PADDLING DOWN THE SOK RIVER
We left the lights (and civilisation) of Bangkok behind us last night, bound for the wilds of Khao Sok National Park. Covering an area of more than 4,000 square kilometres Khao Sok, in Southern Thailand, is a vast tract of lakes, rivers, and jungle. Famed for being the wettest place in the country (annual rainfall ~ 4m), Khao Sok is also renowned for its spectacular karst scenery and wildlife – most of the few remaining wild tigers, elephants, tapirs, panthers, and leopards live within its protected boundaries. We love a good jungle safari, which is why we’re here for the next few days!
Our day started with an early morning wake-up call on the train; the coffee man came through our sleeper cabin at around 6:00am announcing his wares and ensuring we were all up in time for the 7:30am arrival in Surat Thani. We woke to views of rivers, watery swamps, banana plantations, and small villages nestled in the jungle. Very different scenery to the Central and Northern parts of Thailand!
Somewhat surprisingly we’d both managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep during the night and awoke (relatively) refreshed. It was still a relief to step off the train in Surat Thani for breakfast and a cup of strong coffee, however.
Surat Thani is the largest town in Southern Thailand and a major transit hub – many of the buses bound for beach resort towns like Phuket and Krabi leave form here, as do boats bound for island getaway destinations like Koh Samui. Most people, like us, just pass through Surat Thani which gives the town an air of transiency and not much else.
We stopped at a local market before setting off for Khao Sok National Park and bought some fresh fruit to snack on (ahhh… bananas truly are nature’s greatest gift – the perfectly packaged snack of champions). The market made for an interesting stop and gave us a chance to see a little of how the locals here eat and live.
Caffeinated, replete after breakfast, and loaded up with water and snacks, we were then ready for the next leg of our journey: a 2 hour song thaew ride to Koh Sok. For the uninitiated: a song thaew is basically a covered pick-up truck with 2 benches affixed to the sides. They function as a cross between buses and taxis here in Thailand and, for a fixed fee, will transport you and your luggage between set pick-up/drop-off places. They’re convenient, easy, and cheap, but not particularly comfortable. Luckily the views of the countryside kept us distracted from the worst of the jostles and bumps. The drive from Surat Thani to Khao Sok was beautiful – the closer we got to the national park, the denser the vegetation became and the less populated the area became. By the time we reached our accommodation, which is just 200m from the entrance of the national park, it was obvious we were well outside the bounds of the “big smoke”!
Our “resort”* is nestled in the jungle and sits along the banks of the Sok River. It’s pretty basic, but should do us just fine for a couple of nights. The best part of staying out here is that we’re surrounded the colours and sounds of the jungle – there are so many flowers, birds, and butterflies around!
*The use of the word “resort” is somewhat optimistic in this context I think. Let’s say it’s a bunch of shabby bungalows in the middle of the jungle. There’s (intermittent) electricity, running (non-potable) water, warm(ish) showers, Western-style toilets (that you can’t put toilet paper into), mosquito nets (with holes in them), fans for ventilation, and a firm but comfortable bed. Considering where we are, it’s not too bad. Not good, but not too bad.
We took a couple of hours to refresh ourselves, have lunch, and recover from our journey from Bangkok. By 2:00pm we were ready to start exploring the jungle, however, and so booked ourselves an afternoon canoe trip down the Sok River.
The Sok River is one of many waterways that feeds into Cheow Lan Lake, Khao Sok National Park’s crowning glory (which we’re visiting tomorrow). This small river wides its way through Thailand’s largest virgin rainforest and around towering pillars of karst.
The karst mountains of Khao Sok are remnants of a once immense coral reef that originally stretched from China all the way Borneo. Estimated to be 5 times the size of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, this vast limestone landscape has over the millennia shifted, moved, and been eroded to create the dramatic scenery we’ve seen around Guilin (China), Vang Vieng (Laos), Halong Bay (Vietnam), and now Khao Sok (Thailand).
The canoes we travelled in carry 3 people: the 2 of us and our hard-working river-guide who paddled us down the river – talk about a lazy way to travel!
Due to its rugged, mountainous terrain, Khao Sok National Park has remained relatively untouched by people, and teems with plants and wildlife. We didn’t see any big critters during our canoe trip, but did get to enjoy great views of the scenery and saw a few frogs, a giant monitor lizard, oodles of fish, and even a couple of snakes. Scariest of all was a black and yellow python that had wrapped itself up into a ball in the overhanging branches of a tree – its body was as thick as my arm and its eyes yellow and full of hate. Our canoe-driver steered us directly under it, eagerly pointing at the creature with his paddle; we were less keen to stay directly under the snake and urged him to keep moving – last thing we wanted was a 2m-long python dropping into our canoe for a visit!
The canoe trip gave us a wonderful introduction to the jungles of Khao Sok and gave us a great appreciation for how untamed this corner of Thailand really is. The swarms of insects that descended on us as soon as the sun began to set provided further evidence on how wild the place is. Ain’t no one spraying for bugs around here! And it turns out that I am the tastiest thing to hit Khao Sok in a long time – even with a coating of toxic DEET-powered insect repellant I still managed to get attacked by a few enterprising mosquitos who worked out that the palms of my hands and ear lobes weren’t DEET-protected. Seriously, who gets bitten on the hand and ear?! Me apparently. The area has been declared malaria-free so I’m not worried about that, but it’s still annoying as hell! For now we’re tucked into bed, behind the (somewhat) protective shield of our mosquito net (the one with holes in it), but for tomorrow the battle between (wo)man and insects will start again when we head out to Cheow Lan Lake to see more of Khao Sok’s stunning scenery.