I didn’t sleep very well, blaming the sounds of the jungle, rain on the roof and the broken shoulder. My crappy Casio cheapo watch alarm wasn’t loud enough to wake me up though and I had to throw everything I needed for the lake tour into bags in a matter of minutes, wolfing down breakfast before my truck arrived.
I shared the back of the pickup with three other travelers, friendly Andy and Katarine from Switzerland and an attractive German girl called Anne. We chatted as the truck took us along the scenic highway, past the impressive limestone formations and the jungle back towards Surat Thani for about an hour, stopping at a town on the way to pick up some last-minute things. I bought a new poncho, as our guide, Ya Ya (yes really), warned of rain, and I’d forgotten to bring my dog-scarred one with me.
The truck drove us uphill and over the crest we saw the mighty reservoir. It was made in the 80’s and covers hundreds of kilometers. They made a big dam and flooded the national park valleys to create it, for hydro power. It was a massive disaster for the environment, destroying the habitats of the jungle wildlife and trapping many animals on islands in the middle of the lake. A rescue effort was made to try and save some of them but it was a futile exercise. Now the lake is touted by the Thai tourism board as one of the most beautiful places in the world, which it may well be, but at what cost?
We were dropped off at a dock where we bought a pass to enter the national park (I had to pay again despite paying yesterday!) and hopped into a longboat, which Ya Ya drove. The docks were quite busy with other tour groups, long boats roaring out into the lake. We set off and passed a few big dams on the left. On the right the jungle loomed on the shores, and in the distance were impressive hills and limestone formations.
The sun was shining to begin with but as we came closer to the amazing scenery ahead, the rains came, and hard. We hunkered down and peered through our hoods at the awesome surroundings as rain lashed against us. Tree covered islands poked through the water. Towering limestone cliffs reared either side of us with greenery filling every crevice. The hills in the distance were dark and moody silhouettes. You could see banks of rain in the distance and mist rising off the forest.
We occasionally passed other longboats in the distance and the rain cleared up. Now you could see the tops of dead trees sticking up in the water, just like the reservoir up at Sangklaburi I’d been at a few weeks ago. They were 30 years old but still standing, creating an eery atmosphere. Although the scenery was awe inspiring I felt mixed emotions that so much had been destroyed to create it.
We passed a row of raft houses, one of the four floating lodges on the lake. The expanse had opened up here, jungle and towering hills were in every direction. Ten minutes later the lake narrowed as we turned into one of the large inlets. We saw an eagle swooping overhead. Ya Ya steered the boat deftly between some dead trees by the shore and cut the engine. As we coasted forwards he pointed out a large hornbill bird perched on a tree skeleton. It was black with a huge yellow beak, similar to a toucan. It flew off when we got too close.
A little further up we turned into another inlet and saw our raft lodge near the shore. The location was amazing, here the lake was narrow, still and full of little inlets. There were no sounds except the boat and the jungle. Thick forest came right to the shoreline all along the bank. We hadn’t seen any other boats here. There were about 15 little floating shacks connected by a wooden walkway, and some larger buildings with a few longboats moored alongside. As we pulled in, we saw another tour group having lunch, and as many Thai staff lounging around and chatting. We agreed we’d need to kill this other tourist group so we could have the place to ourselves, maybe by sabotaging their boat. Ya Ya gave us a choice of activities and on his advice we decided to do the jungle trek tomorrow and have this afternoon free, as it was likely to rain the rest of the day. Animals don’t like the rain either so we might stand a better chance seeing them tomorrow.
The whole lodge was connected by wooden plank walkways, punctured with bent nails and uneven footing. One part of the walkway looked like it had come from an old door or house. The rooms were small and super-basic, a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net and simple wooden walls and doors, a single window with a shutter hatch. Through the gaps in the floor you could see the water inches below, with little fish swimming around. The structure floated with a bamboo base and big trunks from a buoyant kind of tree. The lake water was quite clear by the edge and you could see large fish swimming. The restaurant sported some big animal skulls, one of which was a tapir, a strange large furry mammal whose skull almost looked like a rhino without a horn. A wooden walkway led to the shore where concrete steps led uphill to the simple toilet shacks (amazingly western flushes!), surrounded by dense jungle. Aside from the chatter of the staff and their blaring radio, the place was amazingly peaceful and the water completely still. Monkeys and birds called in the distance over the sound of cicadas.
We went straight for a swim, diving off the lodge. The water was warm and relaxing. Andy took a kayak onto the water and I decided to try too. They’re really hard to roll so even one-armed I should be alright. Getting in was tricky but once on the water I was fine, paddling gently around which didn’t seem to aggro the collar-bone too badly. We came back to have a hearty Thai lunch and afterwards decided to take the kayaks out again, this time in the two-man ones. Andy and Katarine took one and me and Anne in the other. I took a life jacket in case I ran into difficulty, but soon used it instead as a cushion!
