Mysteries of the marsh

Thailand April 09, 2014 00:00

By Phoowadon Duangmee
The Nation

11,445 Viewed

A slow journey through Rayong's best-kept secret

With their strange branches and flaky white bark that seems to be permanently shedding, the paperbark trees look rather as though they should belong to a homicide scene. Outstanding amidst the endless reeds, the trees rise high above their mirror images reflected in swampy pond. Here, in the marshland of Rayong Botanical Garden, everything stands mysteriously still.
“It seems we have found Rayong’s best-kept secret,” says a fellow traveller in amazement as our guide Somkiat Chapchainai steers the boat through the swampy trail. 
“Yes, I think we have,” I reply, my eyes busy skimming the water. “I can’t wait to see the alligators”
Rayong Botanical Garden, which covers more than 1,520 acres of swamp, is a foreboding world largely ignored by the weekenders who flock to this Eastern province for its sandy beaches and azure sea. As we follow the swampy trail beyond the weeds, homicide scenes continue to run through my head. It reaches the stage when I almost expect to see a body that’s been dumped into the murky water, the victim of a deal gone wrong. After all, the wetlands seem an ideal place to bury a secret. Who in their right minds would set foot in these tall reeds crawling with formidable spiders, a variety of snakes and pestilent reptiles? What counts for land here yields durian that tastes like turpentine and trees with strange branches that look like creepy creatures in the dark.
But venture beyond the mysterious reeds and the marshland reveals its beauty.
“There are no alligators here,” says Somkiat, aiming to reassure my travel companion who is looking rather pale. “What you will see are birds like egrets, kingfishers and darters and lots of fish, which provide fodder for the birds.”
The marsh varies between reedy islands and swampy trails that are suffused with water lilies and several waterweeds. Quiet and wonderfully peaceful, the wetland is ideal for a quick escape from the hectic bars and bustling beaches. 
Other than the soundtrack provided by Mother Nature, the only noise audible on this warm afternoon as we navigate through the water lilies is my hand squishing through the water and the gentle humming of the boat’s engine. The mind wanders and you are no longer thinking about who might be making a comment on your Instagram page or how many likes you have collected for your latest post on Facebook. Instead, you’re considering the hawk soaring above you, the egret waiting patiently for his fish, the sound of frogs croaking and suddenly – and perhaps most importantly – the identity of the creature that’s causing the boat to rock right now.
“Gator?” I wonder aloud.
“No. It’s a chunk of root left over by the local fisherman,” says our boatman, jumping into the water and brushing the boat away from a large log.
While tourists know nothing about the Rayong marshland, local fishermen and hunters have been walking through the swamp for generations to catch fish and wild birds and gather edible plants.
That could be about to change as the Botanical Garden Department is making every effort to introduce the nature trails to tourists.
For the most intimate encounters with nature, the trails – short and long – are bound together between boat trips through the swampy ponds and strolls on three small islands.
The swampy trails lead you through the reeds, water lilies, air plants like orchids and the carnivorous tropical pitcher plants like the monkey cup.
“The swamp will turn pink next month when the water lilies comes into bloom,” says Somkiat, who is hoping that this magnificent spectacle will draw more nature-loving visitors.
The stroll takes you through the three small islands that are bridged by the nature trails. It promises walkers solitude and a wealth of native coastal plants. The highlight is the “ancient forest” of the paperbark trees or “samet khao”, as they are known locally. The plant looks odd in many ways – including its form and content.
“You can give the tree a punch and you won’t hurt your first,” says Somkiat taking a hefty swing at the paperbark. 
“It has a thick, soft bark that’s wrapped together by paper-thin layers.”
After slogging along the trail, we hop back in the boat just as the sun is setting. As we gently make our way back, the reeds come suddenly aflame in the rich amber rays, giving the marsh an unworldly feel though not revealing any alligators or even a body.
If you go
_ Rayong Botanical Garden is located in Klaeng district, Rayong province. The swamp is a short drive from Hinsuay Namsai Resort (Bay of Ao Chareon) on HW 3145. 
_ To arrange a boat and to get more information, contact Rayong Botanical Garden at (038) 638 981-3 or email: