The floating lake house safari in Thailand was one of our top travel adventures of all time. We visited temples and a coconut plantation, rode elephants, kayaked to bat caves and explored the town of Songkhlaburi, all while staying on a floating lake house towed by a boat.
This tour we did on the floating lake house was the highlight of our entire two and a half week trip to Thailand. It was a unique experience, and got us off of the beaten path to some areas that many tourists don’t go to. The floating lake house itself was amazing. Evening swimming and sunsets, kayaking around the lake, and delicious home cooked Thai food.
Excerpt from our Thailand trip post. Read the full post of our trip around Thailand here
Floating Lake House Safari in Khao Laem National Park
We were picked up at our hotel in Bangkok in the morning by our Lake Safari shuttle, along with a Danish woman named Susanne who was traveling alone. I was excited to be able to practice my Danish.
The four day floating lake house safari tour we were headed on was a tour on a two story floating lake house towed by a boat down Lake Khao Laem in Khao Laem National Park. The house and tour were started by another Thai friend of mine who I was an exchange student with in Denmark, who now lives in Denmark running their website while her family members and hired tour guides do the tour in Thailand. Unfortuantely she wasn’t able to visit Thailand while we were on the tour, but the tour was the biggest highlight of our trip and we greatly recommend it. Our guide’s name was Puddi, and he gave us a great tour.
We began our tour with a two hour or so drive to the town of Kachanaburi to visit the Kachanaburi War Cememtery, Thailand’s resting place for over 7,000 World War II POWs who perished during the construction of the famous Death Railway. We also visited the Thai-Burma Railway Centre Museum, which gives detailed accounts of the horrors of the POW railway camps run by the Japanese.
The cemetery and museum is funded by the Thai government. The majority of the soldiers laid to rest here are British, with a few Americans and Australians. It was a very informative museum, and a sombering experience.
We also witnessed possibly the most disrespectful tourist display we have ever seen: Young Japanese tourist girls taking selfies in the cemetery. It was appalling.
After the musuem, we moved on to the Bridge over the River Kwai, part of the 250 mile long Death Railway from Thailand to Burma.
We stopped for lunch at a little open air roadside restaurant with a buffet, it seemed to be a place that tour groups stop often. We continued our long drive, making one last stop at a little town for a tour of their market.
We continued driving and at long last, arrived at the Lake House to begin our floating lake house safari. It was gorgeous.
It had six bedrooms on the top floor, a kitchen and two bathrooms with flush toilets and showers on the main floor, and an open air dining area. The front had four lounge chairs on a sizeable deck.
The boat was parked in a floating fishing village of the native Mon people. They had lots of floating cabins and fishing traps set up on the lake.
Our driver got in the boat and we were moving. We grabbed some beers and enjoyed the view as we floated down the lake.
After about an hour, we arrived in a little cove and tied up for the night. It was still afternoon, and our guide Puddi told us it was time to swim. It was hot, and the lake water was perfect. There were a couple of kayaks and one inner-tube that we could use.
For dinner we had Tom Kha soup and a chicken stir fry, made by the on-board cook, a sweet little old lady named Auntie Orr. It was fantastic.
We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and talking, and getting to know Susanne from Denmark.
That night it was hot. We kept our windows open and didn’t even use the blankets provided in our room. We eventually got to sleep but Heather and Stephen spent part of the night sleeping on the loungers on the deck.
The next morning we woke up and found ourselves moving. It was kind of nice to wake up and be going somewhere, without having to actually get out of bed.
Breakfast was eggs, hot dogs, white toast, and orange juice. Instant coffee and tea were also available. Breakfast was pretty much the same each morning, and wasn’t super awesome. The delicious home cooked Thai dinners more than compensated, however.
Soon after breakfast, we arrived at “Coconut Island.” This is an island in the lake with a very small coconut plantation which grows and harvests coconuts specifically for coconut ice cream.
Puddi gave us a tour of the coconut trees and showed us how the workers get the coconuts down from the trees–with a bamboo pole. Kind of a dangerous job, as you have to keep out of the way of coconuts falling on your head.
Sometimes the coconuts are too high up in the tree for the pole to reach. That’s where this guy comes in:
This poor monkey is trained to get coconuts down from the trees. When he’s not working, he spends his day tied to this pole in the shade. Not such a great life. We were told to keep our distance, as he was a “very crazy monkey.”
Puddi gave us a tour of the rest of the farm, including the workers’ houses, the kitchen/eating area, coconut husking production, and a pet pig. The workers were very busy husking coconuts as fast as they could for the shipment going out that afternoon. We felt kind of bad gawking at them while they were trying to work, but they seemed used to it.
