After the joy of drinking and reading in Khao Lak, we headed to Khao Sok national park to stay in Elephant Hills, an adventure tour outfit who offer elephant experiences, jungle tours and luxury jungle accommodation.
Our first night, we stayed in the jungle camp, in a tent – but with a bed and en suite. It was kind of amazing, but also slightly terrifying. Cicadas are a lot bigger than I thought they were – bigger than my hand – and they sound like car alarms. Also, as a western tourist, you can’t get away from other western tourists. One girl had a long moan about how she could believe that it was raining, when she’d come all the way from England to try and get some nice weather, and it was so unfair that it wasn’t sunny for her. Paul sweetly pointed out that as we were staying in a rainforest it was maybe to be expected, which I found very funny but she did not.
The elephant experience is the main attraction of elephant hills, and they are rightly very proud of their elephants and how they’re kept. We did a lot of research before we went to make sure we were using an ethical company where the animals weren’t hurt, chained, or ridden by tourists. Our elephant was a retired logging elephant, who now has a job standing patiently while tourists wash and feed her.
Elephants are a lot warmer and more bristly than I’d expected, and they are massive. It’s weird being with a creature who’s so obviously intelligent, but whose whole body is so different to yours. The guides told us stories about the elephants working out how to help them and using their initiative to solve problems around the camp (like in kicking at a tree stump to loosen it). As you can see, we can’t reach our elephant’s back to wash it. She held her trunk up to the hose we were using, sucked in a load of water and then used it to rinse herself where we couldn’t reach.
We also got to cut up food and hand it to the elephants, which is delightful. One of them tapped me on the shoulder with her trunk because I was taking too long. Amazing.
One final fact about elephants – when they get old, they get pale pinky spots on their trunks and ears, just like we go grey, except they start grey and go me-coloured! Isn’t that amazing?
The next day we hopped over to our second base – a floating lake camp. I had sort of forgotten about this bit because I was so excited about being allowed to touch an elephant, but it turned out to be one of the most memorable, magical bits of the holiday.
We were taken to this little slice of heaven. All of these cabins are an individual room for two, each with its own bathroom and deck and canoe. I don’t know why, but I was SO impressed with the canoe. They back onto a pontoon kind of thing, but then it’s just jungle – no way onto land at all.
The lake is actually man made, and very recent. A whole district was flooded and a dam built to bring hydro electricity to the area in the 1980s. At the deepest point, 100 metres down, there is still the remains of a Buddhist monastery and a few villages.
This means that even though we’re on the water and it feels like it should be sea level, we’re actually really high and so the clouds do this, which I will never get tired of ever ever –
We took our kayak out and had a little explore – someone had told us there were a family of gibbons around the corner from the tents. We didn’t see the gibbons but we did see some long tailed langurs, eagles, spiders, dragonflies and a swarm of pissed off crickets (we paddled through their waterlogged field).
We were then taken away by another long-tailed boat (already becoming normal and therefore not pictured) to trek through a patch of jungle on one of the bigger islands on the lake. These islands are protected national park with rangers minding them to make sure there’s no hunting. They are among the most incredible places I’ve ever seen. I struggle to describe how shocking it felt – we were HIKING through and ACTUAL JUNGLE like on the TELLY or something. The richness and lushness of it blew my mind.
As this completely serious photograph demonstrates, everything in the jungle was astonishing.
None of these photos really show this, but the climb was seriously steep. I thought the bamboo canes were just silly tourist props to make us feel extra badass, but they were genuinely necessary for negotiating the terrain. At several points the tree roots arranged themselves into a kind of staircase to climb up – that’s how steep it was.
One of my favourite things we saw was this tree complete with claw marks from a bear. Our guide said they were left from a sun bear climbing it about three years ago, to get at the honey in a beehive at the top. Its paws must have been pretty much the same size as mine.
After climbing all the way to the top of the peak, we descended into a cave full of enormous spiders and bats. Bats en masse make the most eerie noise – a kind of chitttering squeaking chorus that sounds like nightmares. But it was still cool to see the creepy little buggers chilling in their bat cave.
This last image is one of my favourite pictures of the holiday.
I have spent this year being quite afraid of things. Cutting my hours at work, and Brexit, and politics of all kinds and physical danger and flying and worrying about flying and and and and… I love this last picture. This is the kind of scenario that would normally really freak me out – I’ve got this thing about bridges, and anything that I think looks too “rickety”. But look at me! I’m not scared.
You can see behind me here that there’s a storm coming in. It hit just as we were about to get on the boat back to the camp and got worse and worse through dinner. Because all the power is solar and it runs out if you use too much, we stayed in the bar for a while rather than going back to our room, chatting with the other people on the tour about how the day had gone, and the things we’d seen. The storm got worse. Talk turned to the American election. No one had data but we were all pretty sure Hilary had won. I mean, obviously, right? One of the guys asked the barman if he could get a signal and he could.
Less than five minutes later, a lightning bolt hit, maybe 100 feet away from us. Sky full of light, deafening crack of thunder, both at exactly the same time. Everyone screamed. Most of us clutched at the table, pawed at the floor. And one of the lads said something like –
“God. He’s set off the nukes already!”
And I, the girl who started crying when Tesco stopped stocking marmite because “it’s the start of food shortages”? I laughed.