Friday, March 25, 2011

KHAO SOK

Last visited March 2011

Part of Lake Rajjaphapa (Rechapbrapho/Cheow Law) from the Lake-Trip viewpoint.

Okay, we aren't talking beaches here. But there are plenty of spectacular islands - with karst limestone cliffs climbing 200m from the water.
But the main reasons I did this page are - the location is a natural for travellers moving between the Andaman and southern Gulf islands - the area is among the most asked-for on travel websites - and this place is one of the most enjoyable I've visited in my travels and one I hadn't been to in 0ver 10 years, hence the lack of a page until now.

The main park HQ, walking trails and bungalow area is about one hour by bus from Takua Pa to the west and maybe 2.5 from Surathani in the east. Travellers' minibuses also come across from the Krabi area.
The popular lake trips start at the dam area about one hour east and it takes another hour to cruise across to the raft houses and jungle-cave walk area (modified Google Earth image).

MAIN PARK HQ-BUNGALOWS-WALKING TRAILS AREA

When you arrive at the bus stop on route 401 (the bus-conductor will make sure you know) there will be some touts from various bungalow operations waiting to show you pix of their places. This is great if you are unbooked like me - because they can provide free transport the 1 to 2km down to the accommodation. If booked into a place a songthaew makes fairly regular trips from the bus stop. The travellers' minibuses tend to drop you (and pick up again) at the bungalows.

I went with the guy from Khao Sok Evergreen House because the other tout waiting was from Jungle Huts where I stayed first trip - I like to try new places. Above is my "tree house" - like most tree houses I've seen in Thailand this is built on stilts up under the canopy of a tree - not on the tree itself. Shaded for all but about 3 hours in the afternoon which becomes prime clothes-drying time - if the thunderstorm doesn't set in which it did each afternoon I was there. Bungalow with bathroom cost 300 lowered to 250 because of single occupancy. Good condition but basically a box on stilts with comfy bed and good net.

Evergreen House is a pretty sweet operation. It is quite close to the park boundary but some distance down tracks to the right as you approach Park HQ. Only 3 tree houses and 3 normal bungalows in a spacious garden setting. Very friendly hosts Gai and Noi. Laid back restaurant showing advantage of mainland setting and plenty of competition with good food at the lower end of budget restaurant prices. Small supermarket, internet and swimming hole maybe 3 minutes walk away.
ph 0066 77395144 - www.evergreenhouse2007.net - email khoasokevergreen@yahoo.com

"Main street" runs down from the bus stop to the park HQ. Lots of traveller-orientated businesses along here - trip booking agents, minimarkets (one front left has an ATM), restaurants, bars and some accommodation places. Surprisingly uncrowded in this shot (people had told me Khao Sok is much busier than the 90s. Surprising until Gai told me it was Full Moon Party day on Phangan - he had 12 guests the previous day but only me at time of pix. Most of the accommodation is on laneways off to the left of this street - tracks are in much better condition than days past - many are paved.

One of the biggest changes from my first trip was the number of new accommodation places and how existing places had expanded and upgraded. This is a new section at Jungle Huts which has an interconnecting elevated walkway to the new elevated restaurant. The place still has cheaper old-style bungalows and tree-houses but they were a bit neater than when I stayed last century. Jungle Huts was known for its entertainingly eccentric restaurant staff - these guys would be pushing early-mid 30s now, may be different.

The above bungalows are 800 on the website at time of writing but Jungle Huts does not offer aircon on environmental grounds. Plenty of similar places with aircon (note it gets quite cool towards sunrise - the only place in the south I've needed a full blanket - but late afternoons can be warm and steamy) One joint even had a neat looking pool. Misty Mountain Resort or similar.

Of course you don't need a resort-type pool if you stay at the oft-praised Art's River View Lodge (or several other places along the river). Outsiders are welcome to swim but it would be good politics to order a drink or snack at the elevated restaurant behind camera.

The nearest swimming spot to my bungalow was about 3 minutes away at Bamboo House. The pool extends maybe 30m to right of frame. I shot this from adjacent Bamboo Bar which is a cool place to be stuck when the afternoon storm breaks. Keep those Changs coming ………..


GETTING THERE

Details will be clearer if you click image to expand.
Minibus operations to and from Sok cover plenty of areas these days. Note a lot of the above services involve a change to ferries, bigger coaches, trains or even another minibus at centres like Surathani, Krabi, Trang, maybe Hat Yai and Chumpon.
Note that your bungalow can arrange these tickets just as well as the trip-booking agents.

ROUTE 401 BUSES - around 10 services a day run hourly between Surathani and Takua Pa (from where most go on to Phuket via Khao Lak). It took me about an hour to come up from Takua Pa and I think Surathani is around 2.5. These buses pass by the railway station some distance out of Surathani town itself. Note that not all Surathani-Phuket buses go via highway 401 - some go via the southern route thru Phang Nga town so check at the bus station for a Khao Sok bus.


