When I think of Surat Thani, I think of Samui. I think of crowded buses, stuffy ferries, hordes of slightly frazzled tourists regretting not taking the direct flight. I don’t think of dense, lush jungle. I don’t think of lakes in deepest blue fringed by towering limestone cliffs. I don’t think of gibbons whooping as steam rises off the canopy in the morning over a quiet, still valley. In short, I don’t think of Khao Sok. And I don’t think I’m alone.
This is as good a case as can be made for keeping an open mind on destinations. An hour’s flight and an hour’s drive from Bangkok is Khao Sok National Park, and if there are many more beautiful places in Thailand than Khao Sok and its surrounding area I would love to see them. We took an action-packed trip to Khao Sok recently – here are a few highlights you should check out in this incredible area of southern Thailand.
The high life at Caligo Resort
It’s exciting to turn right out of Surat Thani airport. We always turn left towards the piers for Samui and Phangan. Most days there is an actual person operating the traffic lights by the airport (welcome to Thailand). When we signalled right he looked a little surprised. Were we lost? Samui is left, mate. But no, right it was. Our suitably battered rental car from the airport – rent a car, it’s so much easier – was heading for Khao Sok, beginning with an amble down the 401 highway to the edge of the enormous Cheow Lan Lake.
The beauty of the area around Khao Sok quickly becomes apparent from the road – gentle hills flanked by thick jungle and ringed by the kind of imposing limestone cliffs more commonly associated with Krabi.
Our first stop was at Caligo Resort, perched halfway up a comedically steep hill just a few minutes’ drive from Cheow Lan lake, just outside the boundary of Khao Sok National Park itself.
Caligo’s collection of small, smart and new villas all look out over miles of surrounding jungle, with large terraces to sit, watch and absorb. We woke in the mornings to a sea of mist rising off the jungle and the chatter of wildlife echoing up from below. Thailand has many hotels with many gorgeous views, but we particularly loved Caligo’s perch above the tree tops.
Through the day came various picture postcard scenes from this slice of tranquility, and we enjoyed just whiling away the hours in perfectly peaceful surroundings. You can book Caligo Resort on Agoda through this link – if you do we’ll get a small commission and you won’t pay any extra!
Just around the corner from Caligo is the big draw of the northern area of Khao Sok National Park – Cheow Lan Lake. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Cheow Lan Lake
Our tour of Cheow Lan started in familiar Thai fashion – a crowded pier, a chugging longtail boat and a blazing April sun despite the early hour. For a moment I had a fleeting sense of foreboding that Cheow Lan may be a bit of a damp squib. I needn’t have worried.
What looked familiar about Cheow Lan Lake quickly morphed into something quite otherworldly. The lake opens out into an expanse of clear water in vibrant shades of blue and green. Monolithic karsts and small islands jut out of the water giving the whole thing a faintly prehistoric feel.
We half expected pterodactyls to wheel overhead at any moment and I certainly spent a fair amount of time humming the Jurassic Park theme tune which I’m sure Frankie absolutely loved.
Jokes aside, Cheow Lan Lake is blessed with simply breathtaking beauty. Seriously, just look at the pictures.
We spent a half day here which didn’t really feel like enough. One option you might look at is to stay overnight on the floating bungalows dotted around Cheow Lan Lake.
Prices for this quickly stack up if you want more than the very basics for accommodation, but you’d be getting a truly unique experience. Our hotel in Khao Sok village was also running overnight stays on the lake at much more sensible prices – more on that later.
The 5 Pagodas of the Thamma Park
Around 30km south of Ratchaprapa Dam and Cheow Lan Lake is the Thamma Park, recommended to us by the helpful staff at Caligo.
Described to us in far more depth than we understood in Thai, then in English at ‘temple on hill’, we were a bit unfussed about Thamma Park, or อุทยานธรรม to give it its very hard to read Thai name. Thai temples are almost unfailingly beautiful, but much like churches in the UK I don’t want to spend my holiday looking at them and I have a good idea of what to expect. Nice colours, tick. Lots of gold, tick. Big buddha, tick.
Evidence point 2 for keeping an open mind: Thamma Park isn’t like this at all and is absolutely worth your time to visit. Rather than a typical wat, the park is a collection of 5 pagodas perched atop 5 jagged cliffs and reached by stairs in varying states of repair and repose, but with exceptional views all around.
If Cheow Lan Lake is Jurassic Park, Thamma Park is the rebel base from Star Wars. Climbing up the stairs to each one certainly gets the heart rate up but would be achievable for most. I found the way back down a little punishing on the knees but I have spent years actively wrecking them on bicycles. We ventured up two, our favourite being the brown stone spire in the main group of 3.
The white one accessible from the same path gave great views, but being made of smooth tiles it was worryingly slippery at the top after some earlier rain. The edge railings aren’t exactly comprehensive, so be careful about bringing kids up to the white one!
