WORDS & IMAGES: BRUCE FOREMAN
Our Jungle House – eco retreat in Thailand
Happy Nest in the jungle
High up in Happy Nest, a stilted house perched between four buttress-rooted rainforest giants. I listen in to the jungle and the music of the night.
Frogs croak in chorus from the river below. The zing of cicadas rises to a fever pitch then suddenly fades away. The crashing sounds in the canopy are long-tailed macaques swinging through the trees. I am warned by a small sign in my room that they will invade my tree house if they smell biscuits, chips or anything even resembling food.
They screech at each other as they squabble over rainforest fruits above.
In the morning, the view from my balcony is like a painting. I pull up a deckchair and watch as the mist curls up from the river and clears to reveal the streaked limestone cliffs, artistically framed by cascading jungle.
Part of the South Thailand limestone karst system, these sheer-cliffed mountains have been eroded into strange shapes over the centuries. Until recently they served as efficient fortresses against loggers, farmers, tin miners and poachers. The Trojan Horse was the Cheow Lan Dam, built in 1982 to generate hydro power for the South. Though the dam is stunningly picturesque, turning a flowing river into a lake has not been without consequences. 52 species of fish have disappeared and poachers have much easier access to the rare plants and animals within this sanctuary.
Damming aside, Khao Sok National Park was created in 1980 to protect this last great wilderness from being helicopter-logged. Our Jungle House, a collection of quirky and individual accommodation ranging from stilt and tree houses to garden bungalows, is a rare example of local development that complements the National Park. By building without felling the jungle, they are preserving a rare sliver of lowland remnant forest which would have otherwise become a palm oil or rubber plantation – like all the other once-forested lowlands that now surround the national park.
Dick Sandler, owner and ecotourism pioneer, fell in love with the property when he first cut a path through the bush in the mid 1980s on a visit to a Peace Corps friend living rough in the jungle. Another friend wanted to build a tree house, for fun, and the business evolved from there. Thirty years on and Our Jungle House stands pre-eminent from the guesthouses that have followed.
It’s the most authentic jungle stay in the area, and the eco-concept is simple:
• Don’t chop down the rainforest to build your hotel. Make it the feature instead.
• Set an example by creating a business that makes money from preserving and extending the jungle.
• Create a comfortable space for people to accept and appreciate nature.
Dick is most proud of the fact that many other guesthouses and resorts have copied his style. Not just in Khao Sok, but also on the River Kwai, and on a little-known island called Ko Phra Thong, where Dick started several more eco-lodgings.
Dick believes that getting kids comfortable in nature fosters a lifelong respect and love for the environment. It’s true for adults too, but creating authenticity that is comfortable as well as playful is key. Hence the tree houses, a great cocktail bar and fun activities like tubing safaris down the adjacent Sok River.
I practice this appreciating of nature from the breezy balcony bar with a beer, a banana flower salad, and a spicy Penang curry. The food and service are stunning.
Fresh herbs come from the gardens, and I am told that the kitchen sources local and organic produce wherever possible.
“We have attempted microfinance in organic farming with mixed success,” says Dick, when quizzed on his eco initiatives. “But we do employ a lot of local people, and support the conservation studies and educational development of guides, who in turn provide guests with a richer understanding of the park.”
Khao Sok Lake
Three of us get together to hire a guide, At, for an overnight excursion to the lake. At is passionate about wildlife. He scans the jungle-clad shores of the lake, directing our long-tail boat driver to stop the engine at different points, and for us to pay attention and observe. We see gibbons, strangely-beaked hornbills and plenty more macaques before pulling up to a floating guesthouse built and owned by villagers whose original village is now submersed several hundred metres below water.
Sleeping mere centimetres above a lake is almost as fun as sleeping in a tree house, the gentle lapping of water through bamboo flooring dreamy and lulling.
We swim, we hike, and we kayak through the karsts before heading back for another night in Our Jungle House, appreciative and pleased to have provided our dollars to the economy of nature preservation…not hard when it’s so relaxing and fun.
Khao Sok is two hours north of Phuket International Airport, one hour north of the popular Khao Lak Beach, and 1 hour west of Surathani (Connected to Bangkok by plane and train and the jump of point for Koh Samui). Our Jungle Guesthouse has 11 tree houses and ten garden bungalows. The newest treehouse, ‘Happy Nest’ – is a double-story family-sized tree house that sleeps 4-6 people.
Images courtesy © Bruce Foreman
Bruce Foreman is a trained environmental scientist, writer and professional photographer living in Asia promoting environmental education. He also loves cycling and has a travel business that leads escorted cycling tours in Asia: www.bikeaways.com
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