You meet them in droves when traveling, people who’ve ‘done’ Fiji, the Amazon and China. Three weeks on a tourist bus and they have miraculously acquired supreme knowledge of the food (delicious but avoid the water), the people (so friendly!) and sites (amazing, but not nearly as good as Angkor Way which they did in 2003). When the OED defines ‘to do’ as ‘to complete/achieve’, the question that begs to be answered is, ‘How? How on earth have you ‘done’ anywhere?’ One of travel’s greatest joys is that it can never be fully completed. Every time you visit a place it will have changed, your perspective will be different, your experiences new. Whether you’ve lived somewhere for years, or visited for the first time, there is always something new to explore.
To that end, I’m returning to Thailand. Bangkok, off the tourist trail of gilded palaces and Kao San Road, is a tangle of back alleys that are a photographer’s dream. Bridges cross over murky rivers, birdcages and orchids hang from eaves, small temples nestle street stalls and a fluro shellsuit clad life -size doll, eerily resembling Michael Jackson, holds up his hands in prayer. We drink coffee outside one of the many police stations, and contemplate purchasing some shiny cop shoes. We take the subway to see where it goes, coming out in a building made of blinding white lino and huge sheets of glass, the size of an airport departure lounge. Imagine coming into St. Pancreas and finding it deserted. We speak in whispers and ride nearly silent trains.
The train to Suratthani, however, takes twelve hours over night. First and second class seats are sold out and the VIP bus beyond the budget, so we resign ourselves to third. There are parts of the world where voluntarily traveling third class takes a serious degree of masochism, but on this train it’s positively luxurious. The lights are on all night and the temperature somewhere below freezing makes the journey something of an endurance test. But given it costs little less than £10, its worth the loss of sleep and blood circulation! Having said that, the seats recline and, unheard of luxury!, the bathroom has toilet paper. If you are inclined to feel cold, bring a jacket, particularly in the air-con first and second-class. Hawkers wander the rows with beer, coffee, or fried chicken, in case you haven’t packed your own. Waking up to a sunrise over the jungle is one of life’s greatest pleasures, especially with chilled-solid chocolate for breakfast.
The hourly local bus to Khao Sok costs a fraction of the price of the tourist mini-buses, and the interior decorating is a treat. Khao Suk borders Khao Sok national park and caters exclusively for tourists. Enjoy the novelty of sleeping in a tree house or beside the river. If you are after good food, stick to where the locals go, rather than the resorts. It’s a stunning national park, famed for the giant rhaphiolepis and huge limestone cliffs. Tour companies have a monopoly on the activities here, and, as always, its advisable to take a guide if going into the caves. Riding an elephant in Thailand has become the ultimate tourist cliché, but it’s not for nothing that it’s become so popular. Elephants (or Elephanys as the sign says) are beautiful animals and its impossible not be enchanted with them. Chose your tour operator wisely, if it seems the animals are abused or unhappy in anyway, ask to be taken back to your hotel.
The lake trip is the de-rigueur tour and involves a boat trip across the reservoir, swimming, a walk through the jungle and a cave trip. The cave trip alone makes it worth it, with stunning rock formations, bats and spiders whose eyes shine incandescent in the torchlight. Bring a head torch and be prepared to get wet. Reef shoes or heavy-duty sandals are ideal, and swimsuits are a great way to save your clothes. If you’re on the shorter side, you’ll be swimming sections of the cage and coming up to your thighs in the rivers! Your guide will tell you if it’s safe to enter, but never enter a cave when it’s raining or surrounding rivers turn brown. We exit the cave to the first raindrops of tropical rain shower and soon it’s a beautifully muddy dash back to the lakeside camp. The boat journey back is exquisitely beautiful with jungle-covered limestone mountains rising out of the water. It’s a sobering thought that this is a man-made environment; the land was flooded in 1986 to make the reservoir. Already, the environment is showing signs of stain and change.
On the outskirts of Khao Sok is a monkey temple. After you’ve had your fill of monkey antics, explore the rest of the complex. Bring a head torch for the cave behind the Buddha statues, or if you have had enough of subterranean adventures, climb the rusting staircase to an enclave half way up a cliff face. If you can ride a motorbike, it’s a great way to go exploring for yourself. The village markets are always worth a look, and it’s amazing what a package tour will miss. There’s a whole range of hot springs, jungle walks and waterfalls to discover.
Khao Sok’s beauty comes from its unique geographical and environmental conditions. However, they do affect the weather. Be prepared for hot, sunny mornings and tropical downpours in the afternoon and evening. It’s the perfect excuse to retreat to your tree house with a beer, a few bats and the odd chameleon and watch the heavens open.
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