There are 147 National Parks in Thailand (compared to 58 in the US and 10 in the U.K.), which covers 20% of the country. Now having visited one of these parks, I can confidently say that Thailand has some of the most breathtaking landscape in the world.
We spent 3 days at the Elephant Hills Rainforest Sanctuary; the first night in the jungle, and the latter two nights at their floating tent camp. We chose Elephant Hills specifically for a couple of reasons:
1) the kind of elephant encounter that they offer (which I’ll explain in more detail),
2) and the opportunity to stay in two very different locations within the rainforest; on land and on the water.
Upon our arrival , we were introduced to Vim (prounounced “Wim”), our lovely guide for the length of our stay at the camp. Welcome drink in hand, Vim talked us through our itenerary for the day and gave us our tent assignments for the night. After collecting our lock and key (for the tent zipper 😜), we made our way along the narrow and winding path through the rainforest, until we came upon Tent 34. Immediately, we felt a true sense of being off of the map; there was silence, yet so much noise all at the same time. Where there was a complete void of human sound (car horns, mobile phones, chatter, etc), the rainforest filled your ears with cicadas hissing, woodpeckers pecking, monkeys calling to each other, and the trees gently swaying in the breeze. Total serenity.
We gathered a backpack and eagerly headed to meet our group for our first adventure of the day: an elephant encounter! We fell in love with elephants while on safari in Africa last year and I was over the moon excited at the opportunity to be hands on with these fascinating creatures.
In decades past, the Thai people used elephants as workhorses, particularly for tree logging, in which the elephant would spend long hours each day being made to move large tree logs from point A to B. This practice was thankfully finally outlawed in the 80’s. The elephants that were used to being hand fed and cared for by humans could not be released back into the wild with expectations that they would survive on their own; so the Thai people began using many of the elephants for the growing popularity of elephant rides in the tourist industry. Unfortunately, this is still widely practiced today and the elephants used for these “jungle rides” are often hugely mistreated by their owners; basically beaten into submission by their owners and made to carry people on their back, which is actually quite painful for them. Elephant Hills adopted 12 elephants after logging was banned, and although they also use these elephants to attract tourism, their mission is quite different. The elephants spend the majority of their day roaming and eating on grassy fields, and then two hours a day being hand fed delicious fruits and bathed by humans. No riding allowed.
This was literally the most amazing experience of my life, to this day. These animals are so gentle, friendly, and eager to interact with you (especially when you have pineapple in your hand 😉).
First, we gave the elephants a bath, scrubbing them down with a rough, bristly loofa and water hose. Many joined in the fun and sprayed themselves (and us) down with trunks full of water. 😆
For their midday snack, we prepared a large basket (per elephant) of a dozen bananas, a whole sugar cane chopped into pieces, four pineapples quartered, and a vitamin ball made of tamirind, rolled in seed and wrapped and sealed in a banana leaf (to disguise the taste that the elephants do NOT enjoy). Then, it was feeding time!
After feeding, we said our goodbyes, and let the elephants go on with their days in the field. 🙂
From the elephant sanctuary, we boarded kayaks for an hour ride back down the river towards camp, spotting wildlife on the way. The landscape along the river was incredible; ginormous, jagged limestone rocks jut from the earth, covered in lush greenery of all types. On the ride we spotted a snake, a toad, and a family of Gibbon (small apes) playing in the trees!
We spent the remainder of the evening with our new friends from the UK (Joe, Amy and Laura) soaking in a bit of sunshine at the pool and then watched a group of local girls perform a series of Thai dances before dinner.
Day 2, we rose early for breakfast, packed a small backpack of clothes and other necessities for the next 48 hour adventure, and headed out of the jungle camp. We stopped at a local market along the route to our next destination, to soak in a bit of local culture. A bit to our dismay, this market was quite similar to those we experienced in Bangkok; hot, damp, with loads of raw meat and bugs making their way from delicacy to delicacy. 😐 I felt extremely grateful in this moment for our clean, cool, fresh supermarkets in the U.K. / US.
After a second quick stop at the Khoa Sok lakes famous viewpoint (pictured above), we arrived at a pier where we caught a long tail boat out to tents on the water for the next two nights. This particular lake was manmade, by building a dam and flooding the entire area, for a total of 700 square kilometers. The lake now hosts an array of beautiful fish, including catfish weighing up to 150 kilograms!
The campsite on the lake is tucked away in a far corner of the massive expanse, in a beautifully remote location. Large tents sit in a row on the water, connected by a walkway and a common area in the middle, where you enjoy group meals and meet for activities. There is only a small amount of solar powered electricity (basically enough to run a small fan through (most of) the night), no cell service, and the only way to leave the camp is via kayak. Each tent had their own.
That afternoon, our group met for a 3 hour hike through the rainforest. Moderately challenging, it lent itself to a great workout, amazing views and opportunities to learn about bugs and animals along the way. Midway, we took a turn off to the entrance of a large, dark cave where Vim handed each of us a small battery powered light. Within moments it became completely pitch black. Within the 20 minute span of time we spent in its depths, we came upon spiders and grasshoppers bigger than our hands, snakes perched on corners of rocks, and at the far end, hundreds of bats hanging and chirping from the ceiling. And yes, we only saw what was visible by the tiny streams of our flashlights. 😱 It was an incredible experience.
Utterly exhausted when we reached camp, we spent the remainder of the evening swimming in the lake, devouring a BBQ dinner, and drinking Mai Tais while our new friends taught us how to play “Oklahoma”; a great card game similar to Rummy.
On our last full day at the camp, we woke early for breakfast and headed out on a group kayaking tour around the lake in search of more wildlife.
We were able to spot several families of monkeys, and got close enough to a couple for great shots on our big camera! The heat grew at an intense rate and we found ourselves diving, flipping and jumping off the dock for the remainder of the morning. Inspired by Joe and his monkey like skills, Trev did his first ever back dive and full backflip! 👍🏼
The majority of our group left after lunch but Trev and I had planned to stay a second night. We were alone the nearly the remainder of the day, and used the time to read and relax. That evening, we took our kayak out alone for one of our favorite moments together thus far; an hour in complete isolation from the world. There wasn’t a single other boat in site; a single sound or remnant of human life; just us on our kayak, lost somewhere out on the vast lake as the sunset, listening to the birds and monkeys howling through the trees. We could have stayed there forever.
For now, we are on a plane to Vietnam. More to come on the Blogowick…