Kayaking on the wild side
Khao Sok National Park by paddling around its attractions
Story and pictures by ROBERT DAVIS
The brochure sounded
interesting enough _ observe wildlife, rare birds, Asiatic black bears,
Asiatic wild pigs and other animals that have been listed as endangered
species. Our adventure, the wording said, would take us into Khao Sok
National Park, southern Thailand's largest park.
was uncertain about the next statement _ we wouldn't be trekking or touring
in a long tail boat, for the animals would certainly flee from our sight
at the sound of humans approaching. No, for our trip, we would have to
paddle to areas that are inaccessible by foot and only reached by kayak.
"Touring by kayak,"
I read, "is comfortable and convenient, without disturbing the environment."
Maybe the last statement was correct, but I wasn't sure about the comfortable
one problem. I said to Dave Williams, owner and operator of Paddle Asia.
I am not expert paddler.
"Never mind," Dave
replied with assurance. "For this trip we can teach you all you need
to know in less than half an hour."
I met Dave at the Phuket Hash
House Harriers a few months ago. Dave is an athlete who loves extreme
sports. Before settling in Phuket, he paddled many of the Americas' toughest
and most dangerous rivers. "I was fortunate enough to combine my
love of teaching, paddling and wildlife into a profession," Dave
confesses with a smile.
And as I was about to learn,
that was just what our tour would include. After entering Khao Sok Park
in Surat Thani, we immediately drove straight to Chao Lan Reservoir where
we unload supplies of bottled water and food and our kayaks.
What makes Paddle Asia unique
is that its fleet is comprised of US imported
traditional kayaks and not the common sit-on-top or inflatable kayaks
that are popular with daytrips around Phuket's islands. For our trip we
would be sitting down low, inside the kayak hull, level with the water.
Our first destination was too far to paddle and we had to load our supplies
into a long tail boat that would transfer us to the base camp. With our
kayaks securely fastened behind us, we sped off over the calm waters of
Chao Lan Reservoir. The part that I was concerned about was confirmed;
it was comfortable, sort of.
One thing that was evident
from the very beginning was Paddle Asia's commitment to an environmental
friendly tour. They don't just advertise eco-tour, but live it. Dave requires
his long-tail boat operators to use a muffler. Muffler-less long tails
not only interrupt the peace and calm of the park, but also scare away
much of the wildlife as well.
Our base camp for the first
couple of days was Glai Son National Park Bungalows, offered a string
of floating bamboo huts deep in the heart of the reservoir. Here our adventure
would begin. My hut was located down a long, floating walkway that sagged
and creaked with my every step. Inside, the hut was simply built out of
thatched palm. The bamboo floor of the hut was less than six inches above
the lake and a thin mattress surrounded by a mosquito net made up the
rooms furnishing. A window lifted out and there was even a door that led
onto a narrow ledge where we could secure our kayaks and even dive in
for a swim.
Over a lunch of rice and fish,
Dave explained what we could expect to see and what was rare. But first,
he would give me an introductory class on paddling technique. Learning
to paddle was simple enough and now I was ready. Joining us on the trip
was Moo, Dave's wife and partner, and Chick Dowd from Martha's Vineyard
in the United States. Chick is the owner of a sea-kayaking company and
spends the off-peak season each year travelling the world searching for
exciting and exotic kayaking destinations. She has paddled amongst whales
in Nova Scotia and even managed to paddle her kayak through the Panama
We stowed our cameras, film
and binoculars into dry sacks and secured them to the kayaks. And a couple
of bottles of water each since we would be gone for a few hours. We were
Slipping into the water we
set out. I was a bit awkward at first, but I managed to keep the kayak
from tipping. I followed the wake of the others and settled into an easy
rhythm. We had been paddling for less than ten minutes when Dave adjusted
his paddle swinging the kayak around smoothly and quietly. The others
copied his move and I, a little less graceful, followed. Dave pointed
up at the trees.
"Gibbons," he whispered
barely able to hide his excitement. "Wild gibbons."
Dave signalled for me to come
closer to his boat. There are few places in the world where you can see
gibbons in their natural habitat. Most people only see them in bars or
fairs where they are exploited for their cuteness.
"Much like we use trails
on the ground, oftentimes they follow tree-top trails," Dave said.
We had been paddling for only
a few minutes when we heard a continuous whooshing high above. With an
unmistakable flight pattern of the helmeted hornbill, which are native
to Southeast Asia. Helmeted hornbills have a red, wrinkled neck and a
tuft of black feathers on the crown. Their wingspan is up to two meters
and the tail feather has an extension of up to a foot and a half. With
the help of binoculars I was able to see the red eye, which identifies
him as the male.
