• A Relaxing but Eventful Visit to Khao Sok National Park

If you’ve read any of my previous articles so far (if you haven’t, start now; right after you read this one!) you may remember me writing something like “I loved this place but didn’t have enough time and hope to come back someday”.

Well, Khao Sok National Park (Thailand) is one of those places. To be fair, this park wasn’t even on my radar after almost a month in Thailand without ever going south of Bangkok.

The only reason I ended up going is because a friend of mine was visiting from Spain for ten days, and he’d found Khao Sok in his research prior to the trip. He didn’t have to work hard to sell me on the place. The photos on his guidebook were stunning, and the description most compelling. It also helped that it was sort of in our way towards the beaches in the south of Thailand.

Because my friend was, unlike me, on a short vacation, we knew we’d only have enough time for a quick visit to the park, but it still seemed worth it. We were not disappointed.

Water ripples from the boat

(All photos are © Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you’d like to use them).

Our arrival at the park from Surat Thani airport was not exactly smooth sailing. We landed at the airport in the middle of the afternoon, and we learnt that it was probably too late to catch any of the buses going to the park, so we’d have to shell out for a shared taxi.

Something funny happened when we tried to book a taxi at one of the desks at the airport. We got to the desk, and the guy who was there gave us a price which we managed to haggle down to about 25% less (if I remember correctly). But, and this was the funny thing, we’d have to leave within ten minutes, the guy said.

However, my friend needed to buy something at the airport that he wasn’t sure he could find at the park. Also, we both wanted to have some lunch, as we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and it was kind of late in the afternoon. So we told the guy we’d come back once we were done. Not without some hesitation, he agreed.

While we were seated grabbing a quick bite in what seemed to be the only bar in this part of the terminal, one floor up from where the taxi desk was, a man came to us. He asked, in much worse English than the guy at the desk, if we were looking to go to Khao Sok. We said yes, and he said to meet him outside when we were done. We said OK.

When the guy left, my friend and I started to have some doubts. Was this driver coming from the taxi desk, or was he just some driver roaming the terminal, looking for Westerners who might need a ride? It was kind of unlikely, but the guy’s English was so poor, that there was always the possibility of a misunderstanding. And we didn’t want to stand up the guy at the desk. So, while my friend finished eating, I run down to the taxi desk to double-check.

The guy we talked to earlier was gone. In his place, there was a Thai woman, and an older, Western-looking guy. I explained the situation, and the guy, who was English (or so I thought from his accent), looked puzzled, then rolled his eyes and seemed to think “oh no, not again”. I didn’t register the latter at the time, only later when it dawned on me what had happened.

The English guy was polite, but adamant: we could not have been quoted such a low fare at his desk. He knew it for a fact, he said, because they had fixed rates, which he showed me. And he was the manager.

So I thanked him, and went back upstairs. My friend and I couldn’t quite understand what was going on. Something could have gone lost in translation when we spoke to the first guy. In the meantime, the driver came back inside looking for us. We tried to make sure he was working for the desk we’d negotiated the price with, and he said “yes, yes”, but in a way that didn’t sound very convincing to me. We didn’t have many choices, anyway, and Khao Sok was almost one hour and a half away, so off we went.

It was only about ten minutes later, when we were already on the road, that we finally understood what had happened. As you may have guessed, the first guy we talked to was in cahoots with the driver. He’d taken advantage of his boss’s absence to offer us a cheaper deal that he and the driver were going to split the profits of. And the desk guy knew his boss was coming back in ten minutes, hence his insistence that we should leave immediately… We ended up paying 750 baht each (about 10 Euros/US dollars), which I think is not bad considering the distance (for reference, the average taxi ride within Bangkok is in the 50-90 baht range, in my experience).

One hour and a half later, we arrived at Khao Sok village, and the guard at the park gate had no idea where our guesthouse was. What??

Bungalows, Khao Sok village

There were some really nice-looking bungalows in the the village.

We’d booked in advance through one of the usual websites, so we knew the place existed. But it wasn’t a good sign. After asking someone else, and having the guard phone the number on the booking confirmation, the driver was given directions. It turned out that the guesthouse was way off the village (about a ten minute drive on a bumpy dirt-road), and completely isolated (no bars or shops). Not exactly what we had in mind. This was the best affordable place we could find anyway, as everywhere else was booked solid, and the location of the guesthouse, away from the village, wasn’t clearly stated, or we missed it (I say we, but it was I who booked the place).

Jungle view, Khao Sok

The view of the jungle from the porch in our rooms. Who wouldn’t like to wake up to this?

However, the location was nice and quiet, and the rooms looked modern and like new. We were the only guests. Later on we met the owners, a Dutch-Thai couple (or was he Danish? My memory fails me), who told us that they’d only been in business for a few months. That explained why the park guard didn’t quite know them, and also why there weren’t any signs in the village, which was full of information signs for other guesthouses. Apparently, the owner told us, there’s a lot of red tape involved in putting up a sign, both because of slow bureaucracy and the fact that it’s a protected area.

