In the border town of Sungai Kolok, Narathiwat province, legend has it that an old Muslim woman known for her magical powers rowed her sampan into the swampland one fine day many moons ago and never came out. After Grandmother “Daeng” – or Toh Daeng as she was known locally – had been gone a couple of days, the menfolk gathered and retraced her passage into the woods. What they found wasn’t Daeng but an immense crocodile right next to Daeng’s sampan.
“The crocodile was wearing Daeng’s clothes though,” says Manete Boonyanant, director of Sirindhorn Peat Swamp Forest Nature Research and Study Centre, as we start our tour of Thailand’s last remaining peat swamp forest. “The local people believed that the old woman had morphed into an immense crocodile and gave the swamp forest the name Toh Daeng in her memory.”
Despite the story being an obvious myth, I cannot help but wonder what horrors lie beneath the brackish water as we follow Toh Daeng’s footsteps into the swampland.
“In fact, the forest was infested with alligators. Horrific tales were shared between the foragers and hunters who braved the brackish water and peat swamp forest to make their living,” says the guide as he leads us deeper into the peat swamp forest.
Unfortunately, the alligators have completely disappeared and only a few of the endangered Malayan gharial, a freshwater reptile of the crocodilia family, still make their home here.
Pru Toh Daeng stretches for more than 192 square kilometres over three Narathiwat districts –Tak Bai, Sungai Kolok and Sungai Padi. Eighty per cent of the wilderness is covered by evergreen forest, providing a fertile home for flora and fauna. Three rivers – the Bang Nara among them – pass through the forest before flowing into the sea. Living within this expansive wetland are more than 195 types of birds, 50 different kinds of mammals, 30 species of reptiles and 470 different kinds of plants.
Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn first visited the wetlands of Narathiwat in 1990, walking the full length of the bamboo walkway, and has returned regularly ever since, often arranging her visits to coincide with the kolae (fishing boat) races held every September.
Visitors follow her footsteps along the broadwalk, stopping here and there to take a seat and look out over the wetlands, which echo with the sounds of animal life.
Follow the path beyond the research building and the water becomes brownish and murky. Spiders, several species of snakes and all types of creepers thrive in this dark, humid world. What counts for land here yields palm fruit – or lum pee – which tastes like cheesy vinegar and other trees with strange names including “buffalo blood”.
“When people stroll along the nature trail, they expect to be blown away by the scenery or the breathtaking panoramic view over the sheer cliff,” says the guide. “We don’t have that here. But we do have biodiversity.”
And that biodiversity is what makes this place beautiful.
If you heed just one bit of advice on a trip to the peat swamp forest, let it be this: Slow down. The beauty and romantic essence of the swampland can be elusive unless you’re willing to move slowly.
Indeed, the forest in many ways forces you to slow down.
As you walk, you don’t think about who is texting you or feel the need to check Facebook to see if anyone has posted an amusing comment. Rather you are focused on the crab-eating macaques in the branches above your head, the songs of bird beyond the canopy, and most importantly, what’s moving under the water – Grandmother Daeng or a crocodile or both.
Sometimes the swampland looks like it belongs in a fairytale with mystical ropes of moss, walls of wood, strange-looking aerial roots and mirror images on the water.
“The peat swamp forest is more about leaves,” says Manete, “The dead leaves fall and hit the waterlogged soil preventing them from fully decomposing. Year in and year out, the dying but yet to decompose leaves create a thick layer of acidic peat.”
Some layers of peat are about five metres deep.
“When the leaves soak up the water, they feed the marine animals,” the director adds. “The downside is that in the dry season the leaves act as fuel and fires are frequent. We consistently lose peat swamp forest to the fires.”
The nature trail stretches barely two kilometres but that is long enough to take you into an enchanted world. It shuts everything else off, save the sound of the nature, leaving time to stand still.
IF YOU GO
Sirindhorn Peat Swamp Forest Nature Research and Study Centre is about a 90-minute drive from Narathiwat airport and 15 minutes from Sungai Kolok railway station. The trail is open daily from 8am to 4pm. Admission is free.
Copyright: The Nation/ Asia News Network