I didn’t know what to expect on my first trip to Southern Thailand. Having just come from the hectic streets of Bangkok, I imagined much of the same but with more beaches. How wrong was I!
Southern Thailand has a completely different feel. Landing in Surat Thani, the city that acts as a gateway to some of Thailand’s most famous islands, the traffic thinned, the food got spicier, and the landscape lusher. That lushness only grew as I headed out to Khao Sok National Park for the start of my ‘holiday’ after a conference and a few days of business to attend to.
Welcome to Elephant Hills
Elephants are an icon of Thai culture and are the countries official natural animal, so it’s only natural that people will want to meet these incredible animals on their trip to Thailand. Unfortunately, the Indian elephant (the sub-species of Asian elephant) found in Thailand are an endangered species and even today many are kept as pets or props for tourism. There are many encouraging changes and seeking to give these animals a better life.
In a step to promote and move towards ethical animal tourism, Elephant Hills was established as Thailand’s first luxury tented camp which gives guests the chance to get up close and learn about these endangered animals and providing safety and security for the elephants and trainers.
Today they have two camps: the Elephant Camp and the floating Rainforest Camp; both in Khao Sok National Park, both offering two different types of experiences.
You can stay for just one night or up to one week. Personally, I chose their 3 day & 2-night Jungle Lake Safari which gave me the best of both worlds. A one night stay at each camp, the chance to meet elephants up close and personal and time out on the water in the picturesque National Park, and plenty of time to explore more of Thailand.
Meeting the elephants
After the early wake-up call in Bangkok, I had hoped to get a nap in when I reached the Elephant Camp but it seemed the itinerary had different plans. No sooner had I settled into the hammock on my balcony than I heard my name being called by my guide – decked out in full Indiana Jones-style khakis – saying we were heading off to our first activity.
Examining the schedule I’d been given at arrival, my tiredness seemed to all but disappear when I realised our elephant encounter was first up.
Taking a short bus ride, soon we were walking down the dirt and gravel paths, it wasn’t long before one of the girls broke out in a squeal of delight. There, across the field was a herd of elephants.
At Elephant Hills, the Elephant Camp offer guests a unique small group experience to meet elephants and interact with them.
Making our way around the gravel and dirt path to the hut we were introduced to some of the mahouts who looked after the herd and given a brief introduction to the animals, their stories, and how they found their way to Elephant Hills.
It’s anticipated that there are less than 5,000 elephants left in Thailand, yet 4,000 of those are captive. The elephants at the camp have been saved from the logging or entertainment industries, many with lasting reminders from their time working.
After being introduced to three of the mahouts, we watched as they called to the elephants, encouraging them to make their way down to their cooling waters of their muddy pool. Some clearly a little more excited than others about frolicking in the water and flicking water on their back with their trunks.
It’s evident that these mahouts have a good relationship with the animals as the animals play and mahouts laugh with them, though like cheeky children the elephants did ignore the calls of the mahouts to get out of the swimming pool!
After watching them bathe, we helped prepare just a small amount of the 250kg of food that the animals eat each day… each!
Equipped with a machete, we chopped pineapple, bananas, bana grass (elephant grass) and sugar cane into elephant bite-sized pieces, that is grown on site or bought from the local markets.
One of the best parts of the experience was feeding them. While we had to remain behind a small wooden railing (some of the elephants would have walked all the way to the cutting tables if they could get more sweet treats!), they eagerly gobbled down the food we had prepared.
Some elephants had special diets (one couldn’t eat sugar cane and the mahouts carefully watched to make sure she didn’t take any), and some simply had food preferences and would throw the unwanted foods on the ground. Sugarcane and pineapple were the crowd pleasers!
One of the mahouts took my hand and guided me closer towards the elephant’s ear, showing me how to wash behind his ears with the coconut husk. The elephant leant into it and I panicked a little thinking he was going to lean against me, but the mahout held my hand there showing me that he was acting like a big puppy dog who just wanted a good scratch behind the ears.
It really was exactly the experience I hoped for. I was part of a group of about 12 people, our guide was informative and the mahouts carefully watched us but were always up for a laugh or to help us get the perfect elephant selfie. The experience was hands on, but only as much as we were comfortable with, and it didn’t feel like we were rushing through the activities.
The experience was also educational. Elephant Hills really seeks to try to encourage visitors to learn about the plight of the elephants and understand why they don’t offer activities like elephant rides, and why you shouldn’t seek them out, which can be incredibly uncomfortable and cruel towards the animals.
For a great volunteer option near Chiang Mai,
check out this ethical Chiang Mai elephant experience!
Luxury Glamping in Khao Sok
In keeping with the true spirit of a safari, the accommodation at Elephant Hills is a tent, but not as you know it.
The spacious luxury tents don’t feel ‘campy’, save for the miscellaneous pockets and flaps adoring the walls. Attention is paid to every detail with the rooms fitted with a cosy queen bed (or twin singles), wooden floors, hand carved vanity and closet, and – most importantly – air con, electricity, mosquito free and comfortable. In keeping with the ‘elephant’ feel, the rooms are filled with elephant trinkets – towel hooks, carved elephant statue which can double as a seat, even little elephant candles as a take home gift. I felt like I was on a lush African safari.
