Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my! Khao Sok, Thailand

March 26, 2010 at 4:12 am 2 comments

I don’t know what I had expected from Khao Sok. The guidebooks had been sorely lacking in details so I had put together my own image. It would be a lush tropical jungle, thick with fat, dripping palm trees and flowers bursting with colour. Within ten minutes of hiking we would find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, trying to locate the source of monkey calls while dodging our way around pythons and deadly grass snakes. Sweating through our clothes and jungle hats (á la Eliza Thornberry), we would make our way through the thickets, eventually arriving at a thundering waterfall and emerald rock pool. After a refreshing swim amongst schools of colourful fish and bathing elephants we would spread the contents of our picnic hamper across a flat rock, sharing ham sandwiches, Tayto crisps, coke and a flask full of Barry’s Tea with a family of hungry monkeys.

Our first 20 minutes in Khao Sok only built our expectations up more. After hitching a lift from a taut with a pickup truck (who also moonlighted as a guesthouse owner, taxi driver, tour guide and the love of your life for the right price) we arrived in Art’s Riverview Guest House, Lonely Planet’s most enticing recommendation. Tucked in off the main strip, the guesthouse was the absoulte picture of serenity – all varnished wooden staircases, restaurant tables overlooking a sluggish river and rope swings delivering sceaming children into the water. We almost tripped over ourselves in our rush to get to the booking desk. Unfortunately it was not to be and our taut (obviously well aware that Art’s was fully booked) enticed us over to his guesthouse where we had to make do with mediocre raised stilt huts with mosquito nets.

That was just the first in a string of compromises. What the guidebooks don’t tell you is just how limited Khao Sok National Park really is. Covering over 700sq km, you would imagine that the trekking possiblities are endless. Not so. Due to a large concentration of rivers in the area, much of the park is inaccessible so tourists have the option of two short-ish walking routes or a handful of package tours that offer different combinations of tubing, canoeing, elephant trekking, a trip to the lake and rafthouses, a visit to Bat Cave and a night or morning safari.

Undeterred we headed for the Visitor Centre to pick up our hand-drawn map and set out on our first jungle adventure. After all, inaccessible or not, Khao Sok is still home to tigers, elephants, monkeys, maques, snakes, spiders, lemurs, wild pigs, bats, lizards and God knows what else. Surely if we hung around long enough some part of my fantasy trip would have to come true.

Taking it in turns to lead (the person in front had to shoo away all the snakes), we picked our way through the bamboo jungle, waiting excitedly for our first animal encounter. We weren’t waiting long before Gary let out a hysterical wail (almost female in pitch) as he came face to face with his first snake. No doubt sensing his raw masculinity and predatory instincts, the snake retreated into a nearby hole and Gary, trembling at the knees ever so slightly, marched on.

A few minutes later, as we were starting to despair of ever seeing more than a pretty butterfly, vivid flower, babbling brook or some fleeing snakes, we heard a familiar noise. “That’s an elephant,” said Gary breathlessly as we started to creep a few metres in every direction looking for the source of the sound. Twenty minutes of intrepid exploration left us in no doubt that there was an elephant nearby (we found fresh droppings and newly broken bamboo trees) but we were no closer to any major wildlife spottings. The rest of the day was much the same – lots of beautiful forest, towering ancient trees, refreshing rivers and even a flying lizard but nothing bigger than a python.

Trying to mask our disappointment (after all, it was a beautiful hike and a lovely experience), we booked ourselves in for a tour the next day only to be introduced to compromise number two. Where we wanted a two day tour with a night safari and overnight camping trip, we had to settle for a one day trip with no safari for much the same price because during the low season, there aren’t always enough tourists around to make up the required numbers – even if all of Germany seems to be knocking about.

Thankfully the trip turned out to be worth every single penny and every pain we had gone through to get to Khao Sok. The first part was a one-hour ride across the lake in a longtail boat. While the karst scenery in the Krabi region is often quite pretty, we had never imagined that an artificial lake in the area could be so beautiful – possibly even more beautiful than Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. With its hunched grey humps rising out of the still water, the lake was a stunning setting and the perfect habitat for the resident monkey population which emerges from the trees in the evenings to take a cooling dip in the lake.

The first leg of our journey (second if you count the 1½ hour drive over) brought us to the rafthouses, where a swim in the lake and a ridiculously large lunch left us ready for the afternoon’s adventure. Full as ticks and rearing to go, our longtail dropped us at a bank across the lake and we started to make our way through the jungle, wading across rivers, breaking up swirls of vibrant butterflies, cowering before huge spiders (“Why,” asked Gary, “are the bugs in Asia so much bigger when the people are so much smaller?”) and craning our necks to watch monkeys swing from branch to branch 20m above ground.

Eventually we got to the cave where we donned our headlamps and tiptoed in, trying not to wake the bats and toads up. Again, no such luck as our guide shone his torch on everthing that slithered, hopped, creeped and flew in the cave. All the previously sleeping inhabitants were at once roused to life and we had to duck our heads to avoid some of the less impressed residents. Relieved to be done with that particular chamber, we made our way onwards through freezing water that started at ankle depth and eventually crept up our thighs until we were frantically dog-paddling through a tight corridor, humming the Indiana Jones theme tune.

Although Khao Sok National Park didn’t fulfill my inflated expectations, solitary treks through the jungle and nights spent listening to insects and toads from inside a mosquito net ended up being exactly what our trip had been missing. One way or another we had sought out our own slice of Thailand – one we didn’t have to share with every topless Scandanavian and her blonde boyfriend.

More pictures from Khao Sok are available in the gallery

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tim  |  May 8, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Nice blog 😉 very funny!

    Reply
  • 2. Dave Williams  |  May 12, 2011 at 3:19 am

    There are no tigers in Khao Sok and haven’t been any in years. This is a popular myth to help promote the park. It’s not based in reality. How come no one ever gets a photo of any, including scientists who do camera trap animal surveys? I know a gentleman who did his doctorate work in KS doing animal surveys. Living in the park for three years, he never saw a single tiger track, nor got any photos. He got photos of poachers traveling through the jungle at night though. KS is an amazing place, but it has a lot of problems. Mistruths about what wildlife is there doesn’t help the cause.

    Reply

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