Boontoemphu Rongluean has never thought that one day he would offer a cruise boat service in Yala. The province does not have access to the sea, but it has a reservoir where tourists can board a boat to the Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary. The lake was created after Bang Lang Dam was completed in 1981, blocking and diverting Pattani River.
Boontoemphu is Yala’s Than To district chief. He wants to promote tourism in the province by providing the boat trip for large groups of travellers. His double-decker boat called Thep Phitak Balae can accommodate up to 100 people.
“Thai people are afraid to travel to the southernmost province. But travellers from our neighbouring countries like Singapore and Malaysia always come to Than To district and board the boat cruise during weekends,” he said.
If the level of water is very low, visitors can see ruins of the old masjid of Ban To village submerged in the water. Many hills became islands like Koh Tuat. In the past, people spent three hours climbing up from the foothill to the top, but today the top of Koh Tuat can be reached by a short walk from a boat.
Koh Tuat is one of the popular attractions in Bang Lang reservoir. People come to worship the guardian of the mountain known as Luangpu Ruesi — or the late old hermit — as they believe that their wishes will come true. Another popular tourist activity is fishing. Visitors can take a day trip or an overnight stay on a boat or raft house offered by other operators in Than To.
Thanyathip Supawongjongrak, wife of the Than To district chief, who manages Thep Phitak Balae boat, said staying in a portable tent on the deck of the boat is a favourite tourist activity.
“You can see lots of stars at night and a sea of fog in the morning,” she said.
We boarded the boat for a night stay from a temporary pier around To Ku Sae Bridge, not far from Ta Phayao Pier where visitors can board a long-tail boat or a rafting house for a boat trip to Bang Lang Dam.
The double-decker boat has a large space on its first floor on which the owner arranges performances by local artists to entertain visitors during the four-hour ride.
Our destination was a pier at Chulabhorn Phatthana 7 project centre, overseen by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation. We planned to get off the boat at the centre to trek into Hala-Bala forest the next morning.
We reached the park before sunset and Thanyathip recommended that we try our luck at spotting gaurs at their feeding grounds in the area.
We boarded a long-tail boat for about an hour to reach the river mouth of Hala-Bala. Along the ride, I heard the chirps of birds interspersed with the voices of other animals like monkeys. I saw many dead trees standing in the water. They looked eerie, especially after sunset.
When we reached the river mouth, our boat operator pointed to a small island full of tall yellowish grass. He killed the engine and paddled the boat while we approached the gaur’s feeding ground. There was no movement, except grass gently swaying in the wind. We found only footprints of the majestic beasts.
We lingered for a while in the hope that we might catch a glimpse. But the sky darkened; we had to return to our main boat. Our driver used a torchlight and skilfully made the safe return.
We wanted to try our luck again after our morning trek in the rainforest of Hala-Bala. The night was quiet and cool. The sky was clear and we said goodnight to those twinkling stars.
An alarm clock woke us around 5am. Our trekking journey was about to start. The project centre’s chief, Kowit Wangthaweesab, and his team of forest rangers were ready to lead us. Some of the rangers were wearing leech protection socks. I wore two stockings under my jeans. It worked pretty well as no leeches bit my feet or legs during our trek.
The walking trail was only 1.5km, but took almost two hours. Sometimes, we had to slowly slide ourselves down the high slopes or climb up steep parts. Many times we had to grab long branches of trees or arms of rangers to balance ourselves. Somehow this little adventure made me feel young again.
We stopped occasionally to take pictures of items we found along our trek such as mushrooms, moss, ferns and insects. We also helped each other pull leeches from our trousers and shoes.
According to Kowit, Hala-Bala has always attracted birdwatchers, especially those with an interest in hornbills.
The chief estimated that there are about 10 species of hornbills — out of 13 found in Thailand — living in the southern forest.
“The months of July and August [known as a flocking season] are the best time to see hornbills because they will fly in a flock,” said Kowit, adding that when the birds fly together, they sound like a loud helicopter.
Again without luck, we couldn’t spot any of them. I took my time to absorb the ambience of this rainforest. As I looked around the green forest which spreads out as far as the eye can see, I felt fortunate that we had a chance to explore Hala-Bala forest even though it was only within a small area.
Hala-Bala is a giant green classroom for nature lovers and a healthy refuge for those who love scenery.