Elephant Hills: where to have a family-friendly ethical elephant encounter

Not far from Phuket, Elephant Hills provides families with a truly immersive Thai experience. An ethical elephant encounter and a rainforest glamping experience. The Elephant Hills adventure – or safari – starts with an early pickup from your Phuket hotel and a 2.5-hour journey to your first camp, an elephant sanctuary in the Khao Sok National Park.

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (2 of 32)

Surrounded by tall limestone karst mountains, the view from the restaurant across dense rainforest to the Sok River is pretty spectacular. The Sok River provides the first adventure as you head downriver to the elephant sanctuary in canoes.

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (26 of 32)

After a peaceful hour rafting downstream you get to meet the elephants. Elephant Hills’ 14 resident elephants previously had a hard life working in the logging industry or giving tourists rides. Each has a mahout (male carer) and friends among the group, and tourist visits help pay for their retirement.

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (12 of 13)

Upon meeting the elephants you’ll be given a comprehensive lesson on everything from their behaviour in the wild, their use in the now defunct logging industry and what has eventually brought these beasts here, to a sanctuary in the far south of Thailand, a long way from home.

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (4 of 32)

Quite simply, there is little natural environment left for Asian elephants to survive in, the logging industry has left disconnected pockets of rainforest throughout Thailand. So, it’s hard for elephants to survive as they normally would, but also, some of these beasts have been domesticated for so long they’ve forgotten how.

There are now many national parks in Thailand, the result of a grass roots-led environmental movement that started back in the 1980s. Thais visit their own national parks more than any other nationality – the parks are not there purely for the benefit of international tourists. Looking after the natural Environment is a value that fits well with Buddhist philosophy, so after success of the grass roots environmental movement back in the 80s, it became something taught to the younger generation of Thais in schools by Buddhist monks.

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (13 of 32)

Most elephants in southern Thailand have travelled from North and Central Thailand, bringing with them their Karen Mahouts who, dressed in colourful traditional garb, click, cluck and slap their cheeky charges into line as the visitors learn how to give them a scrub, before preparing a lunch of pineapple, bananas, sugarcane and elephant grass.

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (10 of 13)

Having exhausted elephant food supplies, a safari bus takes you back to camp to watch a documentary about elephants, followed by cooking demonstration and a dance recital by local school kids that the resort supports financially.

The next day your adventure continues at a second camp – a floating camp on Cheaw Lan Lake. The lake was created by the construction of Ratchaprapa dam, which provides hydroelectric power to the surrounding regions and has opened up this seemingly impenetrable mountainous jungle to visitors.

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (6 of 33)A long tail boat takes you across the lake to your floating tent, taking a few spins around the steep limestone pinnacles that dot the lake, former mountain tops that are now islands. This part of the adventure is more of a true jungle experience, starting with a 3-hour trek to a large cave, on the lookout for gibbons, dusky langurs, and if you’re really lucky, a sun bear.

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (9 of 33)

You’ll fall asleep to the sound of noisy monkeys, cicadas and bird song and the next morning, go for a paddle around the islands in search of them before returning to busy Phuket. Click here for more information.

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (29 of 33)

All photos by Pete McGee.

5 Hotels in Thailand that will take your breath away

Looking for a dreamy Thailand holiday? The experts at Expedia have compiled a list of five hotels in Thailand that will have you day-dreaming of your next getaway.

  1. lebua at State Tower, Bangkok

If your checklist includes incredible views, extravagant suites and Michelin-starred restaurants, look no further than lebua at State Tower. Hit the open-air pool on M Floor and when it’s time for dinner, make your way to the 51st floor to dine at Breeze, one of the finest restaurants in the city. Indulge in gourmet delights while taking in the best views imaginable, and cap your night off with a cocktail at Sky Bar.

lebua at State Tower Bangkok

  1. Amari Phuket

Located on Patong, one of the most popular beaches in Thailand, the Amari Phuket is the perfect choice for a romantic getaway. Just imagine waking up in your one-bedroom suite and eating breakfast on your private balcony while the ocean sparkles just a short walk away. But the luxury doesn’t end with your room—wait until you experience the full-service spa and the fine wine pairings at the on-site Italian restaurant.

Amari Phuket

  1. Millennium Hilton, Bangkok

High above the city is a rooftop pool that has a lounge chair with your name on it, at the Millennium Hilton. Located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the view from your roof top lounge chair will be spectacular. When you feel like treating yourself, reserve a few hours with the experts at the spa and you’ll emerge feeling refreshed and relaxed.

