Last year, I went on a road trip with two friends to Khao Sok National Park, several hours north of Phuket, in the west of Thailand. It was an amazing trip and we so planned on a return for early 2020. What sparked our interesting going back to Khao Sok was learning that there is an extremely rare flower there called rafflesia, which blooms only for a short period each year. When we learned that this is the biggest flower in the world and that it stinks like rotting human flesh, we were sold. So last week, we hit the road again.

close-up of rafflesia

Driving to Khao Sok

We all live in the south of Phuket, so getting off the island can take a long time. Last year, we left at about 6am and still hit traffic before the airport, so this time we left an hour earlier and managed to make it to Sarasin Bridge without any trouble. Whilst I love living in Phuket, the traffic here really is a pain and driving a car can be exhausting.

Once you get over the bridge and off Phuket Island, things become a lot more pleasant. The roads are wider and emptier, and there are beautiful views of jagged limestone karsts and soaring green mountains. Last year, we stopped off at a few places in Phang Nga, but this time we headed up the western coast.

khao sok national park panorama

Off the highway, we drove along narrow, winding country roads. Our biggest obstacles here were the dozens of sleeping dogs that refused to move out of our way. We had to go slowly and dodge them until we reached our first destination: Tesdhammanava Temple. This is a small, wooden Buddhist temple right by the sea. We arrived for sunrise, although that took place on the other coast, so we only got the soft pink colour of the sky. Still, it was beautiful on that lonely stretch of beach with only two monks sweeping leaves off a nearby path.

beach near Tesdhammanava Temple

After shooting a couple of photos, we headed back on the road and stopped off twenty minutes later at our second destination: Lampi (or Lumpee) Waterfalls. We were there long before the entrance opened, but an old lady let us through anyway. We found the falls completely deserted, which made it feel as though we were deep in the jungle, even though it was only 100 metres from the road. The falls dropped spectacularly through the rocks and trees into a deep but clear pool. In the water were thousands of fish, some of which were rather large. Once we went in to swim, we realised that there were also two enormous eels in there as well. Thankfully, they did not bite us and we were able to swim around in the cool water, soaking up the tranquillity of the jungle.

Lampi Waterfall
Lampi Waterfall

After our swim, we jumped back in the car and headed north again. Soon we were on little mountain roads, and our rented car struggled with the slopes. We didn’t want to go particularly fast, though; the views were stunning and deserved our attention. It took about an hour and a half to get from Lampi Waterfall to Khao Sok, but the time flew by as the roads wound onwards and upwards.

Khao Sok Town

I have thus far referred to Khao Sok National Park, but it is also the name of a tiny tourist town clustered around the entrance to the park. Here, you can find little restaurants, cafés, shops, and hotels. There isn’t much there that isn’t intended for tourists. When we visited last year in the low season, it was almost a ghost town, but now it was bustling with white tourists. In fact, the town seemed to be about 90% white people.

We stopped for breakfast/brunch/lunch at a restaurant we visited last time – Bamboo Bistro. We scoffed at the other tourists eating downstairs and strolled straight up to the second floor, which was empty, and sat at our “usual” table that looked out on an immense cragged ridge of jungle cliffs. The view was extraordinary and any residual tiredness from the journey was washed away by the impressive scenery. Service is slow in Khao Sok, but you don’t seem to mind. You’re not really here for the food anyway.

After our meal, we checked in to the oddly named Khao Sok Residence Resort (which was an extension of the Blue Mountain hotel that we occupied last year). These are both little clusters of huts in the jungle on the edge of town, about 15 minutes’ walk or 3 minutes’ drive from the middle of Khao Sok. We were impressed by our rooms and everyone took a short nap to recover.

In the afternoon, we tried to go tubing as we had done last year, but the water in the river was too low. Instead, we drove to Art’s Riverview Lodge, a little place by a bend in the river. Here, we had a few beers and swam in the shallow river. The water was not particularly pleasant but it still felt nice to float on it, looking up at a giant limestone cliff covered in ancient trees that shot up hundreds of metres into the sky. Overhead, we saw eagles swooping and we knew there were snakes in the trees – we had seen them there last year.

