Wednesday, 24 July 2019

By Thawat Wattana

Many people enjoy limestone landforms because these natural phenomena are marvelous and fantastic in shape and contain many wonders inside – mystical caves, beautiful stalactites and stalagmites and even underground streams. But such mountains and hills are not found everywhere in the world. They appear mostly in the tropical and subtropical zones. That is because they are formed when the calcium carbonate in the limestone is carried away in solution by rain and groundwater containing carbon dioxide, leaving only the insoluble material to form a covering to the rocks, and only in these regions are both the annual rainfall and the carbon dioxide content in the rain very high.

Thailand is a country rich in limestone landforms, mostly located along its western border from Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son in the far north, through Kanchanaburi and Phetchaburi down to Surat Thani, Phangnga, Krabi, Trang and Satun in the far south. In these five southern provinces, limestone mountain ranges and isolated and joining hills are found all over, both on land and offshore and have become among the principal attractions for Thai and foreign tourists for decades, similar to the Guilin region of China, where the limestone landscape has been well known for centuries for its beauty. Among the numerous scenic limestone landforms in southern Thailand, there is one very special site that may surpass all the others. It has not become widely known enough, perhaps because of its somewhat remote location, and so we’d like to recommend and share some information about this wonderful place.

You may have seen Ko Tapu and other steep islets on Phangnga Bay. You may have visited Chiang Dao Cave near Chiang Mai which is among the largest in Thailand. You may have been taken to a small roadside hill near Phetchaburi town and found to your surprise that there is such a large cave inside the hill named Khao Yoi which is only about 120 metres high. But have you ever found any limestone mountains or hills around or on a large lake? There is one in Surat Thani province. The lake is called Chiao Lan, also named Ratchaprapha and is a part of Khao Sok National Park.

Khao Sok National Park was set up in 1980 as the 22nd national park of Thailand. It covers an area of 645 sq.km. of tropical rainforest in Phanom and Ban Takhun districts in Surat Thani province. Later, after a dam was built and the area of the reservoir was added to the park, making a total of 738 sq.km. Being the largest area of virgin rainforest in Southern Thailand, it has recently become top ecotourism destination for nature lovers and adventurers. The main attractions of the park are iconic limestone hills, waterfalls, caves, and streams. Sok River is one of the most popular attractions and a perfect place to enjoy bamboo rafting. The park also features many caves, but the most beautiful ones are Pakarang and Nam Talu where visitors can admire numerous stalactites and stalagmites.

Ratchaprapha Dam was built in celebration of the 60th birthday of His Late Majesty King Bhumibol. It is also called Chiao Lan, because it is the name of the village where the dam was constructed to stop the water from the small stream Phra Saeng. The dam is 94 metres high and 761 metres long and the reservoir has a water storing capacity of 5,639 million cubic metres. The work was started in 1982 and completed in 1987 at a cost of 5,095 million baht.

After its completion, about 162 limestone hills partly submerged and became islets of various shapes and sizes. Among them, the most striking must be a group of three or Khao Sam Kloe in Thai, which are of about the same size with some verdant vegetation on top, lining up rather neatly and leaving passages between them just wide enough for small boats to pass. Anyone seeing the scene on the spot or in a photo of it must be amazed at the miracle of creation of nature or the Almighty. The area is a photogenic spot where the name “Guilin of Thailand” comes from. Besides, there are several canals sprouting from Chiao Lan Lake, which make it perfect for boat and kayak tours.

Though some people may have an enjoyable one-day trip, many tourists prefer to get more pleasure from spending several nights at the lake. Simple and close to nature raft houses are available all over the lake at reasonable rates (with meals and activities). Most raft houses also offer many options of long tail boat tours. There are lots of things to see and do around this area such as fishing, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, cave exploring, swimming, and sightseeing or you can simply relax on the raft house reading your favourite paperback.

A lovely group of three outcrops, plus more than 150 others, lie in a bluish green, tranquil lake. Not to mention the rainforest with rare wildlife and elephant trekking. Just irresistible, isn’t it? If you want to visit Chiao Lan Dam or Khao Sok, the easiest way is to book a trip with a reliable tour agency. Hopefully, you will have an opportunity to see this natural wonder of the world before long.

How to Get There

From Bangkok to Surat Thani:

By air: There are flight services between Bangkok and Surat Thani from both Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports, but the latter offers more flights. The flight takes 1.10 hours.
By road: 644 km. from Bangkok by Highway 4 or by Highway 35, then change to Highway 4 at Thon Buri - Pak Tho. It takes about 8 - 9 hours.
By bus: Daily coach service from Bangkok Southern Bus Terminal, located on Borommarat Chachonnani Road. Most buses depart in the evening and the journey takes about 9 to 10 hours.
By train: The trains depart from Hua Lamphong Railway Station several times daily, taking about 12 hours.

From Surat Thani to Chiao Lan Dam:

Chiao Lan Dam is located 70 kilometres west of Surat Thani on Highway No.401. Travel along the Highway, turn right after passing kilometer marker 52 and proceed for another 12 kilometres along the road leading to the dam.

Air-con bus from Surat Thani runs every hour starting at 07:00, passing the Surat Thani Train Station. Tickets can be purchased at the Surat Thani Bus Station located at Talat Kaset. Transit time is around 2 hours. There is also a minibus service departing every hour from 06:00 to 17:00.