Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
Enjoying what you're reading?
Subscribe via Email and never miss anything on Frog Mom!
Famous for its waterfalls and idyllic lake, Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand features great nature activities for families, from hiking to kayaking, birding and swimming. Part Gui Lin, part Avatar, all jungle, Khao Sok National Park is eerily beautiful and makes a perfect nature break if you are visiting the south of Thailand for its islands and beaches. The best part? No mosquitoes, Tarzan liana swinging and a lot more monkeys than people. Here is our Khao Sok National Park tour, what we saw and how we got there.
Getting to Khao Sok National Park was an interesting experience, as we opted for a public bus ride from Khao Lak to Surat Thani. When our hotel shuttle dropped us at the “bus stop”–a road with no visible bus stop signs in front of a cheap tourist shop–we were puzzled. Was this is? We dropped our bags on the sidewalk and waited.
Like a shiny white phoenix rising out of grey concrete, the 10.16am bus showed up at 11.34am. Finally! However when we saw it stop 200m before us to let people in, our heart sank. Either we went all Jason Bourne or we missed the bus. We quickly picked up our belongings (God bless dry bags with shoulder straps) and ran on the road. All aboard! As this was a modern bus with air conditioning, we were soon freezing and pulling layers from our backpacks.
Ten minutes later, the bus stopped at the Khao Lak Bus Center. Already? “15-minute break,” the bus driver announced. Oh. Right. Good timing actually, our girls were getting hungry. We picked up tasty snacks at the food stalls and hopped back on the bus–sneakily picking better seats than before–to munch on brown rice crackers, banana toffee and cashew nuts. BTW, southern Thailand is big cashew nut territory. Try them.
On the road again. Most of the tourists got off at Khao Sok National Park headquarters, but we carried on for another 60 km to Ban Ta Khun where our tour started. Shortly after 1pm, the bus dropped us off in front of two small pick up trucks and the driver said “taxi.” Good thing I had printed the agency’s map with address in Thai.
Our Khao Sok National Park overnight on Cheow Lan Lake was part of a 3-day tour with (the aptly-named) Khao Sok Lake ethical tourism agency, starting with a homestay with a Thai family in a rubber tree plantation and following with 2 days on the lake with a guide.
Called the Lake & Local Life, this tour was a great opportunity to meet some locals and experience their way of life before discovering the lake. I had discussed it with Nick, the Californian director at Khao Sok Lake tours, and he recommended it for a different experience. He was totally right and it’s great for families, particularly if kids like to get hands-on.
Incidentally, many of the homestay families are displaced from villages that currently sleep at the bottom of Cheow Lan Lake and were moved to Ban Ta Khun for the dam project in 1982. It was an interesting tie-in with the history of the lake/reservoir.
Getting off the minibus, we unloaded our bags at the boat pier by the Cheow Lan Lake dam, greeted by the sight of dozens of tourists in bright orange safety jackets. Judging by the daypacks and plastic bags, they were here for a quick boat ride to the closest karstic formations jutting out of Cheow Lan Lake’s glassy surface. Though we had no idea where we were going (gosh, how I missed a decent map), we assumed a tad further and possibly, on a less crowded boat. With much relief, we saw our guide, Khun Ot, walk over to a smaller long-tail boat and invite us to come aboard.
Oh, that boat ride. Past the first wide stretch of lake, we entered narrow passages and eerily beautiful coves with karstic islands coming out of the lake like fingers pointing to the sky. Knowing that these islands were only the submerged part of former “mountains,”I tried to imagine the 50 to 100 meters of rock underwater below our boat. It almost gave me vertigo but unless you dive, there’s absolutely no way to know where the valleys, temples or former village sites would have been.
Of course, the dam makes the karstic formations all the more dramatic as you literally have no time to prepare mentally for the vertical walls rising so steeply above your heads. That’s the beauty of boating versus hiking, it’s a much faster way to get around.
It was such an awesome sight that during the first half hour, I couldn’t resist smiling to nobody in particular despite the episodic rain showers. Our boat pilot took us to the three famous rocks Hin Sam Glur. They were indeed a nice trio, but I was much more thrilled by caves barely emerging from the water or straight lianas climbing straight up rock faces. On our boat ride back, Khun Ot showed us some cliff faces and explained that they separated the lake from freshwater lagoons. Hidden lagoons behind mountains, can you imagine? What an amazing place. I’d love to return and climb some of these mountains. After two hours on the boat, we reached our “hotel” for the overnight.
One of the oldest locations on Cheow Lan Lake, the Ton Tuey raft houses showed their age but my lord, were they atmospheric. They included an eclectic collection of bamboo bungalows, some built on site and rockety as hell, others built on land and dragged on site by boat, much nicer and sturdier. Initially, we were assigned two of the (seemingly) most shabby bungalows but my girls had their eyes set on a pair of yellow bungalows so I asked if we could move. It seemed like they were all the same price anyway, which seemed a bit unfair as some were much smaller and others in better condition.
Thanks to a last-minute cancellation, we changed bungalows (under a tropical rainstorm) and that night, were lucky to sleep on a raised bamboo platform with a thicker mattress. Sweet! My girls were thrilled and had a blast spreading their stuff all over their bungalow, while we tried to hang our damp clothes to dry but to no effect. As in Eddie Izzard’s Death Star canteen skit, we kept repeating to each other: “This one’s wet. This one’s wet. Did you dry these in a rainforest?” The same could have been said of all our clothes on Cheow Lan Lake. They stubbornly refused to dry.
Each of the four yellow bungalows had a square window opening on the jungle (and the floating restrooms block) in the back, as well as a window opening out front on a bamboo platform, the narrow pontoon and the lake. Gorgeous!
