Khao Sok National Park is about 450 miles south of Bangkok and about a million miles from our comfort zone. As fully paid-up members of Arachnophobes Anonymous (or just a general nature-phobe in Rebecca’s case), we were definitely expecting to be facing some fears during our three days in Thailand’s 160 million year old jungle.
Khao Sok is one of the world’s oldest rainforests and is home to a huge amount of wildlife. Some that you’re very likely to meet like snakes, spiders, lizards, macaques and birds of prey, and other much harder-to-spot animals like bears, gibbons, boars, and even some rare tigers and elephants.
We took a public minivan from Krabi to the edge of the park. The round-about route of picking up locals on their way to work, dropping people home with their market shopping, and transferring packages between roadside businesses meant it took much longer than the direct tourist minivans. But, it also meant we saw the Asian taxi hailing gesture in action (arm straight out, palm down, flap your hand up and down like you’re dribbling a mini basketball), a woman precariously balanced on the edge of a grill cart attached to a moped, barbecuing meat skewers as they sped down the highway, and, best of all, bonus views of amazing jungle-covered limestone karsts towering above the thick rainforest canopy.
On our first night, we stayed just at the entrance to the national park in a bamboo jungle bungalow (jungalow?). It was definitely remote (completely surrounded by trees, misc. animals scampering over the roof at night), but it was far less rustic than we’d expected; powerful aircon, a good shower and cushions on our private balcony, from where we could spy on our animal neighbours.
These animal neighbours were definitely entry-level nature in jungle terms. We watched roosters chasing each other through the undergrowth and squirrels playing in the trees. We progressed to mid-level nature with a mega-spider wrapped around a nearby tree trunk. How big was it? Timian christened it the Face Hugger which should give you a horrible but accurate idea…
From the Face Hugger we graduated to advanced(ish)-level nature with an overnight trip into the jungle where we stayed at the Tone Tuey floating raft houses – an hour’s longtail boat ride into the gigantic Cheow Lan Lake.
These huts were much more basic; thin wooden walls, a (definitely mammal-sized) gap to the bamboo roof, one mattress, and a mozzie net. Each hut was attached to a long floating platform made of logs. It was an incredible place to stay; just one step outside our hut and we were perched on the edge of the walkway watching fish swim by. Two steps and we were in the lake with them!
On our first afternoon we had the option of joining a jungle hike that would “definitely involve a cave and definitely involve getting wet.” Encouraged by our guide, we’d bought some 70THB shoes at a roadside market outside the national park to deal with the water cave. Grippy but also waterproof, they were a stunning hybrid of a rubber brogue and a football boot.
Once we’d found out that the cave part of the hike would last an hour, be through neck-deep water, and involve a rope-assisted climb with just a head torch… we looked at some other afternoon activities. Our new shoes now had a much better use: we traded them with the people living at Tone Tuey camp in exchange for using their kayaks for the afternoon.
The lake was formed in the 80s when a hydro-electric dam was built that raised the existing small lake to a depth of 150m. The area we kayaked around would once have been high up in the jungle canopy, with the original smaller lake – and a even small village that had to be abandoned – far below us at the bottom of the valley. Some of the taller trees still reach above the new water level, but drowned by the rising water they’re stripped of leaves and have smooth, bleached-white branches. Which make excellent climbing frames. Timian wasn’t the only ape enjoying the trees – we caught sight of a group of rhesus monkeys playing in the still-living trees on the shoreline next to us.
The longtail boat we arrived on took us out for wildlife-spotting trips at night and very early the next morning. It’s always hit and miss how much you’ll see. At night we saw a sleeping monitor lizard hugging a high-up tree branch, and an owl. The owl was less exciting but as we were so close to it, and hadn’t seen much else so far, our guide was obviously keen for us to get the most out of the boat trip and shon his spotlight on the poor owl for ages. Judging by the steady death stare the owl gave us out of the darkness, a boat load of humans with flashlights was clearly ruining his hunting chances.
We had better luck on the early morning boat trip. The scenery right outside our hut alone was worth the early start; the rainforest condensation formed thick puffy clouds which slowly rose up from the surface of the lake, through the canopy and then disintegrated into a clear blue sky.
From the boat we saw an eagle swooping around, baby macaques clambering along the shoreline and four gibbons leaping around high up in the treetops.
After breakfast and a boat ride to another part of the lake it was time to take on the jungle. Accompanied by a park ranger, we took a steep hike up through the forest. We were really glad of our boots and water supply, but the ranger (despite his much shorter legs) casually stormed to the top in plimsolls without pausing for breath.
Once at the top he took us into a cave. Thankfully there was no neck-deep water in this one but he took us right past a writhing white snake, a huge uncoiling python and a spider that made the Face Hugger look like an ant. We’d love to provide more detail here, but we essentially looked at them for a split second, looked at each other in disbelief and looked away into the darkness as quickly as possible. Just before leaving the cave, the ranger told us all to turn our torches off. We laughed but then realised he meant it. Now in total darkness, the background noise of hundreds and hundreds of bats screeching now fell silent and was replaced with the sound of their wings beating as they swooped around above our heads. As soon as we turned our torches back on the screeching returned and we could see them all streaming away from the light as quickly as they could.
Back above ground and back down at lake-level we had a final stop to swim in the lake before the longtail boat took us back to the jetty.