During the next couple of hours
we paddled along the shorelines lined with bamboo, palms and old growth
jungle. In the coves we saw patches of milfoil plants and morning glory
and high above in the branches of dipterrocarp trees wild orchids were
growing. During the next two hours we were able to see an array of bird
species such as; great slaty woodpecker, crested serpent eagle, wreathe
hornbill, ospreys, grey-headed fish eagle and other raptors. But we were
far from finished. As dusk was approaching Dave suggested we paddle over
to one more cove. He had seen some heavy prints along the bank only the
week before and was eager to photograph the prints if they were still
there. "What were the prints," we asked. He didn't answer.
In a matter of minutes we were
nearing the shoreline of the cove he had indicated. A big smile appeared
on Dave's face, as there was no mistaking the prints now. Heaps of elephant
dung lay in piles where the sand bank had been trampled upon while the
elephants bathed in the cool lake water. Judging by the freshness of the
dung, we had probably just missed seeing the Asian elephant in the wild.
However, all was not lost. Soon I was about to see another animal take
a bath. Arriving back at our camp, everyone tied their kayaks to their
huts. All of us, except Dave that is. Taking out a bar of soap from his
kit, he lathered up while still sitting in his kayak. Suddenly, he performed
a series of rolls in the water, dunking himself under and over again in
the water. Rinsing complete, both Dave and his Dagger Kayak looked clean
"Let me see you brush
your teeth that way," joked Moo from the dock.
The rest of us would bathe
using the more traditional shower in the park, a Shanghai jar and dipper.
That night over a dinner of
grilled barramundi and snakehead fish, curries and fresh fruits Dave brought
out his laptop computer to begin a virtual tour of the many species that
he has photographed during his eleven years as a kayak tour operator.
He went onto give us clues for identifying bird species by observing the
various flight patterns and calls of the birds, and the differences between
dusky langurs and gibbons. Elementary stuff for experts, but helpful information
for a novice like me. Soon, I would discover the joy of being able to
recognise a species and call out his or her given name. These presentations
are an important feature of Paddle Asia tours, often missing from other
tour companies. To work, they need a presenter who can explain the complex
species of wildlife and their relationships in their habitat.
"Our goal is to not only
introduce people to the joys of paddling, but the love and respect of
nature and wildlife," Dave said seriously.
We were served a breakfast
of pancakes with sliced bananas and Muesli. Today would be a full day
of paddling and we would need all of our energy.
"We are fueled by carbohydrates,
not hydrocarbons," Dave said with a grin. Dave cuts a lean, athletic
Today's schedule would include
a morning paddle followed by lunch and then we would transfer to another
camp that would allow us to see a different variety of flora and fauna.
The morning paddle was filled
with a wide variety of bird species. I could barely contain my excitement
when I was able to identify a wreathed hornbill by name and gender. When
Dave confirmed that I was correct, I let out my own wild, whooping call
Chick said pointing at me. We all had a good laugh at that one.
Time passed quickly and all
too soon we turned around for our paddle back to camp. After lunch and
a short rest, we set out for Din Daeng, an area that is known for its
red soil and high, thick grass that rises from murky swamp-like water.
Paddling in the Din Daeng water was slow and often times tedious, but
all of our efforts were rewarded with some beautiful bird sightings. As
there are many dead trees in the area, woodpeckers are common. And we
saw plenty. My favourite was the Greater Flame back Woodpecker with its
colours of golden back and red crest on a male and black crest on female.
Another one that got everybody excited was the Stork-bill kingfisher.
With its blue wings and black, yellow collar and breast, and a heavy red
beak. We were fortunate enough to observe the kingfisher as he swooped
down to the water, grabbing a fish with his mouth large red beak and return
to his perch atop a dead tree.
Paddling our kayaks through
a maze of high grass we were joined by palm swifts and barn swallows darting
all around us. But our delight would soon turn to sadness. Spotting smoke
rising from the marsh we thought it strange for a fire in the marsh. Could
it be campers? We paddled over for a closer look. We noticed two men quickly
duck down out of sight. Poachers! We had accidentally snuck up on a poachers'
camp. We were not the only ones who came to seek out Khao Sok's abundant
We moved our camp to another
part of Chao Lan Reservoir, Ton Tui Bungalows. Here the bungalows were
of the same design as the first, only in better condition and fewer guests.
