Hiking in one of the world's oldest rainforests

Published on 5 September 2023 at 17:08

One of the top-rated but lesser-known spots to visit in Thailand is not a beach or an island.  It’s one of the world’s oldest rainforests that is home to over 5% of the world’s species.  

Located in Surat Thani province in southern Thailand, Khao Sok National Park stretches over 725 square kilometers and includes rainforest, majestic limestone mountains and cliffs, rivers, waterfalls, and a giant man-made lake.   It’s the protected home of Asian elephants, tigers, sun bears, leopards, many species of monkey, large lizards, snakes (including cobras), and over 3000 species of birds.  This was to be our home for the next few days as we looked to experience this unique aspect of the country, get closer to nature, and hopefully spot some unique wildlife.

The tail-end of our travel day to the park was very scenic, as the winding road climbed higher into the mountains covered in dense jungle until we reached Klong Sok, or Khao Sok Village, which is a quaint little town located at the entrance to the national park.  The village is made up of a main road with several guest houses and a handful of places to eat, dotted along the banks of the Sok River.  We checked in to The Khao Sok Rainforest Resort, which is centrally located in the village. Sandra had booked us a bungalow on river’s edge and at the farthest end of the property, surrounded by greenery, so we could enjoy the sounds of the rapids and hopefully see a few animals from our room. 

We checked in and did our usual tour of the property to get our bearings, which includes finding the pool and the restaurant.  At the open-air restaurant we found a grey monkey and her baby were perched on the railings above the balcony overlooking the river.  As we looked on and took a few photos, the monkey climbed down to us (with the baby still clinging on) and casually walked past into the buffet area of the restaurant, where she climbed into a cupboard and closed the door behind her, only to emerge moments later with two fresh eggs in each of her hands/feet.  She then climbed back up to her spot, cracked them open and enjoyed a raw egg protein shake.  It seems she was watching the omelet station from afar over breakfast and figured out where they stashed the eggs afterwards.  

We soon learned that the surrounding jungle and river are home to many, many grey monkeys, and we would enjoy having 10-15 of them playing and eating outside our room and climbing over and around our balcony throughout the day.  Although, we did have to remember to keep our doors and windows locked tight as they are very cunning if they see something that they want, like eggs.

We woke the next morning and headed off for our first activity of the day – a 6km guided hike through the forest to the Bang Hua Rat rapids.  There are many hikes in the park of varying degrees of difficulty, and many state that you must have a local guide.  We researched online to see if this was necessary, and found the comments between posts were contradictory, so just decided to follow the recommendation of our resort and booked one.  They arranged for a local guide named Diamond to meet us at reception in the morning and even gave each of us a bottle of cold water for our day packs. 

The entrance to the national park is only a short walk from the Rainforest Resort, and visitors must pay an entrance fee. The start of the path was quite busy with other groups and their guides, but as we were a small party we moved along quickly and soon had it mostly to ourselves. As we headed into the forest, we found the paths wide and well maintained, although they are red clay and therefore get quite slippery after rain.  We were pleased to be wearing our trail shoes with extra grip.  They take up valuable space in our backpacks, but it's worth it to be comfortable and blister-free during these long walks.

So, it turns out that we didn’t really need a guide for safety purposes.  The path was easy to follow, and we could have found our way in and out again without issue.  However, Diamond’s experience meant that he could spot many more creatures than we would have seen on our own.  We were overtaken on the trail by a group of young English backpackers walking without a guide.  Diamond said cheekily “They will walk all day but see nothing.”  With his keen eyesight we encountered several black and white Langur monkeys, who usually keep their distance from humans (unlike the naughty grey monkeys), a green tree frog, large geckos, a black and yellow Copperhead Rat Snake that was curled up in a tree having a nap, and a large (5cm) black dung beetle.  Diamond pointed out holes in the mudbanks along the route which are home to tarantulas, but we were happy not to disturb their rest.  There are also many leeches in the park, especially in rainy season.  We had anti-leech spray on our legs, although the best idea is to stay on the paths to avoid them otherwise you need to invest in thick leech socks. 

