Friday, 11 June 2010

Khao Sok -- Karst of Thousands

'We are going back to 1900,' announces our guide Khun Viraj, with a gleam in his eye. This is a half-warning half-benefit I suspect. The bus is taking us about an hour and a quarter west of Surat Thani, which -- for the geographically challenged -- is inland from Koh Samui on the right hand side of the Thai ithsmus. Clear?

Don't worry, not many people have heard of Khao Sok National Park, but damn they should. 'This is the Guilin of Thailand,' explains Viraj of the limestone karst upthrusts that dominate the area. Others feel it's an inland Phangna. Or perhaps another El Nido, Philippines. Something like that.

From the bus, a 40-minute boat ride in a low-lying boat, takes us past a parade of these abrupt mountains, which cut a stark outline like a donosaur's spine, or dromedary humps, against the horizon. These limestone formations were once, unbelievably, part of the seabed. But that was before I was born. Since then, a series of eight rivers were dammed, forming the Rajjapha Dam. So if these spines are 300-500m out of the water, you can add another 100 metres or so under the waterline which you can't see. There are also 4 villages and 2 temples under here somewhere, like a latter-day Atlantis.

This area used to form an overland route -- think a waterless Panama Canal -- from Surat and Ranong to Phuket (which lies a hundred and fifty kilometres to the west of here) to save them travelling all the way around Singapore. Instead of boats, they used elephants.

The national park presents pristinely until we finally round a bend, and there is a series of a dozen tiny rafthouses, floating in a bay. This is the '1900' bit that Viraj was talking about: a generator produces electricity only at certain times of day/ night. There is only very intermittent phone signal (thankfully!). And the cabins are cute but barely big enough for a mattress and a suitcase. Aah, simplicity.

But, wow, we've really got a grandstand seat to nature's performance ...

And I'm not talking about the toilet block here (which amusingly was divided not by male/female but by guests/ boat drivers). I accidentally used the boat drivers' facilities and enjoyed a nice western style throne while other guests complained about the 'starting block' squat facilities for the guests. Someone, somewhere was enjoying a chuckle.

As night fell, I dragged my mattress out onto the slatted bamboo balcony of my room, and slept under a blanket of stars. Not a mozzie around. Magic! And only 700 baht a night.

Morning dawned like an oil painting (the photo above was taken from my mattress). The wild whooping of gibbons was amplified by the very stillness of the place. Kingfishers dived in for a snack. Other birds called their cheery greetings.

A boat tour took us on a bird spotting venture in the placid waters up-river. We also took in Pra Kay Petch cave, which was full of cave spiders and bats, and a million stalagmites and tites, many protruding delicately -- if phallically -- from the slippery clay floor. 'It's like ice-skating in a Wedgewood factory,' said fellow traveller John.

A tough hour and a half walk along one of the park's many trails saw us eye-to-eye with around 4 gibbons. Lung, our Akubra-hatted guide, regaled us of stories of there being plenty of deer, wild boar, and tigers here. Tigers??? Jing jing!

Um, can you hurry along up the front there please? I need to get back to the 21st century.

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