Jungle Book Thailand
November 3, 2019
As I have said many times, travel is not only about the places you visit but also the people you meet along the way. One of the friendships I made whilst travelling years ago resulted in one of the most amazing trips of my life. In this post, I will go into detail about Khao Sok, give you a detailed itinerary and explain why it has become one of my all-time favourite locations in South East Asia.
It all started with a last-minute change of direction during a trip to SE Asia back in 2016. We were headed to Koh Samui from Koh Lanta, however, whilst waiting for our connecting transport at a bus station in Krabi, I spotted a picture showing beautiful limestone mountains towering above water. After asking the lady in the shop where this beautiufl photo was taken, we quickly changed our tickets and headed for Khao Sok (a national park up in the mountains north of Phuket). A quick search led us to choosing to stay in a traditional bamboo bungalow at a hotel called Monkey Mansion, and this is where we met Bastian.
Bastian and his partner Awe run this quaint little eco-lodge, perfectly positioned for those who wish to explore deep into the heart of Thailand’s rainforests. It’s not often I find someone as obsessed with snakes as I am, but Bastian has a deep love for them too. As a matter of fact, we found and photographed many on our latest trip. However, I won’t go into detail about our first trip to Khao Sok as our most recent visit is the reason for this post. Needless to say, after departing the first time, Bastian and I stayed in contact. A few of my friends have also been to stay at Monkey Mansion and experienced the best that Thailand’s forests have to offer.
Earlier this year, I received a message from Bastian saying that they were currently building a new hotel and developing new tours; going deeper into the rainforest and finding some amazing wildlife along the way. We were invited to go and test these new experiences along with Bastian and his most experienced guide. Naturally, we did not hesitate and immediately jumped at this incredible opportunity. Even though I would not recommend it to everyone, this time we decided to visit Thailand in May, which is off season and also the start of the rainy season in a lot of the southern parts of Thailand. Nevertheless, the crowds are much smaller, prices are much lower and a lot of Thailand’s wildlife are much more active. When it comes to the weather, we were extremely lucky, virtually no rain with clear skies and 30 degrees every day.
Now to dive into an amazing 5 day, 4 night itinerary for Khao Sok and to give you details of one amazing experience.
DAY 1 – Arrival and Night Hike
We arrived at around 4pm after a bus ride up from Railay (another amazing location I will discuss in a future post). Upon exiting our airconditioned minivan, we were instantly hit by the 99% humidity, smells and sounds of the rainforest. After being greeted by Bastian, we were shown to our Jungalow where we changed into something more jungle-friendly. Bastian had arranged for himself and I a young energetic guide to hike into the rainforest once night fell. Night time allows you not only to see nocturnal animals but also to get up close to those diurnal species whilst they sleep. Once again, I was extremely lucky to have an experienced local guide, who’s father is a Khao Sok park ranger. He even knew all the English names of the plants and animals and had eyes that could pick up creatures so camoflaged that I would have walked straight past them. The rainforest up in Khao Sok feels so wild and untouched, many of the animals have no reason to fear humans and so you can get extremely close to them. There was wildlife everywhere we looked, from sleeping lizards, snakes hunting in the dark, to a curious civet which decided to climb off of a banana tree and onto my head.
Day 2 – Out onto the Lake
One of the most unique attributes of Khao Sok is the reservoir, also known as Cheow Lan Lake or Rajjaprabha Dam Reservoir, which allows you to travel around the nature reserve with relative ease and also makes it easier to see some of the most elusive species when they decide to come down to the water for a drink. Up early, we enjoyed an energy-packed breakfast and met up with our guide Dam and his eldest son (a guide in training). Having packed light for the next two nights, we hopped in Dam’s car for the drive down to the lake where we finally met the last (but definitely not least!) member of our expedition – our incredible boatman and Dam’s life-long friend. We loaded up the water, food, bags and we were off out into the maze of limestone karsts towering above the water. Usually, tourists would head to one of the many floating bungalow hotels, however, we went much deeper into the park to get the real rainforest experience, staying with the park rangers and researchers in their floating houses. After about 2 hours powering along the lake, we reached the ranger’s home (the most remote accommodation on the lake) and were greeted with an amazing lunch prepared by his family members. We off-loaded the bags before heading back out onto the water. This time we went down the much narrower ravines in search of wildlife. Our main targets were the larger mammals that hide in this dense jungle; elephants, big cats and primates. Sadly on our first day we did not see any elephants, we did, however, see some amazing animals, all whilst admiring one of the most beautiful backdrops I have ever seen. As night began to fall, we headed back to the floating lodge, freshened up and all sat down for dinner. Honestly, I cannot even express how amazing the food was, especially given the location and fact it was cooked out on the lake. Fresh and delicious!
During dinner, Dam came over to ask if I would like to head out for some night fishing. Just to note, night safaris are not allowed, however, there’s nothing to stop us catching tomorrow’s dinner. The lake is full of amazing species, snakeheads, red tail catfish and who knows what else, so of course I leapt at the chance. We cruised off back into the ravines, spotting some amazing wildlife along the way, including owls, leopards cats, asian deer and sleeping monkeys. After a short journey, we arrived at a calm area where a huge tree had fallen into the water, making the perfect anchoring point before casting a line in. We baited up with a horrible, gunky, horrific smelling squid based bait which is apparently loved by catfish. It wasn’t long before the fish were piling into the boat, the majority of which were bright gold catfish, hosting some nasty spines on their fins. Having fished for around an hour, we began to hear huge crashing sounds right in-front of us and it wasn’t long before we heard the unmistakable burble of an elephant. Suddenly, a huge bull elephant appeared from the trees, and completely unphased by our presence cruised along the bank before disappearing back into the trees. It truly was a remarkable feeling, having just seen my first completely wild elephant just a matter of meters away. We continued to fish into the night listening to him snap bamboo just a few meters into the jungle.
