February 26, Day 35: Khao Sok
Again I was up early–today I was headed to my most anticipated destination yet–the Cheow Lan lake! Many tour companies offer packages where you sleep in a floating house, but I previously found (somewhat sketchy) directions on how to do it yourself and pre-booked my house online through the National Park website (note to those of you choosing this option: I booked 3 days before I arrived and chose the option to pay at the National Park headquarters within 48 hours in Khao Sok). I never paid since the people at Khao Sok had no idea how I should pay, but I asked them to call to verify that I did indeed have a reservation, and which specific lakehouse I was to stay at.
To get to the floating houses, you need to take a private longtail boat from the pier near Rajjaphapa Dam. The pier is about 65 km from the main entrance to Khao Sok, so you either need to own your own transport or hitchike. Since I had my bike it was a no-brainer. I left early and cycled through the early morning fog. The roads were flat and in good condition, so I going about 20-25 kph even at a conservative pace. 20 km away from Khao Sok I grabbed an amazing breakfast of stirfried chicken and rice from a roadside stand (which I ordered simply by walking up, saying “Swaidee-ka” (hello), followed by “Kin Kao?” and then getting whatever they serve you. It’s always cheap and delicious and blows the pants off anything you’ll get from a restaurant in tourist areas.
After breakfast I continued on my way, enjoying the roads and views. When I was about 30 km from my journey, however, something odd happened. A car pulled alongside me and matched my pace. I tried to ignore him but he honked his horn. I looked and he gave me the thumbs up sign. I smiled, thought he was being your typical friendly Thai, gave him the thumbs up, and focused back on the road. The man then persisted. Eventually cars came behind him so he drove ahead, but then pulled over and waited for me to catch up. Then he tried to flag me down but I ignored him and cycled past him. This pulling alongside/trying to flag me down continued several times. As long as I was on the main road I knew I’d be safe, but I knew a few kms ahead I would pull off onto another road and I wasn’t sure how populated the area would be. Since I was cycling alone and my gut told me something wasn’t right, I decided I would stop in a store. Well, wouldn’t you know–at the next intersection was a police station!
I pulled into the police station and tried to explain what happened and ask if I could just wait there for a few minutes, but they had no idea what I was saying and they all started taking pictures of me with their phone (I suppose they don’t get too many bike-short wearing, solo-traveling, western women in their office!). After a few minutes a woman came up who spoke English and helped explain my situation. They told me not to worry and everything would be fine. I was just happy to have a few minutes rest and hit the road after about 10 minutes feeling better.
My worries were unnecessary, however, because the road to the dam was quite busy–lots of traffic and shops along the way. I was just a few more kms down the road when a police car came up and waved me down. He asked if I was going to the damn and I said yes and then he said “okay, safety” and indicated for me to continue. I was confused but started pedaling. Then I realized what was happening–he was escorting me the whole way to the dam! I felt a bit silly with the police car slowly cruising behind me as I pedaled along, but it made me smile and it was such a testament to how nice and caring the officers are to tourists.
At the entrance to the dam my escort departed and I continued on. As soon as I crossed the park checkpoint I took my first right and continued 1-2 km following the signs all the way to the municipal pier (you’ll bypass two small boat launches, but the main pier has several large buildings and is pretty obvious). I had read that I could get a ticket to the floating house for about 800 Baht, but apparently that was only if a boat was already heading there. I had booked a stay at Krai Sorn, the farthest of the park’s rafthouses. I was told I could get a private boat for 3000 Baht, or try my luck at waiting to share with someone else. Since it was already early afternoon and this rafthouse was my main item for this trip, I decided to go ahead and get a private boat. When they found out I was staying 2 nights, however, they upped the price to 4500 (apparently for overnights you also pay for the driver to sleep at the rafthouse with you). I explained I didn’t have the money and asked what other options I had. They said they could take me for 2500 Baht, not stay the night, and I could try to get a ride back on another boat that would drop people off the day I was leaving. I knew it was a risky move since nothing was guaranteed, but so far things on my trip had worked out for me, so I decided to take the risk.
