11-Feb-2013 -- We were completely down on our luck and, really, all of our last options had dried up. We had come to Thailand to complete its last remaining land confluences and it appeared we had failed in our mission.
One degree of latitude to the south, 15°N 99°E visit #3, seemed the much easier of the confluences because there were abundant roads, tourist sites and villages. When we looked at the final circumstances as to why we failed in this attempt, it came down to the facts that our Thai driver didn’t want to scratch his jeep, and the Thai park rangers thought that anything mixing the two words ‘foreigner’ and ‘wild-nature’ meant someone would probably die and they would get fired.
Upon leaving that attempt, the rangers who seemed to only have bad news, did in fact give us one, last remaining glimmer of hope. They told us to head to Bangkok and find the Department of National Parks (DNP), which we did, and submit a permit to visit the wildlife sanctuary, which we did. We thought we would need these for both confluence points, 15N99E and 16N99E since they were both in wildlife sanctuaries. The authorities there helped us to properly fill out and stamp all the forms, accepted them and then told us to wait 10 business days…
We waited what seemed to be the lifetime of a large, warm-blooded animal. Thai visas, when entering by land, expire in 2 weeks, so I had to leave for Myanmar. Nataliya, my main confluence hunting partner, and I did more tour research in the jungles of Khao Yai, then Nataliya went to explore Bangkok and I went to an island to hang out. Just waiting.
After all that waiting, we finally got the news: our permit was denied! My contacts at the DNP would not even let me talk to the staff there for a fuller explanation.
What does one do at this point? More than a month previous to this moment Nataliya and I made rigorous plans to get Thailand’s last remaining confluences. After waiting for the permits, her time was running out and she would soon have to fly back to Russia: on February 13th. I needed her as a confluence partner, and I told her that if we found any last-minute opportunities I would pay the large fee for her to change her plane ticket. But really I was now flogging a dead horse and these types of options had already fallen by the wayside.
Disillusioned, I decided that at least I could go up to 16N99E, the confluence I had not yet approached, and just check out things and gather information. I also had the attitude, frustrated by the bureaucracy and lack of cooperation from park officials, “you know, if I get a chance, I’m going in, permit or no permit.”
From the Google Maps photos this confluence appears to be deep within jungle. Instead of the 3 to 4 kilometers of jungle that had to be penetrated for 15N99E, this one had 6-8 kilometers of mountainous, apparently impenetrable, jungle.
The closest sizable village to it is Umphang, about 15-20 kilometers from the confluence as the crow flies. The area around Umphang is considered a jungle paradise of mountains, waterfalls, elephants and Karen ethnic villages, hidden from the rest of Thailand, deep within an inaccessible region. To the south of Umphang are protected nature preserves for nearly 100 kilometers and no roads; to the west the Myanmar border is not far away with, again, jungle and no roads; to the east is a mountainous swath of jungle of 60-100 km separating it with Kamphaeng Phet. A 4-hour long north winding road through mountains supplies the only access to Umphang, and it only connects it with a relatively remote East-West road to a small city on the Myanmar border.
So, needless to say, not many people visit Umphang because of the time and effort to get there. It took us about 2 1/2 long days of public transportation to get to Umphang.
We found a relaxed village with few amenities, but with charm, enough restaurants and guesthouses, Thai ‘adventure’ tourists and even a trickle of foreign backpackers. According to the Lonely Planet there were quite a few tour agencies that “could arrange a trip to just about anywhere.” We were just hoping they might be able to help us with information, transportation, or possibly even a guide. According to the book, only about the first 3 listed appeared to be useful resources with English speakers. The local Karen people use elephants to get around and through the jungle so we were seriously thinking of possibly riding them for transportation.
As soon as we arrived in Umphang, Natie and I walked around town and tried to visit those agencies that seemed the most promising. We had Google Maps printouts with satellite views and ones showing only roads.
As well-equipped we were with information, we had no luck. No one could understand because the agencies mostly did standard trips. Even though some of the agents knew the region well, they didn’t understand maps of the region. They were also very confused by scale even though we drew distances onto our maps. The only maps they ever used were very stylized, not-to-scale, cartoon maps of the region. We got a lot of incorrect locations, mis-information, and nobody could really figure out where we wanted to go.
The next day Natie took off on an excursion to explore the local waterfalls and the surrounding region. I stayed back to try to talk to a few more people, but really I had run out of options. Discouraged and jaded, I was making plans for heading back to Bangkok and working on my company, Earth Cubed, instead.
As I was walking down a street at the outskirts of the village, I passed a little, run-down guesthouse called ‘Napha’. The previous day Natie had asked if we should try it, but I told her we shouldn’t waste out time with places where they can’t speak English. But then it occurred to me that this place was mentioned in the Lonely Planet, only that they called it ‘Napa’ so it hadn’t ‘clicked’. It was near the bottom of the LP’s suggestions, and it seemed doubtful they would have much information or even speak English. Nonetheless, with nothing to lose I decided to try it.
