Summer Camp for Grown-Ups
On a four-night adventure in central Thailand, MERRITT GURLEY takes a bike ride down memory lane and, on behalf of adults everywhere, calls dibs on the childhood summer camp experience.
Published on Mar 18, 2016
THE YEAR WAS 1992. I was nine and my best friend Nandini and I signed up for a horseback-riding camp in Kanchanaburi run by a German woman named Lee Rhodes. It wasn't exactly the all-American experience I'd seen in movies like Meatballs, Camp Nowhere and Indian Summer, but my father's job had brought our family from California to Thailand, so it was the closest I could manage. Rhodes had moved to the kingdom in 1924 and was already well into her seventies when I met her, though she seemed old beyond age, like a mountain or a redwood. We spent the mornings riding horses, magnificent animals I still fear to this day, and the evenings sitting around a campfire listening to her tales about Thailand in the 1920s and 1930s: She ran a business training horses to pull carriages, the main mode of transportation across Bangkok back then; she sold horses for the then-handsome price of 10 baht a piece; she kept monkeys and sun bears as pets. During World War II, a Japanese soldier abducted one of her favorite horses and she strongarmed the man into returning it. She survived bombings, a flood, a fire. She met the king.
I hadn't met many adults who grew up overseas, so I felt a connection with her. She understood that expat kids often don't have real homes to go back to. Instead we look for familiar experiences that can be repeated or recreated anywhere. Like getting old friends together and going back to summer camp.
That's why this year, after I had my first baby and am supposed to be more of an adult than ever, I decided to chase some childhood fun: I roped Nandini back in (yep, we're still tight after nearly a quarter century) along with my younger sister, Kat, for a four-night trip to the Wild Lodge in Khao Ito. It wasn't a hard sell. Summer camp nostalgia is having a moment. With family and adults-only camps exploding across the U.S., it was only a matter of time until they made their way to our region, where you can now find them everywhere from Korea to Australia. This season saw the debut of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the TV prequel of the 2001 cult-favorite movie Wet Hot American Summer. The whole show is essentially the reliving of a childhood experience—and I was psyched to follow Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd into that old Polaroid. Just because you tack on years doesn't mean you lose your taste for organized outdoor fun. Aren't campfire-roasted s'mores delicious to even a supposedly refined older palate?
Roasted marshmallows at campfire.
IT IS A SURPRISINGLY SMOOTH two-hour drive from Bangkok to the camp. Khao Ito Forestry Park is close to Khao Yai National Park, and 260 kilometers east of the horseback-riding camp I went to years ago in Kanchanaburi. It's a hilly region of Thailand and as the landscape gets more curvaceous, I start shifting in my seat. It is working; I have the same giddy buzz I'd felt as a kid. "We're here!" I yell as the carved wooden sign announcing the entrance of the Wild Lodge finally comes into view. The Wild Lodge runs activities for groups of all ages and we're on an itinerary similar to the international-school field trips they host for 12-year-olds: kayaking, hiking, archery, mountain biking, a high-rope aerial challenge. It isn't an exact replica of my childhood experience but it is close enough; we ride bikes instead of horses and I play the role of wizened expat spinning yarns about ancient Bangkok from the 1990s around the campfire—"There were only three bars on Sukhumvit Soi 11 and Thong Lor was barely a glimmer on the map!"—to a chorus of shocked oohs and aahs.
A Wild Lodge entrance.
The property is almost two hectares square, and heavily outfitted with the promise of fun. It is a slice of playground carved out of the jungle-thick hillsides of Khao Ito. Ropes from the aerial challenge swing loosely in the breeze. Mountain bikes are stacked in front of a storage room by the open-air dining area. A Frisbee lies on an open field.
There are eight lodges constructed largely using reclaimed materials, and each is set up with bunk beds, fans and an en suite bathroom. There are luxury rooms in the works, but I'm happy that for now the rooms are to the point. I claim a choice bottom bunk and chuck my duffel into a corner. Unpacking can wait—there's that Frisbee outside with my name on it.
I AWAKE THE NEXT DAY with a ravenous hunger the fresh air seems to inspire, ladle myself out a heaping bowl of chicken congee from a vat and think of Meatballs: "We're gonna be having a delicious gruel breakfast and don't forget to ask for seconds because it's all the gruel you can eat."
A pleasant ride up Khao Ito mountain.
All grueled up, we set off mountain biking. It's a pleasant ride up Khao Ito mountain, with leaf-littered single-trail paths that ascend through a Eucalyptus forest. The light climbing through the trees is so crisp it seems imported from a Swiss dawn, but the humidity is a fixed reminder we're still in the tropics. I fight my way up a steep patch, sweating and cursing and steadily slowing down until I relent and walk the last five minutes. The summit is worth the effort and embarrassment, with a view that hasn't changed much in the past 20 years: mountains, trees, plains. I shuffle up a tree, dangle my legs over a thick bough, eat an orange and squint with the effort of committing the scene to memory. The ride back down is bliss, 45 minutes weaving through bright green thickets and over little jungle streams on one of the best downhill trails in Thailand.
The next few days are a blur of outdoor fun. We kayak the quiet waters of Khao Ito Reservoir and I lose my sister's sunglasses in a capsize. She pretends she isn't mad about it. I try my hand at archery and learn it is never too late in life to discover a new sport to be inept at. We play card games and drink instant coffee. Kat builds up the courage to talk to the young Irish instructor, but to no avail. We talk about how great the air smells and read our books under the salmon glow of a slowly setting sun.
Kayaking in the Khao Ito Reservoir.
The final dinner is an epic mix of barbecued meats and chicken nuggets. For dessert we head to the campfire for the requisite sandwich of graham crackers, Hershey's bars and marshmallows. I eat five, all smokey from the burnt marshmallows, and feel sick. I tell a ghost story about a man with a hook that frightens no one. Nandini and I reminisce about the last time we went to camp, and decide this time is better because neither of us have lice and we both own real bras. We talk about the kids we grew up with and where they are now. We sing terrible songs from our favorite old mix tape. We can't sleep—we're too excited about tomorrow: the aerial challenge.
The dinner sitting around campfire.
I HAVEN'T ALWAYS BEEN AFRAID of heights. The fear hit me deep into my twenties, around the same time I started using facial moisturizer and contemplating a savings account. Now the phobia has taken hold, grown roots, flourished. So standing 30 meters in the air, poised oafishly above a 10-meter-long log, I'm in a cold sweat. I've got to walk across, but I'm too scared to take the first step. "Don't look down!" the jerks at the bottom yell. I rack focus between the tiny beam and the grassy death below. I'm harnessed, but the part of me that is afraid does not respond to reason. Come on, I tell myself, this is what camp is all about. Face your fear. Challenge yourself. Eyes straight ahead. I grit my teeth and take a step. And another. And another. Before I know it, I'm almost to the other side. I know better than to look down, but can I steal a quick glance backwards? I want to see how far I've come.