We paddled down an inlet and immediately saw monkeys in the trees alongside, a troupe of black lemurs. We watched them swinging around and eating for a bit. We pushed through a load of wooden debris in turgid water upstream, and got to a rocky river flowing into the lake where we had to turn back. Now we headed out into the main lake. It was very peaceful. We watched an eagle getting harassed by a smaller bird, both swooping around in large arcs. The eagle eventually gave up and went out of view. We crossed to the other side of the main stretch to explore smaller inlets covered in forest, finding some more monkeys as a hornbill flew past. The rain kept schizophrenically coming on for a few minutes and would then stop, even as bright sunshine shone on us. All over the lake clusters of big water skimmers (or water spiders as they call them here) scooted over the surface, sending little ripples everywhere. Occasionally you’d see a fish jump. At one point I saw a bird of prey in the distance dive into the water and take off with a fish in its claws.
Me and Anne scooted ahead, I was able to paddle a bit and help. Anne was from Berlin and last year part of a rowing team so I was in good hands! A few boats passed us, one guy in a small motorboat who we found later in an inlet fishing. We continued to explore until we got tired and headed back. It was an amazing place and a great experience, so quiet and fun to explore at your own pace. When you get tired you just sit back and float along, watching the scenery and scanning for movement in the trees.
Back at the lodge we relaxed a bit and the other tour group had left (maybe Ya Ya did kill them after all?), leaving only four of us for the rest of the day. We were outnumbered by staff two-to-one! One boy was fishing with a tin can and string with bait on the end, straight off the walkways. A few of the staff slept in hammocks and listened to the blaring radio. Ya Ya had spent much of the afternoon lying asleep on an open-air mattress. The staff here work for 3 weeks and have one week back at civilization, all year round. It must get pretty boring when it’s quiet. They seemed to play a lot of card games for money. Although it was quiet now, in peak season the lodge’s full every day with tourists. There’s no road or paths here, the only way in is by boat, and all supplies are delivered that way.
The rains came again. The pattering of raindrops on the lake looked pretty cool. Andy returned from the toilets to say he’d seen monkeys on the loo roof! The fisherman from earlier returned with a catch, completely drenched.
The jungle was alive with noises, and you could hear the air raid siren cicadas blaring out over the lake as it got dark. A bat flew above us under the roof, catching flies. Out on the walkways, you could hear loud frogs very close, but we couldn’t spot them. Up at the toilets there were loads of frogs hopping off the path. The lights up there attracted many bats and they swooped all around the little cubicles at breakneck speed, really close to the walls and doors, even swooping down into your cubicle from above and swooping out again. Andy went up there and let out a girly yelp when a bat swooped past his legs! We tucked into a massive dinner, including a big fish from the lake. No-one else ate fish so I devoured half of it!
At 8pm we set out on a night safari, it was only drizzling now so we stood a chance of seeing something. We got into the longboat and it was pitch black once we got away from the lodge. Ya Ya steered and had a powerful spotlight which he shone along the lakeside at the forest wall, scanning for movement, or the telltale reflection from animal eyes. Not far up, he spotted a civet cat (like a small leopard which eats fruit) really high in a tree. It was far away and I couldn’t make out the reflections of its eyes so I can’t claim to have seen it really!
Further along we saw a brown owl perched on one of the dead trees. It would screech from time to time. Later Ya Ya spotted some red hornbills sleeping on some bamboo branches. They sleep on bamboo so that if a larger animal tries to climb up to them, the vibration wakes them up. Amazingly even with the light on them and all the noise we were making, they didn’t wake up. Too many beers that night, I suggested.
We didn’t see anything else unfortunately. It’s quite lucky to see the big animals on these trips, but in the past guides have seen cats, tigers, and tapirs down by the waterside. It started raining again. Back at the lodge Anne went to bed and the rest of us played some cards. Mid-way through, Ya Ya brought me a present!
This huge cicada was alive, and one of the ones which sounds like an air-raid siren. Ya Ya held its wings against its body so it couldn’t escape, but you could hear it buzzing loudly. I took it off him and you could feel its wings vibrating hard. He’d found it disorientated, attracted by the light. It was quite a freaky thing to be sure! When I released it, it flew around randomly and crashed into the floor. Ya Ya said once they hit the lights it’s pretty much game over for them. A shame, because they only come out at the end of their life cycle – the massive noise is to attract a mate, but they spend over five months underground before that. We continued with our game of Shithead (or “The Biggest Loser” for the polite amongst you!). Katharine, who’s never played before, won nearly every game, and I was definitely the biggest loser! Never trust the Swiss, that’s what I say! Ya Ya joined us for a game and put us to shame, he gets to play a lot of cards because he comes out here all the time! When the generators got turned off for the night, it was time to turn in, with the sound of the rain and the jungle all around us.