wellbeing-brand-logo

Inspired living

Visiting Thailand, where wild elephants roam


Thailand elephants

Lauren Kay, Unsplash

Just over an hour’s drive away from the Hilton Hua Hin, Thailand’s biggest herd of wild elephants roams free, safe in a little-visited sanctuary that has become the country’s best conservation story.

After decades of conflict between farmers and wandering elephants along the Thai-Myanmar border, Thailand’s most beloved former leader — King Bhumibol the Great — conjured up a daring new plan. Throwing a border around the wild lands of the country’s last big herd, he turned those once angry farmers into tour guides and the elephant’s greatest champions. Now they lead Thailand’s single-best wildlife safari, and the beasts that once trampled their farmlands have become their livelihood.

Today, Kui Buri National Park protects a rare patch of green — one of the largest sweeps of intact forest in all of Southeast Asia — and is home to an elephant population of 320 and rising. This is easily the most reliable place in Thailand to encounter wild elephants, and despite the park’s close proximity to Hua Hin’s bustling beach holiday strip, Kui Buri’s wild safaris remain a well-kept secret.

The prospect of encountering elephants in what’s left of Thailand’s ever-shrinking wilderness is all I need to coax my family onto a Bangkok-bound flight. We jump aboard a slow train rumbling south, riding the rails far beyond the city’s endless urban sprawl until the concrete jungle disappears, replaced by greener scenes of rice paddies and palm trees and tiny towns studded with lofty glided temples.

A cool breeze blowing through the train keeps the stifling humidity at bay, and at every stop, fruit sellers jump aboard tempting us with icy juices and bags of crisp green mango dunked in a distinctly Thai combination of chilli, salt and sugar.

Five hours later at Hua Hin we throw down our bags down in the best of Agoda’s slim weekend pickings and make a beeline for the beach. We float in the sea, watching girls riding colourful ponies along the sand and five-star tourists sipping cocktails well before sunset. Beach life fills the afternoon and the sun slips away in a tremendous splash of colour, but we are only marking time until we meet Kui Buri’s elephants.

Unearthing Hua Hin

The national park’s afternoon-only safaris leave us plenty of time to explore. We shake off the sand and hit the streets to find Hua Hin aglow under a canopy of lights. The town is abuzz with great throngs of tourists and we follow them to the night markets where touts spruik their sizzling seafood barbecues: fresh lobster and prawns and spicy mussel omelettes. None of it tempts our vegetarian tastebuds, but a quiet block away, a local family cooks up a storm, filling our plates with soy-fried greens and delicious mushroom omelettes.

At dawn, we follow the intoxicating aroma of Chinese five spice to a traditional teak coffee house in Hua Hin’s backstreets and order gah faa boh rahn — rich Thai coffee poured the old way over a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk. I leave the rich concoction unstirred and sip the coffee off the top and, afterwards, slurp spicy noodle soup and map out our day.

With an entire morning free we stroll south past seafood restaurants that hang out over the sand. On the horizon, a resplendent Buddha crowns Khao Takiab — Chopstick Mountain — and the Thai-Chinese temple of Wat Khao Lat whose resident monkeys are not to be trusted.

There’s a sudden loud trumpeting from the forest and another female and her baby emerges. I start to tally the elephants as more and more enter the scene and reach 25 before a pair of babies gambolling nearby pulls my attention and I lose count.

Despite our own modest poolside digs, it’s apparently clear that Hua Hin is no budget-backpacker hangout. Since King Rama VI built his summer residence on Hua Hin’s sweeping, white-sand shores, 100 years of Thai royalty have followed suit. Today, this holiday hotspot draws a well-heeled crowd.

What attracts them all is difficult to define. There’s the irresistible pairing of waterfront dining and squeaky white sand, lively night markets and local cafes where travellers splurge on seafood barbecues before retreating to high-rise bastions of five-star beachfront luxury.

In truth, there’s not much for hard-core travellers to unearth, except for the hipster menus that reinvent rustic Thai classics (hot and sour chicken-feet soup, anyone?). But what Hua Hin does well is serve up an accessible, upmarket slice of Thailand with just enough authenticity to soothe just-arrived foreigners and appease Bangkok’s weary, weekend escapees.

On safari

Thailand’s national parks cover almost 20 per cent of the country, and the who’s who of wild things includes some big-ticket species. But the mythical tigers, rhinoceros and sun bears that once thrived are very rarely encountered, if at all. One hundred years of deforestation, illegal logging and population growth has carved up Thailand’s once ubiquitous forests, severing wildlife corridors and restricting large, roaming species to desperately unsustainable patches.

Very little wilderness remains intact, but despite all this, tourism in Thai national parks is flourishing. Campgrounds, commercial operations, roads and walking trails continue to encroach and, as the animals retreat, guided day-long walking tours reveal little more than distant gibbons and green vipers.

I’m expecting much more from Kui Buri, which links a great swathe of wilderness from Kaeng Krachan National Park to the Myanmar border. Our hotel arranges a driver and within minutes we leave Hua Hin’s tourism touchstones in our wake: hotels and convenience stores and English street signage. Soon we are whizzing past pineapple farms and forests towards the spartan Huai Leuk ranger station where our female guide is waiting.

