Sweat drips from my forehead as I sit on the wooden balcony, forcing my glasses to slip down my nose for the umpteenth time. I take them off and set them on the chair beside me, afraid they must eventually fall through the gaps in the wooden planks and into the deep green water below.
Out here I have the best chance of catching a breeze. But, though there are the most gentle of ripples on the emerald lagoon in front of me, there is not the slightest wind in the air. A hum of conversation comes from the late lunchers finishing their meal in the hut-on-stilts to my left, also serving as the jetty onto which numerous longtail boats load their passengers during the course of the day. A worn corrugated metal roof provides shelter from the relentless beat of the early afternoon soon, but otherwise the creaky setup is open to the lake on all sides. The cleaning services cannot be equalled to Maid Easy house cleaning in Brisbane I got used to, but the place altogether looks neat.
Out on the water slightly to the right, two blonde children play on the makeshift breakwater – nothing more than two giant tree trunks, joined with a series of ropes and between them stretching about a hundred metres – which protects the simple thatch-roofed rafthouses from the waves created by the arriving and departing longtails. Even so, as another returns from a zip around the block and ducking around the back of the lagoon, my shack rocks gently back and forth for a few moments.
Aside from a single rubber ring and a couple of one-seat yellow kayaks, the simple breakwater is the only thing this national park rafthouse site has to offer in the way of entertainment. The cook, also housekeeper and younger sister of the national park officer in charge of the site, takes great pride in telling us that, unlikely some of the similar rafthouses on Khao Sok’s Ratchaphrara Dam, there is no karaoke to be found here. Nor will you come across jet skis or banana boats.
The twenty-five very basic, stilted A-frame style rooms, joined in one long curved row around the far side of the lagoon and split down the middle by the kitchen and communal dining area, come only with bamboo doors and windows that just about close when given a firm nudge. Beds are by way of mattresses on the floor topped with mosquito nets at the end of their useful lives, and a single dangling light bulb is the only other thing in the room.
This is one of the most remote of Khao Sok’s water-based accommodation options, a good hour’s boat ride from the dam’s main pier along a complex route to navigate through, around and behind the tall and majestic limestone karsts that dot the lake. The two boatmen who bring us here thankfully seem to have consigned the route to memory, since they carry no maps to consult and it will surely be dark as they reach the end of their trip back without us. Even as the rain hammers down heavily through parts of our ride, our various colours of plastic throwaway rain coats billowing in the wind and yet steamed up inside, the views are shockingly beautiful.
While perhaps not an entirely unique landscape – the karsts themselves are similar to those in Pha Nga province, in northern Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay and in Guilin, China – the beauty here is in part the relative emptiness of the place. En route we pass just two other boats and a couple of seemingly lost kayakers whose frantic waves might have been as much a cry for rescue as a friendly greeting. Electricity at the rafthouse is switched on only between six and eleven in the evening, and the whole place is entirely devoid of any mobile reception; we make our return booking with the boatmen as they leave us here, knowing we won’t be able to contact anyone on the outside until then and that we would otherwise be reliant on striking lucky and catching a ride with someone else who happened to be returning to the mainland.
This spot is popular with Thai and western tourists, though the latter make up the vast majority during our high-season visit. Whether domestic or foreign, most stop by on organised one-day or overnight tours, taking in a period of swimming and kayaking at the rafthouse along with longtail excursions on night safari and to nearby caves. But the pace of these tours is such that it must be difficult to relax for very long before moving on to the next activity – and yet this is exactly the kind of destination where you want to lie in the sun, cool off in the water and repeat the cycle for as long as you can. The peace, quiet and edge-of-the -earth feeling means a few days here is more realistic, while a week would be entirely do-able. In any case, if coming solo the high cost of boat transport would quickly make a very short stay prohibitive.
Accommodation is by comparison inexpensive; 400 baht for any of the identical rooms, which must be reserved in advance on the National Parks web site and paid for by bank transfer. Excellent freshly cooked local seafood, including an impressive huge deep-fried tilapia and heaps of other similarly fantastic dishes, makes up the staple of the three set daily meals available.
At 200 baht per head per meal this initially seems relatively expensive but, with a generous spread of six dishes between three people plus rice, fresh fruit, ice and water, it is in fact fairly reasonable. Among the spread we ate during our three-night stay were a sour gaeng som fish curry, prawns stir-fried in yellow curry paste and steamed vegetables with handmade nam prik kapi shrimp paste chilli dipping sauce.
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How to get there
Fly or take the bus or train to Surat Thani. Minivans leave from several shops in and around Surat Thani’s downtown ‘transportation hub’ bus station direct to the pier at Ratchaphrara Dam, from where you will need to haggle furiously with the mafia-style boat operation to get the price down from the scandalous 3,200 baht one-weay fare we were initially quoted.
Of those who arrive here without having pre-booked a tour package, most opt for either a three-hour tour around the lake or for a ride to a rafthouse, staying one night and returning the following day with the same crew. This means that finding others to split the boat fare with can be more difficult here than in other locations. It is also difficult to get the boatmen themselves to compromise on the price; though they seem to want to, on our trip they appeared frightened of the consequences of dealing directly with us. Negotiating with them is also likely to be difficult if your Thai is limited or non-existent.
But if you can get the message across, you should have more luck cutting out the middle man in the arrangements for your return trip – so it can be worth paying for only a one-way journey with the middle men. If you do make plans for the return leg with the boatmen, expect to be asked for a deposit in advance.
Once you have sorted your boating, you’ll be directed to buy your National Park ticket from the small booth next to the pier. As evidence of a typical job-creation mindset this booth sells the tickets and then opposite it an almost identical booth, but run by the border police, checks the ticket – though in the aftermath of a torrential downpour our tickets weren’t inspected.
Be aware that Thailand’s national parks operate a two-tiered pricing system in which Thais and foreign residents pay substantially less than tourists and other non-residents – in this case 200 baht for adult tourists and 120 baht for children under fourteen versus 40 baht for residents and 20 baht for resident students. The more expensive fares are the only ones you’ll see posted on the window of the ticket booth (in any language, not just English) but if you live and work or pay taxes in Thailand then you can and should ask to pay the reduced entrance fee that any Thai in the queue with you will also be paying.
While it is wrong that foreign residents are asked for proof of immigration status while those who ‘look’ Thai are not (in other words, plenty of Malaysians, Singaporeans, Laotians and so on get waved through at the cheaper rate because of this discriminatory policy), a glance at your current visa in your passport, or your Thai driving licence, work permit or tax registration certificate should be sufficient. You can read more about my views on dual pricing here.