This is part 1 of a 3-part series, and it has taken me forever to getting around to writing it. Sorry!
We went to Thailand for my 34th birthday this year. We chose to go to Thailand, rather than other places like Cambodia or Vietnam, based on the weather during that time of year. It turned out that Thailand was the only place I stood a chance of surviving in, due to the heat. Also, we went just after rainy season, and just before the start of busy season, so the prices for our hotels and flights were relatively cheap, compared to the other options on the table.
We arrived in Phuket around 9am, and were picked up by a shuttle that would take us to our first stop: The Tree House Hotel in Khao Sok National Park. We didn’t realize the trip would be 2 hours long, but it was. We were picked up just outside the exit of the airport, and it was like walking outside into complete and total chaos. It seemed that everyone arriving in Phuket was being picked up by a shuttle, there were so many drivers holding signs with names on them. It took us a good 20 minutes to find the person with my name on the sign (spelled incorrectly, but close enough and going to our hotel), but we eventually found him and got in the car.
He told us then that it would be about a 2 hours’ drive, and we were shocked. He stopped at a convenience store (I think it was a 7-11, which was hysterical) so we could get some drinks and snacks for the ride. We’d had a bit of an issue on the JAL flight we took: they forgot to give Mark a vegetarian meal, so we flew for 6 hours and all he ate was some fruit. It was NOT cool, and they got a long, angry message about it.
The drive itself was fine. I really wanted to stay awake for the ride, to see the landscape, but I couldn’t help myself and fell asleep for about 30 minutes. I wanted to talk to our driver as well, but his English wasn’t the best. We did talk a little, when he pointed out things along the way. He was nice.
When we got to the hotel, the first thing we did was take a walk around the area. We got there in the middle of the day, and had enough time to unpack and relax before our ‘night safari’ that we would do in the evening.
A note about this hotel: it was easily the best one we stayed in during our trip. Reviews on Tripadvisor might have some complaints about the simple construction and ugly bathrooms, but it’s the type of place you’ll like if you’re a bit adventurous. It’s not a 5-star hotel, and isn’t trying to be. You are in the middle of a forest, surrounded by nature. It is simple, a little damp, and feels very secluded. The place is amazing. And as for the service: the owners were an awesome, type-a lady and her husband. Their food is excellent and they will do everything they can to make the stay a memorable one. I have zero complaints.
The hotel offered a bunch of different excursions we could go on, and we wanted to see as much of the park as we could. It’s HUGE. There was really no way we would ever see it all. But we did our best.
One of the first things we noticed about the area was that it was in a major state of development: about halfway done. There was a lot of wild, open space, and the only buildings were really along the road, backing right up to the forest behind them. It was all a little haphazard, but I guess building up a place is never pretty, or fast. We passed a lot of construction along the way.
We also saw a lot of empty or abandoned houses. We passed through a few areas that appeared to never have recovered from typhoons and flooding, which were just deserted. I tried to take as many photos as I could. The landscapes and settings were amazing, in general, but this was something I guess I wasn’t really expecting.
On one had, we wanted to get away from all of the touristy stuff and get out on our own, and on the other, I guess that was really the only way we could have seen anything: to go to the places which were full of tourists. Our hotel was blessedly at the end of a road leading to the national park, so the area around it was mostly quiet.
In the evening, we went on a night safari. As it turns out, a lot of the excursions you see being offered by all of the hotels in the area are run by the same few companies, who seem to have deals going with the hotels themselves. So we didn’t exactly need to shop around to find the best one: they were all the same.
As this was our first time out with a guide, I was wary of it and ended up totally flipping out along the way. The guide was very nice to us, and totally put up with me having a near-panic attack. He gave us head lamps and led us through the park in total darkness. I got scared when we went off the path, and started imagining some Deliverance-style scene where we’d enter a clearing and be surrounded by scary men.
This is the reason I can’t smoke pot. I’m already paranoid on my own, without it. This is also why I can’t watch horror movies. That shit sticks with me!
Thankfully, I guess he was used to people getting scared in the woods in the dark, and totally took it in stride. I’m pretty sure he led us back early because of my antics. I’m really embarrassed by what happened, especially since I have to deal with clients every day in my own job.
I started to feel better once we started passing and chatting with other tourists who were also out on the same excursion. All of the guides were wearing the same head lamps, and everyone else was having the same experience as we were, and NOT freaking out. So I was able to relax after that. Sadly, this was when he was already leading us back down the trail, to his truck, to take us back.
I really need to calm the fuck down and go with the flow. Just a little.
On the second day, we chose to do the one-day lake excursion: this was a trip on Cheow Lan Lake which included a boat ride, lunch at some (of many, it seems) floating raft houses, and a hike through the park and into a cave.
