It’s all a bit of a mystery. In the west of Surat Thani province, bordering on Phang Nga, is a lake a third of the size of Phuket, with scenery every bit as spectacular as fabled Phang Nga Bay.
Yet very few people who come to Phuket – indeed, not that many of those who live here – know about it.
The lake is man-made, created when dams were built between hills at the southeast end of a series of jungled valleys, trapping the water which is now used to provide hydropower.
There is a tale that there was a secondary, strategic reason for building the dam in the early 1980s – to deny the use of the valleys to Communist students who battled with the government through the 1970s but if this is true it doesn’t appear in official history.
The countryside thereabouts is part of the same geological system that stretches from the shores of the Andaman Sea, through Phang Nga Bay, Halong Bay in Vietnam and on up to Guilin in China: precipitous peaks of limestone known as karsts.
Unlike the islands of Phang Nga Bay, which have been undercut by the constant action of waves, the 200-plus islands and the surrounding mountains of the Chieolan Reservoir drop straight into the water. Like Phang Nga Bay, however, every part of the surfaces that is less than vertical is covered with trees.
It’s a bit like being surrounded on all sides by a herd of 200-metre-high green wooly mammoths.
There are around nine floating resorts on the lake. These are by no means five-star. But at night, they’re billion-star – when the sky is clear, and with no towns or street lights anywhere for miles, the night sky is spectacular.
In the early morning, as rays of sun filter past the karsts, the lake water casts up mist and low clouds that make for a magical scene. Even if you get up at dawn just once in a blue moon, this is the place to do it.
In the rainy season, short rainstorms rattle across the lake. After they pass, the entire surrounding scenery steams, a right-in-your-face lesson in how clouds are made.
To get out onto the lake there are longtail boats that can carry up to 10 people, for hire at B1,500 an hour. Longer periods are negotiable. The pier for these boats is close to the dam, and is well sign-posted.
Tour companies, particularly those based in the resorts at Khao Sok, about an hour away, can arrange one-day or two-day trips to the lake with accommodation and jungle treks with the possibility of seeing monkeys, gibbons, exotic birds, deer, bears and the Rafflesia, the world’s largest-diameter flower, which reeks infamously of dead flesh.
The companies will provide transport and guides for treks or canoe trips along the edge of the lake. They will even provide large plastic bags to keep your luggage dry should you decide to stay on the lake overnight.
On the longer trips a highlight is the Namtaloo Cave, a former Communist hide-out. Go with a guide; a river runs through the cave and sudden storms can bring on flash floods. A bad idea to get caught in one of those inside the cave.
To get to Chieolan Reservoir from Phuket, head north through Khok Kloy, Khao Lak and Takua Pa. From there keep following the signs to Surat Thani until you reach Baan Ta Khun where the road suddenly and unexpectedly becomes a four-lane highway.
Just before it narrows down again, go left and follow the signs to the dam, which is 12 kilometres away. Turn left across the dam for the viewpoint (with restaurants and other essential amenities). Or turn right to get to the longtail boat pier.
You’ll need to pay a Khao Sok National Park entry fee – B40 for Thais, B200 for others.
From Phuket Town to Baan Ta Khun is about 150 kilometres. Figure on a drive of two-and-a-half to three hours.