He came all the way by bus from Bangkok to see the dark red maple leaf in Phu Kradueng Nationalpark. “When I was a student, a boy”, he says with deep sincerity, “I was playing this computer game called ‘Maple Leaf’. That’s about ten years ago and ever since I wanted to see one for real.” He is 23 now and sweetly deliberate in all his explanations.
Phu Kradueng is indeed famous for having maple trees to start with, but then also for the maple tree losing its leaves at this time of the year, is what I learn. The red maple leaf being nothing less than the icon of the nature reserve. The other one being its rather excruciatingly steep climb with nearly 1 km of ascent on 5.5 km hike up. Realistically it takes anything from 2.5 to 5 hours to make it – according to state of training.
For many of the Thai youth it has long been some kind of rites of passage. They come in large groups of friends in their late teens or early twenties to conquer the arduous mountain. In the past few years going up Phu Kradueng has become a thing amongst Thai fitness addicts as well. With marathons springing up in most bigger cities of the country the big mountain in Loei province is a good additional challenge.
The spirit on the way up is indeed that of a marathon event: There are supply stops nearly every 500 metres (“Please sit down!”, “Want coconut?”), frequent milestones and the people on their way down taking over the role of cheerleaders from the side-lines. It’s all thumbs up, “chock dee” (“Good luck!”) and encouraging smiles. Easy bonding amongst those who go up on the same day. We’ve been through it together kind of thing. I feel like I know all of the 250 people who came up with me that Wednesday. Well, at least I am an actress in more than half a dozen group selfies. So much fun!
Amongst many other light-hearted encounters I meet one man in his sixties who travelled from Bangkok on a night coach to go up and down Phu Kradueng in one day and drive back the same night. “I haven’t even slept”, he tells me with an unsettling lightness and big grin. “That’s a bit crazy?” I suggest rather impolite, but simply baffled. “Yes, maybe”, he smiles. “But that’s how I am. We have to enjoy as long as we are here!” I could not agree more.
My 23-year old friend with the maple leaves managed to make it up in two hours. “My name is ‘Ja’ from ‘Ninja’.” He speaks again in this very gentle way. “You know from the Japanese comic character.” Ja just started his master degree in electrical engineering and like the ultra-fit senior from Bangkok he doesn’t have much time. On the very day he went up the 5.5 km he continued the 9 km to the must-see sunset cliff on the other side of the mesa. And back. And then another 4 km to the campground, where most of us stay for two nights in a sheer ocean of tents. (I enjoyed a wonderful nap after the initial climb and had a blast riding a fat bike to the sunset cliff the next day.)
We talk about my travels. “You know, I have many chances to travel myself”, says Ja. “With my university I can do a lot of volunteering in many different places.” He reminds me of my nephew in his polite and soft-spoken way of delivering information. “You know in Buddhist culture giving is an important value. It brings merit. I love giving.” He surely gives me his honest companionship, some nephew time and a nice cross-cultural exchange while we walk from waterfall to waterfall and stop for many a maple leaf.
I have to admit I would not have even noticed them as particular remarkable. They have only three lobes, not five like in my home country. Look at that!
“On my next trip my mission is to see snow,” Ja says with firm resolve. I’m delighting in his appreciation of something so conventional for me. It’s like back in the days when I was teaching German to a Thai-German kid and we discussed what is exotic. The German school book suggested pineapple and mango as example. My 8-year old student had grown up on Kho Phangan and looked at me puzzled. “What’s exotic for you?” I asked after we clarified the meaning of the word. “Raspberry!” he answered ingenuously.
Change of perspective! Magic – every single time it happens! And one of the best reasons to travel and connect.