When I set out on my two-day adventure to Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, I never expected to be wading through river water almost as deep as I am tall. To be swimming through caves and climbing waterfalls. And to be listening to the sounds of howler monkeys in the trees as I drifted off to sleep, rocked by the gentle movements of the waters upon which I floated.
In fact, I’m not sure what I expected at all.
Because, truth be told, I hadn’t really done a lot of research. You see, we stopped at Khao Sok National Park, on route to Krabi and the islands of the Andaman Sea, primarily for Stu’s benefit.
Stu has always fancied himself as a bit of a David Attenborough, and has a knowledge of natural history only rivalled by perhaps David himself. He can identify countless insects, arachnids, and snakes; in fact, anything that may live on the jungle floor, and loves to study and photograph them. So it seemed rather fitting that we should incorporate a jungle adventure into his part of the itinerary.
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We caught a flight from Chiang Mai down to Surat Thani, and we’d actually booked accommodation in Surat Thani overnight, because we couldn’t find any information online about what time, and how frequently, the buses ran to Khao Sok. Fortunately for us (as it then gave us an extra day to play with; the $10 lost in accommodation fees was a small price to pay) there was a bus leaving less than an hour after we’d landed and collected our baggage.
We arrived into the village of Khao Sok around late afternoon and bagged a room at Nung House. Set amidst lush tropical gardens with an on-site restaurant and three adorable resident felines, Nung House offers 18 bungalows, each with their own private bathroom and terrace.
Seeing as though there’s not a lot ‘to do’ in Khao Sok village – aside from booking jungle trips, stocking up on supplies (for said trip) at the Morning Mist market in town, and spotting geckos – I was relieved that the wifi worked well in the restaurant/chill-out area at Nung House, so we were able to use our time to plan an itinerary for the remaining days of our trip.
We also wandered down to the main street in order to enjoy a massaman curry at one of the local restaurants, and subsequently stopped off for a cold beer around an open fire at a little bar on our route back. It was one of those nights when we got talking to the only other couple in the bar, and one beer led to two, which led to three….you catch my drift? It’s a damn good job we didn’t have to get up *too* early the next day.
We were able to leave our main backpacks at Nung House, while we travelled with just enough for the two days ahead – a change of clothes and shoes for the evening, nightwear, swimwear, sunscreen and plenty of bug spray. I’d also read that Khao Sok National Park was the wettest place in Thailand, so whilst I didn’t have a waterproof jacket, I did pack my dry bag. Little did I know then what a wise decision that would turn out to be.
It takes about 90 minutes to get from Khao Sok village to the pier, where a long tailed boat will subsequently whisk you away to your home for the next couple of days: a floating bungalow on Cheow Lan Lake.
If the weather is good when you arrive at the pier, make sure you get on the boat last to secure a front row seat. You’ll thank me for the advice when you see the scenery. If you’ve ever travelled through Vietnam or China, it’s reminiscent of the Karst landscapes in Yangshuo or Halong Bay: huge, vegetation-covered, craggy rocks rising out of still blue-green waters. It’s dramatic, spectacular, and seemingly infinite.
As we neared Cheow Lan Lake, the horizon began to level out and the cloud started to build. In the distance we could just about make out a long line of tiny green bungalows with terracotta-coloured rooftops, resting on the edge of the lake and backed by tall trees.
The setting was remote and beautiful, and I couldn’t have been more excited about what lay ahead.
Our floating home for the night on Cheow Lan Lake was basic, but a lot better than I expected it to be. In the main room there were two double mattresses on the floor, and then there was an ensuite bathroom complete with western toilet (no toilet paper, mind; bring your own) and proper shower (cold water only).
The only minor issues were that the window-closing lever lay broken on the floor (meaning that we couldn’t close or lock one of our windows), and we had no top sheet or blanket on either bed. We assumed this was normal until we spoke to the girls in the bungalow next door the following morning, and discovered that they’d been supplied with blankets.
