Andi Cross
Marla Tomorug & Adam Moore
February 3, 2024
9 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

As we stepped off our comforting boat, we gazed upon the looming Thai jungle. But we hadn’t yet realized just how unprepared we were for our impending journey. Casually clad and wearing oversized sandals, we treaded carefully hoping to simply remain upright, maximizing our traction with the wet forest ground wherever possible. Regardless of our unfortunate choice of footwear, at the very least we remained entranced by our guide Cheunjit ‘Chuen’ Chuaysong. At 47, she’s one of the last individuals born in this untouched rainforest—a region boasting a history and biodiversity rivaling that of the Amazon.   

Our trust in Chuen developed instantly, compelling us to follow her lead without question as she unveiled the history of this area's transition into a national park—a change one might assume benefited her community. However, appearances can be deceiving, and Khao Sok's story was one of complexity, challenging our assumptions on a national park's role in conservation and its impact on local lives.

An hour into our hike, the terrain became even more aggressive, with steep, sharp rocks underfoot and bees buzzing menacingly around our legs. While we were fearing the worst, Chuen’s assurances kept us going, with the promise of a reward for our efforts. When we reached a rocky makeshift lookout point, the breathtaking vista of Khao Sok National Park unveiled itself, beautifully framing Chuen’s stories and validating our journey with a view worth every step.

The landscape before us was an ecological marvel. Limestone mountains pierced the horizon, offering a view of Cheow Lan Lake from our vantage point, surrounded by an expanse of pristine rainforest. Along our path, we encountered remnants of elephants' passage, listened to the distant calls of wild gibbons, and watched as giant hornbills soared above. To us, Khao Sok was untamed wilderness; but to Chuen, it was simply home.

Long before it became a human habitat, Khao Sok's origins trace back to a vast coral reef extending from China to Borneo. Around 300 million years ago, the coral was placed under extreme pressure through the collision of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The coral gradually transformed into limestone, pushed deep underground through this creeping process of plate tectonics. The dramatic landscape we admired from our lookout ultimately emerged 60 million years ago, giving rise to a deep valley surrounded by the limestone mountains that define the Khao Sok skyline today.

Human habitation in Khao Sok can be traced back to the Ice Age, yet it was only in the last century that communities began to thrive within the jungle. Chuen reminisced about this era with deep affection, recalling her youth spent mastering the rhythms of wildlife and the art of survival in the untouched wilderness, a testament to the enduring bond between the people of Khao Sok and their natural surroundings.

Amidst guerrilla warfare between the Thai Government and the Communist Party in Thailand, Khao Sok became a refuge for student activists escaping the military crackdown in Bangkok in the mid 1970’s—around the time of Chuen’s birth. The activists set up their base in the vicinity of Namtaloo Cave, which is part of Khao Sok Lake. For nearly eight years, this area was a bastion against the Thai military forces, providing a safe haven for those resisting the regime.

The presence of these students did more than just challenge military authority; it inadvertently protected the region's lush forests from the logging industry, which was poised to decimate vast tracts of land. The necessity for stealth meant that all parties avoided hunting, as any gunfire could reveal their location to the opposing forces. Somewhat counterintuitively, the abundance of caution paired with poachers avoidance of the area, created a wildlife sanctuary where animals could flourish despite the turmoil. 

On December 22, 1980, amidst these turbulent times, Khao Sok was officially designated as a national park, securing formal protection for its rich biodiversity. Concurrently, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) eyed the area for hydroelectric development, recognizing its potential due to the park's abundant water sources and favorable geography. For all the natural beauty of the lake that we see today, it carries a darker history.

By 1982, the construction of the Rajaprabha Dam was completed, giving rise to the expansive Cheow Larn Lake that now sits within the park's boundaries. This 165 square kilometer park area not only served as a stunning natural attraction but also played a crucial role in hosting a large body of water which in turn generated the region's hydroelectricity. The creation of the lake and the establishment of the national park marked a new chapter in Khao Sok's history, transforming it from a zone of conflict to a cornerstone of conservation and sustainable energy in Thailand.

However, the creation of the lake was not without its drawbacks. As the waters rose over three years, it necessitated the relocation of animals to prevent them from being engulfed by the flood. This process was fraught with challenges, leading to the tragic displacement and death of numerous creatures. It's estimated that around 1,300 animals were moved, many of which did not survive the transition. Additionally, the ecosystem shift resulted in the loss of 52 fish species that were unable to adapt to the new water conditions, marking a significant ecological impact.

