After I survived my first week* of teaching children back in October, I rewarded myself by taking off to a beautiful, breathtaking nature haven: Khao Sok National Park in Suratthani.
*Actually only four days, since my Thai work week is only four days
Thanks to the ease of Thai minibuses that come every hour, I was able to hop off a bus from Khanom (not my favorite place) and get on a 2-hour one to Khao Sok. It was the best decision ever, since I’ve yet to visit a national park in the world that I don’t like.
By nature, I showed up without any plans, just fully expecting to do a few hikes and embrace my solitude.
From the minute I got out of the minibus, I was greeted with typical Thai friendliness by a driver (Toy) who happened to also be a tourist guide. Aside from showing me a few viewpoints, a mini waterfall, and showing me where to eat in the village rather than in the tourist-ridden central area, he ended up becoming my personal guide for my 2-night stay in Khao Sok. I’m not sure if there’s some gender stereotyping at play here, but I’ve always been helped out more in Thailand versus in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. I think it may all equate to the general friendliness of Thai people, as well, but who knows – after all, I don’t really expect a tour guide to be carrying a guy down a waterfall if he got too scared to climb down the last slippery bit.
On the flip side, I’ve also experienced a few uncomfortable encounters with guys here (for the first time abroad), which is a downside of the country. Also one of the main reasons why I wouldn’t ever consider living here long-term.
After a quick conversation, I blindly agreed to an overnight jungle camping excursion. “That sounds amazing!” was my initial remark when he mentioned learning how to make “jungle food” (i.e. catching and cooking live creatures, which I’ve never done).
Reflecting back, it was an absolutely priceless experience – but in reality, midway through some of these things, I question whether my nature to agree to things in split-seconds is actually a downfall.
Case in point: On this particular trek, the number of times I tripped over roots and nearly twisted my back/neck/ankle probably totals up to at least 20. The number of close calls I had with nearly slipping off a muddy, narrow trail (post-rain) were too many to count. While it wasn’t a particularly difficult trek, some of the steep, slippery uphill climbs left me wondering whether I’ve been putting my life in danger more in Thailand than other countries I’ve lived in. Meh.
Khao Sok National Park is an insanely beautiful place – and probably one of the gems of southern Thailand, since I enjoyed it more than my time in Krabi. It’s covered by the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world, huge limestone mountains that tower into the sky, deep valleys, breathtaking lakes, large caves, wildlife, and more. Activities include guided tours, floating lakehouses, elephant trekking (stay away from this, I beg you – I’m writing another post on elephant treatment in Thailand), canoeing, ziplining, tubing, etc. Even though it’s located between Phuket, Krabi, Khao Lak and Koh Samui, I don’t think it’s as visited as other places throughout Thailand – but it should be.
I’ll definitely be going back, since the park is huge – 285.3 square miles, to be exact. Some treks take weeks, and you could visit for months and still not see everything.
My guide, Toy, took me through the thick jungle that led to Sip Et Chan Waterfall. Our camp base was near a beautiful stream that was set against a stunning green backdrop of bamboo trees and huge trees in general. The “jungle music” as labeled by Toy, consisted of cicadas*, crickets, frogs, gibbons, birds, and so much more I couldn’t make out. It was my first time camping overnight in a thick rainforest, and it was so incredible.
*Trivia: According to Toy, a particular noise made by the cicada (not the typical screechy one, but one that sounds more like a long owl hoot) is to give bats a headache and ward them off from attacking. We heard this noise everywhere, and it was the strangest thing, since I’ve never heard it before.
I’ll never forget what it felt like to see someone gut and cook fish in a pan in the jungle. Granted, I’ve gone fishing many times when I was younger, but I’ve never helped to catch and cook them while camping. We used a large fishing net and ended up cooking three and going back with over 10 green carps.
We also went “frog hunting” for a good hour in the evening, with Toy catching four frogs with his bare hands. I assisted by pointing out several that I spotted with my headlight (their glowing eyes made them easy to see), but otherwise, I was useless. I quite enjoyed searching for baby frogs (not to eat, just to look at), and I did manage to catch three (they’re surprisingly slow and easy to catch) but all slipped through my hands before I could play with them. Clearly, I could never survive in the wild. It was fascinating to shine our headlights across streams to search for pairs of eyes glowing like holograms – like a game of “I Spy.”
Those four frogs later became our breakfast the next morning, as much as my stomach churned when I saw them being cooked over the fire. Frog tastes pretty similar to chicken, but there’s something a little off-putting about seeing them alive one minute and then skinned to be cooked in front of you. I have a feeling I won’t be eating much fish or frogs in the future. And even looking at the photo above makes me want to barf now…
I also found this extremely tiny guy in the stream next to our camp – he was no bigger than my thumbnail. Absolutely adorable.
I was amazed by Toy’s resourcefulness. Perhaps everyone who grew up with the jungle as their backyard could vouch for this, but he sure knew how to carve bamboo and cook food with only natural resources and minimal things packed. Our cups, coffee stirrers, plates, dishes, and table were all carved and shaped by him through using only branches and bamboo. I think my dad grew up a little like this (with all the acres of land in Kula), but I haven’t heard stories of him skinning fish and frogs alive…
A lot of my time in the jungle was spent overturning rocks in the stream, looking for sandcrabs, baby prawns, water bugs, etc. I’m such a kid.
To anyone who wants to visit this national park in the future, just be warned: Leeches are everywhere. Some are no bigger than a piece of lint and look like minuscule, skinny worms. They’re incredibly hard to see if they start crawling up your shoes/legs. My advice:
- Bring a good pair of hiking shoes or runners, but not too good – they’ll get ruined in all the mud and trekking through streams, so I wouldn’t wear Sunday best. Try to wear socks that cover your ankles, since the more covered your skin is, the better for protecting against leeches.
- Sandals are no good for this, not even Tevas or Chocos. Pack them for lounging around, but not to hike in.
- If camping overnight, bring a blanket, towel, swimsuit, extra pair of clothing, and something to keep you warm. All the typical stuff.
Since I didn’t know I was even going to Khao Sok, I had showed up in sandals and only an extra tank top, being the goon I am. Thankfully, Toy provided me with everything (as most guides will do), including an extra oversized pair of Converse high-tops. Not the most ideal hiking shoes, but they protected my sensitive feet far better than my Tevas.
For scaling an 11-tiered waterfall, Sip Et Chan Waterfall, was my personal highlight. I was petrified when he encouraged me to use the rope (a mere long, skinny, twisty tree branch – not exactly a sturdy “rope”) to pull myself up along the slippery rocks, and initially refused. But when faced with the option, of course I caved – I can’t resist not facing up to something that scares me. My life flashed before my eyes a couple times, especially when one of feet slipped and I pictured myself falling backwards and breaking my neck or something. Overly-Paranoid Debbi can be so damn dramatic.
But I did it! Success.
The hike back was ten times harder than the initial hike to get to the camp base, perhaps because everything was uphill (and I do mean straight uphill – it was like climbing, but with mud and branches in place of rocks). The rain made everything incredibly slippery, and I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my entire life. The entirety of my arms, shoulders to hands, were even drenched in sticky sweat, and heaps of sweat just rolled off my forehead with each step I took. By the time we were finished, I looked like I had just submerged my entire upper body into the ocean.
I’m just glad I survived. Great experience, but jungle camping once was enough for me in Thailand. On the bucket list next: camping in South America? Oh, the possibilities.