Teachers’ Retreat: Khao Sok National Park

In Thailand, the whole country has a day off on Father’s Day, December 5th – which is intentionally the same day as the King’s Birthday.  We knew we’d have a three-day weekend in early December, so 13 other teachers and I decided to take a trip to Khao Sok National Park.

11 a.m. Standing in front of our house, trying to find a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus station.
We arrived our town’s bus stop, ordered sandwiches to go, and booked minivan tickets to our destination.  It was only 1.5 hours and 190 baht (around $6) to take us to Ratchapapra Dam, a man-made lake where we had reserved floating rafthouse bungalows for the weekend.Even the first sight of the lake when you get out of the minivan is enough to make you fall in love with it.  The water is an emerald green and limestone karsts erupt from the horizon in jagged lines.  Everywhere you look, it’s green, it’s jungle, it’s full of life.  It stayed cloudy almost all weekend, but the way the clouds rested on the mountain tops made it seem that much more peaceful and untouched.

It took another hour or so on a boat to take us to our bungalows.  It rained and most of us were woefully unprepared but it didn’t matter because the scenery was beautiful.

For only 1100 baht each (a little more than $30), we got two nights on the lake, all of our meals prepared, free kayaks, and a jungle hike.  Each room at Smiley Lakehouse had two mattresses, pillows and blankets, and a western toilet.

Some people immediately changed into their bathing suits to swim in the lake as it slowly started to rain again; others stayed dry and waited for the food to arrive.  We ate and talked and drank until the sun went down. Then we ate and drank some more.

The staff at Smiley stayed up with us late into the night, even tolerating our impromptu talent show.  At one point they made an wreath out of ice cubes, and later they proved to be absolute champions at some drinking games, even winning against our most confident boys.  The next day when I got up at 6 am to take pictures, they were up, too; still smiling and offering us free 3-in-1 coffee.

Everyone woke up slowly from the night’s events. By 11 am, our guides successfully got us into a boat for our jungle hike.  As our longtail noisily glided through the water, a few of us hummed the theme song to Jurassic Park and talked about what it’d be like if we saw a tiger in the jungle.

We started the hike with no real expectations.  Half of us had hiking shoes; others were wearing sandals. Since it had been so rainy, the ground was squishy with mud. At first, we stepped tentatively through low jungle streams, but after getting muddier and muddier, we eventually strode through the water with the same recklessness as our guides.

It was after the first stream that someone noticed their first leech.  I tried to be vigilant about not making sure none attached to me for too long — and I was lucky.  Some people didn’t find them until it was too late.  By the time they were able to pull the leeches off, their wounds bled without stopping because of the anticoagulant in the leeches’ mouths.  Leeches are something I’d rather never encounter again.

As if leeches weren’t enough to worry about, we then had the fortune of running into a couple hiking out of the same cave we were about to go into.  The guide that was with them told us that there actually was a tiger somewhere nearby.  They had recently found a deer with its neck ripped open – but the tiger might come back soon to finish the rest of it.  We exchanged looks – we wanted there to be a tiger but did we really want there to be a tiger?

The guide asked us whether or not we wanted to continue through the cave.  The deer, he said, was near the front entrance, so we could go through the back and arrive through the front and avoid the tiger.  The boys were gung-ho.  The girls took a little while longer to decide.

The debate involved a lot of shrugging and eventually we decided we’d take our chances do the cave hike.  Maybe it wasn’t the wisest decision, but I’m really glad we did because it was one of the best cave hikes I’ve done so far.

In contrast to other caves that were well-lit and had stairs and handrails and were dry, we had to don headlamps and climb and push our way through the rainwater that was gushing through the cave — sometimes it was up to our necks.  We saw crabs, handspiders, and bats.  Unfortunately, it was impossible to take pictures.

When we finished, we felt like warriors.  The picture above is us, emerging triumphant out of the other end of the cave. The picture below is the boys, who all wanted to take pictures with the dead deer when we came across it.  The guides moved it from its original position on the ground to that awkward position in the tree — so the tiger would smell humans around.  The deer looks sufficiently humiliated.

When we got back out to our boat and started our way home, it started drizzling again. We passed another boat that apparently gone to find us – what was originally intended to be a 3 hour hike ended up taking 5 hours.

We returned safe and sound and starving.  The staff was again prepared with plates of pad thai for everyone.

We were all sad to leave the next morning.  Khao Sok is now one of my favorite trips in my 18+ months of being here in SE Asia.  Plus, the total cost was less than 2000 baht (less than $60):

  • 20 baht tuk-tuk to bus station (2 ways = 40 baht)
  • 190 ticket to Khao Sok (2 ways = 380 baht)
  • 40 baht park fee (we showed our passports/work-permits; otherwise it’s 200 for foreigners)
  • 1100 bungalows/food/trip
  • 3500 boat ride split between 14 people = 250 baht
Even though there were other people at the lake, it was hardly touristy, which is exactly what we wanted.  As long as I could get enough people to do the boat ride with me, I’d do it again in an instant.



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