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Issue 11
Africa Travel> Issue 11
UPDATED: December 30, 2014
Thai'd and Gone to Heaven – Part 2
Exploring the delights of Thailand
By Jo Kromberg

The author washing an elephant (IZAK VAN ZYL)

Elephant Hills is an experience so fulfilling, isolated and unique that I want to keep it all to myself to tell you the honest truth.

Situated deep in the tropical jungle of southern Thailand, Elephant Hills is in the Khao Sok National Park. It is difficult to describe the awestruck feeling upon discovering the view of the sky-high verdant mountains in this jungle of all jungles. The pool must boast the best view in the whole world. The luxury-tented accommodation is en-suite and has a fan to relieve the worst heat. After all, there is no mention of the Garden of Eden being air-conditioned. A quick buffet lunch and its time for a kayak trip on the Sok River, snaking its way through the jungle. A river guide rows you as you lazily swing down-river, stopping every once in a while to have a look at a shy snake or jungle frog. The sound of Tarzan's animal-like wail would have surprised no one.

Gentle giants

Our official guide here at Elephant Hills is an inimitable and never-to-be-forgotten slip of a girl called Tik and she accompanies us to the elephant sanctuary nearby. At the first sight of these gentle giants, one spots the difference between the African and Asian elephants. Asian elephants are considerably smaller and they are browner in color compared to their grey/black cousins. Tik tells us that Thailand is the only country in the world still allowed to trade legally in ivory harvested from elephants who died of natural causes only, but we all know how that goes... So therefore the Asian elephant is greatly endangered. She says new laws are in place now to protect elephants in Thailand, thank goodness. There are 13 elephants here, all female and all rescued from logging camps. "Dey ar letiled," says Tik. Retired.

We watch them for a while with their handlers (or mamoods), these beautiful innocent creatures. There is one little one, about two years old and she has the imperial name of Haha. Completely adorable of course. We then get the opportunity to wash and scrub them as they lie down. This messy exercise will waken the playful child in anyone. Jaded, sullen and middle-aged, spoilt tourists transformed into joyful, laughing and happy people in front of my eyes. Like magic.

We then prepare meals for them as well by chopping bananas and other fruit and feeding it to them. Clever people, these Thai – making tourists pay to do their labor for them and loving every second. I love the fact that there are no elephant riding excursions here – only elephant interaction and I believe it makes for a much more lasting impression and helps elephant conservation a whole lot more. Time apparently flies like Dumbo when you wash and feed elephants because before we know it, we are back at the lodge, sipping a long cool drink in the heat. Floating basket festival

The rainforest is always hot and humid – which I know - and responsible for one out of every four medicinal products we buy at the pharmacy, we are told at a presentation – which I didn't know. We are treated to a beautiful traditional dance – the Dance of the Lotus Flower - by some of the gorgeous local little girls before dinner is served. It is the night of the November 6 and the entire country is celebrating Loi Krathong, an annual festival The name could be translated as "to float a basket", and comes from the tradition of making krathong or buoyant, decorated baskets, which are then floated on a river. On the night of the full moon, Thais launch their krathong on a river, canal or a pond, making a wish as they do so. The festival is said to originate from an ancient ritual paying respect to the water spirits. We are all given a kratong in which we then place a coin and a lock of hair or nail and we all go down to river and one by one we launch our floating, candlelit wish basket. The ritual in its honesty and purity is deeply touching. After a magnificent buffet dinner – Thai cooking lessons are also offered to guests - I sit on the veranda in front of my tent, immersed and drenched in the jungle night with the strange grunts and squawks of the macaque monkeys and other creatures all around me. There are very few places left unscathed by the necessary evil of mass tourism and this is one of them...

Visitors prepare a meal for the elephants (JO KROMBERG)

We stop in a small town the following morning, perusing the local fish and fresh produce market, en-route to Cheow Larn Lake. The man-made lake was created in 1982 by an enormous shale-clay dam called Ratchaprabha. The limestone outcrops protruding from the lake reach a height of 960m, over three times higher than the formations in the Phang-Nga area.

The lake covers an area of 185 square kilometres and is located about 70km from Surat Thani. The damming and flooding of a valley of dense rainforest formed the lake. Some of the plants and animals resident in the flooded forest still live in the dense jungles and towering mountains that surround the lake, including the worlds' largest flower species the Rafflesia which can measure almost a metre across.

