‘Snake!” My guide’s shout shattered the peace of the lazy Sok river in Khao Sok national park, southern Thailand. He grabbed the rubber ring I was floating in and dragged me to an overhanging branch to gaze up at the black and yellow coils. For someone with ophidiophobia – fear of snakes – it wasn’t the ideal start to my community-based tourism trip. But even terror couldn’t entirely detract from the beauty of the river, meandering between dramatic karsts.
I’d wanted to avoid Thailand’s hotspots – such as Phuket, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui – and explore a lesser-known part of the country on a trip that brings revenue to poorer communities, and this was definitely off the beaten track. Rickshaw Travel offers “bite-size” trips lasting two to four days that can be combined to create a longer itinerary (I was doing three mini itineraries). The idea is to offer some of the flexibility of independent travel without the hassle of backpacking.
After a couple of days in Bangkok, we’d taken a sleeper train south to Surat Thani, which most travellers use as a gateway to the islands. We, however, turned inland instead for a stay at Anurak Community Lodge, between Khao Sok and Khlong Phanom national parks. The 18 stilted bungalows are surrounded by jungle, staff are mainly from the nearby village, and local guides take visitors out in Khao Sok park, a protected area of ancient rainforest that’s home to around 50 mammals, including elephants, leopards and tapirs. Out trekking, we spotted a troop of baby long-tailed macaques playing in the trees, and back at the outdoor restaurant watched a giant dark cloud of flying foxes float off to their feeding grounds at dusk.
The next day we moved on to Cheow Lan lake, about an hour away. We took a longtail boat to one of several raft-houses built for tourists to spend a night on the lake that help fund the upkeep of the national park. The vast lake is just 35 years old, created after the building of a dam flooded the area, and 385 families were resettled. Surrounded by jungle-clad limestone cliffs, it resembles better-known Phang Nga Bay near Phuket or Halong Bay in Vietnam. The only clue to its origins are the dead trees that push up through the water, ghostly reminders of the flooded forest.
The raft house’s floating bamboo bungalows are basic – ours slept two on mattresses on the floor – but the setting is incredible. I stepped out on to the deck and dived straight into the warm, clear water before climbing into a kayak for a paddle. Next day, we got up at dawn for a wildlife safari by boat, led by local guide Ot; the creation of the national park in 1980 meant jobs for guides and rangers.
The mist was still on the water and the clouds hung heavy on the mountains; ours was the only boat in sight. We could hear an ape’s mating calls, and saw langurs and toucans before finally spotting the noisy male gibbon swinging through the trees. Later, we trekked to a panoramic viewpoint – passing claw marks left on trees by an Asian black bear.
After the lake, it was time to experience the river. We headed to Khlong Noi, between the Ta Pi and Phunphin rivers, about half an hour from Surat Thani. The village has been involved with community tourism since 2006. Our host, Chay, told us this has made a real difference to people’s lives: the rivers have been cleaned up and the fish and shrimp have returned, so that fishermen can make a living again. Villagers work in cottage industries instead of spending long days in Surat Thani’s factories – we met boat builders, a man who makes fishing rods, plus growers of organic vegetables and coconut palms.
We stayed with Chay’s aunt, uncle and cousin in their riverside house (homestays are another source of income), where we ate the best food of the trip – a feast of massaman curry, prawns with green chilli sauce, fried fish with ginger, minced chicken with basil, chicken and coconut soup, and Thai scrambled eggs with greens. The family spoke little English – except young cousin Boom, when he overcame his shyness – but were extremely welcoming, encouraging us to “help” with cooking and pruning the topiary animals in the garden.
The house was perhaps grander than a typical village residence, but still gave an insight into local life. We four guests slept together on the floor in one room, with the family in another; there was a squat toilet and a barrel of cold water for washing. When night fell, our hosts took us down to the river at the bottom of the garden to watch the fireflies flickering in the trees. It was magical – and a lot more welcome than hunting for snakes.
How to do it
Flights and accommodation were provided by Rickshaw Travel. A three-day Bangkok – Longtails & Tuk Tuks trip costs from £168pp; a three-day Giant Trees & Lakes of Khao Sok from £398pp; and a two-day Village Life by the River trip from £198pp.
Best time to visit
The dry season, between November and April. Songkran (Thai New Year, 13-15 April) is great fun, but accommodation gets booked up well in advance. Bargains can be bagged in May, June and late October; avoid September, the wettest month.