Before we left Bangkok for our tour around Thailand, Suzie added a place to our list to visit that it a little off the radar for most backpackers traveling through. It’s a national park in the center of the southern peninsula of Thailand and in the center of the park is a massive man made lake. This mountainous region of the country receives an incredible amount of rainfall so back in the early 80’s they decided to build a dam and a hydroelectric power plant. The result was a beautiful emerald lake surrounded by densely wooded forests and limestone monoliths. The lake covers about 22% of the park which is roughly 285 square miles in size. After seeing pictures of this place we could not wait to see it with our own eyes and sleep in a floating bungalow for a couple nights in this paradise!
We left Tonsai very early to make our way to Khao Sok because after hours of research we were still unsure of how to get there and needed to make it by 4:30 to check in. The morning started with a longtail ride to Ao Nang where we could hopefully find a shuttle. Getting to Khao Sok it actually quite easy IF you are going to the main park entrance. However, if you are trying to get to Cheow Lan Lake and more specifically Ratchaprapha Dam then prepare yourself for an adventure. I would say the number one lesson learned on this day would be to come from Surat Thani as there are shuttles that take you right to the dam. We were not so lucky coming from Ao Nang. The only shuttle route we could find in Ao Nang going to Khao Sok was to the park entrance, a step in the right direction, but would drop us two hours from where we needed to go and take four hours out of our day. The duration of the shuttle ride didn’t add up for me knowing the park entrance was about two hours away, but it was all accounted for after we spend two hours waiting at a local’s bus stop in between shuttles. At least it gave us time to get some lunch and avoid a hanger breakdown later; best to focus on the positives when embarking on a day like this one!
Another complication to our day is we had no clue where to check in for our floating bungalow which Suzie booked for us through the national park website. They did not give her much information with the confirmation and so we were the guinea pigs as we were going to the lake a day before Suzie and her brother Alex. We told ourselves the silver lining in paying 450 baht ($15) each for a shuttle to the wrong place was that we could at least hopefully ask at the park entrance where we needed to check in. One of our fears was that we would get to the floating dock and be told we needed to check in elsewhere, so this would hopefully give us some piece of mind.
Of course, the shuttle didn’t drop us off at the park entrance and ranger station. No, it was much easier for them and more advantageous for the locals to drop everyone off two kilometers from the entrance so we would need to pay a local cab driver to get the rest of the way. Fortunately, we at least found a nice cab driver that was willing to wait for us while we ran into the ranger station to ask about check in so we wouldn’t be left there stranded. The rangers were not incredibly helpful, but one thing was for certain, we knew we didn’t check in there judging by their confused faces. At the mercy of the only cab driver around we jumped back in his car and paid 1,800 baht ($60) for the two-hour drive to Ratchaprapha Dam watching the clock the whole time and knowing it would be close to the check in cut off time.
Our cab driver, who took his sweet time making stops and doing errands along the way, did help us out when he dropped us off by telling us the longtail prices are fixed and posted on the wall. This bit of knowledge was tremendously helpful while haggling with the two con artists behind the desk. One of the ladies had a disgusting mouthful of chew making it almost impossible to understand her broken english. It started out with them trying to ask us double the already ridiculously expensive rate for a longtail to the Nang Prai floating dock. After about fifteen minutes of fighting with them we finally got the “fair” price of 1,700 baht ($57) for a longtail to the dock. On the way to the boat we were shook down some more for the park entrance fee of 300 baht ($10) each which we did not mind so much as we already knew about that fee and hoped it at least went towards park maintenance. We left the dock at 4:15pm knowing full well we would not make it by the 4:30 check in time and accepted that we would sleep right on the dock if need.
The longtails here were by far my favorite because of yet another clever modification to the cooling system of the motors mounted in the rear. The motors here were again re-purposed car engines and this time they turned the thermostat into a squirt gun! The water is so clean in this lake that they simply let the engines suck up water from the lake to cool the motor and then let it squirt out of a throttled down hose attached at the thermostat. You can see this in the video of our ride in on this page! And no this does not contaminate the lake water because the cooling system of an engine is separated by gaskets and seals from the engine oil and fuel.
The boat ride there was absolutely beautiful, but we will get to that in a moment I’m almost done ranting. When we arrived at the dock we were happy to see a person still behind the small desk for check in. She asked us how many meals we would have while there; I suppose so that they can make orders in advance for the food to be brought in. With no where else to eat we obviously expected to eat all of our meals there and included breakfast on our last morning to be safe not knowing what time we planned to leave with Suzie and Alex. There is a serious foreigner tax in this park because they charged higher than Bangkok prices for each meal. The meals were 330 baht ($11) on average which is extremely expensive in Thailand. We have had meals where both of us ate for less than 150 baht ($5). The bungalow rental was the cheapest part of the whole package at 350 baht ($12) a night because Suzie was able to get us a local’s rate through the park website.
When we add it all up it does not sound like as much money as it felt like we spent that day, but when most of it is being extorted out of us for being foreigners it makes it harder to let go of. In the two days there we spent about $140 each which in Thailand is a lot. However, every penny was well worth it once we were there enjoying the views and relaxation of being off the grid. If you do not cope well with the stresses of travel I would recommend booking a package deal to spend a night or two in a floating bungalow on Cheow Lan Lake which takes care of all the logistics, but at a much higher price.
