Southern Thailand is home to world-class beaches and islands: Ko Samui, Phuket, Krabi, etc. But did you also know it is home to stunning national parks, including Si Phang Nga National Park, Khlong Phanom National Park, and of course our favorite, Khao Sok National Park. All three parks are located near the western coast of Thailand’s southern “leg.”
Khao Sok in particular is one of the most beautiful and environmentally important areas in the country. In fact, it is the largest area of virgin forest in southern Thailand and is a remnant of a rain forest that is older and more diverse than the Amazon rain forest. We decided to head south to the park after seeing a couple of photos of the large and imposing limestone karsts that are found throughout the area, as well as the overwater bungalows that you can stay at within the park boundary. Both screamed exciting, memorable adventure - and since neither of us are really "beach" people, we knew it would be more our style than any of the beaches nearby.
We arrived in Surat Thani early in the morning after a long, sleepless night on the train (beautiful scenery though!). We had forgone the comforts of the first class sleeper car and instead had bought two 3rd class tickets for the 14+ hour ride. While neither of us got much sleep - thanks to a combination of sitting on a hard wooden bench, the stifling heat and the lack of space to stretch out - we actually really enjoyed the journey. Once we stopped in Surat Thani we quickly grabbed a cup of coffee, before catching a bus that was heading towards the Ratchaprapha Dam, a large 308-feet long dam that was built in the 80s to provide electricity and irrigation to the surrounding areas. The dam is also the reason Cheow Lan Lake, which stretches 165 square kilometers or 64 square miles, exists. And in some sense, the reason we were this far south to begin with.
The plan was to get to the dam and then possibly rent some stand up paddleboards to explore the large body of water that is one of the centerpieces of the national park. After doing a bit of searching, we finally were able to rent two paddleboards from a local outdoor shop. Then we just had to figure out how to haul them over to the dam itself. In the end we ended up hitchhiking, and were luckily picked up by a very nice farmer and his wife.
Once at the dam, we haggled our way onto one of the curious looking boats that ply the lakes waters. The price was not unreasonable. But for a couple of broke college students, it felt a bit like highway robbery. We also decided to splurge a bit and reserve two of the overwater bungalows that we had seen photos of before (it was the two of us and a friend from Chiang Mai) for one night.
From the dam, it was about a 45-minute boat ride to our bungalow. And that ride might have been one of the best experiences we had in all of Thailand. Limestone karsts, thick vibrant green jungle, turquoise water, and bright blue sky. The colors, the atmosphere, the feeling of excitement and adventure was palpable.
Our bungalows were located in a little inlet on the lake. And while we brought our own stand up paddleboards to use, the hosts actually had a couple of kayaks as well (and a diving board). While the buildings were definitely the bare minimum (a bed on the bamboo floor, a fan, and then the bathroom), we honestly didn’t even mind because we knew almost all of our time would be spent out on the lake.
Once settled into our rooms, we immediately hopped onto the paddleboards and kayaks and headed out the explore the surrounding area. Because the bungalows are on a lake, and a lake that had very few motorboats on it, the water was quite calm. Paddling along the shallow bank was easy and quite relaxing.
And, due to the park’s location and diverse flora and fauna, it didn’t take us long to spot the local wildlife, which included monkeys and wild boar. As people who grew up in a place that didn’t have monkeys, seeing a group of them running around on the banks and climbing in the trees, was quite a surreal and very exciting experience. We highly suggest heading out to explore the lake as much as possible when staying in one of the bungalows. The landscape is not only beautiful but quite unique. Spend the mornings lazily kayaking or paddle boading along the shores, look for the many mammals and birds that call the park home, and swim in the well-temped water. Honestly, just try to experience all the wonders the lake holds as much as possible.
When we visited the temperature never dropped below 33 degrees Celsius (~90 degrees Fahrenheit), except at night. While that is not as boiling hot as some other places in Thailand (we experienced a week of 40 degree Celsius temperatures in Chiang Mai), due to the lack of shade and the fact that you are just out in the blazing sun on the lake, it felt much hotter. While we kept trying to put on sunscreen, due to the intense heat, we also kept jumping into the lake to cool down. Luckily, the temperature would drop at night, though it definitely never got “cold” or even chilly for that matter.
One thing we absolutely recommend doing is heading out onto the water at night, laying out on one of the boats and just looking up at the stars.
Because the lake is quite far away from any major city - and the surrounding mountains shield what little light pollution there is - you get amazing night skies full of glistening stars. We paddled out away from the bungalows and laid out on the paddleboards and just stared up at the sky above in wonder for at least an hour. The views, the sounds of the lapping water and the slight wind blowing in the trees was uber calming.
After a long day of exploring the lake, we returned to the bungalows for some much-needed food. Luckily, meals are included in your stay (though we still suggest bringing snacks) and the food was absolutely delicious: freshly caught fried and grilled fish, tons of fresh fruit, salads, and rice. It was filing but also incredibly healthy. All of the meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) were amazing - and the perfect addition to the adventure.
Eventually, our time out on the lake came to an end and after one last early morning paddle around, we hopped back on the traditional boats and headed towards the dam once more. After the quick boat ride we were shuttled back into one of the small buses and on our way to Surat Thani to catch the afternoon train back up to Bangkok.
