Like many countries in the wet tropics, Thailand has areas of rainforest where both tourists and locals alike can spend time enjoying nature experiences in the jungle. Often the best places are well off the beaten track, and take some time to reach, but what makes Thailand different to most other countries, is that it has a world-renowned jungle destination within easy reach of an international airport.
The Khao Sok National Park in southwestern Thailand is just two hours’ drive from Phuket International Airport. It’s the same distance from Krabi – another tourist destination that’s popular with international tourists. Whilst both these places offer day tours to Khao Sok, the national park really needs a minimum of a three-night stay to appreciate what it has to offer.
The national park is also known as ‘Thailand’s Guilin’ because it features limestone karst scenery that is reminiscent of the Guilin region in southern China. But being in the wet tropics, Khao Sok has much more wildlife living in its rainforest than is present in the sub-tropical region of Guilin.
Within the boundaries of the national park there are wild elephants, Indochinese serows, gaurs and boars, Asian black bears and sun bears, gibbons, and crab-eating macaques, and about 400 species of birds (including hornbills which are often seen) and 90 species of reptiles (including many venomous snakes). Langurs, banded surilis and other monkeys are among the most common mammals that can be seen in the park.
The Khao Sok National Park covers an area of 740 sq kms with a large lake in the middle. Cheow Lan Lake is not a natural body of water – it was formed when one of the eastern valleys in the park was dammed to provide hydro-electric power to the growing tourist region of southern Thailand. The dam is called the Ratchaprapha dam – which is why the lake is sometimes referred to as the Ratchaprapha lake. It’s also known as Khao Sok Lake.
The construction of the Ratchaprapha dam was controversial because it destroyed the habitat of many of its animals and caused the extinction of a large number of species of river fish. Tens of thousands of mammals drowned when the lake first filled – trapped on islands that eventually became submerged. A catch and release programme was undertaken during the dam construction period, but it only saved a small number of animals.
However, as the lake flooded only 20% of the national park area, there were still vast areas that were untouched, and Khao Sok is still one of the best national parks in which to see wildlife in Thailand because it didn’t suffer the same degradation back in the last century when rainforests were being cleared for rubber, coconut, and oil palm plantations.
The reason for that is that environmentalists (the government labelled them as communist insurgents but in fact many of them were students) set up blockades from 1975 to 1982 around Khao Sok to prevent illegal logging and rainforests being cleared. By the time the government took control of the region, public sentiment was supporting the preservation of the region’s natural assets, and it eventually became a national park.
The park has two centres of activity. The national park headquarters and ‘main’ entrance is in the village of Khao Sok, just off Route 401 in the southwestern part of the park. The other is around the Ratchaprapha Marina at the eastern end of Cheow Lan Lake from where boat tours of the lake originate. Khao Sok village and the Ratchaprapha Marina are about 65 km apart, but the road between them is good and the scenic trip takes only an hour.
The Khao Sok village
The village is where most of the accommodation for overnight visitors is located, and most of the other tours commence from there. There’s a wide range of accommodation available in the village from backpacker hostels to small boutique hotels. The village has numerous tour agencies, restaurants, coffee shops, massage places, and a couple of shops selling hiking and wet weather gear. Several have motorcycles for hire too.
Around the village are a dozen or more ‘jungle camps’ providing accommodation in cabins or bungalows. Those that are not within easy walking distance of the village usually have their own restaurants. I stayed in one called Riverside Bungalows right on the Sok River. They were very comfortable and excellent value at only $35 per night. The food in the restaurant was very good too. There are plenty of places more upmarket or downmarket than the Riverside. Just do some research through booking sites online, and you should have no problem finding good accommodation to suit your budget requirements.
From the Khao Sok village, you can book hiking, kayaking or bicycling tours. Note there are only a couple of short hiking trails near the park headquarters where you can walk on your own. For the longer hikes inside the park, you will need a guide to avoid getting lost. In the rainy season from May to October, tubing on the Sok River is a lot of fun, or you can book a river trip on a canoe with a guide. The guide can paddle the canoe and point out birds, monkeys, and snakes in the trees which you might otherwise miss.
The longer, guided jungle hiking tours range from two to eight hours in duration ranging from ‘moderate’ for those who are reasonably fit to ‘strenuous’ to those who are experienced trekkers. Some include visits to caves, and some involve wading through streams, so for these you’ll need to come equipped with the right gear or buy suitable gear in one of the shops in the Khao Sok village.