Puddi told us the workers here make $5.00 a day, and all food and board is included. He said they would make $15.00 a day in the city, but they would have to pay for food and rent so this job is actually a better deal. Except for that whole isolation thing.
Puddi explained that the coconut was a human-made hybrid of a regular coconut and a fruit called a macapuno coconut. About 80% of the coconuts on the trees are macapuno, and the farmers can tell by knocking on them. The more meat in the coconut, the more valuable it is. The meat is soft and juicy, not hard like regular coconut. Puddi scooped some out for us and we ate it with sugar sprinkled on it. It was really good.
Puddi also showed us cashews and giant limes that grow on the island. We had no idea that cashews were actually a fruit.
We headed back to the boat and Auntie Orr cooked us lunch. We had chicken balls, fresh pineapple, and papaya salad. It was delicious.
After lunch, we started moving again, and then spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and relaxing.
We began moving one more time and finally tied up at another cove near some bat caves. Stephen, Susanne and I took the kayaks to the caves and they were creepy, but no bats.
There were wild water buffalo on the banks of the lake. We kept our distance, but they were interesting to watch. Paddy and Heather saw one swim from one bank to the other while we were gone, he said they swim really fast.
That evening for dinner, Heather had Puddi ask Auntie Orr if she would show her how to cook the meal that night. Auntie Orr didn’t speak any English, so Puddi translated from the kitchen window. Auntie Orr had a giant wood chopping block on the kitchen floor, and prepped the ingredients for cashew chicken. She showed Heather how to make a small batch.
We had green curry, soup, and cashew chicken. It was the best cashew chicken I’ve ever had.
The sky was hazy, and the sun was a bright red orb in the sky. After the sun set, we realized what was causing the haze–there was a wildfire across the lake in the jungle. Puddi assured us that we were fine (we did have an entire lake between us and the fire). It was scary to watch.
We spent the evening drinking, talking, and watching the fire across the lake. The bamboo burning exploded and sounded like gunshots.
The next day was adventure day. We took the boat across the lake to the town of Songkhlaburi and visited a Buddhist temple of the Mon people.
After Puddi gave us a tour of the temple, we walked down the road and up a hill to the town, passing the monks’ living quarters.
We arrived at another temple
Puddi lead the way through the town quite a ways through the blazing afternoon heat. We stopped at a small store for some water and were told we had 100 to 300 meters more to go.
We made our way to the Mon Bridge, which was missing a big chunk and out of commission. We crossed on a makeshift floating bamboo foot bridge. It crunched as we walked, I was wary of punching my foot through the bamboo.
Finally, we made it to the other side where a man with a converted pick up truck was waiting to take us to the elephant camp. The ride was bumpy, and I spent it craning my neck at an uncomfortable angle to see through the back window to the road so I wouldn’t get carsick.
We passed many farms and farm workers’ homes.
Everyone wants to ride an elephant in Thailand. It was on my bucket list, and we did it. However, before you go riding elephants in Thailand, there are some things you need to know.
First of all, there are many abusive and bad elephant camps. Most elephants in Thailand were rescued from working in the logging industry. Rescued probably isn’t the right word for many of them. They are trained in abusive and torturous ways, and taught to associate disobeying humans with pain. Beatings, starvation, and overwork are common. Baby elephants are taken from their mothers, who agonize and mourn the loss of their children.
Many elephant camps in touristy areas force the elephants to carry tourists non stop all day with no breaks, wearing metal seats that dig into their backs and cause blisters. Elephants need a lot of rest, food, and water. The mahouts (elephant trainers) beat the elephants with bull hooks when they don’t obey their orders.
There are some humane elephant camps out there, however. Some people say that riding elephants should be boycotted. Unfortunately, the issue isn’t black and white. Elephants need care–food, water, and veterinary services are all expensive for such large animals. And people will never stop wanting to see and ride elephants in Thailand. So, tourism dollars are needed and in abundant supply to sustain their care. Also, people having interaction with such amazing creatures helps people care about them and want to protect them. I believe that supporting reputable elephant camps and rescues is important.
Unfortunately, I don’t know a lot about the elephant camp we visited. Here is what I know and observed:
* The elephants had an expansive property for their habitat, including forests, a river, and acres and acres of land.
* The tour was booked by a friend of mine who owns the Lake Safari Tour, who I trust to choose an ethical company
* We were the only tourists there going on rides that I saw. It was not in a high tourist-traffic area
* There were many elephants resting and eating grass and plants throughout the expansive property
* The mahouts shouted things at the elephants, but we didn’t see any bull hooks or abuse. The elephants often stopped and bent down or lifted their legs to let the mahouts on them
* The elephants appeared healthy, well-fed, and seemed happy (almost bashful)
* The seats we were in were made of bamboo, with big heavy burlap/fiber pads underneath for the elephant’s comfort
I have no idea how the elephants are trained or what their life is like. I can only hope that all the positive things I saw means that they are well cared for and not abused. I’m not an expert in elephant care though, and I really can’t say for sure.
