Safari Tour in Khao Sok National Park
Earth Lodge Safari Tour Review
Khao Sok National Park is home to the world’s oldest rainforest and its flora and fauna are even more diverse than the Amazon Forest. At 740sq km, the park is the largest area of virgin forest in Southern Thailand yet it is relatively little known outside the kingdom. Just why this should be so is one of the world’s greatest mysteries because within Khao Sok’s boundaries there is a veritable cornucopia of wildlife and scenic beauty to rival absolutely anywhere in the world.
Our one-night, two-day tour started with a pickup service from Phuket that drove us in style to Phang Nga Province where we rendezvoused with a bus that thundered through the verdant countryside up to Earth Lodge, a sort of Khao Sok ‘Base Camp’.
Base Camp – Earth Lodge
From the outside, our adobe – yes, adobe – hut looked a little rudimentary but once inside we discovered hot water for showers, tea and coffee-making facilities and a comfortable double bed. It’s what some people would call ‘minimalist’ but to be honest there wasn’t a lot more that we needed except maybe a cupboard for our clothes.
Huge limestone mountains sporting vegetation and trees clinging precariously to their steep inclines towered over the lodge. It looked great in the morning and we could see that on a full moon night it’d be spectacular. As luck would have it, it was a full moon night, but more on that later.
To travel in one morning from sea level to breathing in fresh mountain air gave us a huge appetite. Well, maybe using the word ‘mountain’ is an exaggeration, seeing as Khao Sok isn’t exactly at Alpine levels (its highest peak is 961 metres above sea level) but it’s a lot fresher than humid Phuket. Soon after settling in our huts lunch was called.
The day trippers had gone off to their canoeing and elephant trekking so we practically had the place to ourselves and tucked in to the mixed fried veggies, sweet n’ sour chicken, curried pork and rice. Suzie, our English minder, explained that we were to go down the River Sok, get picked up by a Land Rover and spend the next hour or so lumbering through the jungle on the back of an elephant. Sounded good to me.
The River Sok
The river had burst its banks just days before and was still somewhat swollen from recent inundations. Everywhere there were signs of the havoc it had wreaked: broken bamboo, bits of houses floating downstream, drooping branches from uprooted trees and even though it was a sorry sight it was impressive to see Mother Nature flexing her muscles and leaving no one in doubt as to who was the boss around here.
Our canoe guide seemed to be endowed with supernatural eyesight as he paddled directly up to an almost invisible snake, perfectly camouflaged on an overhanging branch, then he crossed the river to where an equally cleverly disguised toad sat looking down at us.
Either these animals are made out of plastic and glued to the spot or something remarkable was going on, but then it hit me: they stay in particular locations and favour certain vantage points, such as the monitor lizards that show a strong penchant for hanging over the river bank on bare branches, ready to grab a tasty snack as it floats by.
Halfway down, the guide steered the canoe into a little sheltered gully under an overhanging cliff. He then managed to do the impossible and got a fire going with some damp bamboo and promptly brewed us some tea, serving it up in little bamboo cups, along with a custard cookie from his bag of tricks.
As for things to be seen along the River Sok, you can focus in on the direct close up sights while heading downriver or pan out to the surrounding mountainous vistas. Either way is beautiful.
Through the Jungle on an Elephant
Some 90 minutes after we left Earth Lodge our prow nudged the riverbank and we piled into a Land Rover to go to the elephant camp. Apparently it’s a 9-5 job being an elephant and the 13 tuskers here take turns in ferrying punters through the lush jungle a few times a day until their five o’ clock shower and rubdown.
My mahout didn’t speak Thai or English, being from way up north, but seemed to be having a right old chinwag with his elephant as we swayed and splashed through the thick undergrowth.
To perch on over three tons of elephant delicately ‘feeling’ its way through difficult terrain (don’t forget, it’d been raining and the puddles were sometimes a foot deep) is an unforgettable experience.
The elephant uses its trunk much the same way as a cat uses its whiskers to sense, feel and maneuver its way around and can also tackle gradients difficult for humans. Well, this human was finding it a little difficult so I hung on like Billy O. To be frank, it was a little hard on my nether regions but the fantastic views more than compensated for it. The whole ride took ninety minutes and we were back at the lodge by six o’clock for a much anticipated beer and down time.
One of the greatest things about staying over in a location is to observe the nighttime character of the place. Earth Lodge under a full moon is at the same time eerie, romantic, unexpected and absolutely serene. Someone had lit a log fire but we elected to stay at the table after our meal and swapped travel yarns until 11 o’clock when we turned in after gawping at the moon that silvered the entire swathe of mountainside above us accompanied by primeval screams coming from the hills.
Chiao Lan Reservoir – Wild Pigs and Barking Deer
In the morning after an excellent breakfast we packed up and drove to the Ratchaprapha Dam which holds back the enormous Chiao Lan Reservoir. It consists of 165sq kms of windswept beauty with sheer peaks rising out of the water towering hundreds of feet above the reservoir’s water level.
Whole trees grow out of the side of these limestone crags, forcing open cracks and fissures as their roots seek deeper for more hold and nourishment. I’d never been there before yet the place looked familiar and then I realised that many people have remarked on Chiao Lan’s resemblance to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Guilin in China.
This splendid sense of isolation, of detachment, of adventure even, is dispelled when we moor our boat outside a floating restaurant with a selection of simple bungalows built on giant bamboo floaters. Soon, we’re in the water, splashing and striking out into the deep and even though I’ve never actually swum in several million gallons of mineral water (who has?) this is what it must be like – it’s that clean.
We are served lunch – a giant gourami that was probably swimming in the lake not an hour before. Still, it’s delicious and more than enough for the five of us. On the 40-minute boat ride back to the dam and the jeep we run through several squalls and it’s downright cold for a while until someone comes up with the brilliant idea of wearing a lifejacket back-to-front as wind protection.
This tour is an outstanding, unforgettable and a thought-provoking experience. Please note that due to time restrictions we only spent one night in this extraordinary part of the world – Siam Safari offer three-day tours, the last day featuring a jungle trek.
Khao Sok NationalPark is home to one of the largest flowers in the world, Rafflesia Kerrii, a parasite which attracts insects through its appearance and odour similar to that of rotting meat. Raffleasia flowers from December to April and can grow up to 100cm in diameter and weigh up to 10kg.
- There are over 100 islands in the Chiao Lan Reservoir
- Parts of the park have still not yet been accurately charted
- The water in the reservoir is eminently diveable but is too deep in parts to retain visibility