Elephant Hills Thailand

I was lucky enough to win a holiday to Elephant Hills, Thailand’s first Luxury Tented Jungle Camp – which comprises of two camps, the Elephant Camp, and the floating Rainforest Camp, both situated in the Khao Sok National Park in the Surat Thani province. We opted for the four-days and three-nights Rainforest Nature Safari at Elephant Camp as it gave us the best of both in a relatively limited time.

Elephant Hills

 The getting there was easy – our transfer collected us from the Robinson Club Khao Lak, along with other guests from hotels in the vicinity. A comfortable couple of hours drive had us passing towns and little villages, farmlands, palm-oil- and rubber plantations as well as shrines and temples… soon it was patches of forest and jungle clad limestone cliffs.

On arrival at Elephant Camp, the first thing one notices is the view!

The bright red of umbrellas splashed against the deep green of the jungle, and a limestone mountain that almost feels close enough to touch. The communal areas of wood and ‘jungle thatch’ blending perfectly with their surroundings.

After being introduced to our guide, Banana, and learning the plans and procedures for the next few days we check out our room – it’s an African style safari tent complete with proper beds, wooden floors, electricity, and an en-suite bathroom.

Elephant Hills

The tents have screens which are bug proof, so the the critters get to stay outside. I loved the unique and hand-crafted furniture made by local Elephant Hills craftsmen and that the amenities were provided in dispensers on the wall – ‘yay’ for the lack of single use plastic! We were each given an aluminium water bottle to use during our stay and the fill-up water stations dispensing chilled drinking water made filling up regularly a breeze. And that icy drink from the bar after the day’s excursions? Comes with a stainless-steel straw if required.

Elephant Hills

But it was time for lunch before setting off down the Sok River…

River and Elephant Experience

A kingfisher flies off in a flash of blue and a heron watches warily as we pass by. We drift slowly down the Sok River, dwarfed by limestone mountains and cliffs covered with verdant jungle. Our canoes stable and safe as our guide gently paddles us beneath limestone overhangs and clumps of bamboo. It is quiet except for the swish of paddles, the occasional chorus of cicadas and ever-present bird calls. I gaze up, marveling at the vast areas of primary rainforest, relieved that this patch of nature is likely as it was thousands of years ago.  

Khao Sok River
Khao Sok River

Our introduction to the jungle by way of the river complete, it was time to get out of the canoe and head, by vehicle – a decommissioned Thai military transporter, to the elephant camp.  Our first glimpse of the elephants was them enjoying their natural environment… relishing a sand bath, munching on grasses and, for a couple of them, asserting their dominance with a bit of trumpeting and play fighting.

Elephant Hills

The Elephant Hills Elephant Experience was implemented in 2010 as a means to rehabilitate elephants that have been rescued from a life of captivity and to offer an intimate experience that would be both educational and memorable. ’Would it measure up’ I wondered.

We learn about the history of elephants in Thailand, their cultural significance, and their extensive use in the logging industry – a practice that was thankfully banned in 1989. The problems didn’t stop there though as this left about 2000 mahouts out of work and unable to generate the income required to provide the approximately 200kg of food for their elephant, so many of them turned to elephant tourism – elephant back riding, entertainment and being paraded down streets and doing tricks as a means of begging. The problem with this goes beyond the activities themselves to the inhumane and abusive way elephants are treated in the ‘training’ they receive with the use of bull hooks, electric prodders, and other cruel methods of control.

Thankfully, there are now several ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that offer rehabilitation to the elephants, a means of employment for the mahouts and memorable educational experiences to guests, such as here at Elephant Hills.

Elephant Hills

We head into the large elephant enclosure; they see us coming and head our way, obviously happy for us to get up close – or perhaps it’s because visitors mean they get snacks like pineapple, bananas, and other tasty treats. We help prepare one of their daily meals, including the camouflaging of the dietary supplements that help with their digestion and their overall well-being in a little grass parcel. We keep our distance and always treat the elephants with respect, and they are never forced into anything and any interaction is always on their terms.

