Khao Sok National Park, located deep in the interior of the narrow peninsula, is southern Thailand’s jewel. This chunk of primary rain forest prides a few beautiful waterfalls and karst formations rising from the jungle or immersed in an enormous artificial lake. It is a very peaceful and beautiful place but sadly you’d need quite a lot of money to enjoy it as seeing most of the interesting places require participating in organized trips or hiring a guide (unless you are VERY adventurous). The independent travel within the national park is very difficult and strongly discouraged by pretty much anyone in Khao Sok.
Most of the tourists who visit Khao Sok stay in a tourist village right in front of the National Park entrance. It is a convenient option due to an easy access to shopping and dining as well as the vicinity to a lovely swimming hole on the river Sok. Finding a budget accommodation isn’t much of a problem. However, the lack of hot water can be a bit of a pain as the water is icy cold. Also, keep in mind that manual washing and drying clothes in Khao Sok is close to impossible- the climate is simply too humid.
Khao Sok on a budget
The minibus which we caught in Phang Nga town dropped us at the crossroads between the main road and the little road leading to the HQ of the national park. There were some taxis standing at the crossroads but there was absolutely no point to use their expensive services since it was a walking distance to the village. We were a little bit worried that there would’t be any affordable dining and shopping options on that tiny, 2 km long road filled with guest houses. Therefore, we were quite relieved to discover a simple stall selling street food a short walk from the crossroads. I ordered a vegan pad Thai by pointing to the lady which ingredients she should use.
At the end of the meal, we got a large handful of mangosteens for free. It was the first time in my life I saw that delicious fruit and I wasn’t sure how to eat it. A lady working at our guesthouse was happy to explain that the firm, pulpy, crimson outer shell was inedible while the marvelously sweet, soft, white interior could be eaten whole.
Apart from the stall located close to the crossroads, there was also a cheap canteen with tasty food located close to the bridge on Sok river. The tourist village had a couple of local shops but -just as on Ko Tao- the sellers tended to ask tourists for ‘special’ prices (multiplied by at least two). This practice never ceased to annoy me.
The lodging and food expenses would be the least of your problem during your visit. It’s the activities and exploring the park that are truly expensive. Just the entrance to Khao Sok National Park costs a ridiculously high 300 baht. At least the ticket is valid for 24 hours which meant that attending a night safari and going for a trip on the next day would require just one ticket.
As soon as we arrived, we were encouraged by a nice but profit -oriented manager of our guesthouse to attend a night safari. Looking at the prices, we decided to go for a free hike to the national park first and then decide. The choice of free hiking routes was very limited. We were told that there were just two short trails in Khao Sok National Park which could be taken without hiring a guide. We heard of some travelers venturing for a whole day, strenuous hike to Ton Kloi and other waterfalls on their own but we were not sure whether we’d get a chance or courage to follow suit.
Morning walk to the park
We woke up very early in the morning with a hope we’d be the only people on the trail and we might spot some gibbons or hornbills (which were the most exciting examples of fauna we could have realistically come across there).
Our plan was only partially successful. We were indeed the first ones to put our names down in the log book at the park’s entrance and were in the forest completely alone but in terms of wildlife we managed to see just a pack of common macaques, a frog and a lizard.
Our major fear were the land leeches which Khao Sok was infamous for, especially during the rainy season. The guesthouse’s manager suggested us to use the local leech repellent: tobacco-infused water. 50% DEET could supposedly work against the leeches as well. We used the combination of the two and also made sure we’d be covered as much as possible, wearing hiking boots and long socks over the long hiking trousers.
All those precautions felt unnecessary for a wide and flat dirt road leading through the park. It seemed inconceivable we could get any leeches there.
The first attraction point on the route was a swimming hole. Besides the water looking murky it was far too early to feel like swimming so we didn’t stop for long.
Reaching the second attraction – a waterfall- required taking a narrow path through the jungle and walking through the grass along the pebbled bank of the river. The ‘waterfall’ was barely visible since it was far on the other side of the river and was very small. In fact, calling it a waterfall would be an overstatement.
While I was resting on a large river boulder, I felt an odd sensation on my leg. I looked down and saw a tiny leech making its way inside my boot. I shook it off immediately and quickly came back to the main trail.
