First light brings with it sounds that are foreign to this city guy – no busy traffic, car alarms, radio kicking this tired body into action. No, this morning starts with crickets chirping close by, a gecko barking somewhere on my luxury tent’s roof, and at least 15 different types of bird call around me in a slowly building frenzy of natural joy. The mountains are shrouded in fog slowly lifting, whilst the lake has mist gently drifting across the still-reflective surface. The sky is aglow with reds, orange and gold, a sign of a hot day ahead. Next me in a cozy soft bed my wife stirs and asks what time it is. I quietly say “it’s time to explore the jungle”.
This is a stereotypical morning at the Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp in Khao Sok, about three hours north of Phuket Island in Thailand. The camp of some 35 luxury tents started a progressive development over ten years ago. Bit by bit the world is discovering the experience that was recently recognised in the National Geographic World Legacy Award as one of the top three in the world and the best in Asia.
The morning starts with a cappuccino on the deck overlooking the light blue pool, which is dwarfed by the towering limestone mountains that stand looking over the valley the rainforest camp sits in. Whilst I said we would be camping in tents, I wasn’t intending to rough it as such. The tents are the classic African safari style with roofs overhead to protect from any extreme weather. They are a bit bigger than the average hotel room with a large bathroom, showers with hot and cold running water and a large comfy bed. But you don’t come here to stay in a tent, these are just a base for the explorer in you to come back and rest in.
Transport around the floating camp is by canoe, and gliding gently through the calm waters here is so soothing you could call it a form of meditation.
Somewhere not far away I can hear the gentle rush of water moving down the Sok River, and I know it’s beckoning me to explore it. First though, to the buffet breakfast at the communal central pontoon, set out with a bar, kitchen and large picnic table-style seating.
The Khao Sok landscape
Khao Sok is a truly remarkable place. Its ancient geological history has made it a spectacular landscape, with limestone mountains rising several hundred metres in places around the outside of the camp. Sheer white faces indicate this place was once underwater, a part of the greatest coral reef the planet had ever seen, some six times larger than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The corals that existed then are now the limestone found today. The landscape here is very similar to places such as Vietnam’s amazing Halong Bay or China’s incredible southern coastal mountain ranges, but the tropical conditions allow for an incredible diversity of plant life; including rainforest tropical jungle palms, trees, flowers and climbers everywhere. There is also an impressive array of wildlife that has survived something that has caused the greatest extinction period on the planet, humans.
Conservation in action
Six major extinctions are believed to have occurred since the planet became a thriving biomass six billion years ago, with the seventh imminent. An example of the damage our species’ dominance has had on the planet is the rapid demise of the Asian Elephant. In Thailand in the year 1900, a survey estimated there were 100,000 of these majestic intelligent creatures living there. As a result of domestication, the rapid urbanisation of cities, clearing of natural rainforest and hunting by poachers for ivory, there are now between 2,000 and 3,000 left.
This is where Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp’s real agenda comes into play. The chance to interact and learn about these stunning creatures is a valuable exercise in conservation, something that will be remembered by visitors forever. A greater understanding of the rainforest and its inhabitants will help us conserve the environment there for the future. Land clearance, palm oil farming and forestry have seen the rainforests of the world decimated, with 70 per cent of the earth’s lungs cleared in the past 50 years alone.
Visitors become immersed in the rainforest through a hiking adventure with the knowledgeable guides sharing information on rainforest edible plants, carnivorous plants and even deadly plants that have developed mechanisms to stop predators attacking them. The canoe trip floating along the river for an hour under the giant cliff faces, paddled by an expert guide, allows you to take in the majestic views and see some of the wildlife along the way.
Later on in the day, guests can get up close and personal with the wise but gentle three-tonne giants in the sanctuary and learn about their fascinating relationship with the Mahoots, who partner with these majestic creatures for life. The guides show you what the elephants eat, introduce each of them to you and allow you to hand feed these gentle giants in a one-on-one personal experience.
The evening brings different sounds and the chance to talk with the other guests, new friends from across the planet, and share the day’s experiences.
The following morning takes you to the highlight of your holiday, an hour by bus to the pier on the edge of Cheow Lan Lake. Here you will take in the sight of emerald green waters set against a spectacular fractured mountain backdrop. The lake occurs in one of Thailand’s highest rainfall zones and is the result of a dam project completed in the early 1980s. Today it is one of the largest in Asia, powering much of southern Thailand as a result of its hydroelectric plant.
The limestone cliffs seen surrounding the camp dominate this landscape and the dense rainforest is home to many species rarely found anywhere else on the planet. The Greater Hornbill is one bird that demonstrates the pristine nature of the environment. Found in few other places on the planet, this survivor of prehistoric times is estimated to be over 50 million years old, having flown the jungles before the Himalaya’s formed. These birds are stunning, with huge beaks and bodies covered with red, yellow and black feathers.
History of the area
In the 1960s Thailand’s adoption of modern agricultural practices, significant investment in development and a large population burst rapidly changed the environment. At the same time political instability was causing conflict. By the late seventies to early eighties, political conflict with students forced a group thought to have communistic values into the jungles of Khao Sok. They heavily booby-trapped the jungles, making it a no-go zone not only for the army, but more importantly for the poachers and loggers that eyed the regions natural resources as a potential gold mine. By the late eighties to early nineties the conflict was settled and the last ‘communist’ left at the same time the lake formed. An area of some 645 square kilometers was then named as Thailand’s 22nd national park.
This created a sanctuary that nurtured the surviving species and is why the region’s plant and animal life is only just being recorded. Many of the discoveries have been made thanks to the great work being done by the Elephant Hills team, who have not only been observing but also using camera traps for more detailed view of what is going on in the forest.
Since starting they have documented the existence of many endangered species, including the clouded leopard, Asian elephants, sun bears, Asian ox as well as the primates like dusky langurs, white-handed Gibbons and macaques. The birds of the forest are a treat for the bird spotter, with six species of hornbills being just a small part of the experience.
For more information or to book your stay, visit http://rainforestcamp.com/
Images courtesy of Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp.
About the author – Trevor Cochrane
Trevor is a born-and-bred proud West Australian who grew up on a dairy farm in Mundijong, just outside of Perth, WA. He launched the media company Guru Productions in 2002 that has since produced over 750 episodes of television telecast on Channel 9 nationally and is now seen in over 100 countries across the globe in 14 different languages. In the years since creating The Garden Gurus he has created and produced over 50 hours of international travel shows, food and wine programs, local WA food program Our State on a Plate and the Destination WA travel series. All Guru Productions projects appear on Channel 9 and WIN Television, as well as nationally on the popular digital TV channel 9 Life. Trevor’s passion for gardening has seen him write four books and regular columns for the The Sunday Times and The West Australian Newspaper.