By Catherine Senecal
In the shadow of a black streaked cliff so massive it muffles all but the howls of gibbons, iridescent blue kingfishers swoop fast and low over the gentle ripples while I float aimlessly in a black inner tube down the Sok River, quietly contemplating the meaning of life and the size of the fish nudging my behind.
Straddling the mountain ridge separating Thai peninsula’s east and west coasts north of Phuket, Khao Sok (pronounced cow-sock) National Park is an Eden of virgin tropical forest peppered with striking limestone formations towering up to 1000 meters.
Together with adjoining wildlife sanctuaries, this area is the largest nature preserve in the Thai peninsula.
With forest treks, river tubing and–if you’re really adventurous–a stay in a treehouse, Khao Sok offers an active change following a beach holiday at Phuket. The two-hour drive north passes a pleasant collage of pineapple field, mangosteen gardens and slat wood homes with limp sheets of rubber drying on yard lines.
River tubing sounds like kid stuff — but our group of five ranged from 25 to 55 and everyone had a great time. With bathing suits on, we stood knee-deep on the river’s edge while our guide, Ed Puyam, plopped himself down in the middle of his tube. He was immediately swept away with the current, beaming a huge smile.
This apparently meant “jump in or lose me.” Since that wasn’t an appealing option, we all did the same and jumped in.
Except for fish pokes and one logjam, we floated tranquilly down the river with sheer limestone cliffs on one side and the hanging drapery of vines and lush greenery on the other.
But Khao Sok offers more than just river tubing. Trekking is also popular, especially along the Caves and Lake Trail, a six-km. trail used more often by animals than people. To reach the trailhead from park headquarters, we took a spectacular one-hour longboat ride across Cheow Lan Lake, one of the largest manmade lakes in Thailand.
The lake, which makes up the northern liquid quarter of Khao Sok’s 646 square kilometers, is stunning. Wind and water have slowly sculpted limestone, or karst, formations, that rise almost 1000 meters straight up from the lake edge.
Across the lake, the isolated Tone Teuy floating raft house is the staging point for the trail. Sort of. You still need to motor a small boat a few hundred meters up Tone Teuy Creek through fallen bamboo stalks and hanging liana vines. Elephants and tigers frequent the shores near here although you still have to be very lucky to see a tiger.
The day before we arrived at the trailhead, a backpacking Aussie had led us to believe that the leeches were five-cm. long beasts, they jumped down from the trees and that we would be covered in them while hiking. We laughed but didn’t really find it funny.
Not knowing how wrong–or mean, perhaps–this person was, we had worked ourselves into a frenzy by the time we reached the trailhead.
We still went, of course. Ed pulled out a bag of tobacco and doused hefty wads of it in lime juice before stuffing his socks. “For leeches,” he said, handing the bag to me. Soon, we were marching along an elephant path into the jungle, each of us covered knee to ankle in limy snuff.
When the tiny–less than one cm.–leeches did climb up an ankle, we simply flicked them off with a fingernail or stick. They were NOT worth getting worked up about and we eventually lifted our eyes from our feet up to the scenery.
We splashed through nine or so cold streams, walked across narrow bamboo bridges, and stopped to suck on oranges while hornbills flapped between the towering mahogany trees. The at-once fragrant and loamy scent of wild ginger, prickly rattan and hundreds of epiphytic ferns enveloped us. Delicate orchids swung in our wake. Finally, we broke out of the dim understory and came face to face with the imposing yaw of Namtaloo, a cave half a kilometer long with a creek running through it.
While Namtaloo is a worthwhile quest, with nine tamer trails, wide and well marked, depart right from park headquarters. On the 2.8-km. hike to Wing Hin waterfall, a trail branching left heads down to a swimming hole where blue butterflies the size of a hand flutter along the bank.
At Art’s Riverview Lodge, where we stayed, it’s the bats that flutter. Here, we ate chicken cashew curry in the glow of a few candelabras. At dusk, bats flapped through and under the palapa roof on their swooping sojourns for night-blooming fruit.
“This is good morning for them,” Ed said, munching on a barbecued frog he had speared only minutes earlier. Khao Sok does have plenty of beasts–some naturalists believe the highest concentration east of Africa–including more than 100 mammal species.
Sure, a third of them are bats, but elephants, deer, civets, Asiatic black bears, macaques, gibbons, wild boar and tapir, too. The birdwatching is incredible, with more than 200 species from eagles to parrots and numerous species of warblers and flycatchers.
But nothing beats bedtime at Art’s, where two private treehouses perch four meters off the jungle floor. There was something quite Tarzan-ish about climbing a bamboo ladder and tucking one’s self in bed under a dreamy white canopy of mosquito netting. Every time I rolled over, the entire house swayed, something I’m sure never happened to Jane.
Khao Sok National Park is 180 km north of Phuket, on Highway 401 between Surat Thani and Takua Pa. Numerous airlines service Phuket directly. Air-con bus service runs from Phuket and Surat Thani. Park headquarters and lodges are 1.5 km in from Highway 401.
December to April is the best time to visit, though some repeat visitors prefer the June to November wet season when fruits are ripe and wildlife viewing improves.
Khao Sok Rainforest Resort
Bungalows with fan, shower and toilets. Wildlife viewing is best here.
Art’s Riverview Lodge
Rooms and two treehouses with no electricity or running water.
TripAdvisor lists a bunch of activities and tour operators with reviews here.
Visit www.tourismthailand.org for information about visiting Thailand