And this week, I was up for the Forestry Conservation project in central Thailand, planting trees and digging holes. I was a bit scared.
Forestry Conservation project means doing field work in a protected park, while surrounded by mountain views. The goal is to help conserve Khao Yai National park; a massive reserve covering part of four provinces in Thailand. Deforestation hasn’t happened here since the 90’s and it’s key to keep it that way. In my head, I had built the idea that we were going to break our backs working in the burning sun for 8 hours every day. Yeah, that wasn’t true.
On Monday, nine of us headed to the location, with a swimming break at a waterfall for lunch. We found that the Greenway Forest View resort (nice name huh) is located in the lush surroundings of Wang Nam Khiao. I’m talking smack in the middle of a bunch of mountains. Better yet: it’s build on top of a sloping hill overlooking the entire valley. It’s a large property with bedrooms hidden between the trees here and there. I stepped over the gardener’s lazy labrador, who was guarding my building and checked out my room. There’s a book about Buddhism on my desk and another about basic meditation. Nice. I go to sleep with my curtains open and as soon as I wake up in the morning, the mountains are staring at me. I can get used to this.
Little did I know, this was a preview of what we were going to see on other days. The coordinator called the region “the Switzerland of Thailand” and I did feel like I was in Southern Europe a few times. There’s so much more to Thailand than beaches. The government allows some farms to exist here, so it’s not only green that you see. Most mountains are partly a shade of red from the soil they have here. You can check out tractors defying gravity by riding up a hill in basically full vertical position. Madness. You don’t need to get your kicks on a racetrack when you can become a Thai farmer.
Off to work! First day, we were a bit unlucky. It had rained a lot during the night, which meant the road to the rangers’ post would be muddy and a bit unsafe to drive on. It’s not a big deal, because we would be planting fruit trees around the area of the resort instead. It’s July in Thailand, which is the start of the rainy season. The name implies that’s it’s pouring down all day, but that doesn’t happen often. If it does rain, it’s generally a short shower in the afternoon, so you just work around it. Most days are dry with a few clouds. I don’t mind it, because it keeps the temperature down, but granted: you can be unlucky.
The other days were better. In the morning, we’d drive up to one of the ranger’s posts, located on a hill. Girls, wear your sports bra, because it’s a short yet bumpy ride. One side of the outpost shows red farmland as far as the eye can see. The other side is hilly terrain where you can spot gaurs (also known as the Indian bison). It’s where you start the day, end it and have a picnic lunch in between. The ranger pulled out a large telescope to zoom in on a baby gaur drinking from it’s mother. While driving back later that day, we found a large specimen walking in front of our truck. Badass.
Most field work is done around this same area. You’d walk up a neighboring hill with a mango tree in each hand. It’s a simple job: dig a hole, plant a tree, tie a stick next to it and come back a few years later to see a forest. Whenever you’re tired, you’re encouraged to take a break. This is Thailand, remember? Have some water, relax. The workout that I was so afraid of, turned out to be very manageable. The task never took too long. Another job was to cut out grass, weeds and small trees on the campground. It doesn’t make you tired, just a little sweaty from humidity at times. We made the place all pretty for new visitors to set up camp.
My favorite task was making a salt lick. A what now? A salt lick. It’s a patch of soil filled with minerals. Wild animals come here to munch away to supplement their diets with nutrients and get all nice and healthy. We hiked up past two lakes to a few spots that bulls often go to. The ranger explained that the bulls can smell the salt from a distance. First, you chop away with your tools on the patch of dirt, making sure the soil is loose. We stood in a circle, chopping away in a rhythm like railroad workers, trying not to hit each other with our tools. Which was funny, hence I liked it. Meanwhile, a second group was crumbling up a block of sodium into small pieces. You mix that into the soil with tons of salt and boom; a salt lick is born.
On the final day, we planted our last tree (I named it Carolien) and did several activities. Besides the regular picnic lunch, we visited a mushroom farm and a pretty stellar viewpoint in the area. My favorite activity was the jungle trek. Yes, lazy old me loved it. The ranger got us lost, so I now have mud in places it shouldn’t be. The one hour trek ended up being about 2.5 hours, but I was pretty pleased with that. Adventuuuure! The hike wasn’t insanely difficult, but mostly about maneuvering past rocks, tree roots and not getting your shoe stuck in the swamp. Most participants grabbed a stick to walk around like Nordic walkers gone extreme, using it to push back bushes so that the rest could pass easily. Everyone made sure to warn the people in the back which bush was sharp or where there was a slippery area. It turned into somewhat of a team building activity. I vowed to cut off my hair after getting it stuck in a bush seven times, but there’s was always someone behind me willing to untangle me.