Welcome to the Dam Jungle
With my forehead pressed against the window in an attempt to remedy my back-seat nausea, I’d not noticed that we’d reached our destination: Khao Sok, Surat Thani, in Southern Thailand. A flurry of taxi drivers hustled as we clambered out of the minibus, each of us sleep deprived and prime for picking. The quickest tour guide lured me in with the promise of an adventure trifecta involving a lake, a cave and the jungle.
With the singledom of solo backpacking comes the luxury of dropping everything and jumping on a safari with strangers. Another minibus drive with another pile of luggage on the roof took myself and the other ensnared travellers to the pier of Cheow Lan Lake, the tourism heart of Khao Sok National Park.
Our tour guide, Two, greeted us with an energy fit for a cheerleader. “You-remember-me-ladies-and-gentlemen. So-you-don’t-get-left-behind. You-look-at-me-and-one-other.We-are-one-big-family-now-big-family. Right? Okay-we-go-now!”
We trailed after this Thai Pied Piper, his camouflaged shirt hijacked by his spicy red headscarf. He led us to a long-tail, a traditional lake boat with a ribbon-wrapped bow and an outboard motor steered with a two-metre long handle. Two stood at the stern, impatient to get our adventure started.
Created in the early ‘80s, Cheow Lan Lake is also known as Rachaprapah Dam, an engineering feat of epic proportions. To power the ever-growing Thai population, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand built this hydroelectric dam by blocking off the Klong Saeng River that ran through the valleys of Khao Sok National Park. This explains the convoluted landscape and hilltop islands; it’s not a natural lake. Peeking over the edge of the boat I caught flashes of stripped branches reaching up from the depths, grasping for help.
Water dusted my face as Two weaved us in and out of the long shadows on our way to the far side of the lake. I imagined it was like one of Peter Jackson’s storyboards; limestone ‘karsts’ towered out of greenstone waters and a wilderness draped the mountains that framed the lake. The limestone originated from one of the largest coral reefs this earth has seen – estimated at five times the size of the Great Barrier Reef. The parks karsts were created during the collision of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, around the same time as the Himalayas, uplifting this ancient reef that once stretched from Borneo up to China.
Home to a wildlife surplus of tigers and tapirs, barking deer and bears (to name a few), the national park has become a major tourism hub in recent years. After the drowning of the valley, and of many livelihoods, the luxury lodges and fishing expeditions that now operate on the lake supply the locals with dependable employment. Even our own budget safari took an entire village to function, with fishermen and farmers supplying the food for our meals and builders to construct our huts. Two told us when the valley was flooded, his father had to leave his ancestral home and was resettled near the rice paddies we passed in the minibus that morning. The villagers who refused to be relocated were left to salvage a living in the jungle. No one really knows how the monkeys and elephants fared.
The boat swung around into an inlet where our lodging was situated, the jungle-clad hills waiting behind. Like the many new tourism developments on the lake, the floating village Tone Tuey is run by descendants of the relocated families. The scene basked in the sun and the cloudy green water reflected the fresh-cut wooden huts. I clambered from the long-tail with a numb bum and damp hair. With one step off my cabin verandah, I was submerged in warm water and I lay on the lake surface, perusing the sky. The others practised their balance on the rolling logs that corralled the village. It was the promised peaceful afternoon on the lake.
But Two had other plans.
“Hey-ladies-it’s-time-for-cave-trek-now. Hurry-up-and-get-your-shoe-on-and-in-the-boatp-lease. We-go-across-the-lake-now. Okay!”
Deep in a rainforest older than the Amazon, surrounded by heat and a chorus of crickets, Two led us to Nam Thalu cave. Due to the geological history of the area, there are various cave systems linked by underground waterways throughout the mineral-riddled mountains. Sweat painted our faces and leaves scrunched underfoot as we followed our leader up an endless path. He taught us to stamp our feet and sing out loud so that any creatures close by were alerted to our presence.
But in a still moment at the mouth of the cave, a serious Two related an observation that still resonates to this day, five years later.
“Most people think there are many poisonous animals in the world, but there are no poisonous animals. Humans are more poisonous to all the poisonous animals, because humans destroy everything.”
Tham Nam Thalu cave system is famous in Thailand for being the secret haven of the student activists of the ‘70s. From this stronghold, they were able to keep loggers, miners and even the army out of the region. Spelunking around the cave with a questionable headlamp and water up to our armpits, it was difficult to imagine it as a safe house. It was a Health and Safety nightmare, and as I popped through a rock bottleneck, I suspected my insurance policy didn’t cover this scenario. We gathered on a beach in an open cavern as humming bats observed us from above.
We obeyed Two and were treated to a natural indoor observatory, although this constellation was not mapped out in the records. Just as stars are invisible during daylight, glow-worms are only truly appreciable when you see them in the dark. Everyone held their breath and drank in the cave sky.
Wading through the exit tunnel with waist-high water, I recalled a wildlife fact from the lakeside information board. This park is also home to the only (known) giant amphibious centipede in the world, and by all accounts, it’s pretty much an eel with many legs. Any tickle around my ankles corresponded to a spike in my pulse rate and irrepressible shivers. The clear air of the jungle was a welcomed relief. Us New Zealanders won the continental split jackpot, no poisonous or deadly animals on the land – at least, until humans arrived.
To pacify my snake dread, I trekked back down to the boat with a bamboo branch in each hand – drumsticks to hit the trees and sweepers to clear the path. I made such a racket that not one dangerous creature was to be seen. Two glanced back at me.
“Ah yes lady, now you are more poisonous than the snake.”
Cover by Marketa