Reservoir Monkeys – Khao Sok NP

My confidence was beginning to slip. After a one-hour flight to Surat Thani, a one-hour drive and a one-hour wait we were motoring away from the deeply unimpressive Ratchabhrapha “Light of the Kingdom” dam across an underwhelming lake. Logan had fallen asleep on the bow, at least until it started drizzling. The other boys had ‘are we there yet?’ on repeat. Nori was giving me that ‘what have I let you get me into again?’ look.

Then we cut hard left. The break in the high karst ridge wasn’t even visible until we were in it. Suddenly, we were in a narrow channel between towering, jungle-topped peaks. Deep inlets framed by soaring grey cliffs extended to the horizon. There were mini ‘James Bond’ islands, Krabi-like limestone walls and tiny coves where you’d need climbing shoes to go ‘ashore’.

  

How can I describe Khao Sok National Park’s extraordinary Chiaow-Lan lake? It’s like the Eurasian love child of a Norwegian fjord and a Thai jungle. It’s like a flooded Guilin, China. It’s Vietnam’s Halong Bay with an overactive pituitary. It’s better and real-er than Avatar’s Pandora. It is so mind-blowingly spectacular that it seems impossible. It’s totally karstastic. How is this not world-famous?

  

What makes the nature of Chiaow-Lan lake so staggering is that it isn’t truly natural. In 1982, Thailand’s national electricity utility, EGAT, started building the dam and power station that would hold back the Klong Saeng River and provide 240MW of much-needed electricity to Thailand’s southern provinces. Somewhat cruelly, the new lake/reservoir took its name from the town it flooded. Nearly 400 families were forced to resettle. It took a year for the reservoir to fill. King Rama IX officially opened the Ratchabhrapha Dam (it could also be translated as “The King’s Light”) in May 1987 on his majesty’s 60th birthday.

Reservoirs drown. Reservoirs hide. Reservoirs turn valleys into inlets, outcrops into islands and villages into dive sites. They disrupt the immemorial flow of current and fish and sediment and submerge whole biomes. It’s no surprise that NGOs and environmentalists hate them. But sometimes destruction is creative, beautiful and necessary. That’s what God (and the King) thought anyway. We shouldn’t forget the resettled people and the billions of creatures that died as the water levels rose. But we should also rejoice at the postdiluvian wonderland that was created.

Importantly, this wasn’t a case of an authoritarian government uprooting families, withholding proper compensation and plonking them down in some inferior location. As a Royal Project, King Bhumibol was adamant that the villagers were treated fairly and that the project benefits far outweighed the costs. Each family received 19 rai suitable for rubber plantations, another rai for their house and Bt1,000/month (about US$30) until the rubber trees reached tapping age.

An extraordinary place deserves extraordinary accommodation and the 500 Rai “Floating Resort” is just that. (A ‘rai’ is a Thai unit of measurement equal to 0.4 acres. So that’s 200 acres.) An arc of floating villas extends from the main reception/restaurant building – a sort of Maldives-on-the-Lake. The rooms are simple wood-paneled affairs but very comfortable; this is no teenage summer cap. Every room has amazing views. And extending into the lake is something I had never seen before: a floating pool.
  

Each room has kayaks tethered to the deck. I had the kids take turns as I paddled around the wild coastline. We saw monkeys cavorting in stands of bamboo, heard hornbills go ‘bonk!’ as they flew overhead and explored nearby islets. We joined a guided excursion that culminated in a very steep (and sharp) hike to a vantage point that put the whole reservoir into perspective. And naturally, we spent hours in the pool. If your kids can’t swim, I’d wait until they can. But if your kids are adventurous, love animals and are confident in the water, this place is a fantasy.

Warning: If you visit this website, you’ll want to start planning your next Thailand trip.
www.500rai.com

  

P.S. I want to stuff a tent, camping supplies, bug spray, binoculars, sunscreen and food into dry bags and tow it behind my SUP as I spend a week exploring the reservoir’s bronchi. I want to scout for epic cliff-jumping locations. I want to hike, scramble and spelunk. I want to discover new species that evolved on suddenly enisled mountains. I want to scuba in drowned forests. There is so much adventure waiting to be had in Khao Sok that my pulse races every time I think about it.

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