THE PARK WALKS

The entrance to the park is a short walk from most bungalows. Here you pay your 200 entry fee for 24 hours (March 2011 cost). Check the LAKE TRIP section for how you might be able to make this extend for the best part of two days.
Very close to the entrance is an exhibition-educational Visitors' Center where you can pick up good maps of the main walks, a park restaurant, a nice picnic area alongside the stream, national park bungalows/camping area and a rather swish youth hostel where a bunch of grade school kids were having a great time.

This is a copy of the hand-out map from National Park Visitors' Center (sic if yer not a Yank) - I've added a bit of info. Click to expand image for detail.

The two main tracks are well signposted and don’t need a guide for daylight exploration. Combined they are just a little too long for the average trekker to cover in a day. Because I did most of the more popular western walk in '97 before a heavy storm forced retreat, I started on the northern walk this latest trip.

THE NORTHERN WALK
This track starts up a fairly steep section of stairs behind the park restaurant.

This is a true rainforest track, much more so than the early stages of the western walk. Narrow, steep (much more so than the focal length of my elcheapo Cannon suggests in this shot), lots of leaf litter, a horde of leeches despite it not yet raining (but pretty damp from yesterday’s rain).

Leeches - don't freak out. These little devils are not poisonous like ticks - as a matter of fact some medicos say the anticoagulant they inject to thin your blood is good if you have blood pressure problems (or something like that). Face it, leeches are still used in modern hospitals for a variety of treatments. Main problem is that the anticoagulant makes the puncture-mark bleeding harder to stop (good old pressure works eventually) and the punctures can be itchy which leads to infection from scratching.
Leech socks which are impervious canvas or plasticticised, going up to just under knee-level are most effective. Got a shot of some down page in the LAKE TRIP section. Leeches mainly lurk in the wet leaf litter and lower vegetation and leap onto lower legs, feet - they can actually burrow through less impervious socks, trousers, even some shoe types (a wild leech before it becomes blood-endgorged is quite a skinny streamlined dude) - although this takes time and if you are checking every 100m like me you will get them long before they do the dracula bit. I find wearing shorts makes spotting them much easier than in longer trousers. I have an idea liberal applications of insect repellent may discourage them too.
When you finish your trek, check your torso too. I have had a few here in the Australian bush.

About 50 minutes up the northern track it splits - the western part goes across this bridge and then climbs steeply to San Yang Roi. Trouble is the bridge was barricaded with ACTIVITY PROHIBITED IN THIS AREA signs. Of course I had to see why - the bridge was in poor repair with circumferentially-enhanced types in risk of busting thru. And a fallen tree partially blocked the steep set of stairs starting on the other side. Both problems looked at least a year old - what does National Parks do with our 200baht entry fees? Hint - read above about the snazzy youth hostel.

After 5 minutes of steep stair-climbing the across-bridge track meanders thru some dense high forest before coming to a circular switchback around a huge emergent tree in an area which must be virtually directly above the river. Must be because I could hear it way down there - couldn’t see anything but immediate trees from an area the notes hint is a viewpoint.

Back down on the main northern track I moved another 10 minutes on to a nice natural pool which would be great for swimming. Past here the path deteriorated sadly - narrow, steep, muddy, unclear with lots of false leads and no indicator marks on trees or signs, meaning frequent backtracking - after 15 minutes I figured I was making less than 1km in an hour which meant that the final destination Sip-et-Chan Waterfall was something like 6 hours return to that point. This would give me no time to recheck the main western track before nightfall, so I turned back towards Park HQ.

THE WESTERN TRACK
Although longer, this is way easier and busier and than the northern track (I only saw 2 other trekkers in over 3 hours on the latter, dozens on the western route). There is also more to see with 7 pools or “waterfalls” along here.

The first 2km or so is a wide path with a few relatively easy slopes. Past this it narrows to a proper rainforest walking track - quite narrow with some steepish climbs and drops - but does not become difficult in normal conditions. On my first visit at the turn of the century I had to turn back at shortly after reaching the final falls at #7 because a deluge turned the track into a mud stream with thousands of leeches. I remember it became quite slippery in parts but despite this I made the 7.5km back to HQ in 2 hours.

At the 3km mark a short side-track leads down to this attractive pool at Wang Yao. Deliciously cool water saw quite a few people swimming behind camera. A guide here was telling his small group the water is usually very clear in dry season - recent days had been quite wet.

Thai “waterfalls” are often a short drop over a few rocks as in background. Note rainfall starting. Later at my bungalow it absolutely poured, just as hard as when I first visited - I’m glad I turned back when I did this latest trip.
Some of the other falls along this track are a bit more impressive - but we aint talking Niagara folks. I remember the pool at #6 and the pool and falls at #7 were quite nice when I called in the previous trip. Note the side-track out of #7 was pretty indisctinct back then - maybe it has improved.


