Rain like sheets of moving glass made the surrounding rainforest look impossibly green. It poured off the tropical foliage and pounded the bus as it headed from the southern Thailand beach playground of Phuket to Elephant Hills, a jungle camp abutting Khao Sok National Park.
It was still raining when the bus pulled up to Elephant Hills’ main lodge, a large wooden structure with a high, open-beamed ceiling and some open sides. I checked in at the bar and sipped a welcome drink of exotic, refreshing fruit juices while one of the guides gave new arrivals an overview of our home for the next few days.
Introducing herself as Pooh — “Easy to remember, like Pooh Bear” — she told us about the various programs available and discussed the company’s philosophy. She explained that Elephant Hills is more than just a great place to spend a vacation. Classed as endangered since the mid-1970s, the Asian elephant faces many problems, not the least of which is that, since logging is no longer legal, there are few ways for elephants and their mahouts (handlers) to make a living. Elephant Hills’ goal is to provide a new source of income through tourism to help the elephants survive in the 21st century.
The camp is also dedicated to responsible environmental practices and support of the local community. The lodge employs local people, purchases food and goods from local shops and sponsors a children’s project to help local schools. They recycle as much waste as possible, use elephant dung as fertilizer, grow rice and vegetables to serve to guests and limit hikes to set trails to minimize the impact on the rainforest.
Briefing completed, Pooh grabbed a giant umbrella, and the two of us set off down a path toward my tent.
My idea of a tent is a far cry from what I encountered at Elephant Hills. Each dwelling stands on a concrete slab with a tin roof over it. If it weren’t for the fact that I had to zip the “door” open and that the sides and windows weren’t solid, I’d have sworn I was in a cozy cottage. Electricity, a full bath, hot water and even WiFi — this is my idea of camping. And there’s enough space between the tents to make them feel blissfully private.
By mid-afternoon the driving rain had turned into a fine mist and, though it was hard to leave my cozy digs, the elephants were calling. I hopped into one of the lodge’s open-air Jeeps for the five-minute ride to the elephant camp.
We arrived to find six of the camp’s 16 elephants and their mahouts lined up to greet us. Armed with machetes, we hacked up melons, cucumbers, pineapples and other fruits and vegetables to feed to the waiting crowd. We also wrapped a mixture of sweet tamarind, coarse sea salt and husked rice into banana leaves, an odd mixture that acts as an elephant’s version of antacid. Considering elephants eat as much as 500 pounds of plants, grasses, shrubs and trees a day, it’s no wonder they have digestive problems. We held out our offerings, which the elephants grabbed with their trunks, curling them to toss food into their mouths.
Then it was bath time. Elephants like being bathed, and it is necessary to keep their skin clean and free of parasites. But bathing an elephant is somewhat like washing a slow-moving Greyhound bus. After we’d lathered and hosed down parts we could reach, the animals and their mahouts headed for a muddy pond to finish off the process.
I accepted an offer to ride back from the bathing pond atop an elephant with one of the mahouts. Even though the accommodating pachyderm sat down for me to climb on, there was no way I was going to swing my short legs over his broad back. Clearly I needed help, and it came from Pooh, who did some vigorous pushing from the rear. Graceful it wasn’t, but at least I was more or less astride. Riding an elephant is a lot easier than getting on one. They have a slightly swaying walk, and I felt quite comfortable moving along with almost a bird’s-eye view of the s urrounding rainforest.
By the time I got back to the lodge, it was cocktail hour; so I bellied up to the Jungle Bar, ordered the Elephant Hills version of a mai tai and settled down with other guests to watch a video about elephants. Dinner was served buffet style and consisted of a variety of Thai and Western dishes. Since seating was family style at long tables, it was easy to mingle with the other guests. Elephant Hills attracts an international clientele of all ages. I shared a table with a young couple from Germany, two sisters from Australia and their teenage daughters and a retired couple from Washington, D.C.
Tucked into my comfy bed, protected from any unwanted night-biting visitors by the mesh tent windows, I listened to the rainforest concert. I couldn’t identify most of the sounds, but they had a decidedly tranquil effect, and next thing I knew it was morning. I fired up the electric kettle, made myself a cup of instant coffee, plunked down on my patio chair to listen to the jungle wake up.
After a hearty buffet breakfast, a group of us, bathing suits and towels in tow, headed for Cheow Larn Lake. Exceeding 35 miles from north to south, the lake is surrounded by limestone mountains and cliffs. We skimmed over the lake in an open-air boat, marveling at the spectacular scenery on our way to Phootawn Raft House, where we stopped for lunch.
Raft houses on the lake amount to a group of bamboo huts kept afloat by plastic drums and fronted by floating docks. Accommodations are spartan, but the scenery is great, the food is hearty, and the beer is cold. After a simple Thai lunch and a refreshing swim, we headed back to camp for a pachyderm-propelled trip through the rainforest.
This time the challenge of getting on the elephant was greatly reduced by a platform built to elephant height — we climbed right onto the bench seats on the elephants’ backs and headed off into the rainforest. This is definitely the way to see a rainforest up close. And elephants are the perfect vehicle, particularly since their feet have a thick cushion of tissue that spreads as they take a step, so they can walk through muddy terrain without getting stuck.
Most of the elephants were quite happy to sashay through the dense foliage with their passengers, but one in our group was clearly more interested in eating than in transporting tourists. He seemed to see every tree and shrub as a potential food source, and even the mahout was hard pressed to hurry the process.
Back at the lodge the night’s event was a Thai cooking class, but I opted for a beer on my patio where I could listen to the mysterious rainforest sounds. It was my last night in my cozy tent, and I wanted to make the most of it.
Before returning to Phuket the next morning, there was one last adventure to be had — a rafting trip on the Sok River. Each two-person raft had its own guide, so all I had to do was take pictures and soak up the sun. How our guide could possibly know when to paddle to the bank to show us snakes and tree frogs completely hidden in the dense foliage remains a mystery. I was totally absorbed with getting close enough to photograph these exotic creatures, but my rafting companion wasn’t too eager to be anywhere near a tree-lodged snake that might fall into her lap.
Riding back to Phuket, I thought about how places like Elephant Hills offer hope for the future of the Thai elephant. I also thought how I was really going to miss my comfy tent home in the rainforest.
INFO TO GO
Major airlines fly from the United States to Phuket International Airport (HKT), but all require one or more stops. Elephant Hills (www.elephanthills.com) offers pick-up from hotels in Phuket, Krabi and Surat Thani. Two- to four-day packages cost $235–575 per person, double occupancy.
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