16-Feb-2013 -- We were on a mission to get the two last remaining confluence points in Thailand, both of which were deep in the jungle. In a general sense this one seemed the easier of the two. The previous confluence hunters were able to get within 3 km of the point, and it was a region of national parks, waterfalls and somewhat nearby tourist towns with agencies, rentals and excursion options. The two ‘tourist’ towns are the famous Kanchanaburi and the less famous, Thom Pha Phum.
But this was to be an incredibly vexing confluence point with several aspects of difficulty, resulting in the confluence that has inflicted the most injury and damage of any confluence attempt I have made (and if you have read some of my previous attempts you know that we have had a few injuries, especially in the 30N90E attempt!)
When all was said and done, we had the following injuries:
- Torn ligament in shoulder requiring extensive surgery
- Skinned ankle
- Heat exhaustion
- Skinned knee
- Huge bump on other knee
And the following equipment damages or loss:
- Shredded pants
- Tear in shirt shoulder
- Lost machete
- Lost sunglasses
- Torn off compass cover
- Broken walking stick
- Tears in backpack
- Damaged drinking mechanism on Camelback water pouch
- $70 in damages to the exterior of a motorcycle (and that was a conservative estimate by the rental company)
The full attempt of this point was basically carried out in two trips as two attempts at the point (all of the damages, however, occurred during the second attempt).
Nataliya and I had been traveling for 3 months from northern Vietnam, including a confluence attempt there, and then on to Cambodia, Laos and finally Thailand, doing research for two of my new Earth Cubed adventure trips, called ‘In Search of the Mekong’ and ‘The Quest for the Lost Temple’.
Finally we were mostly finished with research and ready to tackle these confluence points. We thought it could help to take on a third partner, our friend Jason, who taught English in Thailand, spoke some Thai, had a car, knew the ins and outs of Thailand fairly well, and had experience with the outdoors, more specifically, even having worked for the US National Park Service in Yosemite. For outdoor pursuits, Jason had every little necessary device, clothing and equipment – so much, in fact, it was not unusual for him to need half an hour to organize his pack and then another half an hour to obtain the items.
Attempt #1/2 (Late January): Nataliya and I met Jason in a town near the Cambodian border, and then he drove us, sometimes at what to us seemed like ‘breakneck speeds’, at least for Thailand, to Kanchanaburi, the site of the famous bridge over the River Kwai, in west, central Thailand.
Although we had thought the local tour agencies could help us, the best they could do was get us a driver with a pick-up truck (Jason didn’t want to take his car on the bad roads which we realized later, was a good decision).
On our first attempt of this point we set out with our Thai driver and his shiny and clean but very macho-looking pick-up truck with big tires and impressive suspension. We didn’t realize it at this point, but we were set up for failure.
It took hours of driving on curvy dirt roads when, near nightfall, we reached a key village near the confluence, the village of Ban Kli Ti (‘Ban’ means ‘village’). We had packed a lot of food and hammocks with mosquito nets because we imagined, with no amenities, we would have to rough it and camp.
This set us up for a pleasant surprise when our driver pulled into a clustered group of bungalows that were exquisitely designed with running water and showers (albeit cold water), fresh towels, cooked food, a beautiful setting next to a river and a reasonable price. We were only about 10 km now from the confluence, and with such luxury?!
The owner surprisingly spoke English, and explained to us that the bungalows were primarily for monks, most of whom were Thai, but some of whom were foreign. They would come for the serene nature to pray, meditate and hike around the surrounding area.
We were to drive the remaining kilometers the next morning and to attempt a different approach to the confluence than the previous confluencers who were thwarted by four kilometers of extremely dense jungle. We had hypothesized an even a better approach by examining Google Maps which was to take the road further down and then walk along a river shore to a mountain ridge that would take us nearly directly to the confluence, hopefully avoiding that thick, terrible jungle.
The weather was good, and we were excited to close in on the remaining distance to a place we had until that point only seen on Google Maps views. As we neared the confluence point, the road went deeper into dense jungle vegetation. Bushes and trees encroached on the road and made the driving space narrower. What happened next perhaps we could have predicted.
