Visitors to Than Bok Khorani National Park can take a dip in an emerald waterfall before kayaking to view haunting 3,000-year-old cave paintings. Spanning a sharp ridge of limestone mountains and coastal mangrove forest in northern Krabi province, the park makes for a worthwhile day trip.
Covering over 100 square kilometres in all, the park is broken up into several different patches scattered mostly around the towns of Ao Luek, Bor Thor and Laem Sak, around 50 kilometres north of Krabi town. Ko Hong and several other small islands are also overseen by Than Bok Khorani, but these are much further south and rarely visited on the same day as the mainland attractions.
At the Visitor Centre just south of Ao Luek, a nature trail leads straight to the park’s namesake attraction: Than Bok Khorani Waterfall. Draped in long rattan leaves and bamboo groves, the roots of dectarocarp trees reach into a wide stream coloured a cloudy emerald by calcite deposits from the nearby mountains.
Especially on weekends, locals flock here to relax and swim in pools that are believed to have therapeutic qualities. None of the waterfall’s several tiers are more than a couple of metres high, its allure coming more from the larger picture of natural beauty. Walkways encircle the various pools and access a shrine where locals set off fire crackers, temporarily interrupting the serenity, as offerings to the resident spirits.
The waterfall is certainly a fine way to spend a few hours, but it’s probably not worth the trip and 300 baht per person entry fee unless you’re also hitting some of the caves.
Refreshed from the falls, we rode a few kilometres south to Baan Bor Thor, a small village set amid the inland mangroves. Before we’d even taken our helmet off, a few locals were already trying to rent us a kayak for 500 baht or longtail boat for 600. Yes, Than Bok Khorani is a little pricey.
We opted for a longtail due to time restraints, but kayaking is clearly a better way to soak up the natural scenery. Unless arriving very early in the morning, you don’t have to worry about getting lost — small tour groups kayak to the caves throughout the day so it’s a simple matter of following the crowd. Our first stop was Tham Lot, a marine cave with some interesting-looking stalactites.
Then we cruised to what we feel is the national park’s top mainland attraction, Tham Phi Hua To, or “Ghost Head Cave,” so-called due to the imposing white rock “forehead” that looms above the entrance (or so we were told). When prehistoric human remains were uncovered here in the 1950s, most locals began referring to it as Tham Hua Kalok, “Human Skull Cave.”
A tall slanting roof and sloped floor lead into various chambers, light from wide openings at either end making it fairly easy to see the crystal-like rock formations displaying colours ranging from forest green to bright sapphire and saffron yellow. Much of the rock contains whole seashells that looks like they could have been mixed together in a cement truck.
The cavern itself is impressive, but no more so than other caves in the area, like Tham Khao Kanab Nam, which is a whole lot easier to reach from Krabi town. It’s Tham Phi Hua To’s role in the lives of cave dwellers over 3,000 years ago that make it so special today. Still in reasonably good shape, 238 cave-wall paintings are found throughout the complex.
High up on the ceiling, the best known painting is known as “Khun Lai Sen,” a baffling horned figure with a striped body that resembles some kind of rodent with a beaked mouth, standing on its hind legs. The painting may depict a shaman wearing some sort of costume that may have actually been used for animist rituals. It’s believed that the cave was used mainly for religious purposes, a sort of ancient cathedral.
Other depictions include birds, fish, lizards and a pair of human hands, one of them with six fingers. Some of the paintings of people look like stick-figure aliens (at least to us), complete with antennas on their heads. It appears that the artists attempted to blend some sort of perceived spirit realm with the reality of ancient life. With no records to dictate exactly what was behind the paintings, they’re open to interpretation.
More cave paintings can be viewed in Tham Chao Lae, located another 20 kilometres further south along the coast near Baan Laem Sak. In this area, it’s also possible to kayak amid Khao Karot (also spelt Garose), a series of limestone cliffs protruding from mangrove-lined canals. We opted to skip this part and instead visit Tha Pom Khlong Song Nam on the way back south.
The park is open daily from 08:30 to 16:30. It has no accommodation, but a handful of small resorts and homestays are found in the area. A few floating seafood restaurants are located near the kayak rental outfits in Bor Thor, and the park offers an eatery next to the Visitor Centre. We held out for delicious turmeric-glazed rotisserie chicken from one of the many roadside stalls along Phet Kasem Road.
There are a few ways to do Than Bok Khorani independently. If you’re not up for a solid day of motorbiking or hiring a taxi, catch a songthaew to Ao Luek (it’s sky-blue with a red stripe and marked ‘Ao Luk’ in Roman script) in front of River View Hotel at the corner of Maharaj Soi 10 and Uttarakit Road, or next to Vogue Department Store on Maharaj Road, in Krabi town. These depart at around 07:00 and 10:00 and will drop you in the centre of Ao Luek, where you can hire a motorbike taxi to the attractions.
The cheaper way is to rent a motorbike in Krabi town or Ao Nang and roll up to the park on your own. You can take Phet Kasem Road (Highway 4) almost the whole way, turning left (southwest) on Route 4039 in Ao Luek before reaching the waterfall and Visitor Centre on the left after a few kilometres (several signs lead the way). While busy Phet Kasem is the most direct way, we took a more scenic route up routes 4034 and 1003 before turning onto Phet Kasem for the last 20 or so kilometres to Ao Luek.
To reach the caves, continue southwest on 4039 for five more kilometres and take a right, following signs for Tham Phi Hua To. If you want to check out the attractions around Laem Sak, keep following 4039 south, all the way towards its end, and look for signs.
Another option is to arrange a private taxi in Krabi town or Ao Nang: expect to pay around 2,500 baht roundtrip. You could also rent a car for around 1,300 baht and drive yourself.
The companies that lead group tours to the area usually don’t mention Than Bok Khorani by name, instead billing it as “Kayaking Sea Cave at Bor Thor“. These typically always go to Tham Phi Hua To but not necessarily the waterfall. Some include things like ATV rides and elephant shows, so be sure that you know what you’re getting into before booking. Tours run from 1,300 to 2,500 baht per person and will include lunch and pick up.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 19th December, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.