Our guide through the rainforest leads barefoot. She snaps bamboo shoots from the trailside and whittles them to make toys as we switchback up the mountainside. At the summit, she even fashions a selfie-stick from hairbands and a branch to take group photos. The backdrop is just one arm of Cheow Lan Lake in Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park, which looked impressive enough at water level. From up here, however, I can see still, blue-green waters swerving along muddied orange coastlines and tiers upon tiers of lush vegetation obscuring all but the most vertical, orange-streaked cliffsides.
Our last stop in civilization. Roadside stands sell whole-roasted peanuts in the sweltering heat, somewhere between Cheow Lan and the kitschy national park village. The harsh penalties imposed on drug possession in Thailand do little to stop the growth of international weed culture here, particularly in tourist areas, where reggae bars and pot leaf iconography abound. Out of caution, I don’t seek the stuff out, but as we’re boarding a taxi in Phuket, I can’t help but catch a whiff from our driver’s hand-rolled “cigarette.” At the word “marijuana,” he grins and reaches for a thick folder from the glovebox, stuffed with a kilo of stringy, brown, tobacco-esque bud. I deny his offer to buy some, but gladly accept an improvised joint, which proves a tad too spliffy for my taste.
For now, I skip the souvenirs and load back into the tour van to meet my fellow travelers. Our last stop before the lake is to pick up our guide, a short and stout Thai woman named Pah.
Our longtail boat leaves the dock and cuts through the emerald water. The limestone cliffs looming all around give the impression of being in the mouth of some gargantuan creature, its jagged teeth shrouded in dense, green plaque and deep-rooted cavities.
Despite being within Southern Thailand’s largest area of virgin rainforest, this natural wonder is at least partially manmade. In 1982, Pah tells us, the Thai government began construction on Rajjaprabha Dam for electricity and irrigation purposes, and in 1987 they paid to resettle almost 400 families before flooding 185 square kilometers of the Khlong Saeng river basin. Today, barren treetops still poke up through the lake’s shallow waters as evidence of the submerged rainforests below.
The boat docks at a floating ranger’s station in one cove of the labyrinthine lake. We tromp across rickety planks to the bamboo bungalows where we’ll be sleeping—each just large enough to fit two twin-sizeded mattresses and a shelf to set belongings on. We settle in a bit before diving off the unmanned lifeguard tower. The next few hours are ours to float near the dock or kayak around to neighboring islands, where the forests grow too thick to penetrate.
After our hike we motor back from the trailhead at dusk, the scenery growing richer with waning light. Pah sits at the bow, weaving rattan rings and calling back to the sinewy longtail captain for consult in her search for wildlife. It doesn’t take long. High above the tree line, a lone black gibbon clings to a coconut palm with long, clawed, sloth-like arms, then leaps to disappear in the canopies. At a beach around the corner, a troop of long-tailed macaques fight for dominance, then scurry for the trees at our approach. Through the leaves I can see one bouncing on a branch to claim its territory, and another peeling fruit to feed its pink-faced infant. Still barefoot, Pah hops ashore and, doing her best macaque impression, grabs some of the same fruit for us to try. “Who’s the king of the jungle here?” asks one of our group, an overtalkative Dutchman who must have watched The Lion King one too many times. “Me,” replies Pah, by this point my new personal hero.
Back at the bungalows, our dinner includes sliced dragon fruit, onion tempura, Massaman curry and whole fried fish. Everyone in the tour group stays at the table for hours afterward, exchanging travel stories, sipping Singha beer and laughing at a Bollywood soap on TV, received via a satellite made from old plastic bottles. The local Thais do much the same at the next table over, albeit with SangSom rum rather than beer.
The next morning, as others complain of sleeplessness and spiders in their bungalow, I stretch out from my best sleep in weeks, only to be interrupted by the wake of an arriving longtail boat. Outside the sliding bamboo door, pond skaters zip across the lake’s glassy surface. It’s so still I can see the ripple from my toes spread further and further from the dock.
We’re due to leave at lunchtime.
Shortly before that, however, I step through a gaping hole in the floorboards, plummeting to one knee with a shoe in the water before I can even register what’s happened. It takes some maneuvering to free myself, so that when I do, it’s already time to go. Saying goodbye before the last longtail ride is hard, but I bring back one of Pah’s bamboo whirly-copters with me, a palm-leaf pinky ring, a bee sting on one leg, and a few good scrapes on the other—my souvenirs.