PHUKET: Just three hours north of Phuket is one of Southeast Asia’s most stunning unspoiled natural resources – Khao Sok National Park. As Phuket becomes ever more febrile and hectic, residents and visitors alike increasingly need to escape to such places of physical, spiritual regeneration.
We reached Khao Sok National Park on a sweltering April day by heading north across the Sarasin Bridge and then up the coastal Highway 4 to Takuapa, then east on the 401 across the Isthmus of Kra en route to Surat Thani. It took about three hours, with our mountain bikes roped to the bed of the pickup, but as we approached the park, it was like awakening in another universe.
You know you are in for something special when the scenery along the route becomes at first dramatic and then simply breath-taking with huge limestone cliffs rising sheer from the verdant rain forest and towering majestically skywards. These are the remnants of the same 250 million year old coral reef that marches on through Borneo, Phang Nga Bay and eventually emerges in Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam. The Earth’s tectonic plate collision extruded this coral ever-higher over the eons and indeed continues to do so, albeit at a mere centimeter or two a year these days. A well-marked left turn off Highway 401 takes you onto the little road to one of the world’s oldest and most pristine natural rain forests – Khao Sok National Park.
Khao Sok and a few last remaining places like it in SE Asia, represent what renowned environmentalist Thom Henley termed “the geography of hope for the human spirit”. Thom’s poetically-titled book Waterfalls and Gibbon Calls is the Bible on Khao Sok and is well worth obtaining if you venture to these parts. It was here that our cycle adventure really began.
Ditching our gear in one of the rustic wooden cottages at Art’s Riverside Lodge, we cycled to the park entrance, paid 200 baht for our day ticket and we were on our way.
We pedaled past the visitor center and across the bridge over the Sok River and followed the left hand fork as it climbed a steep hill into the body of indigenous rain forest. This is most definitely mountain biking territory and the trail abounds in steep, often rocky climbs and descents. It’s somewhat technically challenging embracing rock jumping and sand surfing, and you also have to bear in mind that you share the path with a bipedal tribal ape known as Homo Sapiens, not to mention elephants, tigers, leopards, gibbons, barking deer, Malay sun bears and scaly anteaters – all of which have also been seen along this trail at various times. This is not exactly your common or garden variety Phuket ride to the local Tesco!
We rode the seven kilometer out-and-back trail, with a cooling dip in the deep pool at the turning point to revive our jellied legs. Sweat poured, gibbons hooted and occasionally hikers cheered us on. It was exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure, but extremely gratifying at ride’s end.
We had supper at the famous riverside restaurant at Art’s Lodge, which was the first of the many backpacker-style lodges to open near the park. Art’s sits on the bank of the Sok River where huge limestone cliffs tower over an outdoor terrace restaurant opposite a monkey swimming pool. The food is good and the environment conducive to the consumption of many beers after a satisfying day’s ride and on this score we did not
From Art’s you can wade cross the shallow river then walk about a kilometer to the local temple called Wat Tam Pantoorat. Here tribes of wild monkeys play tag across the cliff face and in the trees above your head. There are rickety latticed climbing ladders up the face of the cliff, which, if you have a head for heights, will take you to a monks’ meditation cave about a hundred feet above ground. It was here the following morning at dawn that we asked forgiveness for last night’s Singha-Symphony.
After hiking back to Art’s for breakfast, we rode down to the 401 highway and turned left towards Surat Thanifor the 58 kilometer run to the town of Ban Ta Khun where after lunch, we turned left for the Ratchaprapa Dam at the southern end of Cheow Larn Lake. This gently undulating road is one of Thailand’s most beautiful rides, wending its way through the 900-feet-high karsts and featuring a stop en route at a little roadside temple to make merit by feeding fish-food to a huge congregation of scaly denizens from a rocky pulpit high above a river pool.
The final climb up to the dam is steep, and by mid-afternoon when we cycled it, we clocked 42 degree heat at road level. Arriving at the dam, the huge vista of the lake opens up before you and the hard, sweaty climb seems totally worthwhile. As dusk gathered, we loaded our bikes onto a long-tail and headed out across the glorious waters for the 40 minute trip to the Nang Prai floating cottages.
Arriving at our basic, but incredibly romantic, floating billet for the night, we immediately decamped into kayaks and headed out across the limpid waters as a full moon rose over the serrated crests of the vaulting limestone karsts. After a swim we just floated in our kayaks basking in the silence, nursing a cold beer and luxuriating in the feeling of being among the most exhausted and luckiest cyclists in the world.
A great way to experience cycling around Khao Sok is with James Hembrow’s Amazing Bike Tours who offer a three day excursion with pick up, transfers, excellent bikes, meals, great group camaraderie and fun. You can find more information at: amazingbiketoursthailand.com, or call 087 263 2031 ot 076 23 436.
— Baz Daniels
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