Trekking to Find Rafflesia

In the evening, my friends all went hiking in the jungle but I went to a bar instead. I had done the night hike last year and it was mildly interesting, but not so great that I wanted to do it again. Last year, we had seen civets, langurs, spiders, and a rare colugo. I felt confident that it would not be topped this year and so I gave it a pass. I was not exactly flush with cash and content to save it for the following day.

In the morning, we got up early and met our two guides for a full-day hike around Khao Sok National Park. They drove us to a hidden entrance point on the road back to Phuket, and from there we began a very steep hiking uphill along narrow trails. It was immediately humid and we were soon struggling to keep up with our guides.

It was a few hours before we found what we were looking for – rafflesia, the world’s largest flower. We found the weird plants hidden among trees near the trail. Those that have bloomed are huge and colourful, but the ones not yet that developed are like large, brown brussels sprouts or perhaps like water chestnuts. If they were not marked, you would not know where they were, but thankfully the guide had marked and numbered them. He told us that the national park made no effort to preserve these rare and amazing plants, and so it was up to independent guides like him to ensure their safety.

We visited several clumps of rafflesia and attempted to extract as much information from our guides as possible, but they were not able to articulate much due to the language barrier. Still, it was enough that they had brought us to this incredible sight. We got to see many of the flowers, including one which had bloomed that morning, and several that had died and were rotting. Rafflesia is supposed to stink of rotting human flesh, but there was no such smell when we visited, and the guide could only tell us that it was “sometimes” like that.

After seeing the rafflesia, we pushed on along the trail in search of a waterfall. The trail was quite exhausting and after the plants we never saw anyone else. We were the only tourists signed up for the full-day excursion, it seemed.

When we arrived at the top of the waterfall, we were all exhausted after having hiked up and over a large mountain. We did not realise the challenge that emerged ahead of us. There was no path down the waterfall. Instead, we had to scrabble, climb, and abseil down this perhaps 150-metre drop. The ropes we used were old and grimy, and we had to trust that they would hold our weight. It was frightening but exhilarating and I loved every damn minute of it.

waterfall at khao sok

At the bottom, my knees were like jelly and I could hardly stand. Lunch was soon ready but we all jumped into the water instead. It was icy cold, which was fine after having hiked for 5 hours through dense jungle. There were no big fish or eels here, and if there were we wouldn’t have cared. There could have been no better place to rest and recuperate. It was like an oasis in the desert.

After lunch, we continued on our hike. It was brutal and involved yet more dangerous climbs, but we made it back shortly before dark, battered and beaten and sorely in need of beer, which we soon procured. The trek had taken nearly 10 hours and we had covered 16 km of jungle. We had seen snakes, centipedes, and three species of monkey. Our nerves and strength had been pushed to – and in some cases beyond – breaking point. In short, it was fantastic.

Leaving Khao Sok

That evening, we enjoyed food and beers and mojitos by the Sok River before getting a much-needed night’s sleep. In the morning, I awoke with a hangover and had to walk it off in the hot sun. My feet did not thank me for that, but I was feeling better by check-out time at 11am. We headed back to Bamboo Bistro for a bye-bye breakfast, then hit the road.

road trip to khao sok

It was a long drive back to Phuket. It’s funny how it often seems so much longer on the return trip. Along the way, the only stop we made was at Natai Beach – a lonesome stretch of white sand not too far north of Phuket. We stopped and had a swim in the shallow waters that were protected by a coral reef, then jumped back in the car for the final leg. Alas, it was a miserable one. We hit Phuket just at the start of rush hour and endured a slow, tiring journey across the island.

Still, it had been a wonderful trip and I was glad that we got back to Khao Sok. The first journey had been fleeting and it would have been a shame not to have seen rafflesia. Though I am no botanist, that is a flower that anyone can appreciate. The hike was a refreshing wake-up from my sedentary Phuket life, too. It will probably be my last trip in Thailand for a long time as my visa expires next month and I head back to Cambodia. But it was a fitting one. Thanks for the memories, Khao Sok. You were incredible.