Basically my entire trip to Thailand revolved around my yoga teacher training course at Vikasa yoga so I had to plan a travel route around that. I arrived in Bangkok a week before it was due to begin (since that's when my Cambodian visa expired) but knew that I didn't want to spend an entire week in the city. I did a little research and realized I could head south and make a stop at Koh Sok National park to get in a little nature and hiking before being held captive on a gorgeous island for a month. (note the sarcasm).
I didn't bother doing much research, assuming that I'd be able to get it all sorted once I arrived, I mean how hard can it be to figure out how to hike, right? I decided to leave Bangkok on the overnight train Wednesday which would give me two nights at the park before starting my journey to Koh Samui. I thought I was doing good when I went to the station a day in advance, but apparently I wasn't fast enough because the women at the ticket counter notified me there were only second class seats available. I didn't really want to wait another day so I went ahead and bought the ticket, how bad could it be?
I boarded my train around 7:15 and we were all set for a 7:30 departure; we actually pulled out of the station early at 7:25 which came as quite the surprise to me. We made it maybe 500 meters before stopping, waiting and then suddenly we were going in reverse, umm wrong way!!! Long story short, we finally left a little after 8 and the next 12 hours provided me with one of the most uncomfortable attempts at sleep I've ever had. I used to be able to get comfy on planes, trains or buses but for some reason this time around I was in pain, maybe it's a sign I'm getting old.
Once in Surat Thani I was relieved to 1. be able to stand up and stretch my legs and 2. buy some food (I didn't pack enough train snacks). A taxi driver tried offering me a ride to the park, which of course garnished laughter, knowing it was approximately a 2-hour ride, I don't even want to know what he was going to try charging me. Thankfully he laughed as well and politely pointed me in the direction of the bus stop where I bought my ticket for a cheap 100 baht and waited alongside a few friendly old men.
I drifted in and out of sleep on the bus and soon arrived at the park. I had decided the night before that I didn't want to mission around with accommodation and with my minimal sleep zombi-like feeling I was happy to have my booking complete at Smiley Bungalows. In case you're wondering how you'll get from the side of the highway where the bus drops you off to your accommodation, fear not. There were various drivers ready and waiting with signs to cart the tourists to where we needed to go, even if you didn't have a reservation. I barely got both feet in my room before passing out on my bed, rising roughly an hour later in a pool of my own sweat in desperate need of a shower and food. The rest of the day was spent lounging in my hammock, exploring the tiny town, reading and even a little bungalow porch yoga session.
Okay so the park: after walking around Thursday afternoon I started to wonder if this was going to turn into an expensive trip. Everywhere I looked there were tour companies offering different organized packages: elephant riding, river rafting, a day at the lake, and the list goes on. I started to wonder if people actually went on their own into the park, even Wikitravel was telling me to hire a guide. Friday I was up early and with my hand sketched park map in hand decided to see what the park had to offer. There are two separate check-points when entering the park, the first of which you must pay your 200 baht admission and at both sign in with what time you're entering and who your guide is (if you have one). I started to worry being alone but no one said anything about it so I continued on my way, and I'm glad I did.
Basically, from the park entrance, there are 9 different 'attractions' that you can see, most of which being waterfalls or swimming holes. There are two main trails, the first that goes west towards seven of the sights (pictures above), while the second trail branches north to only two. I decided to take the route with more to see and set my sights on the furthest waterfall 'Ton Kloi" approximately 7km from the park entrance. The first 3 km of this trail are a walk in the park; actually, it's not even a trail but more of a road, eventually ending at a small rest area 'Bang Hua', at which point the nature trail starts. There was a sign warning that this trail was closed between 4 pm and 8 am but I didn't see anyone enforcing this, I guess it was just precautionary?
I took this trail all the way to Ton Kloi and had no problems, except the mini heart attack I suffered when I thought a monkey was about to attack me. But seriously, the trails are all clearly marked with frequent signs pointing you in the right direction as well as warning you of a 'slippery route'. The level of difficulty is not very high with the hardest part being the last little bit before Ton Kloi. There's a sign marking "200m" until the falls but this is definitely in the wrong spot, I did notice someone wrote in permanent marker "800m" which is probably more accurate, or maybe it's just that the '200m' go straight down, back up and then back down again; so nice of them to save the hard part for the end!
The waterfall isn't the most impressive that I've seen but there is a beautiful pool of water to swim in and some big boulders you can climb on, which make for some good sunbathing or a relaxing snack break. The best part of hiking out to this waterfall is that you'll likely have it all to yourself. I would've stayed to enjoy it longer but for some reason, my legs wanted to move so after a quick swim, a little sun and some food I was back on the trails. Officially the trail ends here but I guess if you wanted to be adventurous you could continue on your own, I decided to turn back, leaving myself enough time and energy to check out the other sights I had passed on the way.
Heading back towards the park entrance I stopped at Tang Nam which is a cool spot to swim and has a great view of where the Sok river created a large gorge in the rocks. Unfortunately, the gorge is behind a different big rock so you can't get a picture of it, unless you want to go swimming with your camera. After that, there is a fork in the road with a path leading out to Than Sawan which I chose to skip and instead make a stop at Bang Leah Nam, a 'small waterfall' but seemed more like a stream with some rocks in it, still pretty, though. Wang Yao is described as a 'large and beautiful pool' but to be honest, I found better swimming at the other waterfalls, this was just a spot of water with a fallen tree and lots of small rocks you have to wade through to get to the swimming. The final stop I made was at Bang Hua Rat which is near the small rest area and again my pamphlet seemed to do some embellishing here, either that or I was looking at the wrong thing because "A large and beautiful waterfall" I did not see.
All said and done I had a great day in the park, I'm glad I didn't listen to most of what I read and decided to do it on my own. The park is completely accessible and I never once felt unsafe as a solo female traveler. There's no need to hire a guide unless you interested in getting off the main trails and exploring a bit more, which if I were to have stayed longer I may have done. I'm not sure if this park is still a bit of a hidden gem or if everyone does the organized tours because the entire day I barely saw any other tourists. I started to think that no one was brave enough to test the trails on their own but I guess they were just hiding. When I signed out from the guestbooks at the end of the day there were loads of other names recorded. I did notice however that most of the names had a guide accompanying them and many of them only stayed in the park for a few hours. Personally, if I'm going to pay admission for something I like to get a full use out of it, but that's just me.
High on the tourist track for a reason, home of good food (mostly) happy people, rich history and culture. Thailand as many tourist soon learn is just easy. Easy to visit, easy to get around and even easier to stay.