The driver didn’t speak English, but he motioned that he didn’t want to go further in his truck. We were a bit shocked because the road did not really seem that bad. What it came down to was that he had an attractive black pick-up, and he didn’t want the branches from the forest scratching his car. Although Nataliya and I were a bit taken aback, Jason sympathized with the driver and anxiously ran around clearing thorny vegetation away from the sides of the vehicle. The rushed actions and the fact that he forgot to get his gloves resulted in him tearing a gash in his finger. Though his immediate reaction was to sympathize with the driver, he later expressed that he was also not happy with the driver’s decision.
This had all gone downhill on us. We had originally thought we would be given a 4-wheel-drive from the tourist agency. The driver’s apprehension may seem strange, but in Thailand, so we were told, the appearance of a vehicle is often more important than its performance, and, in fact, Thai people are very focused on how things look to other people.
We could have just gone on foot into the thick jungle at that point, only about a kilometer away from where the previous confluencers went. We sampled walking through a part of the jungle, but keeping in mind that the previous confluencers averaged “1 hour to move 400 meters,” we opted instead to go to the ranger station and see if they could better help us get to our preferred approach.
We drove back through Kli Ti and then about another 30 minutes to the ranger station with jurisdiction over these park areas. This also did not produce the results we had hoped for.
The rangers had irrational fears about us going there and the extent of the journey. There had been incidents in the past around Thailand where foreigners were trampled and killed by elephants and it seemed these highly sensational but rare events affected their fears, enough so that they didn’t even want to permit us to enter the jungle. Add to this the fact that the confluence point was just within the boundaries of a part of the jungle called Thong Yai, a nature preserve where technically people are not allowed in without a guide.
They left us with one last suggestion which was to go to Bangkok and apply for a permit to enter the region. Alas, we thought that this could be our best and only chance at successfully making it to the point. We left this remote region accepting our defeat, and decided to make the attempt another time soon.
Attempt #2/2 (3 Weeks Later): By this time, the game had completely changed. I had successfully gotten the other remaining land confluence in Thailand, 16N99E , so now a lot was at stake with this one the only one left in Thailand. We applied for the permits as the rangers had suggested, but after hanging around and waiting almost 2 weeks for a response, found out that they had been rejected without reason (see 16N99E story). However, 16N99E was also ‘in a nature preserve area’ but there were locals living within and walking around this area and we were never stopped and asked for permits.
Because so much time had passed, I lost my main confluence partner Nataliya who had to go back to Russia. I had to travel across a big swath of Thailand just to get from that confluence back to 15N99E, and as I was doing that and also getting my camera repaired, I scrambled to figure out how I could attempt it again.
I needed a partner and who else was there? Jason, of course! It turned out that he was very excited about the proposition of re-attempting it.
This time, we decided, it would be different. We would go in on our own transportation: Thai motorcycles which we would rent. I was to make my way to Kanchanaburi and meet Jason who had been traveling from his home in Korat, Thailand, this time by bus. He had three days he could take off from his job, so the first day we would get to the Kli Ti bungalows by motorcycle, the second day we would spend all day in pursuit of the confluence, and the third day we would head back.
We met on the afternoon of February 15th at the Kanchanaburi bus station. We didn’t realize it at this time, but we were already set up for disaster. We didn’t get to the bus station until about 1 PM (both of us were equally late by 1 or 2 hours and we arrived within 10 minutes of each other).
We had lunch, stocked up on food and went to rent motorcycles. Jason was an experienced motorcycle rider since he owned one at home. I was not nearly as familiar, and a little bit nervous about riding one across such long distances and on such bad roads. What we had ahead of us was daunting: 120 kilometers of highway and then 50 km or so in the wilds with mostly dirt roads.
We didn’t really jet off on our bikes until about 3:30, a bit of a frightening proposition since we had to make it to our bungalows that night in order to start the confluence hunt the next day. We knew we would be riding into the dark, but it didn’t seem like that would be a major hindrance.
Jason was comfortable driving very fast. On his motorcycle he tended to drive around 100-110 kph, which he said was normal, but seemed too fast for me. In Thailand, motorcycles almost always drive in the shoulder but other motorcycles, people and animals often dart out from the sides of the road – not to mention the strange objects, pot-holes and gravel in the shoulders. I was more comfortable at a maximum of around 90 kph.
