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Saturday, 7 September 2019

A 4D3N Nature & Adventure Retreat in Khao Sok

When my adventure-loving friends joined me for a 4D3N trip to Khao Sok recently, I got asked how I found out about the place. It started some time back when AA had their RM0 airfare promo. I noticed that one of the destinations with such offer was to Surat Thani. I then started to google for “things to do in Surat Thani” and top on the list was Khao Sok National Park. So I googled more about Khao Sok National Park and “treehouse accommodation” attracted my eye. That was how I found out about Our Jungle House, our place of stay for the 3 nights we were in Khao Sok recently.

By the time we decided to make this trip, AA no longer had direct flights to Surat Thani. The nearest airports with direct flights from KL would be either Phuket or Krabi, with another 2 – 2 ½ hour drive to Khao Sok. We opted for Phuket. However, beginning September this year, you can fly direct to Surat Thani from KL via AA. If you love nature & adventure, then I’d certainly recommend you to this place. 

Day 1, 30th August 2019: Due to the recent system breakdown at KLIA & KLIA2, passengers were advised to get to the airport as early as 4 hours before our flights. Our flight was at 7.10 am, and so based on that logic, we should be at the airport by 3 am. I had however booked my Ipoh-KLIA2 bus earlier, expected to arrive KLIA2 at 4.45 am. I had ample time to print my luggage tag & check-in my luggage before meeting up with the rest of the gang. By 5.30am, we started moving in to the International Departure hall, went through immigrations etc and performed our subuh prayer.

Our flight was on time, reached Phuket International Airport earlier than ETA, but as we landed, it rained heavily, thus began our Let’s Get Wet holiday in Thailand.

I had earlier arranged with Our Jungle House for airport transfer so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting lost. As we had 10 pax in the group, the person I was liaising with via email, advised that I should take 2 vans. I was told that someone will hold a card with my name on it. As we exited the airport, we saw this...

I was expecting 2 vans, but instead we got a single 11 seater van which was comfortable enough for us and despite our luggage being full of food stuff (mostly instant noodles & rice – we knew there wasn’t any halal restaurant in Khao Sok), there was enough space for all of us plus our luggage. After about a 2 hour drive, we reached our destination... Our Jungle House.

My first impression? Love it! My kinda place.

We arrived around 11.30 am, and initially we were told that our rooms weren’t ready yet (check in was supposed to be at 2 pm), but as we were making plans to walk around the place, we were told that our rooms were ready. So off to our rooms we went. 4 of us at Half Moon treehouse, and the other 6 at Happynest treehouse. It rained on and off, so after checking into our rooms, and after our zohor/asar prayer, we just relaxed in our rooms, waiting for the rain to subside.

When we thought that the rain had finally subsided, we planned to walk to Khao Sok town, about 20 minutes walk from Our Jungle House. But just as we were getting prepared to go out, it rained again. We were not going to let the rain dampen our holiday spirits, and although the treehouses we stayed in had beautiful views of the cliff and soothing sounds of the jungle and the river, we decided to put on our raincoats/ponchos and take that walk to town. One of the gang even brought along her umbrella. Those without raincoats/ponchos, could easily buy one at the reception for only 40 baht.

After maghrib/isya prayers, we started preparing our dinner of either instant noodles or rice. Knowing that no kettles are provided in the rooms, I brought along my collapsible travel kettle (capacity 600ml). I personally only needed the kettle to prepare hot drinks. For food, I only brought along Kembara’s self-heating rice with either beef or chicken. The 4 occupants of Half Moon then headed over to Happynest  (with our instant food and all) to join the gang there for dinner. And since it was the eve of Malaysia’s National Day, we took a group photo together with the Malaysian flag which I had brought along for the trip.

