Khao Sok National Park, Elephant Hills

The flight from Bangkok to Phuket is a short one, leaving the city and arriving into jungle and island life in just over an hour. On arrival at Phuket airport we were met by our driver from the Elephant Hills Camp, our adventure for the next three days.

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As we headed north from Phuket, up into the jungle of Khao Sok national park, we passed villages, palm oil and rubber plantations. Further into the remote national park huge limestone karst formations rose up around us. Pock marked with caves, and blanketed by vines and vegetation, making for an impressive sight. Arriving at the Elephant hills camp we were greeted by our guide for the next few days, Sam. The main area of the camp is a huge covered area, with wooden frame work, woven roof, wooden benches and tables, and statues of elephants everywhere. After a refreshing welcome drink we checked in to our luxury tents, safari style canvas but with a full bathroom, hammocks and chairs out the front, and all surrounded by the forest, awesome!

For our first afternoon of activities, we took the short drive to the neighbouring Elephant Camp for our elephant experience. Elephant Hills has won awards for its environmental and ethical work and the camp is a sanctuary, not just for elephants but also their handlers the mahout. When working elephants was outlawed in Thailand the domesticated elephants we left unable to be released into the wild, and the mahouts who cared for them left without work and an elephant to look after (bearing in mind they can live as long as us this is a lifelong vocation). The Elephant camp took these elephants and mahout in as a sanctuary where they can live out their days peacefully, and away from cruelty. They pride themselves on education, and unlike other tourism activities in Thailand do not allow riding of the elephants as this is not a natural thing for the elephants to do. The camp itself is set in a huge expanse of land, giving the elephants plenty of space to roam, with the limestone karst’s making for a majestic backdrop.

As we arrived the herd of elephant’s wandered over to say hello, we went out and sat on a bench to watch them bathe in their mud pool. They were clearly having a great time, spraying water over themselves and playing with each other. One even fully submerged herself and then stuck her trunk out of the water like a snorkel! Once they had their fill of splashing around, and were suitably muddy, they headed over to a wash station where we followed to give them a good scrub down. Armed with a hose and coconut husks, to scrub with, we set about cleaning our elephant, she was a lovely old lady at 74 and the oldest of the group. You have to scrub pretty hard as their skin is an inch thick, but we got right up next to her which was amazing. Being the elder of the group she clearly knew when she was clean, deciding she would head off back to the sheltered area where she knew dinner would soon be served, as she left the other elephants followed suit and off we all went in a trail of elephants and people!

Back at the shelter we prepared elephant delicacies such as banana, pineapple, sugar cane, a thick grass, and elephant vitamin balls made from fruit rolled in sea salt and seeds and wrapped in a banana leaf. Chopping and preparing, we were soon each armed with a bucket full of goodies and began feeding the elephants. It was fantastic, the elephants reached over the fence with their trunks and took the food out of our hands, coiling it back into their mouths. Our lovely old lady elephant now has a diet of just bananas as she has got so old she no longer has any teeth, she was the epitome of a gentle giant. On the other end of the spectrum the elephant I was feeding was a big youngster, I soon worked out her favourite snack was the pineapples, just like us each seemed to have their own preference of food and if they didn’t like it they just took it from you and dropped it on the floor for someone else to snaffle up! It was an incredible experience to feed these beautiful giants, especially the way their trunks wrapped around your hand a little as they took the food. Once we were finished with feeding we had time for a few more photos, before saying goodbye and heading to our next activity.

Walking the short distance from the elephant camp down to the river, next on the agenda was a canoe ride. Travelling by canoe was a showcase of the limestone cliffs and great standalone pillars rising from the jungle. Just as we were getting going a torrential downpour began! Despite the monsoon rain it was still warm, and actually just made it more of an adventure. We had a guide paddling our canoe for us and at one point he actually began bailing us out with an empty bottle! I don’t think we were in any danger of sinking, but we did have a fairly decent puddle collecting in the bottom of the boat. On our way down the river we spotted a few villages on the banks and also some wildlife including fish, kingfisher, a bat and we could hear but not spot a particularly noisy frog who was clearly enjoying the wet weather. Hopping out on the bank downstream we thanked our guide and tried to blow dry ourselves in the open back of the bus. This was fairly unproductive though, so back at camp we resorted to some nice hot showers before an evening of food, beer and a performance of Thai dancing.