No one was there, I could only reach the owner by phone, and she was only able to meet me the next day. That next day Natie, myself and the woman whose name was Napha, met up.
To our surprise she thought she knew where we were talking about. More precisely, she didn’t really know where we were talking about, but she only had one connection in the area, and it seemed like it, coincidentally, could be where we wanted to go. It was still a hunch and we didn’t really have a complete set of information to go on.
When you look at the Google Maps images there is a clustering of small roads, houses and farms at the 6-8 kilometer-away approach to the confluence. This place had no apparent name from Google Maps, and we didn’t even think it was so much as a village. Napha had been talking about a Karen village that seemed to be in the approximate direction (somewhere approximately east to southeast from Umphang), that fit the description of following the river we saw on the map, and that was approximately the same distance away that was shown on the map. She called it ‘Umphang Kee’ and she thought that she might even know a guy there who ‘might’ be able to be a guide. We decided from our conversation that we might as well check this place out.
Napha told us she could drive us there the next day. Natie only had one day left before she had to leave. We figured that she at least had enough time to check out this village, but then she would have to leave.
We headed off in Napha’s pick-up truck down a road that started out paved and turned into a dirt road. It had many twists and turns and went up and down steep hills. We followed the route anxiously with our GPS, hoping that we might actually be headed to the right place.
After only about a 30-minute drive, we arrived in Umphang Kee, a place with attractive stilt houses, gardens, neat dirt-road streets and even a local elementary school. I got out, still trying to make sense of my GPS.
This was it! This had to be that small cluster of houses and streets closest to the confluence. It was only 6.6 kilometers away from the confluence in the correct direction. Luck and coincidences had brought us here. Getting to the confluence, however, through 6.6 kilometers of thick, virgin jungle was another story.
Napha introduced us to some children to walk us around the village. When we came back, she introduced us to a man of short stature, about 30 years old, named Dit Ley to whom she wanted us to explain where we wanted to go.
He didn’t speak English, but Napha translated for us. I showed him the Google Maps and explained what this point was and what we wanted to do. I explained it as a kind of geographical survey where there was nothing special there and that we would have to go way out of the way through difficult terrain.
To my elation, he said ‘yes’, he could take me there. It’s exactly what I needed, a local Karen guy who was an expert in the region. But he, and Napha, kind of ‘missed the boat’ on the confluence idea. They could not get around the fact that this was not a tour, and they wanted to design it as beautiful excursion into the Umphang Karen minority jungles!
He explained that I would stay overnight in their typical Karen house, and that on the day of the confluence hunt, for lunch, we would use a traditional Karen way of capturing fish in the stream and then we would eat them for lunch. He said we would leave at 7AM and that we would probably be able to leisurely get back at 2 or 3 in the afternoon – “an easy afternoon excursion”. There would be a price, but Napha did not want to say the price and instead said it would not be significant and would be a “cheaper than typical” price. Problems arose later about this but it is a subject which I neglect to go into any further detail in this story.
“No, please tell him we will need every bit of daylight, and that we should leave at 6:30AM at the latest. This could be a very difficult hike, and could take all day,” I said, which Napha translated but there was no clear change in attitude.
Not too long after, it was time to say goodbye to Natie and Napha. There would now be no one left who speaks English. I had been traveling with Natie for three months and it wasn’t clear when or where I would see her again. She was my real partner in all of these efforts. We somewhat sadly said goodbye and Natie and Napha drove away in her truck. I felt very alone at this point.
I went back to the Karen house, a wooden structure of giant logs propped up on stilts with one large open room in the interior.
Though the house was traditional, there were some very modern structures around. Trucks full of corn grain would regularly pull into a sort of weigh-station they had there with a digital readout. Then they would either dump or pick-up corn grain in an area of huge piles enclosed on three sides. Trucks would often return to the weigh-station to measure before and after weights. All around the drive-through area there were nice, brand new pick-up trucks, and inside the house they had a big TV. Could it be that this family was running a big and successful business?
Back in the house I couldn’t help but feel like a stranger and an outsider. There was a large family consisting mostly of young girls of various ages and a few boys who were mostly younger than 12. I gave the boys some colorful light-up balls and tried to be a friendly guest. There was still an awkwardness. They made me dinner and gave me a place to sleep.
The Day of the Confluence Hunt. The next morning I had set my alarms to wake up before dawn. I was ready in time to leave at 6:30, the break of daylight, but by this time almost no one had woken up and breakfast had not yet been made.
There were quite a few preparations and I had to convince them to boil water for me (because the Karen typically take their water directly from rivers without boiling). I waited and waited for Dit Ley but by the time we were ready to go it was already 7:45.