In fact, we were the only visitors there.
The day had been full of paddling
and wildlife sightings and each person was happy, tired. Wanting a bath,
we decided the best way was a swim in the freshness of the lake. Dave
suggested we get to bed early as he had a surprise for us tomorrow. Little
did I know what that would mean.
Next day we were up early and
after breakfast, we loaded our kayaks, bringing sandals as Dave had told
"Great. We are going for
a hike," I said.
"Sort of," Dave answered.
On our final day in Khao Sok
we would paddle alongside the great Karst rock formations. Impressive
formations that have an internal drainage and percolates to the water
table. It is here, inside the Karst, where underwater caves and hidden
pools can be found. I had no idea what exploring them would mean. Finding
the entrance he was searching for, Dave signalled for Chick and I too
paddle over. Tying our kayaks together, Dave told us to bring our shoes.
But, first there was a warning.
"Normally, I don't take
guests on this tour. Only if I feel they are fit and experienced in the
outdoors," he said looking at me cautiously. "We will be climbing
up and over rocks and swimming in caves with little or no light. And then
we will swim through some tunnels. If you don't feel comfortable, you
don't have to go. No problem."
I thought quickly. Dave was
an extreme sport enthusiast. Chick was a professional kayak guide who
also scuba dives and especially loves cave dives. And I was a writer.
I didn't have much time to decide, as Chick was already halfway up the
rocks. No way, was I going to stay behind while a woman went ahead. Or
at least I thought. Dave grinned and pointed out some toeholds. The rocks
were jagged and sharp. There were no ropes or ladders. We would have to
reach high and pull ourselves up, avoiding not only the razor sharpness
of the rocks that we were trying to climb, but also, from falling onto
the rocks that lie just beneath the surface below.
At the top, we found a crater
that had a hidden pool of emerald green water. From our position high
above we could see rocks jutting out from the pool below. Dave steadied
himself and in one careful lunge dove out high over the rocks and into
"You'll want to dive out
far and with a controlled belly-flop," he instructed Chick. Instantly,
she was airborne. Now it was my turn. I looked for a safer way down to
the pool. There wasn't one. Steadying myself, I dove out as far as I could.
Coming up for air, I saw Dave and Chick grinning as they shook the water
from their faces.
What a belly-flop, Dave admired.
Damn near drained the pool.
We left the sunlight and swam
into the cave. It was dark and with a small flashlight Dave beamed up
above. Bats! Hundreds of them. But we didn't need to see them to know
that they were there. For we could smell them, and of course, feel them
as it rained from above. Swimming into the darkness I thought of a programme
I had seen on the National Geographic channel about Siamese crocodiles.
"I don't think that they
are too common in these parts," he answered.
"Not too common, or not
at all?" I asked sharply. "Not at all," he laughed.
Swimming on we explored the
cave. Ahead shone a ray of light illuminating the dark water. Great, we
would be climbing out soon. I was wrong.
"Here we'll swim down,
under, through a tunnel and out to the other side," Dave said. "Take
a deep breath."
My pulse quickened. Doubt filled
my mind. Could I do it? Instantly, Dave was down and under. Then Chick.
I was next. I looked behind and there was nothing but darkness and murky
water. I waited. How far was the tunnel? Hold my breath for how long?
In a flash Chick was back. "It's only about 20 feet. Don't worry,
I am a certified lifeguard and I know CPR," Chick said. "Nice
to know," I said.
Taking a deep breath, I dived
down and into the water tunnel. I could see a faint trace of light and
I swam hard till out and then kicked my legs till my head broke through
the surface with a gasp. What a rush! Nothing to fear, but fear itself,
Back at base camp we packed
our gear and loaded once again in the long-tail boat. Our trip over, we
would motor back to the headquarters of Khao Sok National Park. The ride
back allowed me to reflect on the trip. Before starting out, I had never
thought that bird watching could be so exciting. Neither had I thought
about the delicate balance between national parks, wildlife and tourism.
I am not a natural thrill seeker. The idea of climbing rocks, swimming
in caves and through tunnels had always intimidated me. Not anymore.
Getting there: Khao Sok National
Park is located in Surat Thani. (Roughly halfway between Ko Samui and
Phuket). Bangkok Airways (tel. 02-265-5555) operates four flights a day
to Phuket and six flights a day to Ko Samui.
Kayak tours _ all ages and
experience levels welcome. (School group tours available upon request.).
are the only ones who do what we do...
and you can do it with us!