Here is an article on how to choose an ethical elephant encounter when you visit Thailand: http://takingtotheopenroad.com/choosing-an-ethical-elephant-encounter/ It has recommendations on certain parks and camps. I strongly encourage you to do the research and make sure that you support a company that treats the elephants humanely.
We arrived at the elephant camp and were given a fried rice lunch served in a plastic bag. While we were finishing our lunch, three elephants arrived to where we were sitting. They flapped their ears and batted their eyelashes and looked a little bashful. It was endearing and intimidating.
Immediately we were ushered over to the elephants, who laid down on their bellies and made a step with their legs for us to climb onto. It was intimidating to be near such large creatures. I wanted to ask the elephant’s name who we were riding, but the mahouts didn’t speak English. She was a sweetheart.
When riding an elephant, you have to hang on. The seat sways from side to side, and when the elephant goes down or up a hill, you have to lean back or forward and really hold onto the seat. You don’t want to fall off. One of the men from the camp took our cameras and ran ahead the whole time to take photos. We were very thankful for such great photos and gave him a good tip.
We ventured into the property for about a 30 minute ride. It was incredible.
We arrived at a spot on the edge of the river and disembarked from the elephants. There is no graceful way to disembark from an elephant.
A woman was at the river bank with chunks of raw sugar cane, which we bought from her and fed to the elephants. Heather and Stephen’s elephant kept poking Heather in the shoulder with her trunk for more.
The mahouts climbed back on the elephants and lead them back to wherever they needed to be. We continued on foot for a ways. The heat was intense, and I was losing steam. Finally, we arrived at another part of the river where some men were waiting with bamboo rafts. We were told to wear life jackets, which was kind of ridiculous considering that the river was between knee to ankle deep.
Stephen and Paddy got in front and helped guide and steer the raft down the river back to the camp.
The rafting was fun, but it was really hot, and we’d just run out of water. Paddy thought he was going to die before we got back to the camp and got a drink.
We returned to Songkhlaburi in the same bumpy truck, and were met by a small boat to take us back to the lake house. It had been a long, hot, but fun day. We were ready for a beer and a dip in the lake.
Dinner that night was curry, a really wonderful soup, and a whole fried fish. It was the best meal yet.
The fire in the jungle across the lake raged on and glowed and flickered after sunset. It came closer to the lake and we could see larger flames.
The next morning, our floating lake house safari was over. We had breakfast and said goodbye to our drivers and Auntie Orr and the beautiful lake house. It was hard to leave.
We took the boat back over to Songkhlaburi where our van waited for us. We drove for a short while, and reached the Three Pagodas Pass on the Thailand/Myanmar border. They were having a Sunday Market, but the Sunday Market only happens on Fridays. Don’t ask for an explanation.
I don’t think this area gets many tourists, because people were gawking at us. The market was a mix between “farmers’ market” and flea market–there were a lot of different things for sale.
After the market, we got back in the van for a long, winding, nauseating drive. After a couple hours, we arrived at a waterfall–a lot like the one we visited in Chanthaburi but smaller. There were lots of families picnicking with kids playing in the water, and a restored train monument to the Death Railroad.
We continued towards Bangkok for about another half hour, and stopped for lunch at the same place we ate at on the way to the lake. There was a pretty embarrassing tour group leaving when we got there, I think they were German. One of them was a man with no shirt on, tiny little shorts that weren’t buttoned up all the way due to his enormous gut, and black socks with sandals. I’m kind of kicking myself for not sneaking a photo of him.
After lunch we continued the home stretch to Bangkok for about two more hours. It was a long day. We arrived in Bangkok at around 5:00 PM and thanked Puddi for an amazing tour. We all agreed that the Lake Safari had been the highlight of our entire trip to Thailand.
As of this year (2016), the floating lake house safari has changed their itinerary a bit. They replaced the elephant trek and bamboo rafting with a jungle trek. They were receiving a lot of concern from people about the elephant rides and decided to forgo the elephant camp altogether. They also removed the trip to coconut island, spreading the activities out in the mornings to free up more afternoon time for swimming and relaxing at the lake house. Removing the elephant trek helped them lower their prices a bit, and they have an easier online booking system on their website now as well.
If you are going to Thailand, I would recommend working the floating lake house safari into your itinerary. It goes weekly from Tuesday through Friday and transportation to and from Bangkok is included. Where else do you get to have an adventure out of a two-story floating lake house towed by a boat? If you do know of somewhere else that has a tour like this, please let us know!