Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Slingshots and 'Shrooms

This blog is extremely overdue, so I will do my best to bring you all up to speed gracefully. These past few weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster ride, with some awesome adventures and some rough patches. That’s what it’s all about though… and I’m thankful for every experience, good and bad. Anyhow, enough intro mumbo-jumbo… let me take you back to late July, when we took a field trip to a place called Thap Lan National Park. Only a short ride away from our base camp in Sakaerat, this is definitely a hidden gem. Most visitors to the region intent on visiting a National Park head straight to Khao Yai, and for good reason as it is renowned as one of the most pristine and picturesque national parks in the world. So that leaves Thap Lan to be explored by the more intrepid and savvy adventurer.
A stunning vista from within Thap Lan National Park
It’s not the traditional kind of park though where you pull up to a gate in your vehicle, pay an entrance fee and then drive through wooded roads. Instead, it is incorporated as part of the local landscape, and you’d hardly know it was a national park if it wasn’t written on the occasional sign or marked on the map. Within the “boundaries” you can find farms, houses, and small market stalls. This is because part of the area is considered a “buffer zone” where lower income people can live and use the land locally with minimal impact to the area. This prevents these families from being displaced by the designation of the area as a national park, but also theoretically thwarts major businesses from coming and taking over the land. 

To get to the particular site we visited, you’d need to have been there before or go with someone who has (Sheila) otherwise the maze of winding rural roads would certainly leave you feeling off track. 

We made it there without a hitch though, and hopped out of the truck to be greeted by an extremely beautiful overlook of the surrounding valley. There was more to this place than just charming scenery though. The major attraction was their eco-friendly form of entertainment for visitors. For a very small fee, you could rent a slingshot complete with little seeds intended to be launched off the edge of the cliff- in the name of reforestation.
Our weapons in the war against deforestation
This simple sport was an absolute blast, and I could have easily stood there all day firing seeds high into the sky. Whoever came up with this idea is an eco-genius. It’s not too often that you get to play with slingshots and save the planet at the same time. When I get home I might take up a new angle on fighting climate change by becoming Bradley Sling-seed: a modern Johnny Appleseed with a quick draw and deadly aim for barren land and Republicans (kidding). Or maybe I’ll just market the idea to National Parks in the states. Anyways you get the picture; I had a lot of fun aggressively and rapidly planting trees.
"May the Forest be with you!"
After I was out of ammo, I relaxed in the nearby tree house and spent a decent chunk of time admiring the view from this little corner of the world while watching the others wield their weapons.
Picture-perfect panoramas
 They even had a massive slingshot that you could use to rocket the seeds into the far corners of the earth.
The Lorax would be proud
We spent a solid half an hour or so with all of us relaxing in the tree house, taking a much needed rest from the rigors of the field. Actually, life is fairly easy here and we’re always pretty relaxed. But it never hurts to chill out just a bit more.
Overlooking the overlook from the tree house
Unfortunately, our peaceful repose was cut short by an inconsiderate ant that decided to chomp down on Tesco’s toe. (Tesco is Francesca’s Thai nick-name since they have a very difficult time pronouncing the “ch” sound) Needless to say… her reaction jolted everyone awake, and after making sure that she was semi-alright… we swiftly exited the tree house, returned our slings and then piled in the truck to head off to our next destination.
Our lofty snooze site
In actuality, at the time I didn't realize that we were going anywhere besides home since Sheila hadn't mentioned that we would be stopping anyplace else. But as we started heading down a bumpy dirt road that we hadn't encountered on the way there… it quickly became obvious that we were making a detour to somewhere. Then we saw an amusing sign…
We're going to see Mister Mushroom!
In a pleasant turn of events, we had stopped to take a quick look around a local mushroom farm… formally known as Mister Mushroom. Aside from Sheila, none of us had ever been to a mushroom farm before, so this was an intriguing new experience for all of us. It reminded me of a cross between a small version of a Thai Disney world mixed with, well... a mushroom farm.
Hey, I'm a fun guy!
In the courtyard, there was a fountain surrounded by many garden gnome-esque mushroom figurines, little squirrels and other friendly creatures eternally smiling and welcoming you to Mister Mushroom’s domain. When you went inside, there was a gift shop selling everything you could think of mushroom-related, and more. They even had Toad (from the Mario video games) action figures for sale. As we walked in, I immediately thought of my buddy John Sommerville back home who is a total fungi fanatic. 
Mister Mushroom's Minion
After being mesmerized for a bit by the large variety of mushroom merchandise for sale (including mushroom wine), we passed through the gift shop and wandered towards the back where the real magic happens. We strolled through a wide open hallway with a few crates full of mixed mushrooms towards a moist concrete-floored room containing shelf-like structures absolutely chock-full of ‘shrooms. There were also mushrooms growing on the ground in plastic containers. According to the sign, this area contained Shiitake, Monkey-head, Reishi, and Yanagi fungi varieties.
Fungus among us
The different varieties of mushrooms were really quite mesmerizing in their own funky fungi ways, and in the attempt to capture the (magical) moment… I snapped a bunch of pictures.
Totally tripped out toadstools
The main room was really quite large, and I assume that Mister Mushroom was the sole supplier of ‘shrooms to a fairly wide area – based on the large quantity of produce that we saw. I’m not sure how long it takes for each of these different varieties to mature though, so that may explain the massive space. Thai people take their fungus seriously. So much so in fact, that there is an issue here at Sakaerat with mushroom poachers and there’s an entire ranger staff present that works round the clock to protect the area from toadstool thieves. Thankfully though, Taksin has taken the initiative to teach local people how to grow their own mushrooms, so they can sustainably stock their kitchens. I’m not sure how successful the program has been, but I know at this point others besides Taksin have been trained to teach the art of growing ‘shroom gardens. I guess it’s working out since I haven’t seen any poachers yet.
The 'Shroom Room
After taking our fill of photos, we meandered back to the gift shop and sampled a wide variety of different mushrooms prepared with different spices and oils. Most of them were quite tasty and even Tesco, who normally avoids mushrooms like the plague, tried and enjoyed a bunch of them. To finish off our visit, we ate some fried mushrooms that resembled French fries and then enjoyed a bit of (this is crazy…) refreshing and surprisingly delicious mushroom ice cream for dessert.
Holy Shiitake... its mushroom ice cream!
This little field trip was a bunch of fun, and helped renew my craving for some Mellow Mushroom pizza big-time. In a few days I will tell you all more about the roller coaster ride I referred to earlier… but for now, Peace Out! 

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