After 90 minutes of walking, we arrived at the rapids, which are in a beautiful clearing with a very small café and bathrooms onsite.  It was only 11am but was hot and humid, so we agreed that we had earned a cold beer so sat and enjoyed it overlooking the river just as a heavy rainfall came and went.  Experienced hikers can continue with a mandatory guide to a waterfall that is several kms further along the trail, but it is discouraged in rainy season due to these unexpected downpours that can quickly raise the level of the river, so we turned and headed back along the way we had come.

The sun came out again, and Diamond took us off-piste, through the forest to a deep pool in the river where he assured us it was safe for us to take a swim.  The water was cool and refreshing and there were little freshwater fishes curious to see what we were up to. No leeches though!

We then headed back to base, seeing many more animals (but no new species) along the route, and after giving Diamond an extra tip he headed home.  We do not regret paying for his services.  There are limited jobs in this remote town, and it’s important to support the young people who are getting out there and using their skills to be helpful.  

As for us we headed for lunch and a rest before our afternoon activity – bamboo rafting down the Sok river.

As the resort was alongside the river, we assumed that the rafting would be nearby, so were surprised when they provided a Ute which took us on a 20-minute drive further up into the mountains, before bringing us back to the river where several rafts were tethered to the muddy bank.  The rafts are each around 10 meters long and one meter wide, made entirely of bamboo poles lashed together with vines.  They were close to the size of the gondolas we had seen in Venice, Italy, and each had small chairs for each passenger to sit on, also made of bamboo. 

We were introduced to our “Gondolier” who offered us a coffee.  We politely accepted, before wondering where it would appear from, given we were in the jungle.  He proceeded to pour some grounds into a mesh net, then took out a small pot of hot water (hopefully not procured from the river) and poured it over. The resulting brew trickled into two cups that had been freshly carved from a young bamboo pole along with a stirrer.  As Tom Hanks demonstrated in Castaway – if you have access to bamboo and coconuts you can make nearly anything! 

We then boarded our raft, and our “gondolier” headed to the stern and with a large bamboo pole he pushed off the riverbed and our cruise down the Sok river began.

We drifted along in silence listening to the sounds of the jungle while the river water splashed up between the bamboo poles and over our feet to keep us cool.  We rode the current, and the pole was used to steer us.  As we rounded each corner we were presented with a new view.  The river runs through mountains that towered 450 meters above us.  We took some pics, but the camera could not capture the scale of what we experienced up-close.  

There were some minor rapids to ride, which are fun as long as the raft stays lashed together as ours did, and later we pulled up under a tree that was overhanging the river because our Captain had spotted another yellow and black snake sleeping in in the tree.  He assured us that it was unlikely to drop into the boat, but Sandra was keen to move on before his theory was proven wrong!  The ride took us downriver for 45 blissful minutes, although we would have happily stayed for another hour. We stopped at another clearing where our Ute was waiting.

After heading back to the bungalow for a shower and a rest, we were so inspired by our “venetian gondola experience” we found a local pizzeria and a few glasses of red wine overlooking a section of the river that was lit up by the neon lights. The perfect end to an active day in Khao Sok Village. 

The next morning, we were enjoying breakfast at the restaurant by the river as a heavy downpour came through when I noticed a dark shape moving down the opposite riverbed.  A head popped up and a forked tongue flicked out, and my first thought was that it was a python, but then I saw it had legs.  It was a 1.5-metre-long Water Monitor Lizard who was hunting frogs and other small creatures amongst the reeds and using the rain to give it the element of surprise.  Thank goodness we didn’t have him cruise past when we were swimming in the same river the day before!

So, our wish to see lots of interesting creatures in their natural habitat in the park is off to a great start.  Our next stop is deeper into the National Park, where we are staying on the giant man-made lake mentioned earlier.  To be continued…

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Comments

Sandra Jones
9 months ago

What a fantastic experience you both had at Khao Sok National Park. Good choice to add value with Diamonds expertise and also would give a sense of security.

Carlize
8 months ago

Monkeys, ey. Very mischievous. I remember seeing a family set up camp, in the morning, then witnessed a troup ransacking their camp, the family packed up and left that afternoon. Luckily that one just enjoyed a bit of protein.