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Chiaw Lan Lake at Khao Sok National Park
Khao Sok National Park is located in the western part of Surat Thani province, in southern Thailand. On Saturday, July 24, 2004 (the Thai Buddhist year 2548) Kung and I were invited by our sister-in-law's sister and her husband on a trip to the park. Joining us would be another Thai cousin, her Swedish "falang" (foreign) husband, and their four-month-old baby boy. Barry was looking forward to this trip as it would be a chance to talk at length with someone else from the Western world in English, a chance he doesn't often get in Thailand.
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We were picked up in a small Toyota extra-cab pickup truck promptly at 10 AM at Kung's mother's house in Surat. Barry rode in the cramped seat behind the main seats in the cab with the Swedish guy, and Kung rode in the back with the other Thai girl. It took about 2 hours to get to the national park, winding our way past numerous rubber tree plantations and coconut groves. The weather was looking cloudier as we headed west. We were afraid we'd be rained out. This was the rainy season for the park, and Barry had read that this national park is Thailand's wettest place with over 3.5 meters of rain (nearly 140 inches) per year. By comparison, Boston and Seattle get around 40 inches per year.
This was our first view of the huge lake, or
reservoir, that is part of the Khao Sok national park. The water was a beautiful
green color, in contrast to the muddy brown or even semi-black we had seen on
other waterways in Thailand. Obviously this water was very clean. There was no
sign of habitation on the shores, a welcome change from the poor shacks and
debris that are often seen on riverbanks and lakesides in Thailand. (In contrast
to western countries where waterfront property is often the most expensive, most
sought-after property, in Asia waterfront property is often inhabited by the
very poor.) Off in the distance we could see the sharp relief of ragged
and steep rock formations, a sign that we were in for a day of spectacular
Below us we could see the docks with long-tail boats that we would take on a boating trip on the reservoir. They are called long-tail boats due to the design: the heavy, large motor is balanced on the back of the boat so that the long and straight propeller shaft allows the shallow boat to be used in shallow water. This also gives the boat excellent steering and maneuverability, as moving the motor on its pivot steers the entire boat. The motor can be swung around to a very steep angle so that the propeller is beside the boat, almost facing front, so that the boat can be reversed out of tight spots. These boats are also not quiet, they emit a constant deafening roar.
We went into the national park office to pay the
park entrance fees. The Thais pay only 20 baht (US 50 cents) to enter the park,
but foreigners have to pay 200 baht (US $5). This surprised the Thais, and my
pleas that I was a "khun Thai" (Thai person), despite my appearance, bought us
only smiles and laughter from the park officer but no discount. I knew about the
price difference in advance from reading my Lonely Planet Thailand guide book,
and was quite happy to pay the inflated but still very reasonable fee to support
Thai efforts to preserve the world's oldest, 160-million year-old, rainforest
ecosystem. The cost for renting the long-tail boat for the seven of us would be
1,000 baht (US $25), a reasonable price for a 2-1/2 hour ride through this
We made our way down the hill, and climbed aboard
the boat for the trip. Expecting rain, we had umbrellas with us, bottles of
water, and bags of snacks we had gotten at a 7-Eleven on the way to the park. We
strapped on life preservers and were ready to go. This boat was similar to the
tour boats we took in Phangna Bay near Phuket to visit James Bond island, the
tour boats at the floating market near Bangkok, and the ferry boats that take us
across the river to visit Kung's father in Surat Thani. They are used throughout
After leaving the docks, we motored past the Ratchaprapha Dam. The dam is
95 meters high (310 feet) and 700 meters long (half a mile). It was built in
1982 and created the huge Chiaw Lan Lake which we were now on, 165 km
(100 miles) long at the longest point.
Ten minutes after passing the dam, we moved into a larger and more open part of
the lake. Ahead of us we could see scores of rock formations, quite steep and
some of them very tall. The rock formations here are three times higher than the
ones around Phangna Bay on teh Andaman Sea to the west of this park. The tallest
formations here are just short of a kilometer high (six-tenths of a mile).
For over an hour we motored leisurely past ever-higher and steeper rock formations. At several points there was more than one way for the boat to go, and we saw several other tour boats heading into or coming out from other branches of the lake. We were happy that our tour guide appeared completely confident that he knew where he was going. As we rode, the sky looked less and less like rain, to our relief. The boat was quite loud, but none of us, including the 4-month-old infant, minded very much.
We passed into a narrow cove about 100 meters (100 yards) long with steep rock
faces surrounding us. The boat driver finally killed the motor and we heard...
beautiful silence. This is what we had come to see and experience: the
tranquility and natural beauty around us now. After gazing for a few moments at
the wondrous rock faces all around us, and wondering how plants and trees could
possibly grow there, we took the opportunity for a few photos. We also took the
opportunity to indulge in some snacks, as it was well past lunchtime.
At the mouth of the small cove there was a lovely natural stone arch. The
emerald green water was clear to a depth of a few meters (five or ten feet), and
you could see the steep rock walls continue vertically underwater.
We were startled when
another long-tail boat roared into the small cove. Obviously its passengers were
having as good a time as we were. They didn't stay long as we did, they simply
roared in and back out again.
Ten minutes after leaving the small cove, we noticed that our driver was heading
for a collection of buildings on the far shore. This turned out to be a good
opportunity for us to visit the facilities, have a bite to eat, take a swim, and
relax and enjoy the scenery. The buildings of this tiny enclave seemed
magnificently small next to the sheer cliffs that served as their backdrop.
There were a few families permanently living here, to maintain the tourist
facilities. They operated a small restaurant and convenience store.
There were three bungalows here, which can be rented for the night by tourists
interested in sleeping on the lake. Perhaps sleeping in such a remote house,
rocked by the gentle motions of the lake's waves, would provide a soothing
sleep. We declined the warm Thai beer to be found here, as there was no ice
because the electricity was turned off. There were florescent lights, but they
are probably used in the evening hours when an electrical generator is used to
provide a few hours of evening electricity for guests staying in the bungalows.
The lake provided a nice backdrop for a series of photos, once we finished our
meal of traditional Thai jasmine rice with a quite spicy and sour southern-style
yellow fish curry. The Swedish guy appeared to revive after a long swim in the
cool water. Being from Scandinavia, he was unused to the hot Thai climate.
Reluctantly we left the peace and solitude of the small village, and our driver
took us on a much more direct route back to the dam and our truck. On the way
back we saw a supply boat heading for the village with the bungalows, no doubt
with fresh fish for the evening meal and ice for the beer.
Tired but happy, we returned to the dock and disembarked. It had not rained the entire day, and the baby had enjoyed the trip as much as the rest of us! The tour company people followed us up the hill, bringing the gasoline containers with them to be filled for the next trip. After the foreigners enjoyed a cold Chang (elephant) beer, we headed home once again.
It rained for a few minutes as we left the dam. On the way back to Surat Thani we stopped to buy durian (a very pungent Thai fruit many foreigners can't stand the smell of) and som-o (pummelo), a large citrus fruit similar to a grapefruit, but larger and sweeter.
We thoroughly enjoyed the day, and especially the spectacular scenery of Chiaw Lan Lake and Khao Sok national park. We would happily recommend this trip to others visiting Surat Thani province.