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Eerie Diving In Cheow Larn Lake
Close to Thailand’s popular resorts, but a million miles from their tropical reefs, is Cheow Larn Lake. Lia Barrett discovers some spooky, but fun, freshwater diving...
For several years, I’ve heard glowing reviews of Thailand’s freshwater secrets. Friends and travellers have regaled me with tales of lakes with striking panoramic views, mountains rising hundreds of metres out of the water and spooky underwater caverns dripping with stalactites. After a few weeks of diving the Similan Islands, I decided my equipment could use a good freshwater rinse, and so I arranged to see Khao Sok National Park and dive its lakes for myself.
Diving in Thailand is usually associated with warm, tropical waters and coral reefs. The Similan Islands on the west coast and Koh Tao and Koh Samui on the east coast attract thousands of divers a year to see the gentle, giant whale sharks and swooping manta rays – but you won’t find these in Khao Sok. No, the appeal of the diving here is not the marine life, but rather the experience of engulfing yourself in the eerie, strangely mystical, underwater landscape.
Cheow Larn Lake covers 165 square kilometres, and was created when the Rajjaprabha Dam was constructed in 1982 in order to provide electricity for the growing tourism industry in the south of Thailand. The park is situated off Highway 401, which traverses the country connecting popular tourist hotspots on the east and west coasts. The highest peak in the park is 960m, though the average ground level is around 200m above sea level.
The lake is regularly dived through a few operators from Khao Lak, which is one and a half hours away by car, and by Ban’s Technical Diving and Big Blue Tech based in Koh Tao, both of which make trips to the lake to teach cave and cavern diving courses. There are no on-site dive shops, and equipment is brought in from Khao Lak and Koh Tao. It is then transported to the accommodation on long-tails, which are elongated canoe-like boats fitted with engines.
I have become good friends with the tight-knit family of instructors at Wicked Diving in Khao Lak over the past few years, and so I signed up for one of their trips. Wicked runs all-inclusive one- and two-night tours, which include both diving and nature trekking.
After a scenic drive from Khao Lak, we arrived at a pier where a pair of long-tail boats awaited. Our guides, Ricky and Diego, gathered their team of eager divemaster trainees who loaded our tanks, equipment, and personal belongings. With everyone aboard, we set off, and spent the next hour meandering around the limestone mountains until we reached our accommodation: floating raft houses.
The little huts stretch from shore to shore, and come with a modest front porch and mattresses on the floor. Electricity is run by generated power, which is switched off at 11pm. Food is included with accommodation, and includes freshwater fish caught from the lake, and other dishes, which are served canteen-style in the restaurant.
For the remainder of the day, we soaked up our surroundings. A hike through the rainforest on the edge of the lake revealed a habitat rich with diverse flora, fauna, and wildlife. A local guide took us to a cave, where we got a glimpse of the kind of caverns that awaited us underwater. We watched monkeys playing near the water’s edge, and marvelled at birds swooping in from the mountaintops for a freshwater meal. Returning to the raft houses, we discovered the simple joy of stepping from our front porch into the water for a refreshing swim, and relaxed into a peaceful night’s rest amid the quiet stillness of the lake.
One of the perks of diving a remote and little-known spot is that you can follow a relaxed itinerary. Being the only divers on the lake, there was no one competing with us for a mooring line, a drop time, or an animal to peer at. Much of the lake is still unexplored by divers, but Wicked’s itinerary includes a few sites that are sure to impress.
After a lazy breakfast, we set up our equipment in the long-tail, and departed for our first dive. We tethered the long-tail to a small branch growing out of a limestone cliff and geared up. Rolling in backwards, I felt the warm, fresh water swirl around me. I took a moment to breathe and spun around to take in the astonishing topside view of the cliffs and mountains meeting the lake. I positioned myself a metre away from the cliffs, switched on my torch, and descended into the eerie lake below.
The first ten to fifteen metres from the surface down were a murky green, and keeping track of my buddy was challenging in the poor visibility. Though I wasn’t carrying any weight, my saltwater-seasoned senses made it feel as though I was plummeting to the bottom. Then suddenly, the fog seemed to magically dissipate, and I got the feeling that I’d just been dropped into a Tim Burton movie. I looked down to see the claws of a giant tree reaching up for me, and I quickly inflated my BC as if I were letting out a parachute.
I realised I was in the midst of an underwater forest. Enveloped in a green haze, I was suspended motionless in the ghostly stillness.
The lack of current and tide has left the skeletons of the once-thriving forest standing. There are even leaves still clinging to some of the branches. I looked towards the darkness below, which sent a chill up my spine. I’d heard rumours about a lost village looming somewhere at the bottom of the lake, preserved as it had been when the dam was built. Craig from Ban’s Technical Diving, who has been on a few missions to find the village, has found just two roads, an old house, and a few water storage containers.
We used the trees and the limestone cliffs as reference points in an otherwise disorientating setting. My biggest fear was felling a tree by accidentally running into it – a problem I’ve never faced before. My list of fears also included catfish, as I've had a phobia of their whiskered bodies since childhood, and seeing a moving silhouette – it’s the perfect setting to encounter a ghost.
The underwater forest was only an introduction to the secrets held in the lake. Before descending on another dive, we swam into Red Cave, which extends both above and below the surface. Shining our torches around the dark enclosure revealed nooks and crannies formed by the weathered limestone. We descended, exited the cave and swam along a wall, weaving in and out of stalactite overhangs and through additional caverns carved out of the mountain extending above. Entering another cavern, I spotted a plump catfish, and squirmed uncomfortably. It seemed drawn to me, the same way cats are drawn to people who do not like them. I retreated and sprinted towards the light of the exit.
But my jumpiness aside, the dives are fun. Without the task of hunting for nudibranchs, or worrying about kicking coral, the unfamiliar freedom inspired playfulness among our group. My buddy removed her fins, and began scaling the limestone wall as though she were rock climbing. Others joined in the fun, and hung like monkeys from one particularly sturdy tree branch. Apparently the novelty of our fairytale surroundings had unearthed our inner childlike giddiness.
It’s difficult to believe Khao Sok is still so unexplored by divers. Its close proximity to Khao Lak and the above-water attractions make it an ideal break from the salty seas out on the reefs. The unique and at times overwhelming dose of visual stimulation that you receive makes it a worthwhile detour from the islands on the east and west coasts. Before leaving Thailand, I had to return a second time to revel again in this shadowy underwater world that was so recently terra firma.
Wicked Diving: www.wickeddiving.com
Bans Technical Diving: www.banstec.com