For those who are used to sleeping rough in the outdoors and want to experience what it’s like to spend several nights in the heart of the rainforest, you can book overnight trips deep into the national park with experienced guides who will show you how to survive in the jungle. You will build you own shelter, sleep in a hammock, and learn how to cook using bamboo. There’s even a 5-night survival trip for those who want to prove how tough they are!
Another interesting rainforest hike that is unique to the Khao Sok National Park in Thailand is one that takes you to see the smelly Rafflesia – the largest flower in the world. They only flower between December and March, high up on the limestone ridges, and it’s a strenuous 2-4 hours hike to reach them. This is not a hike that you can do on your own because only the local guides know where they are.
If you are not into strenuous hiking, but are interested in birdwatching, there are some easy half- and full-day hikes to places where guides will introduce you to the region’s hundreds of species of birds which will likely include some that you’ve not seen before. Not all the guides who conduct the birdwatching hikes have extra binoculars available, so it’s wise to bring your own. The dry season is the best time of the year for birdwatching, but it can be done throughout the year.
If you need more than a massage after a long hike, you can head to the Rommanee Hot Springs about 20 km to the southwest of the village along route 401. There are no natural rock pools there, but the four tiled pools are fed from hot underground mineral water. This is a popular spot with locals, so you’ll need to respect local dress standards (meaning no bikinis for women).
Along the way to the Rommanee Hot Springs you’ll pass a viewpoint on the left-hand side of the road from which you can see the whole of the valley in which the Khao Sok village is located, with a striking backdrop of jagged limestone karst mountains. Shortly after that on the right-hand side of the road is the Mae Yai waterfall which is the easiest to reach waterfall in the Khao Sok area.
For families with children, there are shorter guided walks available in the valley along cleared paths with gentle inclines. These can include visits to local farms where you can sample fresh tropical fruits like rambutans and mangoes and see how cashews and coconuts are grown and processed.
Several local farms offer jungle cooking classes. Participants are shown how to source ingredients from the farm and jungle and cook in bamboo. As well as farm tours, visits to local schools can be arranged to meet some local children, and to a temple to meet some monks.
There are a couple of elephant sanctuaries around the Khao Sok National Park where you can learn about the elephant culture of Thailand, see how food is prepared for the animals, feed them, and help wash down an elephant in a river or pond. You’ll need to bring a bathing suit with you for that activity because you’ll get very wet.
Most of these sanctuaries are ‘retirement homes’ for working elephants that are fully domesticated, but do not visit any that offer elephant rides. Elephants that are trained to carry tourists on jungle rides have usually been mistreated to make them submissive to their handlers. And carrying two adults on a wooden chair on their back is a strain for them, despite their strength, and may also cause skin abrasions and infections.
The floating raft houses
Two nights in or close to Khao Sok village will enable you to explore that part of the national park (of course, if you can stay longer, you can relax and do more) but to fully experience the national park you will need to book a night on one of the raft houses or floating bungalows on Cheow Lan Lake. You can book a day tour of the lake from the marina, but you won’t see much except scenery because most of the wildlife only appears along its shores very early in the morning.
There are about a dozen groups of raft houses around the lake from basic steel cabins to luxurious hardwood bungalows. Prices per person per night range from about 2,500 baht to over 12,000 baht. Those prices include meals and transfers by longboat from the marina, and usually free use of kayaks at the raft houses. In total, about 1,000 people sleep in the raft houses on the lake every night.
Despite the large number of ‘rooms’ available, many of the raft houses get booked out a long way ahead, and several of the so-called floating ‘resorts’ are permanently booked out by group tours. I wanted to book one of the traditional floating bamboo cottages (which fall around the middle of the price range mentioned above) but I left it too late to book. I had no option but to book a basic package at the Smiley Lake House in the middle of the lake.
When booking in Khao Sok village, I was informed that the toilet and bathroom facilities are shared, and there would only be power for a few hours in the evening. That information was wrong. All of the cabins at the Smiley Lake House had a small (although very basic) ensuite toilet and shower, and the power was on all night (although only enough for LED lights – to charge phones or camera batteries you had to plug into a power board in the restaurant area).
The Smiley Lake House package is the cheapest available on the lake, but it was not as bad as I expected. My only complaint was the very poor breakfast served which looked like the leftovers from the previous night’s dinner buffet with a few platters of watermelon and sliced white bread added. The rest of the experience was quite tolerable for the amount paid.
