Thailand: Into the Jungle with Elephants
It’s Friday night in Thailand. In Bangkok the streets are filled with music as tourists and locals swarm the colourful night markets. In Phuket it’s equally bustling with travellers eagerly enjoying cocktails to a background of pop music and buzzing neon signs. But where I am, deep in the jungle, it’s silent. Eerily so. That is until I’m woken up in the morning to the squawks of a family of gibbons.
The award-winning Elephant Hills jungle camp is just as luxurious and easy to reach as the island resorts, but shows a completely different side of Thailand. Located three hours’ drive north of Krabi, in Khao Sok National Park, part of southern Thailand's largest stretch of primary rainforest, it’s touted as not only one of the few places in southern Thailand that practises ethical elephant interactions, but is also regarded as the country’s first luxury tented camp.
Inspired by the safari camps in Africa, the property comprises 35 luxury tents that border the protected national park (Elephant Camp) and 20 that float on the waters of the nearby Cheow Lan Lake amid lively rainforest (Rainforest Camp). Elephant Hills does not allow tourists to visit on day trips, helping the grounds to remain peaceful and secluded.
At our first secret camping spot I was met by Bamboo, my guide for the next three days. She’s worked at Elephant Hills for 10 years and her knowledge and enthusiasm were easily apparent. After a brief introduction, I was shown to my ‘tent’ – a spacious fabric room, decked out with elephant-inspired furnishings, with huge, comfortable twin beds and an ensuite bathroom with a Western-style toilet and hot shower. The jungle never looked so luxurious.
After checking in it was time to meet the elephants. We were driven to a wide, slow-moving river where a fleet of canoes appeared from around the corner. “Today you don’t have to paddle; you can be lazy. Sit back and enjoy!” Bamboo announced.
Slowly floating down the river, I soon noticed the other canoes gathering at the riverside. My canoeist paddled forward and pointed towards a tree: “Elephant!” he exclaimed. Sure enough, a huge elephant was leaning against a tree.
Bamboo explained that after logging was made illegal in Thailand in 1989, many elephants and their keepers, known as mahouts, faced a difficult time, with the animals being sold into shows, trekking camps and dangerous illegal logging, or abandoned into the wild where they didn’t know how to survive. But Elephant Hills saved many from this fate. Here, they spend their time wandering freely through the jungle, bathing in the mud and eating for up to 18 hours a day.
Once on dry land, Bamboo led the group to meet two beautiful Asian elephants – a large adult female and a stroppy teenager – and their mahouts, dressed in traditional clothing native to the Karen hill tribe in northern Thailand. Our arrival marked bath time for the two elephants who inelegantly plonked themselves into the water.
Rolling around, using their trunks as snorkels, the pair fully submerged themselves before resurfacing to blow mud from their trunks. Fully soaked in mud, it was then time to give them a pamper session. With a hose, bucket and coconut skins to use as an exfoliator, we started to wash them down. It wasn’t long before the simple bath turned into a playful water fight. As we hosed, the elephants used their trunks to soak up water and spray themselves – and us. Then it was on to the lunch preparations, with our group ushered to the kitchen to help chop up sugar cane, pineapples and sweetcorn, and to mask tamarind in salt to aid the elephants’ digestion.
As I held out a piece of pineapple I soon learnt that feeding an elephant is similar to feeding a fussy two-year-old; they will only eat what they want. The two elephants I was feeding seemed to have a particular fondness for sweetcorn and sugar cane, so all that pineapple and tamarind I had lovingly prepared became a floor decoration. The interaction was so rewarding that I was a little sad to leave my new elephant friends after lunch.
Relocating to the rainforest
The next morning I said farewell to the Elephant Camp and headed to the second jungle site, Rainforest Camp, located on the sprawling Cheow Lan Lake. As we drifted in a longtail over the turquoise waters surrounded by jungle-covered limestone karsts, it was easy to see why locals refer to the area as Thailand’s version of Vietnam’s Halong Bay.
Before long I spotted a row of tents bobbing on the water, each with a kayak tied up outside. We arrived just in time for a buffet lunch served on a floating dining area. Halfway through the best chicken satay I have ever tasted, I heard a howling coming from the trees beside the tents. We gathered by the pontoon as the staff handed out binoculars; swinging in the trees ahead of us was a gibbon.
With some free time, I jumped into the river for a swim, kayaked into the eerily quiet jungle and joined a guided trek. After an active day, I retreated to my floating tent to fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle in complete comfort.
To the north
To feed my new-found taste for jungle life, I next ventured to Chiang Mai, situated in the luscious green hills of northern Thailand, where you find much of the country’s jungle, wildlife and its hill tribes.
I was expecting a rural town, but it turned out to be a vibrant city with bustling night markets, a coffee scene and an overwhelming choice of live music. It’s also a fantastic base for taking day trips, notably to nearby Doi Inthanon National Park. Nicknamed ‘the roof of Thailand’, Doi Inthanon forms part of the Himalayan mountain range and is home to the country’s tallest peak, as well as evergreen cloud forest and over 350 bird species.
Although it is possible to be driven to the top, I opted to venture up by foot as part of a guided day trek. Boots tightened, our group set off into the jungle from Hmong village, our guide advising us to keep our eyes peeled, with the opportunity to spot monkeys, bears and even wild Asian elephants.
The day trek involved a total of five hours’ walking and, while the pace wasn’t too hard, I certainly felt the humidity (and the mosquitos – don’t forget your bug spray!). Along the trek I glimpsed some monkeys and took cooling dips in a few waterfalls, but my highlight was meeting the locals as we passed a traditional mountain village.
The view from the peak was one of pure green, completely free from neon signs, resorts and even people. Being in the middle of the jungle I felt like I’d ventured off the typical tourist track, and journeyed a million miles away from the Thailand you often see in brochures.
Helen travelled on a tailor-made Journey to Thailand, with flights, transfers, accommodation, experiences and our Travel Butler service included.