The construction of the lake didn't just hit wildlife; it deeply affected the people living there, including Chuen’s community. They were uprooted from their homes with promises of a better life on higher grounds, offering infrastructure, connectivity, and access that were unavailable in the jungle. In 1982, Chuen was just a young girl when she experienced the relocation of her and her fellow community. 

Chuen vividly recalls the profound sense of loss felt by her grandparents and the 300 families upon their forced relocation. Although they recognized the inevitability of their situation and began to adapt, the pain of their displacement lingered, an indelible mark on Chuen and her ancestors' collective memory. Removed from their traditional lifestyle, Chuen saw only one viable option for sustenance on the mainland: tourism. 

Amidst Thailand's tourism boom, Chuen saw embracing this industry as crucial for her own survival.

Adapting to her new surroundings proved harder than living off the land. Chuen spent 20 years learning to adapt to this new world, with tourism as her lifeline. Determined to carve out a space in the male-dominated field of wilderness guiding, she pursued this path not just to make her mark but also to support her son as a single mother.

Years later, standing with us, gazing at the landscape of her childhood, Chuen shared memories of a life intertwined with nature. "I remember my life in the forest. It was better. I learned about plants, animals, sounds, tracks … everything. I was here for seven years before we were relocated, but my family's roots here go much deeper."

The history of Chuen’s community in the jungle is largely unrecorded, yet for her and her family, it was their entire world. Now, guiding tours in the jungle allows Chuen to reconnect with her heritage and traditions, a compromise that brings her some solace. "It's about adapting and moving on," she reflects. In fact, her fluency in English alone is a testament to her journey through Thailand's tourism industry. "We had to make it work, so we did. We're a peaceful community; when told to leave, we didn’t fight."

This story mirrors the experiences of indigenous communities worldwide, and it’s a recurring theme of loss and adaptation we've encountered repeatedly on our travels. 

Like the Moken, other tribes and communities in Thailand share similar experiences—quietly relocated and now facing the challenge of integrating into modern society. It brings to light the fact that there is a pressing need for more robust support systems in order to preserve these cultures. Community-based tourism, the reason for our visit to Khao Sok, offers a ray of hope. Organizations like Andaman Discoveries spearhead initiatives focused on village and community tours, creating programs that empower locals and sustain their way of life. This approach not only maintains their cultural heritage but also paves the way for a sustainable future.

While the wildlife in this region is staggering, protecting the environment shouldn't overshadow the preservation of traditional cultures. As we learned from Chuen, there was once a harmony in living symbiotically with nature. But today, that balance has changed, and it means something completely different. Today, she is fighting for the survival of her culture but also for the preservation of her once home.

There are so many people who are dedicating their lives to their home land and sea. There are so many people who have been displaced, forced to survive through extreme hardship and who have lost everything. There are so many people who don’t have the luxury of options. And yet, these people seem to be the ones with the unbreakable spirit, like our friend, Chuen. Her story sits with us every day as we consciously explore the edges of earth. 

People like Chuen’s strength comes from a commitment to something greater than oneself, discovering joy not in material possessions but in the natural world and its traditions. Happiness is found in the mangroves, wetlands, jungles, streams, rivers and the ocean. It’s found in traditions and spirits. It’s found among family and community bonds that are unbreakable amidst life-altering hardship. 

For the 200,000 visitors drawn to Khao Sok annually, delve beyond its enchanting exterior. Its beauty is just the beginning. There’s a profound depth to the land and its stories lying beneath the surface, just waiting to be understood and appreciated. And if you get a chance, find Chuen—also known as the community sister for her commitment to the greater whole—and let her show you her forever home. 

To be continued … 

[NOTE: Chuen also has a textiles business called Chiewlan that she’s been running for just shy of a decade, working with local women to create alternate income streams within her community. She is hoping to focus more of her time on this business going forward. If you are interested in meeting her and learning more about her local work, reach out to Andaman Discoveries. And, if you need to choose the right place to stay in Khao Sok, we worked with Khao Sok Riverside Cottages which offers experiences to the National Park and the chance to meet people as special as Chuen.] 


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