The package included transport by van from Khao Sok village, and return on the second day, but as I had my own rental car, I followed the van and left my car in the car park at the Ratchaprapha Marina overnight. I was assured it would be safe and it was. I only took a change of clothes, some toiletries and my camera gear to the raft houses and left the rest of my things in the car.
We were herded onto a long-tail boat for the one-hour transfer to the raft houses. There were about 20 passengers, and it was crowded and cramped, but the spectacular scenery on the way made up for the discomfort. I made sure to get on last, to ensure I had a good seat at the front for photography, but I had to don a rain jacket when out on the open lake to protect myself from the spray from the front of the boat whenever the wind sprang up. The passengers at the back who had boarded first didn’t get wet at all.
Upon arrival at the Smiley Lake House, I counted 47 steel cabins floating on steel drums and tied together by a floating steel walkway. Each cabin contained one or two mattresses on the floor and a rudimentary steel chair on a small deck at front of the cabin. There were no locks on the doors. A reasonable buffet lunch was served in the restaurant, after which we were given ‘free time’ to swim or kayak on the lake.
Later in the afternoon we were taken on a tour in the long-tail boat of one of the inlets of the lake but didn’t see much wildlife aside from an eagle and a hornbill. The buffet dinner was similar to that served for lunch, but a fried whole river fish was provided for each table. Drinks were extra but there was only beer on offer.
Most people retired early, and it was surprisingly peaceful during the night with not much movement of the cabins except when someone was returning from the restaurant and walking along the steel walkway. There were no mosquito nets, but they weren’t necessary. A wall fan in the cabin kept it cool enough during the night.
The sunrise was the most beautiful part of the day. The limestone karst mountains were partly obscured by layers of low cloud and the light was very soft. I was told that on many mornings there is a mystic mist hanging over the lake before the sun rises, but unfortunately that did not eventuate on the morning I was there.
At 6.30 am we set out in the long-tail boat again for some wildlife spotting along the lake shores. This time there was plenty of room in the boat because half the tour group must have slept in – or maybe they found the wildlife spotting disappointing the previous evening and weren’t bothered to do it again. This time, however, we saw many several troops of different species of monkeys and a family of gibbons high in the trees.
After an hour or so out in the long-tail boat, we headed back to the raft houses for breakfast, and at 9.15 am loaded our bags onto the boat for a final lake tour before returning to the marina. The final tour included a visit to a waterfall, a walk to the Pra Kai Petch limestone cave, and a short stop in a cove surrounded by limestone karsts for ‘photo ops’.
The waterfall was interesting because it tumbled down between trees and rocks on a 30-degree rocky slope down to the lake edge. The tour group participants were invited to ‘climb’ the waterfall by hauling themselves up between the trees and wading in the water between the very slippery rocks. It was a dangerous experience that would never be permitted in western countries for public liability reasons, but most who tried it seemed to enjoy it.
Those who climbed to the top of the waterfall returned to the boat soaked to the skin and covered in mud. In my view it would have been better to offer that experience the afternoon before when people could have showered and changed back at the raft houses, rather than on the check-out day when most tour participants would have been returning in the van to the Khao Sok village.
The visit to the cave was interesting too because there was no lighting inside the cave and people had to find their way through by the lights of their mobile phones. The tour guide did have a few strap-on torch lights, but not enough for everyone. There were plenty of small bats on the ceilings of the cave and some large spiders too. The tour guide claimed there was a snake there too, but nobody aside from him saw it.
As we did our final lake tour, I noticed several long-tail boats with only 2-4 people heading off to more secluded parts of the lake. I guess those were people who had hired the boats for private tours from the more expensive accommodation options on the lake. If budget is not an issue, that would be the best way to see the lake and perhaps more wildlife than can be seen from the larger boats providing the group tours. I was informed that private long-tail boat tours with a guide cost around 2,000-2,500 baht per hour.
As we headed back to the marina around 11.30 am, more than a dozen long-tail boats carrying about 20 people passed us going in the other direction. Some of those would have been people heading to raft houses for the night. Others would have been people on a day tour of the lake.
Cheow Lan Lake feels like a mass tourism destination – a contrast to the more laidback backpacker feel of Khao Sok village. Despite that, the overnight raft house experience on the lake is worth doing once. But if I go back, I will stay in Khao Sok village and spend more time exploring around there.
Thai National Parks has a very good website with information on the Khao Sok National Park that is regularly updated at https://www.thainationalparks.com/khao-sok-national-park/ – it is worth checking that out before any trip.
Header image: © Em7. All other images: © David Astley