Home to some of the world’s oldest rainforests, Khao Sok National Park is a stunning tropical jungle in southern Thailand. It is easily one of the most stunning national parks in Thailand. The only other place I have seen such an ancient, lush, thick and biodiverse tropical forest was in Borneo’s Danum Valley.
The first thing to know when planning a trip to Khao Sok National Park is that there are two equally popular areas in the park, and they are 67 km apart.
One is the area around the park’s headquarters, generally referred to as Khao Sok or Khao Sok Village. Here, you can access a network of walking trails, see several waterfalls, and enjoy tubing down the river at your guest house.
The other hotspot is Khao Sok Lake (aka Cheow Lan Lake), located east of the park’s headquarters and famous for its raft houses, deep caves, towering limestone hills, and viewpoints on top of some of these hills.
I spent a month in Khao Sok thanks to twisting my ankle while making a hasty getaway from a herd of wild elephants (more on this below). Since I was ‘slow travelling’ in Thailand, the delay wasn’t an issue, and on the plus side, it gave me the chance to get to know the park quite well.
I was based in Khao Sok Village and made several overnight trips to Cheow Lan Lake, which were offered by my guest house. And here is my guide to visiting the two different parts of Khao Sok National Park.
How to get to Khao Sok National Park
There are several different ways of visiting Khao Sok National Park, depending on what you want to see and do and how much time you have.
If you want the most bang for your buck but are not sure which part of the park to visit, I would recommend focusing on Cheow Lan Lake. The setting of the lake with its floating bungalows is spectacular and serene.
While it is technically possible to visit the lake independently if you have your own set of wheels, hikes around the lake will require a guide. So you may as well book the organised tour straight away and not worry about the logistics.
You can book tours to Cheow Lan Lake, also referred to as Khao Sok Lake, from Krabi, Khao Lak, or Surat Thani (more on this below). The lake is also one of the best day trips from Phuket.
Most accommodation providers in the Khao Sok Village will also be able to organise an overnight trip to the lake. So if you wish to visit both parts of the park, basing yourself around Khao Sok Village and taking an overnight tour to the lake is the way to go.
Khao Sok National Park Tours
Here are some of the best tour options for Khao Sok National Park and Cheow Lan Lake.
- If you have the time, the best tour is the 3-Day Khao Sok Adventure from Krabi. This tour covers both parts of the park. You spend one night in a jungle bungalow in Khao Sok and one night at a floating bungalow on Cheow Lan Lake.
- If you enjoy wildlife watching, the best tour is the 2-Day Khao Sok Wildlife Adventure from Khao Lak. This tour is based around Cheow Lan Lake and focuses on spotting the park’s abundant wildlife. This is your best chance to see elephants, hornbills, gibbons and other species in Khao Sok.
- If you are short on time and don’t have a night to spare, you can visit Cheow Lan Lake on a Day tour from Krabi. This tour gives you a full day in the park, including the longtail boat ride on the lake, a hike to a cave, and lunch & swim at the floating bungalows.
- A similar Day Tour from Khao Lak.
Getting to Khao Sok on Public Transport
If you prefer independent travel to organised tours, you can visit the area of the park around Khao Sok Village and take an overnight tour to Cheow Lan Lake from your guesthouse. If you are staying in Phuket, Surat Thani, or Krabi, you can book a minivan transfer to Khao Sok. Alternatively, here’s how to travel to Khao Sok Village by public bus.
- From Phuket, buses leave once an hour and take about 4 hours. You can check the schedule here.
- From Khao Lak, it is the same bus that travels from Phuket. So it takes only 2 hours from Khao Lak to Khao Sok. Check the schedule here.
- From Surat Thani, buses leave once an hour and take about 2.5 hours. Check the schedule here.
- From Krabi, the van leaves at 11 am. There are other less direct connections as well. Check the schedule here.
- From Bangkok, either fly or catch a train to Surat Thani and then catch a bus to the park.
Khao Sok National Park Headquarters & Khao Sok Village
Exploring the area of Khao Sok around the park’s headquarters is easy. Simply book your accommodation in Khao Sok Village, near the park entrance and spend your days walking the park’s trails.
A gorgeous resort right by the park headquarters and within a short stroll from the bus stop is Malulee KhaoSok Resort. Sitting right on the riverbank, Malulee has a stunning swimming pool, cozy bungalows with a terrace and a lovely garden. They can arrange airport transfers as well as an overnight tour to Cheow Lan Lake. So there are no logistical hustles involved, and you get to see both parts of Khao Sok.
The park’s headquarters are a good place to see some of Thailand’s most iconic animals, like the long-tail macaques and banded langurs, as well as hornbills and plenty of other bird species. The trails might also turn up wild boars and deer, especially early in the morning.
