River in lush Khao Sok rainforest
Many travelers to Thailand head from Bangkok to one or more of the beautiful beaches and islands in the southern part of the country.
Just a few kilometers inland from these beaches is Khao Sok National Park, a lush jungle often overlooked by tourists. It’s situated roughly equidistant between the popular beach tourist destinations Krabi, Phuket and Koh Samui. Khao Sok offers a convenient day or multi-day trip and an interesting contrast to the beaches.
I arrived at Khao Sok by minivan after an all-night train ride from Bangkok to Surat Thani. A steady downpour affirmed that this was indeed the rainy season. After a brief wait for my room to be prepared, my own little jungle cabin (aptly named the Jungle House) was ready. It came complete with mosquito net, open-air bathroom and front porch with a rocking chair overlooking a river and towering green limestone cliffs.
Just outside the park, the cabin was cozily nestled amidst the greenery of the jungle. The rain continued to fall in spasms and spurts and then suddenly stopped. The sounds of the birds then emerged with their distinctive calls and melodies.
There are plenty of activities available for visitors to Khao Sok – no matter the weather. These include treks ranging from a half day to three days or longer, canoeing, boating on gorgeous Cheow Lan Lake, tubing and elephant trekking.
Khao Sok is what remains of the oldest tropical evergreen rain forest in the world, a 160-million-year-old ecosystem. This is older than the Amazon Rainforest and the forests in Central America – Khao Sok was virtually unaffected by the Ice Age, which did not reach down that far. When the ice melted, a great deal of water flowed into Khao Sok, leaving the area more lush and verdant than ever. The forest today encompasses approximately 738 square kilometers.
Wildlife here includes leopards, sun bears, Asian elephants, Malaysian tapirs, macaques, gibbons and a variety of reptiles. You are more likely to see these if you go on one of the longer hikes or river treks.
On my half-day hike I only saw a chameleon, a gecko and the biggest spider I’ve yet seen in my life. The guide informed us that the monkeys prefer to hide when it is rainy. He pointed out the various trees and plants native to the area, including bamboo, rare species of palm, and rattan, often used for furniture.
Another plant, Rafflesia Kerrii, is the largest flower in the world. It was not in season so we were spared its distinctive odor, which has been compared to rotting flesh. The guide also gave us some edible plants to sample, including one used for chili pepper that had me scrambling for my water bottle.
At the end of our hike we took off our shoes to check for leeches. I noticed that my traveling partner had blood on his sock. The guide came over and gave him instructions on how to treat the leech "wound."
I felt fortunate that I’d avoided them, with the exception of the few little guys I flicked off my shoes.
But a few minutes later my guide looked at the back of my neck and let out a "whoa!” As my heart skipped a beat, he removed a huge leech from the back of my neck and burned it. In a few seconds all that remained was a pool of blood. I had not felt a thing, but who knows how long the little booger had been blissfully sucking away at my blood.
"They're harmless," the hotel staff assured me, easing just a bit the unsettled feeling I was experiencing. I kept asking myself how I could possibly have not even felt it.
As the rain began to fall yet again, I returned to my cabin. Just hearing the rain helped put my spirit at ease. The pitter-patter and intermittent rhythm of the rain showers against the jungle house soothed my psyche.
Rainy season is mosquito season in Thailand, so I took my malaria pills and snuggled up under the mosquito net. Reclining in bed, I eased into a state of utter relaxation, listening to the patter of the rain and the sounds of the jungle – and avoiding any more leeches!