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Khao Sok: Thailand's secret garden

Turn your back on the crowded beaches of Phuket and head inland to Khao Sok National Park, a spectacularly diverse wilderness that’s thriving after decades of conflict and exploitation. Here you’ll find a land of primordial limestone mountains, wildlife to rival the Amazon, and eco-friendly lakeside and treetop camps.

Published June 26, 2013
By Meera Dattani

For a town dubbed ‘Ban Sop’ (house of the dead bodies) after a 1944 epidemic killed much of the population, Khao Sok’s resurrection has been something of a miracle.

From my treehouse deck, I can hear long-tailed macaque monkeys squawking noisily as the morning mist lifts over towering limestone karsts. Below, the Sok River gently gurgles away as fellow guests enjoy a splash by the river beach. Khao Sok is alive and well.

The town is located within the 270sq miles of jungle, forest and lake that is southern Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park. This is one of the country’s biggest, yet it’s often overlooked by travellers in favour of beach life at nearby Phuket, Krabi and Ko Samui. They don’t know what they’re missing. It’s a wildlife haven, with ancient limestone reefs, remote waterfalls, majestic Cheow Lan Lake and a tropical evergreen rainforest that’s older and more diverse than Amazonia.

But it’s a haven that’s fought hard to exist. In 1961, an east-to-west-coast road was built to support the growing logging and mining industry. The Sok River ran brown with industrial dregs, and the forest faced an equally ugly fate, until Thai students and communist insurgents sought refuge from government forces in the dense forest of Khao Sok from 1975-82. Their occupation inadvertently helped protect the pristine area from the loggers, miners and poachers wreaking havoc elsewhere in Thailand. In 1980, a further threat, from aerial logging, was averted when a National Park Division survey confirmed the rich biodiversity of the area.

This led, shortly afterwards, to the boundaries of a national park to be drawn up. In the next few years, the first eco-resorts were established, including Our Jungle House, where I’m staying. Set in 25 acres of forest on the Sok River, it’s now run by Bodhi Garrett and his wife Tu, who see community-based eco-tourism as the key to ensuring the park’s long-term survival, working with local schools to help pass on the ecology message. At the school I visit, pupils proudly show off gardens they’re cultivating and deftly weave placemats from palm leaves.

“We buy a lot of vegetables from neighbours and we’ve sacrificed air conditioning, hot water and TV,” says Bodhi, when I ask about Our Jungle House’s green credentials. Recycling is also encouraged — empty juice boxes are even delivered to a Phuket artist who uses them to make furniture. And despite being just a 15-minute walk from Khao Sok’s small but growing strip of restaurants and bars, the eco-resort has not sought to capitalise on passing trade. “Over 80% of our property is still undeveloped,” Bodhi proudly explains.

Instead, there’s a new wildlife trail on the grounds and a nighttime tour with a sharp-eyed guide serving up fine nocturnal treats. I’m privy to a rare sighting of a cicada shyly emerging from its shell after spending as much as 15 years as a nymph underground. A distant rustle could be a lemur, civet cat, slow loris or even a flying lizard using flaps of skin under its legs to ride the wind from tree to tree. Fireflies flicker around us, and my guide illuminates a spectacular-looking tarantula. Back at my treehouse, the nightly concert of singing cicadas and noisy geckos has begun outside; the cicada’s love calls the loudest, reaching up to 120 decibels at close range (similar to a car horn or aeroplane at take-off). Thankfully, the different species sing at different times.

River trips, mangrove canoeing, trekking and tubing are some of the ways to experience this part of Khao Sok. Water levels are low in the dry season, so a guided canoe trip is a good way to enjoy the scenery. I see a mangrove cat snake coiled up on a high branch, a water monitor lizard slithering into the depths, and a statuesque Chinese pond heron perched on a river bank. Every so often, my guide carefully steers the canoe around an uprooted tree stuck in the river, washed in from the floods. Locals are fishing; schoolchildren perch on branches, chatting. All around us, Khao Sok’s signature limestone karsts glisten in the sunlight.

The park itself is a trekker’s dream. I take up Bodhi’s offer to hike with him and his two-year-old son, Boon. As we make our way towards Bang Hua Red waterfall, we pass bamboo groves and Bodhi points out species of fern and weird-and-wonderful fungi. The giant red rafflesia, Thailand’s largest flower — with a diameter of up to 3ft — also blooms here between December and February; its rotten meat smell attracting flies for pollination, although none have been sighted today. As we listen out for gibbon song and bird calls under the forest canopy, a tropical thunderstorm sends down a welcome rain shower (it hasn’t rained in months). I watch out for leeches — more common during Khao Sok’s rainy season — although these harmless, if irritating, creatures seem to prefer my hiking partner. 

 

Into the trees

The deeper into the jungle you go, the greater the rewards. Jungle survival treks are on offer from Khao Sok native Sao Kananaena, who runs Bamboo House guesthouse. “My dad was a park warden,” he tells me, “I love living here, I want to help protect it.” Sao’s jungle treks are not for the late riser, starting at 4am with a breakfast cooked in the jungle on bamboo and a forest trek. “I teach you what you can eat, what you can’t, how to build shelter and treat injuries,” he explains. “We might see sambar deer, wild guar [wild Asian buffalo] and even elephants.” Like his neighbour Bodhi, Sao understands the importance of community-based tourism. “I give a young boy some work, then who knows. If everyone’s working, there’s no trouble and we protect the park.”

