Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Khao Sok National Park

Ah, the joys of over-water living. Is there a better way to greet the day than from the balmy depths of your own private swimming pool? Tying my bikini in the dim light, I push open the bamboo door of my sleeping quarters, take one step down from the front porch and dive straight into the warm, liquid embrace of the lake below.

This, however, is no ritzy coastal resort with palatial, credit-blowing bungalows dangling seductively over mirrored turquoise. My humble abode is the no-frills variety, a basic bamboo hut perched precariously on a wooden raft and anchored to a wobbly, rotting walkway on the edge of a man-made reservoir.

It’s simple in the extreme – four walls, a roof, a mattress covering bamboo flooring, and a little balcony under thatch. Communal bathrooms, consisting of Thai-style toilets (self-flush and predominantly squat, though lucky punters may chance on the one western-style throne) and cold showers, are a good two-minute walk up a hill; and there’s a restaurant and bar that serves fresh Thai meals, the obligatory Singha beer and rotgut Thai whisky.

Putawan Raft House
Hardly a five-star resort – but then again, what do you expect for 600 baht, or around $18 a day? Including three meals, that is. And free watersports, if you count the kayaks that are available to paddle around in. And with million-dollar, mind-blowingly beautiful views, could there be better value for money?

The Putawan Raft House is one of nine so-called ‘resorts’ hidden is isolated coves of Ratchaprapha Dam (also known as Cheow Lan Lake) in Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand. Covering 738 square kilometres in Surat Thani province – halfway between the tourist meccas of Koh Samui and Khao Lak - Khao Sok and two adjoining wildlife sanctuaries combine to form the largest area of pristine rainforest in the Thai peninsula, a remnant of an ancient, 160 million-year-old ecosystem.

Hidden in these dense jungles are the rarest of Asian species – wild elephants, sun bears, leopards and even tigers – as well as 180 species of birds including the magnificent white-crowned hornbill. Here you’ll also find the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia, a putrid, parasitic monster that only blooms in January and February; while a walk through the forest is rewarded by close encounters with curious gibbons who shimmy down from the canopy for a closer look at their human visitors.

The heart of the park is the man-made hydro-electric reservoir, created in 1982 and covering 165 square kilometres. As the valley was flooded, so over 100 islands were formed, dramatic forest-clad limestone peaks rising majestically above the emerald waters. The locals call this their Guilin – and it does indeed recall China’s World Heritage-listed treasure or even Vietnam’s Halong Bay, minus the crowds.

I take a few languid strokes in my massive freshwater pool, a lame pretence at exercise, before flipping onto my back to absorb this stunning panorama. The sun is now striking karst clusters on the opposite shore, parting the mist to create a pastel watercolour with a sensurround track of silence.

Such a rarity in South-east Asia, the absence of man-made racket is overwhelming. But it’s soon clear that this jungle resonates with its own symphony – the buzz of cicadas, the splash of fish jumping, the caw of a seabird and the distant whoop-whoop-whoop of a gibbon - the love song of freedom. I’m with him - this is one special place!


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