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 Time out in the forest

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BerichtOnderwerp: Time out in the forest   za dec 13, 2014 11:33 am

Uit The Nation, een leuk idee voor een volgende trip in de buurt.

NONG KHAI: -- A village in the Northeast province of Nong Khai introduces an eco-adventure tour that includes a meal in the jungle

If Nong Khai is known to foreign tourists, then it is probably for its Naga Fireball festival, which takes place at the end of the Buddhist rains retreat every year in Phon Pisai district during which glowing balls naturally rise from the water high into the air. Those travelling by road will see glimpses of this northernmost of the northeastern provinces as they head to the ThaiLao Friendship bridge on their way to Vientiane.

Locals and expats sometimes head too to Phu Huay Ei San Hill in Sangkhom district in winter to admire the sea of fog that hovers as the sun rises. But Sangkhom now has another attraction to offer visitors: a tropical ecotourism and adventure tour called "kin khao pa", which literally means having a meal in the jungle.

Narin Ananthawan, who is serving his second term as headman of Khiri Wong Kot Village, says this tour was actually created back in 2007 using eight farm tractors, known locally as "etaek", that had been modified by adding two more wheels and a steering wheel. It didn't do too well initially, Narin adds, mainly because no one knew about it, though it did manage to draw a few tourists.

That all changed in August this year when the tour was introduced to a wider public on Channel 7's "@ MoChit" programme and Narin followed up by promoting it on Facebook.

The "jungle" is in fact a tropical rainforest with brooks and lots of trees that sits on the edge of the villagers' paddy fields. It's prone to flash flooding and was particularly badly hit by seven years ago. Although the province helped the villagers remove the washedup materials from the wetlands and dig waterways, it could do nothing to alleviate the flash floods.

"We turned crisis into opportunity, turning the waterways damaged by flash floods into a tourist route accessible by etaek long kaeng [etaek rafts]," says Narin.

Today there are two tourist routes: one leads from the Khiri Wong Health Promotion Hospital to Huay Chang Plai Waterfall - a distance of 3.3 kilometres - and the other to Huay Prang Waterfall - 3 km in the tractor and another 1km on foot. The second route is proving popular with tourists who like the idea of eating the "poo hin" (spiny rock crab), which are numerous in July, August and September.

"Both two tourist routes have their own atmosphere. Huay Prang is shady all the time because of being in the rainforest," the headman says. "We don't suggest that tourists come in the dry season, because the rubber trees die off after budding so the landscape isn't at its best. The best time to come is during the rainy season and the winter. The winter's probably best because visitors can see the sea of fog, taste our strawberries and join the 'kin khao pa'."

We take Narin's recommendation and head to Huay Chang Plai Waterfall for a jungle lunch.

Our modified farm tractors pass through the village as they move towards the forest pathway. Sitting on a mat spread over the wooden surface of the tractors is easier than it sounds and we clutch the handrail tightly as we bounce over the potholed path. The tractor bravely makes it way up and down small hills and doubles as a raft as it runs through streams. It's hot and slightly muggy in the forest but we nonetheless appreciate the greenery and the wildflowers.

Before too long we arrive at the waterfall and kill time taking pictures until lunch is ready. We're divided into small groups and sit down on mats ready to tuck into sticky rice, roasted chicken wings, grilled fish, som tam and tom yam kai (spicy chicken soup). Both the utensils and the cutlery are made of bamboo.

"Usually, 'kin khao pa' includes a demonstration of how to cook rice and chicken soup in a bamboo flask, and tourists sit on banana leaves rather than a mat," says Narin.

"From here you can walk up the hill and take a photo from the top. It's not far, only one kilometre, and you can have fun playing in the waterfall too. We'll drive up and pick you up at the top."

Our route on the way back takes us past fields and Narin tells us that plans are afoot to plant flowers, add a sign pointing to the waterfall and build restrooms.

Right now, the project has eight modified farm tractors, each of which can safely carry a maximum of seven passengers. Tourists can choose from three price options: Bt400 per tractor including a water bottle, Bt300 per person including the "kin khao pa" meal and Bt900 per person with three meals including the "kin khao pa".

"Those paying Bt900 can choose between offering alms to monks or taking in the sea of fog on the mountain while sipping coffee. On return from the 'kin khao pa', they will be served a meal, take part in the Thai blessing ceremony and enjoy a nap at a homestay," Narin says.
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