It was easily one of the best trips we’ve ever taken. Of course, we couldn’t bring our cameras along for the hike, so all of that is locked away in our memories. There was good reason for it, as it turned out.
As the night before, we met our guide at the hotel and drove to pick up some other people from nearby hotels who had chosen to do that excursion on the same day as us. Our tour group turned out to be in the van with us, and we were with them for the entire day. We drove down to the piers about an hour from our hotel (after all of the pickups and the van was full) and got onto a powered boat. This was the start of the tour.
The first part was about an hour spent sailing around the lake. The lake has an amazing history and was man-made, in order to support the dam that was built. There is a village at the bottom of it (about 200 meters down) which was evacuated and flooded. Apparently it took an entire year to fill the space. It was a great story to hear while riding around, imagining that the tops of these rocks we saw coming out of the water went down a long way.
The lake was so beautiful. It was completely amazing to ride on it, and see all of the tiny islands in the middle of it. It seemed to go on forever. I could definitely live near a place like that.
We stopped at the raft houses, just to have a look around before we headed out to do our hike. We had seen an offer to do a 2-day lake trip, which included spending the night in the raft houses. There appear to be many different locations featuring raft houses around the lake, and we passed a few of them on the way to the ones we stopped at.
Each spot has its own toilets (not in the houses themselves) and tiny restaurant, and that’s about it. We decided not to do this one, and I was a little sad about it, but once we got there, I wasn’t terribly upset to NOT be staying overnight: it was all tourists, coming and going, and maybe wouldn’t have been as quiet as we’d liked. Also, the rafthouses were basically a small house with a mattress on the floor. Not much to it, honestly. But I imagine the pictures are great.
From the rafthouses, we set out on the boat again to the hike location, which was about 15 minutes away. When we arrived, we had to surrender all of our cameras, bags, etc., to be stored in a plastic bag in the boats, which would stay and wait for us until we got back.
I was a little annoyed that we had to ditch the cameras, since I had the idea we would be seeing some amazing stuff. Turns out, I was totally right. But that ‘amazing stuff’ included wading through a few rivers in water up to my chest, and then walking through water that was flowing through and out of the cave from a waterfall.
So my Mamiya wouldn’t have survived, and it would have been a total hassle to carry it all that way. I’m glad I didn’t fight to bring it, which is something I seriously considered doing. This also argues the point I’ve been harping on for months: we need to buy a waterproof camera, or at least a waterproof case for one of our iPhones. Something to consider once we upgrade to a 6, I think. I had thought about it since we’d planned on going SCUBA diving, but it would have been great in this situation, as well.
The water in the river we crossed was literally up to my chest. The water in the cave required swimming in a few points, it was so deep. We hiked through some amazing forest following our guide, who wasn’t wearing shoes. I don’t know how he did it, but he was completely comfortable. We were soaked and dealing with it. This reminds me, I want to email the hotel and ask them if I can re-write their excursion descriptions, to warn future tourists that they might want to wear waterproof fitness-style clothing.
This is absolutely the excursion I would recommend. We met some interesting people (but made no email or Facebook connections), saw gorgeous wild, natural places, and ate some amazing local food.
Yes, it was something that ALL of the tourists were doing, and yes, everyone around us generally spoke English, but it was totally worth it to see this place.
At the end of it all, we got dropped off at the original location, tipped our tour guide and got back in the van to go back to our hotel, where we are MORE amazing local food and spent the evening relaxing in the jungle.
On our final day, we woke up to the sounds of the forest and had a big breakfast. We planned to take the river canoe excursion that day, and planned to do it earlier rather than later, so we could get back to the hotel and spend a little more time there.
We had to wake up at 5 the following morning to get the shuttle that would take us to Surat Thani town, where we would get on a boat to head to Koh Tao.
<<< I am really enjoying the NEW BabyNikon, which is a Nikon 1 J5. It has a huge range of apertures and times, as well as a full range of ISO settings. I might be in love. I’m still learning all of the features on it.
We took a shuttle, again, to a different location.
I feel the need to say this now. All of these excursions were handled by locals. It all seemed like a really low-rent set-up. Some guy with a truck shows up and is supposed to take you on a night safari, or a tour, or a ride to the airport. Most of them don’t speak a lot of English. Most of them are very casually dressed, and may or may not be wearing shoes. The cars or trucks look a bit beat up sometimes.
I want to say this since I freaked right out on our first excursion, and I don’t want anyone else to worry the way I did about it. It’s all totally normal, and how everyone is doing it in Thailand.
I think it might be hard to imagine, or wrap your head around, when you’re used to being ferried around by people dressed in uniforms, that look like you, and are all speaking perfect English. A lot of times, it felt like ‘this is how scary movies start’. This is NOT Cancun (which I have never visited, but I’ve heard enough about it).
So get over it and used to it, and it’s all good. Just maybe don’t be like that guy who took a tour with a man to an island, and now the man won’t let him leave.
