Most of the Andaman coast’s highlights are, unsurprisingly, along the shoreline, but the stunning jungle-clad karsts of KHAO SOK NATIONAL PARK are well worth heading inland for. Located about halfway between the southern peninsula’s two coasts and easily accessible from Khao Lak, Phuket and Surat Thani, the park has become a popular stop on the travellers’ route, offering a number of easy trails, a bit of amateur spelunking and some scenic rafthouse accommodation on Cheow Lan Lake. Much of the park, which protects the watershed of the Sok River and rises to a peak of nearly 1000m, is carpeted in impenetrable rainforest, home to gaurs, leopard cats and tigers among others – and up to 155 species of bird. The limestone crags that dominate almost every vista both on and away from the lake are breathtaking, never more so than in the early morning: waking up to the sound of hooting gibbons and the sight of thick white mist curling around the karst formations is an experience not quickly forgotten.
The park has two centres: the tourist village that has grown up around the park headquarters and trailheads, which offers all essential services, including an ATM at Morning Mist Minimarket and currency exchange and overseas phone services at Khao Sok Track & Trail; and the dam, 65km further east, at the head of Cheow Lan Lake. Most visitors stay in the tourist village and organize their lake trips from there, but it’s also feasible to do one or more nights at the lake first. Take plenty of water when hiking as Khao Sok is notoriously humid.
Seven of the park’s nine attractions (waterfalls, pools, gorges and viewpoints) branch off the clearly signed main trail that runs west of the park headquarters and visitor centre, along the Sok River. The first 3.5km constitute the interpretative trail described in Waterfalls and Gibbon Calls, an unexceptional ninety-minute one-way trail along a broad, road-like track. Most people continue along the river to Ton Kloi waterfall, 7km from headquarters (allow 3hr each way), which flows year-round and tumbles into a pool that’s good for swimming. En route, signs point to Bang Liap Nam waterfall (4.5km from headquarters), which is a straightforward hike; and Tan Sawan waterfall (6km from headquarters), which involves wading along a river bed for the final kilometre and should not be attempted during the rainy season. The trail to the rather spectacular eleven-tiered Sip-et Chan waterfall, which shoots off north from the park headquarters and follows the course of the Bang Laen River, is no longer much used and can be quite indistinct. Though the falls are only 4km from headquarters, there’s a fair bit of climbing on the way, plus half a dozen river crossings, so you should allow three hours each way.
The vast majority of visitors choose to join a guided trek at some point during their stay in the park. Though the trails are waymarked and easy to navigate alone, the guided experience alerts you to details you’d certainly miss on your own – the claw marks left by a sun-bear scaling a tree in search of honey, for example, or the medicinal plants used for malarial fevers and stomach upsets – and is both fun and inexpensive; prices are fixed but exclude the national park entrance fee.
The usual day trek (B700–900) goes to Ton Kloi waterfall, and from about December to March there’s also a special route that takes in the blooming of the world’s second-biggest flower, the rafflesia kerrii meier, a rather unprepossessing brown, cabbage-like plant whose enormous russet-coloured petals unfurl to a diameter of up to 80cm; it’s also known as “stinking corpse lily” because it gives off a stink like rotting flesh.
After-dinner night safaris along the main park trails (B600–800 for 2–4hr) are also popular, not least because they’re good for spotting civets, mouse deer and slow loris and, if you’re exceptionally lucky, elephants and clouded leopards as well – more likely on darker nights away from the full moon.
You get to stay out in the jungle on the overnight camping trips (about B2300), usually around Tan Sawan falls.
Reputable and long-serving guides include those booked through Bamboo House, Nung House and Khao Sok Rainforest Resort and at Khao Sok Track & Trail.
Any guesthouse can also arrange elephant-rides (B800–900) and fix you up with equipment and transfers for tubing and canoeing trips along the Sok River (from B300/B600).
The Australian–Thai-run Limestone Lake Rainforest Tours offers a big range of lake-based tours, including a two-hour trip (B1800/boat) and a full-day trip with optional overnight in a rafthouse (from B2500/3700 per person for up to three people, including park entry fee, or cheaper with larger groups).
Khao Sok guesthouses charge B1500 for a day-trip to the lake and around B2500 for two-day, one-night trips. It’s also possible to simply turn up at the dam and hire a boat for around B2000.