The ride over was take-your-breath-away gorgeous. The turquoise waters of the lake were punctuated with sheer limestone formations. It felt like something prehistoric and sacred. There was zero development along the lake (since it was in a National Park) and it was so beautifully raw and untouched by humans. The boat trip alone was well worth the cost: where else in the world and when else in my life would I again see such beauty? As we made our way across the lake I reflected on how fortunate I was to be on this trip and how appreciative I was of everyone who helped make this possible.
After about 90 minutes, we finally pulled up to the rafthouse. It contained 16 small thatched bungalows (each barely big enough for 2 twin mattresses), arranged in 2 rows of 8 that were attached at right angles to each other, essentially forming a giant L. In the middle was the kitchen/dining area, where meals were served. All houses, walkways, etc were floating: primitive sticks and wooden slabs were lashed onto floating logs. The only thing on land? The toilet. The bungalows and porches all looked out to sweeping views of the lake. There were kayaks available for people to take wherever and whenever, and there was even a diving platform constructed of sticks. I’m pretty sure this place belongs in the dictionary next to the definition of paradise. It was everything I could have imagined, and more.
As soon as the boat dropped me off I threw on my Rev3 shimmer suit and got in a quality swim. The lake was warm, calm and clear. I made giant rectangles around the area of the houses, enjoying the feeling of an open water swim. After about 45 minutes, I decided it was time to explore in the kayak. For about 2 hours I slowly meandered around the lake’s edge, savoring the fact that I was completely alone and surrounded only by the sounds of the jungle. I found evidence of areas where it appeared animals (elephants, likely) were coming to the lake’s edge, and made a mental note to check them at sunrise or sunset the following day.
After my peaceful paddle I headed back to the rafthouse where the caretaker offered me green mango with chili while I spent some time catching up in my journal and savoring the view. As the sun set it was time for dinner–I was ravenous and not sure how much food I would get so I ate a Powerbar–boy was that a mistake! They gave me enough food for 4 people: an entire fish, massaman curry, sort sort of chicken and root vegetable dish, a plate of tempura, a cauldron of rice, and a dinnerplate full of watermelon and pineapple. I ate the entire fish plus massman curry, half of the tempura, 1/4 of the rice, all of the fruit, and as you can expect I was full to the gills. After the feast I headed back to my porch to finish Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, which I started reading in Koh Phayam, and was appropriately themed for my trip.
February 27, Day 36: Cheow Lan Lake
I woke to see the hint of dawn faintly illuminating the shore, and lingered on my mattress, watching the sky light up through my open window. I headed to the dining area and enjoyed a light breakfast of fried eggs, toast, and instant coffee. After enjoying a quiet and leisurely breakfast, threw on my shimmer suit and gathered all my belongings for a kayak. In a plastic bag I threw in my running shoes, sunblock, a shirt and shorts, my water bottle and my cell phone. I then tied the bag to the life vest, ensuring that if I capsized my bag would float (after my Khao Sok iphone nightmare I wasn’t taking any chances). One of the caretakers of the guesthouse indicated there was a waterfall and pointed in a general direction. I knew my chances of finding it were slim, but I was eager to explore the coast and look for more wildlife. I set off at 7:30 and was rewarded with an incredible calm over the lake–everything was glass and I could see and hear wildlife at great distances.
For the next 3 1/2 hours I slowly paddled the convoluted coast, tucking into various inlets i found along the way. I never found the waterfall but I saw countless birds, dragonflies, and fish. But the highlight? I finally found Gibbons! I was slowly and quietly tracing the shore when I came around a bend and heard what sounded like rain. Seeing bits of tree seeds and flowers falling into the lake I looked up and spied about a dozen gibbons foraging in the tree. I lingered directly below them for about 15 minutes–they either were unaware of my presence or didn’t care–but it was simply amazing to sit and watch them without another person in sight for miles.
