Khao Sok National Park is a nature reserve in southern Thailand containing dense virgin jungle, towerlike limestone karst formations and the man-made Cheow Lan Lake. It’s home to rare species such as the giant parasitic Rafflesia flower, hornbill birds, gibbons and tigers. The park can be explored by elephant-back safari, hiking trail, and raft, canoe or kayak via the Sok river.
Far more than just a side trip from the beaches of southern Thailand, the magnificent wilds and majestic mountain lake of Khao Sok National Park are one of Asia's premier natural wonders. Khao Sok stretches over some 646 square kms and is part of a greater protected area that also includes Kaeng Krung and Phang Nga national parks and Khlong Nakha and Khlong Saen wildlife sanctuaries. Spanning over 4,000 square km between them, this is a massive protected area in Thailand, and on a map it looks like an entire province of nothing but lakes, rivers, and jungle. If you're going to visit only one national park in Thailand, Khao Sok is arguably your best choice.
Due to its rugged, mountainous and expansive terrain, the park and its surrounds have remained mostly untouched by people, and today Khao Sok teems with plants and wildlife. Wild elephants, dusky languars, leopards, bantung, a range of monkeys, snakes, and over 180 species of bird inhabit the park and surrounding sanctuaries. Equally impressive are Khao Sok's plant species, including massive bamboo trees so thick that anyone standing under them in a down pour will remain dry, and the Rafflesia Kerri Meijer flower, or simply "wild lotus" (bua phut) in Thai, which is one of the largest flowers in the world, reaching a diameter of over 75 cm when fully mature. The best chance to see one in bloom is in November or December, but be prepared for its pungent fragrance that smells something like rotten eggs.
With countless hiking trails, waterfalls, caves, and viewpoints, it's worth taking at least a few days to explore the park's western area on foot. However, at least half of the Khao Sok experience is the artificial Chiew Lan Lake — one of Thailand's most scenic bodies of fresh water — which features limestone karst cliffs that rise dramatically from calm, pristine emerald water. Numerous inlets reach far into the land like long, watery fingers, karst cliffs of all sizes rise from the surface of the water, and other worldly caves are found throughout the lake.
Indeed, exploring Chiew Lan by boat allows visitors a peak at some of Asia's most stunning natural beauty, a topography that's been compared to the haunting cliffs of China's Guilin and Vietnam's Ha Long Bay. For a truly tranquil experience, spending a night or two at one of the national park's floating rafthouse villages within the lake is a must.
Apart from hiking and exploring the lake by boat, many visitors take up the opportunity to do guided bird watching hikes, night safari tours, more extreme overnight camping treks, canoe trips along the Sok River, and elephant trekking, all of which are offered by a plethora of tour companies operating near the park's western gates.
Khao Sok is reached by Rte. 401, which connects Takua Pa in the west to Surat Thani in the east and runs directly south of the entire park, which lies within the borders of Surat Thani province but is far closer to Phang Nga and the western Andaman coast. There are no roads running in to the park itself.
The visitor centre, most frequented hiking trails and most of the accessible waterfalls are all located in the park's far western side at the village of Khlong Sok. A small, 1.5 km long access road runs from Rte. 401 directly to the park's front gates, and several guesthouses, resorts and restaurants are found here.
The pier for Chiew Lan Lake is located some 50 km east of the visitor centre and majority of guesthouses, near Ratchaprapa Dam, and this area feels like a totally separate destination. To get here it's necessary to first pass through the town of Ban Ta Khun near the park's southeastern point, which is a long trip from the western visitor centre. Although Chiew Lan Lake stretches the entire east to west length of the park and forms most of the northern border, virtually all of Khao Sok's land mass from the visitor centre in the west to Ratchaprapa Dam in the east is covered by rugged mountains and thick forest and is not accessible to visitors.
Few if any visitors stay in the Ban Ta Khun area, and the vast majority who visit Chiew Lan Lake and stay at its rafthouses, apart from those who have their own wheels, do so as part of a tour. Aside from the pier, only a small restaurant, a few souvenir shops, and a nearby park are all that's found near Ratchaprapa Dam. Directly in front of the pier there is a small national park booth where visitors must purchase tickets to the park if they haven't already done so, but little if any information is offered here and here and there is no visitor centre on the eastern side of the park. Ban Ta Khun, which is 14 km south of the pier, has some local restaurants and markets but there is currently no tourist infrastructure there.
Along the access road leading to the gates and visitor centre at Khao Sok's western end, however, there are plenty of places to stay and eat within walking distance of the park and its trails, and this is where the majority of travellers first arrive. At the park's front gates visitors are required to pay the entrance fee (200B for foreigners or 20B for Thais), which is valid for a period of 24 hours.
After entering the park the visitor centre is located a short walk from the gates and is staffed by some very friendly park workers and rangers who speak English well and are happy to answer questions. They also hand out decent information brochures, including a couple of rather vague maps, and can provide info on sights, hiking trails, and accommodation. There are some shared and private rooms available here as well,but few foreigners choose to stay within the park when there are cheaper and more comfortable guesthouses so close by. There is also a small restaurant and shop with limited hours here, but neither seem to see much use — the restaurant looked abandoned when we visited although the ranger insisted it did in fact open. All of the hiking trails in this vicinity begin near the visitor centre and restaurant area, and there are clearly marked signs throughout the trails.
Travellers will find just about anything they're looking for along the 1.5 km long access road just outside the park, including accommodation to fit all budgets, convenience stores, restaurants, bars, tour companies, Internet cafes that typically charge 2B per minute, motorbike rental, mini bus services, and at least one ATM located just outside the mini mart next to Herb Restaurant. There are also a few banks and ATMs in Ban Ta Khun. We found cell signal to work relatively well except when hiking several km north of the visitor centre and in some of the further reaches (particularly far northern parts) of Chiew Lan Lake. The national park headquarters can supply basic first aid needs, but anything more serious will require a trip to the hospital at either Ban Ta Khun or Takua Pa.