Day 3 – Exploring the Lake
Waking up to the sun rays peering through the gaps in our bamboo walls, we climbed out of our bungalow, showered with a bucket and headed to the main floating bungalow for another delicious meal. This time, there was also a group of researchers who had come to release some eagles back into the wild. It was amazing to see what these people were doing for the local wildlife. Once we filled our stomachs, we packed our things back into the boat and headed back out onto the lake. Seeing the clouds hanging low amongst the trees made for some truly amazing scenery. We spotted numerous monkeys, reptiles and ticked one off of my bucket list, the greater horn bill. It was amazing to see them in flight. Around an hour later, Dam spotted something around 1km from the boat and became extremely excited. Not syaing a word, the driver powered in the direction Dam was pointing and eventually, these grey boulders amongst the trees came into focus. Once we were close enough, we could clearly see that they were not rocks but elephants. But how on Earth he spotted them from such a distance, we have no idea! There were at least 3 elephants amongst the trees. Dam in his eccentric way said “Don’t worry, I’m the elephant whisperer”, and despite believing this was a joke, he stood up and started calling to the elephants in Thai. We had no idea what he was saying but suddenly a male elephant stuck his head through the trees and began to climb down towards the boat. We were all in a complete shock as this amazing creature came right up to the bank just in-front of the boat and started gesturing with his leg. Later, we discovered that elephants have a complex body language system and from what we could tell, he was asking us to come towards him or follow him. After getting some amazing photos, we decided to head back to the ranger’s station to buy him a sweet treat, fresh pineapples, and also to let the researchers know so that they could follow us. Upon our return, our new friend was back in the trees but once Dam began his calling again, to our complete shock, the elephant once again climbed down to the bank to greet us. We cut up and threw the pineapples for him to eat. This was also a great trick to get some cool action shoots. The boat was slowly but surely drifting away from the elephant along the bank, so I thought I would try my own elephant calling technique. I called him like you would call a dog and he came running at the boat, making the boat driver quickly back up away from the bank. 5 tonnes of elephant is pretty scary when he is towering over you.
After moving on, I asked Bastian about what had just happened, why did the elephant come running to our calls. It turns out that many years ago there was a young male that had been kicked out of his heard once he became mature. The rangers noticed that he was not doing well and had lost a lot of weight, so they began feeding him until he was strong enough and confident enough to fend for himself. They also gave him a name, and this is what Dam was calling to the elephant. Such an amazing experience and a truly tear-jerking story to go with it.
Our misssion continued by heading to one of the more touristy floating bungalows to have lunch and enjoy the “modern” facilities, mainly shower. After our food had gone down, we grabbed some of the kayaks and paddled along the banks of the lake. Kayaks are much quieter than the boat and often make it easier to spot wildlife. After exhausting ourselves by paddling, we headed back and were instantly alerted to the spotting of another elephant just by the bungalows. We instantly hopped in our boat and raced to the location. We found a huge mature female who was covering herself in the golden mud from the banks, giving herself the appearance of being gold herself. She completely ignored the fact that there were 3 boats of people close by staring at her and happily continued with her mudbath. Shortly after she headed back into the trees, we spotted something in the water and quietly snuck away leaving the other tourist boats behind. It was a huge bison swimming across the ravine! I still cannot get over the sheer size of this adult male. Once he spotted us he did not stick around but instead galloped into an opening in the trees. On the way back to our accommodation, a light shower made some beautiful rainbows, creating the perfect end to an amazing day. We had a few beers and dinner before getting an early night, ready for our adventure the next day.
Day 4 – Hiking the Viewpoint
For our final day out on the lake, we had a choice either to hike up to the viewpoint or hike to the waterfalls. After speaking to some other guides, we were informed that due to the lack of rain (despite it being a rain season), the falls were not very impressive, and so our little group chose to head up to the viewpoint. We cruised for around an hour before reaching the base of the trail. Leaving the boat tied up on the bank, we only grabbed a couple of small day bags and began the climb. The hike was broken up by the amazing wildlife we spotted along the way and Dam’s obsessive photography of bugs (he’s currently compiling an album of all the insects of Khao Sok). At around 2/3 of the way to the top, the trail becomes boulders and rocks as opposed to the original mud trail. The rocks are extremely slippery and so you really have to take care where you place your feet. Further up, the smooth rocks finish and become razor sharp limestone all the way to the top. Definitely not for the faint hearted but more worth it than I would have ever expected as the view from the peak is just amazing. To top it off, there were hornbills and eagles flying all around us! We balanced right on the edge of the cliff making for some amazing pictures and beautiful memories. On the way back down, we also spotted several snakes hiding in the rocks where we had previously placed our hands. Luckily, snakes aren’t out to hurt people and no one was bitten. After our descent, we returned to the boat and headed back to the pier, thanked our driver and were dropped back to Monkey Mansion by Dam. The evening was spent going through thousands of pictures and recuperating after an adventurous few days.
Day 5 – On to the next Adventure
Knowing that we had to catch the 9am bus to Surat Thani in order to catch our ferry to Koh Tao, we got up early so we could all have a final breakfast together before our departure. Goodbyes are always the hardest part of every trip but there is always hope of meeting again in the not so distant future. I know we will be heading back to Khao Sok again soon and simply cannot wait.
In summary, if you love nature and wildlife then Khao Sok should be at the top of your list for your next visit to South East Asia. It is a 3-hour bus ride from Phuket, however, you can get there from other islands too, or from Surat Thani.
Many thanks to Bastian, Dam and the guys for an unforgettable experience.