Amazingly enough, there were absolutely no mosquitoes during our stay and I still don’t understand how that was possible on a lake in the middle of a tropical jungle. Even more unexpected was the cool temperature. The night was on the fresh side and I slept fully-clothed with the thin blanket that was on the bed (debatable cleanliness) and a towel on top to keep warm.
Food-wise, I’ve had much better elsewhere in Thailand but the one-menu-fits-all was OK. Each meal included at least one dish that we liked, plus as many fresh fruit plates as we wanted. As far as washing, everybody seemed happy to jump in the lake and call it a day, some completely lathered in soap, most in swimsuits.
For a short stay, it suited us fine and the lake water was wonderfully clear (though it tasted silty and reminded me of the Thames river). To anybody who’s freaked out by Thai toilets (I love them), the toilet block only featured western toilets that were quite clean and, fortunately, included the luxury of toilet paper rolls. I’m mentioning it because sometimes in Thailand, you have to bring your own.
Khao Sok National Park is extraordinary in many respects, not least because of its history of human rebellion and remote tribes. However what draws the majority of tourists is the vibrant wildlife and flora of the park. Indeed, by hiking up the Bang Hoi waterfall, we entered one of the oldest rainforests on Earth.
Humbled by the sheer size of towering trees, we half expected to stumble upon big cats and felt stronger than Tarzan as we walked on tree roots bigger than our legs. Calf-high in the waterfall’s steady stream, we following in Khun Ot’s footsteps with religious fervor. It wasn’t so much that we were uncertain of the trail (there was none), but Khun Ot had showed us two types of nasty nettles notoriously toxic and incapacitating despite their innocuous appearance. Gulp! Hence our disciplined single-file walking, a rare occurrence for us who prefer bushwhacking and discovering places off-trail.
Thanks to Khun Ot’s creativity and playful attitude, this hike was a blast and became my girls’ favorite activity at Khao Sok National Park. Instead of giving us numbers and facts on the jungle, Khun Ot looked for a liana that was strong enough that we could swing from it.
Oh, the sheer joy of launching from a higher tree into a temple of green, holding only the liana with two hands. We couldn’t get enough and kept asking for one more turn. After that, he had us stop in the water at a river crossing and waited until tiny fish came to nibble at our toes with their fused teeth. Tickle alert!
Further up, Khun Ot stopped by a small pool in the waterfall and announced that this our “swim” spot. Or rather, he removed his shirt and walked in the pool til he was shoulder-deep, then positioned a hollow bamboo tube as “shower hose” to create a shower on his head. We didn’t need more of an invitation and jumped in, taking turns playing with the bamboo tubes in the pool. Meanwhile, Khun Ot gathered green leaves and crafted fern and leaf crowns for us girls. What a cool guy!
On that note, some fun facts about Khun Ot.
After the hike, we came back to Ton Tuey lazily, hugging the coastline with the longtail boat and killing the engine to spot animals in the trees at sunset. We had great expectations. The thing was, a group of Americans at Ton Tuey had seen a wild elephant in the jungle the previous day. Naively, we wanted to get lucky too, knowing full well that big game is shy and mostly nocturnal. The only super impressive animal we were able to touch was this gigantic cicada bigger than my hand. These ear-splittingly loud insects live 15 years underground before crawling to the surface to sing, mate and die.
Bordering two wildlife sanctuaries, Khao Sok offers one of the last sizable habitats in Thailand for big animals such as wild elephants, great hornbills, tigers and gibbons. What we saw, or rather what we heard, was almost better. We heard the roar of an Asian black bear in the jungle. We heard it at two different locations, getting closer to us as we kayaked along the shore of the lake the following day.
It sounded fierce and guttural, sign that he had seen us and was unhappy about the intrusion (quoting Khun Ot here). How cool was that? An unhappy bear. Needless to say, we didn’t linger because Asian black bears are also very good swimmers. However, I was horrified to read that these bears are poached to be cooked alive at banquets for Koreans in Bangkok. If that’s true, it’s a monstrosity.
Most of the wildlife we saw in trees were gibbons, macaques and langurs, as well as a couple of great hornbills and sea eagles. Ironically, the closest we got to wild monkeys was standing on the rickety pontoon at Ton Tuey and spotting a family of five wild monkeys playing on the roof of the restrooms building.
I may not be a star kayaker, but I love observing nature from the stealthiness of a kayak. It’s silent, it’s ecofriendly and it’s easy to manoeuvre. At Ton Tuey, there were kayaks available to everyone and after breakfast on the second day, Khun Ot took us on the other side of the cove to explore the shore and look for wild monkeys.
Without the deafening noise of the longtail engine, it was much easier to immerse ourselves in the sounds of the jungle and we heard monkeys long before we saw them. In fact, we could hear the sound of cracking branches as they swung from tree to tree, locating them by ear before we spotted the foliage move. Very neat.
Though I wasn’t sure how he could tell one cove from the next, Khun Ot seemed to know exactly where we were going and at the mouth of a wider arm in the lake, offered to go deeper. At that stage, we had been kayaking for 90 minutes and my girls were ready to return for a swim. So we happily kayaked back.
Something should be said of the weather at Cheow Lan Lake, because it was highly peculiar. In short, it rained every half hour or so and we visited at the height of the dry season. Not for long, but it rained hard and wet. The tropical spells were visible from afar and we saw their grey aquatic curtain make their way across the lake until we were in them, drenched by the warm rain. Then, just as suddenly, they cleared off. While kayaking, it rained on us roughly 4 times and I had suspected it might be the case, we were all wearing swimsuits. Still.
If this was the dry season, how wet could it be during the monsoon?
I’ve said all I had to say on Khao Sok National Park. I hope that you’ll love it as much as I did when you visit and that you’ll help protect this unique ecosystem.