OTHER BUNGALOW-HQ AREA ACTIVITIES.
Elephant rides, guided treks to distant waterfalls and viewpoints for overnight camping, river inner-tube rides/ kayaking, flower tours and guided animal spotting treks are offered at the bungalows, tour booking offices and park visitors’ centre. Some of these would involve transport to more distant locations - this is one big national park.
Guided animal spotting is most successful as night treks - Khao Sok is famous for wild elephants, deer, tigers, leopards and tapirs but all I’ve seen on day trips are a few birds and bulk leeches. Plus a few crashing sounds in the undergrowh. I gotta admit night safaris are not my thing - I’d much rather be tucked in tight with Blow-Up Britney than charging around the boondocks with a flashlight.


THE LAKE TRIP
I did the Lake Trip in ‘97 but did not have the time to stay overnight on the raft houses where daytrips call in for lunch. I was determined to stay a night this trip. The extra 1000baht (2400 v 1400) gets a surprisingly comfy floating bungalow, 3 excellent meals and some extra activities on the second day including a trek to a wonderful viewpoint which I thought nearly as good as first day’s cave walk. Plus the exclusivity and serenity of a night on the lake.

Starting point - the Lake Park HQ/Visitors' Center about one hour north of main HQ-bungalow area - around 50km further along 401 to Ban Takun and then another 8km or so down a side road to the north. The Visitor's Center has the usual educational stuff, toilets, shops, restaurant.

At the small building to the right you will pay another 200 baht entry fee - unless you delay your previous day's entry into the main HQ area's walking tracks until say 10.30am as Gai from Evergreen House advised me, in which case your arrival at the lake should be before the 24 hours is up - and you will be waved thru on presentation of your previous day's ticket (time of entry the previous day is stamped on it). In this way I got 3 days in the park areas for 200 - they don't check your ticket on exit from the lake.

The gang - only 7 of us staying overnight - plus another 5 with a different operator. However there were another 20+ daytrippers at the raft-houses having lunch before their cave trip.
Bloke on the tiller is our guide "Mr Big", an excellent source of information and good humour.

It's 26km across the lake to Ton Tuoy raft-houses. Plenty of spectacular scenery along the way so the longtail didn't hurry - took about an hour.

The raft houses. Restaurant area is larger buildings slightly right of centre. Guest accommodation left, worker accommodation right.

Chez Tezza at the raft houses. Basic box with 2 double mattresses and a good net. My mattress and pillow pretty comfortable. Magic waking up with the moonlit lake framed by the window. Couples got their own place of course - the two single girls in our group were asked to share - I was the only single bloke so got a place all to myself. Well me and Britzer.

Bungalows (here from rear) have outside bathrooms - this is a shot from the second, higher bathroom block which has better facilities (but still a bit decrepit) than the first - about half as high on the same pathway. Make sure you carry a torch - path is lit until generator quits in the early hours, but not lit well in sections.

Sam from our trip sent me this shot of the raft houses (image uncle_sam)

THE CAVE TRIP
Starting immediately after luch, this must be the highlight of any Khao Sok trip. It's the second time I've done it, but that did not diminish enjoyment at all.
The first section involves a short longtail ride further up the lake branch the raft houses are located. We have extra passengers including other overnighters and some of the daytrippers.

Out of the boat and about a 30 minute walk to the cave. This involves numerous shallow river crossings - good sandals or hiking boots are probably best here - I wore joggers which were okay but soggy of course - flip-flop sandals aka thongs/jandals in Aust/NZ are a no no. Mr Big went bare foot - not a good idea unless you have been doing this all your life.

Click to enlarge to check the plastic leech-socks the second dude heading towards camera above has. He was the first of a big group coming away from the cave - looked to be an up-market daytrip group from Phuket, Phang Nga or Khao Lak. You can even come from Krabi on daytrips. Phuket and Krabi would be around 7 hours return vehicle time alone - too far for me.

Cave entry - as you can see, quite narrow. In fact the first 15 minutes of the 40 minute trip is confined to the narrow creek section. Here you are wading constantly - at one stage it is too deep to wade so non-swimmers should avoid although I found I could haul myslelf along this short section using hands on rocks both sides without swimming. Claustrophobics should also avoid. The guides carry a wet pack for cameras and valuables in this section. Each trekker is given an effective head-band light.
Note this section floods after heavy rain - a flash- flood some years ago saw several people lost. Guides are very safety-conscious (Mr Big and friends had to haul victims out of the cave) - will not enter if conditions seem risky. There is a trekking by-pass for such times.


Sam shot Corrine modelling headband flashlight.