Here are a few more pics we took of the Thamma Park – if you’re on mobile you can scroll through these.
Khao Sok Village: Into the jungle
After a couple of days up by the lake, we headed deeper into the jungle to the rather more rustic surrounds of Khao Sok Village.
If the theme of the first few days was height, the remainder was all about depth. From looking out over the jungle we were suddenly surrounded by it. Thankfully the embrace was warm and welcoming, and absolutely epitomised by the hospitality we found at the Bliss Khao Sok Boutique resort, which you can book here. If you do, we get a small commission and you don’t pay any extra.
The owner of Bliss Khao Sok, May, made us feel like part of the family from the moment we strolled through the door. She happily chatted us through all the things to do whilst baking some treats while her kids zoomed around the place. May made the most generous breakfasts imaginable – including in the shape of a face, I mean who doesn’t want that – and generally went well out of her way to ensure we had a great stay. May also loves to make jam which is delicious and comes in a wide range of flavours – you can buy it online on Facebook. Bliss Khao Sok only cost 1200 baht a night including breakfast which we felt was a true bargain.
The Bliss Khao Sok is a set of large stilted bungalows set around a large, open garden full of trees and flowers. It’s a different kind of peace with the constant hum and buzz of the jungle all around.
In the mornings we sat on the balcony, listening to gibbons hoot and screech from the surrounding jungle. The Bliss sits right next to a stream for swimming, and is connected to the neighbouring Art’s Riverview Lodge which has a large natural pool to splash around in. Monkeys are regular visitors of a morning and evening, and they are right little posers so be sure to have your camera ready, but probably go indoors as well.
Monkeys are also incorrigible thieves and general bastards of the highest order, and they had no qualms about leaping onto our balcony whilst we were out there. Be sure to get any possessions you want to keep safely indoors because they can and will pinch anything that isn’t nailed down. And not in a cute, ‘oh look at me what a little rascal I am’ kind of way, in an aggressive and bitey way.
And so ends this mini rant against monkeys.
The Bliss Khao Sok had a wide range of activities available, including overnight trips to Cheow Lan Lake. Whilst you can book directly, I’d advise booking via a hotel like the Bliss as they seemed to offer better packages.
Trekking Khao Sok: Don’t go chasing waterfalls
We were able to arrange a full day trek through May at Bliss Khao Sok which took us into the official national park. Trekking in Thailand is a great way to see the national parks, and I tend to find the guides equally fascinating because it’s generally just a couple of local blokes wearing flip flops and carrying a machete leading you through what looks like an impossible maze of foliage.
We were pleased then that our guides rolled up wearing flip flops and carrying machetes, with one chewing kratom for an extra touch of panache. There’s also absolutely no way of telling how difficult a hike will be up front. We perhaps could have taken a small clue when our guide, Wood, asked us if we were strong at rock climbing. What followed was a hike of trouser-soiling steepness both up and down, but which was also a lot of fun. I quickly learned that my all-terrain trainers came were actually most-terrain and definitely-not-wet-terrain trainers.
I grew particularly and correctly skeptical when our guides told us we would be climbing down a waterfall. My personal nadir – entirely of my own doing – came when I slipped crossing the top of said waterfall and genuinely thought I was going over, only to be dragged out and then nervily climb down the rest of the way, sobbing gently.
In summary, wear proper shoes. Unless you are a guide, in which case wear flip flops. They really were quite insistent that flip flops were the ideal shoe for Khao Sok trekking, and given their studied nonchalance in tackling terrain that was causing us to tumble every 5 metres it’s hard to disagree. Although I would counter that their years of local experience, superior fitness and gymnast-level physical coordination may have been a factor.
If you’re wondering what they are up to in the above picture, they spent part of the lunch break catching fish with their bare hands. But sure, flip flops.
I have made this hike sound hellish, but with the right equipment it’d be fine and is genuinely a lot of fun. Swimming in the waterfall at lunch was a great way to cool off, and we saw lots of cool things including the giant rafflesia flower native to these parts.
One note – as it was wet when we went, there were plenty of leeches about. If you’ve never experienced leech bites, they occupy a rather unique space in that they are completely harmless and deeply unpleasant at the same time. They also look like a cross between a rat tail and a slinky and actively chase you. Probably best to bring some leech socks if you don’t want them on your ankle, then your finger, then your other finger, before the guide picks it off and gets after it with a machete.
Whilst the hike was quite full on, May also offered many more genteel activities at Bliss Khao Sok, including tubing and kayaking on the river. We would have loved to stay longer at Bliss Khao Sok and spend more time relaxing in this gorgeous corner of Thailand. For an unrivalled list of natural wonders and memorable moments that’s a doddle to get to and has heaps of personality, I think Khao Sok is hard to beat. One of our favourite Thai trips ever.