Khao Sok’s unspoilt habitat makes it a good choice for birders; avian highlights include several species of kingfisher, the Asian paradise flycatcher, red-bearded bee-eater, trogons, hornbills and the seven-colour banded pitta. Local birding expert Gai was drawn to Khao Sok for that very reason. “When I was little, my grandfather would take me trekking. We’d take a break under the trees and I’d look for birds and record their calls.” He’s now collected data for 180 of the 300-plus bird species believed to exist here. “I want to get higher up on the karsts as there could be new species there, birds that literally got stuck from the Ice Age,” says Gai.

The forest is just one part of Khao Sok; the jewel in its crown is Cheow Lan Lake. An ethereal wildlife sanctuary in the heart of the park, it’s where Khao Sok’s limestone cliffs come into their own: the jagged formations rising up around the lake or emerging out of nowhere like huge grey ghosts. Some, like the twin peaks of Khao Serow nudge 3,000ft in height, almost unheard of anywhere else.

Staying on a floating raft house on Cheow Lan Lake is the highlight of a trip to the eco-friendly Rainforest Camp. Not only does it generate its own solar and wind power, its waste management system means it doesn’t pollute the lake’s waters. Rainforest Camp is the creation of Elephant Hills, a company that founded, and gave its name to, Thailand’s first luxury tented jungle camp, close to the national park. As we sail there in a long-tail boat, I chat to my guide, Mike Clark, Elephant Hills’ wildlife project coordinator.

“It reminds me of Halong Bay in Vietnam,” I remark, as the first limestone outcrops come into view. I’m not the only to have made comparisons, it seems. “People often call this Thailand’s Guilin [a beautiful karst landscape in China],” says Mike. “It’s because they’re all part of the same natural phenomenon. These rocks are from a coral reef system created 250 million years ago from shell and coral deposits. Then, when the Indian subcontinent and Asian continent collided three million years ago, they rose up into these karsts.” This titanic crash, which also created the Himalayas, is responsible for a 3,100-mile spine of dramatic limestone formations — from China’s Guilin to Sarawak in Borneo — also running through Malaysia and Thailand (to spectacular effect in neighbouring Phang Nga Bay and Krabi).

Phang Nga receives more visitors in one week than Cheow Lan Lake gets in a year, yet is equally — if not more — impressive. At Rainforest Camp, 10 luxury tents float on individual rafts; each with its own kayak. I enjoy a quick dip in the lake before watching the sun set over the limestone peaks from my raft deck. Above, a flock of hornbills flit across the sky, and a solitary eagle soars high into the trees. It doesn’t get more tranquil than this. 


Dawn raid

A 6am kayak trip along Klong Mooi — one of the lake’s more secluded canals — is our chance to spot early-morning action. Mike has been monitoring a family of white-handed gibbons for some time and is hoping we’ll get a glimpse. We wait patiently, entertained in the meantime by several spectacled langurs (a monkey distinguished by white ‘glasses’ around its eyes). And then, the beautiful, haunting, rising and falling whoops of a gibbon come within earshot. We see the family moments later, swinging effortlessly between the branches, just as a great hornbill swishes past us, flashing its yellow beak and black-and-white plumage as it shows off its 6.5ft wingspan. It’s been a good morning.

The forest around the lake is rich in wildlife. As well as deer, wild boar, tapier and serow (a goat-like antelope), there have been sightings, deep in the jungle, of the elusive wild Asian elephant, cloud leopard and Malayan tiger. On a strangler fig tree, Mike points out where a Malayan sun bear has shimmied up to pilfer a bee’s nest, but Khao Sok’s Winnie the Pooh is nowhere in sight. Macaque monkeys and babbler birds provide the soundtrack as we traipse through the undergrowth, past giant termite mounds and across the twisted vines of the rattan palm tree.

This trail leads us to Pron Pet Cave, one of several in the park, including Namtaloo and Seroo. Many served as military posts and even a hospital for the activists in the 1970s. Qualified guides are essential for all caves, which can be dangerous in the rain. Home to giant bats and spiders, flying lizards and cave racer snakes, it’s a miracle I’ve ventured inside. Stuck to the wall, a dead huntsman spider glows a brilliant white, its body crystallised by the cold air. Elsewhere, a virtually blind tailless whip scorpion uses its many limbs to feel its way in the dark.

As we emerge from the darkness, the vast Cheow Lan Lake is a soothing sight. For divers, the northern section, where it meets the Pasaeng River, is a world of rock formations, huge caves, shoals of catfish and submerged trees. But this 103sq mile body of water, like the park itself, also has a story. It was created within Khao Sok (the largest watershed in southern Thailand) after the government and EGAT (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) built the Rachaprapha Dam in 1982 to provide hydro-electric power. But it was an ecological disaster: forests and villages were flooded, a capture-and-release programme to save animals who faced drowning was unsuccessful and a 1995 study revealed 52 species of fish had been lost.

