Friday, May 31, 2013

Khaosok Overnight Adventure Tour – Raft house stay

For a trip to Khaosok National Park from Phuket, be it an overnight trip or a day trip, the first thing which must be understood is the distances involved. Even if you are going directly there with no stops it is a good three hours travelling time.

For my trip we were going to be starting with white water rafting in Phang Nga Province before heading to the Khaosok National Park in Surat Thani province.

The pickup in Chalong, southern Phuket was at 7am, we then went on to pick up Mark who I would be sharing this trip with, 20 minutes later we picked up our guide for the day on the edge of Phuket town close to all the shopping centres. From here it was going to be a one and a half hour drive to the rafting camp a little way past Phang Nga town. To break up the journey we were going to stop for fruit.


This stop turned out to be at “Lung Khai Fruit Garden”, which is a lot more than it sounds. As well as selling fresh fruit here they have an orchard of mixed fruit trees so you can see Mangosteens, Durians, Papaya, Rambutan, Jack Fruit and more all growing together. Once you go inside the garden they serve your fruit plate inside one of the small wooden pagodas set around the garden. Once you've eaten you can walk around the garden along paths that wind around the garden, along the way are various stalls where you can try different Thai dishes such as Mussaman Curry and Tom Yum Gung (spicy prawn soup) and various “kanom” - Thai cakes.

After this short stop we pressed on to the rafting camp in the hills behind Phang Nga Town. We arrived at the the camp set on the Tonepariwat river at about 9:30am. Once we arrived here we had the chance to change into swim gear and put anything we didn't want to get wet into lockers.

The water was not going to be released until 11 so we still had some time. The camp we were using control one of the dams which release water for the rafting so there are large holding pools dotted around the camp and they use one of these as a safety feature for their flying fox ride. As zip-lines go this was a pretty simple one, a single line going from the side of the hill over a small pond. For those who have done zip-lining, bungy jumping or parachuting before then this is probably nothing special, but for me this was my first time – I don't have a fear of heights, just a fear of landing at high speed. That first step is a bit nervy but once you realise that the equipment works then it's a great feeling – I will be doing this again.

Then it was time for rafting, we donned our life jacket and helmets and headed to the river

Here I must make a confession, I have been living in Thailand since 2001 and although I speak some Thai I am a long way from fluent.

As we were walking to the raft I heard our tour guide say to one of our raft guides that I was “con Thai”(from Thailand) – he turned to me and realising I had heard said that he had told the crew that I spoke Thai, when I said I spoke a little Thai his reply was “That's ok he's Burmese he only speaks a little Thai too”!

Most of the pictures you see of white water rafting show a single raft travelling down rapids all alone. That is not what actually happens. Before the dam was opened the river was little more that a trickle and all the rafts from our camp were placed on the dry riverbed, 6 or 7 in total. Then a load more raft were brought down a little further up the river towards the dam, two other raft companies were starting at the same point, and in fact there were more joining further down the river. Now don't think this is disastrous, there rapids here are pretty tame, nothing like the rafting you see from the US or New Zealand, the large number of rafts on the water adds to the fun, the guides are constantly splashing the other boats and collisions are common (and deliberate).

Once the sluice gates were opened the river started to rise, the two paddle guides on our raft checked that everybody had their feet in the straps on the hull and was holding the rope that runs down the centre of the raft (this is all that stops you falling out) and once they were happy we slowly drifted out into the centre of the river and that's where the fun really started. All the crews from the different companies obviously know each other quite well as they were joking and laughing at each other and then started racing for position and trying to knock each other out of the way. Every so often there is a sudden drop and on some of these there is a shallow rock just before the drop which can cause the raft to catch and spin then another raft hits from the side and you all go over together. The whole way down is aquatic dodgems.

About halfway down there is a calm spot where the paddlers pull the raft over to the side, I was told more water would be released soon and we would wait for that, they said we could swim if we wanted, so I jumped out to find that the water was barely a meter deep and this is the case for the whole river.

Many of the rafts were stopping here so the guides started water fights between the boats.

After a few minutes we felt the water speeding up and started to head down again for more of the same.

The 5km ride took about 30 minutes, at the stopping point there were pickup truck and a bus to take all the people and rafts back up the river to the camp.

Arriving back at the camp there is a chance for a shower and change into dry clothes and lunch was served. A buffet lunch with plenty of choice, spaghetti bolognese for those who don't want Thai food but plenty of Thai curries , fried chicken and eggs for those who do.

After lunch it was time to continue north to Khao Sok

We arrived at Khaosok National Park a little after 3 pm, we went straight to The Ratchaprapa Dam from here we were to take a longtail boat to our raft house accommodation on Cheow Lan Lake.

