21 April 2015
CHEOW LAN LAKE – CONFRONTING SNAKES, BATS AND SPIDERS
21 April 2015
We edged our way through the chest-high, jet-black waters of Nam Talu Cave in search of the infamous, large and very rare spiders that live there. Suddenly a scream ahead signalled that something was in the water that we weren’t expecting to see. What we could see were people frantically wading to the side of the narrow channel to avoid whatever it was that was scaring the bejesus out of them.
“Snake!” someone yelled as the realisation hit me that Nicky and I were next in our row of 14 people to come face to face with the serpent, which I was convinced would be the size of an anaconda with an attitude to match. Thankfully Pom, our guide, had by now formed a one-man human shield to ensure our safe passage, as we gingerly side-stepped our way around him, glancing back to see the cave monster we’d narrowly avoided.
Turns out the snake was actually very anaconda-lite and completely harmless. A stripe-tailed cave racer snake, apparently. Trauma over, now for those big hairy spiders. But back to them later….
We took a two day/one night tour to Cheow Lan Lake from our accommodation in the village of Khlong Sok, which is a central base for most activities around the magnificent Khao Sok National Park. It’s possible to do the tour independently, and also to book a private tour, but the cost can be quite prohibitive.
Our group of 13 included five Belgians, a German family of three, two Russians and a Canadian. And the nature of the trip meant that we got to know each other quite well.
Cheow Lan Lake itself is a huge reservoir which was only created in 1982 when a dam was built, immediately flooding huge areas of pristine jungle. It was quite a controversial act at the time as it meant that, in addition to the loss of vast sections of ancient jungle, large numbers of animals were either wiped out or driven out by the rising water. The resulting lake, though, has created a whole new eco-environment, with islands where there were once hills and the tips of once tall trees jutting out from the water.
Believe me, the scenery from the long tail boat which took us from the lake pier to our accommodation at the Tone Tuey floating bungalows was extraordinary. Huge limestone karst cliffs rose from the lake, reminding us of those we saw around the Krabi area, but on a much larger scale. Apparently, they originated from the same seismic earth movements that created the famous karsts at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Guilin in China.
Tone Toey Raft Bungalows
After an hour of possibly the most scenic long tail boat ride anywhere, we arrived at the floating bungalows that would be our base for the next two days. As we disembarked we had to negotiate the rickety plank-laden walkway to our simple bungalow. It’s probably fair to say that the walkway hadn’t had a safety certificate issued recently by the Thai Health and Safety Office….mainly because no such office exists.
And the sight of a couple of guys pulling up a weather-beaten plank in front of us before nailing it back down in exactly the same spot didn’t exactly fill us with a sense of well-being either. Particularly as I’m the sort of person who’s normally only one step away from another completely avoidable disaster.
Nevertheless, we made it to our bungalow, which was essentially an over-sized kennel with a mattress and mozzie net. But if there’s a kennel with a better location in the world I’d love to see it. As one of twenty-or-so “floating bungalows” it was set on a kind of bamboo raft with the jungle immediately behind us, and views of the lake, jungle, and mountains in front. Stunning.
Only one thing for it after dumping our stuff in the kennel – jump in the lake to cool off. Only it was like jumping into bath water it was so warm. Suitably refreshed I then took one of the available kayaks to have a look at this part of the lake. As I approached the opposite side I heard some rustling in the trees. My patience was rewarded with the sight of three gibbons eating and playing amongst the branches. So this was the jungle then. Impressed.
Nam Talu Cave
After a lunch of stir fried chicken, vegetables and steamed rice, it was time for the three-hour jungle hike to, through and back from Nam Talu Cave. With the promise of having to wade through water which would reach neck-height and be confronted with big spiders and lots of bats, it was something we’d thought about passing on. That was until Jasper, a ten-year-old German in our party, had confirmed that he was indeed going and wanted know if he could see the spiders at close quarters. Naturally, with national pride at stake, we had to “take one for the team”. And so off we went, like two reluctant participants in a survival reality TV show.
The hike itself was relatively easy, although the heat was stifling. Along the way, we crossed a stream which was home to dozens of multi-coloured butterflies that danced around us. But that was nothing compared to the number of butterflies that seemed to be raging inside my stomach as we reached the entrance to the cave. Spiders are really not my thing so this was going to be about confronting one of my main fears. Nicky’s not exactly a fan of caves either.
Headlamps adorned we took a collective deep breath and stepped through the black, musty opening of the cave. It felt like we were getting on board the world’s scariest ghost train ride.
And immediately we were waist deep in cold water, with large boulders to negotiate as we tried to keep up with our guide. Waist deep then turned into chest deep (note: eye-level deep for Nicky), which is where we met our serpent nemesis from earlier in this post.
At one point Nicky was having to swim as she couldn’t touch the bottom at all. Thankfully the water-bound section of the cave soon came to an end, which meant that we could relax and continue on our way. Only I couldn’t relax as this was prime spider territory. Time to man up and look them straight in the eyes.
The first one we saw was only about the size of my hand. Blue in colour, with a large body. It was, dare I say, quite a beautiful thing. Around the corner, there were more of them. Dozens, in fact, their eyes lighting up as our headlamps illuminated them. None of them was moving thankfully. Dozens of motionless spiders I could just about handle but dozens of spiders on the march in total darkness would be the stuff of nightmares. We’d been told that some of them were the size of dinner plates so these guys must have been pre-teens or something.
Beyond Spiderville, we came across dozens (hundreds?) of bats clinging to the roof and walls of the cave, their shrill squeals echoing all around us. Our guide clapped his hands and, all of a sudden, lots of them flew from their resting places and raced around above our heads. Not sure where that sits with viewing animals in their natural state but, nevertheless it was quite a sight.
