I had been itching for a road trip through Thailand for some time. I moved to Phuket in mid-March of this year, and since then I have not actually left the island. That’s fine as the island is itself a lovely place, but so is the rest of Thailand… and I wanted to get out and see it.
This week is half-term here and although I don’t personally work at a Thai school, two of my good friends do. We agreed to share the expense of renting a car and take off for two days’ road trippin’ up to Khao Sok National Park, a few hours north of Phuket. At 800 baht per day, plus about 1,000 baht petrol, it was pretty affordable when split three ways.
Although I do absolutely love Phuket, the roads here are not pleasant to drive on. In fact, they are surely the worst part of life on the island. I have seen more horrific accidents in my seven months here than in my entire life prior to arriving in Phuket. That’s why I insisted that we leave at 6am on Tuesday morning – a time I thought would guarantee a pretty easy first part of the journey.
Travelling to Khao Sok National Park from Phuket requires an unfortunate one hour of driving through Phuket itself, and that’s by far the worst part of the trip. Thai roads – whilst dangerous – are actually not that bad for driving, but Phuket is different. Here, the roads are congested, uneven, and confusing. We managed to get off the island by 7am, but it was still a bit of a hassle and I was still unpracticed at driving, having become more accustomed to motorcycles. In fact, I haven’t done much driving behind the wheel of a car since maybe 2007.
Off the island, things become much more pleasant. The chaos dissipates and soon you are surrounded by green hills and jutting limestone karsts that just explode up from the jungle. The scenery is stunning everywhere you look. The roads are much nicer and the only problem faced by a driver is trying to keep his eyes on the road rather than letting them wander up to the jagged mountain faces.
About an hour and a half into the drive, we stopped at the little town of Phang Nga to stretch our legs and explore a little. It was only approaching 8am but it was already astonishingly hot. We walked through the backstreets to find a strange temple that had the feel of a Buddhist amusement park with many cheap plastic statues of Buddhist iconography. There was some sort of depiction of Buddhist hell that reminded me of a similar temple in Siam Reap, Cambodia.
We then made our way to Tham San Cave, where there is some old rock art. Little is actually known about the paintings on these cave walls except that they are probably a little over one hundred years old, and maybe as much as one hundred and fifty. In other words, they are not exactly ancient. (Unlike these ones in Zimbabwe.) They are, however, quite interesting to see and found in a pretty location, next to a small lake and on the edge of a forest.
Driving to Khao Sok
We then jumped back in the car and headed to Khao Sok. This involved a trip of about another hour and a half through the mountains on very winding roads. We often found ourselves stuck behind trucks and pick-ups that seemed to struggle with the bends in the road as well as the steep slopes.
Again, the scenery was stunning. All around us were large mountains popping up out of the jungle, although the limestone karsts were left behind us in the Phang Nga Bay area. The thick jungle just seemed to roll on forever. At one point it became invisible as a huge downpour blinded us for about five minutes and we crept slowly forwards, but then it cleared up. Near our destination, we stopped at a spectacular viewpoint and took some photos.
The area around the entrance to Khao Sok is a small tourist town comprised of restaurants, hotels, and shops selling cheap tourist tat. It looks much like other tourist towns in Thailand… or almost anywhere else in Southeast Asia, for that matter. It is a single road with small buildings on either side and a river running under a bridge right in the middle. The buildings are all very small and over the tops of them you can see mountains jutting up into the sky like the backs of big, spiny dinosaurs. It is really quite spectacular.
We found our hotel for the night and checked in early with no complaints from the owner. We had picked the Khao Sok Blue Mountain, which is a small collection of huts on the outside of the town, very much in the forest. Here, we parked our car, dumped our bags, and then wandered back into town for lunch, beer, cocktails, and then some ice cream. It had been, after all, a long drive.
After filling ourselves with food, booze, and sugar, we paid 400 baht each to hire inner tubes on which to float down the river. With this price came a friendly guide. For a peaceful hour, we laid back in our inner tubes and let the water carry us through the jungle, under massive cliffs. We saw monkeys and three snakes, as well as a large but very dead python. There were some very mild rapids that presented no danger except for scraping yourself if you didn’t heed the guide’s advice to “lift bum.” He didn’t speak much English, but he knew that much.
We were thoroughly impressed by the tubing experience, but the ominous skies cast doubt over the next item on the itinerary: a night hike through the rainforest. Thankfully, the rain was light enough to tolerate and we set off at 7pm on a three-hour hike into the national park with a guide called Kai. He took us along some well-established trails and then onto some very narrow ones that went through the jungle proper. On our walk, we saw:
- A civet
- Two langurs
- About a million large spiders
- A “flying lemur” (actually, a colugo)
- Several giant stick insects
- Some frogs
The colugo was definitely the most interesting animal and something I had never heard of before. It was very odd to see, like a bag of grey skin that shimmied up a tree and looked like it would take flight but didn’t. They can, apparently, glide for about 70 metres, but this one was content to escape to the highest branches.
Leaving Khao Sok
The following morning, we headed back to the national park and explored by ourselves. When you buy an entrance ticket after 4pm, you can use it for the next day as well. We had perused a guide book in one of the restaurants the previous day and decided that there were two basic trails we could follow – both long and both leading to waterfalls. We picked the one heading north to Sip Et Chan Waterfall. It was a steep climb up mostly stairs through very dense jungle, and it was incredibly hot and humid. After an hour, we realized that we were only a quarter of the way there and also that we had missed an important turn. It would probably have been a full day’s hike to go back, continue on, and then return to the car, so we gave up and headed back to the town.
One of the other factors that sent us packing was the prevalence of leeches. We knew that there would be leeches on the trail, but we were surprised by just how many there were. Perhaps it was because it had rained in the night that they were everywhere. In any case, it made that long hike through narrow rainforest trails a bit unappealing.
We decided to drive back to Phuket via Khao Lak on the coast, with Adam driving this time as I had driven all the way from Phuket. Despite the morning having been very sunny, at about 1pm the rain started and soon there was thunder and lightning. It didn’t let up for the whole drive. We planned on visiting Lampi Waterfall, but it would have been a miserable experience with the heavy rain. Instead, we drove to Thai Muaeng, a tiny coastal town, and had lunch as we waited to see if the weather would break.
It didn’t. Instead, we watched the lightning through driving rain, before eventually deciding that we’d have to head home. It was time to go back to Phuket. Day #1 had been a total success but Day #2 was a wash-out. Oh well, you win some; you lose some. Overall, it was a great trip.