Follow our owner, Richard Sandler on his excursion through the moved history of Khao Sok. As one of the first foreign settlers in the area, he has a lot of stories to share from his experience at the natural paradise of Khao Sok National Park.
It’s only thanks to the Communists that this beautiful rainforest is still here.
From 1975 until about 1985, the Thai government was fighting off a Communist insurgency in the south of the country. The situation became even more interesting when in 1976 rebellious students were gunned down by helicopter in Bangkok, and many of them joined the Communists in the jungle. Khao Sok, with its craggy limestone mountains and numerous hidden caves, became the major hideout for them. Because of this, big investors stayed away from the area and left the forest and the students alone. You can still see some rough-hewn desks and benches in a cave where the insurgents taught school.
In the 1980s I overlaid a map of Thailand’s remaining forest with a map of the “red” and “pink” areas where there were still insurgents, and they corresponded closely. We owe it all to the Communists.
The UN almost destroyed it all.
In the late 1970s, because of the lack of development in the area, Khao Sok contained in its trees a potential treasure of timber. Logging however would be expensive because of the terrain comprised of numerous steep limestone peaks. Experts from the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) hatched a plan to extract this timber by a sort of zipline of cables. When Khun Thani, the Provincial Forestry Chief, and his friends heard of this, they sprung into action to establish the area as a national park, thereby saving a natural treasure of huge forest trees and saving the area for the low impact ecotourism which flourishes there today.
It all started with an American farm girl from Iowa.
Dwaila Armstrong served in the American Peace Corps, which sent her to a national park in South Thailand, where she fell in love with the jungle. After Khao Sok was established as a national park in 1980, she settled down nearby. Her house was a rickety tall bamboo structure near the Sok River. With a background of majestic 200-meter sheer limestone cliffs and huge jungle trees, the setting was amazing. Aggressive monkeys would come swinging through the house terrorizing her visitors, and she could observe wild mountain goats shambling up the cliffs.
Dwaila needed to make a living, and she tried just about everything, but the extremely heavy seasonal rainfall almost defeated her. Deer got hoof and mouth disease, she planted fruit trees, but they take five years before you get any fruit to sell.
In the end, she said let’s build some treehouses in those giant trees, and that was the beginning of nature tourism at Khao Sok, which has since become a world-famous destination.
More about Dwaila
Dwaila was once sipping Thai coffee at a little local coffee shop when a few men sat down with her and started asking lots of questions. What was this all about, she wondered. Later she learned through the grapevine that they were local insurgents who wanted to make sure she wasn’t CIA or otherwise connected to the Government. And that they decided to let her stay!
About the only time, this farm girl ever put on a dress was when she had to meet the King of Thailand. While posted in the jungle, her Thai boss gave her a light-skinned baby elephant whose mother had been shot by poachers. Later an expert identified it as a genuine, rare white elephant. In Thailand, white elephants (ช้างเผือก, chang phueak) are considered sacred and a symbol of royal power. She had the great honor of presenting her elephant to the king.
What’s to Fear in the Jungle?
Afraid of snakes, spiders, big mammals? Let me tell you something. I have been tromping the jungles of Southeast Asia for 40 years, and I can tell what you really need to be afraid of and what you don’t. Let’s start with snakes. About half of any group of people in the world are afraid of them, but the real chance of dying from snake bites is very small. Snakes, like most creatures, are more afraid of us than we are of them. If you walk heavily through the forest, they will almost always slither away. If you happen to encounter one of the deadliest, the King Cobra, remember that it’s almost blind probably can’t see you. Just back slowly away and it won’t bite. Then there are vipers.
Hiking in the Malaysian jungle, I once came face to face with a pit viper. We accidentally surprised each other in the bush. It did snap at me but didn’t bite. I later learned from someone who studied them that indeed its venom is “lethal to humans” but that they rarely actually connect.
How about big mammals? Khao Sok has quite a few of the endangered Asian wild buffalo. It weighs a ton and is called a gaur in Thailand. I was with two companions when one of them charged at us out of a bamboo thicket. But when it was about 10 feet from us, it did a perfect V-turn and ran away from us.
A few other things I’ve encountered, though not deadly, hurt like hell. Scorpions hang out in rotting wood, so when you’re collecting firewood be careful. You have to step on a centipede for it to sting you, but if it does, you’ll feel it. Actually you won’t feel anything for 15 minutes since your leg will at first go numb. But after that, you will hurt like hell. Another one you may not have thought of is poisonous nettles. If you just brush against this with your naked skin, it will burn and itch like crazy. All of the above kept me up with pain for one night then were gone.
Transformation of the Sok River - Beware! Flash flood.
Tubing down the river today it’s hard to imagine that this clear stream once was all grey sludge pouring out of the national park. Before the establishment of the park, a mining company as well as villagers with pans were mining the river for tin. The authorities gave the miners a few years grace period, after which tin mining was forbidden. It took little time for the sludge to disappear and the river to return to its natural sparkling condition. You may see it turn red-brown after a heavy rain, but that’s only a temporary effect of erosion upstream.
Have you ever been in a flash flood? Once every few years after unrelenting heavy rains, our little river rises at a remarkable speed. In one or two hours it can rise by 4 meters (13 feet) and flood our banks. Of course, it never floods our tree houses which start at 4 meters off the ground. Once 30 years ago it did rise to almost 2 meters. It can do this even if it’s not raining at Our Jungle because it’s the rains in the watershed way upstream inside the national park that really makes the difference. It all happens in the space of a few hours, both the up and down. It’s unnerving but exciting phenomena to witness firsthand and just another example of nature’s power.