vines. Rainforest creep. Yours ears hum with the ever-present sound of insects, birds, and beasties unknown.

As we came around a bend in the river, we saw our frist monkeys of the morning, and handful of long-tailed macaques. Four babes and and adult. (The day before we saw 25 - 30 in the same spot). Just afterwards, Kiam pointed out a mangrove snake on an overhanging limb.

And that set the tone for the day: it was filled with wildlife. We saw dozens of Kingfishers (two species) and white herons. Scores of other birds as well: a black heron, a massive horned owl of some sort, a large brown hawk, a "duck bird" (says Kiam, it looked sorta like a coot), a hornbill, several other fishing birds, and chattering songbirds all around.

We also saw another mangrove snake ("not very poisonous," says Kiam), and a python, which dropped obligingly into the river from its perch on a branch so that Harper could see it, being camouflaged while in the tree. Large toads. A snail the size of your fist (or mine at least, you may have big gross hammy fists). Dragonflys. Spiders. More spiders. Still more spiders. And an all aound wonderous parade of creatures. Except humans, we saw no others on the river that morning.

But the most amazing sight was the gibbon. As we passed a bungalow complex, a little man with a white face went running through the clearing like Sha-freaking-zam. The gibbon! It ran on two legs, a man, with hands in front and shoulders hunched over in a chiropractic nightmare, resembling nothing so much as a running back clutching a ball.

It was vaguely unnerving to see something so like a man. In the long-tailed macaques, you can see our facial expressions, mannerisms, and gestures. But you can see this, to some extent, in dogs, dolphins and Democrats too. Yet it doesn't make them seem human; you're merely reminded that we share certain traits.

The gibbon was something different. This was a person, all the more alien because it was so human. It seemed something undiscovered. Wise, by virtue of face and movement. I desperately want to see another...

But the real action came the next day, when we saddled up an Asian elephant named Big Egg, and rode her through the jungle to a hidden waterfall and swimming hole. Things were going, well, swimmingly until we got to the hole.

I had expected the elephant to be a little louder. You know: trumpeting, crashing through the undergrowth, stopping along the way to rip out banana trees by the root and devour them whole. Elephant things. I thought Big Egg would scare off all the wildlife for miles. (Or kilometers, rather. They do thing sin kilometers here). But Big Egg was quiet as a cat. We slipped up streams and along jungle trails noiselessly, save for Harper and my laughter.

Which may have been the problem...

When we reached the swimming hole, we dismounted on a Farang-dismounting platform and waddled down the stepts to pet the elephant like good little tourists. And then suddenly from above, CRASH! Then on the ground next to us, SMACK!

A cobra!

It moved towards us. Harper jumped on the platform, and I lept up on a rock. And then, Big Egg turned, stamped her feet, and made a short little yell. The snake turned and headed into a pile of wood.

And with that, it was gone.

Just in time, too, as Harper's perch broke and she came crashing down tot he ground (scraped up, but allright.) We went swimming, largely out of a feeling of obligation, but even here in Krabi I have not been able to quit looking overhead for cobras. The mahout thought we were very lucky to see a cobra. And I guess we were. (Maybe I deserve it for threatening to eat one.)

But in any case, something I learned was that Western pop-culture has completly short-circuited my thinking. Instead of hitting flight or fight mode, as I should have when the cobra hit the earth, all I could think of was The Simpsons episode when Homer has the night terrors.

"Ahhh! Cobras!"

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