After spending much longer on the wonderful island of Koh Lanta than originally planned, we finally decided to drag ourselves away from the fantastic food, the idyllic beaches and of course the excellent Lanta Animal Welfare. If, like us, you also feel the need to get your body working again after spending far too long lounging on any of the many islands in Southern Thailand, then we highly recommend a visit to the easily accessible Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park. This National Park is a boat and a bus journey away from most of the islands in Southern Thailand – as long as you can get to Surat Thani, Krabi or Phuket, you should have no trouble getting to the National Park or the village of Khao Sok – we left Koh Lanta at 09:30 and arrived in Khao Sok at 14:30.
Khao Sok National Park is the oldest evergreen forest in the world, with some estimates putting it at well over 150 million years old. The park is also home to a huge array of wildlife including tigers, elephants, leopards and a wide range of monkeys, snakes and birds. While Khao Sok park presents the usual jungle trekking fun, the reason we headed to the park was for its stunning artificial lake right in the heart of the park – Cheow Lan Lake. If you’ve seen photos of floating bamboo bungalows then they’re most likely right here.
Staying with Mama
There are many options for accommodation in the village of Khao Sok and we had absolutely no problem booking a place when we arrived in November. We stayed in the charming Palmview Cottage Gardens with “Mama” and her family, the friendliest hosts we’d experienced in Thailand – which is saying something!
We stayed in a wooden hut which was one of the cheaper options, as we were trying to save some money in order to afford the activities. We loved our little hut – it had a lot of a charm (along with quite a few bugs) and we became quite attached to the little bat that hung from our balcony roof at night. The gardens were gorgeous and we enjoyed just sitting outside on our balcony, enjoy the view and the sounds of nature. Sometimes we’d walk into the village, but it was very quiet when we visited in November, especially during the day when people were on excursions. We happily retreated back to the comfort of our hut, either to read or to play with the cats and dogs that also lived at Palmview.
Mama took good care of us with her warm hospitality, tasty food and activity recommendations. When we asked about the trips to Cheow Lan Lake, Mama handed us a couple of plastic folders containing a collection of the package tours she was able to book. We flipped through them already knowing which one we’d wanted to do – we opted for the 2 day/1 night option of exploring Cheow Lan Lake and surroundings.
Exploring Cheow Lan Lake
The morning after, our tour began. After a few stops around the local village to pick up the rest of our group, our trip began with a bumpy journey in the back of a 4 x 4. As we arrived at the harbour of Cheow Lan Lake, we were a little disappointed to see big crowds of tourists and thought that our idyllic two days away were going to be spoilt somewhat. However, from the moment that our group’s long tail boat pulled away from the harbour, our fears were forgotten. It turns out the majority of people only choose to visit Cheow Lan Lake for one day, visiting places close to the harbour, so we quickly lost them as we headed further into the lake.
After a few minutes, the noise and crowds of the harbour became a distant memory – the lake is so huge that sometimes it felt like we were the only ones there. The boat cruised by the gigantic limestone karsts jutting out from the water and local fishermen smiled and waved as we passed. As the sun gradually rose further above the lake, we welcomed the cool breeze and refreshing spray from the boat. After about an hour from leaving the harbour, we turned a corner and our overnight accommodation came into view – beautiful and peaceful-looking floating bungalows.
The Floating Bungalows of Cheow Lan Lake
These traditional Thai raft houses, regularly referred to as floating bungalows, are a unique experience and one of the main reasons that we recommend an overnight trip to Cheow Lan Lake. We remember looking through travel websites while planning our trip and being instantly attracted to these bungalows – the experience of staying in traditional accommodation and being so close to nature was something we knew we had to do.
We were not disappointed – we loved every second of our stay. There is something incredibly special about about being woken up by the call of the gibbons and then being able to have a refreshing plunge into a clear freshwater lake.
Some of the bungalows available on the lake can be ridiculously upmarket, but many are simple and modest. The great thing about them is that only the descendants of the original inhabitants of Cheow Lan Lake and officials of the national park are allowed licenses for these bungalows – therefore, you know you are staying with local people who really do care about the lake and the nature that calls it home. We stayed in small but sturdy huts, which were big enough for a comfortable night’s sleep. Our meals, which were totally dependant on what had been caught from the lake that day, were cooked by a local family and were all delicious. The bungalows rely on power from a generator, which was turned off at 9pm – however, by this time, we were exhausted and happy to curl up in bed and fall asleep to the sounds of the frogs in the lake outside.