Day 2, 31st August 2019: Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! At the reception as we were getting ready to go for our first tour, the Full Day Lake Tour, we met the GM of Our Jungle House, Gonthong, or GT, who’s married to a Malaysian and has stayed in Malaysia for quite a number of years before moving back to Thailand. Having stayed that long in PJ, she certainly sounded like a Malaysian when she spoke. When she found out that a group of Malay ladies were staying at Our Jungle House, her main concern was how we were going to survive without any halal restaurants around. Little did she know that we came fully prepared! GT was kind enough to offer to snap a group photo of us, again with the flag, but this time by the river. (the night before I had the help of my mini-tripod and used the timer to have a group photo taken)

We then started our tour in a 14 seater van. Other than the driver & the 10 of us in the group, we had Ed, our guide for the tour, and 2 other tourists from the same resort, an Italian guy and his Turkish girlfriend/wife. Before the journey began, we were asked about any special food requirements, and we were happy to note that they would provide halal food for lunch. And since the Turkish girl doesn’t eat pork, she was also a perfect match for our group.

After about an hour drive or so, we had a short stop at a small town before heading to the pier of Khao Sok National Park, to buy some tid bits. We bought some Thai desserts and a few also bought langsat. Upon reaching the pier, we had to purchase the entrance ticket to Khao Sok National Park @ 300 baht each, before getting on to the boat.

Halfway through the boat ride, the boat stopped in the middle of the Cheow Lan lake, and Ed the guide told us to put on our raincoats/ponchos, as we could see heavy rain looming ahead. Yep, just like day 1, day 2 was also going to be a wet day for us. Ah well... Let’s Get Wet was printed on our tshirt, so whaddaheck... LET’S GET WET!

At the next stop where we got off the boat, we had to pay another 200 baht each to hike up a hill. That was also our toilet stop, and we could also leave our bags there. I decided to leave my backpack (with my telekung in it) and only brought along my smaller dry bag to protect my camera from the rain. For those who didn’t come with proper shoes, shoes (something like the kampung adidas I was wearing) were available for rent. Hiking sticks were also available for free for those who wanted it. I decided to not use the hiking stick as I felt it would be easier for me to take pictures without the hiking stick.

We then reached another pier where we had to leave the hiking sticks and went on a bamboo raft to head to the next stop, the Pakarang Cave. Initially a few of us thought of skipping the cave and just wait on the bamboo rafts, but after a short hike up to the opening of the cave, I noticed that all 10 of us (and the 2 tourists from our resort) all made it up. Nobody wanted to be left behind.

The tour inside the cave didn’t take long as it was just a small cave, but it was an interesting tour nonetheless. Ed even asked us to switch off our headlights he provided us earlier, and told us to imagine how the group of Thai soccer boys trapped inside the cave managed to survive in total darkness for 13 long days.

After the cave tour, we headed back, first by bamboo raft to where we had left our hiking sticks, then we hiked back through the same trail we came earlier. Initially during our hike the rain had subsided, but as soon as we reached the starting point where we started our hike earlier, it started to rain heavily again. From there, we had to get on to the boat again, this time for just a short 5 minutes ride to the floating bungalows for our lunch.

Getting hot freshly cooked food for lunch was bliss, especially since we were wet & cold. The omelettes, the fried fish with Thai chilli sauce, the vegetables and whatever that was served were swiped clean off the plates!

We were told that we could swim or use the kayak available at the place, and we could also relax in front of any of the empty bungalows (those who opt for the 2D1N tour of the lake would spend one night in the bungalows). Since we knew that by the time we’d get back to Our Jungle House, it would be too near to Maghrib, we decided to do our zohor/asar prayer in front of one of the bungalows. Praying on a floating bungalow – checked!

Before leaving the place, we were served again with another Thai dessert, sticky rice with banana inside. And langsat.

By 3.30 pm, we got back on to the boat, and it started to drizzle again. Ed joked that the “Let’s Get Wet” that was printed on our t-shirt was the reason. We all then decided that for our next t-shirt, we should print “Let’s Get Rich... Quick” instead.

On our way back to the pier, the sun finally came out and we could finally see blue skies. Ed was kind enough to get the boat to stop and he even offered to take a group photo of us.

By the time we got back to Our Jungle House, it was 6 pm. Maghrib was about 6.30 or so. Thank goodness we performed our zohor/asar prayer earlier at the floating bungalows.