Elephant Hills
Elephant
Elephant

Having had enough of us, they amble off to enjoy a splash in the nearby mud pool. There is an opportunity to wash the elephants, but I choose not to – they did however seem to enjoy the experience, perhaps because of the treats they were given or the fact that sand from the upcoming sand bath would stick better?

I feel sad as one of the elephants, clearly rescued from a tourism entertainment environment subconsciously went through the moves of scratching its head with a stick and rubbing its legs together where the restraints would have been. But I am happy that at least the rest of its life can be lived in a natural environment, without the threat of further harm and watch as the elephants walk with their mahouts at their side towards the forest.

Elephant Hills
Elephant Hills

At Elephant Hills nature park the life of these gentle giants is constantly being improved, so much so that Elephant Hills have received 100% of the core criteria in their audit result from Global Spirit, an independent animal welfare company in the UK since they first engaged with them in 2017.

“It isn’t easy to achieve 100% of minimum requirements, especially within the two-week audit period. They are not only the first elephant camp to achieve this rating but the first worldwide animal attraction to reach 100% within the two-week audit period. Global Spirit has been impressed with Elephant Hills engagement in the whole process and their ongoing commitment to continue making positive improvements.”Hayley Lynagh, Managing Director – Global Spirit Animals in Tourism Ltd.

It’s late afternoon and we head back to Elephant Hills to freshen up for our evening’s entertainment of a dance performance by local school children and a Thai cooking demonstration before dinner.  We head back to our tent to a background symphony of insects and frogs and are lulled to sleep by the glorious sounds of nature.

I wake slowly, in the distance I hear a gibbon’s territorial morning call as it echoes down the valley, the sounds of nature all around us. The sunlight gradually begins to filter through the trees, the mist hanging over the rainforest-covered mountains slowly lifts as the day begins to warm. I breathe deeply, enjoying the subtle fragrance of the surrounding forest.

Mysterious mangroves

After a leisurely breakfast we head to Takua Pa, on the west coast along the Andaman Sea, to explore the mysterious mangrove channels of the region’s ‘Little Amazon’.  From the Saparn Pra pier we pass little riverside villages and fishing boats, our speed boat gradually slows, we enter a narrow channel and are transported into another world.

Mangroves at Takua Pa

An almost pre-historic world with its primeval swamp, giant banyan trees and tangle of mangrove roots. We are told that there are more than 110 different species of mangrove trees growing in the muddy sediment along these coastlines. The channels are tidal, and we see the waterline of a higher tide. Palm fronds overhang the channels, and sunlight filters through the canopy of trees. These are Nipa Palms, common on these channels and whose leaves are used for roofing on houses.

Mangroves
Mangroves

Our well-trained local guide keeps an eye out for wildlife like mangrove snakes, reticulated pythons, and monitor lizards. We motor slowly along; the surrounding trees are alive with the sounds of insects and birds – I wish I had brought my binoculars. We spot a monitor lizard up a tree, watch crabs scuttling through the mud, and see a yellow-black striped mangrove snake that lies, well camouflaged, in the foliage – it’s only with the help of our guide that I eventually find it.

A group of long-tailed macaques entertains as they forage for fruit on the banks of the channel or dip their hands into the water to retrieve a floating morsel. We are told that crabs are a favourite food source and judging by how many we had seen thus far; they were in for a treat. I watch as young ones bounce from branch to branch, take fright then scurry back into the arms of their mom.

Long-tailed macaque
Long-tailed macaque

Back on the main channel we pick up speed and cruise past thick impenetrable vegetation, a bird of prey flies overhead – our guide says it could be a Brahminy kite, which are common in the area. The channels widen and soon we are on what feels like a massive river. Up ahead is a classical Burmese junk with another moored on either side. This is not only our lunch stop, but an opportunity to explore the nearby mangrove creek in a canoe.