If it wasn’t already obvious that Dit Ley thought this would be a walk in the park, as we departed I was surprised to find that a six-year-old boy (his son?) and two dogs were joining us on our confluence hunt!
According to Google Maps, the approach seemed as follows: Follow a main, curvy stream for about 4 kilometers as the crow flies, and then turn right onto a smaller stream tributary and follow it for about 2 kilometers as the crow flies, after which the confluence is nearby, up a mountain of thick jungle.
For the first one or two kilometers we took well-worn roads more or less in the direction of the confluence. We passed several old wooden houses around which were strewn piles of ‘used’ corn cobs – could these be the origin of the piles of kernels we saw at the house?
We were headed up the valley of the first and larger stream. Dit Ley had told me through Napha we would have to cross the stream many times. This stream was nearly a river and, though I couldn’t translate the Karen, I had inferred that it was the Umphang River, a draw for many tourists to Umphang Kee village during the autumn rainy season in order to raft the river.
We still had about 4 kilometers, as the crow flies, down the main stream, which, since it meandered all over the place, resulted in a long distance. In a more wooded area, the first few crossings of the stream were by makeshift bridges made of large bamboo poles tied together with higher poles placed for balance. It was a bit like doing a tightrope walk and the poor dogs slipped and struggled.
Then the wading started. Back and forth we had to cross this stream because the valley was narrow and the little room on either side was often cut off by cliff-sides. I had convertible nylon pants – helpful for the wading, although the water depth often went right up to my pockets and started encroaching on the crucial electronics within them.
Dit Ley first showed off his jungling skills by hacking off a tree branch with his machete and giving it to me to use as a walking stick for crossing a stream that had a considerable current and a slippery rock bottom. For me, however, the walking stick was more of a nuisance than anything. I preferred to use my right hand to follow the GPS, and I inconspicuously ditched the stick.
I had flip-flops for the stream, but between crossings we often had brief jungle treks for which I switched to hiking shoes. In the end it was just too troublesome and I opted to just continue to wear the flip-flops through the thick vegetation of the jungle, which was hopefully void of snakes and lethal insects.
There was a lot of pressure to keep moving. A natural in the wild, Dit Ley was fast and agile on his feet. Even though I am a skilled hiker, have good balance, and would think I was fairly fast, I could not keep up with him. And he would almost never look back. Obviously there was the language barrier, but there also seemed to be little care or rapport.
Maybe I had come off as pretentious with the confluence-hunt stuff. Maybe he didn’t like that I ditched his walking stick. Maybe he just had an indifferent personality.
There would be times where I would flail and fall over but he would not even turn around. He would often keep going ahead of me until he was out of sight, and I would have a difficult time figuring out where he actually went. I could have perished and it seems he would not have noticed.
River crossing after river crossing started to take a toll. The young boy started having trouble and was practically crying. The guide carried him a few times. The dogs were real troopers and didn’t mind swimming and being pulled down-current time after time.
The water encroached on my pockets and eventually soaked most of my map and part of my notepad. Two times during the trip, one of my flip flops was torn off by the current and started floating downstream. Both times I ran and flailed over rocks to try to intercept it, but the current was too fast. I yelled but Dit Ley didn’t pay attention. I kept yelling, “Hey, hey!” and he just stood there and looked. Maybe it took him some time to realize what had happened. In both cases eventually he did help me and ran after it, deftly retrieving it without problem. Perhaps I just seemed like a pathetic outdoors man to him.
Along the river we saw a few exotic birds, heard monkeys, and saw elephant dung. At one point there was an especially sulfuric, stinky trickle of a spring.
One particularly ‘creepy’ creature I had come across in Thailand is the daddy-long-legs spider (harvestman spider). Daddy-long-legs in other parts of the world such as the US have a diameter of about a silver dollar at the most. And I had an experience once in Arizona where one bit me in the toe when I was walking in a stream. But in the Thailand jungle they all seem to be about softball-diameter and hugely long-legged.
Walking along this river I had something of an ‘Indiana Jones’ moment with such spiders. I was following the guide under some thick, low trees where we had to hug a rocky cliff bank at the stream’s edge to prevent ourselves from falling in. However, as I was about to do this I noticed that the entire rock face was teaming with these huge soft-ball-sized spiders. Maybe there were 1000 of them. They were everywhere, and certainly every place you would need to put your hands to hold on. Perhaps the guide didn’t notice them – or just didn’t care. The boy also must have gone through them. In order to keep up with the guide, I just decided to suck it up and dip my hands into the spiders – but as quickly as possible – I did it and dashed out, fortunately without incident.
According to my GPS and my now soggy, blurred map, we estimated that we should be getting close to the tributary that would take us to the confluence. I was hoping we hadn’t unknowingly passed the tributary, which as far as we knew could have been of any size.
