After a comfortable night on the train, we arrived safe and sound into Surat Thani, a small town that acts as a major transport interchange for people heading to the islands on the east and west coasts of Thailand. The car park outside of the station was a heaving mass of touts, all trying to usher you onto one of their luxury coaches bound for the popular places - Krabi, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Tao - and when I enquired about buses to Khao Sok, the female tout just stared blankly at me - not an encouraging sign.
The tout pointed us towards a little café (owned by another friend) where we waited for about an hour with constant assurances that they'd have a bus for us soon. Eventually, the lady approached us, rather guiltily, and said that we'd better try the public bus service and pointed over towards the bus stops. Sighing, I gathered up my bags and bought a ticket from a man who just wrote our destination and fare prices on a piece of paper; I hoped that would suffice. The bus was actually more of a coach, and it was packed. After we solved the puzzle of getting everybody off and back on, I was left standing in the aisle. Three hours later and, still standing, we arrived at the outskirts of the little village that supports the National Park.
The village sits right on the edge of the misty rainforest that makes up the bulk of Khao Sok's natural environment, the remainder comprising a huge man made lake that drives a nearby hydroelectric power station. Limestone karsts puncture the distant skyline, like towering sentinels in the late morning light, whilst the incessant crackling of crickets strikes up as we wait for a lift to our resort. We're picked up by a polite and uniformed young man, if an embroidered polo shirt counts as a uniform, and driven in a remarkably fancy pickup truck into the middle of the lush greens and yellows. We pass a few other unremarkable turnings and a half finished hotel that looks like the setting for the next Jurassic Park movie, before arriving into an ordered courtyard space lined on one side by a high, but open, building that makes up reception. Once there, we are given the choice of their selection of tree-houses, and we stump for one designed by Dutch architects who are friends of the owners. It's small, the space dominated by the huge bed covered by a mosquito net, but very cosy and possessing a distinctly colonial air.
As we settled in, I took a step out onto the veranda and saw the first of our visitors from the neighbouring rainforest - a long-tailed macaque. He jauntily sauntered over, passing under our tree house without a glance in my direction, and disappeared into the bush on the far side of the resort. My first wild monkey encounter.
We decide to head straight out and have a walk around the National Park, as we only have two nights here, and the smart young man - who doesn't speak English, but politely smiles and nods after every exchange - kindly drives us to the entrance. After a brief visit to the Information Centre, we set out on the most straightforward walk we can do, one that takes us through bamboo groves, over small streams and down to the banks of a rushing river. It's less humid here, but the damp of the rainforest has much the same affect, making any uphill into a shirt-moistening experience, but we do see a variety of wildlife;
A horned lizard...
A tiny frog...
And lots of large ants - I very nearly put my hand on this branch to steady myself...
After the walk we decide to walk back to the hotel, and stop for a drink on the way at one of the hotels closer to the Park entrance. We've been deliberating about what to do tomorrow, as there are some more walks through the rainforest that would be cheap and hopefully entertaining, although almost all of the adventure here is to be had on organised activity tours. Rafting, tubing, guided walks, day-long excursions to parts unknown; all are on offer here, many peddled directly by the hotel. In the end, we decide to go out for the day, travelling over to the man made lake on the other side of the park, where we will see beautiful scenery, a floating lodge and a maybe even some caves. After dinner at the hotel, we make our way back to the treehouse for our first night in the jungle.
After a restless night, amid the constant screams of jungle creatures unknown and the persistent fear that a cobra was going to get into our mosquito net, we woke up early to be picked up and driven to the lake in the covered back of a pickup truck. Accompanying us are three people from the Netherlands, a young couple from France and three Brits who are touring Thailand before heading back home. The foreign contingent are the most fun, as the Brits are a bit older and seem to have no sense of humour - not that one excess airily implies the other of course. We arrive at the lake mid-morning, with the sun blazing down on us, and immediately charter a traditional Thai long tail boat (the accompanying traditional Thai outboard motor) and begin our hour long cruise over to the floating lodge.
