I was camping in Thailand's Khao Sok National Park. Being monsoon season, it rained a lot, and I was the only camper in the park. I have experience camping solo in Thailand and was okay with that, but as it happened, I had unexpected company – a stray dog that found me in my soggy tent that morning.
Unlike Southeast Asia's usual curs and strays, this dog looked good. No signs of mange, and he was big and healthy whereas the typical dog was lean and hungry. He seemed to be waiting for me, and when I left my tent he walked beside me as if it was his job. I didn't mind, especially when our path crossed with two different packs of wild dogs that challenged him – challenged him and lost. Alpha didn't mess around, no snarling, barking or other exhibitions of doggy bravado. He just stared them down with a superior glare until they sullenly but meekly allowed us to pass. Obviously, he was Alpha dog and he was my buddy.
Khao Sok is everything you'd think of a Southeast Asia jungle: broad verdant vines, thorny plants, waterfalls, creeks, and ponds. The park is a remnant of a massive rainforest older and more diverse than the Amazon. Some of the wild mammals that live in the park include tapirs, elephants, tigers, sambar deer, bears, boars, pig-tailed macaques, langurs, gibbons, and possibly the cutest thing in the world: the mouse deer. Like most day hikers, I did not see any of them; but more butterflies than I could count flitted by, and even though I couldn't see many birds, the air was alive with their sounds.
After about half a sweaty hour of walking, Alpha found some elephant dung, and we mutually agreed to leave the trail to follow the scat deeper into the jungle. Suddenly the trees came alive with the chattering of monkeys. This angered Alpha, and he went crazy, barking continually and jumping at the trees. Not to be intimidated, the monkeys really started howling. I led Alpha back to trail, sad that the monkey guards had kept us from spotting a wild elephant.
Back on the trail it was like a switch was flipped; the ground was alive. Leeches! The rain must have dislodged them from their usual abode because the forest floor was literally crawling with the bloodsuckers. I know they can't hurt me, not really. There's no threat of disease, or rabies, or even much pain.
Yet the very idea of this roiling menace in my way was psychologically terrifying, a horror almost Lovecraftian in nature. I had salt in my pack, but coming upon this mass of writhing creatures made me panic. I ripped one off me, though it instantly clung to my fingers. At last I managed to fling it away. Then, Alpha sprang into action, jumping into the air and chomping the leech.
"Good boy!" I yelled, with major appreciation and then took off at a run.
Keen sandals are about the worst choice in anti-leech footwear – plenty of holes for crawling in and lots of hiding spaces. There was no chance to stop and check my sandals though I felt certain that many had crawled in and found a buffet waiting between my toes. Leeches weren't only on the ground either. Some lurked on leaves and bushes or dropped onto my head from above.
At last we were able to stop and rest at Ton Kloi Waterfall, a picturesque spot about seven kilometers from the park entrance. I removed my sandals and found one leech between my toes that had grown from a tiny, half-inch thing to the size of a small plum. It took some force to jerk him off, but Alpha was quite grateful for this nutritious snack.
We swam for almost an hour before running the gamut back without stopping. Upon reaching the park entrance I removed my Keens and left them leaning on a rubbish bin.
"It's flip-flops for me from here on out," I said to Alpha.
I think he understood, because he stopped to pee on them.
I didn't want to go into my tent until I was completely de-leeched, so I found the public lavatory and showered, and when I emerged, Alpha was gone. Later that afternoon, while I was catching up on email at a local café, he reappeared, pressed against the glass.
"Is that your dog?" the café's owner asked me.
"No," I said truthfully but lying at the same time.
She opened the door and shooed Alpha away, shouting at him until he turned and left. I felt like I had betrayed him. I was in Khao Sok for two more days but never saw Alpha again, but I won't forget him. I like to think he's back in the jungle eating leeches for other hikers.