This past weekend, I went to Khao Yai National Park, which is located about 80 miles north of Bangkok. The park is heavily forested, with over 80% of the land covered by trees. And what trees they are! Numerous species call Khao Yai home, and many come with fantastic shapes and life strategies. Because there are so many plants in the jungle, plants often battle for sunlight. In Khao Yai, a number of plants, such as rattan, creep up from the ground and wrap themselves around bigger trees. That way, they can climb up to the light as quickly as possible. However, one side effect of this growth pattern is that the forest is very dense. It's almost impossible to walk anywhere without running into tangled plants! And with giant ants, spiders, leeches, monkeys, and even elephants, the park isn't always a welcoming place.
In fact, Khao Yai has only two trails that can be walked on without a guide. I discovered this after crashing through the forest (and falling through a rotten bridge) for several hours. Being in the park was a truly amazing experience. One got the sense that humans were pretty weak, after all. It got me thinking about the purpose of a national park.
During my first day in the park, I met some Thai college students who quickly invited me to live with them. During my second, I met a ranger and his family, who did the same. The ranger, Mr. Mung, said that about half of the rangers in the park spend all of their time protecting and preserving the park's natural areas, while the other half help visitors. While Khao Yai is Thailand's oldest national park, it's only been around for about 40 years. In many ways, people are still creating the park, and so far, they've put preservation above accessibility.
National Parks have a history that stretches back over 100 years. The world's first national park, Yellowstone, was founded in 1872 in the United States. Since then, thousands of parks have been established all over the world. However, there is still no clear definition of what a park is. At first, national parks were established "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Later on, many people believed that parks were important places for the protection of natural areas, and that people should keep out of many of these places. Today, many researchers view national parks as laboratories, places where we can discover how the natural world works, and try to figure out how we affect it as well. Still, no one is really sure what the most important thing about a national park is.
I've visited a number of American national parks, and many are very developed, with some areas that are just as crowded as Disneyland. It was interesting to be in a place where it wasn't even possible to walk in a straight line, let alone camp in "the wild." The next few years will be very interesting for Khao Yai. If I ever come back, will I find neatly groomed trails? Or will I find myself stumbling through the jungle once more? Only time will tell.
Adam De Gree
I am a senior in college, studying philosophy, and am visiting family in the Czech Republic and travelling and studying in Europe and Asia.