One way to counteract this tide of despondency is to get out into the fresh air and wild country on a sturdy mountain bike and head off-road into Thailand’s now largely empty, clean and rapidly-regenerating natural realm in all its present glory.
I planned such an off-road adventure recently and wanted to include some ‘wild swimming’ too. There’s now a huge groundswell of interest in this outdoor form of adventure, due to the need for social-distancing and that fact that no-one wants to go to their local, crowded, swimming pool in the current climate.
So it was that a recent overcast monsoonal morning saw me driving off Phuket, muddy mountain bike strapped to my car’s bike-rack, swimming trunks packed alongside my cycling shorts and shoes, and my rather nervous little dog named “Cutie” coming along for her first upcountry adventure.
Driving north to our first stop at Khao Lak was a pleasant breeze! Not only was traffic light, but fellow drivers actually seemed less stressed and more accommodating than in our ‘normal’ febrile touristic times.
We drove into a largely deserted Khao Lak by mid-afternoon and down to the lovely Nangthong Beach Resort, where an air-conditioned cottage right the eponymous beach and bay, cost a bargain B1,300 a night.
As evening cast pink and golden tentacles across the sun-westering sky, I rode the back lanes and off-road tracks along the beach in the area around Nangthong Bay with Cutie in my backpack. We disturbed an insouciant monitor lizard dozing on a little road which would normally be thronged with tourists. All around us birds, butterflies and insects seemed to be celebrating the lack of humanity by their abundant presence and the air was cleaner than I can ever remember.
To complete my wild ride, I took a wild swim in the crashing spume out of Nangthong Bay towards a rocky outcrop topped by its little spaceship-shaped lighthouse, as flickers of soft lightening danced withing the billowing Cumulus clouds overhead… a fitting end to my first wild and crazy day.
Next morning, we headed up coastal Highway 4 to Takuapa, then east on the 401 across the Isthmus of Kra towards Surat Thani. As we approached the Khao Sok National Park, it was like awakening in another universe. You know you are in for something special when the scenery becomes at first dramatic and then simply breath-taking with huge limestone cliffs rising sheer from the verdant rainforest floor and towering majestically skywards. These are the remnants of the same 250-million-year-old coral reef that marches through Borneo, Phang Nga Bay and eventually emerges in Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam. The Earth’s tectonic plate collision extruded this coral ever-higher over the eons and indeed continues to do so, albeit at a mere centimetre or two each year these days.
A well-marked left turn from Highway 401 took me onto the little road to one of the world’s oldest, most pristine natural rainforests and to our stay at an ultimate wild adventure hotspot, Dick Sandler’s iconic Our Jungle House resort on the banks of the Sok River. Dick Sandler is a renowned Eco-Tourism pioneer in Southeast Asia and the wooden tree-house accommodation of Our Jungle House beneath the huge limestone karsts covered in cascading verdant vegetation have become a world-famous tribute to his pioneering work in this realm.
Khao Sok and a few last remaining places like it in Southeast Asia, represent what renowned environmentalist Thom Henley termed, “the geography of hope for the human spirit” in his poetically-titled book Waterfalls and Gibbon Calls – the essential guide on Khao Sok which is well worth obtaining if you venture to these parts.
Although the main park is open at present, I instead decided to ride several of the back trails from the resort, where the cycling is wild and I had previously spotted opportunities for wild swimming. This is most definitely mountain biking territory and the trails I rode abounded in steep, often rocky climbs and descents. It’s somewhat technically challenging, with some rock jumping and sand surfing, but in these crazy times, I had the rides to myself, which just added to the sense of wild adventure and pioneering.
That evening I rode on unpaved tracks through rubber plantations over several big climbs from the resort back towards the main Highway 401. As I rode, I kept noticing flyers for ‘Khao Sok Yoga’ pinned to rubber trees seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Cresting a particularly tough and sweaty ascent, I came upon another piece of wild serendipity in the shapely form of a lovely Thai yogi named Rossi Rossukol. Her magical yoga studio sits perched among the abundant trees commanding the most stunning views from her open-sided yoga sala. Here Rossi will take you through relaxing asanas, Pranayama breathing and deep meditations in surroundings that are literally transcendent!
Further along the rutted track I came to the small lake which I’d seen on previous visits and it was here I decided to experience my first fresh-water wild swim. I stripped down to my trunks and took the plunge into the dark depths feeling the still waters temper my sweat-drenched body with a cool embrace. I swam out into the middle of the lake and floated on my back looking upwards at the surrounding trees, the far-off cliffs and karsts and the first golden traces of the rising moon. The combination of wild swimming and cycling was most definitely a way to escape from these crazy times.