After 15 minutes or so the cave widens and most progress is not thru water. Cameras are handed out but my crap Canon's flash failed 2 seconds after the warranty expired and so I have no shots of the limestone formations (not mind-blowing like some caves), bats and spiders. But I'm hoping some of my fellow travellers will email some shots.

Okay, Anette from Germany sent me this cave shot.

And Sam from England this one of a bat colony......

---plus this of hundreds of spiders nesting on the walls.


The cave exit (much bigger than the entrance) doesn't need a flash although the 3 seconds or so the lens was open saw some camera shake.

Sam's flashlight does a much better job of this area.

The track splits here soon after cave exit. The daytrippers take the right branch which gets them to a waiting longtail closer to the park HQ - the overnighters take the other which eventually goes back to the original mooring point close to the raft-houses. Both routes involve about a one hour trek thru very good rainforest - true to its name because by this stage it was raining. There are about 10 creek crossings along the way.

Mr Big had a very good eye and spotted this small fringe-back lizard lurking in the bush.

Still raining back at the raft-houses. Excellent time for a swim. Image from Sam.

Near DINNER TIME! Dinner was done on a multi-plate share system. I thought the food was very very good for quantity, taste and variety. There seemed to be unlimited free bottles of water on the tables. Coffee and tea were comp and beer, soft drinks and juices could be purchased.


SPOT-LIGHTING
After dinner we took off on a one hour lake cruise to see if we could spot any animals or birds. Not greatly successful - an owl, a couple of eagles and one hornbill. But it sure was nice out there cruising the lake in the moonlight/spotlight.

NEXT DAY
First view in the morning - glassed-off lake and misty mountains. I just had to do a lengthy swim to wake me up (water surprisingly warm despite Mr Big reporting a 30m depth) - several other guests took the comp kayaks.

7am saw a one hour pre breakfast animal spotting tour - once again several birds of prey, a half dozen monkeys crashing around high in the trees and ------
This happy camper - a bigger monkey feeding his/her face in the grass alongside the lake. Didn't seem overly impressed with Mr Big's monkey calls.

THE VIEWPOINT TREK
Around 9am we packed up our gear and headed across lake 30 minutes to the start of the viewpoint trek. The actual viewpoint isn't at the highest point in the shot thank God, but on a ridge in the vicinity of the yellow arrow head. Still took over 3 hours return.

I'd class the overall walk up through excellent rainforest as a real good workout for a person of average fitness - they will require quite a few stops. For fit people there are no killer slopes, but this last 15 minute stretch was good value to get the pulse rate up. Once again my camera's focal lenght de-exaggerates the steepness. Rocks very sharp here - Mr Big bare-footed as everywhere else. Unfortunately you do not get a view until the very top - but it is worth it as the shot top of page shows.

Sam's shot from the viewpoint.

Mr Big missed this dude on the way down, but eagle-eyed Sam holding it didn't.

Once back in the boat, we headed for the Lake HQ. I have an idea some trips squeeze in a waterfall visit and a swim, but a storm was threatening so we made for shelter.

I modified this Google Earth image to show approx positions - the cave is perhaps a little to the right of my place-marker.


GETTING TO THE LAKE INDEPENDENTLY.
Get the route 401 bus to drop you off in the fairly big town of Ban Takun. Mention "lake" to the conductor. This town is around the 53-54km markers from Surathani. Mr Big told me there are motorcycle taxis the 8km or so to park HQ. You can charter longtails here - but the 26km out to the raft-houses would not be cheap - ditto for a lake cruise. Of course shared between friends it may be fine.
Note I saw at least 2 other raft house operations but they seemed closed mid March 2011.
If coming from Krabi, the cross-mountain route hits 401 much closer to Ban Takun than the main Park HQ-bungalow area. You could bail-out of the minibus and wait for a passing bus or motorcyle-taxi. The latter might be scarce away from town.

If you see any errors or have additional information, please post below.
If you have questions, please post them in THE FORUM section accessed via the INDEX which I check most days - I check individual pages like this Sok one only occasionally.
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IF YOU ARE VISITING KHAO SOK, ALL THE OTHER PRIORS AND EXTENSIONS SUCH AS PHANGAN, TAO, SAMUI, THE SURINS, KHAO LAK, KO KHO KHAO, THE SIMILANS, PHUKET, PHANG NGA BAY AND KRABI CAN BE ACCESSED THRU THE INDEX

4 comments:

Caroline Munro said...

Thanks Tezza,
Like most of your posts really informative :)

Sbipk said...

Thank you nice article.
your next trip…Phuket is the best choice for you!!
I love here Surin Beach Hotel This hotel is very nice clean and the people are friendly. VERY nice hotel with helpful staff.
And I really love white sand, crystal clear waters at Surin Beach too.
Thank again.

Rich Graham said...

What a great article. Thanks

Rich Graham said...

What a great article. Thanks