Flotilla camp

Our next destination, Elephant Hills Rain Forest Camp, is situated in the middle of lake and takes about an hour's boat rip on a long tail boat – typically Thai. And then lo! What is this vision I see before me? All I can advise you to do is imagine all the most exotic getaway fantasies you have ever had. Then multiply this by ten. And then I still see you and raise you Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp. It is a floating bungalow paradise, unassumingly and calmly buoyant on the emerald green water surrounded by tropical rainforest mountainous jungle. Like a chameleon, the camp is the colour of its surrounds and completely solar and wind powered as well as boasting a unique and eco-friendly waste management system. There are only ten tents accommodating two people each. The entire camp is set on a flotilla secured to land by four underwater cables. The closest shore is at least 20 metres away. The cicadas' distinctive, eerie sounds ring out and echo in the cloudy, hot and humid sky and we feel like we are the only people on earth. After lunch about five people, including my intrepid partner, go on a walk to explore the caves in the hills. I stay behind alone and revel in the silence, only broken by the invisible inhabitants of the rain forest. I feel that familiar Stendhal Syndrome creeping up on me. You know the one – being stunned by overwhelming beauty in nature. I have along, languid swim in the cool green, pristine lake.

There is also the option of kayaking on the lake in your own personal kayak, moored to your tent, which we later do of course. I always thought the phrase "one with Nature" very trite but all at once I know exactly what they mean... The impenetrable rain forests hold their own mysteries – pristine and most of it never penetrated by Man. In a place like this, God cannot be very far away. The only reminder of any "civilisation" is the very feint sound of a twin-engine plane, a mere dot very far above in the hot sky. Other than that you are alone here. Every now and again a soft "plop" indicates a fish looking for a bite. The highly endangered Indochina tiger can still be found here but numbers are very low. It is said by the locals that the tiger's lone mating call can still be heard around May. There are less than 2500 in the world and 200 of them can be found here. The cicadas start up again in the growing dusk, ringing across the vast body of water. Dinner and high jinx follow into the night as we compare stories with other guests. A soft, penetrating rain greets my sleepy gaze the next morning as I peer out over paradise. I make myself comfortable with my book in bed after breakfast.

The rain does actually subside later and we go for a long kayak ride, just the two of us, speculating what might lie in wait behind the dense trees in the mountains as we float by. We say out fond farewells to the incredible Wari and her team with mournful promises to return soon. The boat ride back takes half an hour at full speed and parting with our Tik really saddens me. She is one of the nicest, most knowledgeable guides I have ever had anywhere and her warmth and love for the environment will always stay with me. Elephant Hills is an incredible adventure and should be one everyone's bucket list…

Next month I share with you the last instalment of our trip to Thailand. Don't miss it…

Jo Kromberg would like to thank The Tourism Authority of Thailand for co-ordinating her and Izak van Zyl's entire trip, by including all the different partner hosts such Elephant Hills. You can find them at http://www.tourismthailand.org/


- Tourism Authority of Thailand, South Africa

Email: Lesley@amazingthailandsa.co.za

- The Holiday Factory

Tel: 011 233 2300

Email: sandy@theholidayfactory.co.za


- Elephant Hills: http://www.elephant-hills.com/

Destination Asia:

This company specialises in Indochina travel and will arrange everything for you so that you can enjoy the perfect holiday anywhere in Asia.

Contact them at http://www.destination-asia.com/

Getting there:

- From Hong Kong: Cathay Pacific flies from Hong Kong to Phuket numerous times per day from major centres.

- From Phuket it's about an hour's drive by car.

Go to http://www.cathaypacific.com/cx/en_HK.html for special offers, information and bookings.

- From South Africa: Cathay Pacific flies to Phuket via Hong Kong from South Africa every day of the week.

Go to http://www.cathaypacific.com/cx/en_ZA.html for special offers, information and bookings.

Cathay Pacific named 'Best Asian Airline Serving China' at 2014 Business Traveller China Awards

Cathay Pacific Airways was recently named "Best Asian Airline serving China" in the 2014 Business Traveller China Awards. The annual awards, now in their 10th year, are decided by frequent travellers who vote for their favourite hospitality groups and airlines across the industry.

This latest honour comes on top of a number of other awards received by the airline in 2014, including the "World's Best Airline" award in the World Airline Awards run by Skytrax and the "Best North Asian Airline" honour at the 25th Annual TTG Travel Awards.

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