While many people choose to spend their time in Southern Thailand at the many beautiful beaches, we definitely recommend instead heading to some of the country’s beautiful national parks - at least for a couple of days.
Khao Sok is by far one of the most beautiful natural areas in Thailand. It is full of history, hidden gems and of course, lots of adventure. Plus, because of its close location to other more popular tourist locations, you likely will have much of the lake to yourself. Exciting, authentic, and adventurous travel, what more can you ask for?
Everything You Need to Know about Khao Sok National Park
Getting to Khao Sok
Car: If you happen to have a car in Thailand, or are willing to rent one, it is about a 9.5-hour drive south from Bangkok to Khao Sok (or 725 kilometers).
Bus: Thailand has a pretty good bus system, and so if you are looking to head from Bangkok to Surat Thani by bus you will have a couple of options, depending on what time you want to leave (almost all are night buses), and what comforts you want. Note: most buses leave from the Southern Terminal Bus Station in Bangkok.
Cost: $18 - $29 USD
Plane: There is the option to take an hour long flight from Bangkok to the town of Surat Thani, which is the closest “big city” to the park. Most flights leave from Don Mueang Airport, the smaller and older of the two airports in Bangkok (it is actually the oldest airport in Asia). Then from there you just need to catch a bus or taxi to the park.
Cost: ~ $42 USD
Train: We ended up taking the train down to Surat Thani, and while it was long (just over 14 hours) and hot, it was one of those memorable experiences that we still look back on today. For starters, we decided to get to Surat Thani the cheapest possible way, so we chose the 3rd class train (total cost for tickets: $16 USD, or $8 USD each). The seat wasn’t comfortable, and the train was crowded, but in the end, we loved having that experience of traveling truly like a local. Note: most trains leave from the Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok.
Cost: Anywhere from $8 USD to $34 USD.
Besides driving, these transportation options will likely only get you to the town of Surat Thani, which is about an hour or two from the national park itself. Luckily, Surat Thani is big enough that you can easily find another bus or taxi (red truck) to the park entrance.
Where to Stay on Khao Sok
It seems new lodging options are springing up on Cheow Lan Lake all the time. Most are in the form of some type of overwater bungalow. The differences are mainly in the types of amenities, how new you want the little cabin to be, and what location you want to be at along the lake.
Most of the bungalows are owned and operated by Cheow Lan Holiday, meaning if you want to reserve your spot ahead of time, reach out to them and choose which type of lodging you would like.
If you want to stay off the lake, there are lots of options in the main center of the park off Road 401. Most of the lodging options are similar to the ones found on the lake: small individual bungalows with the most basic amenities. But, while the bungalows on the lake are surrounded by water, the ones in the center of the park are surrounded by the rainforest. Note: the center of the park also has more amenities, including a gas station, motorbike rental spot (perfect for exploring the other nearby national parks), restaurants, and cafes.
What to Bring to Khao Sok
Due to its southern location, Khao Sok can get quite hot in the warmer months. But, also because of its location between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, the park is among Thailand's wettest regions and sees an annual rainfall of 3,500 mm (137.8 in). So while you can likely get away with bringing warm weather clothes (shorts, light tops, and sandals) also consider bringing a rain jacket just in case. And of course, don’t forget your swimsuit.
Other things to consider bringing include snacks for when you are out exploring all day, plenty of sunscreen (waterproof is best), a camera and/or GoPro to capture the flora and fauna, water bottles, and maybe a book or two (or some cards) to while away the hours after the sun goes down.
What Else to See and Do in Khao Sok
While much of our time was spent out on Cheow Lan Lake, the park is actually very large and diverse. If you have the time, we also recommend heading even further west into the park to explore some of the other areas. This includes checking out the Khao Sok Viewpoint - for stunning views of the ancient forest and surrounding mountain range, and exploring Nam Ta Lu Cave, Diamond Cave, and Khang Cow Cave.
Or you can spend a whole day trekking around the rainforest and have the opportunity to see some of the local fauna. Which includes the Malayan tapir, Asian elephant, tiger, sambar deer, bear, gaur, banteng, serow, wild boar, pig-tailed macaque, langur, white-handed gibbons, muntjak, mouse deer, and barking deer. In fact, the park is home to over five percent of the world's species and is home to the world's only known amphibious centipede, which was discovered in 2001.
How Long Do You Need at Khao Sok
We were only able to spend three days at the lake, and while our time was absolutely wonderful, we definitely wish we could have spent more time in the area. We suggest doing three days/two nights on the lake (maybe staying at two different bungalows for different views) and then three days/three nights in the central area of the park. So in total, six days and five nights in the park.
But, you should also consider exploring the other national parks nearby, either through a tour or on your own. You can rent a motorbike in the central area of Khao Sok, or you can probably get one (at a better price) in Surat Thani.
Khao Sok is not only a beautiful national park, but one that gives you a really good idea of what the backcountry of Thailand looks like (it isn't just tourist beaches, temples and massive cities). The forest of Khao Sok is older than the Amazon and one of the most diverse. If you want to get a well-rounded idea of what Thailand is - then head to Khao Sok, and maybe a couple of the other national parks in the area.
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xx always adventure