And if you pay attention, you’ll see all kinds of colourful lizards sunning themselves on top of rocks along the trail. And, of course, if you are visiting between January and March, keep your eyes peeled for the enormous Rafflesia flowers.
The main hiking trail that starts at the visitor centre runs for about 7 kilometres and has 9 points of interest, 5 of which are waterfalls. Technically, you are discouraged from hiking in the park without a guide. There is a big sign at the headquarters saying just that.
But if you ask the rangers, they are quite relaxed about you going as far as point 4 – Bang Liap Nam waterfall. The trail runs along the river so you shouldn’t have any trouble following it.
Encounter with Wild Elephants
Although, during my time in the park, I found a different kind of trouble. One day, I was walking the trail and noticed that the ground to my left, towards the river, was all churned up like a battle site. There is only one creature in the Thai jungle who can churn up the ground like that – the Asiatic elephant.
Sure enough, there was this wonderfully worded sign along the trail announcing the presence of elephants in the area.
I was super excited about encountering the elephants. I followed their enormous footprints through the broken rattan bushes, trying my best not to grab hold of the bushes – they have mean spikes that would cut right into your flesh.
The trail of destruction led downhill towards the bank of the river and was quite difficult to follow. The ground must’ve been wet when the elephants passed, and their feet left crater-like depressions filled with broken, spiky rattan branches. But I persevered and followed the trail until I could see the riverbank.
The elephants didn’t seem to be around, so I walked down to the river and decided to have a break and eat my packed lunch. It was a very tranquil setting – the river flowed by gently and there was not a soul around.
But a few minutes later, I was snatched from my daydreams by the crashing sound of snapping branches all too near to where I was sitting. I turned to my left and saw the trees sway a mere few meters away, pushed by great leathery heads with pink-tinged ears. This was not how close I wanted to be to a herd of wild elephants!
Without a second thought, I scrambled back up the slope, tripping over the uneven terrain churned up by the elephants and scratching myself on the rattan thorns. When the trail at the top of the ridge was already in sight, I gave it the final push, but my foot slipped and twisted, and as I fell, I heard a sickening crack. That was my ankle.
Honestly, I can’t remember how I pulled myself back onto the trail or how I hobbled down the trail, but somehow, I made it to the intersection with a dirt road and flagged a startled shopkeeper who was going by on her scooter. She took me back to my lodge, where I spent a couple of weeks learning to walk again.
A word of warning about elephant rides in Khao Sok from the National Parks website: Most of the resorts in Khao Sok offer pathetic and cruel tours with elephants in captivity. If you are considering attending one, please search and read about “elephant crushing” and see videos on YouTube about the subject.
Of course, in a place as biodiverse as Khao Sok National Park, you don’t even have to leave the restaurant to observe wildlife. Since climbing up and down the stairs to the restaurant on just one leg was a bit of a mission, I often spent my entire days sitting there drinking coffee and watching birds, lizards and butterflies. And occasional downpours. The monsoonal rains in Thailand are spectacular. And they often come as quickly as they go.
Mysterious Healer of Khao Sok
While I was nursing my sore ankle, I had one of the most unexplained experiences in Khao Sok. One of my friends who worked at the guesthouse suggested taking me to the local ‘voodoo’ healer. She rode us to the woman’s house on her scooter, and I hopped one-legged to the front door.
The woman was not happy to see a foreigner, and despite my usually disarming smile, she kept a very sour expression. Nonetheless, she invited me into the house, sat me down on the floor, and proceeded to rub some ointment into my ankle while chanting something under her breath.
A few minutes later, she was done. I paid my fee, and to my utter disbelief, I got up onto my two feet and walked out of the house. I was walking like nothing was wrong with my ankle for the rest of the afternoon and evening. I could barely believe it.
When I woke up the following morning, I was back to hopping on one leg. How was it possible? A couple of days later, we went to the same woman again, and she repeated the same procedure with the same grumpy face and demeanour. And again, I walked home on my own two feet. And again, the effect lasted only until the following morning.
To this day, I have no explanation for what happened. But I am happy to let it remain a mystery.
Cheow Lan Lake
Located 67 kilometres away from Khao Sok National Park headquarters, Cheow Lan Lake is a mesmerising landscape. The lake is man-made. It was formed when the Rajjaprabha Dam was built in 1987, and the Klong Saeng River flooded 185 square kilometres of forest. This is why you see dead tree trunks rising out of the water in the lake.
Before the flooding, the area was home to Ban Chiew Lan village, which gave the lake its name. All 385 families who lived in the village had to be relocated to different areas. Wild animals also had to be relocated as many were trapped on the newly created islands in the lake.
Today, barely any traces of this dramatic re-structuring of the land remain. The lake has a distinctly tranquil atmosphere, surrounded by some of the world’s oldest rainforests and dotted with floating bungalows built mainly as tourism infrastructure.
