Chaiya Town & Suan Mokkhabalarama
The town of Chaiya itself is a little-visited stop on the southern railroad line, a kind of "Main Street, Thailand." There's an active central market and small stores by the dozen (look out for the old Chinese tea shops). Most people here are visitors to Suan Mokkh Forest temple, and the people of Chaiya are used to lots of wide-eyed foreigners wandering the town before and after retreats. There are a few Internet cafes along the main drag and food stalls selling low-priced Thai meals.
Suan Mokkhabalarama (the Grove of the Power of Liberation; better known as Suan Mokkh), just south of Chaiya, was founded in 1932 by the late Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, a widely published monk who is highly respected in Thailand. His back-to-basics approach attracts Buddhist monks and students of meditation from many countries, and his knowledge of English (among other languages) brought him many Western students in the 1970s and 1980s.
After his death in 1993, Bhikkhu bequeathed a large forest monastery to Dhamma study; foreign visitors are invited to join retreats from the 1st to the 10th of each month. Retreats are open to beginners, and applicants are accepted on a first-come basis from the end of each month (it's a good idea to pitch up a few days early, on the 29th or 30th, in high season). The meditation schedules are rigorous but short. Despite the rule of silence, there are opportunities to pose questions to monks, nuns, and lay volunteers.
Check in at the main monastery (follow signs to "information"), and then walk or ride the 1km (2/3 mile) to the retreat center. For 10 days of dorm lodging and meals, the recommended donation is 1,500B. Visit www.suanmokkh.org, or call the retreat manager at tel. 07753-1552.
Day visitors are welcome at the forest monastery, where you can wander the many jungle paths and visit the "Spiritual Theatre," which Buddhadasa described as a pictorial interpretation of Dhamma featuring an eclectic mixture of Thai, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Tibetan, and European-style murals and sculptures. The monastery is just south of the town of Chaiya, 50km (31 miles) north of Surat Thani on Highway 41. Long-distance buses and public pickup trucks pass the entrance throughout the day and can drop you off as requested. Songtaews (pickups) costing 20B also connect to and from Chaiya; you have to wave them down.
A short ride north of Chaiya, the town of Pum Riang is a Muslim fishing village where there are many small storefront weaving factories still in operation.
Khao Sok National Park
One of the largest unspoiled areas of rainforest in the south, Khao Sok is known for its stunning scenery, caves, and exotic wildlife. The park is a convenient stop between Surat Thani and Phuket, and the main east-west road (Rte. 401) passes the park headquarters.
The park is some 646 sq. km (249 sq. miles) in area and is traced by jungle waterways; steep trails climb through underbrush, and thick vines hang from craggy limestone cliffs -- imagine the jutting formations of Krabi, only inland. Rising some 1,000m (3,280 ft.), the dense jungle habitat is literally crawling with wildlife, such as tigers, leopards, and even elephants, but you may be hard-pressed to actually spot any. More commonly seen are guar, Malaysian sun bears, gibbons, magur, macaques, civets, and squirrels, along with more than 200 species of such birds as hornbills, woodpeckers, and kingfishers. As for the flora, it is equally varied. This is one of the rare places where you may come across the stinking "rotting flesh" odor that typifies the Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. (The largest blooms are up to 1m/3 1/4 ft. wide.)
One of the best ways to get up close with the varied fauna of the park is by kayak, along the nether reaches of a large reservoir, about an hour from Surat Thani on Route 415. At Rajaprarabha Dam, you can go boating, rafting, and fishing among the limestone cliffs that appear as islands, or stay in beautiful floating bungalows and explore this pristine jungle on elephant back.
Farther west, the park area (off Highway 401, at kilometer 109) has several bungalow resorts in the jungle off the 1.5km-long (1-mile) entrance road, some set as treehouses. There are several Internet cafes, too. From here, well-marked trails lead you through the park. The park office can provide camping equipment, and guides will offer their services and help plan your itinerary.
Caution: It's important to know that waterfalls and caves pose real risks during rainy season. In 2006 and 2007, a number of Thai and foreign tourists lost their lives when flash floods inundated caves in this very park. Whether visiting the caverns and waterfalls, or considering a jungle hike or tubing down the River Sok, always book through a reputable travel agent so that help is at hand if you run into trouble.
Contact the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Office (61 Pahonyothin Rd., Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900; tel. 02561-0777; www.dnp.go.th), or the TAT offices in Phuket Town or Surat Thani, for maps and info. Alternatively, contact Paddle Asia, in Phuket (9/71 Rasdanusorn Rd., Tambon Rasada, Phuket 83000; tel. 07624-0952; fax 07621-6145; www.paddleasia.com), for details on their soft adventure trips.