NATURAL WONDER: Limestone islands in Cheow Larn Lake.
NATURAL WONDER: Limestone islands in Cheow Larn Lake. Shirley Sinclair

Close encounter of the swinging kind

HE was my kind of swinger.

Big, strong and a fast mover.

A good talker, not afraid of speaking his mind.

Maybe a bit of a chest-beater but sure of himself and his place at the top of the tree.

Above all, "Gibbo", as I nicknamed him, was very entertaining - able to command an audience for hours.

I was under his spell, wanting to skip breakfast and continue with his monkey business.

It had taken me close to an hour to capture my prized photo of Gibbo the gibbon directly across the canal, but when I finally captured him in all his naked glory, my squeal of delight echoed throughout the hills.

The call of the wild in Thailand's Khao Sok jungle is strong and draws humans in from all over the world.

And a night or two at the Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp at Suratthani in the southern provinces - one of only a few floating tented villages in the world - is perhaps the best way for travellers to immerse themselves in modern luxury in the tranquillity of a man-made lake, surrounded by majestic lime-stone mountains and jungle teaming with wildlife.

Estimated to be 160 million years old, Khao Sok is believed to be one of the oldest rainforests in the world.

The four national parks in the area cover a massive 4400sq km, creating the biggest protected region in South-East Asia.

In 1982, with the building of Ratchaprabha Dam over the Pasaeng River (the longest free-flowing river in southern Thailand), an area of 165sq km within the national park was flooded, forming Cheow Larn Lake.

The dam was built to guarantee a reliable hydroelectric power source to the south's rapidly growing trade and tourism. About five villages were flooded, displacing more than 300 families which had to be relocated and compensated.

A Buddhist temple remains at the bottom of the lake at its deepest section (90 metres).

The lake measures about 60km from north to south and the peaks of the flooded mountains within have now created about 100 limestone "islands" in a similar landscape to the natural wonders of Halong Bay in Vietnam, or Guilin in China.

About 1300 birds, mammals and reptiles were captured and relocated before the flooding - a huge blow to the biodiversity of the area. But the rich array of wildlife which continues to call the jungle home is testament to the pristine nature of the region.

Strange creatures inhabit the region, creating a 24-hour side-show for wandering tourists and the local community.

There are hornbills - large-winged black and white birds with an almost comical red and

yellow beak and "head-dress" - reticulated pythons, spectacled langurs, monitor lizards, tree frogs, macaques, Malaysian sun bear, Malay pangolin or scaly anteaters, and serow (a goat-like antelope).

They join the gibbon in this remote part of the world - a place that leaves visitors questioning whether they are indeed still on Earth.

The nine-tent, totally solar-powered rainforest camp had only been opened three weeks when our group arrived following a jaw-dropping long-tail boat ride which drifted around the quiet lake.

After lunch, we had plenty of time to enjoy this Lake Placid-like movie set - safe in the knowledge that, being man-made, only catfish and other local piscatorial species live under the water.

Relax in a deck chair, swim, dry off and read a book, snooze on the comfortable queen-size bed, go for another swim ... the choices in the afternoon's itinerary already had me wishing our stay here was longer.

Virtually the moment our 4pm "tag-a-long" kayak adventure set out from the camp, we were straining to see langur making the treetops sway.

As we paddled through the network of klongs (canals), we kept one eye on the trees and riverbanks, and the other on the occasional maze of seaweed, logs, and dead tree trunks.

Camp manager and kayak guide Brett Thompson related stories of a local woman who had spotted two wild elephants drinking by the lake's edge.

Then there was the fisherman who had left his boat unattended a short while and, on his return, was forced to scale a tree and clap his hands to scare off a clouded leopard that had been sunning itself in the boat.

Wild boar had been spotted by an Elephant Hills kayaking group the day before our arrival.

The morning after we arrived, a colleague who took a kayak out at dawn was rewarded with the sight of four hornbills flying around the tree canopy.

He arrived back at camp just in time to be party to Gibbo's antics.

The gibbons had begun calling out soon after daybreak - like an alarm clock, ensuring we would not miss the mirror-image beauty of the undisturbed lake.

Their conversations echoed throughout the lake for hours and as Gibbo's calls grew louder, we knew he must be close.

Our local "jungle girl" and Elephant Hills staff member, Series, helped us distinguish the males from female by their calls: the short poo-ar - like the Thai word, pua, meaning husband - and the longer reply of the female.

Through the camera lens and binoculars, Brett said Gibbo appeared to be the biggest gibbon he had seen near the camp.

He said gibbons were the jungle's fastest tree swingers, clocking speeds up to 35kmh.

They were notoriously shy, quickly escaping further into the jungle whenever they saw humans.

That's why my encounter with Gibbo - although brief and admittedly a long-distance relationship - was so wild and wonderful.

The writer was a guest of Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp and the Tourism Authority of Thailand


Each Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp mosquito-proof tent has hand-crafted furniture including the solid timber queen-size bed, ensuite bathroom with western toilet and hot/cold shower, electricity, and deck with camp chairs and hammock.

The camp's restaurant has panoramic views of the rainforest and lake, and the bar stocks a wide selection of beers, wines, spirits and fresh juices.

Available activities:

  • Lake exploration by boat and dinghy
  • Canoeing the klongs and channels of the lake in search of rare birds and animals
  • Hiking through the rainforest
  • Night safaris and wildlife spotting
  • Swimming the emerald-coloured water of the pristine lake and relaxing on the raft

Elephant Hills Luxury Tented Camps operate two to four-day packages including all activities, accommodation, set meals and transfer from Phuket, Khao Lak, Krabi, Surat Thani and Samui.

As well as the rainforest camp, extra nights are available at the Elephant Hills main camp with traditional dance and cookery demonstrations, as well as the signature elephant treks and experiences.

For more information, visit Elephant Hills or email

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