South East Asia is well known for its jagged karst landscapes, and many people will recognise images of the vertiginous peaks rising from the sea at Krabi and Halong Bay, or the wonderful limestone formations around Vang Vieng in Laos. But while these destinations share fabulous scenery, they also have a less appealing common feature - the presence of mass tourism.
Head three hours inland from Krabi in Thailand and the scenery remains impressive while the crowds thin to almost nothing. This relatively unknown destination is Khao Sok National Park and if it's not already on your wish list for Thailand it should be! On my recent visit to South East Asia I was lucky enough to go there...
The central focus of the park is the 60 square mile Cheow Lan Lake, a man-made reservoir created in 1982 to generate hydropower. Surrounding the lake, the peaks rise to over 3,000ft in height and are cloaked in some of the most ancient virgin rainforest in Thailand. The rainforest is home to a wonderful and diverse range of wildlife including elephants, porcupines, tapirs, Asian golden cats, clouded leopards, tigers, leopards and their associated prey of muntjac deer, mouse deer and sambar deer (the list is endless!). Other critters skulking in the jungle include martens, gaur, sun bears, leopard cats, gibbons, macaques and langurs. Needless to say, most of the large predators are only found deep in the forest and a sighting unfortunately is not likely, although the calls of gibbons in the trees and incessant buzz of cicadas will invoke the spirit of the jungle for those that take to the hiking trails around the park.
A jetty near the Ratchaprapha Dam is the gateway to the park, and from here you can take a boat around the lake and onto the location of your unique overnight stay. One of the many fun and wonderful things about a visit to Khao Sok is the accommodation, which takes the form of floating raft houses. My home for a night was Panvaree The Greenery, a collection of five floating buildings: four houses of guestrooms and a restaurant. Although simple, the lodge is very comfortable and homely, and you can't beat that view... my room (A/C at night only) had a small private veranda with a ladder leading down into the cool refreshing waters of the lake. Heavenly!
The hotel has its own kayaks, which guests can take out whenever they choose, and the most peaceful hour of my entire two-week trip was spent gently paddling through the calm waters, following the shore and looking up at the impossibly high trees in the impenetrable rainforest. Every now and then a branch would wave, seemingly in the wind, although on closer inspection the wind was actually a monkey swinging between the branches, so many, many feet above the forest floor.
Being a limestone area, Khao Sok is of course liberally endowed with caves, some of which are easily accessible without explorer-style hacking through jungle. Coral cave, named for its formations, is accessed via bamboo rafts across a lagoon. The stalactites and stalagmites are seriously impressive but mind the slippery steps!
Heading back to the main jetty to travel on to my next destination, I was genuinely sad to be leaving, and could quite happily have spent days paddling on the lake, exploring the jungle and just soaking up the view. If you are planning to head to Thailand, be sure not to miss Khao Sok!