Jan 262015

Khao Sok park is dominated by an enormous reservoir popularly known as Cheow Lan Lake. The dam built to create this reservoir was justified on the grounds of bringing hydroelectric power to Southern Thailand, but I can’t help thinking that someone foresaw the impact of easy access by boat to an otherwise difficult-to-explore forest. Now often hyped as “Guilin, Thailand,” the park’s magnificent karsts and reticent primates draw numerous tourists inland from their beach resorts for one-day or overnight adventures. Like us.

The sun first became visible as a red disc behind the haze on the horizon around 6:50, well after I started wandering the beach looking for interesting subjects. Local dogs came out to greet me, and I admit I reacted a little too loudly when one crept up silently from behind and licked my hand. But I digress, the sun did rise, and we met at the resort’s dining room for a couple bowls of rice porridge. Numerous mix-ins were made available, including thin threads of raw ginger, chopped green onions, chopped Chinese celery, dry chilli flakes, fresh chillies in vinegar, fish sauce, and sugar. We certainly would be adding to this small caloric haul from our stockpile of snacks in the vans and various detours along the way to lunch.

Before leaving Chumphon, we stopped at a memorial to Prince Chumphon, considered the father of the Thai Navy. In addition to two temple-like structures, an actual decommissioned naval vessel is exhibited alongside. Although one of the guns on deck can be rotated, raised and lowered, fortunately no ammunition is readily available. The loud explosions occur in a separate small building where firecrackers can be safely set off. Well, it might not be safe for the men standing in front of the doorway attempting to photograph the explosions.

As we headed South toward our lunch destination, we stopped at a roadside stand to sample some durian. The famous fruit, renowned for the odor of hydrogen sulfide it develops as it ages, has a luscious creamy texture when perfectly ripe, and a complex blend of savory and sweet flavors. In my mind, it is reminiscent of the filling of a freshly baked oniony quiche, but it is a taste I haven’t really acquired just yet. Certainly I would not just pick one out of the freezer case at the local Asian market and expect to get good results.

For lunch we left the main highway and drove to the coast. Disembarking from our vans, we strode for a couple of minutes on a covered wooden walkway, passing first over land and then over water, arriving in an enormous dining room with a fantastic view. Although they could have served hundreds, the place seemed empty, perhaps because it was a Monday? Certainly their culinary skills were not the problem. We enjoyed whole clams steamed in a slightly sweet broth; crab “karee”, crab meat stir-fried with onions in yellow curry powder; grilled squid, slightly charred and perfectly cooked, served with a garlicky and spicy lime-based dipping sauce; a salad of slightly translucent prawns that seemed barely “cooked” by the lime juice dressing; pak liang with Thai oyster sauce; and a steamed whole fish topped with the same garlicky dipping sauce. The seafood feasts just keep coming!

Suddenly, time caught up with us: there would no temple stop, and no shopping visit to the village that makes colorful cotton fabrics. If we do not head straight to the lake, we might arrive too late to swim in its cool, silky waters. First things first.

At the lake, we loaded our bags and ourselves into two longtail boats and headed for our lodging. A longtail boat is a low wooden boat powered by an outboard motor with a very, very long propeller shaft that the drivers can tilt and turn to maneuver through water of nearly any depth. The sputtering of diesel smoke cannot be good for the environment (or for us, when the wind direction is wrong), but this is the tried and true solution to numerous transportation situations in Thailand. The fact that the boats often leak, with water running toward the rear, place a premium on a driver who also can bail the excess water. It’s no fun when the passengers have to keep the boat afloat.

As we put-putted our way across the lake admiring the immensely tall limestone karsts, we also kept our eyes open for wildlife. The park is home to gibbons, dusky langurs (a kind of leaf-eating monkey), hornbills, barking deer, and other unusual creatures. No luck; we will try again tomorrow. For now, we will check into our cabins and go for a swim.

The park offers “dormitory style” accommodations, which in this case means a large cabin with a platform that holds 3 mattresses on each side. There are two bathrooms toward the rear of the cabin, and a back door which provides access to a narrow deck from which it would be easy to step off into the water if one wandered out in the dark. And since there is electricity only between 6 and 10 PM, that’s a problem, since opening both doors is the best way to cool the hot cabin. For one night, it’s do-able.

The park has marked off the section of the lake just out to the platform where boats tie up as the swimming area. The water was refreshingly cool, and seemed very clean (no chlorine required). Still, I prefer the ocean where the floating is easy and you can see well in the water. After drying off, we convened in the dining room to share a bottle of cheap liquor with ice and soda water. I contributed a bag of squid-flavored rice crackers, and Kasma brought out some little fried whole fish. Even our bar snacks have a seafood theme.

Dinner followed suit, as we had a deep fried whole fish; sour curry of fish served with an omelet for heat relief; and mixed vegetables. Park cooking tends to be low on variety but the bowls are bottomless: it’s all you can eat. We cleansed our palates with slices of fresh pineapple and headed back to our cabins. There would be just enough time to recharge phones, and we drifted off to sleep to the drone of the cicadas.

Sunrise on the beach in Chumphon Navy Monument, Chumphon Longtail boat departing the pier on the lake at Khao Sok park Hornbill in flight over Khao Sok park

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