Soon after passing by the waterfall, we reached the end of the route accessible for the independent exploration. We were hoping we could carry on at least just a bit further beyond the permitted point (along a very clear route) but the sight of a ranger at the checkpoint forced us to turn back. I later read it wasn’t actually illegal to explore the park without a guide but both park rangers and the guesthouse staff told us something opposite.
Around 8 am, we heard some melodious and quite dramatically sounding high pitched songs. I had no doubt we were listening to gibbons, famous for their unique songs carried to a distance of up to 2 km. The singing which continued for a few minutes was definitely the best moment of the entire trip.
On the way back, we passed by quite a few people walking in the opposite direction. Most of them came with guides – we assumed they must have been heading to Ton Kloi a fairly high waterfall at the end of the hiking route.
The derelict path to the second fall
Despite an early hour, we were sweating profusely due to high humidity. As we were already so dirty and sticky we thought we could just as well check out the second route straightaway.
The second trail looked as if it had been a major attraction in the past but now turned into disrepair. Concrete fleets of stairs and suspended walkways were crumbling and covered with moss. We followed an ‘educational path’ with the information boards identical to the ones we’d just seen on the other trail and felt quite bored.
At one point, we noticed a narrow trail through the jungle continuing upwards where the concrete trail was making a loop and leading back down. We guessed that must be the start of a guide-requiring trail to a distant waterfall. There were no guards around so we thought we could give it a shot and try to get to the waterfall. We were further reassured by another couple following us closely.
Leech horror story
A few hundred meters further up the path I looked down at my boots and screamed in horror. There were at least 7 or 8 leeches crawling on my boots and socks. I ran back to the concrete steps and started frantically getting rid of them. It wasn’t that easy to pull them apart as they suck to the surface quite well. One of the leeches almost succeeded biting through my sock- I peeled it off at the very last moment. A couple which silently followed us on this little adventure had less luck. The girl’s white sock was stained with blood of the successful leech. I felt utterly disgusted and was glad to be leaving the jungle.
Monkey swimming hole- paradise found
As we finished our ‘hike’ (after all it was about 10 km we made in total) quite early, we had to do something with the rest of that hot day. We thought we could re-use the national park ticket to soak our feet in the cool stream at the HQ.
Luckily, the lady from our guesthouse advised us to visit a place called the Monkey Swimming Hole on the Sok river. Going towards the HQ we just had to turn first right after the bridge and then follow the path along the river. We had to walk through Art’s Riverview Lodge to get to the swimming hole but nobody seemed to mind us.
I saw the hole and gasped in delight. A huge natural pool with clear water set at the backdrop of a vertical rock was just magical. We could sit on a pebble beach. The end of a long rope hanging from the trees growing high above was dipped in the river. Local kids were climbing the flat rock at the foot of the cliff, grabbing the rope and then using it to jump to the water. The entire pool was at least 50 meters long, the river was warm enough to swim but cool enough to give respite to the heat and there were no leeches or other nasty creatures in the water. I found my paradise.
No night safari for me
My initial enthusiasm for a night safari (which was supposed to be the best chance of spotting wildlife) waned due to three factors. Firstly, I wasn’t keen to be back in the jungle at night, when I wouldn’t be able to see properly if the leeches were attacking me. Secondly, the route of the jungle walk followed precisely the first route we took in the morning and I could not imagine that at night it’d suddenly become full of life. Lastly, for its two hour duration and lack of guarantee to see anything more than a frog or a spider it felt like a rather pricey gamble.
How to get there?
You can take a cheap public bus from Surat Thani (direct) or Krabi or Phuket (changing in Takua Pa). There are a number of more expensive tourist minibuses from the main tourist destinations to Khao Sok as well.
Prices [in Thai baht as of May 2018]:
1500 THB day trip to Cheow Lake (excluding the entrance fee to the park)
300 THB entrance to Khao Sok National Park (valid 24 hours)
220 THB bus to Phuket Town
175 THB a bargained minivan from Phang Nga Town to Khao Sok crossroads
90 THB cheapest item on a guesthouse restaurant menu
60 THB meal at the roadside stall
50 THB rubber shoe rental for the Namtaloo Cave trail