When the city meets the jungle

I’ve talked before about the warm and fuzzies you get as an expat when friends and family visit you in Asia. This weekend was no exception. Fuzzies to the maximum.

I had Melissa (who shall be referred to by her true and rightful name of Berger from hereon out) and Mitch (another one of my most special friends from New York, who also happens to be the fiancé of Berger) visiting the Far East the last few days. We had an absolute blast, and our three days together reminded me of the quality of friendship I have all over the world. It was hard to say goodbye to them at the end of our extended weekend, but knowing that I’ll see them again in just two weeks (!!) when I am back home for Christmas really helped.

I flew into Phuket (Thailand) Airport on Thursday evening, meeting Berger and Mitch at arrivals and obviously causing a bit of a scene. As Phuket is the official world capital of tourist traps and trash, we booked it out of there and headed up north two hours to Khao Sok National Park. Now this is a place we could stay for a while! Covered by mountains and some of the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world, Khao Sok is a nature reserve in southern Thailand with dense AF jungle, several waterfalls, as well as these massive, tower-like limestone cliffs that crash into the sea and create a very dramatic coastline (and who doesn’t love a little drama?), and of course, the man-made Cheow Lan Lake. As with most of my blog posts, I tend to look up some additional facts about the location I’m writing about, so you and I can both learn something. Knowledge is power, baby. So here are some interesting facts I learned about the national park that I didn’t know prior to visiting:

  • Khao Sok is Thailand’s 22nd official national park (for comparison, the US has 58)
  • The park covers an area of 739 square kilometers (that’s 285 square miles….I know my audience)
  • Khao Sok has the highest level of rainfall in all of Thailand (3,500 mm per year, or 138 inches, #America)
  • Its composition: 40% foothill rainforest, 27% rainforest plains, 15% limestone crag vegetation, 15% lowland scrub, and 3% rainforest)
    • I Googled the phrase “lowland scrub,” and turns out it means “grassland that is a valuable but declining habitat because it has not been maintained.” Very awkward!

We (by ‘we’ I mean Berger, who was the backbone of this entire trip) were only able to find one single accommodation that would agree to check us in past 10PM, Khao Sok Bed and Breakfast. This place was as basic as it gets, and I honestly feel closer to Mitch and Berger just having experienced our one-night stay there. But it had everything we needed for the few hours we stayed there, so no one was complaining: namely, beds. Berger and Mitch stepped out for a quick pre-bed beer, but I had woken up at 6AM Thursday for an early client presentation. I was so wiped out after a very long day of client handling and air traveling, and decided to call it a night early so I could wake up refreshed and ready to go with the squad on Friday.

Our alarms went off at 7:30 the next day, and we were out the door by 8AM to catch the bus into the park (Khao Sok Bed and Breakfast was just on the outskirts of the park). We (again, I use the word ‘we’ very loosely here) had arranged for a tour of the lake on Friday. You need to go on a tour to see the lake—luckily ours, Smiley Bungalows and Lakehouse, was pretty good. We met at their hotel location in the town of Khao Sok, and headed about an hour and a half into the park. We stopped along the way at a marketplace to pick up some light snacks of deep-fried bananas and high-octane coffee, and toured the marketplace a bit, before getting back into the van for the rest of the drive. We arrived at a pier, with our driver who spoke absolutely zero English. We hadn’t been briefed on our plan for the day yet, so we tried to use body language and gesticulation to ask him if we should bring our luggage. We didn’t know if we’d be coming back, if this was just another stop along the way, or other. He was only able to shrug, so we spent quite a bit of time tracking down an English-speaking company member to find out where we needed to be and what we needed to bring. Finally, we got our answer: get on the boat, and bring your luggage. If we hadn’t, this post could’ve been a whole lot different. Read: disaster.

The ride out to our bungalow was beyond beautiful: we got to see most of the landscapes I described above, like the limestone cliffs and dense jungle, in addition to some seriously turquoise water. Beautiful! The ride took just under an hour, and when we pulled up at our bungalows, we realised we’d be staying literally on the lake, with the bluest water just underneath us. Nature for the win!

We met our guide there, Guy, who told us the plan for the next 1.5 days: lunch in the canteen, a bit of free time, then a night safari on the water (!), followed by dinner. In the morning, we’d head out onto the lake early to see some more wildlife, then go on a jungle trek, have lunch together, and return back to the pier. I was feeling more and more like Jane Porter (of Tarzan fame) by the minute.

