As part of Thailand’s largest contiguous wildlife preserve, the ancient jungles and emerald waters of Khao Sok National Park should be far more than an after-thought while on a Thai island holiday. Khao Sok is a must for nature-loving travellers to south Thailand, but given the sparse info available online, the park is a tricky one for the independent traveller. Yet, we explored Khao Sok totally tour-free, and we want to let you in on how it’s done.
Part of the reason Khao Sok seems such a daunting place to tackle on your own is that the 646 square kilometre park is only directly accessible from two places. The first is the main visitor centre area — or the “land section” — with access to a substantial network of hiking trails at the park’s far west near Khlong Sok village, which is where buses from Surat Thani to Takua Pa (or vice versa) drop those heading to Khao Sok. The second is the launching point for Chiew Lan Lake — or the “water section” — near Ratchaprapa Dam and the town of Baan Ta Khun at the park’s far eastern side.
There are no roads cutting directly into Khao Sok, so these two jumping off points are the only places from which to start your explorations. Seeing as they’re 50 kilometres away from one another along Route 401, the park’s land and water entry points tend to feel like two totally different destinations. While a host of traveller friendly services and guesthouses are found on the Khlong Sok side, the Ratchaprapa Dam area has yet to see any tourist infrastructure arrive.
Considering this vast geography that at first glance leaves travellers scratching their heads, most arrive to Khlong Sok and immediately book a tour of Chiew Lan Lake. Some also hire trail guides or hop on board with elephant treks or kayak river cruises, and many come as part of pre-booked all-in multiple day package tours from places like Phuket and Khao Lak.
The hiking trails and waterfalls of the “land section” are perfectly accessible on your own, so we don’t see any need to hire a guide unless planning some intensive overnight trekking (or wanting a local there to ward off any snakes you might encounter). Just beyond the park’s front gates near Khlong Sok you’ll find friendly English-speaking park rangers to point you in the right direction for free, and we found trails to be clearly marked. Clusters of signs indicate the ways to various sights every few kilometres.
Chiew Lan Lake isn’t quite as simple, but it is very much doable. One option is to take a local Surat Thani bound bus, ask to be let off in Baan Ta Khun and then hitch the rest of the 13 kilometres to the pier (at your own risk of course). Or, if you’re not afraid of motorbiking in Thailand, you can pick up a rented bike at a shack not far from Route 401 along the Khao Sok access road in Khlong Sok. Once you’ve got the wheels, head due east on 401 towards Surat Thani. Enjoy the stunning mountainous scenery en route, but be sure to fuel up before departing as we only saw one petrol station along the way.
Baan Ta Khun will be the first place worthy of being called a town that you’ll see, and as you come into the centre of town some big blue signs point left to “Ratchaprapa Dam”. Follow that road for about 10 kilometres before taking a left at its end. Shortly after that you’ll reach an “official” national park check point, immediately after which you’ll want to take the first right. This narrow road will wind around a bit before emerging on to the back side of Ratchaprapa Dam.
Stay to the right and follow a couple more curves as the road winds downwards before coming out immediately in front of Chiew Lan pier. There’s a good authentic Thai restaurant and a couple of shops here in case you need a bite or that Khao Sok souvenir T-shirt.
After parking your bike, walk down to the pier where you’ll find a national park booth collecting a 200 baht entry fee if you haven’t already paid it within the last 24 hours. In this area you’ll find no shortage of private longtail boat drivers ready to whisk you off into the lake. A private boat for one to six people costs what seems to be a standard 1,500 baht for a three-hour excursion, so unless you’re solo this is a cheaper — and far better — option than paying 800 baht to be sardined into a tour boat with upwards of 16 clammy strangers.
Don’t be afraid to sit at the very front of Khao Sok’s particularly elegant longtails as you cruise over stunning blue green waters and past dramatic limestone karst cliffs. The trails and watefalls of the park’s western half are well worth a day or two, but a Chiew Lan cruise is the true must-do activity of Khao Sok. A number of caves around the lake are also worth a peak, but be sure to negotiate this before shoving off as they will increase the price.
The lake is one of Thailand’s most tranquil and stunning destinations, so you might want to shack up at one of the national park-provided floating rafthouses scattered around Chiew Lan. Tour operators like to make travellers think a 2,500 baht all-inclusive ticket is the only way to stay in a rafthouse, but they can be booked independently — although only in advance — through the Thai Department of National Park’s website.
Tackling a place like Khao Sok independently isn’t for everyone, but we know there are plenty of you out there who, like us, travel as much for the adventure as the destination. So next time you’re in southern Thailand, don’t miss the chance to take Khao Sok national park by the horns!
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 26th March, 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.