(You may be wondering why we needed blankets in the jungle; it’s hot and humid, right? Well, yes it is, but I’d rather be a little too warm than covered in mosquito bites)
After around half an hour of spare time (with which to swim and kayak on Cheow Lan Lake) and a filling lunch of fried rice with vegetables, and fresh pineapple and watermelon slices, we were collected by long tail boat in order to be taken to the start of our Nam Taloo cave trek.
The only instruction we were given was not to wear flip flops, which seemed fairly obvious advice for a trek, especially through potentially wet landscapes and over slippery terrain.
We walked beneath the shade of the dense jungle canopy, keeping our eyes peeled for plant and animal life along the muddy tracks.
Before too long we arrived at a small clearing alongside a river, where our guide, Rookie, advised us to stop. Rookie then proceeded to give us a briefing, in which he informed us that during our trek we would be crossing rivers and swimming in a cave. We instantly looked at one another, mildly concerned about this revelation, but immediately assumed that Rookie was joking about the latter part.
I may have been wearing a bikini beneath my vest top and three-quarter-length leggings, but I was in no way dressed for swimming. And, looking around at the others (many of whom were wearing jeans, harem pants, and long trousers), neither was anyone else. I was also carrying my DSLR camera.
A little further along the path appeared to stop at a body of water. But this body of water wasn’t a stream or shallow river; it wasn’t one you could cross. So we all came to a standstill and awaited instruction from our guide.
He said nothing.
Instead he proceeded to wade through said body of water – which, before too long was up to his waist – and instructed us all to follow.
Every single one of us automatically assumed that this was some kind of practical joke the local guides play on the farang (foreigners), and waited for him to show us the real path.
The problem was that he didn’t.
And this wasn’t a joke.
Although my DSLR was in my dry bag, I wasn’t particularly keen on testing the bag’s ability to fully protect my £800+ camera body and lens when potentially submerged in water. A lot of people in the group didn’t even have dry bags at all.
But realising there was little I could do about the situation at that moment, I did the dry bag up as securely as I could and held it high above my head as I waded into the water.
I also didn’t have a clue what kind of creatures lurked beneath the water’s surface. But I tried not to think about that too much.
The problem was that the water was so murky that you couldn’t see the terrain beneath your feet, especially after the first person had gone in and disturbed the sand on the bed of the river.
Two large logs lay across our pathway ahead and, had the first person in our group not warned each person that followed (by way of a Chinese-whisper chain), we could all have fallen face first into that river, involuntarily letting go of our bags as we plummeted into the water.
As we stepped off the second log (a bit of precarious balancing and guesswork was required to cross from one to the other) the water suddenly got very deep. I was standing on tiptoes and it was almost up to my chin.
Our subsequent route involved crossing several other rivers, but none anywhere near as deep as this first one.
When we reached the “meeting point” we were informed that up ahead we would be venturing into the cave where we would have to swim. If we were at all claustrophobic or afraid of the dark we should remain at said meeting point. If we wanted to go (and what was the point in coming all this way and not doing so?) we could leave our belongings here.
So I had to leave my expensive DSLR in the middle of the jungle where, if everyone in our group chose to continue on to the cave, there would be no-one around to watch it.
I was seriously unimpressed with the lack of communication about this prior to leaving Smiley’s bungalows.
Rookie tried to assure me,
“don’t worry, no-one will take your stuff!”
How did he know? And in light of the fact that he didn’t, he shouldn’t have made that assumption.
I ended up stuffing my dry bag into the crevice of a tree and praying that it would still be there when I returned. My insurance certainly wouldn’t cover me for that one!
I was also a little apprehensive about how I would deal with the whole experience of swimming in a cave, especially as Stu and I only had one hand-held torch between us.
I’m not a strong swimmer, I can’t tread water for any longer than about 20 seconds, I have an inability to swim under water without the aid of goggles and a nose peg (or a snorkel), I panic when I can’t see what’s ahead of or beneath me, and I have a mild phobia of enclosed spaces.
But at the same time I always like to confront my fears rather than let them beat me, because I’ve always found that in practice, everything is less scary than I’ve initially imagined it to be (my zipline, headfirst over the Bolivian jungle, is a prime example of this). I also like the sense of accomplishment I feel after the event. Besides which, it makes for a much better story to tell you guys!