That night, the 4 occupants of Half Moon were too lazy to head over to Happynest for dinner, so we had dinner in our own treehouses. Good thing it wasn’t raining, so we were able to go out on the open deck  to enjoy the view outside. It was the night of Awal Muharram (new year in the Islamic calendar), there was no moon, but as I looked up to the sky, wow! What a beautiful sight of stars! (Sorry, my camera wasn’t good enough to get a good photo of what I actually saw.)

Day 3, 1st September 2019: As we were having breakfast in the room, with doors to the deck widely opened,  a monkey appeared right in front of our windows. We quickly closed the doors, only to realise that there was not one, but 3 of them, including a little one. (Apparently the Happynest treehouse had more visitors than our Half Moon treehouse.)

Our program for this morning was the Canoe Tour. The good thing about this tour was that we didn’t have to paddle the boat. The local guides themselves would paddle, and so we were able to enjoy the views and take pictures as we liked. We even had a coffee break where we got down from our canoes. The guides boiled water and made coffee/tea for us, served in bamboo. They even gave us the bamboo cups as souvenir.

The fact that the guides didn’t understand much English, and we didn’t understand Thai, didn’t make the tour any less interesting. The guides (mostly in their 20’s) who initially seemed shy finally did seem more relaxed after a while seeing that the aunties (oh well, speaking for myself and a few other seniors in the group) were laughing away almost throughout the tour.

End of canoe tour, we headed back to Our Jungle House. The next tour was only due at 3pm, so we had ample time for lunch, prayers and to have a short rest in our rooms. By 3pm, we were already back at the reception, ready for the next tour, the Elephant Experience. This time only 9 of us went. The other member in the group, who had similar experience before at Kuala Gandah, decided to go for a 2 hour massage (which is also available at Our Jungle House). Just after we left the resort, the one who decided to go for the massage called me to inform me that GT (the GM) has agreed to drive us to a town about 45 minutes drive away so we can get freshly cooked Thai laksa for dinner.

On our way (for the elephant experience), we stopped by a nearby resort to pick 4 other tourists, 2 French couples, who were also joining the same tour.

Upon arrival, we were briefed by the guide, Dream, who introduced us to the 2 elephants,  Seenin & Watsana, (which we later changed to Wassini & Wassana – just to make it easier for us to remember) and told us about their daily routine. Both were rescued elephants, one from doing logging work, and the other from being used to give rides to tourists.

After a round of feeding the elephants with sugar cane, we then walked together with the elephants for their mud bath. We joined in the pool of mud to scrub mud all over the elephant’s body. One of the elephants even ended up peeing in the pool (yep, the same pool of mud we were in). And this was an elephant we’re talking about, the peeing was more like a gush of water coming out of a broken sewer pipe! Seriously!

After the mud bath, we all walked over (together with the elephants of course) to the river to rinse off the mud. Again we joined the elephants in the river and had fun. If earlier on we experienced the elephant’s pee, this time at the river, the elephant pooped! Ah well, the name of the tour is “elephant experience”, so might as well experience everything elephant, including the pee & the poop.

After the river bath, it was another round of feeding time for the elephants. And thus ended our Elephant Experience tour.

We got back to Our Jungle House quite early, around 4.30pm. Thinking that it was still early, and since the next morning we were already checking out, we decided to go for a walk at one of the nature trails at Our Jungle House itself. One of the resident cats even followed us up to the beginning of the trail.

We got out of the nature trail around 5pm, and lo and behold, GT was already there to take us out for dinner! Errr... and none of us were ready. We didn’t want to go out for dinner smelling like elephants! So we rushed back to our rooms, did the mandi express, and all 10 of us managed to get ready by 5.30pm.

By the time we reached the restaurant GT wanted to take us to, there were no tables available. So GT took us to the nearby stalls to buy some Thai desserts and some ayam percik. We also got a few pieces of fried chicken for free because we greeted the seller with salaam.