The best way to visit the lake is on an overnight visit, so you can stay in one of those bungalows and jump into the lake for a swim from your ‘veranda’. The nighttime at the bungalows is one of the most tranquil experiences you’ll have in Thailand.
But the visit to Cheow Lan Lake is not all about chilling out. There are some serious adventures on offer. Here’s what you can expect from a typical 2-day tour to the lake.
The adventure starts at the Cheow Lan Pier (aka Ratchaprapha Pier) where you’ll board a longtail boat for a cruise to your bungalows. You’ll sail past the limestone cliffs rising out of the still surface of the lake, around dead tree trunks poking through the surface here and there, all the while enveloped in thick tropical rainforest on the shores of the lake.
The lake tours vary slightly as to where they take you, but whatever the itinerary, you’ll be doing some jungle trekking and visiting a viewpoint and one of the caves.
The caves are spread out over several kilometres, so you’ll take the boat to the closest spot on the lakeshore and hike from there. Some of the caves are great for checking out the stalactites and stalagmites; others are deep caverns that you wade through.
Jungle Treks and Caves
The jungle at Khao Sok is magical. It is so old and dense that you feel like you are hiking through Jurassic Park. Every surface is covered in vegetation; tree roots and rocks are carpeted in thick green moss.
You’ll be crossing streams over fallen tree trunks and wading across small creeks to the sounds of singing gibbons and chirping birds.
The most fascinating cave is the 500-meter-long Nam Talu Cave, located on the Klong Pey tributary. This cave has a massive opening, but the cavern narrows the further you go. There is a stream running through the cave, and at first, the water is very shallow. But as you progress along, you’ll first be wading chest-deep and then swimming for short distances. All this in complete darkness, apart from the beams of your head torches.
Of course, the cave’s configuration makes it susceptible to flash-flooding in heavy rain, so it can be quite treacherous. That’s why a hike to Nam Talu cave is only offered in the dry season.
One of my most memorable wildlife experiences on the lake happened at the exit from Nam Talu cave. After making your way through the constricting dark space of the cave, the light at the end of the tunnel is a welcome sight. So you generally don’t look around too much. You are just happy to be out in the open.
If it wasn’t for our guide, we wouldn’t have noticed the Mangrove snake wriggling in the stream as we walked past. Mangrove snakes are mildly venomous, so you definitely don’t want to step on one. But as we watched the snake, it flipped upwards, and we were astonished to see a cobra’s mouth locked on the mangrove snake’s body. A cobra had hunted the mangrove snake, and they were battling it out in the stream just outside of the cave.
It was like one of those movie scenes when some mean-looking enormous creature is launching for the protagonist only to be snatched away by a bigger, meaner-looking creature.
Other caves around the lake are easier to visit, and you get to see fantastical stalactites and stalagmites as well as roosting bats. If you are not a fan of bats, don’t worry, they roost quite high up on the cave’s ceiling.
Krai Son Viewpoint
Another hike you’ll do during your trip to the lake is to the Krai Son viewpoint on top of one of the limestone hills along the Klong Yee tributary. Climbing the hill (more like a small mountain) is hard work in tropical heat and humidity, but the view from the top will make you forget about your burning legs.
The birds-eye-view perspective is spectacular. You get a much better sense of the lake too, with its many bays and tributaries and a multitude of small forested islands in the middle of the lake. All these islands used to be the tops of the hills rising above the valley.
Night Boat Safari
Back at the bungalows, you’ll usually be offered a night boat safari on the lake. This is an incredible experience that brings you close to some of Khao Sok’s wild inhabitants. You have good chances of spotting hornbills and eagles perched on the dead tree trunks sticking up from the lake’s surface. On one of the trips, we saw another mangrove snake swimming across the lake. On another, our eagle-eyed guide spotted a serow on a hill.
One of the most incredible creatures you can spot in Khao Sok is, believe it or not, an insect. The giant Atlas moth has to be seen to be believed. With a wingspan of 25-30 cm, Atlas moth is the largest moth in the world. And its colouring is equally striking.
If you book a wildlife-focused tour, your boat safari will be much longer, and your wildlife-spotting opportunities will obviously be much greater. With enough time on the lake, you’ll have a chance to spot Asiatic elephants, Indian bison (Gaur), wild boar, samba and barking deer, long-tail macaques (aka crab-eating macaques), gibbons and langurs, and an amazing variety of birds. Khao Sok is home to nearly 400 bird species. So if you have a chance to join a morning safari on the lake, go for it.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Khao Sok National Park
To wrap up, my advice is not to rush it and spend at least two days on Cheow Lan Lake. If you have limited time and have to choose which area of Khao Sok to visit, go for the lake. But if you are looking to slow down and unwind, base yourself in Khao Sok village, explore the trails around the park’s headquarters, chill out in a cozy bungalow by the river, and take an overnight trip to the lake.
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