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Our second day in the national park began early, woken by the chirping of insects and birds around our tent, and the breakfast gong. After an extensive breakfast we headed off from the camp to our next location further north on Cheow Lan Lake. En route we stopped off at the market and grabbed a few bargains. Among the foods there were a strange looking selection of eggs, pink shells – which are black inside, black and white shells – salty eggs, despite my love of eggs I decided I would give these a miss! Continuing on our way we came to the edge of the lake and the Ratchaprapa Dam which flooded the valley creating the lake. Apparently you can dive down to the abandoned villages which have temples, houses and schools still intact under the water. The views out across the lake were amazing and from here we headed down to the pier, and finally got on the water. Hopping in a long tail boat we embarked on our tour of the lake, the scenery was stunning, the huge cliffs we had seen before now rising from the water instead of the jungle, and a multitude of islands popping up from the blue. Some parts were fjord-like with fingers and inlets creating a labyrinth of wilderness, as we ventured down one of these inlets our floating rainforest camp emerged into view.

A row of floating tents, similar to those we had stayed in previously, but on a deck on top of oil drums! From here we could see across to the islands, and smaller channels opposite, and were deafened by the whirring of cicada. The lake itself is 28˚C so we hopped in for a swim, bobbing around using our lifejackets as seats, and enjoying that it was cooler in the water than out. Kitting ourselves out we headed off from camp by boat to a remote area of jungle, greeted by the national park ranger who was in full camouflage and carrying a machete was a reassuring start to our jungle trek! We began walking up through the jungle along winding, steep and uneven paths, being careful not to trip on tree roots as we went. We stopped at various points, for amazing views through a gap in the trees, to watch a marching line of termite ants, trying to coax a tarantula out of its trap to no avail, and to smell the sweet wood of a tree they use here as smelling salts. Surrounded by a variety of trees, and amazing twisted vines, we found cicada shells, and also saw claw marks etched into the tree where a bear had been climbing. The climax of the hike though was Diamond cave, its huge gaping mouth full of amazing stalactites and stalagmites.

Armed with torches we ventured into the cave a good 500m, aside from the slippery floor the cave was beautiful, getting its name from minerals in the rock making it sparkle under torchlight. Just inside we found a snake perched atop the stalagmite and in the crevices of the roof. Sam explained these are constrictor snakes that wait for unsuspecting bats to fly past before pouncing. We just hoped they stayed up out of the way of us! Further in more delights awaited in the form of huge poisonous huntsman spiders, weta and cave crickets. Luckily the huge spiders were out of the way on the walls and in cracks in the rock, the crickets however were everywhere! When you moved it startled them so with us all walking through they were hopping all over the place, including onto our shoes and legs (I only had a brief freak out)! When we reached the end of the cave there were thousands of bats all clinging to the ceiling, Sam reassuringly told us there are three species that live in the cave one of which are vampire bats! Also at this point we all turned off our torches to experience the complete darkness of the cave, it was pretty disorientating as you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face, awesome really although I’m glad nothing chose to jump on my leg at that point! Back in the sunlight and heat of the jungle we made our way back to the boat and to camp where a swim was just what we needed to stop us feeling like things were crawling on us! After an incredible day we enjoyed a much needed dinner and drink, watching a film about the camps camera trap programme. They monitor the wildlife of the rainforest here and the variety is amazing, leopards, sun bear, tapir, pangolin, elephant, ox, deer and a variety of birds, insects and monkeys.

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For our last morning in the national park we got up at 6am, it was well worth it too as we watched the full moon set over the karsts and forest, with mist rising out of the jungle to complete the scene. It was stunning with the lake so still, creating a perfect reflection of scenery in the water, all accompanied by the call of monkeys and insects. We hopped in the kayaks as the sun rose and paddled out across the lake to the islands, we didn’t find any wildlife but did find beautiful forest and tranquillity before returning to camp for breakfast. After breakfast we fed the fish that swim around the camp, huge jungle carp, perch and eels. Luckily none of these had tried nibbling us while we were swimming but they were pretty ferocious with the leftover fruit from breakfast! Our last activity took us back onto the water in the kayaks, Sam guided us through the inlet and we spotted eagles, a couple of dusky langur monkey swinging in the trees, a multitude of beautiful butterflies and some fresh elephant footprints on the bank. The elephants, and rest of the animals that live here, swim between islands and this particular one had clearly underestimated the steepness of the bank, trying to get out but then turning round and heading back into the water. It was a very relaxed end to an amazing adventure.

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Soon it was time to leave our little idyll in the jungle and we packed up and headed off, hardly believing all we had done in the last few days. We were sad to leave such an incredible and beautiful place but know that this unforgettable experience will be with us forever.

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