Millenium Hotel Bangkok

  1. Centara Villas Samui, Koh Samui

The second you arrive at Centara Villas Samui, you’ll realise this place redefines the definition of luxury. The villas have ocean views that are accompanied by private balconies —some even come with your very own hot tub and swimming pool. You never have to leave, but if you want to dig your feet into the sand, the resort’s secluded beach is just off the pool deck.

Centara Villas Samui

  1. Bhu Nga Thani Resort and Spa, Krabi

At the Bhu Nga Thani Resort and Spa you can start your day in your private pool villa and go for an early morning swim before breakfast is served. (That breakfast will consist of one of the most extravagant buffets you’ve ever seen.) After you’ve filled up for the day, catch a ride in a long-tail boat and cruise the pristine waters of Railay Bay.

Bhu Nga Thani Resort and Spa, Krabi

Take your Thailand holiday to the next level with a stay at one of these beautiful hotels. Private villas, oceanfront suites and Michelin-starred restaurants are all just waiting you you to complete the picture.

10 best things to do in Hua Hin

Hua Hin was Thailand’s first ever seaside holiday destination, with the country’s first resort, the Railway Hotel, built here over 90 years and it remains a favourite for Thai locals and international tourists alike. Here are our 10 best things to do in Hua Hin.

1.Visit Wat Hua Hin, light some incense and pray for good fortune. Hua Hin’s most important temple was built during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V)

2.Take in the sights, sounds and smells of Chat Chai market which sells everything from fresh vegetables, all manner of seafood to local handicrafts and school uniforms. Be sure to quench your thirst with a fresh coconut, usually around 20 Baht ($1).

Hua Hin Chat Chai market

3.Take a selfie outside the old Royal Waiting Room at Hua Hin Train Station which opened in 1911 and still holds its colonial charm. This grand-looking building that was used to welcome the King and his court when they visited the town.

Hua Hin Train Station

4.Go for a horse ride along the beach. At the entrance to the main beach area you’ll find ponies and horses of all sizes, available for hire for a walk or a trot along the white sandy beach.

Hua Hin Horse riding

5.Get your adrenalin pumping at Vana Nava Water Jungle, one of the largest water parks in Thailand, which also boasts the largest and longest water slides. As well as the thrills, there are water play areas for littlies and a unique ‘Aquacourse’, a course of ropes and challenging obstacles, combined with water guns.

Hua Hin Royal Summer Palace

6.Step back in time with a visit to Mrigadayavan Palace, the Summer Palace of King Rama VI. The Palace is currently being restored to its former glory, and there are lots of interesting artefacts on display throughout the sprawling complex. NB: Wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees.

Hua Hin Cicada Market

7.Taste food from all over Thailand, browse through stalls selling arts and crafts and take in some live music at Cicada Market. This upscale market opens at 4pm on Friday and Saturday nights, and it’s very family friendly.

8.Get an ice cream at Plearn Wan – a two-storey wooden ‘vintage village’ that is a bit like Thailand’s answer to Coney Island or Brighton Pier. There’s plenty of stands upstairs selling ice cream and pancakes, and souvenir shops downstairs, as well as a Ferris wheel.

Hua Hin Plearn Wan

9.Have lunch on the beach at one of the many cafes and restaurants on Hua Hin Beach, have a swim while you’re waiting for your meal to arrive and wriggle your toes in the sand as you eat. Most cafés serve the same thing (Thai favourites such as Pad Thai, BBQ seafood, pasta, burgers or fries).

Hua Hin beach restaurants

10.Visit the Hua Hin night markets, taste some giant BBQ prawns and pick up a few souvenirs. The night markets stretch over two blocks, a few blocks down from Hua Hin Railway Station, and they’re a blast to the senses, a kaleidoscope of colour and cacophony of noises.

Hua Hin Night Market

Where to Stay: The Railway Hotel is now the Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin, and while the hotel has grown significantly over the years, the original building still stands. At the centre of town, it’s a great place to stay.

Bangkok Marathon: 7 Days to a Healthier You in Thailand

A recent Skyscanner Australia survey found that at least 1 in 10 Aussies plan to take a wellness, health or fitness holiday this year. Mental exhaustion is a key motivator but so too is a desire to get ourselves in better shape, drop old habits and improve our general sense of wellbeing. Travel writer and marathon runner Fiona Harper shares 7 days and 7 ways towards a healthier you in Thailand which she discovered recently following her participation in the Bangkok Marathon.

