Lime stone karst formations are gradually revealing themselves as the morning mist on the Cheow Lan Lake slowly rises. The sun bathes the rocks in warm colours and highlights the jungle growing on their steep flanks. I slowly crawl out of my bed to take a morning swim in the surprisingly warm lake. While climbing back up to the pontoon of my floating bungalow, I notice a familiar rising and falling of shrills that gives me goose bumps: a family of gibbons starts to sing, marking their territory and announcing a new day in the heart of the Khao Sok National Park in Southern Thailand.
Seated on the pontoon with my feet in the water, I am contemplating the beauty of this nature while taking in the aria of the gibbons. The emerald lake underneath my feet can be as deep as 200 metres in this 165 square kilometre reservoir that was created by the construction of the Ratchaprapha Dam in 1982. In order to generate electricity and facilitate downstream irrigation, the Klong Saeng River was altered, small villages were flooded, and almost 400 families relocated to other settlements where they were given money and a few acres of land to farm rubber as a compensation. Today, the original inhabitants and their offspring are the only people who are allowed to own and operate the floating raft houses in which we have just spent the night.
Our guide Kai calls us: “Let’s go and see some wildlife!” he cheerfully shouts while jumping on his long-tail boat. A morning safari to the loud noise of the engine of the traditional wooden boat does not sound tempting, but Kai knows the lake by heart. As the wake of the long-tail boat breaks the perfectly still emerald waters, I observe a fish eagle perched on a bamboo over the lake and the reflections of brightly coloured dragonflies. The Khao Sok National Park is home to many species, including mammals such as Malayan tapir, wild Asian elephant, tiger, deer, bear and wild boar. Cutting off the engine once at full speed, we silently slide into one of the many bays of the lake, surrounded by peaks covered in a 160-million year old primary forest, one of the oldest in the world. Scanning the treetops, a black mass drops down by 6 metres: the critically endangered black gibbon is flying from tree to tree to feed itself on fruits and flowers. The gibbon acrobatically jumps from branch to branch, sometimes covering several metres in mid-air thanks to its extra-long arms. As I am observing this ape, casually hanging on to a branch with one of its long arms while picking some fruits with the other, I notice that the leafs above it keep moving. This fruit seems to be a locals’ favourite as two great hornbills are feeding on the same treat. We quietly observe this massive weird-looking bird with its oversized beak topped off by a funny casque. It reminds us of toucans, even though both species are distinct. Actually, they are a great example of convergent evolution as they both adapted in the same way to a similar environment, in South and Central America for the toucans and in Africa and Southeast Asia for the hornbills. Apparently bothered by a family of dusty langurs, the majestic bird takes off, revealing its more than 1.5-metre wingspan. The cute dark monkeys which eyes are surrounded by a perfect circle of white fur happily take over the breakfast spot!
Anchoring the boat in a quiet cove, we get off to hike through this pristine forest. Climbing up giant tree roots, crossing bodies of water up to our shoulders, and swinging on giant lianas, we eventually make it to the Nam Ta Lu Cave. Head lights on, the mouth of the cave quickly shrinks as we are starting an adventurous hike and swim in the darkness. A few scorpion spiders, bats and fish startle us once in a while as we make our way through that semi immerged cave. We are making progress slowly, carefully placing our feet in order to respect the cave. It must have taken thousands of years for the calcium carbonate precipitates to form these stalactites, stalagmites, columns and delicate curtains that are lit up by my torch as I move along orange flowstones and quiet sinter pools. The sound of a waterfall announces an exhilarating climb down and one last swim in the cold water of the cave. A few sun rays peep through the cavities and I can guess the small outlet, leading us back to the jungle.
Boating back to the raft house, a few emerging tree trunks remind me that this lake is artificial. Ironically, it is a major hydropower project that lead to the creation of this safe home for these animals of which many are endangered, suffering mainly from habitat loss. This wildlife paradise also provides a sustainable economy to the resettled communities, making this project one of the most successful human settlement program in this region. I cannot stop but thinking about Amphai who has been relocated very recently in Thalang, Laos, as her village got flooded as a consequence to one of biggest hydropower projects of Southeast Asia, the Nam Theun 2. I wonder if it will turn into a successful ecotourism project in a few years from now.
Video recorded in Khao Sok National Park, Thailand – Sound track recorded in Nam Kan National Park, Laos – by Best regards from far
- We strongly recommend you to spend at least a night on the Cheow Lan Lake to enjoy the beauty and wildlife of Khao Sok National Park to the fullest. If you are inspired and want to live this adventure, get in touch with Smiley’s Bungalows which organizes overnight tours from Khao Sok.
- A drybag is a must for the Nam Ta Lu cave hike if you want to bring non-waterproof gear.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!