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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

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Tropical Thai jungle teems with wildlife

Tags: Travel
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Known as the “Three Friends,” these limestone rock formations, their faces covered in foliage, give Khao Sok an otherworldly, mystical atmosphere.

The gibbons are whooping, their high-pitched voices echoing eerily through the rainforest and waking me from a deep slumber.

It’s 5:30 a.m. and I exit my floating tent, ready for adventure. Clambering into a kayak, I dip my oars into the warm, still water and head out to explore Khao Sok National Park, a tropical jungle in southern Thailand.

Among the Earth’s oldest rainforests, the park covers 730 square kilometres and teems with wildlife. Other than the gibbons that swing elusively from tree to tree, this jungle is home to Malaysian sun bears, monitor lizards, macaques, goat antelopes called serow and giant hornbills. It’s also one of the last remaining habitats in Thailand for tigers, leopards and wild elephant.

One thing you won’t see much of in Khao Sok is people. Though there used to be villagers living in the rainforest, they were relocated 30 years ago when the government decided to build Ratchaphrapa Dam, a major source of hydroelectric power in the area. When the dam was built, the rainforest was flooded and Cheow Lam Lake was created. The water is as warm as a bathtub, and if there’s any surprise when we plunge in for an early morning dip, it’s the barely discernible difference in temperature between the water and the outside air.

In the past year a couple of tourism operators were allowed to establish eco-friendly accommodations in the park, and Elephant Hills was one of them. The company built its Rainforest Camp, a floating lodge consisting of 10 tents, each one with hot showers, flush toilets and a kayak at the ready.

Given its remoteness, there’s no Internet access, TV or electronics, which means unless you have a strong battery on your laptop or iPad, you’re spending your time reading, talking, kayaking and swimming. It’s a magical back-to-nature experience, but one wherein you don’t have to forfeit the luxury of a comfy bed or a hot shower.

Out on the water I paddle slowly through some of the lake’s myriad channels, examining the bright pink eggs of large apple snails. The size of an adult hand, the snails are a Thai delicacy fished from the lake by local villagers and sold in local markets. I hear the splash of catfish, the chatter of macaque monkeys and the heavy flap of giant hornbills as they wing their way across the lake.

In the absence of the dense, muggy 35 C heat that descends later in the day, I’m alert and energized, scanning the mass of bamboo groves and palm trees for movement. A branch rustles 20 feet above us, and three tiny monkeys appear, their lithe bodies moving effortlessly between the branches. Their shrill voices sound something like yapping dogs yet with a more rhythmical, song-like quality, breaking the stillness intermittently before they leap acrobatically into the undergrowth.

One afternoon we take a klong boat to a trailhead for a jungle trek on what is a leech-free area of the park. It’s a strenuous climb uphill on a path dotted with century-old trees. Curly branches descend from the trees like ropes, and the foliage is thick and lush.

“From this tree, we make the klong boats,” says our guide, Por, pointing to a relative of the banyan tree whose trunk makes a hollow, gong-like sound. We explore a limestone cave, shining a flashlight onto a sleeping snake high up in the cave’s crevices. In the stifling afternoon heat, the cave offers a wonderfully cool respite.

The forest feels primeval, and the only evidence of human life that remains is the fruit and vegetables they planted. We pass a plantation of gum trees, a field of corn and a small grove of papaya and banana trees. A grove of pineapple plants still bears fruit, and should the villagers ever come back, they’ll have all the ingredients of a basic meal, including that cooking staple jokingly referred to as Thai candy – the chili.

If You Go:

Located in Khao Sok National Park, Elephant Hills offers all-inclusive, tented accommodations. Excursion packages range from one to four days and include transportation from major hubs to and from the camp. They range in price from 9,400 baht ($313, both figures Cdn) for a one-night, two-day package, to 22,900 baht ($763) for a three-night, four-day package per person. For more information, visit, www.elephant-hills.com.

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