Okay now that the ranting about our intense day of getting to the floating bungalow is over I can say that Cheow Lan Lake was far and beyond THE most beautiful area of Thailand we had the pleasure of visiting. The beauty outside the door of our bungalow will forever be my special place to escape when the stresses of life return after our travels are over. Our first evening was spent floating in the water laughing off the craziness of the day and wondering what adventure Suzie and Alex might have getting here tomorrow.
You must promise yourself to escape to a destination in your lifetime remote enough to see the milky way. I have fallen in love with the night sky’s we have seen in Hana on Maui, the desert in Morocco, and this one in Khao Sok. Our first night while Lauren set up the camera to capture the beauty, I laid down on the dock looking up and counted five shooting stars in about ten minutes. I cannot fathom how our ancestors navigated by the stars when you see a night sky like this. How in the world did they pick out the constellations in this chaos? It is no wonder why primitive cultures looked to the heavens for answers if you saw this above you every night.
In the morning we took advantage of one of the free amenities that came with the bungalow rental. Right after breakfast we hopped in a two-person kayak to explore a bit of the lake around us. We made a heading to cross the lake and see what lay around the corner of a distant series of cliffs. Halfway across the lake we realized we had made a gross miscalculation of the distance, but no worry we are both incredibly stubborn and strong willed once we have a goal in mind and so we trudged on in the blazing heat. When we finally made it across we found relief from the sun in a peaceful cove shaded by towering cliffs. The only noises around us were the birds chirping and waves lapping against the pitted limestone rock faces.
We knew it was a long way but had no clue we had just kayaked about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) to cross the lake. Continuing along the coast and around the corner we glimpsed what we could not see from our bungalow making stops at several coves along the way plus a cave. In a few locations the mellow lapping of the water against the submerged caves made a low growling noise that sounded like a lurking tiger. They do have tigers in the park and we were happy we did not come across one so far away and on our own. At our turn around point we had kayaked about two miles out which had us knackered by the time we finally made it back. With our exercise done for the day we lazed around while waiting on Suzie and Alex to arrive. Looking at their itinerary we expected them to arrive by noon. As we watched longtail’s come and go at our dock, dropping people off for fifteen minutes to enjoy the view and take pictures, we guessed the odds that the boat on approach had Suzie and Alex on it. After lunch we waited another couple hours before we started to think they may have given up on coming here for one night and just gone straight to Ko Tao instead. By 2pm we had given up on them and on my way to the restroom I saw a familiar and very angry face at the front desk. I found Suzie beat red in the face arguing with the lady about how the meals were more expensive here than in Bangkok! She lives here for pete sake!
It was a happy reunion at the end of a stressful day for them and as we all floated in the cool water Suzie told us about their adventure in getting here. She had a theme for her day and it went something like this. Every time a local tried to rip her off she would calmly tell them she lived in Thailand and was not some tourist so she would get at least the resident foreigner price which is somewhere between the tourist price and the local price. Every time she tried her tactic they would smile and insist on the same price. Step two was flash the work visa like an FBI badge to prove to them she was legit. Smiles all around…except for Suzie, although Alex was smiling in the background watching the steam coming out of his sisters ears. In the moment these experiences are definitely not fun, but they always make memories you won’t forget and will laugh at later for years to come.
Lauren and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the teamwork between Suzie and Alex when they hopped in the kayak for a paddle around the lake. You know siblings are close when they go butt to butt pulling the kayak over the log!
In fact I have one more of those memories to share when we went to ask for a refund on our breakfast the last morning as we would be leaving at 6am which is before they serve breakfast. The lady behind the desk was never particularly warm when interacting with us, but it went to a whole new level when we asked for a refund on a meal we had not eaten and were giving plenty notice to cancel. She hardly looked up from her phone to say “No” before going back to the incredibly important task on her phone. I asked again staring at her as warmly as she had responded, and she made the same response again not even looking up this time. I stood there contemplating grabbing the purse off the table to take back my money and it took every ounce of reserve in me not to. The only thing stopping me was our needed to eat dinner and sleep here one more night and so I restrained myself. After multiple attempts of asking her why we could not have a refund she grew so annoyed she called, who I assume was her boss, and put me on the phone. After several minutes of back and forth I would not yield to their unexplained “No” to a meal we were cancelling in advance with plenty of notice. They tried to tell me there was no money there to give the refund it had all been sent back to Bangkok to which I replied what about the group that just checked in an hour ago? Nice try now give me a refund with the money they just paid you with, problem solved smart ass. I think it was my determination and resolve to not back down that finally made the two women concede to give us the refund. And what happened next blew my top! As she was calculating the refund the math just didn’t add up…..we had overpaid from the start! After going through this ordeal with her, I knew in my heart that it was no mistake and this was a way she found to line her own pockets. We showed her the error in her math and demanded a refund for the amount we overpaid in addition to our canceled meal which added up to 800 baht ($25). Yes, I know it’s not a ton of money, but it’s the principle of it!!!
We spent our night with Suzie and Alex playing card games and drinking Hong Thong (Thai whisky that tastes like rum). We also spent some of the night with the park ranger who graciously kept pouring us drinks from his bottle of Hong Thong. Every time our glass was near empty, he would say we had to have one more with him. He told us all about his training to become a Thai navy seal. He was the nicest guy working there and from the videos of the training he had to go through I would say the toughest too.
Early the next morning and much to our surprise our longtail boat was right on time for our pick up at 6am. We spent the whole day traveling from Khao Sok to Ko Tao which included a longtail, a shuttle, a bus, a high speed ferry, and a taxi. When we finally got checked into our hotel room, we were happy to be in one place for a few days after all the traveling of the last few days.