Burmese junk
Burmese junk

We journey silently into a dark, dense, green world, full of natural wonders waiting to be appreciated. Little fish swim in the shallows, escaping to the safety of the mangrove roots as we paddle by, we see mudskippers and crabs and the occasional flit of colour as a kingfisher flies by. One could easily get lost here, and it feels as though we’ve travelled back in time to when nature was untouched by man. Soon we emerge back into the light with views of distant mangroves and banyan trees stretching to the horizon.

kayaking

The current is strong, so we swim in a designated area in front of the vessel. Feeling wonderfully refreshed we sit back and relax in the company of new friends and a delightful freshly cooked lunch of crispy prawns, chicken, and sweet and sour vegetables.

On the way back to Elephant Hills we pass fields of rubber trees and small palm-oil plantations – Banana explains that these aren’t owned by big corporations, but rather by small-scale farmers who rely on this income for survival. I ponder this and wonder what the solution is. Ideally it would be to gradually replace these plantations with indigenous forest, but then these local communities would be without their means of income. It is a tough one, and before I come up with viable solutions we arrive back at camp.

Each experience in nature has to this point been a highlight. Could it get any better?

Cheow-Larn-Lake 

Another beautiful day dawns in Khao Sok and with it the opportunity to explore Cheow-Larn-Lake by long-tail boat. On-route we pop into a local village market at Takhun – well, a street of markets and shops selling everything from clothes and bags to sunglasses, kitchenware, and flower garlands. I was fascinated by the vegetable market with its mountains of greens, tubers and tomatoes, mounds of garlic and, of course, tubs of chillies, bowls of curry paste and even trays of pink ‘hundred-year’ eggs!

Thai Market
Thai Market
Thai Market

Nothing can prepare one for that first glimpse of Cheow-Larn-Lake – the emerald green water reflecting the blue of the sky, the verdant jungle and limestone mountains stretching as far as the eye can see.

Cheow-Larn-Lake

After a quick stop at the Rajjaprabha Dam, which was constructed in the 1980s, we catch a longtail boat at the nearby Rajjaprabha pier and are soon cruising across emerald waters and passing towering rainforest covered limestone mountains – the scenery has been compared to Guilin in China and Halong Bay in Vietnam. Their lake system is extensive, it stretches over 60 km from North to South with, more than one hundred islands – and we get to see just a few of them.

Rajjaprabha Dam
Cheow-Larn-Lake

The water is crystal clear, its colour ranging from translucent emerald to turquoise.  We pass towering limestone mountains (or karsts as they are sometimes called), their vertical cliffs plunging into the depths, tenacious vegetation barely hanging on.

Cheow-Larn-Lake

Banana tells us that in the 70’s the area was a hide-out for communists and students opposing the military dictatorship, which helped preserve the area’s unique environment as it was spared from urbanization. Thanks to this the lake and surrounding Khao Sok National Park offers an outstanding habitat for wild elephants, the rare Asian ox, hornbills and hundreds of other tropical birds, various monkey species, amphibians, reptiles and even tigers and leopards. This combined with a myriad of other species hidden in these rainforest-covered hills make it one of the most important areas of rainforest in South East Asia.

A quiet bay surrounded by hillsides and dense jungle vegetation welcomes us. Floating alongside its shore is the Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp. We emerge from our longboat onto the floating deck, enjoy some refreshments before donning our bathing costume and heading out on the water.

Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp

The nose of our kayaks slice though the surface of the water, shattering the perfect reflections of the jungle in the process. We choose the inlet opposite, paddling slowly, listening, and looking high into the treetops, hoping to spot a spectacled langur, also known as a dusky leaf monkey – we’re being extremely optimistic as they are commonly seen in the treetops in the early mornings and late afternoons feasting on leaves and fruit. The forest is alive with birdsong, noisy cicadas, and a bunch of other unrecognisable sounds.

We spot movement in the undergrowth, I hold my breath, wondering what it could be. A small group of macaques emerge, completely unaware of our presence. We stay still and they come closer, eating leaves, picking berries – one even ventures within a couple of metres of us to the water’s edge. Such a privilege to see wildlife so close, and in their natural environment.