Just after 11 I returned back to the rafthouse and relaxed and read before lunch, which again was gigantic and delicious. After lunch I lazed in my bed with my new book, Gone Girl (every time I found wifi I would download 8 new books with my library app), and let the heat of the day pass. At 3 I headed out on a short trail that began right behind the restaurant and saw two different groups of Gibbons! It was just simply stunning to have so much nature close by.
When I retuned the other guests (a group of about 8 French parents and their children) had returned from their day and together we spent the quiet afternoon swimming and lounging. I had just finished a swim when I heard the motor of a boat and watched as two boats dumped another 16 people at our rafthouse. My heart sank as I realized they were all 20 somethings, very loud, and incredibly drunk. They arrived, making quite a scene, doing backflips into the water and yelling and disrupting a peaceful afternoon. The French family immediately took off in kayaks and then one of the loud group yelled out “hey everyone look! We’re scaring everyone away!” to which everyone laughed. I was disgusted at their behavior and their insensitivity to the other guests, and mourned the loss of my peaceful rafthouse experience.
Fortunately, it was soon dinner, which raised my spirits. The French family invited me to eat with them and their guide and the rest of the evening was a jovial mix of good food, beer, and a French/English hybrid conversation (I studied French for 7 years and have elementary conversational experience). When they asked me how I was leaving the lake and I told them I had no idea, they offered to let me ride back with them and their guide the following day (see– I told you things kept working out for me!). Of course I expressed gratitude and relaxed once I knew I had a way back the following day. I spent awhile talking to their guide, Pu, who works for a company called Andaman Discovery and had over 12 years experience as a tour guide. I vowed I would one day return to this lake and hire him as my guide. He even joked he would create a custom jungle triathlon for me!
Around 9pm the drunk group got tired and went to bed (thank goodness!) so I headed back to my bungalow eager to catch up on my reading. What an amazing day on an even more amazing lake–I certainly can’t wait to return here again.
February 28, Day 37: Cheow Lan Lake
Well it turned out the 20-somethings got rowdy again, and were up until 2am. My only comfort was seeing them all puking the following morning as I watched the sunrise. After another great breakfast I had a few hours to kill until I had to head out with the French family, so I headed off in the kayak, watched more gibbons, then grabbed one last open-water swim. Soon it was time to board the long-tail boat to head back. We left around 10:30 and got another tour of the lake and stopped at another rafthouse, Nang Prai, for lunch. Compared to my rafthouse (Krai Sorn), Nang Prai was really developed. It had a real bathroom (with mirrors!) and signs everywhere. Although it overlooked the breathtaking limestone cliffs, I was happy with where I stayed at would certainly stay at Krai Sorn the next time I return.
After lunch it was time to say Adieu to my French travelers and I grabbed my bike from where I had locked it at the pier and cycled the 12 km to Ban Klaa to catch the local bus to Phuket. The ride was fun as I got locks of honks and Sawaidee-Kas along the way. When I got to Bon Klaa I had trouble figuring out where to go since I couldn’t find a bus station. Several vendors (the street was lined with delicious street food) explained to me that there was no bus stop; I simply had to flag down the bus when it came by. They even had me practice waving it down, and we all got a good laugh. While I was waiting for the bus I tried to sell my bike, but people got confused and thought I was trying to ask for money. Eventually the bus came and I decided my bus would come with me to Phuket.
Several hours later I arrived in Phuket and was greeted by my friend Jess (whom I met through the wonders of the blogosphere!). She had come to pick me up but we had a problem: she had a moped, I had a bike, it was dark, and we had a lot of distance to cover. I started to follow her on my bike but since my chain kept dropping we were moving very slowly and knew it would take forever. So we decided to do things the SE Asia way: I sat on the back of the moped, holding the bike upside-down on my lap. With the bike perpendicular to the moped we weaved in and out of traffic and got lots of funny looks along the way. 20 minutes later we arrived at Jess’s house and wearily nodded off.
Read previous: Day 33-34: Khao Sok and the iPhone near-disaster
Read next: Day 38-40: Phuket and the end of my adventure