#17 from SE Asia — Khao Sok National Park — the world’s oldest rain forest — a must see on the planet
March 1st, 2011
I headed out pedaling north from Rawai Beach on February 22nd. I had long overstayed my scheduled time on Phuket Island, but it had been so easy to do so. I had been living in a compound of 30 bungalows surrounding a swimming pool, stage, bar and restaurant. Many nights we had live music as bands literally from around the world came to our Orchid Garden Inn to rehearse. All in my back yard. Conversations late into the morning with interesting people from all over the world. A party every night in your back yard. It was very easy to overstay.
A German-Thai couple, Dieter and Sinon, ran the place. They were happily married for 26 years, with 2 grown children. Dieter spoke English better than most Brits, and virtually all Americans. He appeared to know the lyrics of every Dylan song ever recorded, along with all the Rolling Stones. I enjoyed immensely our conversations and I look forward to seeing him again.
But it really felt good getting back onto the road pedaling again. I got 100 kms north to Taqua Pai by 4 pm. The rain storms came and I decided to stay the night. By the intensity of the rains that night, it was a wise decision. The monsoons were beginning early this season.
I headed out on sunrise the next morning to cross the mountains to Khao Sok National Park. I had heard of the beauty of these mountain national parks and I did not want to miss them. It was a 1000 meter climb. The first half I did all right. But once it hit the 10% grades, I hopped off my bike and walked it up the remainder of the climb. I needed almost 5 hours to make 50 kms. Not very fast, but I did it by muscle power.
I got a bamboo bungalow for $7 @ night. It had water, good reading lights, and a fan strong enough to blow away most of the malarial mosquitoes. For the next 4 days I would be outside from sunrise to sunset, so this would do.
I spent my first day hiking all day into the park. It is unlike any other forest I have ever been to. It is covered by immense ferns and bamboo forest rising up to 30 meters. Large hardwoods reach perhaps 60 meters thru the bamboo. It does NOT look anything like the Amazon or Africa. This is true triple canopy forest. There is an ascending trail that claims to pass by 7 waterfalls. It was one tough, slippery trail. Grab ahold of the vines and fig roots or you might be sliding downhill quickly. What they called waterfalls here I would call cataracts. But they were isolated and beautiful. Because of the immense growths of ferns and bamboo, they were also hard to see. The one thing missing was the dinosaurs. From childhood movies, these fern forests always were filled with the great beasts.
I kept climbing higher and higher until I got to signs telling me not to go any further. I looked around. I was by myself. I kept going. There was no longer a trail. I had to climb over vines constantly, or get tripped up. Finally I discovered a vine about the same dimensions as barbed wire, only much sharper. I looked at my bleeding calves and the leaches on them and decided I had gone far enough up the mountain. In the whole day, I had never had one good panoramic view.
A German couple told me that I simply had to take the tour of the Chieow Laan lake. Pay the money and stay as many nights as you can.
The lake is man-made but no matter. It is incredible. Its waters are blue, sweet, and pure. I drank from it. It has some of the most jagged limestone karst mountains on the planet. There are overhangs of over 90 degrees. The pictures say it better than I. This area is populated by almost all the large fauna in Thailand. Bears, elephants, wild pigs, tapirs, everything but tigers. We rode thru the mist in our long-tail boat looking at the fern and bamboo forests coming to edge, expecting most anything.
We stayed on floating bamboo huts with a good mix of European travelers. After a great lunch, we took the boat straight to the cave hike. Getting to the cave was much more vigorous than I expected. We were led by ‘Mr. Big Man’, and large, heavy-set Thai man in his 40’s. He chain-smoked, did not wear shoes, and out-hiked all of us.
On the trail to the cave, we met a group who had just come out. They were completely soaked. Some were muddy. Several looked truly traumatized. They warned us about going in. ‘Way more difficult than we thought’. ‘If you have claustrophobia, do NOT go in’. ‘You will have to swim over to the other side of the cave in water over your head in darkness.’ A younger girl looked as if she had been crying.
Well, I do have claustrophobia. 41 days in solitary confinement can do that. For a while I seriously thought about dropping out. But the idea of me sitting outside for an hour or two waiting did not work either. When we got to the entrance, I found it very large. The others entered, walking in knee-deep water. I followed with my head torch on. The cave was filled with bats, crickets, and a particularly large spider, whose legs spread as wide as a man’s hand. Two Swedish girls freaked out at the spiders. For the rest of the trip Big Man enjoyed himself immensely by alternately scaring the women and flirting with them. They did not seem to appreciate it, and he definitely did not care. I found it amusing.
The cave tightened up. We were in cool water over our waists. We got bumped by large fish, over 30 cms long. Some people got freaked out. We all had to descend a very slippery 3 meter slope into water over our heads and then swim along the passage. They did have a rope there for those who could not swim. Others struggled. A young Finnish man, Mikka, commented about how challenging this was. I agreed. The tunnels tightened up to less than a meter wide with cold water rushing past your chest, but with the lights, it was great.
A long time later, we finally emerged, cold and wet, to a roaring jungle rainstorm. Big Man commented that the water level of the cave would rapidly rise and no one would be able to go into it for a while. The trail we had hiked in on dry was now thoroughly covered with mud, water, and debris from the deluge. It looked entirely different. Well, if we wanted to be in the world’s oldest rain forest, we sure got the rain part. We got back to the cabanas toward sunset and swam in the lake. The consensus was that the cave was much tougher than expected, and better too.
On the next day we were up at dawn. The Scandinavians said aloud “You watch. The French will be late. They always are. They are just like the Spaniards and Italians.” And sure enough, we had to wait again for them again. We went out on the lake at sunrise along the shoreline and saw 4 species of monkeys including gibbons and macaques, horn-bill birds, and wild pigs. Then we began a hike that ended up a very steep rock climb over very sharp rocks. We probably spent 1 and 1/2 hours going up. Again, it was tougher than we expected. How Big Man did it barefooted I could not imagine. I was older than the next oldest person by over 20 years, but I made it a point to stay up near the front of the group. At times I did struggle.
This is what we saw.
It was now all worth it.
I have been on some cream puff trips. This was definitely not in that category, and I liked that. I got pushed more than I expected.
I fly home tomorrow from Bangkok,so this should end my posts for this trip. Ah, to feel alive and free and joyful on our beautiful planet. I am such an Earth Chauvinist.