Later when we finally managed to grab a table at the restaurant, we were obviously the noisiest customers there. Loved the Thai laksa, especially since we were served with “take all you want” vegetables to go with the laksa. After having meals of instant food without vegetables for the past 2 nights, the vegetables were like treasure.

On the way back, GT stopped by a fruit stall by the roadside, selling rambai. A few of us did go down to buy, but guess what? We ended up getting a whole bunch of rambai, free!

Back at Our Jungle House, since it was our final night there, we had to start packing. We had already sought GT’s help, not only to arrange for a van to transport us back to the airport the next day, but also to make a few stops along the way, namely shopping & lunch stops. Since the drivers don’t speak English, we needed GT’s help to tell the driver where to stop before sending us to the airport.

Day 4, 2nd September 2019: Our final morning in Khao Sok, and finally it was a bright and sunny day! Since I had an extra ration of instant food meant for dinner the night before, I decided to give my Kembara meal beef rendang with pilaf rice to GT, so she could give it a try, and maybe something she could recommend to future Muslim visitors in need of halal food. 

Before leaving, a group photo together with GT was a must. Hey, even the resident cat decided to join us for the group photo!

After saying our goodbyes, off we went. When the van driver made a stop at the town that GT had brought us to the night before, we realised that he probably was sticking to the original plan of taking us for a Thai breakfast before heading to Phuket. We had changed the plan because GT had already brought us out for Thai food for dinner, but I guess there must have been a communication breakdown somewhere. So the driver called GT who then talked to one of us just to be sure we didn’t want to stop for breakfast (we already had breakfast in the room with whatever balance of food we had).

So the journey continued, without stopping for breakfast. Our mistake was we did not specifically ask GT for the plan, we thought the driver would be taking us shopping first before lunch. We tried to ask the driver, without success. One of us even looked up an app on her phone to translate Malay or English into Thai, so we could ask the question in Thai. Wasn’t much help either, the only thing it did was to get us all bursting into laughter. The only word we could understand was “tesco” which to us meant shopping was in the itinerary.

Finally we got a message from GT that the driver would be taking us for lunch first at Markprok Seafood Restaurant (the halal restaurant I had googled for earlier, which is about 10 minutes drive from the airport), before taking us to Tesco Lotus (closer to Phuket) to shop for some Thai stuff (tomyam paste, green curry paste etc).

As we were talking in English to the girl taking orders at the restaurant, we found out that she could speak Malay! (She’s from Narathiwat.) Thank goodness, no more struggling to ask for what we wanted. We even sought her help to tell the driver to take us to a nearby mosque after our lunch, before taking us shopping. (we could hear the azan from where we were having lunch).  For lunch, we had seafood tomyam, fried prawns, ikan tiga rasa, kerabu pucuk paku etc. They even played Malay songs when we were there.

After lunch, it was just a short drive to the mosque. Then we headed away from the airport, towards Tesco Lotus. Gave everyone an hour to buy whatever they wanted to buy. Everyone was on time. By 2.30 pm everyone was back in the van.

There were no more stops after shopping. We headed straight to the airport, our flight was at 5.10pm, so it was perfect timing to go to the airport. Even the 4 who decided to take the later flight at night went with us to the airport so they could leave their luggage at the airport before taking a cab to Phuket town for a final round of jalan-jalan.

As for the other 6 including myself, after checking in our bags (I must mention that the AA staff at Phuket Airport were very helpful) we went straight in. There was a long queue at immigrations but the process was quite fast. Then when it came to where we had to scan our carry-on bags, for the first time ever, I was asked to take off my shoes to be placed on the scanner (this was before I went through the body scan). Then I had to do a whole body scan (hands above the head, feet apart and all those stuff) followed by a body search. When I went to get my carry-on bag, I was asked to take out the power bank I had in my bag. They wanted to check the capacity of the power bank. It was the power bank I had always brought along with me in my travels without any problem whatsoever, and after checking they gave it back to me.

And thus ended my 4D3N holiday in Thailand. I had a wonderful time with like-minded nature-loving friends.

Would I recommend Our Jungle House to anyone else? A definite YES but only if you love nature and adventure.