Nestled within the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world, Elephant Hills has redefined our interaction with these magnificent animals – and amassed an impressive range of awards and praise in the process.
“We follow the elephants. They do not follow us,” says Bamboo, a rotund (by Thai standards) lady who looks a decade or more youthful than her 39 years and sports a permanent smile that oozes the sort of warmth that, if you could package it, would keep a small house cozy on a chilly winter’s evening.
Beneath Bamboo’s softly spoken charm though lies the sort of environmental awareness that if it was possessed by a fraction of the social media fixated eco-warriors we have in the west would represent a serious game changer.
Bamboo is one of 10 guides at Elephant Hills in southern Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park. It’s described as the country’s first luxury tented jungle camp; it is, in fact, something all-together more important as a raft of awards and environmental credentials can testify. It’s received a 100 per cent rating for its animal welfare.
Aerial photos of Khao Sok invite you to glimpse downward, entranced by its resemblance to some vast prehistoric playground.
Covered by the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world, towering limestone mountains soar, deep valleys slice into mangrove swamps and lakes perform horizon-busting feats cast in hues of blue, green and turquoise. That the vista is often sprinkled with low-lying marshmallow clouds and wafting mists does much to add to the atmosphere.
Short stays, typically of two nights/three days, are the staple of the Elephant Hills’ programme offering introductions to a stunning national park that sprawls an astounding 739 sq km and boasts a rainforest believed to be older than the Amazon.
The first part of our stay is spent at Elephant Camp itself, a network of spacious tents where the aim is blending luxury with those award-winning environmental credentials. Proper beds and “western-style” bathrooms are matched with handmade furniture produced by the camp’s own craftsmen using natural materials.
We gather in the main communal area which consists of reception, a semi open-air restaurant, bar and small souvenir shop. There’s also a local herb garden producing pineapple, papaya, peppers, galangal and chilli. And further beyond, hidden among the tents, is a pool beautifully framed by a spectacular limestone cliff backdrop.
Despite the business of allocating a large number of guests into groups, the atmosphere is one of typically Thai calm and quiet efficiency. There’s no feeling of being “herded” and it’s reassuring to know we’ll be in parties of a refreshingly manageable size. Ours is “Team Bamboo”.
Following lunch and a leisurely journey in convoy by canoe down the Sok River – our expert guides stopping where necessary to mention points of natural, historical and geographical interest – we’re close to the elephants.
Bamboo, though, is in no rush; she’s clearly skilled at whipping-up anticipation. She stops to bend down, pick-up and show us something speckled red and bell-shaped. It looks like a cross between a pepper and Pink Lady apple that’s seen better days. Using her fingers to pierce the skin and flesh, she extracts a lone cashew nut. “Now you know why they are so expensive!”
Since opening in 2010 (and against a rightful backlash to the worst of “animal tourism”) Elephant Hills has pioneered a unique visitor concept. From the outset, riding elephants was never on any agenda; instead, the desire was to offer visitors interactive but far more respectful encounters.
Bamboo explains many of the magnificent pachyderms at Elephant Hills had been working in the logging industry.
“That was banned by Thai law in 1989 but as elephants eat more than 200 kg of food every day new ways of looking after these gentle giants had to found,” she explains in her excellent English.
“Many ended-up in tourism but this hasn’t been a good thing. We allow guests to get up close but it is all controlled around the animal’s schedule – they are the boss. We’d like to have more but they are expensive to keep and feed.”
We spend the next couple of joyous hours interacting with these most intelligent of animals. It is, at times, hypnotic – and it starts with cooling down. Our assistance isn’t required at this point so we just observe as these normally poised, graceful creatures launch themselves into the café latte coloured bathing pool, all mighty bluster, clumsiness and inelegance.
It’s then on to bath time but, after thinking I was doing rather well scrubbing my charge to his obvious satisfaction, he appears to cast me a sideways glance as if to say “Right, I’m off”. “Dinner time,” says Bamboo. “You no longer needed”. We follow obediently to the “dining room” and offer humungous quantities of bananas and other delights to excitable, waving trunks.
That night back at camp, the temperature has dropped, the campfire is lit and to a soundtrack of cicada and a gentle jungle breeze we enjoy (an excellent) dinner. I’m struck by the diversity of ages and get chatting to a 20-something English couple.
“I’d have thought you guys would be island-hopping and hitting Full Moon Party,” I ask. “No, not for us,” says the heavily tattooed male. “This is the sort of place that really matters.”
The following morning we travel an hour by long-tail boat to Elephant Hills’ sister camp on Cheow Larn Lake. Twenty luxury tents float as if on water surrounded by the landscape of rainforest and limestone mountains that typifies Khao Sok and is an area home to many threatened and endangered species. Experts estimate the biodiversity here to be greater than the Amazon basin.
Fully-powered by wind and solar energy, days here are spent trekking, kayaking, swimming or merely sitting out on your tent decking marvelling at the surroundings. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more chilled.
This has been a magical couple of days but it’s the encounters of yesterday that are likely to provide the most enduring memory.
“Our elephants have a great life. Their work consists of eating, splashing around in the pool and having you guests give them a good scrub,” says Bamboo.
“These 12 very happy elephants are the best part of my job. And do you know why? Because I look smaller than them.”
You can book directly with Elephant Hills (elephanthills.com). However, it’s usually visited as part of a more in-depth holiday and operators include Pettitts (pettitts.co.uk); Selective Asia (selectiveasia.com) and Trailfinders (trailfinders.com). Non-stop flights to Bangkok start from around £600 with Eva Air (evaair.com) and Thai Airways (thaiairways.com).