It might be artificial, but Cheow Lan Lake in Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park has the emerald water, towering limestone karsts and silent serenity that the country’s increasingly overrun beaches were once known for.
The jagged, jungle-clad limestone karsts shoot up from the water’s surface, reaching several hundred meters into the sky. They are silhouetted against each other as far as we can see, the mist blurring the craggy clifftops. The water is emerald green.
We are cruising on a longtail boat, its hull adorned with shredded pieces of bright, colorful fabric. The scenery looks exactly like the ads for a Southeast Asian beach paradise. At least until you start looking a little closer.
There are no beaches, no sand and no towns in sight. No roaring motorcycles or distant music either. The only thing audible is the hawking motor of the boat, and when the captain turns that off, there’s nothing but silence.
“Look, a hornbill!” our guide Nopporn Naonan exclaims. But by the time we’ve turned our heads in the direction of the bird, it is long gone.
We are on Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park, roughly halfway between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand in the southern half of the country. The national park has become a popular destination for travelers looking for the unspoilt nature and cheap bungalows that many of Thailand’s other beaches no longer offer. Most visitors stay for a night on two, going on boat safaris and hikes in the eerily beautiful landscape by day, and sleeping in floating bungalows by night.
While the area is estimated to be around 160 million years old, the lake is more of a millennial. It is, in fact, artificial and was built in 1987. It took over a year to flood the 185-square-kilometre basin, which was flooded with the water from a diverted river. In many places, the lake is as deep as the steep limestone karsts are high.
Cheow Lan Lake was created as a multi-purpose project that was meant to generate electricity, tourism, irrigation and fishing. Close to 400 local families were resettled, and more than 1300 animals were rescued. While the families were resettled in a nearby village before the basin was flooded, the animals were rescued by boat and helicopter to make sure they wouldn’t drown or get stranded on the hundreds of soon-to-be-created islands.
“The cave is suffering from having so many visitors. People touch the walls, scare away the bats and leave trash. We try to clean up, but it is too much.”
Nopporn Naonan, park guide
It’s difficult to imagine how life once unfolded at the bottom of the basin—but not everyone has to. Our captain, the owner of the boat and a small floating bungalow on the lake, has lived here all his life. His family owned acres of durian trees before the resettlement, and when they were unable to get used to life in the new town, they moved back to the area and now live on the shores of the lake.
During the resettlement, every family was given eight acres of land, one for their home and seven for a rubber plantation, and 1,000 Thai baht (USD $30) per month. The families had more money, better health and better access to education after the resettlement, but despite the project being touted as a best-case scenario for resettlements by the Thai government, our captain and his family would have preferred to stay.
“They left all their durian trees to drown, because back then durian was cheap,” says Nopporn Naonan. “Now it is so expensive. He would have been a rich man if they have stayed, but now he is poor like the rest of us.”
The captain does not laugh. He steers the boat towards a cluster of huts floating on the water and drops us off on the rickety, wooden pier.
Though there’s no traffic or infrastructure in the national park, a few families have been granted permission to open guesthouses on the shores of the lake. They consist of bungalows built on rafts, attached to small floating restaurants. The bungalows are basic, built out of bamboo with mats made of straw, and no locks, electricity or water. The lack of amenities is forgotten as soon as we plunge into the cooling lake from the walkway, less than a meter from our mattress. We float on our backs, looking up at the jagged karsts, while people kayak and swim around us.
The mist is hanging low and the top of the trees are covered in clouds, but as the sun starts rising, it burns away the grey. A group of macaques frolick loudly in the bamboo trees, just meters from our boat.
The guests at the other bungalows are predominantly European backpackers, though a few families with kids, retirees and big groups of Asian tourists are here too. In recent years, the lake has become more popular, and the number of visitors has increased as well as the higher-end bungalow options.
“A few years ago we mostly had more serious hikers who wanted to stay for a while, do multi-day treks and sleep in the rainforest,” Nopporn Naonan tells me “Now most people just come for one or two nights, and they do not want as many hikes.”
Nopporn has worked as a guide in the park for over 10 years and been an advocate for opening up its forest, caves and coves to more people. Now, as the onset of day trippers has rendered part of the lake crowded with boat traffic and trash, he’s starting to regret it. Earlier in the day, we visited a deep cave, filled with bats and stalactites. Nopporn was part of the group of guides who convinced the national park authorities to let them take local and foreign visitors there—but they hadn’t anticipated how many they would end up bringing.
“I regret it,” he says. “The cave is suffering from having so many visitors. People touch the walls, scare away the bats and leave trash. We try to clean up, but it is too much.”
The following morning, we meet up before sunrise to go for a boat safari around the lake’s most remote shores. The national park is home to elephants, tigers, bears, wild boars and deer, but mostly we see gibbons, macaques and a few of the 300 species of birds found in the park. The mist is hanging low and the top of the trees are covered in clouds, but as the sun starts rising, it burns away the grey. A group of macaques frolics loudly in the bamboo trees, just meters from our boat. The captain turns off the motor and regards them with an amused smile on his face, seemingly as entertained by their behavior as the rest of us.
As we sail back towards the floating bungalows for breakfast, Nopporn Naonan signals for him to turn off the engine again. “Look! A mouse deer!” he says, giddily. “The smallest deer in the world!”
We look where he is pointing and see a tiny deer head bopping up and down in the water. When it has safely reached a nearby island, our captain revs up the engine. He greets the passing boats that have begun to arrive in this far corner of the lake, all carrying camera-toting tourists.
“The day trippers do not come here yet, it is too far away,” says Nopporn Naonan after waving at a colleague in one of the passing boats. “But it’s getting busier. To see animals and feel the quiet, you have to go to the most far-away shores of the lake.”
As we sail back to the gateway later that day, I notice how the landscape is almost cinematic, more movie set than reality. The colors seem too bright, the mountain peaks too jagged, the lake’s shores clashing too abruptly against the steep sides of the cliffs; time yet has not smoothened out the sharp lines between the water and the walls. Perhaps it is because we know the lake is as young and new to the scene as the rest of us; that it too is a visitor, a new addition to a jungle thought to be older than the Amazon.
As we enter the final basin, the lake is suddenly teeming with traffic. The smell of diesel and constant roar of chopping boat motors and laughing tourists is a shock after the quiet solitude at the far end. The dam becomes visible too, stretching out close to the dock where we disembark. It’s tiny compared to the majestic mountains, now disappearing behind us like a fading memory. It seems impossible that the dam is able to hold so much water, and that something so small and young can potentially change something as timeless as the mountains of Khao Sok National Park.
Michelle Arrouas is a Danish-French freelance journalist based in Berlin, covering international affairs, European politics and travel. Recent bylines include BBC Capital, Harper’s Bazaar, CNN’s Explore Parts Unknown, and Roads & Kingdoms.