For many people, Southeast Asia conjures up images of ancient stone temples, vibrant colors, spicy cuisine and warm, musky rains breathing life into lotus ponds.
But imagine instead hiking for miles shin-deep in mud, fending off bloodsucking leeches and existing on a diet of tarantulas and cockroaches, while risking infection, heatstroke and malaria. Not exactly your typical camping trip. For most people, such an excursion would sound treacherous and even insane, but for young herpetologist Perry Wood Jr. it’s simply a passionate pursuit of knowledge in the name of science.
When Perry (aka JR) Wood began studying Southeast Asian amphibians and reptiles more than eight years ago, he never imagined the rough trails and beautiful landscapes his fieldwork would lead him to. As a graduate biology student specializing in taxonomy and molecular systematics, Wood regularly makes trips to Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia in an effort to identify new species in what he explains is an understudied region for herpetological diversity.
Most recently, Wood traveled to Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains to research a group of agamid lizards in the genus Acanthosaura
(common name: mountain horned lizards). “Before I started working on the group, there were only five species known,” he explains. “It’s quite rare to find new species of large agamid lizards in Southeast Asia, but with subsequent fieldwork and genetic studies, I have doubled the number of species in this group.”
Though Wood’s dedication to his work is unwavering, the risks of working in the jungles of Southeast Asia can be daunting. On his last expedition, where he and his team collected three new species, Wood explains, “The hike was full of thorny bushes, leeches, and every other stinging bug that you can think of. At one point we found ourselves climbing on our hands and knees up a steep hill weaving our way through bamboo and rattan palms.”
Wood is no stranger to harsh conditions. During a field expedition to Cambodia in 2004, he and his colleagues made the trek to the top of Phnom Aural, the highest mountain in Cambodia. Although the trip was successful, Wood began to feel the symptoms of malaria during a three-hour boat ride to the Seribuat Archipelago. After he was bedridden for three days, the effects of the disease began to wear off, but as bad luck would have it, the boat carrying Wood and his colleagues broke down leaving them stranded in the water for several hours while their infections baked in the glaring sun. But this kind of physical challenge has yet to deter Wood from pursuing future expeditions; he returned the following year to climb the neighboring mountain.
With the exhaustion that comes from such fieldwork, it’s a wonder Wood ever finds time to be a tourist. But according to him, that’s the best part of a scientist’s travels. Every expedition allows him to explore two different Asias: the Asia that houses unlimited possibilities for scientific discovery and the Asia that is rich in culture, heritage and history.
“Thailand and Cambodia are filled with scenic temples, palaces, and attractions,”
Wood said. “The contrasting boldness of colors (reds, blues, yellows, and greens) make it a very beautiful place. On this last trip, I went to Siem Reap for a day and a half to see the temples of Angkor
and the floating village. There is so much to see in these ancient ruins that it makes you really appreciate the history and the culture of Cambodia.”
And how do you appreciate Southeast Asia even more? Getting friendly with the locals. Wood tries to stay away from the tourist-focused locations, opting instead to eat traditional foods alongside the locals and participate in their daily customs. “The people are very kind and are always inviting me to eat with them. They enjoy talking to you and will try to teach you some local vocabulary. I’ve even gotten up some mornings to find them inviting me to do shots of whiskey with them.”
In the field, he is usually restricted to a bland diet of rice three meals a day, but when he has downtime at the local villages, he is treated to a world of culinary delights. A typical meal for Wood might include fresh mangoes and pineapples from the street vendors, Tom Yam soup and a plate of Pad Thai washed down with a cold glass of Thai iced tea. At night, he swears by a mango sticky rice dessert drizzled with sweetened coconut sauce.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Of course, not every dish is always so pleasing, and when you’re eating with the locals, you’re bound to come across some interesting selections. Wood, for instance, has found himself dining on regional delicacies such as fried tarantulas, frogs and cockroaches. Though they may not always suit his taste buds, he explains, “I never refuse a dish offered to me out of respect to the locals.”
After so many expeditions, Wood still claims each trip is just as enthralling as the last. “The only thing that gets redundant is the long plane flights,”
he says. “There are always new things to do in most of the major cities that I have visited in Southeast Asia. Between the zoos, museums, universities and the local wild life you never run out of things to do or places to go.”
And his philosophy on travel? “You can only learn so much from travel books, but once you are submersed in the culture, there’s no limit to the amount you can learn about that country.”
Photos courtesy of Perry Wood, Jr.