Cars scream by on the left. Motorcycles zoom past on the right. Coconut-laden trucks tempt head-on collisions, sending oncoming drivers into the median. Chaos on the highway. If driving on the left side of the road in England is tricky, then driving in Thailand is near impossible, because there is no correct side of the road here. They just go.
This was the kind of urban jungle my companion, Dalton Cole, and I wanted to escape last August as we headed north on the Thai Peninsula toward a real jungle. It was the third week of our Southeast Asian grand tour. We had never been to Asia, and I wanted to research the area for a screenplay I'm writing about spies and the heroin trade.
We already had been north once, trekking to the hill tribes around Mae Hong Son, a rough, mysterious city that borders the frontier of Myanmar, the old Burma. We rode an elephant, skipped along the river and poked around a village of "long-necks" (the Karen tribe people who elongate their women's necks by adding on a brass ring each year of early life). Yet the experience seemed slightly forced and not as wild as we had hoped. Hundreds of tourists a week do the same thing, and the so-called trails are really dirt roads.
After reading only two pages in the the trusty "Rough Guide to Thailand," we knew exactly where we wanted to go: Khao Sok National Park, home of tigers, dense forests and treehouse accommodations.
The detour meant giving up some time at a luxury resort in Phuket, an overdeveloped island on the west coast of Thailand. We were glad we did; Khao Sok's beauty was incomparable.
And for our yearning for the wild? Well, Khao Sok is truly an uncivilized, gibbon-whooping, crazy jungle on the Thai/Malay peninsula, 74 miles north of Phuket. The abundance of fauna and flora is so vast in the 400-square-mile park that scientists are still taking stock. So far they have documented 48 species of mammals, 184 species of birds and 50 species of snakes, including cobras and pythons.
High in the craggy peninsula, enormous limestone formations, or karsts, shoot up from Earth's crust, some rising thousands of feet in their gray-green glory. Milky mists whip around the spires and sink to hang in the valleys below. This was our view after our precarious two-hour drive north from Phuket. We rolled down our car windows and stopped at the dirt-road entrance to the park. The gibbons were howling, and so were we.
We moved past the shabby guest houses at the park's entrance and headed for Our Jungle House at the end of a long dirt road. Even though we didn't have reservations, fate was with us: One of the two treehouses was vacant.
An expatriate Irishman named Francis Rodgers, who has made his home here for the last 17 years, handed us a kerosene lamp and pointed us down a densely forested path. After a five-minute walk along the Sok River, we found our treehouse.
I dropped my bags and shimmied up the steep ladder of a staircase. Something was moving on the roof. A family of macaques was in the tree, knocking debris down onto the house. We watched the monkeys from our porch; babies straddled their mothers' bellies, big daddies fought over newly discovered treats and others in the group played some sort of a game we labeled monkey tag.
The treehouse was just large enough to fit a queen bed on risers draped in mosquito netting (complete with a Disney-characters bedspread), a separate bathroom with a sink and Western toilet (heaven for creepy critters) and a small but adequate porch. The toilet was a nice touch until we discovered it was home to some very creepy critters.
Night in the jungle is louder than a freeway at rush hour. Cicadas screech, the trees come alive with swaying branches and the exertions of unseen animals, a chorus of frogs delivers a nonstop oratorio. In the middle of this, we dined by candlelight.
Tim, Francis' Thai wife, cooks for Khao Sok guests. Isan-style barbecued chicken, fried vegetables with cashew nuts and spicy somtam (papaya, tomato, lemon and chile salad) were the succulent courses. The tables were full, and everyone complimented her on whipping up these delights in such a remote place.
Earlier, Francis had spent the day trying to persuade us to go on a one-day jungle trek near Cheow Lan Lake. I wasn't sold. I'd heard about having to wade through streams filled with snakes and bloodsucking leeches the size of dogs.
It wasn't until the Oregon backpackers dining next to us likened it to "the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland--but for real" that my curiosity was piqued. "What about the leeches?" I asked with a shiver.
"Get some Tiger Balm; they hate it," was the response.
I tried to probe more, but they said they didn't want to reveal too much; it would spoil it. All they could say is that the trek was the highlight of their three-week trip. "OK, we'll do it," I said hesitantly.
The morning was alive with gibbon calls as we packed into a four-seater truck. With us were the guide, Dam, a slightly built native of Khao Sok, two German women (both ex-nurses) and a woman from San Francisco I dubbed "Rave Girl," who said she throws parties in warehouses.
To reach the trail head from park headquarters, we took a spectacular one-hour longboat ride across Cheow Lan Lake, the largest man-made lake in Thailand. Then it started to rain.
Sheets of warm water showered us. The two Germans pulled out their red ponchos and smugly put them on. Ponchos or not, if Indiana Jones could handle it, so could we.
Soaked, we arrived at the isolated Tone Teuy Creek floating raft house, the staging point for the trail. We disembarked and ate our lunch (curried vegetables and rice), bought at a village where we had stopped, and waited for the storm to pass. Joining us were a group of frat dudes from Chico State in California. Our party agreed that compared with their obnoxiously loud gibbon calling and beer-induced chants, hiking in the storm seemed appealing, so we jumped back into the boat.
