Khao Sok National Park
Since the first month I arrived in Thailand, I’ve been wanting to explore Khao Sok National Park and spend a long weekend uncovering the natural treasures this million-year-old rainforest has to offer. Khao Sok is nestled in southern Thailand in the province of Surat Thani, and is approximately 739 square kilometers of dense virgin jungle, towering limestone karsts, beautiful waterfalls, and a stunning lake. It houses an impressive assortment of flora and fauna including wild elephants, tigers, leopards, the giant Rafflesia flower, over 300 species of birds, and an endless amount of leeches.
There are two main sections of Khao Sok: the land section with all the trails and waterfalls, and the water section with Cheow Lan Lake and Ratchaprapha Dam. The lake is around 60 kilometers west of the main park entrance, but unfortunately I didn’t make it there during my stay.
When planning my trip and researching the park before my arrival, I read that the park rangers only allow hikers without guides to venture 3 kilometers into the park. At that 3 km mark, there’s a ranger’s station and only those with a guide may continue on as the trails are said to be treacherous and not well-marked. After learning what a guide costs for a day-hike, I suspected it was likely a trick aimed at convincing tourists that they must pre-book an expensive guide in order to see the park. I wasn’t having it.
After reading on two separate websites (wikitravel and travelfish) that it is quite easy to explore the park without a guide, I decided definitively that I was going to hike these trails on my own. Knowing that I’d only have two and a half days to take in as much of the park as I could, I researched every waterfall along the trail and prioritized what seemed to me to be the most rewarding ones. Than Sawan Waterfall was the stand-out choice, however it’s also the least-visited due to the difficulty of having to wade through a rocky riverbed for the last kilometer of the trail to reach it.
Getting to Than Sawan Waterfall
There are two ways to get to Than Sawan:
- The back trail that begins off the 401 highway, leads past the Rafflesia flower sites, and opens at the top of Than Sawan Waterfall.
- The front trail through the main park entrance. This is the route that requires one to hike upstream.
I hiked the northern track on my first day, the trail to the Rafflesia flowers off highway 401 on my second day, and the western track to the Than Sawan on my third day.
After eating a hearty breakfast, I set off to the park entrance and bought my day pass for 300 baht at the visitor’s center. The initial trail on the western track is a dirt road wide enough for a car, and only after the ranger’s station three kilometers down the road does it become a narrow foot path. The first few kilometers along the western route run adjacent to the Khao Sok river, offering occasional ground and elevated views of its calm, green waters.
Off this main trail there are a few waterfalls and some swimming holes worth visiting. Several tour groups frequent this route, but they’re easy to pass.
I stopped for a short break at the Bang Liet Nam Waterfall and swimming hole, and after departing from there I didn’t encounter any other tour groups.
The River Crossing
For the final portion of the trek, I had to cross the Khao Sok river and then hike up a rocky tributary for a kilometer. When I arrived at the river crossing point, I stopped and chatted to another solo hiker I met there who was relaxing on a large boulder.
“That’s your path,” he said as he pointed across the river, “And you’re gonna get wet. There are parts where you’ll be wading in chest deep water with steep canyon walls on either side of you.”
He then asked me if he could take some photos of me crossing the river.
“I’m staying at the Jungle Huts,” he said, “Come find me later tonight and I’ll send you the photos if you want them.”
I thanked him, and as I turned toward the river, he gave me one last bit of advice:
“Enjoy it,” he said with a wink, “And don’t turn back unless it starts down pouring.”
With my pack on my shoulder, I turned and gave him a smile and nod, and waded into the river to swim across.
As I pulled myself out of the water and onto the first large rock, I paused and glanced back at my friend giving him a thumbs up, excitement and nervousness welling up in my chest. Despite being only a stone’s throw from where I stood a minute before, standing on that opposite river bank seemed like I was entering into a new world.
With my hiking sticks in hand, I began my journey upstream wading through the ankle deep water. There were numerous large and small boulders that I had to climb over; some were slimy and slippery while others were covered with soft beds of thick moss and tiny purple flowers. Despite the challenge of this part of the trek, a feeling of happy lightheartedness played in my limbs. Each stride and splash of my legs sent lime-green frogs leaping in every direction around me, and I found myself squatting down and examining them with a child-like curiosity.
