Published on October 13, 2007
Bold and towering at times, shy and elusive at others, our prey is the fern.
With the sun still shouldering itself over the horizon, we head off towards Khao Yai National Park in Nakhon Ratchasima province. A few hours down the road, the forest around us signals we're getting close, and it won't be long before the game gets under way.
Arriving at the park, sleepy eyes open wide to take in the jutting, green scenery, and after a few refreshing draughts of mountain air our small group is hungry to take up the hunt.
Bold and towering at times, shy and elusive at others, our prey is the fern, and we're on a mission to find out as much as we can about this group of plants 20,000 species strong.
Fern experts ML Charuphant Thongtham and Dr Piyakaset Suksatan are along for the ride, and our first stop is the roadside pavilion, where Piyakaset introduces us to our quarry:
"Ferns don't produce flowers, and the varieties you encounter will depend on the habitat. For instance, Kho Yai has a mountainous geology of sandstone, and most of the different kinds of ferns here grow high up on the slopes in the less wooded, wetter areas."
"Are you ready?" our guide asks, introductory lecture over.
"Yeah," we all chime, eager to plunge into the jungle.
"Then lets start with the toilet block over there," says a grinning Dr Piyakaset, before leading us to our first ferns on a rock nearby.
Here we learn of the life cycle of the curling tendrilled critter at our feet. No flowers means no seeds or pollination - ferns actually reproduce by way of a single spore, which detaches from the "parent" plant and splits into a male and a female spore. Wet conditions allow these two to fuse, and a new fern is born.
Extending the search, we take to the minibus and quickly learn a new game rule: hopping out to investigate every time we spot the distinctive feathery fronds. A few minutes later, we come across the tightly coiled leaves of a baby fern, called kud chang pa in Thai.
One thing that distinguishes different species of fern is the arrangement of the spores; in some they form a strip along the edge of the leaves, while in others they cluster in the middle or are scattered randomly. Cutting the stem of the plant at his feet, Dr Piyakaset shows us another signature mark, the cross-section of the stem, which can be either U- or X-shaped.
As the day wears on, the side of the road produces most of our finds and "watch out" becomes our mantra. The drivers of the speeding cars that pass us are as ignorant of our adventure as they are of the signs showing a speed limit of 60.
The engine has hardly ticked over before we're on the grass verge again, tumbling out to get a peek at a "black chick plant", named for the feathery fur that covers its stems. Elsewhere we find the yan li pao, or Climbing Fern, distinctive for spores that sprout out from the edge of the leaf like fingers.
After tracking down so many interesting and beautiful ferns - few of which can be found in big towns or cities - there was a collective sense of "mission accomplished". Experiencing the diversity of ferns, which includes a species that grows up to three metres tall in Khao Yai, our knowledge had sprouted well beyond the stereotype of the delicate, feather-like leaved plant
Taking a little rest from the ferns, we followed our curiosity into field of white and purple "button" flowers, then, as we made our way back, we stopped one last time for a rare silver fern whose underside gleamed magically.
We arrive at Pah Deaw Dai, or the "lonely cliff", a misnomer given the stream of huffing, puffing and chatting tourists that keep it company.
The path through the lush forest to its top is usually easy to walk, but last night's heavy rain has made it slippery.
Looking down from the cliff, I envision the teeming life of ferns, moss and trees that lies beneath the green canopy. My eyes have been opened to it, and my mind is following suit. "How small we humans are," I think, "and how lucky we are to have all this nature still thriving in Thailand."
Someone murmurs that the best and safest way to see the view from the clifftop is to lie down and creep towards the edge. A few of us try it.
We relax, listen to the birdsong, gulp down the fresh air and the coffee from a flask before we get back in the bus and head for Kho Keaw, at 2,334 metres the highest mountain in central Thailand. These green open wildernesses are probably the closest to the polluted capital.
As the light of the sun fades, we say our goodbyes and our shadows chase us down the mountain, bringing the mission to a close.
A couple of minutes later, quiet descends inside the minibus. The magic of the forest that woke us up is lulling us to sleep. The wheels turn on towards Bangkok, but my thoughts are already leaping forward to another visit here.
Special to The Nation