Thom Pha Phum, the other town in the region and one we had visited on our last trip was about 100 km down the road and thus a major milestone. It had a few sites and was another launching off point to see the surrounding wilderness, but it ‘barely’ had the infrastructure to be a tourist town. Once we were there, though it was already becoming dark, we had to forge on. Other people warned us not to go onward and seemed to fear for our lives.
We had about 20 km more of dark mountainous highway riding before our turn off into the wild. We went deep into the mountains and the roads turned to dirt.
It was taking longer and longer to get there, and we weren’t even sure we would be able to find our hamlet of Kli Ti because our driver had previously done all the navigating. Occasionally we shined our headlights on small wooden signs that had some familiar town names written in English. The headlights, by the way, seemed to light up the road fine as long as not too much dust was being kicked up.
Suddenly Jason fell off his motorcycle onto the sharp gravel and rocks of the dirt road. I went back to see if he was ok. He had a badly skinned knee and a few other small scrapes. He was shaken up but he was ready to continue on.
We went on for another 10 km or so and Jason fell again! He was in a lot of pain. This time he had a huge bump on the other knee. It seemed to be happening on the downhills. I advised him not to use his front brake on the downhills.
Finally at 10:15 we made it to what we thought was Kli Ti. It was a bit hard to identify because it was not really a village, but a sort of clustering of a few houses, many of which seemed to have long ‘driveway’ roads to them.
It was painfully late, but not the end of the world. We were starving since we had planned to have the owner of the bungalows prepare his sumptuous cooked dinner for us when we arrived. He did not, however, have a telephone, mostly because Kli Ti was too remote and did not have cell coverage. We had had to contact him previously through another person to set up our reservation at the bungalows. We had no idea we would be this late and were just hoping someone would still be there and that we could find food somehow.
Our relief in finally arriving, however, was quickly spoiled by the fact that we could not at all FIND the bungalows. Previously our driver had driven us there down some seemingly random country roads which we thought we would be able to remember. Looking for it was like finding a needle in a haystack – but at night. What we did know was that the road to the bungalow had a bridge across a stream, so we kept searching all the roads that crossed the one stream in town.
We spent an HOUR AND A HALF searching for the bungalows but couldn’t find them. Midnight was approaching. Would we be able to even find them? If we did find them, would there be anyone there at this time? Would we be able to find the owner? We pretty much figured that there was no possibility of having dinner. As we were racing around on our motorcycles, somehow I lost Jason. And then I was alone. There was not even a sound of a motorcycle.
Suddenly I had what seemed to be an epiphany. Even though it had been 3 weeks, maybe the path we drove last time was still on my GPS, and I could find the bungalows from that? I got out my GPS, and not only that, but I had discovered what I had forgotten: that I had even marked the bungalows as a waypoint on the GPS. It seemed only minutes later that I found Jason. We quickly found the correct road and made a beeline for the bungalows.
Our problems were not over. We arrived at a bungalow complex that was completely dark in the black of night. We looked everywhere but there was not a soul in sight. Jason was digging through his bag for his headlamp. All the bungalows were locked and even though I climbed up on the back porches and tried those doors, they were all locked too. We were tired and hungry and it looked like we had nowhere to sleep.
Finally I climbed up on one of the porches and discovered that the outer door was open. But the next door, a screen door, was bolted shut. However, the bottom bolt had not been latched. I tried and could barely squeeze my head through the bottom corner of the door. Then I wiggled my shoulders through, and little by little pulled the rest of my body through – I was in! I opened the front door for Jason. The bungalow had perfectly-made beds and clean towels.
We ate dinner from our snacks, including dried instant noodles. Jason cleaned his wounds, bandaged himself up and re-packed his bags. It was a very late time to go to sleep and Jason said he needed to get enough hours of sleep so that the next day he would have energy, a decision I felt we should respect.
The Day of the Confluence Hunt. I woke Jason up at 7AM, much later than the ‘before-dawn’ approach we had planned. The evening’s problems had cost us valuable time but we were ready to attack the confluence despite all.