And, finally, after about 45 minutes and 800 metres of Indiana Jones-style adventure we made it to the cave exit point and back into the steamy jungle. After our initial reservations, it had been quite an exhilarating experience and one that we were both glad we’d had. Thanks, Jasper!
Dinner and Night Safari
Back at HQ, we spent some more time chilling beside the lake before we made our way down to the reception area for dinner. And what a dinner it was, considering how remote the location was. Whole, locally caught deep-fried fish coated with sticky sweet and sour chilli sauce, chicken massaman curry, stir fried vegetables, omelettes and of course, steamed rice.
Stomachs filled we got back onto the long tail boat and headed off for a night safari. Not one that involved trekking through the jungle but a more leisurely cruise along the lake with a very large searchlight. Initially, there didn’t seem to be anything to see but Pom managed to seek out quite a few large and beautiful hornbills among the trees. As he did, he switched off the engine and we watched in silence as these graceful birds moved ever-so-slowly in and around the branches.
While not as exhilarating as the cave trek it was very soothing to watch and listen in awe at the sights and sounds of the jungle at night.
Those sounds continued into the night as we retired to bed relatively early. In fact, there were some almighty noises coming from both the lake and the jungle. Pom told us the next day that the lake is home to some huge catfish, and we’re convinced we must have heard at least one of them on the prowl, considering the very loud splashes of water just in front of our bungalow.
And then there was the noise that sounded like someone was shooting with a rifle. Pom again explained to us that this noise is caused by large trunks of bamboo crashing against each other resulting in trapped air from inside them being released rapidly. Sounds plausible I guess.
But the most incredible sounds were those we awoke to at around 5:30 am. We could hear a cacophony of birds, insects, monkeys and aquatic life which sounded like nothing we’d ever heard before. Added to that the classic vista of a dead calm lake and mist-shrouded mountains yawned in front of us. It was all we could do to just sit there on our “porch” and drink it all in.
Cheow Lan Lake Morning Safari
At 7 am Pom was signalling to us again that it was time to board the long tail for our morning safari. This time, we saw more gibbons feeding and jumping around in the high canopy and more hornbills taking flight between the trees and over the lake.
But it was when Pom switched off the engine and we sat there quiet and motionless, gazing at the truly spectacular views of the lake, jungle and mountains shrouded in morning mist, that we realised we really were somewhere very special. Unforgettable is a word that can sometimes be overused but this really was one of those moments that will remain so.
I hope the following photographs can in some way do it justice…..but somehow I doubt it.
Breakfast and Snake Cave
After an hour or so of this, we again returned to base for our breakfast of American pancakes, syrup and…..bananas Which (strangely enough) have the same effect on Nicky that spiders have on Ian. As bowls of the yellow monsters appeared at the table Nicky had to make a swift exit to another table some distance away. And I was left to brief our fellow guests who had been left slightly perplexed!
We then re-packed our overnight bags and boarded the long tail to our final destination of the tour, which was across the other side of the lake, amongst the most spectacular karst scenery of the whole area.
As we landed at our new base Pom promised us a more vertical jungle trek up to a cave that featured snakes and even bigger spiders. He claims it’s called “Snake Cave” but I think he just made it up for effect. Anyway, Nicky decided to pass on this one and catch up with some swimming in the lake. A local ranger then took a few of us up, through the jungle, which was pretty tough going.
I again adopted my disaster-waiting-to-happen persona by putting my foot through another plank-cum-walkway above the lake, resulting in a nasty graze to my left shin. I had considered cutting the trek short on account that an open wound such as it was could potentially attract a range of blood-sucking beasties deep into the jungle. But, battle-hardened from my wildlife encounters at Nam Talu Cave (and also because young Jasper was by this time almost leading the group by himself) I wiped down the wound with my own sweat and manfully caught up with the rest of the group without a grumble.
There was plenty more sweat where that came from though as it was a continuous uphill trip for the best part of 45 minutes. Along the way, we came across some very large spider webs and the biggest ants I’ve ever seen in my life. Seriously, they must live in an ant hill the size of a small mountain.
The cave itself was very different to Nam Talu. There was no water running through it for a start. And it was very flat in comparison. We did see just the one snake (I told you Pom was making it up) and a frighteningly large tarantula, but the most numerous cave-dwellers by far were the hundreds of bats.
Our guide then asked us to switch off our headlamps and we stood there for one minute in total darkness as the bats flew around us. Incredibly eerie.
The trek back down seemed to be just as hard as it was on the way up but we eventually made it back to base for lunch. Health and safety conscious as ever, someone had patched up the plank I’d put my foot through earlier and it was again acting as the main thoroughfare from the jungle across the water. Thankfully no accidents this time.
And so we finished the tour with another rice and chicken-based lunch, another swim in the lake and a long tail ride back to the pier.
A truly memorable experience which we both feel very lucky to have encountered. For 2600 baht each (£55) we received all transport (mini-van to/from our accommodation and long tail transfers), entrance to the national park, food (including four meals and water), two boat safaris, two jungle treks to caves, and some of the most incredible memories.
Back at Khlong Sok, exhausted and tired, we grabbed some late-afternoon sleep before reuniting with our fellow adventurers at Pawn’s restaurant (more on this fabulous place in another post) in the evening.
If you’re planning on going to Thailand in the near future and would like to do something which is not only awesome but is also not heavily commercialised (well not yet, anyway), then we can thoroughly recommend Khao Sok National Park and the Cheow Lan lake tour in particular. But don’t settle for the day trip – take the overnight option instead. When you awake early and take in the sounds and sights of the jungle from your floating bungalow you’ll understand the reason why.
For more information on Cheow Lan Lake visit the Khao Sok Lake website.
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Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.