We thought we would get a canoe and a map, and be sent on our way. That was not the case. Like a lot of these spots, someone is basically in charge of you. There are some trails you can hike on your own, but for the most part, you will always end up with a guide who will be holding your camera, running the motor boat, or paddling the boat in this case, for you.
The tour took us down a river near some mountains. But I guess maybe there are a lot of mountains, so I’m not really sure where exactly this was. It was definitely somewhere in the National Park, but there are a few rivers there.
Our tour guide pointed out animals we would never have spotted on our own: snakes in trees, monkeys on the face of the mountains, some birds blending in with the underbrush. I really don’t know how they do it, but I guess when you know what you’re looking for, it’s a lot easier. It would have felt very ‘quiet’, had we done it on our own.
There was a temple built into a cave series as well, and the fish in the water are protected, since the temple is there. So this one part of the river is teeming with fish, and they take you past them. And they bring along the fish food.
So we got to feed the fish. Since I’m still figuring out the camera, it took me a few tries to actually catch them. I’m not used to having SO MANY ISO options to choose from! I finally got a few good photos before we moved on. As it turned out, we’d actually get another chance to see and feed the fish later on.
We’d expected it, but I was kind of sad that most of our days here were a bit overcast. I know I shouldn’t complain about that, since I was in Thailand on my birthday, but that was the one thing that bothered me. Up until that point, at least!
At the end of the canoe tour, we came up to a house with a few small boats and some other guides, and our first ‘monkey on a leash’. We’d done some reading about riding elephants in other countries, and we couldn’t figure out if this was normal like how people keep dogs (even though the dogs are wild here), or if this was some form of animal cruelty. We were kind of torn on how to feel about it. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it.
We tipped the guide and were picked up by our driver. On the way back, he stopped and took us to what we later realized was the temple. For a brief moment we were concerned about what was going on (we were still getting used to the tour guides, again).
But then when we got out, he led us over to some Buddha statues, and through the cave, where we passed some more tourists (of course) and went down to the water.
While we were standing there, with Mark’s feet in the water, some other tourists (were) paddled by in another canoe, and they also got to feed the fish. So it was around then we realized it was all good, nothing wrong, just part of the tour. We weren’t expecting that. I think we could have bought some food or souvenirs from the men with a small stand near the entrance, but we didn’t even think about it.
Instead, we saw our second monkey on a chain. It climbed on my back and took my sunglasses, and we fed it a banana.
Again, we really weren’t sure how to feel about the whole thing, but we felt like we should oblige the driver (now tour guide?) and at least smile. But I didn’t want to take any photos of it. Maybe I should have?
After that, we got in the truck again and were taken back to the hotel for our last night in the tree house.
It was a wonderful experience, and not one I’ll soon forget. I would definitely want to go back there again, and maybe try to do a few hikes on my own. With waterproof equipment.
Back at the hotel, we packed our suitcase and got everything ready for our very early-morning departure. Then we decided to take one more walk down the street, to see how far we were from the park entrance.
As it turned out, we weren’t very far at all. Maybe a 15-minute walk! But our hotel was definitely apart from all of the other places, which seemed to have similar themes and building styles. Some of them have been rated higher online, but I am really happy we chose the one we did. But maybe next time, we might rent out a bigger tree house. Just to get a different view in the morning;)
We learned on our walk that there are not only feral dogs everywhere, but they make feral puppies! We met a few really cute ones who ran right up to us and got ALL THE PETS from Mark. They were adorable. Mark wanted to take one home, of course. Those weren’t the Thai pets for us, we would find out later.
After petting the dogs and making it to the park entrance, we turned around and went back to the hotel for one final, amazing dinner.
On our first day when we checked in, there was a British family eating in the dining area. They were complaining because the hotel was out of shrimp, and they ‘really wanted shrimp’. It was one of the many stupid complaints you hear from travelers when you go abroad. Over the next two days, we witnessed conversations between the hotel staff and patrons about WHEN the shrimp would arrive.
On our final night, the shrimp arrived. So I finally ordered some green curry with shrimp. It wasn’t a big deal, but maybe I should have considered the fact that the hotel was working really hard to get shrimp into its kitchen.
Because the next morning, I had food poisoning. I didn’t realize it as I left the hotel, but it showed itself once I was on the bus headed to Surat Thani and on the ferry we had to take to get to Koh Samui the next day!
This does NOTHING to change how I feel about my experience at the hotel. The only reason the shrimp was bad is because they were trying really hard to get it, and maybe they made some compromises. It’s ok. It didn’t exactly ruin my trip, although it forced me to slow down. Which was good, since it was in the high-20’s and low 30’s the entire time we were there.
But next time, I’ll be eating vegetarian anyway, so it doesn’t matter. Not at all.