The good thing is that we didn’t really need to go down to the village, as there was a good bar/restaurant at the guesthouse, and they could arrange our trip for the next day. There were a few two- and three-day tours in the jungle that looked really cool, but we only had time for a day trip. We settled on one that included a boat tour of Cheow Lan Lake and a hike in the jungle including a visit to a cave. With lunch, a light afternoon snack and pick-up and drop-off at our guesthouse, the final price came to 1,800 baht, including the 300 baht daily entrance fee to the park.

Landscape, Cheow Lan reservoir, Thailand

One of many gorgeous views we found on the lake.

Even though it looked beautiful on the photos, I was a little skeptical about Cheow Larn Lake. The lake is man-made, which sounds kind of weird for a national park. It’s sad to think that all those square kilometers (all 185 of them) of beautiful, pristine jungle were submerged under the water when the Ratchaprapha dam was built.

Limestone outcrops, Khao Sok National Park

As it turned out, the lake was absolutely gorgeous. We arrived at Ratchaprapha dam after about one hour’s drive from Khao Sok village, and boarded a longtail boat. You can find longtail boats everywhere, in slightly different forms, all over Thailand. Apparently many are powered by modified car engines and therefore are quite noisy, but I find them very elegant and comfortable at the same time.

Boats and limestone rocks, Khao Sok, Thailand

There was some boat traffic on the lake, but not heavy enough to disturb the visit.

Boat and landscape, Khao Sok

You can tell I couldn’t have enough of these shots taken from the fore of the boat, right?

The sun was hitting hard, but with such views it was impossible not to enjoy the ninety minute ride until the place where we’d be having lunch. The water of the lake was an impossibly gorgeous turquoise-emerald color, and the landscape was dominated by stunning limestone karst formations of the kind you can see in many places in Southern Thailand and indeed in Southeast Asia (Krabi, Halong Bay, Guilin…).

Limestone outcrops, Khao Sok National Park

Almost twin limestone outcrops. Some of the formations in Khao Sok reach almost 1000m in height.

Limestone formations, Khao Sok

Looks dramatic and idyllic, doesn’t it?

View from the boat, Khao Sok

We spent under a couple of hours on the boat before reaching the cove where we had lunch and relaxed in the water.

Raft houses, Cheow Lan Lake, Khao Sok

Approaching the cove.

Things got even better when we arrived at the place where we’d be having lunch. It was a beautiful, quiet cove with a pier and a row of quaint raft houses floating on the water. The houses looked really basic from the outside, and they probably were; but I wouldn’t have minded spending one night there, or at any of the other places offering accommodation on the lake shores.

Raft houses, Khao Sok

The beautiful cove in Cheow Lan Lake with the raft houses.

There was also a swimming area, and a couple of kayaks, so I decided not to go on the jungle hike after lunch, with some regret. The reason is that there was a cave visit included in the hike.

It’s fair to say that I’m not a cave person. I find the combination of heat, humidity and narrow spaces far too stifling, and this particular cave, the guide told us, had a couple of narrow passages that were partially underwater. People had died in there before, when it started raining and the water levels had gone up. In addition, if I went to the hike, I’d have to wait for more than an hour for the rest of the group to come out of the cave.

I didn’t need to hear more. It was settled. After lunch, I stayed with most of the group swimming and kayaking in the lake. It was pleasant and peaceful, and everything was great. Until the storm clouds that had been brewing since before lunch broke down and rain fell.

Ten minutes later, we saw the boat with the guide, my friend and two other people on the group who had decided to go on the jungle hike, coming back to the pier hurriedly. At first I thought it was because of the rain, and I think the guide said they would have aborted the hike anyway because of that.

But it was worse. In the jungle, my friend had tripped, fallen down and knocked his knee against a sharp rock that cut him quite deep. It was clear he needed stitches, antibiotic and possibly a tetanus shot, as wounds in the jungle are no laughing matter. Since it was raining (although it stopped later), after consultation with the rest of the group, the guide decided we would all go back to the dam earlier than planned, so my friend could get medical attention. The group was very nice and understanding about it.

Cheow Larn Lake, Khao Sok

Our boat ride back to the dam.

Lake and limestone karsts, Khao Sok

At this point we’d left the storm behind us.

That’s another story, though. In the end, everything turned out all right. My friend’s wound didn’t develop further complications, although we had already booked accommodation on the beach in Ao Nang and he spent a miserable last few days of his trip as he couldn’t get his knee wet. Obviously, a huge bummer when you are on the stunning Andaman Coast.

Still, our visit to Khao Sok left a deep mark on both of us (I really need to stop making these terrible puns), and although I don’t feel my photos do the place justice, I think that you’ll agree with me.

Here’s also some (admittedly not top-notch) footage I shot with my phone:

It’s certainly a shame that we didn’t get to see much of the abundant, diverse wildlife in the park (Khao Sok is home to hundreds of species of birds and other animals), and that’s why I began this post by saying it’s one of those places I’d love to come back to someday. Will I ever? Who knows.

What do you think? Have you been to Khao Sok Park or are you planning to go? Let me know in the comments!

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