July 2, 2018
It might be artificial, but Cheow Lan Lake in Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park has the emerald water, towering limestone karsts and silent serenity that the country’s increasingly overrun beaches were once known for.
The jagged, jungle-clad limestone karsts shoot up from the water’s surface, reaching several hundred meters into the sky. They are silhouetted against each other as far as we can see, the mist blurring the craggy clifftops. The water is emerald green.
We are cruising on a longtail boat, its hull adorned with shredded pieces of bright, colorful fabric. The scenery looks exactly like the ads for a Southeast Asian beach paradise. At least until you start looking a little closer.
There are no beaches, no sand and no towns in sight. No roaring motorcycles or distant music either. The only thing audible is the hawking motor of the boat, and when the captain turns that off, there’s nothing but silence.
“Look, a hornbill!” our guide Nopporn Naonan exclaims. But by the time we’ve turned our heads in the direction of the bird, it is long gone.
We are on Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park, roughly halfway between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand in the southern half of the country. The national park has become a popular destination for travelers looking for the unspoilt nature and cheap bungalows that many of Thailand’s other beaches no longer offer. Most visitors stay for a night on two, going on boat safaris and hikes in the eerily beautiful landscape by day, and sleeping in floating bungalows by night.
While the area is estimated to be around 160 million years old, the lake is more of a millennial. It is, in fact, artificial and was built in 1987. It took over a year to flood the 185-square-kilometre basin, which was flooded with the water from a diverted river. In many places, the lake is as deep as the steep limestone karsts are high.
During the resettlement, every family was given eight acres of land, one for their home and seven for a rubber plantation, and 1,000 Thai baht (USD $ 30) per month. The families had more money, better health and better access to education after the resettlement, but despite the project being touted as a best-case scenario for resettlements by the Thai government, our captain and his family would have preferred to stay.
“They left all their durian trees to drown, because back then durian was cheap,” says Nopporn Naonan. “Now it is so expensive. He would have been a rich man if they have stayed, but now he is poor like the rest of us.”
The captain does not laugh. He steers the boat towards a cluster of huts floating on the water and drops us off on the rickety, wooden pier.
The following morning, we meet up before sunrise to go for a boat safari around the lake’s most remote shores. The national park is home to elephants, tigers, bears, wild boars and deer, but mostly we see gibbons, macaques and a few of the 300 species of birds found in the park. The mist is hanging low and the top of the trees are covered in clouds, but as the sun starts rising, it burns away the grey. A group of macaques frolics loudly in the bamboo trees, just meters from our boat. The captain turns off the motor and regards them with an amused smile on his face, seemingly as entertained by their behavior as the rest of us.
As we sail back towards the floating bungalows for breakfast, Nopporn Naonan signals for him to turn off the engine again. “Look! A mouse deer!” he says, giddily. “The smallest deer in the world!”
We look where he is pointing and see a tiny deer head bopping up and down in the water. When it has safely reached a nearby island, our captain revs up the engine. He greets the passing boats that have begun to arrive in this far corner of the lake, all carrying camera-toting tourists.
“The day trippers do not come here yet, it is too far away,” says Nopporn Naonan after waving at a colleague in one of the passing boats. “But it’s getting busier. To see animals and feel the quiet, you have to go to the most far-away shores of the lake.”