Today, many eco-tourism operators work hard to ensure Khao Sok remains protected. Elephant Hills is one of these, employing local people, funding research and working with schools. Mike has set up camera traps around the lake to help gather data on wildlife. “It’s an incredible ecosystem but there’s still not enough research,” he says. “We need more community eco-tourism, yet some tourism operators and conservation NGOs are still working separately.”

Mike also works with three local schools, teaching English and educating children about wildlife.

“I hope they’re more motivated to protect the wildlife, and will maybe even consider working as guides,” he says. “At the moment, though, rubber tree and palm oil plantation work is far more lucrative.”


On safari

I travel next to the Elephant Hills camp, eight miles from the national park, which includes 30 safari-style tents, a pool with a view of jagged karsts, and a partly enclosed dining area that hosts evening dance displays and Thai cooking demos. It is also home to an elephant sanctuary — hence the name. Thailand has around 3,000 Asian elephants, around 2,000 of which are domesticated. Many were used in the logging industry to transport timber and when logging in the park was banned in 1989, most were left malnourished by owners who could no longer afford to feed them properly. With Thailand running out of jungle, well-run sanctuaries can give them another lease of life.

Guests aren’t allowed to ride the elephants (it’s being phased out for all park visitors) and mahouts (elephant trainers) ensure the animals are healthy and active. As part of the Elephant Experience, I cut up vast quantities of bamboo and vegetables before hand-feeding these majestic creatures. Using their trunks, they sniff out, then discard, their least favourite morsels, leaving us to retrieve their drool-covered rejects from the ground. After an exuberant mud bath, it’s time to scrub and wash the gentle giants. My spot, at the business end, means I’m weed on, although I manage to move away in time to avoid something even less palatable.

Mike tells me there are plans to expand the enclosure — although, being domesticated and not from a single family group, there are limits to how much freedom the elephants can be given.“They’re not a cohesive unit,” he says, “so they can’t be treated as such. They don’t have survival skills and if we let them roam, they’d trample the food we’re growing for them.” It’s a delicate balance, but one that Elephant Hills seem to be addressing carefully.

The battle to protect Khao Sok is equally poised. It’s being fought valiantly but palm oil and rubber plantations on its outskirts threaten to upset its delicate ecological. On the other hand, there’s a huge opportunity for community-based eco-tourism to help sustain the park. Even today, much of this fairytale landscape of limestone crags and pristine forest is undocumented. And that’s what makes it exciting to visit. “It’s a blank canvas right now,” says Mike. “A zoologist’s dream.”


ESSENTIALS
Thailand

Getting there
British Airways, Thai Airways and EVA Air fly direct from Heathrow to Bangkok. www.ba.com   www.thaiairways.co.uk   www.evaair.com 

Thai Smile, Air Asia and Nok Air all fly from Bangkok to Krabi and Phuket (both a two-hour drive from Khao Sok) and Surat Thani (a 90-minute drive from Khao Sok). www.thaismileair.com   www.airasia.com   www.nokair.com

Thomson Airways is to launch direct flights from Gatwick to Phuket on 19 November. www.thomson.co.uk

Getting around
If travelling independently, a bus from Phuket and Surat Thani to Khao Sok costs about 300 baht (£6.60) per person.
From Khao Sok, a minibus to Surat Thani Airport costs 250 baht (£5.50) per person; to Krabi Airport, 450 baht (£10).

When to go
The dry season (November-May) is ideal for jungle treks and travel to west coast beaches. Waterfalls and canoeing are best in the rainy season.

Need to know
Visas: A 30-day visa waiver is stamped on arrival at international airports.
Currency: Thai baht (THB). £1 = 45 baht.
Health: Visit your GP prior to your visit. Typhoid and hepatitis A are recommended. Polio-tetanus jabs should be up-to-date.
International dial code: 00 66.
Time: GMT +7.

Places mentioned
Our Jungle House. www.khaosokaccommodation.com
Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp. www.elephant-hills.com/rainforest_camp.php
Bamboo House. www.krabidir.com/bamboohouse

More info
www.tourismthailand.org/uk
The Rough Guide to Thailand’s Beaches & Islands. RRP £12.99.
Waterfalls & Gibbon Calls: Exploring Khao Sok National Park, by Thom Henley. Unavailable to buy in the UK but widely sold in Thailand for around 550 baht (£12).
www.khaosok-tourism.com

How to do it
An eight-day Rainforest Limestone Lake and Beach Retreat with community-tourism specialist Andaman Discoveries costs from £450 per person. It includes guided activities, airport transfers, three nights’ B&B at Our Jungle House, two nights full-board on a floating rafthouse on Cheow Lan Lake and three nights at Koh Ra Island (high season) or Koh Phra Thong island (low season), plus boat transfers. Excludes flights. www.andamandiscoveries.com

Audley Travel’s 12-day Natural Escape tour costs from £2,285 per person. It includes two nights’ B&B in Bangkok, three nights’ full-board plus activities at Elephant Hills and five nights’ B&B at Khao Lak Beach, plus return flights.
www.audleytravel.com

 

Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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