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Where the Deer and the Elephants Play

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

It's a risky business, choosing a no-brand, family-owned lodging in Thailand -- a tent lodging, no less -- based solely on pictures on the Internet.

I decide to take a chance, though, because it seems a potential solution to my trip-planning dilemma: I want the sandy white beaches of southern Thailand but also yearn to see the jungle-like rain forest and elephants for which northern Thailand is famous. And I don't want to be rushing and spending limited time flying between the two.

Instead, an hour after leaving a beautiful southern beach, I'm in the mountains, driving through Khao Sok National Park en route to a jungle encampment with elephants. The ride itself is encouraging: Even if the tent turns out to be musty and buggy and dark and scary, and the food disgusting, I think, at least I'll be in an exceptionally beautiful place, surrounded by lush vegetation, in view of massive limestone mountains that jut straight up from the earth before ending in sharp, pointed peaks.

I pull into the parking lot of Elephant Hills Nature Lodge in southern Thailand and am immediately met by three staff members waiting to carry my bags. The open-air reception and dining area is the size of a football field. Sturdy beams hold up a soaring, two-story-plus roof of bamboo and broadleaf palms. A tinkling fountain empties into a koi pond. Stone tiles cover the floor, except for an area where a stone-ringed campfire is blazing. Asian artwork hangs from some of the beams, and in the middle of the room, orchids dangle from a tree trunk. The view from the room is of the lush, craggy mountains.

My first thought: Wow, it's a find.

And nothing during my two-day stay alters the initial impression. The tent is luxurious and bug-free, with reading lamps and, behind a tent flap, a full, modern, private bath with hot and cold running water. The food is exceptional, the elephant trek, canoe trip and jungle walk delightful.

Best of both worlds: After a few days on the broad, empty beaches of Khao Lak, an hour north of Phuket, I was within an hour's drive of rain forests and elephants. The experience even came complete with mahouts from the Karen tribe -- elephant trainers who have relocated from northern Thailand to live with their animals near the Elephant Hills property.

Sights and Sounds Of Happiness

On arrival in the late afternoon, I settle next to the campfire with a banana daiquiri and watch as a sunburned couple with two exhausted-looking teens arrive. The tired look on the girl's face lifts.

"Wow. This is definitely a total find," says 19-year-old Jessica Johnson.

Like me, the Johnson family of Walnut Creek, Calif., didn't know quite what to expect. Unlike me, rather than drive themselves to Elephant Hills, they accepted the offer of transportation, included in the all-inclusive price. They left Phuket at 7:30 a.m. expecting to simply ride in a van a couple of hours before arriving at Elephant Hills. Instead, the family had what the father, Brian Johnson, calls "the most amazing day."

They headed out the highway from Phuket but then turned down a long dirt road through a deep woods to a tiny pier next to someone's hut, where they boarded a speedboat that took them to another, Burmese-style boat. Later they transferred to kayaks, and during that trip watched puffer fish and schools of other varieties and visited a waterfall, then a private beach where they caught and released giant hermit crabs. After a gourmet lunch on the Burmese boat, the speedboat took them along a river and past 100-year-old mangrove trees, where they saw a monitor lizard and snakes coiled in the branches. Before ending up at Elephant Hills, they stopped at a local market and bought bananas to feed monkeys that hung around a Buddhist temple built inside a cave.

I'm so jealous I need another daiquiri but am mollified to hear that the temple cave and monkeys are only about a 10-minute drive from Elephant Hills.

Plus, there's dinner. We eat family style, at a table covered with a green linen cloth and long-stemmed bird of paradise flowers. A waitress delivers about half a dozen excellently prepared Thai entrees and fresh fruit.

The 20 tents on the property can accommodate 40 adult guests. (Small children can squeeze in with their parents.) This evening there are only six guests, along with 50 staff members, many of whom live on and maintain the property. To say the service is good is an understatement.

According to a film that prepares us for tomorrow's elephant trek, there are 100,000 muscles in an elephant's trunk, which provides a reach that is higher than that of a giraffe. The Chinese word for "elephant ride" sounds the same as "happiness." In the days of the Siam kingdom, rare white elephants were worshiped; the white elephant babies were suckled by human wet nurses.

Asian elephants can master 100 or more instructions. About two-thirds of the noises elephants use to communicate cannot be heard by humans. Elephants mourn their dead.

A Shocking Mistake

I awake to the sound of the call of gibbons and birds in the rain forest. Later that day, during a walk in the jungle, I get to see a few rare hornbills but never catch even a glimpse of the monkeys, gibbons, deer, porcupines, wild elephants, tigers or bears known to inhabit Khao Sok National Park, which adjoins two wildlife sanctuaries and another national park that together cover 1,500 square miles. Then again, there are hundreds of species of ferns, trees and flowers. Plus, in the middle of the hike, the guides give a cooking class over a fire pit at an open-sided hut, and you can eat what you've learned.

The elephants are kept about a 10-minute drive from the tents, where they live among the huts on stilts that are the homes of the Karen trainers and their families. The Karen tribesmen have been in the elephant-trekking business for generations. The animals are being used less and less for such traditional jobs as moving logs in the north, and some elephants brought to the south are mistreated by neophyte trainers who don't know what they're doing, according to Suzy Carter, one of the camp's managers.

I'm horrified to see the short iron hooks held by the mahouts, who balance atop the elephants just behind their massive heads. But during our two-hour ride, the mahouts never even touch the elephants with the emergency tool. Instead, they guide their charges with quiet grunts and gentle prods with their bare feet.

I'm also happy to find that while we sit in seats atop the elephants' backs, the animals are not so much taking us for a ride as they are going on a snack run. The mahouts make no objection when the elephants repeatedly stop to enjoy various green plants, or even when they wander into thick underbrush to pluck out pineapples invisible from the trails but apparently fragrant enough for an elephant to smell. At the end of the trip, we buy our elephants big baskets of watermelon, papaya and pineapple.

Back at Elephant Hills, lunch is as good and plentiful as dinner the night before, and we're soon off on a canoe trip through the clear waters of a river fed by mountain streams. We pull the canoes ashore in the middle of the ride and leap into a cool swimming hole while the guides make a fire to brew tea served in bamboo cups.

I'm sorry I've planned only a one-night stay, but I have enough daylight left for a stop at the cave temple. Sure enough, dozens of monkeys, some of them with babies clinging to their necks, are hanging around hoping for tourists.

They keep a respectable distance of about two feet even when food is offered, I'm glad to say. But when I return to my car, I find nearly a dozen monkeys sitting on it. Closer inspection shows that, since I stupidly left my windows down, a few have set up house inside. They apparently have decided it's a much better place to live than in the trees and have become territorial about it.

The monkeys that had been so friendly snarl and scream at me when I approach my vehicle. I run shrieking in shock. Luckily, a local comes and shoos them away.

A frightening moment, but still . . . . What a find.

Elephant Hills Nature Lodge (17/2 Soi Yodsanae, Chalong, Phuket, telephone 011-66-7628-0272, http://www.elephant-hills.com) offers a variety of package deals. A one-night stay, including transportation from Phuket and other nearby resort areas, all meals, accommodations and activities, is about $260 per person double, $138 for children. A four-night stay is $562, $280 for children.

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