The owner had woken up, surprised to see us in one of the bungalows. He made us a hearty breakfast, Jason re-packed his bags again, and we were off at a relatively golden morning time of 8:45.
We rode our motorcycles down the same roads to beyond where the narcissistic pick-up driver had called it quits. What we had rehearsed over and over from Google Maps was that the road would veer north and, somewhat frighteningly for us, we would likely approach a manned gate to the Thong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary.
What actually happened was a complete surprise. There was no north road as indicated in Google Maps, and instead the road veered east and south! We kept on with it, but eventually it went too far south. We backtracked to the closest approach to the confluence which was a better-than-expected 3.9 kilometers. We had to abandon our initial plans of walking along the river shore and the mountain ridge and instead just had to forge through the jungle like the previous confluencers. Nevertheless, I had already established, from Google Maps, a ‘best possible jungle’ route.
We hid the motorcycles in the bushes and started into the thick jungle.
Jason and I were dressed very differently for the jungling occasion. Jason had a full long-sleeve shirt covered by a vest with lots of pockets. He had gators that protected against critters or vegetation, a brim hat, sunglasses (which he said were to protect his eyes from branches), gloves (this time), a facemask (which he said he needed because of his ongoing sinus infection), and a machete attached to his waist. He had a much bigger backpack than I but he said it was an ultralight. He also had a Camelback so that he could drink water as he walked.
I didn’t have much of anything. I was wearing a t-shirt and had no headware or faceware. I had sunglasses but discovered before the hike that I must have dropped them on the last stretch of our motorcycle ride. I had to hold my machete in my hand, and in the other hand I held my GPS and compass. I brought bottles of water which were actually difficult to grab from my poorly design Deuter daypack.
Though the jungle had a variety of trees, terrains and aesthetics, it’s not really worth getting into the nitty-gritty details of it. The beginning was hell with huge amounts of vegetation and thorns that had to constantly be sliced through with machetes, and after that we reached a plateau with open spaces that we so amiably gave the corny name ‘Plateau of Love’ on our GPS. We came upon a well-worn animal trail that took us to what we named ‘Rocky Ridge’.
It was as we were climbing ‘Rocky Ridge’ that Jason warned me he was “slow going up hills”, and this certainly was the case. But before too long we were headed down a long downhill valley. We had to start traversing up its north wall because it was taking us far too eastward.
It was on this somewhat steep wall of slippery leaves that Jason slipped and took several falls. We were about 20 meters apart from each other, and he told me after the fact that on one fall he was almost gored by splintered off, sharp bamboo sticks and that his gloves had saved him from “severe cuts”. Not only that but he lost his machete and the tumbles caused him extreme exhaustion. The falls had broken his spirit and he was audibly agonizing with each breath now.
In order to make it to the confluence on time, I knew we had to average about 1 km in progress per hour. But every hour we were falling further behind our target. We were now 2.6 km away from the confluence, it was 1 PM and we only had until 2:30 before our ‘turnaround’ time to make it back before dark. I was hoping that soon we would get a new viewpoint on an area that I was very curious about – a region on Google Maps that appeared browner for some unknown reason. Was it not as vegetated there and therefore easier to walk?
However, Jason had been too exhausted by the leafy slope. He said he was feeling sick and dizzy and that he needed to eat lunch. Already emboldened by my last confluence attempt, I was prepared to not eat anything until we successfully reached the confluence. But tending to Jason certainly seemed more important.
Not long after, he said that he didn’t think he could go any further. He may have had heat exhaustion, dehydration or both. We ate lunch, and he drank a big packet of liquid electrolytes which he said made him feel a lot better.
Hoping he had improved I inquired again but it was a negative. Jason was in bad shape. We documented our closest approach to the confluence in a forest stand of bamboo at 2.56 km. We had only walked about 2 km in distance through the jungle as the crow flies. We had never had a chance to discover what that ‘brown’ region was.
Coming back from our attempt is worth mentioning because it was a considerable ordeal and misadventure. Little did we know, it was fortunate we turned back when we did. In fact, as early as it seemed, it already too late considering what we would encounter.