As we had a bit of time to kill, we settled into our room, and Berger and Mitch did some swimming and a bit of kayaking while I walked around and took some photos of the place (eye on the prize, baby: #bloglife). I should take a moment here to say that we were with three other people on our trip: Kelsey and Ben (American couple of biologists living in Oregon and taking an extended holiday in Asia), and Renet, a German IT consultant on a three-week trip. They will play a big role in this epic tale, so hold onto those names! (Also, hi if you are reading this)

So what was next? Lunch! My favourite part of any day, anywhere, in any place on earth. They were able to accommodate my veggie head diet, so I had a nice mix of potatoes and vegetables and noodles with yummy spices. Very simple but delicious dishes. After lunch we all piled into kayaks: Berger, Mitch, myself, and our new friends. We did a nice two-hour ride around the lake, chatting, catching up (Berger, Mitch, me) and learning about the lives of our new friends.

We got back to base (with Jell-O arms barely in tact) around 4PM, ready for our night safari. Guy loaded the six of us into his boat, and we cruised around the satiny lake, enjoying the sunset as he pointed out different species of monkeys, birds, reptiles, and other animals, while Kelsey and Ben (the biologists) provided more/better details, and binoculars. Other than the fact that there are over 311 different species of birds in Khao Sok National Park, my main learning from this voyage was that Berger, Mitch and I are quite possibly the world’s worst monkey-spotters. Seriously. Guy would point them out, Kelsey, Ben and Renet would ooh and ahh, and Berger, Mitch and I would sit in confusion and squint with no luck. Pretty sure we saw about four monkeys for all 30+ that the rest of our boat load saw. Real amateurs over here.

Friday was a blast. The canteen at our lakehouse was an open space with several groups staying in the little bungalows, and it so happened that most of the them were below the age of 30, so dinner really was a party. The six of us enjoyed our huge Thai feast (mostly the same as lunch, with even more dishes and fresh watermelon and pineapple for dessert, yum), had great conversation over (lots and lots) of drinks, and eventually joined forces with the tables near us. It was good to meet lots of other people from places like England and France, and hear what brought them to such a remote area in Thailand!

We were meant to be up and on the lake at 7AM on Saturday morning, which we did…not easily. But I’m glad we made it—it was a beautiful day (Friday had been a bit cloudy), and the perfect morning for some lake cruising. After a decent and healthy breakfast and with a coffee to go, we got on the water and spent the next hour being boated around by Guy, who took us to a small cove on the lake for more monkey-sighting fails by Berger, Mitch and me. We took loads of photos, enjoyed the warm morning lake breeze, and took in the sunshine. Painful as it can be, waking up with the sun is breathtaking.

What was next for the squad? More jungle trekking! Our biggest activity yet. We were told to change into athletic clothing and closed-toed hiking shoes. As my Nikes do not have much traction, I borrowed a pair from the lakehouse that had the flexibility of a metal rod, but crazy good traction for an intense hike like the one we were about to embark on. Guy also recommended NOT bringing our phones and cameras unless they were waterproof, as we’d be trekking through some waist-high water. WTF were we in for?!

After about a 30-minute trip on the lake, we pulled up at a small island covered in dense jungle, and the deafening, echoey sounds of the birds and insects in it. As we hopped out of the boat, we immediately knew why Guy had recommended the shoes: mud, mud, and more mud had us slip-sliding all over the place. It was actually pretty fun once you embraced the fact that your pristine pedicure would be history. Next we embarked on an hour of trekking through that very dense jungle, encountering all kinds of wild species and fauna, like rattan vines used for furniture making, along the way. We saw a cool, small jungle snake and Mitch swung on a hanging swing tied between two trees, just above a small waterfall (as Berger and I looked on and prayed for the safety of a man swinging wildly on a ramshackle swing 11 months before his wedding date). Finally, we reached a stopping point: a huge cave in front of us, where Guy said we’d be trekking for the next hour. Say what? He told us a bit about what we’d encounter inside: damp coolness, inky darknes, that waist-deep water (moving quickly from the recent rain), bats, spiders, cave crickets, etc. Have I ever felt safer in my life? Every damn day. But, being the adrenaline junkie I am, I took the headlamp Guy passed to me and headed in bravely with the rest.

The inside of the cave was very cool. We did indeed meet some pretty hardcore nature scenes, like a small water stream we had to hold ourselves up along the edge of, while fighting the current, and then hiking up submerged rocks to make it to shallow water. But we learned so much during the times we were not conquering nature. Khao Sok Park’s limestone karst mountains are riddled with caves like the ones we were in.  They were formed over thousands of years by the slow, ceaseless trickle of water, and I noticed that even during our cake hike I could hear the cave growing and changing with every drip, drip, drip. Guy also pointed out plenty of stalagmites and stalactites, some of which were still growing. I am notorious for getting too close to paintings and touching museum exhibits, and am honestly astounded the Guggenheim Museum didn’t kick me out of their membership club in New York when I lived there, so it’s no surprise Guy also explained to us (me) proper cave etiquette in regards to these formations: specifically, look but don’t touch.