After a few more crossings we came upon a group of three elderly Karin men walking the opposite direction. The wrinkly men smiled a lot, had homemade clothes and cinch-packs. They all had thick tattoo designs on their upper legs so that it almost appeared as if they were wearing shorts. Dit Ley stopped and spoke to them for awhile. For at least some of the conversation it seemed they may have been talking about the whereabouts of the tributary. The many river crossings been too much for the small boy to handle, and Dit Ley arranged for the men to take him back to the village. It was now just us and the dogs.
Dit Ley seemed to indicate that he knew the tributary was a bit further and finally at 2.06 km from the confluence, we reached the tributary – certainly a much smaller stream than what we had been on, but seemingly walkable, and upon first sight there was a beautiful waterfall.
In ironic contrast to the surrounding beauty, it was at this point that my camera completely failed, likely from too much stream water getting through to my pocket. Confluence seekers know that this is often a ‘death-blow’ to a confluence hunt. I was admittedly upset about the destruction of my camera, but fortunately I always travel with a backup camera, and this time my iphone was my backup camera.
Dit Ley said the waterfall was impassible so we headed up the hill a bit and there was actually a trail! (See, it does save you time to have local knowledge!) It wasn’t long though before Dit Ley left the trail and made a beeline into the jungle. Soon we were back to the stream again. Surprisingly, in comparison to confluencing with other local people around the world, Dit Ley seemed as if he understood the concept of getting to an exact but insignificant location.
The walk along this smaller stream was a mix of stream walking and jungle, though the jungle was more impassible. Dit Ley got out his machete and started hacking away so that we could move forward. It was extremely slow moving and seemed even slower than it had to be.
Through gestures I asked Dit Ley why we didn’t just walk in the stream. He indicated that at times we would be up to our necks in the water, and it certainly seemed it could be the case. The stream turned into a gorge further up with cliff walls and deep churns of rushing water. There were a few cases where we had to scale some rock faces and balance on sloped slippery logs - activities I imagine gorge abseilers doing.
The hiking, jungling and stream walking got rougher and rougher. This confluence hike seemed a little like Zeno’s Paradox – the closer we got to it, the slower the going was and the more it seemed like we weren’t going to reach it without a lot of effort. We passed our ‘turn-around’ time for beginning our trip back. Dit Ley wanted to eat lunch (which we had packed in), but I told him that we must forge on. 800 meters away seemed especially rough, and it seemed we were forever in the 400-something meter range hacking away on steep jungle hillsides. The dogs were real troopers and somehow made it through all of this.
The actual confluence point was a few hundred meters up a steep hill-slope from the tributary stream. Dit Ley, seeming to have a knack for how to approach the confluence suggested heading up the hill-slope early-on instead of continuing down the river below it.
It was thick hacking through the jungle, and a lot of going back and forth to home in on the point (probably because of tree canopy satellite issues), but, somewhat astonishingly to me, after all the unlikelihood, we actually reached the confluence.
At the actual confluence there were thick bamboo trees (among other trees) which we had seen on and off throughout the jungle. It was a steep forested slope – as seems to be typical in many of my confluence hunts. Soon after I documented the confluence we saw monkeys whooping and swinging around in the strangler fig trees. It was about 2:25 PM. It was finally time to have a confluence lunch watching confluence monkeys.
Since we were way later than our turn-back time, I knew it was going to be a challenge getting back before dark. You can’t say that I hadn’t warned Dit Ley. I was mostly just grateful that he had pressed on even after our turn-back time of around noon and I was less concerned with the upcoming difficulties we might face.
He decided to head up the hill/ridge to the top and work our way down the backbone of the ridge. This turned out to be very time-consuming. There was no trail, we had to move in a direction perpendicular to our way back, and the jungle was thick and full of thorned vines. It was difficult-going for a few kilometers! Finally we reached a terrace that Dit Ley told me was the old road that used to exist between Umphang and Kampaeng Phet – two places today that are unconnected today except by a roundabout way going 100’s of kilometers. Judging by the overgrowth, the road must not have been used for decades – who knows how long ago. At first it was a relief to find the terrace, but it turned out to be so overgrown that it was not much of an improvement. Not long after, the road stopped (for some unknown reason) and we were back to hacking our way through virgin jungle. To our relief, eventually we found the trail that we had used in the beginning of the way to the tributary. The rest of the way we traced our original path crossing and re-crossing the river.
There was no capturing fish for lunch, and there was no finishing at 2 or 3. Eventually at 6:30 PM the sun went down, and we finished our trek just at 7PM. There also had been no tarnished jeeps, no park rangers, no confluence partner and no permits necessary.
Of all the lack of any expectation to get to this confluence and then the subsequent coincidences and beating of the odds of getting there, this was truly a remarkable success.