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Gallery: Pack Up for Pachyderms
Mahouts, or elephant trainers, lead visitors on treks through the rain forest in southern Thailand. Asian elephants can master 100 or more instructions. (Elephant Hills Nature Lodge)

Where the Deer and the Elephants Play

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007; Page P01

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.

Saddle up for the remarkable experience of an elephant-led trek through the rain forests of Thailand.
Pack Up for Pachyderms
Saddle up for the remarkable experience of an elephant-led trek through the rain forests of Thailand.
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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.

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