Up Tone Teuy Creek (I would call it a river) we reached the trail head, but thick bamboo blocked our access to the shore. We had to wade, and with no time to think of what might be sharing the water with us. Our destination was Namtaloo Cave, a half-mile-long river tunnel. My fear of the water left as soon as we stepped into the jungle and encountered the leeches. Small, worm-like and disgusting, they began to attach themselves to our sandaled feet. Dam told us to keep moving. "More will come; they feel your heat." He gestured to the jungle floor, and sure enough, all around me, they were inching closer, ready to devour. Apparently, it's an old "African Queen" myth that these leeches live in water; they would drown. The stream was now my friend.
As we walked, leeches attached themselves to us, and we burned them off with a cigarette or just pulled at them and hoped they'd come off in one piece.
We didn't see any tigers. The elephants were hiding in the mountains. And the only bears around were the Chico State guys whooping up the trail a few yards behind us.
We did see several pythons (at a safe distance), elephant dung (still not decomposed after six months) and jungle flora so impressive in its beauty that we shrugged off the leeches as a mere nuisance.
After two hours, we arrived at the cave entrance and noticed something strange. The stream seemed to switch directions and head into the vast, dark opening of the cave's mouth.
Waiting for us were Dam's two assistants, climbers who would carry our belongings along the walls of the cave above the stream.
"You swim," Dam said and pointed to the cave.
With water rushing at points more than 6 feet deep, the best thing was to relax and let the current carry us. Imagine a water slide whipping you around a rock-filled obstacle course in the dark. Indy, eat your heart out.
Forty-five minutes later we came out the other side and were, amazingly, back on the same elephant trail.
We had budgeted a nice hotel into our plans every third or fourth day of our three-week Thai tour. Because we had only one day left in Phuket, I had secretly planned for us to go to the other extreme from our rough jungle days: one night at the luxurious Amanpuri (meaning "place of peace"), the flagship hotel of the Aman Resort chain and rated among the best in Thailand.
After a 21/2-hour drive, Dalton and I barreled up the long driveway to the Amanpuri. With our mud-covered jeep and our jungle-soiled clothes, I wasn't sure how the staff would receive us.
All judgments were well hidden behind gracious smiles. " Sawadee. Welcome, Mr. Goetz and Mr. Cole." I was astonished. How did they know us?
It's the details that make this place so special. The pavilions where guests sleep have a particular feel of Thailand. With floors made of maka wood (similar to teak), a raised roof in traditional Thai style and walls sparsely adorned with sculpture, minimalism is the key--and soothing style the reward. But best of all was the inviting large, low-rise teak bed. The bathroom was nearly as large as the enormous sleeping area. I made a beeline for the sunken marble tub and soaked away the jungle vibe until my hands were prunes.
We were so exhausted that we chose sleep over dinner.
Breakfast on our private sala, a cushion-filled gazebo with views across the palm-tree-covered grounds, was copious amounts of fresh fruit and perfectly sweet pancakes. Lunch was at the Aman Terrace. We feasted on plaa nuea yang (grilled beef salad with white eggplant, chile and mint), guay tiow paad thai talay (stir-fried noodles with seafood) and polamai gub khanom Thai (fruit and coconut). This, downed with a celebratory bottle of champagne, was the perfect way to end our Thailand experience: toasting our adventure while resting in the lap of Aman luxury.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Guidebook: Taking a Thai Trek
* Getting there: Thai and United airlines fly nonstop from LAX to Bangkok; connecting flights are on JAL, Korean, EVA, Cathay Pacific, China and Air China International. Restricted round-trip fares start at $879. Thai and Bangkok airlines fly to Phuket for about $100 round trip.
* When to go: You can visit Khao Sok National Park (between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand) any time, although April to June is miserably hot. Winter and early spring are the best times to visit Phuket. In summer, when we were there, the Andaman Sea was too rough for diving or taking out a charter.
* Getting around: National and Avis car rentals at the Phuket airport run about $33 per day for economy class. We rented a four-wheel drive for $23 a day from an independent agent across from the airport. To get to Khao Sok from the airport, drive north on Highway 402 until you are off the island of Phuket. At Khokkloi go north on Highway 4 to Takua Pa and take Highway 401 east up into the mountains, a treacherous but scenic 45-minute drive to Khao Sok.
For the less adventurous, overnight bus trips from Phuket to Khao Sok can be arranged. They include treehouse stays, elephant rides in the jungle and lake excursions; three nights cost about $300 per person. Contact Lost Horizons at http://www.losthorizonsasia.com.
* Where to stay: There are many guest houses in Khao Sok. Our Jungle House has two treehouses for rent for $20 per night, plus half a dozen bungalows. To contact Our Jungle House, you must fax 011-66-2-863-1301. Guest houses can arrange excursions. A full-day lake excursion costs $42, a two-hour elephant ride $18, river tubing $5.
At the Amanpuri Resort, tel. 011-66-76-324-333, fax 011-66-76-324-100, Internet http://amanresorts.com, Garden Pavilions start at $400 per night, Deluxe Oceans at $780; two-to six-bedroom villas are $1,110 to $4,800 per night. Aman Resorts; tel. (800) 637-7200.
* Where to eat: Our meals at the guest house were never more than $10 (including beer).
Lunch for two at the Amanpuri Terrace ran $155, including tip and a bottle of champagne. The resort's fine dining spot, the Restaurant, serves Italian cuisine.
* For more information: Tourism Authority of Thailand, 611 Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90004; tel. (213) 461-9814, http://www.experiencethailand.com.