Time really seemed to slow in the pitch black heart of the cave while we stood, listened, swam, and trekked, surrounded by the magical transformations taking place around us. The reemergence into sun and light was also quite magical: the air of the rainforest is so fresh and warm, and the scent of the earth and greenery that enveloped us was rich. We thought the most strenuous part of the hike was behind us, but alas! The skidding over boulders and traversing river rocks on the trek back were even more demanding. Not just physically demanding, but emotionally exhausting too, as we found two leeches in Berger’s sneaker after walking through one of the more shallow streams!! The childhood anxiety I felt after watching the movie Stand By Me was very, very real in that moment. But as a result of our hike, we all got a super nice workout and had a good sense of accomplishment by the end, as this hike required a certain amount of skill and surefootedness.

With our eyes on getting dry, full and hydrated once again, we headed back on the boat to our little lake huts, and experienced a super refreshing rain on the way back, cooling us off and winding us down. It was an excursion never to be forgotten!

We all jumped right into the lake as soon as we got back: our replacement for showers on this trip (#naturelife). We spent about an hour or two swimming and fully enjoying the relaxing time together. After a final lunch together, we were back on the boat and headed back to the pier we came from. Goodbye, Khao Sok!

But the party was not over: though we had to bid farewell to Renet at the pier, it turned out that Ben and Kelsey were staying in the same town we were that night. So we headed to our respective hotels to check in, freshen up and get a (real) shower in, and then we met up for dinner at a wonderful Thai restaurant that our hotel staff recommended to us. It was a wonderful outdoor cafe, and we had a feast! It was seriously some of the yummiest Thai food I’ve eaten since I’ve been here, and some of the best conversation with the best people, too. It was incredible to be able to catch up with friends that have known you well for years, reminiscing on old times and talking about plans for the future, and Ben and Kelsey are also great for interesting chats, too!

After dinner we headed to Rasta Bar next door, a chilled out bar that stays open late and hosted us for a few rounds of pints that evening. I was quite sad to leave Kelsey and Ben behind that night once we left the bar, because they had been such nice friends to us in the mere two days we’d known each other, but the best part of meeting people abroad is having a bigger network across the world (read: places to stay when you want to visit their cool cities. Kelsey/Ben: I’m inviting myself to stay in Portland in 2018).

Sunday morning had us up early, enjoying a yummy breakfast at our hotel together, and then on a van heading to Khao Lak by 8:30AM. The van was quite crowded with people heading south, and got even more crowded when the van driver packed a few of his friends in—standing room only! The only time I’ve been more comfortable on a trip is EVERY TIME, EVER. Luckily, it was quite a short trip with the friend’s armpit lurking close above my head, and we were in Khao Lak no later than 10AM. Berger and Mitch needed to stop by the diving center they’d be diving with the following day, which turned into a two-hour ordeal of them getting diving lessons, signing waivers and watching tutorial videos, all while I looked on and took gorgeous photos of Mitch in his skintight scuba gear (see below for the model shot). Around noon they were done, and we headed to their hotel to drop our bags off before heading to the beach just across the way. We sat down for a nice lunch on the sea, including cocktails in coconuts and all the fixings you could want from a tropical meal in Thailand. We were quite lazy at lunch, as all we wanted to do was continue catching up, talking about the upcoming wedding, how friends at home were doing, what I’ve been up to in Singapore, etc. Getting nostalgic writing this already!

We swam in the ocean a bit, took some photos and continue the catching up until late afternoon, when we decided to take lazy to lazier and head to the hotel pool (it was happy hour there, can you blame us?). After a few cocktails and a view of the sun setting over the Andaman Sea, it was time for me to hit the road. I had a car pickup at 7PM, and it was a very heavy moment to leave the two of them behind. It had been so long since I’d  spent time with such close friends, and it made me long for home quite a bit. But on the flip side, spending an extended weekend with Berger and Mitch reminded me not only of the quality of friendships I have in my life, but also that your best friends stay your best friends no matter where you are in the world. I also found solace in the fact that I would be seeing them, along with all my other besties AND my family, again in just two weeks (now just one!!).

Next stop? USA!


Some photos from Khao Sok/Khao Lak:


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