Judging by the trail of smiles that greeted us along the dirt road, I felt we were off to a good start for our first hike at Bang Mahn, home of the newest trail at Khao Sok National Park. The road isn’t fully paved and people actually smile and wave when you ride by. Thailand’s rural charms aren’t lost upon this place, which is a welcome change from the friendly, but developed atmosphere at KM 109.
At the end of the road, where the ranger station and trailhead are located, we met up with our guide, who was only 22 years old. Almost all of the guides at KM 109 are over thirty, and it is a rarity to see young people with such enthusiasm for nature in Thailand’s quickly developing culture. In spite of his age, our guide, Phu, was incredibly knowledgeable about his surroundings: he was able to identify many of the birds just by hearing their calls, many mammals by their tracks, and which plants were poisonous. Having a guide who knows what is poisonous is very helpful!
Khao Sok’s new trail climbs down from a viewpoint to a lowland forest where there is a cave. What makes this cave impressive is that it has a waterfall at its mouth during the wet season. In high flood water, the entire area turns into a seasonal pond! Lowland forest like this has become increasingly rare as most of it has been converted to palm or oil farming outside of the national park. This portion of the hike was littered with wildlife tracks and scat, including wild boar, civet cat, pangolin, and even the tracks of a small gaur (a wild buffalo).
Following the river away from the cave, we passed through beautiful swaths of grassland, another rare ecotype that has been disappearing with the growth of monoculture farming. As we entered the bamboo forest, we spotted many fish and even a baby turtle; a malay terrapin, to be exact. There seemed to be a surprise around every corner on this hike. Needless to say, everyone in the group was enjoying it.
As we passed a natural arch, Phu told us of his one-month camping trip to the same place with his father where they gathered vegetables and mushrooms that only grow in the wild. These people who use the forest to supplement their income see the use in conserving it and maintaining this way of life for future generations. Also, the rock arch was spectacular.
It was inspiring to see that Phu, and the other guides we’ve met at Khao Sok’s new trail, took the initiative to find out about the park from guidebooks and more experienced rangers and guides during their free time. Most of the local schools don’t have adequate teaching materials on biology, conservation, or really anything to do with the national park that is their backyard! There is a genuine interest in the local nature and a respect for the forest that is more important to them than the prospect of moving to a big city and finding more lucrative work. They have a thirst for knowledge and a genuine interest in the cause of conservation, both of which can’t be taught!