Fiona Harper Bangkok Marathon

Day 1 Bangkok – Float your way to wellness

Upon arriving in Bangkok, the crazy traffic and big city smog can be an assault to the senses. We suggest you ease gently into your first day in Thailand with a therapeutic floating session. At the Bangkok Float Centre, first time floaters are guided gently through an introductory session which aims to relieve pain, improve athletic performance and increases endorphin production – the sort of high that runners know so well.

Day 2 Traditional Thai massage

When in Thailand a traditional Thai massage should be top of your list. When you visit the famous Temple of the Reclining Buddha, pop next door into the Watpo Thai Traditional Massage School. Watpo is the spiritual home of Thai healing and wellness, training practitioners who take their skills across the globe. It’s not the sort of place you’d visit for a luxury spa experience. However, Watpo excels in providing an authentic, healing half-hour Thai massage, which for approx. AU$10 is a screaming bargain.

Day 3 Lace up your running shoes

Join 13,000-plus fitness enthusiasts for the Amazing Thailand Marathon Bangkok (held in Feb) for the rare opportunity to run through Bangkok’s notoriously traffic-clogged streets sans-traffic. Starting near Golden Mountain pre-dawn when the roads are closed, runners fly past Victory and King Rama V Monuments before heading over Rama VIII Bridge. Fireworks and ear-blasting doof-doof add to the charged, festival-like atmosphere. Not up for a marathon? Don’t worry, there are a 2.5km family fun run, 10km and 21km runs too.

Phuket Beach credit Getty images

Day 4 Phuket – Beach-style wellness

Leave Bangkok behind to fly to Phuket, well known by Aussies for its dreamy beaches, waterfront restaurants and bars and gorgeous holiday resorts. Andara Resort & Villas take wellness and fitness to another level with a gym to rival the best. There’s also a comprehensive program of classes led by Personal Trainers from Boot Camp, Muay Thai and Pilates amongst many others. Andara’s Signature Massage involves a combination of intense rubbing to create heat on oiled skin, followed by vigorous cupping and chopping.

Thanyapura Resort Phuket

Day 5 Fine tune your athleticism

Thanyapura Health and Sports Resort is the sort of hotel where lycra is de rigeur – leave your cocktail dress and fancy shoes at home! Book in for an intensive program designed around sports improvement, detox, weight loss or a custom designed program to suit your body and budget.

Rise before dawn at Thanyapura for an early morning workout in one of Phuket’s most impressive gyms. After your workout head to one of the swimming pools (there’s an 50m Olympic pool and a 25m training pool), the cushioned synthetic running track, tennis courts equivalent to those used at the Australian Open, a football pitch, or perfect your long or high jumps in the athletics precinct.

Thanyapura Resort Phuket

Day 6 Break out a sweat at the vegan buffet

In between classes, dine at Thanyapura’s vegan buffet lunch bar with its fresh juices, vegetable and grain dishes (who knew quinoa risotto was so delicious?) and oodles of fresh salads. It’s health food that tastes every bit as scrumptious as it looks. Don’t forget that workout towel.

Day 7 Water babies take a deep breath

The swanky new Crest Resort & Pool Villas juts dramatically from the cliffs at the southern end of the beach. Rooms with direct swimming pool access are perfect for water babies. Fitness addicts will find their sweet spot at PRIMA & Holistic Wellness Village with early morning Sun Salutations or Sunset Meditation on the rooftop sky lounge. For a totally decadent treat in preparation for your flight home, ask the Bath Butler to prepare a blend of oils for an aromatic soak.

Crest Hotel Phuket

Read Fiona’s full article here and follow her on Facebook at Travel Boating Lifestyle.

New video series: 40 Thai foods we can’t live without!

The Thailand Foundation, in cooperation with Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Thai Beverage Public Company Limited, has launched Thai cooking video clips on 40 menus as recommended by CNN Travel’s 40 Thai foods we can’t live without.

Talking about the new series, CNN Travel writer, Mark Wiens, said, “In celebration of Bangkok’s fantastic cuisine and the restaurants that have perfected it, we’ve rounded up 40 of the Thai dishes we couldn’t imagine living without. Some are world famous, others are more obscure, but they’re all worth trying, at least once.”

The Thailand Foundation’s video clips on Thai street food cooking have been uploaded on YouTube “40 Thai Street Food Recipes” channel and will be promoted via various social media sites on a weekly basis.

Here’s a few videos to wet your appetite!