All the ‘downhill’ we had climbed down naturally became ‘uphill’ and it was about a 200 meter climb. We started heading back just before 2:00 but because of the hill it really took us a long time. Jason really struggled in here and it was apparent that he was seriously out of shape. His speed did not often break from ‘standstill’ as he huffed and puffed with more agonized breathing. We were in serious trouble!
As the sun got low on the horizon and the late afternoon waned we seriously faced the prospect of being stuck in the jungle at night – a situation neither Jason or I had any idea how to cope with.
I tried to take a more direct route back but this brought on even more problems. The summit had difficult rocks to scale and turned out to be a false summit. We somehow became lost in a different valley that was not familiar to us.
We were never able to make it to ‘Rocky Ridge’ and instead found ourselves tackling a double rocky ridge of precarious rocks. Jason was at the point where he could barely even walk up a slight pitch. It was pure hell for him and fear for me.
Keeping in mind that sunset was at 6:30, it wasn’t until 5:00 that we made it to the top of the second summit. Another 30 or 40 minutes later we thankfully made it to ‘Plateau of Love’ which certainly was a feeling of love but our anxiety was still too great to savor it.
Although Jason didn’t clearly remember it (and didn’t want to), the last portion involved a climb of another approximately 100 meters through 600 meters of thick, bushy, thorny vegetation hell.
Instead of heading straight in the direction back to the motorcycles, I decided to follow the contour of the mountain around and hope that it could ease the pain of movement even slightly.
Jason was moaning, couldn’t move and almost passed out several times. The jungle started to get dark and it was harder to see. The vines and thorns were so intense that my nylon pants which had already started to develop a few large tears, became shredded and I was walking through the jungle down to my boxer shorts.
At 6 PM we were about 370 meters away from our motorcycles – again, it doesn’t seem like much, but our pace was near nil. As Jason struggled, we passed through 100 meter mark by 100 meter mark. In near darkness we approached 180 meters away from our destination.
Suddenly I noticed something unusual. Through a thicket in the trees I made out a path – to my elation it was our road, and we had intersected it earlier than expected. In the dusk light we made it back down the road to the motorcycles – it was 6:30PM – the time of sunset.
While riding back we made a futile search for my dropped sunglasses. About 45 minutes or an hour later we were in for another shocker. Jason made a critical mistake while riding his motorcycle and fell again. This time the road rash was less, but the injury was more serious. He told me immediately that he thought he seriously injured his shoulder, and then he showed it to me. You could see where the bone had come out of place as if it was dislocated. He was in pain but not excruciating pain. We would find out later that he had torn a ligament and would need surgery.
At one point my motorcycle went through an area of large boulder-cobbles and flipped over but I didn’t fall or hurt myself luckily. The motorcycle wouldn’t start for about an hour because of the fall and we eventually made it back to our bungalows but with a lot of difficulty.
The next day, still on our way back, brought even more misfortune and surprises! We had to get Jason to a hospital to put his shoulder back into socket. Jason rode his motorcycle with his injured arm, and I had to travel around everywhere with torn pants and my boxer shorts hanging out! As we were riding back an injured Jason fell of his motorcycle yet again!
After getting lost, and after even further effort, we finally made it to Thom Pha Phum to get Jason to the hospital. While he went in, I went shopping for new pants but had to walk through town with everyone staring at me. I was relieved to finally find a pair of shorts which I quickly bought!
They wouldn’t fix Jason’s shoulder and it was starting to get dark so I thought it might be too dangerous for us to ride down the remaining 100 kilometers of highway. Jason, however, had to be at work the next day, so in the end we decided to pay someone to take us and our motorcycles back to Kanchanaburi in a pick-up truck.
Jason’s motorcycle was so bent up, dinged and scratched from all the falls that we were worried about taking it back to the rental agency in Kanchanaburi. Surprisingly the rental salespeople did not notice the problems with the bike, likely because of the darkness. Nevertheless, once Jason was back at my hotel, they tracked him down and extracted a fee of 2100 Baht ($70) for damages, a modest fee considering what had happened.
Jason left for his home in Korat in the wee hours of the next morning. When he got to the doctor they decided to operate on his shoulder. He is still recovering from the surgery and just had metal plates removed.