Untouched Thailand

The jungle is dense around here, pressing in on all sides around a cool river gushing past the rocky bands.

Slosh, slosh, slosh – hikers have to wade through the water on occasion, when those banks get too steep or that jungle presses in that bit too close.

It’s humid, sticky. Hard to work out if your shirt is soaked in swear or the river water that’s splattered about. Justin, our guide, is up ahead, practically skipping over the rocks, making light work of what really is a tough virgin jungle. This tip is, in fact, taking bushwalking to extremes.

It’s prime leech territory, obviously, with a jungle floor of dense, damp undergrowth that slaps at hikers’ legs with each step. Every now and then you see a leech’s freakish little body waving around on the ground, searching in vain for a tasty limb. There are also snakes around here, maybe the odd monkey. It’s wild. But then again, it’s supposed to be – you don’t come to Khao Lak looking for urbanity.

The area sits on Thailand’s west coast, about 100 kilometres north of Phuket – and, in a sense, about a million miles away. While Phuket is all buzz and hype, rowdy bars and excited tourists, Khao Lak plods along in the slow lane. The centre of town, Bang La On, retains its village feel, with just a few of the telltale T-shirt shops and massage parlours that signify the presence of tourists.

Other than that, however, it’s life at its natural best: beaches, coral reefs, jungles, waterfalls and national parks. There are family-run bungalows to stay in, or boutique beachfront hotels you mightn’t want to leave. But you should — Khao Lak is all about getting in touch with nature.

The hike we’ve embarked on is in Bang Yai, an area of jungles, rivers and mountains. The adventure is set up by The Sarojin resort, a boutique hotel which hugs Khao Lak’s white-sand beaches, and the staff promises something wild today. Even the drive to the trail head is spectacular as we pass tiny, rustic villages that remind you that you really are in rural Thailand, not just the bizarre ‘Resortland’ of the luxurious beachfront.

“OK, just follow the river uphill,” Justin says with a sweep of his arm upwards into the dense jungle when we arrive. It’s an optimistic order. This is looking increasingly like it’s going to be a long day.

Justin is unperturbed, striking out in the lead, taking confident steps into the great unknown. You have to remind yourself to take in the amazing mountain views as you haul your carcass over rocks and splash through cool water. Occasionally, the banks get so steep that us hikers have to leap into deep parts of the river, paddling hard before dragging ourselves up rushing waterfalls. The Sarojin had guaranteed an “extreme” adventure, and on this front they’ve delivered.

Yesterday’s boat trip seems a long time in the past. Twenty-four hours ago we had been perched on the back of a speedboat, bumping across the ocean as we headed to the coral reefs that stand guard along the Thai coastline. Plenty of people come to Khao Lak for the scuba diving — it’s a good sign when you find the dive shops on Bang La On’s quiet streets outnumber the dodgy tourist bars by about three to one. The diving here is world-class, with plenty of marine life in the warm ocean. On our trip, however, we settle for a lazy snorkel, floating around in a watery heaven, taking in life under the sea.

The dive is followed by canapés and cold beers on the deck, which is not very rustic, let alone Thai, but it felt very fine to us at the time. This is part of the appeal of Khao Lak — there’s a chance to get away from it all, but also a chance to retain a few of those good things in life.

Cliché candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach are available, though they retain a secluded appeal. The former are available nightly anywhere along the sands of Khao Lak’s beaches, from upmarket resort kitchens to modest local joints that still offer the toes-in-the-sand experience. The latter could be an endless pursuit, untroubled by the touts of Phuket, or the buzz of far-off jetskis. It’s just miles and miles of empty sand to explore.

But back to the hike. Khao Lak has plenty of national parks to choose from, some heavily populated with local and foreign tourists, and others a little more… rustic. Bang Yai is rustic. It’s two hours into our adventure and we haven’t seen a single soul, unless you count the snake that someone spotted up in the distance. As it turns out, we don’t see anyone for the rest of the walk.

It’s just a slog uphill through the harsh beauty of untouched jungle. Finally, we reach a spot where we can climb no further, so Justin peels off to the side, pushing his way through the undergrowth to a path cut high up onto a ridge. It’s an old farmers’ trail, and it’s through here that we’ll make our escape to civilisation.

Back at the van five hours after setting off, we guzzle grateful slugs of cold water from the esky, then take deep breaths and pull up our trouser legs to check for any blood-sucking passengers. Gulp. One, two, three, four… nine. There are nine leeches attached to my limbs. Justin gives them a quick spray with citronella and they’re gone, but it’s a handy reminder that we really are in wild country.

That’s it for the hard stuff. Next we pile into the van and head to nearby Sri Phang-Nga National Park to see a waterfall popular with locals for a quick dip. This is national park again, although the jungle feels far less threatening. There are well-trodden paths to follow and permanent picnic tables set up, one which groans under the weight of a buffet lunch laid on by staff at The Sarojin.

This is more like it: Thai beef salad, Andaman prawn curry, chicken and cashew crab cakes, and rice. There’s a weird dichotomy between having to check your nether regions for leeches and then sitting down for a gourmet picnic set on a white tablecloth, but it is all worth it.

A true adventure — a little bit of danger, a small slice of luxury. A hike, a swim and a tour of rural Thailand. And, of course, a few leeches.

More Escapes

Here are a few more decidedly tourist-free Thai destinations to visit.

Bottle Beach, Koh Phangan: While the south side of this island is infamous for its full-moon parties, the north side is far quieter and generally untouched. Beautiful Bottle Beach can only be reached by boat, but it’s worth the effort. There’s little to do on this quiet beach but lie in hammocks and watch crabs scuttle past — perfect.

Krabi: The town of Krabi itself is fairly uninspiring, but hop on a long-tail boat and head for Railay Beach, and you’re in for a treat. There, rock-climbers scale the huge limestone monoliths that rise out of the clear ocean, kayakers smoothly paddle past and others simply choose to pull up a spot along the stretches of white sand and relax.

PaiUp in the country’s north, Pai is a small town just a bus trip from the more famous Chiang Mai. It offers the kind of rural relaxation Thailand does so well — bungalows set on local farms, waterfalls to explore, hot springs to relax in, and plenty of cafes and restaurants at which to wile away the hours.

Words by Ben Groundwater - Published in Voyeur July 2012
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 314,000
Time Zone GMT +7
Languages Thai
Currency Thai Baht
Electricity 220 Volts. Several plugs and sockets are used, but two pin flat (US type) or round (European type) are universal. Adapters can purchased from local stores
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