She leads us inside to pay our national park entrance fees and the cost of our guided jeep safari and the tally is surprisingly cheap — around AU$45 for three. In no time we are ushered onto the back of a jeep, rumbling off towards the Tenasserim Hills.

For the first hour the jungle reveals none of its inhabitants. We scan the grasslands determined, jumping out at every opportunity to climb grassy knolls and stroll across salt licks, wandering to the edge of dried-up marshes and tall grass clearings in the sweltering heat. Our guide remains hopeful but it’s simply too hot; the sun is still too high.

A ranger outpost deep inside the park provides an astounding distraction: a tiny temple piled high with elephant bones and one enormous, hefty skull. Below the shrine, overlooking a waterhole popular with elephants, a modest timber bungalow awaits self-sufficient tourists and strikes us as the perfect place to enjoy dusk and dawn viewing, despite the no-frills experience.

At AU$80-a-night, the hut offers little more than beds and views, but the chance to spot wildlife out of park hours may well tempt hard-core watchers away from Hua Hin’s five-star comforts. We marvel at the enormous elephant skulls until our guide gets the call: elephants have been spotted up ahead, so we jump back in the jeep and push eagerly on up the track.

The elephants emerge

Standing on a lofty escarpment edge, we gaze over distant pastures where wild ox known as gaur graze, the largest bovines in the world. Then suddenly, the elephants slowly amble into view, converging onto this wondrous, crowded scene. Completing Kui Buri’s own “Big 5” are leopards, golden jackals and deer, but none of these makes an appearance, and nobody minds one bit.

Instead, we stare on mesmerised as a great stream of elephants joins the throng, closing the gap between us until they stand close by in clear, captivating view. The elephants easily outnumber their watchers, hypnotising our small gathering of just five jeeps.

We hike to another viewpoint just above the elephants and sit on the grassy slope with a cool, downwind breeze that tempts the elephants to within 50 metres of us. I don’t need binoculars to ogle the dark, bristly infants, ushered underfoot by pale grey, leathery matriarchs, or to spot the quick gait of frisky juveniles, treading their own paths and darting daringly ahead.

I feel as if I could linger for hours, but this all-too-brief afternoon encounter gives me much more than I’ve expected. In 20 years of exploring Thailand’s wild lands on leech-plagued, day-long walking adventures, I’ve never witnessed wildlife of the likes that Kui Buri offers.

We’re so close that I can hear the elephants ripping grass from the meadows: ears flapping, tails swishing. There’s a sudden loud trumpeting from the forest and another female and her baby emerge. I start to tally the elephants as more and more enter the scene and reach 25 before a pair of babies gambolling nearby pulls my attention and I lose count.

The quiet hours pass by all too soon and, as the sun dips low, our reverie is broken by jeep engines starting up and guides coaxing reluctant travellers back to their seats.

I feel as if I could linger for hours, but this all-too-brief afternoon encounter gives me much more than I’ve expected. In 20 years of exploring Thailand’s wild lands on leech-plagued, day-long walking adventures, I’ve never witnessed wildlife of the likes that Kui Buri offers.

This national park alone provides one of the most accessible, affordable wildlife safaris you are likely to find in south-east Asia and that it’s within easy reach of Hua Hin’s beachfront five-star luxury makes it all the more remarkable.

Escape Routes

Getting there

Fly to Bangkok (free 30-day visas on arrival) and book a car and driver to deliver you two hours south to Hua Hin. The slow train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station takes around five hours. Kui Buri National Park is a further hour away by car (90km).

When to go

Visit during the dry season from December to April. The national park’s Huai Leuk ranger station runs safaris from 2-6pm daily. Park entry costs about AU$9 for adults (kids half price) and private, four hour-long safaris cost around AU$37 (English-speaking guide included).

Where to stay

Close to the action, Kui Buri’s three-bedroom national park bungalow suits hard-core wilderness watchers (fans, toilet, $80/night). For absolute Hua Hin beachfront, choose the Baan Bayan for luxurious colonial charm (from $165/night, baanbayan.com), villas at Baan Laksasubha (from $150/night, baanlaksasubha.com) or the town’s original seaside address, Centara Grand Resort (from $380/night, centarahotelsresorts.com).

Where to eat

Monsoon Valley Vineyard tempts travellers 45km from town with wine tasting, meals and vineyard tours (biking tours available). Hua Hin’s Night Market is a central place to eat, but head north of the pier to Th Naebkehardt for the most fashionable food (try Ratama and Eighteen Below Ice Cream). South of town, the weekend Cicada Market serves up cheap and authentic night feasts with live music, too.

Don’t miss

Hua Hin Wellness and Yoga Festival (February), Hua Hin Food Festival (August) or the chance to kiteboard Hua Hin, one of Thailand’s best boarding locations (January to May).

More information

thainationalparks.com, theculturetrip.com, wildtravelstory.com

 



 

Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.