Wading Through Rivers and Swimming In Darkness
As relaxing as a stay at Cheow Lan Lake can be, there are also a lot of opportunities for some more energetic activities, such as trekking and caving (subject to season and local weather conditions). We spent an afternoon in an area of Khao Sok National Park that borders the lake, trekking through the jungle and wading through rivers to reach Namtaloo Cave.
The original plan on our itinerary was to walk / swim / crawl through the cave to the other side (don’t forget a headtorch and waterproof bags – Mama, our wonderful host, provided us with ours), where we would continue our hike through the jungle. However, due to heavy rainfall over the previous few days, the cave was flooded. As a result, we could only venture for about 10 minutes into the cave, otherwise we risked getting trapped inside if the cave flooded further.
We crawled through the cave in almost darkness, hearing the sound of water rushing by. As we got deeper into the cave we could no longer touch the ground and had to swim though cold water. At times, we even had to pull ourselves along a rope attached to the cave wall, against the current. It was an exhilarating, but at times rather scary, experience. It left us a little drained and we were ready to get back to our raft house for a relaxing evening!
The Night and Morning Boat Safaris
An overnight stay on Cheow Lan Lake is even more special due to the opportunity to go on a longtail boat night safari. At 7pm, we hopped into our longtail boat and set out into the lake, with the hope of spotting some local wildlife that had ventured to the water now that the sun had set. Armed with a long ranging torch, our guide and boat driver tried their very best to find us some wildlife to see – however, it seemed that on our safari the local animals were a little bit shy. We saw a number of pairs of green and red eyes staring out from the trees, and heard lots of rustling from the jungle – but unfortunately our night safari, as beautiful as it was, was slightly uneventful.
An overnight stay also allows you to go on an early morning safari, where you may be able to catch a glimpse of some of the animals before they seek shade in the jungle when the sun rises. We woke early to the wonderful sounds of gibbons calling and boarded our long boat at 6:30 am. The sun had yet to rise and mist still covered the lake and the surrounding karsts. For us, this was the most beautiful and peaceful time to visit the lake – the only other people we saw were the local fishermen, who were also up early to catch their food for the day.
The Wildlife of Cheow Lan Lake
Cheow Lan Lake, and all of Khao Sok, is a haven for a wide range of wildlife. Fans of flora should also note that the famous Raffleasia flower also calls Khao Sok home and during the blossoming season, you can trek to find this wonderful (yet apparently rather smelly) flower around the park.
During our time on the lake we saw a beautiful hornbill perched on a tree, a kingfisher hunting for it’s breakfast, macaques among the thick jungles and dragonflies around our bungalows. We caught a glimpse of the elusive gibbon swinging through the tree canopy and walked under some pretty massive spiders that had made their webs in the trees. We were also fortunate enough to see a family of dusky langurs / black spectacle monkeys – unfortunately, these were playing near our toilet shack and we didn’t have our camera with us!
If you are heading to Thailand and want to experience beautiful landscapes and be close to nature, while getting away from the tourist crowds, we recommend an overnight stay on Cheow Lan Lake. It was one of our favourite memories of our time in Southeast Asia.
Getting there: Most accommodation on the Southern Thai islands can book your transport to Khao Sok for you. Failing that, they can at least get you to Surat Thani, Krabi or Phuket – from there you will find many agents that can drive you to Khao Sok as a group. There are also public buses available, we advise you to check the timetables at the larger locations for more details. Our guesthouse on Koh Lanta organised all the transportation to Khao Sok for us – you will be chucked from one minibus to another but you will get there with no problems!
Accommodation: We stayed at Khao Sok Palmview Resort, in one of their cheapest wooden huts at 250 THB per hut (November 2014 price).
Tour: We did the 2D/1N Cheow Lan Lake tour, booked through our accommodation. It cost us 2,500 THB pp (November 2014 price). This included pickup from and back to our accommodation, 4 meals (lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch), an overnight stay in a floating bungalow and all trekking and safari activities. The only additional cost was a National Park entrance fee, costing 300 THB – you only need to pay this once at the harbour and it covers both days.