Friday, 3 July 2009

Monkeys, Pythons, and Leeches, Oh My!

A Treehouse Experience In a Rainforest Ecosystem;
by Amy Hale

In a recent quest to find eco-friendly accommodations that would also yield a unique and hopefully adventurous experience in Thailand, I learned that it would be possible, if not a flat-out de rigueur experience, to stay in a “rustic” tree house deep within the jungles of Khao Sok National Park. My mental evaluation went along the lines of: “Jungle + Tree house = I’m there!” At this point I should mention that it’s a running joke within my family that I must have been a tree sprite in a former life. Though the habit should have faded about 20 years ago, I still can’t seem to pass a tree without clambering into, around, or up it. Naturally, I leapt at the opportunity to sleep in one and booked our 4 night stay at “Our Jungle House” ( in Khao Sok National Park near Surat Thani (

Khao Sok National Park is advertised as offering “…an adventure for environmentalists, naturalists or anyone interested in exploring plant and wildlife in a rain forest.” Forty-eight confirmed mammal species including monkeys (gibbons and long-tail macaques), the rare Malaysian sun bear, Asian elephants, civets (leopard cats), flying fox, and the endangered barking deer, along with reptiles (including 46 different kinds of snakes, among them blood and reticulated pythons, king cobras, pit vipers), birds (over 300 species including the majestic hornbill!), 38 species of bats, thousands of insects, and of course leeches all rely upon the trees of the Khao Sok rainforest as shelter, safe haven, food and habitat. In addition, some of the world’s oldest and rarest plant species are found here, including the largest (and perhaps smelliest) flower in the world, the endangered rafflesia, which can bloom up to nearly 3 feet in diameter for only 3 days once a year.

I should have known I was in for a true “jungle immersion experience” when immediately after arriving, I climbed the stairs to the roofdeck atop our treehouse, overlooking the Sok river with a view of the expansive limestone cliffs on the other bank, to find a recently shed snakeskin, approximately 5 feet in length, casually draped over one of the two built-in benches. We assessed the snakeskin and deluded ourselves into believing that it had likely been there for ages and its former inhabitant was long gone and would have no cause to return to our place of residence, at least in the short 4 days we’d be calling it thus. We should have known better. The snakeskin was simply a sign of more wildlife, yet all inhabiting their skins and very much alive, to come.

I shifted my focus to the property and 25 acres of private rainforest and was impressed to learn that all of the accommodations on the property were constructed from local, natural materials in a sustainable fashion; either between two trees or on raised platforms atop stilts to minimize environmental impact. Our Jungle House is only a short 10-minute walk away from the national park; no motorized transport is necessary once you arrive at Our Jungle House (via Surat Thani bus on the main road and then a connecting local tuk-tuk or passing car). Although there is electricity and a minimal level of running water in all of the treehouses, there is no hot water, the toilets cannot accept any paper of any kind, and “brown-outs” were frequent and more often than not, the rule. I took more than one (cold) shower by torch. There was no air conditioning though there was a fan (though it often was not in use, see above); which meant due to the humidity and heat, that using the washroom and attempting to sleep were adventures in their own right! Because the ambient air is always humid, the sheets and towels never fully dried and also smelled vaguely of mold. By the time we left, all of our belongings had attained a base level of dampness.

Even as we felt the boundaries of our personal comfort zones being tested, our adventures were just beginning. On a guided midnight jungle hike, we trekked through wild fruit orchards and ate mangosteen, bananas, lychee, and mangos straight from the trees on the way into the depths of the jungle. We were then treated to a very rare sighting of the elusive civet cat bounding up a tree, and the even rarer sighting of the endangered tiny barking deer amidst a stand of trees deep off the path. Our guide, “Dang,” shod only in flip-flops, a thin t-shirt and shorts scrambled up the difficult and steep terrain of the jungle, often scampering “off roading” into the forest in pursuit of some nocturnal creature or another he believed he spotted or heard, blithely unconcerned with the probability of stepping on any number of sharp rocks, twigs, let alone feeding leeches, mosquitoes, or the very real possibility of a snake in repose across his path!

The night safari closed out spectacularly (we thought) as we came upon a mother and baby porcupine. Back in the safety of our room, there was more wildlife spotting to be had, on this and subsequent nights, as we discovered a skink (we think, or possibly a snake), making its home between the roof of our abode and the metal exterior rain covering, that would occasionally slither down and show various lengths of its tail through the central hole in the roof through which the mosquito net was hung, and innumerable lizards, spiders, geckos and insects (most of whom were thankfully confined outside the mosquito net)… until I realized that those that weren’t were gaining entry through a variety of gaping holes at various points within the mosquito net. We came to do a routine “wildlife check” as soon as we entered the treehouse, hoping upon hope that the snake of the former rooftop skin would not have taken up residence inside, or worse, in our bed. Upon one of these thorough checks we actually discovered (with great delight) that a baby bat had flown in and roosted below our bed. At this point we knew we were part of the jungle!

Of all jungle creatures to cross or potentially cross my path, I admit I was most concerned about the leeches, given the time of year we were there, their prevalence in the area, and our proclivity to trek, hike, bushwhack, and swim in the rivers and lakes. We were pretty much guaranteed to “experience the leeches,” and indeed, we did not escape unscathed. In the most well-known book about this area, “Waterfalls and Gibbon Calls,” conservationist Thom Henley writes: “Perhaps by now you too are a living part of this rainforest ecosystem – even if not by choice… more than likely you’ve provided a meal for a hungry leech. Take comfort in knowing that your few drops of blood have quickly become part of the oldest living ecosystem on Earth.” Although I appreciate Henley’s reassuring and calming explanation of suffering a leech bite, I’m happy to adhere to certain limits at my ecosystem contributions. Henley continues: “If you are trekking in the rainy season, leeches may become your preoccupation. Rather than let leeches spoil your experience, try a little game with your hiking companions. The Khao Sok point system is simple: attached leech = 1 point, drawn blood = 2 points, fed & escaped = 5 points; inside undershorts = 10 points. Whoever scores highest gets treated to Bloody Marys back at the bungalow.” …I won, hands down.

See more of Amy's thoughts @ "Making the Easy Choice"

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1 comment:

Cable said...

It sounds interesting. Thanks for the info...