Bathrooms shared the same jungle feel with stone inlaid concrete floors with wooden trims, a simple shower, and natural soaps and hair care in dispensers on the ledge.
While you are given a padlock to lock your ‘room’, they are fitted with security boxes for extra peace of mind.
Thailand is known for wet, monsoonal weather so tents are protected by a corrugated iron roof at the Elephant Camp and thick tarps at the Floating Rainforest Camp.
All meals are included as part of the package and serve a mix of delicious Thai and Western dishes. Creature comforts are available like snacks and a bar, where they sell reasonably priced soft drinks, beers and smoothies.
Before dinner, we watched on and took part in a cooking demonstration on different types of local food. I won’t deny the best bit distracted by the delicious looking Papaya Salad, so I was glad to be told their recipes were online so I could try them at home! After dinner, we saw a short documentary on the elephant and dance performance is given by girls from a local school supported by Elephant Hills.
If you have some free time before dinner or around lunch, there’s also a swimming pool with the most magnificent view of the limestone cliffs surrounding if you want to cool off after the warm, humid day.
For those who can’t wait to upload your elephant selfies, there is free WiFi available at the camp but due to its proximity from a big city, it is a little on the slower side.
Shortly after lunch the next day, we were heading down the Sok River to our new home: the Floating Jungle Camp.
In the very same style as the Elephant Camp, except for the whole “it’s floating” aspect, even the common area! There are a few less ‘creature comforts’ at the Floating Camp (less drink and snack choices, be mindful of electricity usage) not only because of the need to boat everything to the camp but also in order to reduce the camp’s carbon footprint with trash removal and by using solar energy as much as they can. This isn’t really a big issue, but it’s important to be mindful of doing your bit at being eco-conscious.
Khao Sok National Park is the oldest rainforest in the world and with the backdrop of huge limestone mountains and calls of native animals, it’s easy to quickly fall in love with the place and totally switch into vacation mode.
It’s not just about the flora though. The National Park is home to a huge array of animals, including Malaysia tapir, tiger, barking deer, bears, macaque, gibbons, hundreds of species of birds and fish, and, of course, Asian elephants.
While at the Floating Jungle Camp we spent our time on long boat rides, paddling kayaks and hiking in search of these animals. If that’s not your speed, you can also spend time floating in the river or relaxing on the deck of your tent. In fact, I spent a good three hours on the river just paddling around, photographing macaques and enjoying the tranquillity.
In one word, Khao Sok National Park is stunning. I only wish that we had some more rain so the haze didn’t linger and I could see the jungle-covered limestone cliffs real beauty.
From the lush rainforest to riding the waterways among towering forest-covered limestone hills, and of course getting to feed elephants and watch them frolic; if Indiana Jones went on holiday this is where he’d go.
Staying at Elephant Hills is a completely different experience from the beachside resort towns of Phuket or Ko Samui nearby, and a must-do experience for anyone travelling to Southern Thailand and wanting to meet some of their friendly locals – man and elephant – in person!
Let me know in the comments below
What do you think: would you like to try glamping?
Have you ever been up close with elephants?
What are your tips for Thailand?
Elephant Nature Hills
170 Moo 7 Tambon Klong Sok
Panom District, Surat Thani 84250 Thailand
Getting to Elephant Nature Hills:
Transfers are included in the tour package from Phuket, Khao Lak, Krabi, Phang Nga, Surat Thani, Khanom, Don Sak Pier and Koh Samui.
I was in Bangkok so flew to Surat Thani, the closest airport to Elephant Hills, with Thai Smile (the regional airline of THAI Airways). It’s about an hour drive from Surat Thani to the camp and drivers speak limited English, but will stop if you need snacks or the bathroom.
Phuket is the next closest pickup and most popular. The drive from Phuket International Airport to camp is around 2 hours.
Private transfers can be arranged at an additional cost.
The best time to visit Khao Sok National Park:
The best time to visit in during the dry season (December – April). I visited in October at the end of the monsoon/rainy season and while it was still a great experience, the rain did limit afternoon activities and left me soaked after a nature hike!
It’s also important to know that every year around October, Indonesia conducts their annual burning to clear farms and palm forest plantations. Depending on the direction of the wind, this can leave the National Park covered in haze, much like in my photos.
What to pack for a trip to Khao Sok:
Southern Thailand is hot year round so I highly recommend loose cotton and natural fibres. I mixed it up with some fast drying activewear for hiking and found it to be a great mix.
Pack your bathers so you can swim at the floating Jungle Camp (and they’re also good to wear under your clothes when you are at the elephant experience because you will get wet when washing them!)
Non-slip shoes (like sneakers, hiking boots or outdoor sandals), a raincoat (I travel with this North Face jacket that can be worn three ways, including as a rain jacket), and a dry bag (to keep electronics in when near water) are all essential items on any trip to Thailand. Mosquito repellent (I like to travel with these non-toxic
I visited Thailand as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
All thoughts, opinions and the two-hundred photos taken of elephants were, as always, my own.