The ride itself is gorgeous, huge limestone towers rising up from the water, as do baleful limbs of long submerged trees, and everywhere is fringed with tropical greenery. Our guide tells us that the lake is over one hundred and fifty metres deep in some places, which makes me wonder how tall the trees that stab out from the water must've been.
We arrive at the lodge, a broken line of basic huts floating on a precarious array of driftwood and bamboo, and have a swim before lunch - much fun was to be had by climbing the rickety bamboo diving platform, avoiding the protruding nails and leaping into the warm, blue waters surrounding the lodge. The Brits remained firmly 'clothes-on', but the rest of us bonded over a mix of impressive swan dives (9.8 to the French), classic bombs (thanks Franz) and woeful belly-flops (to my own traditional method).
After a hearty meal of miscellaneous Thai dishes, we were offered a choice: either sunbathing and swimming on the lodge, or a jungle walk and caving with the guide. The choice was obvious and only the Brits were left on the lodge, reading their books whilst firmly camped out in the shade. We set off with our silent boatman and the guide, heading for the mysteries of... The Cave!
The walk to the cave was about forty five minutes long, and peppered with river fording, clambering over rocky outcrops and our boatman making interesting items out of nearby plants. First he made me an ingenious water bottle carrier out of a vine, then a fancy hat out of leaves, before finally making Kate a tiara out of vines and leaves and then water bottle vines for the rest of the group. The Boatman was an interesting fellow, long haired and with a fatless physique, although most of our interactions were by way of mime as he didn't speak any English. And he carried a mighty machete, something I always pay respect to, especially when I'm being led deep into knotty jungle by two men I only met that morning.
The other interesting encounter we made on the way to the cave was leeches. Lots and lots of leeches. It started when the guide told us to check ourselves after a river crossing. Two of the group promptly erupted in screams (Kate was one) as the found tiny, inch long examples of everybody's second favourite bloodsucker (after the taxman of course) attached to various parts of their bodies. We carried on towards the cave, stopping every couple of minutes for more screams and hasty leech removals, which, incidentally are best removed with a simple fingernail, rather than any Indiana Jones style lighter/cigarette method.
Eventually we caught sight of the cave mouth and, for me at least, it was one of the most exciting moments of the trip thus far, almost matching my first glimpse of Everest. I've never really been caving before, so as we sat just inside the mouth, preparing head torches and tightening our shoelaces, I couldn't wait to wander off into the blackness. And it was black. The total absence of light is a strange thing, where waving your hands in front of your face creates strange mental ghosts of hands that linger in the blackness long after they should. We pressed on past giant, spindly spiders, leapt into spinning pools of icy water and shimmied along ledges only wide enough for half a foot - all the while, the Boatman nimbly hopped along behind in only flip flops.
It was a great experience, capped off by a chance to scare our wily Boatman by emerging from a secondary exit from the caves, and one of my best memories so far. We made our way back to the lodge, elated and grinning, with only a few stops for leech removal and a final swim in the warm waters to get clean after the mud and game of the caves, with the discovery of some genuinely massive leeches in some truly disturbing places the only thing taking the shine off of what was an amazing afternoon. The Boatman even made me an awesome bracelet out of braided bamboo, presented to me just as we were leaving. Yet more proof that I'm much better company if you can't understand what I'm saying.
Our ride back from the lodge set off just as the sun was setting. Now this trip has afforded me some pretty special skies, but the one that accompanied us back to the pier that evening was the best so far. At first the sun appeared through a giant, gleaming puncture in clouds, like somebody dropping a fiery marble through a torn sheet, before the skies became a woven fabric of purple and red over blue as the night chased the day in front of us.
Khao Sok will stay with me for a while, it was a beautiful stay in amazing locations and with great people. Tomorrow we se out for the island of Ko Phi Phi, one of the party islands, but it'll have to go some way to top where we've just been.
Good night all.