The Ratchaprapa Dam was built across the Paseang River (also known as Khlong Saeng) in 1983, to provide Hydro electric power for the area, thus creating the 165 square kilometre Cheow Lan Lake in the centre of the 645 square kilometre Khaosok National Park.

Just at the east end of the dam is a boat jetty which was lined with the traditional thai boats known as longtails. The reason for this name being pretty obvious as former truck engines mounted on these boats have very long drive shafts with the propeller on the end. The boats on Cheow Lan Lake are somewhat larger than the ones we are used to in Phuket so there was plenty of room for the seven passenger on the boat. We headed north along the east side of the lake for about 30 minutes until we reached our destination – Phutawan Raft Home Stay. This is one of nine raft house operations on the lake, all are quite basic, some have mod-cons most don't.

It's important to remember that electricity needs to be generated on site with a diesel generator as there are no mains power cables in the park, so to keep power requirements down many luxuries are sacrificed.

Phutawan has two types of raft house, the older bamboo huts are set on logs which are floating just below the surface, these huts are constructed from bamboo poles covered with woven bamboo wall panels and a banana leaf thatch roof, in the hut is a 5 ft wide mattress, the other rafthouses (where we were staying) are raised on Metal pontoons and constructed from hardwood with again bamboo wall panels and a corrugated tin roof. I wasn't expecting air conditioning so I wasn't disappointed by it's absence but I was surprised that there was no fan.

Now here is a warning to all non-couples travelling all the huts have a double bed there are no twin bed huts. And for the techno junkies there is one plug socket in each room and no phone or wifi signal – you are cut off (the raft house management and the boat captains have VHF radios for emergencies).

Having arrived at the raft house resort just before 4pm we had three hours to relax before our night Safari. Though it was overcast and had been raining on and off during our drive from Phang Nga it was still very hot so we made the most of our free time by swimming in the lake and using the kayaks available to paddle off to explore some of the nearby parts of the lake.

At 7pm we set off on board our longtail boat to look for night life. What we were hoping to see was wild elephant, monkeys, Tapir ,deer and hornbills. Hornbills are large Toucan like birds with what appears to be a double decker beak – we saw plenty of these sleeping high in the trees, as for everything else we were not lucky this night though we heard plenty of bird and monkey calls ringing through the canopy as we glided around the edge of the lake.

On our return to the raft huts dinner was served. The accommodation may be basic but the food is not. Great quality Thai food and plenty of choice. A lot of the people coming to stay here are Thai so normally they are cooking food for both Thais and “Farang” (Europeans and Americans), this means that if you like properly spicy food you just have to ask.

After dinner everyone settled into there huts for the night, just enough lights were on to allow you to see where you were going if nature called and the only sounds were the infrequent calls coming from the jungle around us.

DAY 2

The second day started with the dawn light waking us up, I had thought that without a fan it would get too hot in the hut but there was enough natural breeze to keep it comfortably cool.

At 7am we headed out on another lake safari, pretty much covering the same areas as we had in the night safari – not being restricted to the view from a torch beam you realised how much life there is in the trees, loads of hornbills sitting close to the tops of the trees and occasionally flying from tree to tree. After about an hour searching for wildlife along the shores of the lake we headed back to the resort for breakfast. This was a eggs on toast and fried rice – fuel for what was to come.

At about 9:30 we set off in the longtail again towards Pakarang Cave. To get there we spent almost one hour in the boat and then we had a jungle trek. I not sure how far the trek was but it took a good thirty minutes climbing up and down along a twisting jungle path, we stopped along the way as we had spotted a lemur in the trees a few metres off the path. I have been living in thailand for many years and have not worn proper shoes for over 4 years – the only shoes I own are flip flops (or thongs), hiking in these is not a good idea, I managed but it was uncomfortable and definitely took more out of me than it would have if I'd had proper shoes. At the end of the trek was another floating jetty, but with a difference, there were no longtails here but bamboo rafts. These rafts have small seat running across but you are mere centimetres away from the water. This, however is only a five minute journey across to Pakarang cave, also known as coral cave. From the tiny bamboo jetty you climb up about five metres along a rough rock path and you enter a cave system filled with stalactites and stalagmites.

This cave takes it's name from these limestone deposits which have formed structures that look almost identical to many corals. After our visit to the cave we had the return hike back to our longtail and then another sightseeing run in the longtail as we made our way back to the resort. A Thai lunch was waiting for us when we returned, we then had just enough time for a quick dip in the warm lake before heading back to the Dam and the three hour ride back to Phuket, everyone was tired from the mornings exertions so the trip went pretty quickly.

All in all a very enjoyable trip, and although it may be a little short of truly getting back to nature it is a truly relaxing experience just being on the lake away from modern day life.

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