To be fair the caves were seriously impressive. There were so many different textures inside (my favourite of which was the mini travertines, reminiscent of the much larger versions found in Pamukkale, Turkey) and some of the best stalagmites and stalactites I’ve ever seen.
Fortunately most of the rocks were rough and sturdy enough to get a good grip on when the terrain underfoot was unstable, slippery or uneven, and the majority of time in the cave was spent simply wading through ankle-deep waters or climbing rocks (both of which I was absolutely fine with, given a sufficient amount of light).
My favourite part was when we had to climb a waterfall using a rope. Oh, and the bats. There were SO. MANY. BATS.
Some were completely black and some were a browny-greyish colour with snub noses. And, given Stu’s ability for spotting any kind of wildlife, I actually spotted the initial cluster of bats before he did. They looked just like uneven holes in the rock high above our heads. Most of the time though, when there were enough of them, you could hear and smell them before you could see them. It’s a smell I cannot describe, but one that you will instantly recognise once you’ve initially smelt it.
We also spotted numerous spiders, including pond skaters and whip scorpions. And a funny breed of frog that was peacefully asleep when lain on its back and awake when turned over into an upright position.
I emerged from the cave feeling glad once again that I’d chosen to confront my fears, and also ridiculously relieved when I discovered my camera still in its hiding place in the crevice of the tree in which I’d left it.
To top things off, we drove back to our floating bungalows just as the sun was setting over Cheow Lan Lake.
Whilst it didn’t really matter at the time that I was soaking wet from head to toe, I was not looking forward to the prospect of putting wet clothes and shoes on for our trek the following day. No-one told us we’d need two lots of trekking gear (including shoes), and the humidity of the jungle meant that, even in spite of the heat, there was no way on God’s earth that our current ones would be dry by the morning. Not even close.
But for now, the promise of dry clothes was only a cold shower away.
And in the morning, this was the view of Cheow Lan Lake from our bungalow window. No filter required.
We set off early, just as the jungle was awakening (not that it ever really goes to sleep), in search of toucans, howler monkeys and sloths.
We’d heard the howler monkeys the night before but I was determined to spot one for myself. And spot one I did (although it’s a *little* difficult to tell in this photo; that one time I could’ve done with a more powerful zoom lens than just 135mm).
A quick hop back to Smiley’s for breakfast and we were off on our next jungle trek. Although we were informed this time that there would be no river crossings or cave swimming, which was a relief because my clothes were finally beginning to dry out. A smidgen, at least.
We climbed uphill towards a viewpoint, the rain just managing to penetrate through the trees.
We spotted monkey ladders and mushrooms, and the occasional burst of colour amongst the greens and browns.
And at the end of it a feast of salads, vegetables, rice and fresh fruits awaited us.
The journey across Cheow Lan Lake to the toilet was a little precarious, but it paled into insignificance in comparison to yesterday’s challenges.
On route back to the pier, the morning’s light rain began to get heavier and heavier and before long I was almost as wet as I’d gotten wading through rivers the day before. It was still raining when we returned to Khao Sok village, and continued to rain throughout our entire journey down to Krabi that same evening.
Whilst I accept that rain is possible and expected in “the wettest place in Thailand” during the dry season, I certainly didn’t expect to be arriving into one of Thailand’s beach resorts in the middle of a torrential thunderstorm that was expected to continue for several days.
But that’s a story for another post…
- The cost of the two-day/one-night trip (booked through Nung House in Khao Sok village) was 2500 THB. This included all transport, overnight accommodation at Smiley’s Lake House on Cheow Lan Lake, and all meals (though drinks other than water were extra).
- Now you know what the trip involves, make sure you bring a spare set of trekking clothes AND shoes, a torch and a dry bag. And leave your DSLR back at base if you don’t want to risk it.
- If you have a zoom lens make sure you bring it with you on the sunrise boat trip. That way you might have a fighting chance of getting a shot of a howler monkey that you can actually properly identify as a howler monkey!
Do you have any jungle adventure stories to share? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
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