When you live on a tiny tropical island, it’s going to the mainland that actually feels like a vacation. Which is why it was one of my highlights of 2016, way back at the beginning of it, to finally visit Khao Sok National Park.
After a wine tour around Khao Yai, a weekend in Bangkok, and a getaway in Hua Hin, I’d finally arrived on last stop on my big winter trip around Thailand. After Hua Hin, Ian headed back to Koh Tao, and Janine tapped back in as my travel buddy. We’d only been apart for a few days but we were thrilled to be back on the road together, and excitedly reunited at the Surat Thani train station after an overnight rail journey on my part and an overnight boat ride on hers.
There, we were met by a driver who whisked us away to Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills. Spoiler alert: yup, there were real live elephants involved.
I’d been itching to visit Khao Sok National Park for years — it’s a popular getaway among Koh Tao expats — and while there is a wide variety of accommodation there for all budgets, I’d always been drawn to , arguably the most unique and luxurious option in the area.
Here, deep in the Thai mainland, luxury doesn’t mean a soul-less corporate chain hotel. Nope, it means a lovingly crafted safari tent perched alongside a lush river. Elephant Hills consists of two tented camps: Elephant Camp in the Khao Sok jungle, and Rainforest Camp floating on Cheow Lan Lake.
We were on the a three-day-and-two-night-tour with one night at each camp.
Our tent, one of thirty-five that make up Elephant Camp, was stunning. Attention was paid to every detail, and we felt like we were on a true adventure safari. While the luxury tent concept is obviously wildly popular in Africa and catching on in other parts of the world as well — I’ve glamped in places as far flung as Peru and as local as Upstate New York — it’s fairly unique to Southeast Asia. In fact, Elephant Hills was the very first luxury tented camp in Thailand!
Elephant Hills is more than just a place to lay your head at night. All visits there are part of comprehensive tour packages that include accommodation, all meals, activities, a tour guide, and most impressively, transfers to and from several of Southern Thailand’s . The location combined with the convenient transfers make it the perfect stopover when hopping between Thailand’s two coasts.
While we had a busy itinerary of activities ahead, we were grateful that before lunch we had some down-time to lose it over the amazingess of our tent, gossip by the pool, and get excited about the days ahead.
At noon, we were summoned for a beautiful buffet lunch. Over several of our favorite Thai dishes, we chatted with both our tour guide and the other travelers who had made their way to Elephant Hills.
After lunch, it was time for our first adventure: a jungle river canoe trip down the Sok River.
We were pumped to paddle our own canoes, but quickly adjusted to relaxation mode when we realized local river guides would be doing the heavy lifting. The water levels were very low — one of the guides told me they were just days away to switching to a further away rafting location — and so it was a very chill float.
That left all our energy to focus on the stunning scenery of limestone karsts in the background, and to be on the lookout for wildlife in the foreground. We didn’t spot much aside from some frogs and snakes, but I couldn’t get enough of the natural beauty of the area.
After, we’d make our way to the Elephant Hill’s namesake draw — it’s elephants! Canoeing was lovely, but let’s be real — we were all there for the pachyderms.
As we giddily piled into the decommissioned military vehicles that whisked us around Khao Sok, Janine and I could barely contain our elephant-induced excitement.
Elephants certainly aren’t hard to find in Thailand, but unfortunately ethical animal encounters are.
The tide is turning on the idea of tourists riding elephants. On my first trip to Southeast Asia in 2009, I cluelessly rode an elephant at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and found it fairly underwhelming — there was very little interaction with the animal to enjoy. In 2013, I visited Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where I learned about the cruel domestication system known as the phajaan which all elephants destined for riding must endure. Days of claustrophobic confinement and brutal beatings break the spirit of the elephant and the fear of pain it learns allows it to be ridden by tourists and perform tricks for the rest of its life. I knew then I’d never to ride an elephant again.
I wasn’t alone. In 2014, Intrepid Tours announced they were elephant rides on their tour itineraries. In 2016, by a captive elephant on Koh Samui, and across the border at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, an elephant of a heart attack after fifteen years of carrying tourists day in and day out (my heart broke wondering if I’d been among them.) Pressure from those incidents, among others, prompted Tripadvisor and their partner Viator to for all elephant riding experiences. The same year, I attempted to find the elusive elephant in the wild by journeying to Khao Yai National Park, home of the largest remaining wild elephant population in Asia. While my mission wasn’t technically successful, it was an unforgettable adventure. But yet I stillcraved another elephant encounter.
And then I learned of Elephant Hills. Once upon a time they too offered elephant rides, as was standard for Southeast Asian tour companies. Yet in 2010, they made the drastic decision to cease riding entirely in their continuous efforts to create an experience as enjoyable for the elephants as it is for the guests. And what they designed is an interaction that is far more rewarding and respectful than simply sitting on an elephant’s back.
We started with the way to any elephant’s heart — food. As hungry trunks poked around wooden pavilion we were gathered in, we chopped up fruit, sugarcane, bamboo and other pachyderm favorites. Then, with the blessing of their mahouts, or trainers, we had the thrill of feeding them.
My favorite part? Aside from seeing and feeling the power and dexterity of those gorgeous trunks, it was seeing how each elephant really had their own preference when it came to snack time! My girl was a big fan of pineapple — I knew we were going to get along great.