How to visit beautiful Thailand ethically including wild elephant spotting, jungle treks and fairytale temples
"Look down there," said our guide. "Through the trees." We gazed down the overgrown path and collectively held our breath. About 600 yards off something moved. A branch? A bird? No, that flash of white was a tusk. A wild elephant.
Spotting elephants in the wild is no exact science. However, Thailandâs Kui Buri National Park â" 180 miles south west of the capital Bangkok â" offers one of the best chances of success in the world â" almost 99 per cent sure, said our guide.
Which had me a bit worried, because this long-distance glimpse wasnât quite what Iâd been hoping for.
Iâd thought that theyâd look like, you knowâ¦elephants. Was this it?
"We go on," said the guide. Cue collective sigh from those in our safari jeep.
Then, around the next bend in a stream, there stood two male elephants eating trunkfuls of Âvegetation, swatting away heron-like egrets with their big ears.
Wild elephant spotting
Wild elephants, just yards away, so close I could see their wrinkles. In fact, they could probably see mine.
Further on we watched a whole herd, six adults and five calves, crossing a valley.
One baby was separated from the rest by a jackal, but its mother trumpeted the intruder away and the little guy came galumphing back. Nearby, gaur (huge wild cattle) roamed the plain as well.
It was like being in Jurassic Park, with the great, green expanse stretching away to the mountains. I found myself looking out for pterodactyls, but only saw a hornbill.Video Load ing Click to play Tap to play The video will start in 8Cancel Play now
Donât, whatever you do, forget your binoculars. The magic thing about Kui Buri is the elephants arenât there for tourist dollars (like the ones chained up for rides, or being forced to walk tightropes, dance or ride bikes in shows). They live there, free to roam.
Audley Travel is the only UKâs tour Âoperator to offer this safari, which goes to the heart of what the firm does â" bespoke travel, tailor-made for each individual booking, and triple-checked by local experts to offer incredible experiences you wouldnât even know to Google for.
Like the bicycle tour of the Chiang Rai countryside in north Thailand, following back roads, tracks and river paths.
Taking in the area at cycle speed is a glorious way to explore.
We stopped to talk to locals in the rice paddies as we passed, photographed the water buffalo, and ended u p at Chiang Raiâs sparkling White Temple, which looks like a more ornate version of Queen Elsaâs ice palace in Frozen.
Then there was the trip down the River Kok from Chiang Rai to Fang in a long-tail boat. (Why drive when you can make the journey part of the destination?)
It took about four hours to speed down the muddy river, expertly skippered through the eddies and swirls.
We passed green hills capped with distant temples of sparkling gold, grand white Buddhas that gazed serenely down from the waterâs edge, and isolated villages where fishermen cast their nets into the current.
Or the overnight stay in the charming Phumanee Lahu Home Hotel in Fang, where the owner, Yok, laid on a candlelit dinner in a rice field and told us how th e king had visited her grandfather in their Lahu tribe village, Doi Pu Men.
He taught the villagers to abandon the crippling opium trade, and supplement traditional tea plantations with eco-tourism: inviting travellers to their mountain village.
The next day Yok trekked with us to her village, three hours through the mountain jungle.
I wonât lie, itâs a demanding hike through virgin rainforest and Iâm a little scared of spiders. If you chicken out (I nearly did) theyâll take you up the bumpy road in a 4x4 instead, but try and hold your nerve for the trek - itâs worth it.
Following the young man whoâd strolled down to collect us (with his jungle machete) we clambered through bamboo forests as tall as skyscrapers, past banana groves and plunging waterfalls.
We watched eagles soaring above and, yes, even saw a coupl e of impressive banana spiders.
Just at the point I was wondering if it was actually beyond me, we came out of the dense jungle to a mountain plateau that overlooked the valley for miles below, and the village crouched in the hillside ahead.
Itâs sort of life-affirming view that makes you feel invincible, and with Yok at my side keeping my pace even (âGo slow,â she smiled, âweâre making great time.â) we tottered into the village in just 2Â½ hours. (Apparently villagers can do it in about 40 minutes).
An amazing lunch of chicken wings and traditionally steamed rice wrapped in a banana leaf was being cooked for us in one of the bamboo houses which was raised up on stilts with a glassless window overlooking the valley.
One of the simplest houses Iâve ever visited, with easily the most incredible view.
Audley also check every hotel they include on itineraries, so even if youâre just there for a night, you can rely on it being friendly, comfortable and delightful.
Like the Anantara Serviced Suites in Chiang Mai, a two-minute walk from the famous night market, or The Siam in Bangkok, where a private riverboat that can take you into town in 15 minutes.
Or, my personal favourite, the X2 Kui Buri Resort on the coast near the elephant reserve, where most of the villas have their own private pool.
Just the thing for freshening up after a day on a magical wild elephant safari.
Thailand Travel File
BOOK IT Audley Travel offers tailor-made trips to Thailand. A nine-day itinerary visiting Chiang Rai, Fang, Chiang Mai, Cha Am, Kui Buri National Park and Bangkok costs from Â£2,785pp for two sharing, including Heathrow flights with EVA Air (0207 3808300), domestic flights, B&B accommodation, transfers and excursions. audleytravel.com Thailand, 01993 838115
TO P TIP Serious insect repellent is essential, but if you pack DEET keep it in a sealed bag because if it leaks it can burn through your passport (as I discovered).
MORE INFO Go to tourismthailand.orgSource: Google News Thailand | Netizen 24 Thailand