However, when I finally snapped out of this spell of gazing into frog eyes, I realized I had reached a waterfall completely blocking my way forward. It was a single, solid stream falling onto a massive embankment on the left where the water took a seemingly 90 degree turn before emptying into a deep green pool. This unnamed waterfall was not on any map I viewed of the park, and after checking my location on my phone, I saw I was about three-quarters of the way to Than Sawan. But first, I had to figure out how to get around this massive obstacle.
While still a beautiful waterfall, it was entirely unexpected, and almost put a stop to my trek early. I pity any solo hiker that has mistaken this waterfall for Than Sawan and turned back after being so close.
After searching in vain for 15 minutes for any signs of a trail or a way up and around this massive waterfall, I turned around frustrated and defeated. Just then, by some good fortune, I noticed a small sign saying “Slippery Route” with an arrow pointing up the steep left bank (with the waterfall at my back, it was on my right side).
Triumphant after nearly calling it quits, I bounded up this path and made it to the top of the unnamed waterfall, where the river then continued on relatively tamely until I reached a blockade of fallen trees obstructing my path. At this point, it had begun to rain, and my friend’s warning echoed in my head, but there was no way I was turning back as I could feel how close I was to the falls.
After navigating my way through the fallen trees (thanks to the tips from a fellow hiker also named Adam that I met there), and after five hours of trekking in the jungle, I rounded a bend in the river and stood before by the towering falls of the Than Sawan. It was raining hard now, but I was entirely unfazed by it. I was alone deep in the jungle, gazing at one of the most spectacular waterfalls I’ve ever seen.
The Leeches / Final Thoughts
After a refreshing swim and a snack, I geared up for my hike back. During this trek downriver, I encountered over a dozen leeches. Despite becoming somewhat inured to them being that it was my third day fending them off, the paranoia of later finding one feeding in a crevice of my body was still unnerving. Every few minutes, I paused for a quick scan of my legs to brush off any before they latched on. They are so sneaky though that this was only somewhat effective.
Moving at a steady pace, I arrived back at the park entrance in just under 3 hours. After a satisfying plate of chicken curry, I took a long, hot shower at my hostel and scrubbed myself clean. I disinfected and bandaged up my leech bites—most of which were still steadily bleeding hours after. I later learned that their saliva contains an anti-coagulant. Natural selection, you are so cool.
I left Khao Sok deeply contented and grateful. It was my first experience venturing deep into the unknowns of the jungle, and I loved it. The copious sweating, the tenacious leeches branding me with their circular bites, the cuts and blisters—all were worth the raw sense of life I felt out there, a rawness I still feel as I write this weeks later.
It’s strange to admit, but in a sense I have grown to appreciate the leeches. The mere mention of the word “leech” causes many people to shudder with dread, but despite the psychological barrier they impose, I think the leeches’ presence played a role in me having the waterfall all to myself that day. Without them, there may have been a crowd of people there, and while I’m certain I still would have been amazed by those cascading falls, the element of solitude enriched the experience and made it unforgettable.
So now whenever I think of leeches, I no longer close my eyes and shudder; I just smile.
Logistics / Tips
- I took the local bus to Khao Sok/Surat Thani from the Phuket Bus Terminal 2 for 180 baht one way. It dropped me off on the main highway near the road leading to the park entrance. It took 4 hours from Phuket, and that included one stop at a market in Takua Pa. The bus can become quite crowded along the way, and there are no stops to use the bathroom until arriving in Takua Pa—about two and a half hours from Phuket.
- I stayed at Coco Khao Sok Hostel—a cozy, clean place with hot showers, good food, and a ten minute walk down the road to the park entrance. At 200 baht per night, it’s a steal. I stayed three nights for less than $20.
- I visited Khao Sok in late December at the end of the rainy season in Thailand. Visiting during the rainy season means the waterfalls will be more impressive, accommodation will be cheaper, and there’ll be less people. The trade-off is the leeches will be plentiful and the chance of hiking in overcast weather is greater.
- If you hike without a guide, I highly recommend using the app Maps.me. It shows the main trails in the park and I was able to pinpoint my location along the trail despite my phone having no service. It saved me many times, especially when I encountered the occasional fork in the trail with no visible sign indicating which is the main trail.
- Don’t sleep in. Wake up with the sun and be on the trail early. Half of the enjoyment of being in the jungle comes from experiencing the wildlife there. The animals are most active in the morning before the heat of the afternoon sets in.