Far more than just a side trip from the beaches of southern Thailand, the magnificent wilds and majestic mountain lake of Khao Sok National Park are one of Asia's premier natural wonders. Khao Sok stretches over some 646 square kms and is part of a greater protected area that also includes Kaeng Krung and Phang Nga national parks and Khlong Nakha and Khlong Saen wildlife sanctuaries. Spanning over 4,000 square km between them, this is a massive protected area in Thailand, and on a map it looks like an entire province of nothing but lakes, rivers, and jungle. If you're going to visit only one national park in Thailand, Khao Sok is arguably your best choice.
Due to its rugged, mountainous and expansive terrain, the park and its surrounds have remained mostly untouched by people, and today Khao Sok teems with plants and wildlife. Wild elephants, leopards, a range of monkeys including dusky langurs, snakes, and over 180 species of bird inhabit the park and surrounding sanctuaries. Equally impressive are Khao Sok's plant species, including massive bamboo trees so thick that anyone standing under them in a downpour will remain dry, rattan, and the Rafflesia Kerri Meijer flower, or simply "wild lotus" (bua phut) in Thai, which is one of the largest flowers in the world, reaching a diameter of over 75 cm when fully mature. The best chance to see one in bloom is December through February, but be prepared for its pungent fragrance that smells something like rotten eggs.
With plenty of hiking trails, waterfalls, caves, and viewpoints, it's worth taking at least a few days to explore the park's western area on foot. However, at least half of the Khao Sok experience is the artificial Chiew Lan Lake -- one of Thailand's most scenic bodies of fresh water -- which features limestone karst cliffs that rise dramatically from calm, pristine emerald water. Numerous inlets reach far into the land like long, watery fingers, karst cliffs of all sizes rise from the surface of the water, and other worldly caves are found throughout the lake.
Indeed, exploring Chiew Lan by boat allows visitors a peak at some of Asia's most stunning natural beauty, a topography that's been compared to the haunting cliffs of China's Guilin and Vietnam's Ha Long Bay. For a truly tranquil experience, spending a night or two at one of the national park's floating rafthouse villages within the lake is a must.
Apart from hiking and exploring the lake by boat, many visitors take up the opportunity to do guided bird watching hikes, night safari tours, more extreme overnight camping treks, bamboo rafting, or canoe trips along the Sok River, all of which are offered by a plethora of tour companies operating near the park's western gates.
Khao Sok is reached by Rte. 401, which connects Takua Pa in the west to Surat Thani in the east and runs directly south of the entire park, which lies within the borders of Surat Thani province but is far closer to Phang Nga and the western Andaman coast. There are no roads running in to the park itself.
The visitor centre, most frequented hiking trails and most of the accessible waterfalls are all located in the park's far western side at the village of Khlong Sok. A small, 1.5 km long access road runs from Rte. 401 directly to the park's front gates, and several guesthouses, resorts and restaurants are found here.
The pier for Chiew Lan Lake is located some 50 km east of the visitor centre and majority of guesthouses, near Ratchaprapa Dam, and this area feels like a totally separate destination. To get here it's necessary to first pass through the town of Ban Ta Khun near the park's southeastern point, which is a long trip from the western visitor centre. Although Chiew Lan Lake stretches the entire east to west length of the park and forms most of the northern border, virtually all of Khao Sok's land mass from the visitor centre in the west to Ratchaprapa Dam in the east is covered by rugged mountains and thick forest and is not accessible to visitors.
Few visitors stay in the Ban Ta Khun area, and the vast majority who visit Chiew Lan Lake stay at its rafthouses and, apart from those who have their own wheels, do so as part of a tour. Aside from the pier, only a small restaurant, a few souvenir shops, and a nearby park are all that's found near Ratchaprapa Dam. Directly in front of the pier there is a small national park booth where visitors must purchase tickets to the park if they haven't already done so, but little information is offered here. Ban Ta Khun, which is 14 km south of the pier, has some local restaurants, markets and a few places to stay.
Along the access road leading to the gates and visitor centre at Khao Sok's western end, however, there are plenty of places to stay and eat within walking distance of the park and its trails, and this is where the majority of travellers first arrive. At the park's front gates visitors are required to pay the entrance fee (200B for foreigners or 20B for Thais), which is valid for a period of 24 hours.
After entering the park the visitor centre is located a short walk from the gates and is staffed by some friendly park workers and rangers who speak English well and are happy to answer questions. They also hand out decent information brochures, including a couple of rather vague maps, and can provide info on sights, hiking trails, and accommodation. There are some shared and private rooms available here as well, but few foreigners choose to stay within the park when there are cheaper and more comfortable guesthouses so close by. There is also a small restaurant and shop with limited hours here, but neither seem to see much use. All of the hiking trails in this vicinity begin near the visitor centre and restaurant area, and there are clearly marked signs throughout the trails.
The geographical features that have formed Khao Sok's rugged beauty also give it the distinction of being one of the rainiest spots in Thailand, -- 3.5 metres of rainfall a year on average -- so be sure to bring or buy some wet-weather gear. If you neglect to pack any, you'll find raincoats and umbrellas for sale at the local mini-marts. Self-guided hiking may be limited during the rainier months of May through November, with some of the longer trails either fully closed or accessible only with a guide.
Travellers will find just about anything they're looking for along the 1.5 km long access road just outside the park, including accommodation to fit all budgets, convenience stores, restaurants, bars, tour companies, motorbike rental, mini bus services, and a few ATMs. There are also a few banks and ATMs in Ban Ta Khun. We found cell signal to work relatively well except when hiking several km north of the visitor centre and in some of the further reaches (particularly far northern parts) of Chiew Lan Lake. WiFi is available for free at many restaurants and at least the common areas of most bungalows and resorts in the village and vicinity.
The national park headquarters can supply basic first aid needs, but anything more serious will require a trip to the hospital at either Ban Ta Khun or Takua Pa. Police stations are found near both the western park entrance and the Chiew Lan lake pier. Emergency T: 191; Tourist Police T: 1155.
An excellent guide book to tote along on your trip to Khao Sok is Waterfalls & Gibbon Calls by the author and well-regarded conservationist Thom Henley. The 160-page book includes maps and trail information, tips on exploring the park and extensive info on the park's ecosystems and wildlife. It's available for sale at some of the guesthouses in Khao Sok, as well as shops around Thailand selling English-language books.