Back on deck I plunge into the silky water, it’s refreshingly cool in the heat of the day. I shriek as a fish nibbles my toes – and I have memories of the ‘fish spa’ I declined down a side street in Phuket. After a delicious Thai lunch washed down with a local Singha beer, it’s time to head back onto our longboat for the journey back.

Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp
Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp

As the floating tented camp shrinks into the distance, I cannot help wishing that we had a couple more days to enjoy sunrises and sunsets and the wealth of jungle flora and fauna in more detail. Next time…

Jungle adventure

Our last morning has us exploring the jungle across the Sok River on foot. We grab a bamboo walking stick, fill our water bottles and head to the river. Gazing at the height of ‘our’ limestone mountain I worry about my lack of fitness, but Banana ensures us that it’s not an army survival exercise, and that there are no prizes for the fastest, and for those that are nervous about creepy crawlies, that the ‘snakes and spiders do not jump out at you’.

Rainforest hike

She is right, and after a quick transfer to the opposite side of the river by canoe we are immersed in a natural world of exotic looking plants, enormous hardwood trees with huge roots, palms, ferns, bamboo, mosses… and few not-so-scary bugs. We walk slowly, stepping over moss covered rocks and slippery tree stumps, and treading carefully to avoid the streams of water – it is a rainforest, after all, pausing often to learn about the ecology of the rainforest.

Rainforest hike
Rainforest hike

We stop at a rubber tree on the edge of the forest and Banana explains the intricacies of latex rubber collection. The bark is cut diagonally, just below the cut from the previous day, in a way that leaves the tree unharmed, the viscous white liquid slowly drips into either a cup or plastic packet. This is then collected by the farmer to be sold to a rubber processing plant. The local economy at work.

Vines creep up trees, the undergrowth a mishmash of branches and roots. We pose for a photo within the buttress roots of a giant tree, its trunk reaching high above the canopy.  Indoor house plants grow wild here, with the perfect temperature and rainfall year-round, crabs relish the moist surroundings and tiny little cup shape fungi row on a weathered branch. A rickety, yet surprisingly stable bridge leads us further into the forest, we clamour up rocks, and hang onto ropes as we descend – I admire a knot that would make a boy scout proud.

Rainforest hike
Rainforest hike

We eventually emerge from the undergrowth back into the light, ready to be paddled back across the river. Time to wash off our hiking shoes, freshen up in our tent and enjoy one last delicious Thai buffet before saying goodbye to new friends, each going our separate ways according to our next destination.  

Khao Sok River

Responsible Tourism

Besides the wonderful outdoor adventures and memorable experiences, what makes Elephant Hills so special is its commitment to responsible tourism, as is reflected by the numerous awards they have received over the years.

The most recent being the 2019 PATA Grand Award. The award recognises the initiatives they have spearheaded in raising the bar on environmental matters. Some of these projects include the Elephant Conservation Project Hills – https://www.elephanthills.com/elephant-conservation-project/ – which helps Asian elephants through the support of regional elephant hospitals and interventions; the Children’s Project – https://www.elephanthills.com/elephant-conservation-project/ – which brings much-needed resources into local schools; the Wildlife Monitoring Project – https://www.elephanthills.com/wildlife-monitoring-project/ – which provides valuable information about what animals are living within Khao Sok National Park; as well as the new CO2 Offset Project – https://www.elephanthills.com/co2-offsetting-booking-promotions-trees-planted/ – which was created in order to reduce the carbon footprint made by long-haul travel. 

The Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp received the 2018 Responsible Thailand Award for the best eco-lodge or hotel in recognition of our commitment to ecological responsibility and our passion for raising the bar in eco-tourism.  In addition to reducing their carbon footprint by harnessing both solar and wind power to create the electricity required, Rainforest Camp employs a unique waste management system to avoid polluting their jungle. They also have an ongoing commitment to removing single use plastics.

Additionally they help to combat deforestation through the planting of trees – more than 6000 last year, thereby ensuring that the animals which call Thailand home have a stable and increasing habitat.

www.elephanthills.com

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