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February 19, 2013

Snapshot from Chieow Laan Lake, Thailand

A jungle night is not quiet and the grey dawn was a rude awakening after a night of laying, late, beneath an ebony sky, drowning in the silver specks that pepper the universe. I wonder what we look like from light years away? We lay on the dock and watched for the last remnants of the Leonid meteor shower. We’ve watched it for years from wherever late fall finds us. Every year we tell the story of how Ezra thought, when he was three, that it was the Leonid “meat-eater” shower and was terrified that the universe would begin raining dinosaurs on our back yard.

“Look at the stars… look how they shine for you…” Hannah sang softly. Some of the travelers joined her. There was laughing and stories were swapped as Venus rose, like a diamond, above the jagged ink black wall of cliff that lines the lake. We’ve only seen stars like this a couple of times on our travels: deep in the jungle at Tikal, and on the cold dark sands of the Sahara. In the darkness the lake’s inky black mirrored the sky and the stars twinkled below, as well as above us.

Chieow Laan Lake is man made. Hydro-electric dams were built in 1982 and an enormous valley was flooded and a spider web of narrow inlets and deep crevasses were formed to create an unnatural wonder in the mountains of south western Thailand. It’s inside Koh Sak National Park, which was created to stop logging and protect the animal populations from poachers. The villages that dotted the valleys were relocated, land was granted and exclusive fishing rights to the lake designated to the original inhabitants.

For the few folks who take the time to find their way to the handful of raft house and tree-top eco-resorts on the lake, the reward is paid out in bird song and gibbon voices, insect drone and the occasional splash of lazy fish, breaking the surface. There are about ten villages with 20-30 bamboo houses each. Some newer ones are being built atop floating drums instead. There’s no fear of the lake being overcome with resorts like so many other places because development is tightly controlled by the government and the building can’t take place on land. It takes about an hour, from the pier on the dam, to the raft village we stayed at, by long tail boat. Long tail boats are classically Thai. They’re wooden boats with what look like car engines retrofitted with a long shaft propellor. Skimming across the surface of a flat calm lake they remind me of the tip of a cattail reed being along at an alarming rate by an angry dragonfly. It’s all fun and games until a dragonfly loses a prop; it dropped straight off the shaft, unrecoverable in the deep blue. Our boat and one other pulled alongside and while the men made the repair I noticed how very like drawings in a Dr. Seuss book the islands of Cheow Lan lake look. I almost expected to see a Lorax swinging with the monkeys between the trees.

Dawn breaks grey between the limestone cliffs, with mist trapped like cream in a tea cup until the sun’s long fingers stir it from the water’s surface, painting the world in blues that breathe and living greens. We took our tea cups into the boat and slipped out between the islands in search of wildlife before breakfast. There are wild elephants, two types of rhinoceros, tapir, monkeys of several varieties and a rainbow of birds that are protected within the national park, among many other things that we held our breath in the mist, hoping for a glimpse of.

The children whispered as we added Macaque monkeys to our list of primates seen in the wild. Two toucans, enormous ones, not the smaller ones like we saw at Tikal, swooped on black wings with sunlit yellow centers, like living stained glass windows to a branch above our heads. We listened as they talked; their deep, “Awk-Awk… Awk” echoed off of the cliffs around us four times, fading into the distance.

“This looks like Jurassic Park!” Gabe whispered as Tony leaned out to try to capture a toucan on film at just the right second. I took my eyes off of the birds for a second and studied the interlocking face of every shade of emerald that makes up the imposing wall that is the rainforest; a living shield around a fragile eco-system. Hannah says that all that these peaks are missing is a dragon to swoop down on leathery wings and strafe the valley with fiery breath; it certainly has the feel of another world, where dragons and giant lizards are possibilities, just beyond the filmy veil of reality.


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